Players who don’t seem to care – Norwich (H) match reaction

Can Mackay turn it around?

Can Mackay turn it around?

Over the years we have seen some abject performances from Latics with woeful scorelines. Too often when they were in the Premier League they would play a top of the table team and hold their own until the opponents scored their first goal. The confidence would sag and the legs would start to go. The exertion required to hold back the tide had taken too much out of the players, both physically and mentally. It almost looked like the players didn’t seem to care. It was akin to capitulation.

But those players did care. It was a learning experience for so many of them, but they would bounce back and get the most amazing results against those same elite clubs. One always felt with Roberto Martinez that he was trying to do something special, despite the very limited resources he had to work with. It was the mental side of things that he was building up. The players had to be mentally tough to compete against teams with so much more individual quality than they had.

After five decades of watching Latics I have rarely felt as depressed as I was after yesterday’s Norwich game. The stats show that Wigan committed just 5 fouls, to the Canaries’ 12. Neither side received a yellow card. Did those players really care? Where was the passion?

It was sad to see Uwe Rosler’s demise. It was inevitable, given the awful results that his team was getting this season. But Rosler at least had a vision of the kind of football he wanted, even if the players were unable or unwilling to produce it.

The football we saw yesterday was reminiscent of the worst days of Rosler’s predecessor, Owen Coyle. The goalkeeper and the defenders hoofing the ball upfield to a lone centre forward. To his credit Fortune did actually defy the odds and win some of those balls yesterday. But the possession he gained was too often squandered by teammates.

Despite his reputation as a motivational manager, Mackay was unable to motivate his players yesterday. His team selection and tactics surely did not help.

The local newspaper had got us excited about Shaun Maloney coming back after illness. When the team was announced it looked like he would play in the attacking midfield position, in front of Chris McCann and Ben Watson. But Maloney was to be confined to the left wing and James McClean occupied that role. McClean was like a fish out of water. He has a repertoire of skills,  but not those needed for that position. Maloney never got into the game and was substituted after 47 minutes.

Mackay left Emmerson Boyce on the bench and neither Gary Caldwell nor Thomas Rogne even appeared there. Instead Mackay brought in Maynor Figueroa at centre back. Figs rarely played for Latics as a centre half in a conventional back four in the Martinez days. When he did it was not particularly successful. He could be excellent playing on the left of a back line of three central defenders, but that is quite distinct from the position he played yesterday.

Mackay took most of us by surprise when he named both of the previously long-term absentees, McCann and Watson in the team to play at Sheffield. It was even more of a shock to see them paired together again yesterday. McCann had actually performed well in his first two matches, but he and Watson were unable to turn it on yesterday. The two are crucial to Latics turning the season around. Mackay is taking a gamble in playing the two so much after their long recuperations from injury. He runs the risk of losing them with their bodies taking a toll of not playing for 8-9 months.

As expected, Don Cowie made his first appearance under Mackay, who had been his manager at both Watford and Cardiff. Cowie went to right midfield where he performed as he has before in that position. Pedestrian to be sure, but Cowie will at least make the effort. The result was Callum McManaman being pushed inside and not seeming to know where he was playing.

The hard-working Fortune was taken off after 82 minutes to be replaced by Roger Espinoza. Given the insipid, characterless stuff we had seen up to that point it was a pity Espinoza had not been brought on earlier. The player has many qualities, not the least of which is to fight for the ball and run forward with enthusiasm. But, even then, he was a midfielder replacing a central striker with Latics a goal behind.

Mackay was to make his biggest gaffe of the afternoon by bringing on Andy Delort after 88 minutes for Chris McCann. Fortune can rarely be faulted for effort and he often does a remarkable job of bringing down and controlling Scott Carson’s long kicks. But he is rarely a threat to the opponents’ goal. Delort has been scoring goals for the development squad. Admittedly there is a gulf between the Final Third Development League and the Championship, but the Frenchman also has a fine goalscoring record in Ligue 2, not light years away. Bringing Delort on so late is hardly going to help his confidence.

Mackay has a difficult task ahead of him. However, for the last two games his players have not competed as they need to. Moreover he has made baffling team selections.

He needs to get his act together soon, or Latics will be in deep, deep trouble.

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Turning the tide – Latics v Norwich

Tide2

The arrival of a new manager so often spurs a team in to playing better. With the improved performances come better results.

Malky Mackay will be hoping that is the case when Latics face Norwich tomorrow. He had a positive start when he recalled the old guard against Middlesbrough, who did well but could not quite get the win they hoped for. But his second match saw two defensive errors give away three points against a mediocre Sheffield Wednesday side.

Like Latics, Norwich come off a run of bad results. In fact their records over the last six games are identical W1 D2 L3. The Canaries started the season well and new signings Cameron Jerome and Lewis Grabban were banging the goals in. However, since then they have found the Championship division harder than perhaps they had anticipated.

As Callum McManaman and Shaun Maloney will testify, referees in this division do not protect skillful players like they do in the Premier League. The Norwich playmaker, Wes Hoolahan, has only played 12 games this season and is still carrying an ankle injury. However, given his importance to the team, manager Neil Adams might risk the little Irishman tomorrow despite not being fully fit. Norwich can be expected to field an attacking lineup with winger Nathan Redmond joining Grabban and Jerome up front.

Ben Watson made his first start in nine months at Sheffield and looked understandably rusty. However, Mackay is likely to continue with him and Chris McCann in central midfield. Shaun Maloney is expected to return following illness. Should he be given a central midfield role then Adam Forshaw will find himself on the bench. However, Maloney could be played wide on the left with Forshaw continuing. Don Cowie is fit again and will challenge for a place, either in central or right midfield.

Mackay fielded two wingers- Callum McManaman and James McClean – at Sheffield. But he will surely have found, as did Uwe Rosler and Owen Coyle previously, that playing the two wide men at the same time just does not work.

Emmerson Boyce moved into the centre of defence in the second half at Sheffield with Leon Barnett. The lack of form of central defenders in recent games is a cause for concern, but Mackay will most likely stick with the two Bs, with James Perch and Andrew Taylor at full back.

The performance at Sheffield once again highlighted the need for a goalscoring centre forward, who receives the necessary support. McManaman and McClean ended up putting in crosses that were too often uncontested.

Mackay’s preferred formation at Cardiff was based on a version of 4-5-1 that was close to the 4-3-3 preferred by Rosler. Like Rosler, it has not been his wont to play with twin strikers. However, given the repeated failure of Latics to put the ball into the back of the net, will he is willing to change his formation? The exciting McManaman is much more effective in a free role than marooned out on the right wing where he it is easier for opposition defenders to pick him off.

Various combinations exist for a twin strike force – choose any two from Delort/Fortune/McClean/ McManaman/Riera/Waghorn. A switch to 4-4-2 would certainly be worth a try.

Once again this is a match that Latics can certainly win. Perhaps Lady Luck might be on Wigan’s side this time? There have been so many times this season when Latics have been within a whisker of getting a crucial goal.

Perhaps the tide will turn tomorrow?

Latics can win their next penalty shootout

Penalty

Can one single incident define a club’s season?

Blackpool fans might well cite Matt Gilks’ superb save from Martyn Waghorn’s penalty on Saturday as the event that saved them from relegation. Latics had been well on top in that first 20 minutes and if they had scored the Tangerines might well have fallen apart. Waghorn did not hit his penalty badly, but the goalkeeper guessed right and made a spectacular save.

Latics have been awarded 7 penalties in the Championship this season, of which they have scored 4, each taken by a different player. Grant Holt, Shaun Maloney, Ben Watson and Jordi Gomez were the successful scorers. Gomez has had two penalties saved, against Yeovil and Bolton. The opposition have converted 5 out of the 8 penalties they have received.

It was a surprise to many of us when Waghorn took the penalty against Blackpool. Despite his 1 in 3 conversion rate in the league this season, Gomez has a 100% record in cup competitions. He scored one in the Europa League and two famous ones – at the Etihad and Wembley – in the FA Cup. Having scored Latics’ last penalty in the pressure cauldron of an FA Cup semi-final it was expected that Gomez would take the spot kick against Blackpool. Moreover they also had Shaun Maloney who had previously been successful in converting penalties. Waghorn did have previous success as a penalty taker, scoring 2 out of 2 for Leicester City, but it was in the 2009-10 season. He had not taken penalties in competitive football since then.

The fateful penalty shoot-out in that Wembley semi-final continues to haunt Latics fans. If the likes of Holt, Maloney, Watson and even Waghorn had been at hand to join Gomez at the time, maybe Latics would have had a chance of beating Arsenal. But looking at the available players on the pitch at the time there was not much hope for optimism even before the kicks had started.

Should Latics reach a stage in the playoffs where penalties are going to decide the result are they going to be competitive? Uwe Rosler will surely bear this in mind with the players he has on the pitch in a game going into extra time. He will surely find time for his players to get ample penalty kick practice before the event.

Since the formation of the Premier League in 1992 the average conversion rate for penalties has been 85%. Less than 4% were missed, just over 11% saved.

During their eight seasons there Wigan Athletic received 28 penalties, of which they scored 22, a conversion rate of 79%. Ben Watson and Amr Zaki were Latics’ leading goalscorers through penalties, each scoring four. However, Watson also missed two, unlike the Egyptian who missed none and remains Latics most successful penalty taker in top flight competition. There were only two seasons when Latics received more penalties than they conceded, those being in the Steve Bruce era 2007-09. For the full stats see myfootballfacts.com

Of the current squad, in league and cup games, Maloney has converted 2 out of 2. Gomez has scored 7 out of 10, Watson 6 out of 9.

Gary Caldwell was the first to have a penalty saved at Wembley, but later stated that he had taken penalties before, even in the Champions League. The second taker was Jack Collison, whose shot was also saved. However, Collison had been successful earlier on in the season, scoring for West Ham in the 94th minute in a League Cup tie at Burnley.

Collison would not usually have a chance to take a penalty for the Hammers, as Mark Noble would usually take them. Noble has scored every penalty he has taken since 2009. Leighton Baines shares a similar record. However, Rickie Lambert has gone even better by scoring every single one of his 31 penalties in competitive matches for Southampton. Matt Le Tissier remains the most outstanding penalty taker in top flight English football in recent years, having missed only one of his 49 penalties.

Research into penalty shootouts in the World Cups, European Championship and Copa America reveals a success rate of around 87% for the first kick, 82% for the second, 79% for the third, 73% for the fourth and 80% for the fifth. See penaltyshootouts.co.uk for more details.

Clubs typically get an average of around four penalties in regular play per season and they are often taken by the same player. That is certainly the case for QPR, who have had exactly four, all converted by Charlie Austin.

However, the cases of other playoff contenders, Derby and Reading, differ. Referees have awarded Derby 11 penalties, of which they converted 7, but they have conceded only 2. They have used three penalty takers in Bryson, Martin and Russell. Reading have converted 7 of their 9 penalties, whereas the opposition have scored all 6 conceded. The Royals have used four penalty takers in Blackman, Le Fondre, Pogrebnyak and the unfortunate Sharp who missed his penalty against Latics.

Should Wigan Athletic get into a penalty shootout over the coming weeks it could well define their season. If Latics confirm their place in the playoffs then Rosler will surely give his players lots of practice at taking penalty kicks.

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Can the Dream Come True Again?

Martinez

I don’t know if I will ever tire of watching the highlights of that FA Cup Final. I continue to be in love with the flowing football played by Roberto Martinez’s team and Ben Watson’s goal still brings tears to my eyes. It really was a dream come true.

Highlights can so often paint a false picture of a game. Watching the whole ninety minutes-plus can tell a different story.  But in this case the highlights were pretty close to representing a fair reflection of the match.

The key moments that stick in the mind? The superb interplay early on between Callum McManaman and Arouna Kone that almost led to an early goal for the youngster;  Joel Robles somehow getting his legs to Carlos Tevez’s shot that had “goal” written all over it; Shaun Maloney’s free kick  that hit the crossbar; Pablo Zabalata’s red card after McManaman went bursting through;  the celebrations after Watson’s goal.

The statistics showed that Latics more than matched their illustrious opponents. Possession was a close 52-48 in favour of City, both teams had 12 attempts on goal. Wigan had three corners, City had five. City had three yellow cards and a red, Latics had one yellow.

Incredibly for an underdog,  Wigan committed only five fouls (City had eleven). Latics’ football was sublime.

Who could have believed that a team built from bargain signings could compete on an equal footing with the City megastars? Will Wigan Athletic ever produce a display of such class again? How did Latics neutralize the threat of the star-studded midfield and forwards that City possessed?

Latics had been playing a 3-4-3 system, but an horrendous injury situation left Martinez short of defensive options. In the event he played midfielders James McArthur and Roger Espinoza as wing backs, with James McCarthy and Jordi Gomez in the midfield holding roles.  But he did have his first choice front three in Kone, McManaman and Maloney.

McManaman and Watson are the names that stick in the mind, as ‘Man of the Match’ and ‘Match Winner’, but it was the performance of the back three that was the cornerstone of Latics’ victory.  Antolin Alcaraz had come back from yet another injury to join Emmerson Boyce and Paul Scharner. The trio was absolutely superb in snuffing out the menace of Tevez and Aguero.

So what bearing does what happened in May have on Sunday’s sixth round tie at the Etihad?

City have moved on under Manuel Pellegrini and have scored forty three goals against nine in thirteen home matches in the Premier League so far this season.  That would not have happened in the regime of the more defensively-minded Roberto Mancini.  Moreover City thrashed Owen Coyle’s side 5-0 in a League Cup tie in September. Tevez has gone, but the Citizens now have Alvaro Negredo, Stefan Jovetic and Jesus Navas as potential threats together with Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero.

It will be an emotional return for Uwe Rosler to the club where he made his name. However, City can count on no favours from the pragmatic German. Rosler has shown himself to be tactically astute and he will not want to play into City’s hands. More than anything he needs to nullify the threat of City’s midfield and forwards. Doubtless he will adopt the high pressing game that has become the hallmark of his tenure so far at Wigan. Stifling the service to City’s talented midfield will lessen the goal threat, but he also has to keep their forwards on a tight leash.

Rosler is not afraid to vary his team’s shape and at times he has used a backline of three central defenders. It might well be his best bet in this match. An experienced central defensive three of Emmerson Boyce, Ivan Ramis and Leon Barnett is a distinct possibility. The defence becomes a back five with the wing backs – most likely James Perch and Jean Beausejour – dropping back. It is a tactic that has worked against City before.

Before the FA Cup Final the question being asked of Latics’ supporters was whether they would prefer Premier League salvation or an FA Cup win. Now it is a matter of promotion back to the big league or reaching the semi-final of the Cup.

Winning the FA Cup was the best thing that ever happened to Wigan Athletic.  But going out of the competition, with dignity, on Sunday would not be a tragedy with promotion a possibility.

The players that remain from the Wembley victory will be keen to confront City again. Roger Espinoza could not make the Honduras game yesterday because of injury, so might not make it. Jordi Gomez was ‘Man of the Match’ at Nottingham and will stake a strong claim for a place in midfield, with the excellent James McArthur and Chris McCann. If Callum McManaman is fit he will surely play upfront.  With Martyn Waghorn and Nicky Maynard cup-tied, Marc-Antoine Fortune will probably start up front, unless Nick Powell reappears from injury

Although the odds are once again heavily stacked against Latics, only a fool would count them out.

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Brighton Preview – Latics need to show character

Photo courtesy of Visit Brighton

‘Character’ is a word that is much used – but much abused – in football vernacular. Ever hear a manager say his team showed character after his side has stolen the points with a controversial goal after being outplayed for most of the game?

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines character as “moral excellence and firmness”. Clearly it takes on a new meaning in the language used by football managers of modern day.

Wigan Athletic’s players will have to show a lot of character – that of technical excellence and consistent application – over the next two to three weeks. Before the next home tie with Sheffield Wednesday on March 12th Latics have three difficult matches on the road. Two are league matches against teams challenging for promotion, the third an FA Cup tie at the Etihad.

The first of that trio of matches is at Brighton tomorrow. Latics went 1-0 down to the Seasiders in a tight contest at the DW Stadium on November 23rd. Little did we know at the time that it was to be the beginning of the end for Owen Coyle, with further home defeats to Zulte Waregem and Derby County to follow. Two more defeats followed, at Leeds and Millwall, in the interim period between Coyle’s departure and Uwe Rosler’s arrival.

It is an indication of the turnaround in Latics’ fortunes that they have now caught up with Brighton, being level on points and with the same goal difference. Moreover Brighton have not done badly since their win at Wigan with a league record of W6 D4 L3 since then. In that same period Latics have an average of two points per game, with a record of W7  D3 L2. If they are to reach a play-off spot by the end of the season they will have to maintain that same average in the 16 matches remaining.

Over the January transfer window Brighton sold their most prized asset, Liam Bridcutt, to Sunderland for £3m. Moreover Ashley Barnes, who troubled the Wigan defence in  that last encounter, moved on to Burnley £750,000. However, they brought in Dale Stephens – Charlton’s best player in the 0-0 draw with Latics at The Valley – for an undisclosed fee.

Like Wigan, Brighton had their fair share of injuries early in the season and were short in firepower up front. Since then the Argentinian centre forward Leonardo Ulloa has returned to good effect, with 8 goals in 16 league starts. He is likely to be partnered by either Kazenga Lua Lua or David Rodriguez, a recent signing from Celta Vigo.

Once again it will be interesting to see how Rosler shuffles around his lineup. Sadly it looks like Ben Watson has played his last game for the club following the horrendous injury he picked up against Barnsley. The player’s contract expires in summer. Such a pity as he was approaching the best form of his career. It looks like Rosler is lining up Josh McEachran as Watson’s replacement, although Roger Espinoza is another in contention.

Ivan Ramis was excellent in his return to action at Cardiff and might well make the starting lineup tomorrow. Rosler could rest Emmerson Boyce or push him over to right full back at the expense of James Perch. Perch has started in 35 matches this season, second only to Leon Barnett. The ex-Newcastle man has been a key player in the tightening up of Latics’ defence since Rosler’s arrival. However, he does not possess the attacking flair of Boyce.

Callum McManaman missed the midweek game through injury, but should be fit for tomorrow.  James McClean was the Man of the Match against Barnsley, his inch-perfect cross setting up a goal for Martyn Waghorn. The Irishman’s final pass has so often let the side down this season, but he is starting to show signs that he can lift his head and find teammates in the opposition penalty box.  When he can do that consistently he will be a terrific asset for the team.

Will Rosler play the two wide men in the same lineup? His tendency has been to only play one, but both are approaching their best form and their pace could be dangerous on the counter attack. The German can choose between Nicky Maynard and Marc Antoine Fortune at centre forward, although it is probably Waghorn’s best position too.  Little mention has been made of Nick Powell recently, but could he make a surprise appearance tomorrow?

The Brighton match will certainly be a test of character for Rosler’s men. Neither team will want to lose and the winner could be the one who grinds out the result, rather than the one who has played the better football.

A fascinating contest awaits us.

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