Stuck in the middle (ish)

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You’d have thought that the mad panic to squeeze games in before the international/European break finishes would have reminded me but I’m obviously still not used to this Premier League malarkey. Looking at the table yesterday I noticed that the majority of teams had 23 games behind them and thought, ’20 points at the half way point is a reasonable tally as long as we can keep improving’.

Then the reality kicked in as it struck home that we’re now a fair bit past mid-way and now I’m worried (no, honestly) that you, the patient reader, will think that I’m neglecting my duty by not giving you my mid-season thoughts on the team’s performance. So, in a better late than never frame of mind and ignoring the fact that the results in our last few games may have skewed my opinions a little, here we go with the review.

Keep it up?
You have to recognise that goalkeeper is one of the hardest positions for a manager to deal with. Your number one may be in a bad run of form, lacking confidence or prone to error, but if he’s the best keeper at the club then it’s always going to be a gamble to throw someone else in. It’s a gamble that’s worked down at Spurs, but Ramos made his change in a, relatively, unimportant cup game, not everyone gets that luxury.

Despite concerns from some sections of the support, Chris Kirkland has pretty much been the only choice between the sticks this season. It’s pretty clear that he could have a greater command of his area, and his handling of crosses can be suspect but is the dearth of clean sheets this season really his fault?

My guess is not and that any problems that he’s shown are rooted in a lack of confidence. Dropping him is probably not going to help that situation and it’s just way too much of a risk to make that change anyway. That said, with the FA Cup game on Saturday, it may well be that he gets a rest and should Mike Pollitt produce anything like the heroics that we saw at Highbury a couple of years back then Kirkland may have a job on to get his shirt back.

In my defence
As you’d expect, with a struggling team, a discussion on the make up and form of our back four has never been far away this term. The old debate about our best left back disappeared at the start of the season, only to be replaced by the need for a proper left back. Kilbane’s performances as stand in have gone some way to quietening that down, but the signings of Figueroa and Edman make it clear that Bruce agrees with the view that we couldn’t carry that situation through the whole season.

Although Kilbane did a lot to deflect attention away from the debate, he was helped along the way by some proper shonky performances by our centre halves. Granqvist started the season reasonably well, but was quickly shown up for a lack of pace and general clumsiness. After featuring highly in many player of the season awards last year, Boyce has looked uncomfortable with his role as first reserve, and although he’s not looked terrible when called upon he’s not really had the chance to settle into any role so far.

Which brings us onto Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee. Yes, I’ll agree that not having Paul Scharner in the centre of midfield benefits the team, and that he looks better in the back line but his tendency to make mistakes and drift out of position are going to cost us sooner or later, despite his energy levels and the best efforts of his team mates to back him up. You can almost ditto that for Titus Bramble, overall he’s been great this season, but a couple of costly mistakes and some less obvious discretions mean that the concerns that he carried with him from Newcastle are never very far away.

So, we’ve a central defensive partnership with the collective attention span of a goldfish reared on MTV. It seems to me that if either of our current pair were partnered with an experienced, cool headed organiser, then we’d be more than fine, but what do I know? Steve Bruce seems happy with his lot here and indeed you could link our turn in fortunes to the creation of this partnership, so it’s best to leave it to the experts, and I’ll promise not to say I told you so if it all goes pear shaped.

Middle of the road
Whether you do it by using players with different skills and styles or tailoring the way you get them to play (asking them is one thing, getting them to do it is another) you won’t get anywhere if you’ve not got balance in your midfield. You need the balance to ensure that it’s effective both defensively and in attack, but also the balance to offset your deficiencies in other departments.

Unfortunately Latics have failed on both counts in the first half of this season, and whilst some of that may be explained away by injuries it’s as much if not more down to simple old team selection. And there are two pretty good examples.

The first one is simple enough, if you sign a ‘luxury player’ to slot in on the left wing; you ensure that they’ve got a bloody good left back to cover for them. Latics had none, but persisted with Koumas and Kilbane. The other reason can be described in two words – Paul Scharner – but they’ll take a few more to explain. Instead we’ll leave it at saying the attempt to shoehorn him into the midfield didn’t work everything is a bit more settled these days.

Brown has done what we knew he would, part Jimmy Bullard with a monk on and all round awkward git, it’s not always nice to watch but the more unpopular he is with other people, the more he must he must be doing something right. Landzaat will remain an enigma until he leaves the club, obviously a good player, and certainly more settled into the English way than last time around and yet he still fails to deliver consistently in the eyes of the fans.

Maybe a longer run away from the holding role will get the best out of him, but with the signing of Palacios, there are no guarantees that he’ll get that chance.

Elsewhere, Valencia remains far from the finished article but has come on leaps and bounds, Koumas has polarised opinion and may well be on the way out and Taylor has shown his great potential before, with no surprise, getting injured.

In all we’ve got a good set of individual midfielders that have improved since Bruce whipped them into shape as a unit. The problem is that it’s not too difficult to see how that unit could be improved. To some extent, that’s where Palacios comes in but more so why stories linking Latics with Stephen Reid get the juices flowing.

Moving things forward
So we’ve seen how a lack of concentration at the back and imbalance in midfield have cost up over the first half of the season but, when the excuses have been rolled out, the attention has mainly been upfront. Sibierski got off to a good start, then died off and then got injured. His goal at Derby aside, he’s not really looked the business for quite some time now. That’s a little bit different from Aghahowa, who has never really looked the business, so much so that I’ve stopped bothering to try and work out what his good points might be.

That leaves up with two players who are the only realistic starting partnership.

Marcus Bent’s note to Latics was accompanied by a chorus of groans so loud that it challenged those heard during the great pie shortage of 1964. It was hardly the most inspiring signing, but through hard work, a few excellent performances and seven goals he’s won most of the crowd over. So with Bent in form, all we need his Emile Heskey alongside him, right?

Well that’s the popular opinion and with his injury problems it has been hard enough to get him on the pitch, let alone get him into any sort of form. This being Wigan At

hletic, the first assumption will always be that he doesn’t care. The argument against of course is his performance on the last day of last season, but we can only let him live on that for so long and suspicions that something went wrong with his relationship with Bruce at Birmingham won’t help things along any.

My take on it is that this is all down to Heskey’s size and his importance to the team. Being a big lad, any break in training is going to lead to him getting bigger, the bigger he gets the more prone to niggling injuries he gets and the less training he does. My guess is that he’s playing at the expense of training, and that just defeats the object.

Latics need a fit and hungry Heskey in the side, they need the man who underlined his team mates performance at Bramhall Lane, the man who forced himself back into the England reckoning and then proved the doubters (perhaps including them man who picked him) wrong. If that means being without him for a few extra weeks, or him starting on the bench for a while then so be it.

However before he can do that, Bruce needs to make sure he’s got someone to take his place. None of the others strikers at the club fit that bill and it’s surely time to hit that war chest.

In all, my feelings about the team are mixed. I’m healthily sceptical about the pundits’ views that Latics have the best squad out of the teams at the bottom, but I do believe that it has improved on last season. The change in manager seems to have had the desired effect and Steve Bruce appears to be getting more out of the players that he’s got, but he took over a team in freefall, and fighting gravity isn’t an easy job.

It would only take a run of three or four poor games to throw Latics back into turmoil, but there is enough in the squad to suggest that Bruce might succeed, and a very real chance that Latics could coast over the finish line. I’ll reserve my judgement on that for now, if you don’t mind.

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