I know that I was supposed to be embarrassed by all those defeats over the last four seasons, the 9-1, all those drubbings against United and Arsenal and the countless cup exits to lower division sides. I know I was supposed to be but, by-and-large, I wasn’t. Just as I wasn’t when Paul Jewell was content to go into games against top sides simply trying to limit the damage. I wasn’t embarrassed because those games were all part of a bigger picture, part of a plan to achieve something for the club, because, no matter how bad I felt, I could see what the manager was trying to do or at least I could see they we’re trying to achieve something.
That was pretty much the thought that was ringing through my mind on Sunday just as I watched a you 19 year old lad score with what surely was the coolest finish you’ve ever seen from anyone in a Latics shirt. As everyone around me jumped out of their seats, cheered or applaud my celebration of choice was the “sit on backside with head in hands” because, no matter how good the finish, everything else about the goal and the ninety minutes that preceded it were, frankly, embarrassing.
I’ve got to be careful here, because it would be easy to let this deteriorate into some kind of ‘our Bobby’ vs ‘that Bolton idiot’ tirade and that’s not what I’m after at all. A new manager was always going to bring his own style, his own principles, things were always going to different no matter who came in and, hell, maybe a little more directness was what we needed, especially in the hotly contested atmosphere of the Championship.
And despite my ardent defence of Bob’s principles over the last few years, I’m not against ‘direct’ football. Some of my best times watching Latics came under Ray Matthias and Paul Jewell, both playing a very ‘British’ style of football, both keen to stretch the play by moving the ball quickly up field, when the time was right. Even Steve Bruce’s team went long with an aim, usually so that they could play football in an area where losing the ball didn’t put you under undue pressure.
On Sunday, Ipswich more more akin to Bruce’s Latics than Jewell’s but the simple, embarrassing, fact is that Owen Coyle’s Latics were “out footballed” by a team managed by (checks Roy Keane’s description – yep it’s not repeatable) a dour Yorkshireman with a reputation that’s more ‘lump and run’ than ‘kick and rush’ or ‘pass and move’. The visitors didn’t achieve this by having better players, by being less tired or by knocking us off our game, they came with an intent to play in a certain way, to play football when and where they could and to tough it out when and where they couldn’t.
I’m probably doing Mr McCarthy a disservice in terms of the detail, but that’s a game plan and even without the detail, it’s about ten times more of a game plan than Latics appear to have at this moment in time.
Let’s be straight here. Owen Coyle is still in the early days of his tenure at the DW, but Tuesday does see the tenth competitive game under his regime and, so far, it appears that out M.O. this season will be to defend with nine men and then lump it up to whichever poor unfortunate is playing the role of Kevin Francis this week. Admittedly there are times when the ball ends up with our midfield and the plan when it does seems to be to get it out of there as quickly as possible either by giving it to Shaun Maloney or the aforementioned neo-Kevin Francis.
It’s bad enough as it is but, when you’ve no-one to act the big lump up front and Maloney has pulled a sicky, you end up with performances like the last two. Not that they were much worse than the preceding 7.
I think the thing that grates the most about the apparent willingness to by-pass midfield is that it was the strongest part of our team last season. I was positively excited at the thought of watching the ginger Xavi, Scots Scholes and errr…. Jodi Gomez ripping the Championship a few new ones and here I am watching them (when they can get in the side) acting as a barricade to protect the back four from the incessant wave of attacks as long ball after long ball a repelled back towards the Latics goal.
We have a group of players who over the last few years have regularly proved themselves of capable in retaining possession against the best of the top flight and it seems they’re under orders that the thing at their feet should be treated like a hot potato and I can’t help but ask myself “why?” and the only answer that I can come up with is that Coyle is deliberately setting himself up as everything Martinez wasn’t. It’s like he feels the only way that he can impress is personality on the team is to go to the other extreme. Because regardless of the evidence in front of my eyes, I’m still trying to refuse to believe that Owen Coyle believes that this is the best way for any team to play, let alone one with the Premier League experience that is prevalent in all parts of this squad.
A lot of people are trying to tell me that Coyle has been stuck with his options in the transfer market, but we’ve got a Premier League midfield, bought defenders from top flight sides and have three forwards in Maloney, Holt and Fortune that have plenty of experience and a high level of ability. Yes, you wouldn’t want to take this squad into a Premier League season but we’re not, and there’s not many Championship teams that would turn down our players if offered to them for nowt. A fair few are telling me that it’s too soon to judge and of course it’s too soon to judge how well a team has bedded in, but this isn’t about how well the team are playing, it’s about how they’re expected to play.
And the rest? Well they’re telling me that we’re reasonably placed in the table, that we’ve had a decent start to the season results wise and that it’s all about the points after all and they’ve got a point. So much that I nearly didn’t write this article, but then Barstaff posted this quote from Laurent Blanc on our messageboard
“For me, playing football means having the ball, conjuring moves, harnessing your strengths, posing problems to your opponents, scoring goals and taking risks.
Obviously I want my team to win, but I also want them to play ball.
That’s a state of mind, a fundamental principle”
And I changed my mind. There’s more to football than the points column and if he doesn’t shape up, Coyle will be failing us on that point.
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