x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Better late than never for Wigan and Roberto Martinez

The manager appears to have pulled off another Premier League escape act.

Franco Di Santo of Wigan Athletic celebrates scoring his team's fourth goal during the 4-0 victory over Newcastle.
Franco Di Santo of Wigan Athletic celebrates scoring his team's fourth goal during the 4-0 victory over Newcastle.

One hundred and thirty-five minutes of football remained last season when even one of the believers lost his faith.

Wigan Athletic were 2-0 down at home to West Ham United, being leapfrogged by the team who propped up the Premier League table.

Dave Whelan, the chairman and owner, approached the watching Paul Jewell, the man who had guided Wigan into the top flight in 2005 and now the manager of Ipswich Town, and sounded him out about the reality of life in the Championship. About the wages lower-division players could command, and such.

However informative Jewell's replies were, they were irrelevant for Wigan. They rallied to beat West Ham, courtesy of Charles N'Zogbia's injury-time goal.

Seven days later, Hugo Rodallega headed the winner at Stoke City. Wigan, who had entered the final 15 minutes of the season in the relegation zone, had stayed up.

Fast forward 10 months. At a fans' forum, the eloquent, engaging manager Roberto Martinez told supporters that Wigan's latest survival battle would go down to the final day of the season.

Then, with Wigan in still graver danger than they were last season, it appeared wishful thinking. Now it may simply seem wrong. A win at Blackburn Rovers on Monday and it is almost certain Wigan will be safe with a game to spare.

If they left it later last season, the elegant escapologists have staged a still more logic-defying jailbreak. Apart from a 24-hour reprieve, they were locked in the bottom three from the start of October to the second week in April.

Their end-of-season fixture list seemed a final farewell to the game's giants before renewing acquaintances with Peterborough, Barnsley and Millwall.

Instead, the incredible has happened. Wigan have beaten Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Newcastle United, and utterly deservedly. But for awful officiating, they may have defeated Chelsea, too.

They have won five of their last seven games. It is no exaggeration to say, with greater fortune and better finishing, it could have been eight victories in nine.

From the depths of despair has come unexpected joy.

April 2012, rather than rubber-stamping their relegation, may go down in Wigan's history as their finest month. The first 45 minutes of Saturday's 4-0 thrashing of an in-form Newcastle team was surely their outstanding performance.

It was a wonderful vindication of Martinez, the man who has always refused to compromise his passing principles.

Even when his biggest advocates, Whelan included, have shown their sceptical side, the smiling Spaniard has always kept the faith.

His inherent optimism has been justified in a series of results that illustrate his ability.

For much of the season, the side Martinez constructed that drew rather more plaudits were Swansea City, his old employers. The shame, it seemed, was that Wigan, too porous in defence and not clinical enough in attack, were unable to use possession football to get results.

When they went 217 days without a victory at the DW Stadium, it appeared they had neglected to read the relegation strugglers' handbook (chapter one: win your home games).

When an autumnal run of eight successive defeats brought another unwanted club record, Wigan appeared doomed. Two of their fine front three last season, N'Zogbia and Tom Cleverley, were gone; the other, Rodallega, has never found both form and fitness. Martinez's preferred 4-3-3 formation was failing.

His solution was innovative and inspired. Now Wigan are alone in the Premier League in regularly playing a back three (Swansea and Blackburn did at the weekend, both with a conspicuous lack of success).

It was a tactic that seemed discredited, a fad in the 1990s. Yet Martinez's reconfigured team play 3-4-3 with an understanding that is testament to the manager's skills. It allows Victor Moses and Shaun Maloney to roam between the lines, in positions where English teams often struggle to pick up players, and each is in his most prolific period of the season.

It permits Gary Caldwell, the captain, to command the reorganised defence without his lack of pace being exposed.

It has brought the best from James McCarthy, paired with his near namesake James McArthur in the midfield.

In a bold move, Mohamed Diame, arguably Wigan's best player in the first half of the season, is now on the bench.

Indeed, striking a rare note of dissent, Whelan complained about the omissions of Diame, Rodallega and Moses after March's defeat to Swansea. Only the winger, exhausted from a midweek trip to Rwanda then, was restored to the side.

Martinez is pursuing an idiosyncratic path, shorn of supposed stars but with a group that are reaching new heights together.

The final piece in the jigsaw slipped in almost unnoticed; Jean Beausejour, a January signing from Birmingham City, has proved the perfect left wing-back.

Had Wigan been able to convert chances sooner, their predicament might not have been so serious or their subsequent rise so startling.

As it was, it was truly remarkable that the lone striker Franco Di Santo, whose five previous goals this season were all either open goals or deflected, executed an inch-perfect 20-yard chip for Wigan's fourth against Newcastle.

But these are magical times for Wigan. Martinez is their unlikely Houdini, staging another implausible breakout just as the relegation trap door was slamming


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