Only a handful of games into the season and already it was getting a bit testy. A run of defeats generally has that effect on the atmosphere at a club, whether at the front or back end of a Premier League campaign. Now was not the time to panic, however, for the bitter memory of three straight league losses could be quickly banished by a solid home result against the high-flying Toffee men. No, not the Uncle Joe’s factory Sunday League team, but Everton.
Besides, it wasn’t as if we were languishing in the relegation zone or anything. Despite this being Wigan’s worst start to a Premier League campaign, they sat just one place below their finishing position for the 2011/12 season – 16th. We might have been experiencing a bit of a dodgy run, but obviously there were four clubs having an even harder time of it.
So what would you do? Stick with what you have until it works, or change things up every now and then?
This time last week I expressed my surprise at the lack of alterations to Wigan’s starting lineup for the game against Sunderland. Whilst that wasn’t necessarily the reason for our (in the end, narrow) loss, one suspected Miyaichi, McManaman or Boselli might have featured – you know, after their exploits in the Capital One Cup. But I often forget that Roberto prefers to blood a player via the subs bench rather than the old “chuck ‘em in and see how they do” strategy of years past.
There was no surprise this afternoon, however, when Franco Di Santo returned to the starting XI, displacing Jordi Gomez. The Spaniard must have been buzzing after his three-match ban for last week’s questionable challenge with Danny Rose was rescinded, but would have to make do with a place on the bench this afternoon.
The returning Franco played a big part in making the game’s first half one of the most engrossing of the season so far. It was an action-packed 45 minutes filled with controversy, excellent football and, of course, goals. Probably not good enough for a high berth on Match of the Day, but sufficiently exciting for a brief mention from Dave Whelan’s best mate Stuart Hall on BBC Five Live. Maybe.
The opening goal came on 8 minutes through a lively Arouna Kone, who had twice threatened beforehand. Di Santo found a burst of speed to break clear of the defence and play it through to Shaun Maloney, who sent the ball across the edge of the six yard box. Kone was present at the near post to steer the ball past Tim Howard and could soon wheel away to celebrate. The linesman kept his flag by his side and somewhat contentiously, Wigan were off and running. Replays showed the goalscorer was just offside as the ball came across, and Everton were more than just a bit cheesed off.
Less than 75 seconds later, however, justice was to be served. Much like last week, it was a cross-cum-shot that proved Wigan’s undoing as, at the back post, Nikica Jelavic headed the ball down through Al Habsi’s legs and into the South Stand goal. Typical.
The game soon became rather heated, with a notable confrontation between Marouane Fellaini and Gary Caldwell resulting in a stern talking to from referee Kevin Friend. He resolved to stamp his authority, booking Shaun Maloney for what seemed like a regulation foul. As a statement, it didn’t really work.
Next, the script called for a rampant Wigan to re-take the lead. Kone, largely forced to prowl around the halfway mark due to Everton’s high defensive line, took the ball all the way to the touchline before cutting it back for an advancing Franco Di Santo. The Argentine powered home right-footed with some accuracy and, somewhat deservedly, the hosts were back in front.
Everton didn’t like it one bit, no siree Bob. Their usual attacking style of play had been stifled by a boisterous Wigan, who had been restricting the visitors to the odd rebounded shot or deep cross to which nobody but Al Habsi could get. Now, however, the Toffees were starting to show exactly how dangerous they could be.
A threatening Mirallas strike quickly followed by a Leighton Baines poke onto the face of the post was a signal of the attacking intent which was to follow for the remainder of the game. Wigan would have been relieved to hear the half time whistle, and very pleased to go into the break 2-1 ahead.
The prolonged spell of Everton pressure continued long into the second half and right up to the final whistle. The visitors proceeded to dominate the game, accruing a plethora of shots on target as Wigan struggled to contain this seemingly endless wave of attacks. Leon Osman and Kevin Mirallas both had wayward attempts, but the Belgian would almost atone for this, forcing Al Habsi into another fantastic save.
The controversial refereeing decisions continued to come, with Leighton Baines booked for another nothing challenge on James McCarthy. This was quickly followed by a debatable booking for Jelavic, and Everton were getting really riled up. In the next ten minutes they drew further Al Habsi stops but grew increasingly frustrated as Wigan continued to repel them against the odds.
It was as though Latics were the away team, looking to either slow things down or hit the Toffees on the break whenever they got a sniff of the ball. Standard Martinez tactics there then, and up to now they had been working fairly well.
On the 86 minute mark, however, Everton finally made the breakthrough. After a couple of rejected penalty appeals in the previous ten minutes, Kevin Mirallas succeeded in earning one for his side as he was cleaned out by Maynor Figueroa 10 yards from goal. Unlike the other two, there was very little doubt it was a foul and Leighton Baines stuck away the resultant penalty with confidence. As you’d expect.
In a frantic closing five minutes or so, both sides staked a claim for that winning goal, making for some more thrilling action. Shaun Maloney was mere inches away from stealing it as his deflected strike floated just over the crossbar. Everton didn’t quite create anything as clear cut but my goodness, did they try. A final ball across goal rolled harmlessly clear of Al Habsi’s goalmouth and the game was over, though the action had been so gripping you wished it wasn’t.
Not entirely sure how to read this. One could say Wigan were lucky to even have a point considering Everton’s second half pressure, but there certainly was a big improvement in the attacking department. Ignoring some rather iffy refereeing decisions, which both aided and hampered each side, Everton just shaded things, and will be slightly aggrieved not to chalk up yet another victory.
On the other hand, Wigan remained steadfast at the back and really troubled the Everton defence any time they ventured into opposition territory. In that sense, this was a draw very well earned against the in-form Toffees. Most pleasingly, that nasty run of losses is now at an end and we can all get on with our lives.