When one looks back on 2010/11 campaign, one will tend to remember the exploits of Ali Al Habsi and Charles N’Zogbia who played a large part in keeping the Latics afloat for another glorious season of Premier League football. Someone who, far from entering into the equation, may not even garner a mention is our own midfield mastermind, Ben Watson. Well, I am here to set the record straight. The former Crystal Palace stalwart has played as big a part in Wigan’s successes as those who may more readily step into the limelight.
Watson came in for much criticism towards the latter half of the season due to his set pieces, which haven’t been of the standard he, or indeed Latics, would have liked. The truth of the matter is that we haven’t had an abundance of exceptional corner- or free-kick takers at the club of late, and Watson simply inherited the role from… well, nobody in particular, really. He turned around his poor form in those last few games of the season at least to some extent, and emerges with some credit for sticking at his task and actually making some progress on that front.
It’s a nasty fact that poor Ben was only remembered for his ineffectual corner kicks which had a horrible tendency to sail over all their intended targets in what could have been some highly crucial situations. Yes, they were disappointing. Look further than this, however, and you’ll see he more than made up for it elsewhere with those little midfield balls that glue together our play in the centre of the park and those last ditch blocks and hearty challenges that, whilst not entirely spectacular, are nonetheless integral to the system we like to play.
When we’ve been on the back foot and really pressed against our own goalmouth, the first line of defence has invariably been Watson, holding up opposition midfielders and giving time for the defence to assume its position. It isn’t as memorable as a goal or free kick that really challenges the keeper, but football is all about effort and putting in the hard yards: those that don’t realise this are doomed to failure. Watson plays superbly in this role, often slipping under the radar and catching the opposition off guard with some top-notch tactical genius.
Remember Conor Sammon’s goal against West Ham? Of course you do, but can you recall who played that final ball through to him? That’s right, it was Ben Watson, who picked his pass perfectly and set up Conor’s first for the club. In that same game, Watson was unlucky not have grabbed one for himself with a nicely placed shot from outside the area that rebounded off the inside half of the post. It would have been no more than he deserved for a fantastic second half of attacking play.
When Tom Cleverley equalised against Birmingham, people (rightly) raved about Boyce’s effort to get the ball across the face of goal, but once again it was a Watson pass from deep midfield that started the move. A might overhit, perhaps, but it resulted in a goal, and I don’t think you could ask for much more.
We haven’t touched upon Watson’s proficiency from the penalty spot yet. Had he been on the pitch against West Ham back in November, he would undoubtedly have slotted away the pen that would see Wigan claw their way back into the game. As it happened, it was left up to Mauro Boselli, having just entered play as a sub, to take the spot kick with his first touch. It didn’t go so well, but I don’t believe we missed another in the whole of the 2010/11 campaign, testimony to Watson’s expertise. As a result, he finished Latics’ third-highest goalscorer (4) behind N’Zogbia (10) and Rodallega (9).
Prior to 2011, Watson’s finest hour at the club was his Elvis-esque comeback performance against Arsenal two seasons ago. According to Martinez, he has actually improved since then:
…When he [Watson] came back [from his loan spell at West Brom], as you remember in the Arsenal game and at West Ham away, he really had a big impact. He still didn’t have the tactical awareness he possesses now but it doesn’t come overnight and you have to give players like Ben time to develop. — Roberto Martinez, via This Northern Soul
Roberto heaped praise upon his midfield playmaker, even speculating that he might one day go on to play for England. I don’t know about that, but for now I think we should just realise what an asset we have on our hands.