That sinking feeling is back again. After the resolute rearguard performance at Fulham came the 25 minutes of defensive shambles which gifted Sunderland three points. An exposed defence lacking cohesion, leaking like a sieve. Players looking short on confidence, with nobody willing to take a risk and do something special.
Once again Wigan Athletic find themselves in the bottom three in January. The team that promised so much at the end of last season has failed to live up to expectations. Key players have had dips in their form at various times since the opener in August - even Wigan’s top player, goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi. So many times the team has played well enough to merit a positive result, but it has not happened because of individual errors or a collective lack of understanding among the back line. Put simply, there is no reward for playing good football if you give away goals by not getting your fundamentals right.
Are Latics capable of staying up? How are they going to be able to stop hemorrhaging goals, having conceded 43 in 23 league matches? The good news is that they are still four points ahead of bottom-placed QPR and only four points behind Southampton, currently in 15th. A couple of back-to-back wins would be sufficient to get them out of the bottom three.
So what can Wigan do to defy the threat of relegation?
1. Stick with the 3-4-3 formation, but have a plan B if things go awry. The current squad has been built around the 3-4-3. It is not the system that has been the determining factor in the more disappointing performances this season, but individual and collective errors. Wigan are the only team in the Premier League to regularly play 3-4-3 and other teams have had difficulty dealing with it. However, tactically wiser opposition managers have learned to find ways of neutralizing the wing-backs, who play a crucial role in the system. If the shape becomes neutralized then it needs to be adapted. Being behind at Fulham, Roberto Martinez reverted to a flat back four in the second half, pushing the balance back into Wigan’s favour.
2. Avoid losing to other teams in the danger zone. The home encounter with the Southampton Feb. 2 is going to be crucial for Wigan, as are all of those against teams in the danger zone. In the first half of the season Wigan had largely positive results against teams currently in the bottom six. The one they lost was 3-0 at Newcastle, but they beat Aston Villa, Reading and Southampton and drew with QPR.
3. Sign a dominant and experienced central defender in the January transfer window. The loss of Ivan Ramis for the season with a serious knee injury was a hammer blow; add to that the hamstring injury of Adrian Lopez and the slow recuperation of Antolin Alcaraz. Injuries have meant Wigan have had to constantly chop and change their back three, resulting in a lack of mutual understanding between the players selected. Last season’s grand finale was based on a back three of Alcaraz, Gary Caldwell and Maynor Figueroa, each player knowing the other ones’ game, gellingas a unit. The trio have not once played together in a back three unit this season. Moreover in recent matches Emmerson Boyce has had to be moved across from wing-back to the centre of defence. Having Boyce at wingback gives Wigan more height in defence, a key factor in the aerial battles.
4. Crowd support. Latics great escape last season was underpinned by the wonderful “I’m a Believer” support they got. Being a Wigan Athletic supporter in the Premier League can be exasperating, but that intensity of support is going to be needed if Wigan are to defy their critics in the media and stay in there.
5. Stay calm when other teams are panicking. Latics have been in this position before and have kept their cool and survived. Any three of the teams currently in the bottom six could go down, but there is always the possibility of a club in a higher position going into freefall. Teams such as Fulham, Norwich and Sunderland could yet be dragged into the relegation mire, with panic setting in.
6. Have luck smile upon Wigan Athletic. Seldom does a team suffer the number of injuries that have hit Wigan this season. The injuries have had a severe disruptive effect on team performance and morale. Some say refereeing decisions even themselves out over the course of the season. However, teams near the bottom seem to consistently suffer, more so than those at the other end of the table. In Wigan’s case it has been severe, with so many marginal penalty decisions given against them - let alone good goals being disallowed for non-existent offsides and dubious red cards changing the course of a game. They say that you make your own luck. Let’s hope Wigan can do that!