Latics came into the season on a surprising wave of optimism, Chris Hutchings’ appointment may have been met with a great deal of cynicism but his words (and actions) since have gone a long way to winning the fans around. The loss of Leighton Baines and the slow down in transfer activity may impact that in the longer term but, for now, the rabble seem happier than they’ve been for a long time.
The opening day result against Everton threatened to bring a heavy dose of reality down on those people who had been expecting better. On the day, Latics had done alright without ever threatening to get something from the game and the contrasts between the two sides figureheads was marked. For Everton Mikel Arteta had run the show looking dangerous with every move and causing problems all over the pitch, Koumas was at the centre of Latics play but had struggled to help them get any sort of foothold.
Losing 2-1 away to the Toffees should never be seen as a disgrace, but that they won so easily was a little disappointing and even Chris Hutchings’ insistence that he had taken a lot from the gate did little to calm the nerves for the rest of the season. It didn’t take too long a memory to recall the opening day defeat by Newcastle, last August. The goals conceded at Goodison may not have been quite so much of our own making but the signs were worrying.
Then again, any result can be worrying in isolation and Everton’s 3-1 thrashing of Spurs the following Tuesday hinted that maybe this was going to be another of those good seasons for David Moyes. Whatever, it certainly put a different spin on Latics’ result.
So whilst the expectancy may have been reduced for the Boro game it wasn’t all doom and gloom. That the media had written the game off as both a spectacle and potential result for Latics gave the fans something to bite back against and we headed into our first home game with at least some anticipation for the first time in quite a few months.
As it turns out, the press were nearly right. Gareth Southgate’s men seemed to be satisfied with their plan to spoil the game, or at least to not lose before they tried to win it. Yakubu’s eyes were clearly elsewhere and the lacklustre forward line made it easy for Bramble and Granqvist to spend time getting to know each other.
Latics didn’t quite have it as easy as they’d made it for Everton a couple of days before, but were given plenty of opportunity to prove themselves. Koumas was at the centre of everything, but this time was causing problems and the supporting cast put a fair shift in as well. In all the 1-0 score-line was a fair one, but a little bit extra from the players and this could have easily been a thrashing.
If Chris Hutchings had seen plenty to be pleased with in the first game of the season, the Boro game bolstered the fans’ confidence. If nothing else, the sight of Koumas running from midfield, going past players and generally causing havoc showed the promise of things that we haven’t seen for a very long time at Latics.
So on to Saturday and our bi-annual visit from 75,463 not-quite Geordies. One of the “invading army” tried to explain to me in the pub after the game, Latics might not have done so well if another team had turned up. To some extent he was right, Roy Keane would have been far from happy with his sides’ tepid performance, but to be fair to them they’d come up against a Latics side that were close to firing on all cylinders.
If there was a gradual improvement between the first two games of the season then this was a great leap forwards. Early on, Koumas continued where he had left off against Boro, inspiring the rest of the team to come with him. In a pleasant contrast with last season, it was difficult to pick a man of the match because they (pretty much) all contributed to the victory.
On this showing alone, both Landzaat and Valencia look to have learnt enough from their first season in English football to have a real impact this year and, whilst it would still be nice to see an out-and-out goal scorer on the pitch, Heskey and Sibierski have more than enough about them to help the midfield into the goals equation.
If there hadn’t been such a clear gulf in class on the day then this game could have had a touch of controversy about it. Heskey’s opener was clearly offside, no matter what interpretation you put on the rules, and a Rob Styles’ full of first half penalty claims were waved away. In the end it all came through, and two second half penalties that even Phil Dowd would have had problems ignoring gave Landzaat his first of the season and took Sibierski to the top of the scorers charts with his third in three.
Sibierski wasn’t the only one flying high. Results elsewhere meant that Latics would wake up on Sunday morning on top of the pile for the first time. It may have only been three games in, but to be top at the same time as our Horwich neighbours occupied last place in the table was worth at least a wry smile with your toast.
It’s always easier to make predictions after the fact, it may even be easier to guess what’s going to happen half way through something, but three games into the season doesn’t really fit into either of those categories. Let’s make no bones, two wins from three is an excellent start but it’s not something we should be getting over excited about.
Away trips to West Ham and Newcastle are up next, followed by an international break. In between those games the transfer window closes and to some extents the season starts properly. If we can get points from either (or both) of those games then we’ll still be sat pretty when the squad is finalised for the first half of the season. Maybe then we can look a little further forward. For now let’s just call it 34 more points to go.
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