Yes, it’s that time again, the season is half way through and we all get to do a little jig as we take a look at ‘just how far we’ve come’. There’s no doubting that the season so far has been a mixed one. There were two sets of fours, wins and clean sheets on the bounce to be proud of but without pre-empting the Chelsea and Utd results they can be offset by similar runs of defeats. Our league position looks reasonably healthy, but there’s not much separating third from seventeenth and at the moment we need to be more worried about the latter.
Thankfully all the attention has slipped away from plucky little Wigan and whilst Reading take the plaudits we can hopefully look to establishing ourselves as a Premier League club. If you believed the media, second season syndrome was a given, regardless of whether players stayed or who replaced them, it’s obviously just in the Sky contract. Whatever your thoughts on that are, in the end players did leave, and a hell of a lot of replacements came in, so how have we coped without our “star players” and how have the new boys settled in? The easy way to answer that is to take a walk through the team and see.
The chants of “Pollitt for England” ahead of the world cup may have been (and I’m being generous there) ironic but this year similar calls for the chap in-between the sticks are a little more serious. The loan signing of Chris Kirkland that has now been turned into a permanent deal is currently looking like one of the best bits of business that Jewell has pulled off. The ex-Liverpool stopper is certainly the best we’ve had since Roy Carroll left the club and may be even better. Pollitt and Filan were a more than able pairing and to improve on that was certainly a stepping point towards building a better squad.
The back four brings us the first mention of one of our long forgotten friends. Pascal Chimbonda may have added to the personality of the side, but we’re finding out just how much he brought to our play. Emerson Boyce and David Wright have proved steady replacements for the Frenchman, but at the end of the day how many players would have the energy to do what Pascal did? The league table tells us that we’re not as good at defending this year and a quick flick through the memory bank drags up goal line clearances and last ditch tackles, from both full backs that just haven’t been there this season.
On the other flank our second best left back has continued his growth into one of the best young players in the country. Bainesy has looked a little more vulnerable at times this term, but at the same time has got forward more. The question is whether the U21 international can push himself into Steve McAllen’s plans and join his team mate, Kirkland on the England bench.
If you’re going to build your team on solid foundations, then it helps to have a consistent back line. Unfortunately injuries and general poor form have prevented that and really it’s impossible to say what Jewell’s first choice centre half pairing is. Five players have slotted in there and none have completely covered themselves in glory. If there is one thing on the manager’s Christmas wish list, it will to have a settled pair of defenders who can build an understanding and give the team something to build from.
Whether the players we have got can give him that is another matter, and I can see changes coming in the New Year.
Hero – Leighton Baines has been our most consistent performer without reaching the heights of last term
Villain – Fitz Hall has looked vulnerable in most games, tellingly our best run came without him in the side
Who? – Andy Webster, all that work to sign him and then nothing. May have looked short on pace and fitness but played in all four games that we won on the bounce. This years Andreas Johansson or is there something more murky afoot?
I’ll get the unbelievable out of the way first. Since he went off injured in the Spurs game, Latics have missed Gary Teale. The lack of balance in the side has been obvious and this more than anything prevented us building on the run of good form we’d had up until that point. The same could be said of the player that he’s been competing with for the right wing berth, but Louis Valencia seems to have struggled to settle in. The young Ecuadorian came to us after roaring reports in the World Cup and despite some promising performances has, in the main, failed to deliver the goods. Some foreign players take time to settle in to the English game, others (especially the creative ones) never do. Whether the lad can do enough to turn his loan deal into something else, only time will tell.
Elsewhere Denny Landzaat has failed to live up to expectations but has improved some as the season progressed, or, depending on your view, since he has been paired with Skoko rather than Scharner. Scharner himself has been full of energy but to what end? Kilbane has proved himself to be a squad player and Lee McCulloch has returned to the ‘what’s the point category’. David Cotterill has proved himself to have potential, even when out of position and David Wright has filled in as and when required but neither impressed nor failed.
The revelation has been Josip Skoko; he came in for the Man City game and was instrumental in making our midfield look half decent for a change. His performances since have marked him out as the best of a bad bunch, as long as he keeps off corners.
The easy thing here is to look to the absence of Jimmy Bullard. Just like the gloved one you can’t help but feel that we have missed his personality and energy, but did he have the ability to pull us out of the coma our midfield has been in since August? Early indications at Fulham were that many Latics fans had underestimated Bullard’s effectiveness, but an early injury has robbed us of any opportunity to make real comparisons.
Hero – Josip Skoko, from zero to fair to middling. Hopefully we’ll find out over the rest of the season whether his new found standing is down to him settling in or his colleagues’ lack of, well… anything really.
Villain – It’s a toss up between the rests of them barring David Cotterill. Purely on the high expectations Landzaat sneaks ahead, Jewell will be looking for much more over the second half of the season, if it doesn’t come then maybe this year’s class is actually the worse Dutch midfield ever.
Who? – Perennial forgotten man Andreas Johansson has continued his quest to perfect the little boy lost on the touchline act
It’s a simple fact that if you don’t score goals, you don’t win games. Ten goals between two strikers are certainly not enough especially when no one else is joining in. However you can only judge strikers when they’re missing chances, and for most of the season our front line has been starved of them. In fact when Camara and Heskey have been paired as a front two they’ve looked a decent partnership. When they haven’t… well let’s just say that the lack of depth in our squad is most apparent upfront. Behind Emile and Henri there’s been no one. Todorov was brought in as last minute cover and then spent the next three months injured, Cotterill hasn’t been given a chance in the position he was allege
dly bought to play in and Andreas Johansson, has been what can only be described as Andreas Johansson.
There seems little wrong in Jewell’s first choice line up, but when he missed out on Johnson and lost Jason Roberts he was denied any real o ptions upfro nt. With hindsight the loss of Roberts comes down to a numbers game as Heskey has proved himself the better (team) player, but in Camara’s absence we’re finding out just how important that numbers game can be at this level.
Hero – Undoubtedly the star of our attack thus far has been Emile Heskey. Many doub
ted his value at £5.5 million; few now doubt what he brings to the team. All he now needs is the right support.
Villain – With few to choose from it seems to select anyone, but the worse of the three has been Todorov, how serious was his injury? Was he bothered enough to warrant a place? How bad was that penalty?
Who? – As January approaches eyes are turning to the gossip columns and wondering which strikers Latics will be linked with. Favourite looks to be Nathan Ellington, who it seems realised his mistake sometime around last September.
The famed motivator and man manager, who got last season’s squad to play out of their skins for at least two thirds of last season, seems to have come up against a bit of a wall. This year’s midfield seems more technically gifted but he has been unable to get the best out of them. Debate has started over whether the blame lies with players that simply don’t care enough or a manager who has come as far as he can. Suggestions have been made that Jewell has taken his eye off the ball and is already looking to his next job.
Whilst that is probably untrue, there have been some strange decisions of late. Not least of these was the tinkering with our tried and tested 4-4-2 formation. Admittedly there is some logic in experimenting against the top sides but with other clubs taking points of the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal, those games could prove more important than they first appeared.
For the first time Jewell’s signings are being called into question. In particular the signings of Kilbane and Hall have caused great consternation and at the moment he has few options but to pick them. With his summer shopping failing to make the grade the manager has a lot of work to do over the next month. In the meantime he’ll have to hope that some key player can return to either form or full fitness.
The table tells its own story, it’s a tight division barring the top two sides and as things stand we’re just about getting a point per goal scored. If things are as simple as that then to be certain of safety we’re going to need more goals, but then again compare our record to last season’s and it’s at the back that we’ve got most problems. For all concerned the report card reads “must do better”. There are a growing concerns that the squad we have isn’t capable of raising its game and calls for a clear out have already started.
Outside of some nifty deals in the transfer window, there is still some hope for Latics. With the likes of Taylor, Valencia, Scharner, McCulloch and Camara to return from injury and the possibility of De Zeeuw regaining something like full fitness there will be opportunities for Jewell to make significant changes, here’s hoping that can happen before the rest of them have dragged us too deeply into the mire.
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