A Hernan Crespo goal late into injury time introduced Premiership life to newly promoted Wigan Athletic Football club in August 2005. It seemed a cruel way to taste defeat for the town of Wigan in their very first game amongst the big boys. A town that had seen its football club play in the national league only since 1978.
Wigan Athletic were the surprise package of the 2005-2006 Premier League season, defying all odds by handsomely staying and winning hearts along the way. Manager Paul Jewell , with a largely inexperienced squad and limited funds had almost done a “Nottingham” with Wigan lodging themselves at 2nd spot in the first half of the season and reaching the League cup final. Motivation and determination to stay up were key aspects to that squad and their spirited display that season made them everyone’s second favorite club. But as so often happens in football, the “second season syndrome “ hit the Latics.
The Lancaster’s in a bid to stay put brought in talents in the form of Emile Heskey, Antonio Valencia, Denny Landzaat, Lee McCulloch and Chris Kirkland with Jason Roberts, Jimmy Bullard and Pascal Chimbonda going the other way. But things did not go as expected and Wigan found themselves hovering around the relegation zone throughout the season. A last day victory against Sheffield United kept them above the drop zone ensuring a third year in the top-flight. The joy of staying up was contracted with the news of Jewell quitting the managerial post. Paul Jewell had instilled a fighting spirit into the club and his loss was quite felt in the following seasons.
The Latics did enjoy a stable period under the shrewd guidance of Steve Bruce. Melchiot, Palacios and Figueroa were bought to shore up a shaky defense and the likes of Cattermole, Kilbane, Brown and N’Zogbia came in to add creativity and steel to the midfield. Wigan finally seemed to have a quality squad that would ensure Wigan a long stay in the Premiership. Heskey was raking in the goals and new signees Zaki and Rodallega provided able support to the big man. Bruce had brought in the same attractive football that had won over people in 2005.
But its tough being a small club in the Premiership. Wigan inspite of spending 4 years in the league still come under the category of ‘small clubs’ lucky to be playing alongside the country’s top boys. Small sized clubs have always been vulnerable in losing out on their talents to big clubs in history and Wigan has been no exception. Inspirational manager Bruce was lost to Sunderland and he took Cattermole with him. The last three seasons have seen Wigan lose Heskey, Valencia, Palacios, Rodallega and N’Zogbia to name a few. Unfortunately, the loss in talent hasn’t been compensated and current manager Roberto Martinez has worked so far with minimum budget and using it to comb across the continent for talents who would wear the colours of Blue and White.
Beating the Drop
Ever since Wigan Athletic set foot in the Premier League, they have been written off by pundits every season to be the first to go down. This tag-name has become even louder since the 2009-2010 season, the season after which we have seen a mass exodus of talent from the little Lancashire club. Chairman Dave Whelan put his faith in old boy Martinez to steer the club from its troubles and the Spaniard has not disappointed thus far. Martinez, having struggled as a player in the lower tiers of the league system, brought in a philosophy of a togetherness and team spirit.
In his very first season, he changed the style of play to a more compact 4-3-3. Rodallega lead the line flanked by N’Zogbia and McCarthy with hard men Thomas, Diame and Scharner slotted in midfield. The lack of creativity in midfield was compensated by a hard working one , cutting-off passes and doing its best to shield a weak defense. The style employed by Martinez was quite simple and effective. Sit back and defend deep with the midfield providing the steel in the center of the park and utilize the pace of Rodallega and N’Zogbia to hit on the counter. Wigan used this style of play to great effect squeezing out impressive wins against Chelsea,Liverpool and Arsenal but also suffered embarrassing defeats at the hands of Totteham, Manchester United and Bolton. But the style of play had set in and Martinez used this to good effect in keeping clear of the drop zone with some impressive results towards the end of the campaign that saw them keep a 6 point distance between themselves and the relegation zone.
The style didn’t change come the next season, though Wigan started off badly. Martinez had recruited some young blood in Mauro Boselli, Antolin Alcaraz, Di Santo,Cleverley and McCarther and did well to keep hold of players key to his system of play. Being quite adamant in sticking to his style of play in spite of contrasting results, Wigan kept up the trend of upsetting big teams when it mattered. Crucial wins towards end of the season and hard fought draws that included once again frustrating the likes of Liverpool, Arsenal and Newcastle earned Wigan another 16th place finish though it was a lot closer than last time. Rodallega’s 9th goal against Stoke city on the penultimate day kept Wigan up.
Departure of their Creator-in-chief N’Zogbia to Villa prompted Martinez to adopt 4-5-1 and 3-4-3 in the 2011-2012 campaign. The season started out in the same fashion as the previous two with Wigan neck-deep in relegation battle. A change to 3-4-3 mid-season worked in favour of The Latics with Martinez employing a creative midfield of McCarthy, McCarther,Maloney,Moses and Diame. The knack of grinding out results was again justified with Wigan winning 7 of their last 9 games of the season which included the scalps of both the Manchester clubs, Arsenal, Newcastle and their nail-biting last day victory over Wolverhampton to finish 15th.
Roberto Martinez’s style is much fashioned on the midfield controlling play and quick counter attacks based on long punts up the field. His style of play might not be the most attractive but has definitely been effective in keeping Wigan in the Premier league. Wigan has changed quite a bit from Paul Jewell and Steve Bruce’s open attacking style to Roberto Martinez’s defensive-counter attacking approach. Given the ‘theft’ of talent from the squad over the last 5 years, one can only laud the Spaniard’s style of play given the resources he has. But then again, a crucial factor that has kept Wigan up and fighting is the induction of self-belief and determination into the team brought about by Martinez.
The current season has started much the same with key men Hugo Rodallega, Diame and Victor Moses departing for greener pastures in the league. Wigan have once again been tipped to drop down to the Championship by pundits. Martinez, to his credit, has raided the La Liga to bring in defender Ramis and Ivorian Kone switching to a classic 4-4-2 to accommodate the losses of his wingers. Wigan currently sit 16th having notched up their first win against West Ham on Saturday. The scuffles for survival start over again for Martinez and his boys and expect the gaffer to pull out yet another trick out of his bag. Even if Wigan Athletic do finally lose their battle this season, the survival model set by them will encourage future promoted team to plan out their own escapes.