I thought better of writing a preview for the Wigan match. There was nothing new to be said – keep it on the floor, don’t whack it up to Crouch, in fact just keep it. I trust you did not feel let down, dear reader, but you’ve heard it all before. In fact, I did you a favour and let you have more time in bed on a Sunday morning.
Meanwhile, I knocked out something on the problems facing young players at the club, which has done the rounds of the messageboards, interesting feedback, thank you all.
But my non-preview didn’t take account of the infamous Wigan pitch. The long ball would have been a more valid tactic yesterday. Pass and move is all very well when neither is easy in the peat bog of a midfield. Think of it more as a history lesson. Hey kids!!! That’s what the Lane was like in the good old days! I narrowed my eyes and could almost see Steve Perryman and John Pratt ploughing through the mud, sleeves rolled up, shoulders hunched not so much to protect the ball but more to summon up the strength to run another few yards. It looked so odd. Watching the game with a couple of teenagers, it struck me that they had never seen a Premier League match in conditions that were commonplace 15 years ago.
Problem was, neither had most of our players. It takes long enough for instructions to flow from Big Tom’s brain to his feet under normal circumstances but when the feet aren’t moving it adds a whole other dimension. ‘A bit late’ sums up his afternoon and that of a few others. The verdant pastures of the wings, green, firm and welcoming, were there to be used but Bentley and Corluka seemed more stuck than most, Kranjcar had a quiet afternoon and he drifts in anyway, so it was left once more to Gareth Bale to seize the opportunity to inject much needed pace into our attacks. His was the decisive intervention of the first half, cutting in to provide Defoe with a well-taken touch for our first.
He was way offside and knew it, his guilty glance at the linesman before beginning a muted celebration betraying this poor decision. Goals are always important but this came at a crucial juncture as the match was settling down without either side achieving dominance. After this Wigan were always chasing the game and their weaknesses were cruelly exposed. In seeking to stifle us in midfield with a five and two men wide, they blunted their own already limited attacking options. Later, they pushed two and three forward but left themselves open at the back.
As usual we responded by giving away the ball and a series of unnecessary fouls. It was a day for firm passing to feet or maybe ahead of the forwards – Wigan left space for us to do so, unlike recent opponents – but in the first half we were able to do neither. Crocuh could not make it stick, again he really could have done more to hold the ball up but equally we could have maintained a presence closer to him rather than leave him on his own.
Referee Wiley had as much trouble coming to terms with the conditions as many of players. Having missed Defoe’s early foul, he booked Bentley for an innocuous challenge well inside the Wigan half. Consistency is the key for refereeing but this set an unfortunately low benchmark as players slipped and stumbled. A foul is a foul whatever the conditions but he booked players too early, and then pulled back from the consequences, of sending players off for two relatively minor offences. Hud could easily have gone before the end.
The second half began in similarly stuttering fashion, then gradually we got on top and remained there until the end. Wigan seldom threatened but we pressured ourselves with those early and wasteful bookings for Bentley, Defoe and Dawson creating an unnecessary edge. I held my breath as they pondered challenges and worried when King was replaced by Bassong. He’s looked out of sorts lately – his expression recalls Darren Bent’s taut drawn face – and he and Gomes almost conspired to cock up a long ball. Then it clicked, and for the rest of the match he hoofed the ball forward, high, off, up with a glorious absence of dexterity that was absolutely right for the conditions.
Harry has been roundly criticised of late, although not here, for his conservative policy on the use of substitutes. Yesterday he secured the game by bringing on Modric relatively early. In difficult conditions, Modric proved that class will always tell. Where lesser players toiled, he skipped over the surface, passing with firm certainty and running steadily into the heart of the Wigan defence. He was our best performer, a wonderful cameo and he was unlucky not to score with a first time touch that struck the post and rebounded in to the arms of a grateful keeper, rooted to the spot by the speed of the strike rather than the cloying mud.
And so to Pavlychencko. TOMM has never cast him as Our Saviour but has wanted him to play because his talents will suit our style, and so it was. Defoe may have been the choice to come off not because of Harry’s tactical genius but because of the striker’s stupidity – the next foul or whinge and he could have been off- but it proved a masterstroke. Freed from the responsibility of being the striker furthest forward, Pav could move onto the ball rather than have his back to the opponent’s goal half the time. His movement was instinctive and natural – this is what he is used to, this is his game, and how he revelled in his freedom. Brilliantly done and he will play a vital part in our run in.
Not before time…Harry’s face was a picture. He looked so miserable…but to be fair, he always looks like that. More to the point, Pav’s fellow players appeared genuinely delighted for him at the end, Defoe making a beeline for him at the whistle and others joining in the celebrations. He’s part of the team whatever Harry thinks.
Wigan on this performance are as poor a side as I have seen this season but all our players were pleased on emerging from this hard slog with the points, and so they should be.