STOKE CITY – WIGAN ATHLETIC PREVIEW: GOOD FOOTBALL OR ROUTE ONE?

Think of Stoke City and what comes to mind? The pulsating final game of last season when Hugo Rodallega’s goal sent us into raptures – safety assured? Let’s go further back in time. Historians might point out that Stoke City are the second oldest professional football club in the world, founded in 1863, after Notts County who started a year earlier. Stanley Matthews – one of the greatest English players of all time – played 259 times for Stoke City, being 49 years old in his last season. The most fantastically skilful winger you could see in an era when full backs could play with ultimate thuggery and get away with it most of the time. He played 54 games for England, despite World War II taking away his “peak” years between 24 and 30 years of age. The superb goalkeepers – Gordon Banks and Peter Shilton – also played for Stoke for long periods. I warmly recall the era of Tony Waddington, a manager who believed in entertainment and the sheer artistry and elegance of Alan Hudson in his mid 1970s Stoke team, that made them a joy to watch.

Stoke City has a history of high quality football. They dwarf Wigan Athletic in their longevity, although their only notable success in all those years was in winning the League Cup in 1972. As befitting a club with such a long history they have a loyal and passionate support and stats tell us that the noise level of the crowd in their stadium is second to none in the Premier League.

So what do Wigan Athletic face at Stoke tomorrow? Sadly the days of good football at Stoke are no longer with us. They play a kind of football that would not be tolerated in other parts of the world. They are a blight upon the landscape of the Premier League. The pragmatist will say that Stoke are playing to their strengths – this is a valid argument – but is it unlikely that they could get away with it in other European countries. Frankly speaking, their football is ugly – they resemble the hideous Bolton teams under Sam Allardyce or even the “Crazy Gang” Wimbledon team of the 1980s.

Stoke are a big team, in the true sense of the word. So many of their players are physically large, and they can be very ruthless in their tacking. They get most of their goals from centres or set-pieces. So far this season 61% of their goals have come from the latter. Their pitch measures 100 meters by 64 meters, the lowest permissible by UEFA. There is certainly going to be a contrast in footballing styles between the teams. So far this season Stoke have played 721 long balls – the highest in the division – and Latics only 244, the lowest.

So Latics will be facing a truly physical team tomorrow at Britannia Stadium. Rory Delap has been out injured over recent weeks, but even if he does not make it they have Ryan Shotton available for their long throw-ins. Let’s not forget the skill they have on the wings with players like Mathew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant who can put dangerous centres across for strikers of the quality of Peter Crouch, Kenwynne Jones, Jonathan Walters and Cameron Jerome. However, Latics have shown that they can match Stoke physically in the past. In the six matches they have played together in the Premier League, four have ended up in draws, with one win for each side.

For once the Premier League hierarchy have given Latics a favourable decision in rescinding Conor Sammon’s ridiculous red card at Old Trafford. Although Sammon is available he may not start, facing competition from Franco Di Santo and a Hugo Rodallega eager to end his goalscoring drought. The remainder of the team is likely to remain unchanged, although Martinez might be tempted to shore up his defence by playing Patrick Van Aanholt at left wing back. My hope is that good football can triumph over route one. Wigan Athletic can bear up to the physical pressures and head tennis that Stoke may throw at them and come back with a good result.

WITHIN STRIKING DISTANCE OF SALVATION – END OF YEAR REVELATIONS – A LOOK BACK AT WIGAN ATHLETIC IN 2011

Christmas is past and it is the time of year when we reflect back on events of the past twelve months and make our resolutions for the coming year. As a Wigan Athletic fan I have to admit that 2011 has been an extremely stressful, frustrating year. But the fact is that we are still in the Premier League – even if the establishment might not want us there and is doing us no favours. It is going to continue to be an uphill battle for us to hang in there, but we are within striking distance of salvation. We have got through an horrendous December fixture list with pride intact and have maintained our status quo in the table.

What revelations we have seen since the Wolves defeat in November. Revelation number one was Roberto Martinez changing his tactical system in a way that has got better performances from the players he has at his disposal. However, for me the biggest revelations have been the form of the previously unfavoured Ronnie Stam and the much maligned Jordi Gomez.

Ronnie Stam joined Latics after helping FC Twente win their first ever Eredivisie championship in 2009-2010. He was their player of the year that season. He was called up for his first Netherlands cap at the end of the season but was unable to make it through injury. Clearly an accomplished player noted for his strong motivation and work ethic. Taking over from his fellow Dutchman – the elegant Mario Melchiot – was never going to be easy and Stam was unable to provide the level of combative tackling required for a Premier League full back. However, at wing back he has the energy and drive to shield his central defenders whilst making surging runs upfield and providing tantalizing crosses. What a transformation!

Jordi Gómez is a product of the superb Barcelona youth system. He left the club when 22 years old in 2007 to join their city rivals Espanyol. He was later recruited by Swansea in a season-long loan in summer 2008, scoring 14 goals in the Championship division. Steve Claridge provided a scouting report of Gomez for the Guardian newspaper in February 2009 where he quotes that “Roberto Martínez has certainly used his knowledge of Spanish football to get Jordi Gómez on loan for the season from under the noses of three La Liga sides. Languid was a word that sprung to mind after I watched Gómez play as he is rarely rushed into doing anything, even in tight situations, and instead remains cool, calm and collected on the ball, making at times a difficult game look easy.” It is that languidity of style that has helped make Gomez the butt of frustrated fans who demand a more high action approach. In his first Premier League season at Wigan he was constantly fouled, prompting comments that he was slow on the ball. He was lambasted for his lack of tackling ability. Earlier this season he was asked to play on the right wing, clearly not his best position. This did not help him look good in front of the fans. However, I would challenge anyone who could criticise the man after his recent performances, where he has looked every ounce a Premier League player, playing the midfield general role with panache, but also covering a huge number of yards in each December game. I once heard a quote that we would only see Gomez show his real self when Latics were playing well. Hats off to Jordi for hanging in there, despite the pressure on him.

Going back to our tactical lineup. Having three central defenders is really helping to provide more stability in defence. Some weeks ago there were many who questioned the class of our captain, Gary Caldwell, some suggesting that he was a Championship player out of place in the Premier League. His recent performances have proved so many people wrong. It is no coincidence that the stats place him among the highest in the division for interceptions made: who is more likely to put his body in the way to save his team but this determined Scot? Maynor Figueroa had a difficult start to the season, playing as an orthodox centre half, but has been excellent in his new position of left centre half. Antolin Alcaraz has had a topsy turvy season, but for me, remains our best defender. The best is yet to come from him.

So what is our revelationary new system? How does it work and who plays where? We seem to have a legion of midfield players, a lone centre forward and another player with licence to roam in Victor Moses. In the Chelsea game I recall seeing Victor Moses haring down the left wing with David Jones running on his inside. Although one might have expected Jones to be the one going down the left wing and Moses inside the whole thing seemed to work. No matter what the system you have to have players coming into the penalty box for you to score most of your goals. Our old friend, Garry Birtles, pointed out the lack of support for the lone centre forward in the Arsenal match. Since then there has been a significant improvement, the midfield players getting further forward in support. However, the question remains whether the implementation of the system provides a consistent and adequate level of support for the central striker. Moreover orthodox wingers do not fit into that system, so one wonders whether the role of Albert Crusat is nullified by the system. It has been disappointing not to see more of Shaun Maloney, but this system may well suit him, if he can get back in there. However, Martinez retains the option to move to the old 4-3-3 setup, if the situation demands. All in all, a good situation where you have tactical flexibility. Well done, Roberto!

What kind of quality do we have in the Latics’ squad? A tough question to answer, but the bottom line is that we have enough to be edging towards mid-table. We have a lot of players who can be considered “a work in progress” . Some of them are good enough to play for a top four team with comfort. Our goalkeeper, Ali Al Habsi, competes with the best in the division. James McCarthy has become an excellent “Makelele” although we miss his attacking prowess. Ben Watson is a fine footballer who has fallen foul in some way – maybe the perception that he would not fit so well into the new system or perhaps something off-field? Victor Moses is potentially an international class player, but is young and lacks definition to his exciting runs. He needs more time. Mohammed Diame has probably been our best outfield player this season. A complete player who would fit comfortably into any of the top four teams. We have players like Franco Di Santo, with wonderful technique, but not the confidence to go with it. Alcaraz is potentially a class above his partners in defence, although this is not yet fully proven. The on-loan Van Aanholt is clearly a class player and we may well see him step into the left wing back position, as a stronger player defensively than David Jones. We have no real problem players in the squad – a far cry from recent years when we have had some people who were happy to pick up fat cheques for minimal work. Over the past two years Martinez has patiently unloaded such players. There are some real good pros there who work hard and do their best. Callum McNanaman will challenge for a position following a successful loan spell at Blackpool. Roman Golobart, a potential defensive giant, is doing so well at Inverness they want to extend his loan until the end of the season. Still only nineteen he could be the revelation a year from now.

Well done, Roberto Martinez, in sticking to your guns and having an expectation of good football. Your long term planning is exceptional and you have managed to keep Wigan Athletic in the Premier League despite the financial restraints you have had to deal with. You are to be commended on your faith in players, such as Stam and Gomez, and in your belief that we can compete at this level. We remain the in the mire, but there remains more than a glimmer of hope that we will be in the Premier League again next season. A week or two back I was getting pessimistic about our chances of hanging in there. Now we are within striking distance of salvation and there have been genuine revelations in player performances. My New Year Resolution must be to “KEEP THE FAITH” and not waiver. We can do it, despite the obstacles the Premier League puts in our way.

Everton 3 Wigan 1: Missed opportunity as Latics lose to uninspiring Everton, and lose Rodallega to injury

Everton 3 Wigan Athletic 1

As expected, Everton were largely unimpressive, a side full of battle but completely devoid of imagination or flair. But they still managed to emerge with all three points, largely thanks to their aerial prowess and Latics’ reluctance to push forward in search of three points when they were there for the taking. It was a frustrating afternoon for the Latics faithful. Having watched their team contain Everton despite a makeshift defense with Maynor Figueroa in the centre, Adrian Lopez at right-back, and Patrick Van Aanholt making his Premier League debut at left-back, Latics had started the second period with genuine promise. You could feel the tension mounting at Goodison, and as Wigan created chances, it looked decreasingly likely that Moyes’ men would make a breakthrough. Victor Moses and the outstanding Patrick Van Aanholt both went very close but a deep cross from Tony Hibbert was met powerfully by big Greek centre-forward Vellios for Everton’s winner, late in the game. The crossbar then denied substitute Dave Jones an exquisite chipped equaliser, but as Latics desperately pushed forward, they left too much space for new Everton signing Royston Drenthe to put things beyond doubt.

Probably as important as losing the match, Hugo Rodallega was stretchered off with what appeared to be a serious knee injury. It has been reported that he has suffered ligament damage and may be out until Christmas, a devastating blow. The positive news is that Shaun Maloney was signed to play in the position Hugo has been occupying, while Franco Di Santo’s current form as lone centre-forward offers promise.

The Good

Despite defensive injuries to the three important defenders in Alcaraz, Boyce and Gohouri, the defense put in a valiant shift. While Maynor Figueroa was eventually beaten in the air for the winning goal, he had performed well at centre-back. Van Aanholt was a revelation, solid in his defensive work and very clearly a talented attacking threat as well. His crossing, dribbling, and shooting deserved greater reward in the second half.

Franco Di Santo has now scored three in four. His latest was another rocket, also slightly deflected, but his confidence and overall performance gives plenty of hope.

The Bad

Rodallega’s injury. As frustrating as he can sometimes be, he is the club’s best forward and draws markers away from other attackers even when he’s not scoring. Victor Moses will need to start scoring in his absence, while opportunity beckons for Shaun Maloney and Albert Crusat. A report on a Colombian website quotes Hugo as saying the team doctor believes the injury not to be as bad as originally thought. It is believed the problem is with his meniscus rather than the ligaments. Lets hope so.

Roberto’s approach in the second half felt too cautious. Latics were creating chances and could have won this match with a little more adventure in the minutes leading up to Everton’s goal. A point wouldn’t have been bad — and Martinez’s mentality is understandable with a relegation battle so fresh in the mind — but these missed opportunities are starting to add up.

A Neutral Would Say

Save glimpses from Moses and Van Aanholt, not much quality in this borefest.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 7 — Can’t blame him for any of the goals. Made a couple decent saves early in the game.

Adrian Lopez: 5 — Uncomfortable with the ball at his feet, his passing is not very good. He did alright defensively but  the return of Gohouri, Alcaraz and Boyce can’t come soon enough.

Gary Caldwell: 6 — The usual from the captain, who has already played with four different partners in the heart of defense this season.

Maynor Figueroa: 7 — Got beat in the air for Everton’s second goal, but at times looked a quality centre-back and played some very good passes that either did or should have resulted in dangerous breakaways.

Patrick Van Anholt: 8 — Excellent. Solid at left-back, dangerous when he got forward. He can cross, dribble and shoot by the looks of it. Unlucky not to score after a dazzling run that culminated in a right-footed shot just over the bar.

Ben Watson: 6 — Some neat passing at times, but would love to see him get forward more often, he has an eye for goal when he’s around the box.

James McCarthy: 6 — Remains this season’s biggest under-performer, although he deserves credit for the amount of running and tackling he did in midfield. Latics will need him to regain his attacking form soon though.

Jordi Gomez: 6.5 — Drew a lot of fouls as usual. Should be allowed to take all direct free-kicks as he is the only player with proven success from them.

Hugo Rodallega: 5 — Kept very quiet by Everton’s defense. Injured just before the 90th minute.

Victor Moses: 7 — Dangerous, but yet again guilty of a little hesitation at the crucial moment. He has been very, very close in every match this season, surely the goals will come soon.

Franco Di Santo: 7.5 — Worked very hard for the team and was confident enough to beat his man and shoot from a tight angle for the goal. Decent performance.

Subs:

Dave Jones: 7 — So unlucky not to score with an improvised chip immediately after Everton’s second goal. Clearly a cultured player with a lovely left foot.

Shaun Maloney: N/A — Hardly touched the ball in his 7 minutes on the pitch.

Best transfer window yet? Crusat, Maloney, Van Aanholt strengthen Wigan

With another dramatic deadline day safely behind us, I daresay Wigan Athletic has enjoyed its most successful transfer window yet. While other clubs wheeled and dealed and were ultimately forced to re-shuffle their packs to cover for unexpected losses, Roberto got the two wingers he had been looking for all summer to replace N’Zogbia and Cleverley, plus a much-needed alternative at left-back, something the team has lacked for a couple years. The squad not only looks competitive, it looks large. There is cover for everyone in the squad, no one is indispensable. It’s another mark of how far the club has come under Martinez.

So, lets recap the summer’s activity. It is an unfortunate truth at a club of Wigan’s size that one must sell to stay afloat — at least until the club’s fan base has grown enough to fill the DW week in and week out, sell shirts around the world, and be competitive enough to bring in television and prize money from European tournaments.

Given this fact, and the probability that the player would have forced the transfer anyway, N’Zogbia’s sale was unavoidable. Nine million was underwhelming for a player of his ability and Premier League experience, but from a strictly business perspective, the club paid six for him, got two-and-a-half excellent seasons out of him, and made a three million profit. And they almost certainly replaced him with a player on half his wages.

Meanwhile, seven million has been spent to bring in four players permanently, plus a very promising season-long loan. Last year’s player of the season, Ali Al-Habsi, should prove to be worth every penny of the four million Latics paid for him earlier this summer. Despite his first-match blunder, he was absolutely outstanding last year and at 29, is just entering his best years as a keeper. He seems to really love the club and I could see him playing out the rest of his career at the DW.

Albert Crusat, also 29, arrives from Almeria, where he spent six “magnificent” seasons. An Almeria fan site says he was one of the most loved players at the club, and should be a success in the Premier League based on his style of play. We understand he is a skillful, fast left winger, small but with good strength.

Shaun Maloney, 28, arrived from Celtic, where he spent most of his career. He is a right-footed winger, also quite small but tricky and with a dazzling highlight reel of direct free-kicks. He has had some injury trouble but has been fit for a while. He was chosen as the Scottish Player of the Year in 2006 and has played for his country 20 times. Celtic fans sound sad to see him go, and Aston Villa fans, who had him for a season and a half, reckon we have done tidy business for a “talented little player.”

Dave Jones joined the club during pre-season after failing to agree a new contract at Wolves. The 26-year-old is a left-footed central midfielder, much loved by Wolves fans for his efforts at Molineaux. This goal gives you an idea about the type of player he is. He hasn’t featured yet, but seems destined to play in an advanced role in the midfield diamond. His eye for a through ball and shooting threat make him a more than useful replacement to the current starting midfielders.

Nouha Dicko came in on a free after financial difficulties forced Strasbourg to release some of their players. He looks to be one for the future, but has already been lighting up the reserves with his pace and dribbling from the wing.

Patrick Van Aanholt is a 21-year-old left back, on a season-long loan from Chelsea, where he moved from PSV Eindhoven in 2007. He has been out on loan spells at Coventry, Newcastle and Leicester City since joining the London club. Hard to get a game with Ashley Cole and Yuri Zhirkov ahead of him in the pecking order, but he has represented his country at U-19 and U-21 levels and was even close to the senior squad on a few occasions. He should provide excellent cover for Maynor Figueroa at left back.

In Conclusion:

The deepest squad the Latics have ever had. Roberto already had a young, promising team and has added several players at the peak of their careers. Crusat and Maloney should not need a lengthy adjustment period (although they probably won’t go straight into the starting lineup either, given the strong performances by Rodallega and Moses on the wings last time out), and are proven players. There is now cover in every position. Kirkland for Al-Habsi. Stam for Boyce, Gohouri/Lopez for Alcaraz/Caldwell, Van Aanholt for Figueroa. Jones/McArthur/Thomas for Watson/Diame/Jordi/McCarthy. Sammon for Di Santo. Crusat/Maloney for Moses and Rodallega. And that’s not to mention young players knocking on the door like McManaman, Dicko and Redmond.

The starting lineup may not be any stronger, on paper, since N’Zogbia and Cleverley’s departures. But the depth is something we’ve never seen. And options. Looking forward to watching the new boys soon.