Waiting for the Messiah: No Moses comeback just yet for Whelan
So there we were, one whole month later than originally planned, on a Tuesday evening at the DW. One thing remained the same, however – this was a significant game in Latics’ season. Villa, now with a £24m(?!) Darren Bent on board, found themselves mixing it with us at the foot of the table, but for how long? On the evidence of their most recent performance against Man City, I’d say not very.
The pundits, though praising of Martinez’s ethics, continue to back us for the drop for that very same reason. A sometimes painful insistence on sticking with the 4-5-1 midfield passing game has won Bob as many fans as it’s lost him – a fact evidenced in falling attendances at the DW in the last two years. It’s clear the public are happy to see us hoof the ball up the park every time we get it, Titus Bramble style, if it means Wigan Athletic remain in England’s top division for another year.
For my own part, I’d settle for a happy medium if the results were there to back up our Arsenal-inspired formations. The wins have been hard to come by all season long, and we haven’t seen back-to-back victories since, well, ever. Do you play to win points or friends? Friendly guys rarely succeed. A dilemma indeed, at least for Martinez. On the whole, I couldn’t give a monkey’s unripe banana if we played 11 men up front as long as it meant we got the points.
On the face of it, money and tactics seem so unrelated, but dig a bit deeper and it’s obvious. Steve Bruce, love or hate some of his strategies, guided us to a respectable mid-table finish and signed some of our best players of the last ten years, perhaps even ever. I’m well aware we live in far more austere times, with even Manchester United having to tighten the purse strings of late – I know, who’d have thought it?
Steve Bruce: Survival > all
Penny pinching might not be a primary concern for Aston Villa, but Mr Whelan’s been doing it all his life, and look where it’s got him. True, his personal manner may not have won him many allies –my uncle used to hate the man with a passion, and as a protest started to support a certain Manchester club when he took over– but he sure knows how to run a business. Heck, Wigan Athletic still exists today, somehow. Damned amazing when you give it a bit of thought, something you ought to remember as you sit there (rather than stand) eating your warm (rather than stone cold) meat pie and chips with your glossy (rather than newsprint) programme in a covered stand.
But enough about the (bad?) old days. That was now, this is then, some fifteen years later in the Premier League, a vastly different footballing landscape to that which Whelan saw when he first took the helm. Martinez, realising the old tried and tested 4-4-2 might be a better tactic for the time being, made precisely the changes I expected, namely drafting Di Santo and McArthur into the starting XI. Whether this worked or not –you may argue our best period of play was during the last ten minutes when Stam and Watson had entered the fray– is debatable, but it sure looked better than Saturday. Then again, I guess that wouldn’t be too hard.
That good old Catalan enterprise certainly returned, and it felt like we’d signed a whole new striker with Franco Di Santo once again taking up his position at the head of the attack. The same old problems were prevalent, however, as Latics just couldn’t score, drawing Brad Friedel into few saves throughout the 90 minutes.
Villa, though livelier for much of the game, weren’t without their problems. On the evidence of last evening, Darren Bent didn’t quite justify his reported multi-million price tag, but you shouldn’t judge a striker on just a couple of games. His best chance came in the second half with the score at 2-0, on that occasion Ali Al Habsi the only thing separating Latics from another goal to add to their conceded tally. In fact, without the big Omani our goal difference might be closer to negative 100 by now.
Off target: Ben Watson
Many will undoubtedly question why Latics only began to look really threatening when 2-0 down and at desperation point, even with the visitors on the defensive with but fifteen minutes to play. Fingers must be pointed, however, at Hendry Thomas, the culprit as Ashley Young was bundled to the ground well inside the penalty area. Soft indeed, and not the sort of foul we should be conceding if we have aspirations of top flight football for 2011-12. Young promptly put away the spot kick with aplomb to double the Villans’ lead.
Earlier, Agbonlahor scrambled the ball over the Wigan goal line after a superb reaction save by Al Habsi flew directly vertical, dropping straight back down into the perfect position for the Villa striker. It was somewhat harsh on the Latics keeper, who was once again virtually blameless.
Wigan managed to grab one back in those closing stages, a deflected James McCarthy strike from outside the area wrongfooting Friedel. Extremely fortunate maybe, but perhaps just the tonic for a big comeback. Except not, because even though the remaining time saw the hosts lay siege to the Villa goal, Rodallega and Watson only succeeded in knocking out a few North Stand supporters with each of their attempts.
Better, but still not good enough for this league, I would venture. Not all hope is lost quite yet, as at least some promise was shown last night, it’s just that lack of a finishing instinct that betrayed us. The pressure is building and the wins aren’t coming, which makes one question whether Martinez has any plans to sign a (much needed) striker before the end of the transfer window. Rumours abound, but Bob’s definitely keeping his cards close to his chest on this one.