Ambling towards the DW Stadium this afternoon, there was a noticeable buzz that gradually increased in intensity the closer I got to those prominent white arches on the Wigan skyline. And no, I’m not dreaming of Wembley again, but you can’t deny there’s a certain similarity to the design of most modern football grounds – to me, the Reebok and the McAlpine (as it was known) look as though they could be twin brothers.
Maybe it was the early autumn sun forcing its way through those unseasonably woolly clouds, or perhaps it’s the effect of two straight Premier League victories. Though such events are genuinely rare and ought to be celebrated wherever possible, I was in slightly more downbeat mood as I strolled past the large array of programme sellers, sideshows and expectant fans alike.
Now, you could attribute my own realism to the effects of a streaming cold I suffered not two days ago, or you could say it’s out of respect for the opposition. Much like ourselves, The Baggies have been doing pretty well for themselves in the past couple of seasons. This year, one suspects an even more creditable finish beckons… but Latics, too, have their own designs on mid-table ‘mediocrity’.
You would think home advantage plays a big part in these contests, which are by their very nature speculative and close-fought. In this sense, I suppose a quiet confidence was somewhat acceptable, but nothing is ever certain where the Premier League is concerned.
From the off, any self-assuredness did not seem misplaced as Latics bossed possession and peppered Boaz Myhill’s goal with a plethora of attempts in the first ten minutes. Ben Watson twice found himself in prime position to let rip, but could not execute quite the same finishing as he did at White Hart Lane last week. Well, I don’t know if you can count his goal as a ‘good finish’, but I digress.
West Brom saw through the home side’s initial charge and settled into an accomplished passing game of their own. It would soon prove fruitful as James Morrison converted Chris Brunt’s testing cross on the half hour mark, and you can’t say this goal wasn’t deserved – the visitors were becoming increasingly impressive in the final third.
The brilliant Baggies were two ahead twelve minutes later when Billy Jones’ ball across the face of goal deflected off Gary Caldwell’s leg and into the North Stand net. Unfortunate maybe, but you certainly couldn’t deny the Baggies’ pressing game had the hosts ever so slightly rattled.
Spurred into action, Wigan went right up the other end of the field and hit back almost immediately – just over 70 seconds later, in fact. Jean Beausejour delivered the dangerous cross from the left and Arouna Kone was waiting at the back post to smack the ball into the roof of Myhill’s net.
The remainder of the first half was probably Wigan’s best spell of the whole game, with another two half opportunities going begging. The hosts were more than slightly guilty of overdeliberation, however, and wasted a free kick in superb position right on the half time mark – or perhaps they were happy to simply pass out the final seconds of the half?
The onus was most definitely on Wigan, who came out fighting for the second half. Ben Watson fired his best effort yet at Myhill’s goal, but the Welshman was equal to the challenge and prevented the hosts snatching that quick equaliser they craved.
Lukaku was causing problems for Al Habsi at the other end, however, evidence the visitors still had their eye on a third, perhaps killer goal. One such effort saw the Wigan keeper react just in time to fingertip the shot onto the bar and out for a corner – a superb save to keep his side in with a shout.
But as time passed, Wigan began to run out of ideas. In a surprise substitution, Gary Caldwell was removed in favour of Ronnie Stam’s pace on the right wing. Emmerson Boyce dropped back to the centre of defence with mixed success, but Lukaku largely had the better of him.
This change did work to an extent, as the Dutchman’s fresh legs reinvigorated the criminally underused right wing, which became the new preferred method of attack. Sadly, each of his potentially threatening crosses were either too close to the goalkeeper or way over the penalty area… much like against Bradford. Oh dear, I’ve done it again – I’m never going to let you forget that evening, am I?
The question for Roberto Martinez remained: how the heck do you break down a defence as strong as West Brom’s? Is it via aerial presence? Certainly Kone and Caldwell had magnificent chances to head home from just outside the 6 yard box, but each effort went sailing wide of Myhill’s right hand post.
So, just like Latics at White Hart Lane last week, the Baggies executed that ‘perfect away strategy‘ –namely take the lead and hold on to it for dear life– just as well as any side could have wished. It seems the worst thing you can do at Wigan is try to play an overly attacking game, for you will be picked off on the break by Kone and Di Santo. Pack the penalty area, however, and you will find Wigan’s alternative scoring outlets aren’t quite as polished.
It was a timely reminder that there are still issues to be addressed. As good as the front two were, West Brom’s physically powerful defence muffled any possibility of clear-cut chances in those grating final 20 minutes.
How does that old saying go? If you don’t capitalise on your opportunities, you’re always going to struggle. The visitors were marginally the better in this department, and in that sense they deserved the win.
It isn’t about who deserved what, though – you don’t always get the results your play warrants, as we have learned to our own cost. The match was, as predicted, a very even contest edged by a rather unlucky own goal, but West Brom executed their gameplan better. Wigan weren’t bad, just a tad worse at finishing than their opponents, a fact magnified by the eventual scoreline.
Ugh, that all sounded a bit post-mortemish, didn’t it? Rest easy in the knowledge that next week, Liverpool will come at Wigan with much greater vigour than the Baggies did this afternoon because, after all, they will be the home side. People will expect them to bomb forward at every opportunity, and this is where Latics can come into their own.
Morrison image by Ronnie Macdonald @ Flickr (CC2.0)