As crucial games go this Saturday is certainly up there – after last week’s disappointing draw with rock bottom Ipswich it feels like the visit of Middlesbrough has taken on a whole new level of importance.
Let’s tackle last week’s match, after a warm weather training trip to Dubai and a morale boosting win over Chinese Super League Champions Shanghai SIPG many were expecting a win over Ipswich to be a foregone conclusion.
To say things didn’t really go to plan is an understatement. Despite Ipswich having a man sent off midway through the first half Latics found themselves a goal behind after the referee awarded Ipswich what looked to be a soft penalty. After that it was always going to be difficult, Ipswich put their remaining ten men behind the ball as if saying to Latics ‘come on then – break us down’ and until the 91st minute it looked as if we may struggle to do that.
Thankfully Joe Garner came on to haunt his former club and in the process earn us a valuable point. A point certainly wasn’t enough though and in the circumstances I’m sure Paul Cook and the lads would have expected more from this game. The starting line-up itself was quite conservative, two defensive midfielders in Lee Evans and Sam Morsy whilst a lot of the side’s attacking talent in Nick Powell, Callum McManaman and Gavin Massey were once again left on the bench.
It’s debateable whether a more ‘attacking’ line-up would have seen a different result on Saturday, sometimes teams just have one of those days and it felt like that for Latics on Saturday. Ipswich were certainly a lot better than their league position suggests, indeed if not for Jamie Jones impressing once again between the sticks they could have gone further ahead.
That’s not to dismiss Latics dominance, 27 attempts on goal, well over 67% percent possession but it took until the 91st minute for Latics dominance to count.
Although it was another match where Latics would have targeted three points before kick-off the relief to get one at full time was clear for all to see. But sadly points aren’t enough at this stage of the season, just a couple of wins in recent weeks – say against Rotherham and Ipswich would have seen us on 39 points, in the same position in the table but crucially only two points away from Stoke in 18th place.
Luckily results have gone our way again in recent weeks but we need to start winning games again soon, as Paul Cook and the lads will know as well as anyone that we can’t simply rely on results from the sides below us going in our favour to ensure we stay in this division. We need to put our own run of results together – we’ve done that to some extent with the draw with Ipswich. That’s now four matches unbeaten, and although three of those were draws we are picking points up.
Middlesbrough is going to be a tough match, Tony Pulis’ side are in a decent position in the table and although it looks like the play-offs for them rather than automatic promotion they’ll be wanting to keep the pressure up on those sides around them in the table. They’re in a decent run of form too, their only recent defeats coming against Sheffield United and Newport in the FA Cup.
Nick Powell’s last start ironically was in the return match with Boro, as Latics struggled on a cold day at the Riverside and Middlesbrough came out on top as 2-0 winners. Latics have badly missed his creativity and attacking threat in the months since then, despite starting on the bench against Ipswich on Saturday he made an impression during the second half on Saturday. I would expect him to go back in to a re-jigged forward line on Saturday.
Callum McManaman impressed from the bench on Saturday afternoon and with Gavin Massey once again fit there are more choices for Paul Cook than there has been for a long time. The key is finding a line-up that can keep that defensive solidity alongside being able to break down a Middlesbrough side that don’t concede many goals. We seem to perform better against those sides higher in the table – at home at least.
If we can do that and somehow pick up a positive result it will leave us in a decent position going in to March and a crucial run of fixtures.