The defensive lapses that got Wigan in trouble in the first place resurfaced at the worst possible time to sink them into the deepest waters yet as Swansea ran out unlikely 3-2 winners at the DW.
Despite twice taking the lead and appearing in control against an organized but relaxed Swansea side enjoying the comforts of mid-table football, Roberto Martinez’s team now finds itself three points behind the pack, with two games to go.
An incident following a late double substitution summed up the ill-fortune Wigan have suffered over the course of the season with respect to injuries, as Ronnie Stam lasted a mere 10 seconds before hobbling off with a suspected broken leg — leaving his team to play the final 15 minutes a man down.
One need only to look at Wigan’s win-rate with Antolin Alcaraz in the team versus without him to know what an important player he is at the centre of Wigan’s defence. His three years at the club have been blighted by injury, but his return to the team in each of those seasons has coincided with an upturn in fortunes. This year was no exception — the defence has shipped an average of two goals a game since his most recent injury at West Ham.
Add to that the long-term injury of Ivan Ramis, the recent losses of Maynor Figueroa and Jean Beausejour, and captain Gary Caldwell’s ongoing struggles with a hip injury that have sidelined him for much of 2013 — and you have yourself a crisis.
And lets not forget that Ben Watson — the team’s most specialised defensive midfielder — has just returned from a broken leg that kept him out for five months. Now Wigan have to cope without Stam. There aren’t many left.
It was ironic then, that Roger Espinoza, a holding midfielder standing in for Jean Beausejour and Maynor Figueroa at left wingback, put Wigan ahead with a well-taken volley late in the first half. He was later caught napping by Angel Rangel’s strike early in the second half, before James McCarthy scored to put Latics back in the driver’s seat.
Then came the capitulation. Returning captain Gary Caldwell, who had passed the ball very well indeed up until that point, left his defence totally exposed with an awful pass, from which Swansea would score via a fortuitous deflected finish. Minutes later, an overhit cross by Pablo Hernandez was met by Shaun Maloney’s chest as James McArthur approached, but instead of clearing the ball the pair froze, allowing a scrappy effort to bounce over the line.
Wigan went in search of an equalizer — but reduced to 10 men and with signs of exhaustion showing — could not find it.
Our collective hearts sank yesterday, but hope is not lost. Two years ago, Wigan were 2-0 down to West Ham at half-time on the second-to-last match of the season, needing not only to overcome the deficit in the next 45 minutes but then travel to loudest stadium in England and beat Stoke City to stay up. They did it amidst unforgettable scenes.
This time, the club needs a little luck from results elsewhere, but both Newcastle and Norwich are within touching distance. Wigan’s presence in the Cup final provides the advantage of knowing how the Ns fare in their penultimate fixtures before we take the field against Arsenal. Goal difference could be crucial when all things are said and done — knowing what is needed could be important before the trip to the Emirates.
The defence is a mess. It was against West Brom, but the attack compensated for it. Too many injuries, too many players out of position, too many people being rushed back from injury to fill gaps. They can’t go on conceding two goals a game. It’s too much to ask from an attack that has performed very, very well to give the team a fighting chance.
Having to rely on favours from QPR, already relegated, and West Brom, safe in mid-table, is not ideal. But both Norwich and Newcastle are in very poor form. They could slip in their weekend fixtures against West Brom and QPR respectively, just as we did yesterday. Their final matches of the season are against Man City and Arsenal — causes for optimism.
Another defensive injury, this time to Stam. This forces Martinez to play Boyce wide, which in turn forces him to pick between Caldwell or the young Roman Golobart to partner Paul Scharner in defence.
Fatigue is setting in. The team now has three crucial games in the space of ten days, and a number of injuries to contend with. Does Martinez prioritize cup glory and field his strongest line-up, or field a mixed team with all three matches in mind?
The League Table:
There are three possible scenarios for salvation. The first and least likely is victory over both Arsenal and Villa. The second is a draw against Arsenal, victory over Villa, and either Norwich or Newcastle failing to gain more than one point from their final two games. The final and least likely — though not impossible — is that Norwich or Newcastle lose both their matches, and Wigan beats Villa. This scenario will hinge on goal difference.
Joel Robles: 6 — Not at fault for any of the goals though you get the sense he might have done better. He did, however, make a couple excellent saves and spared a -2 goal difference in the last minute which could be crucial.
Emmerson Boyce: 6 — One of the better performers at the back with some good tackles.
Gary Caldwell: 5 — Has been vilified for his mistake, and there is no denying it was a costly one. But his passing up until that point had been outstanding and he’d made some good interceptions.
Paul Scharner: 6 — Not at fault for any of the goals but his partnership with Caldwell, and Watson, was always stretched and vulnerable.
Roger Espinoza: 6 — Asked to play out of position for the benefit of the team, he did as well as could be expected. Some nervy passing at the beginning of the match that put his defending under pressure, but he grew into the game and contributed a very well-taken goal. Caught for the equaliser but chased and worked, and should retain his place.
Ben Watson: 6 — Doesn’t have the pace to play in two positions at once, which is what was asked of him. Didn’t do much wrong, but could be more adventurous with his passing. The one time he put the ball into the box from open play, Wigan scored.
James McArthur: 6 — A very mixed game. He was at times excellent with very skillful midfield play and a real drive. But he missed a glorious chance that would have killed the game in Wigan’s favour, and was then involved in the mix-up that led to Swansea’s winner.
James McCarthy: 7 — Wigan’s best performer. An exceptional talent with the work-rate to match. Scored a well-taken goal. One hopes it will give him the confidence to get forward like that more often.
Shaun Maloney: 6 — Not his day. Had clearly been asked to put in extra defensive miles to aid Espinoza on the left, but it left him too tired to create at the other end. It was his defensive mistake that led to the Swansea winner, but he should’t have had to have been there helping out in the first place.
Callum McManaman: 6 — A little overconfident perhaps, he tormented left-back Ben Davies with his dribbling but produced no end result. Quiet second half before his substitution.
Arouna Koné: 7 — Went close on three occasions with very little service.
Franco Di Santo: 5 — Unable to affect the game from his left-wing position.
Jordi Gomez: Some nice touches.
Ronnie Stam: Injured before he could say Doei.