Sunday, August 3, 2008

Premiership Preview--15. Wigan Athletic

They play some of the ugliest soccer in the Premiership. Their field surface is undoubtedly the worst in the Premiership and sits in one of the league’s smallest stadiums, which is also shared with a rugby club. They have no star players to speak of, and are run by a 71-year-old chairman with questionable financial savvy, to say the least. With all that said, Wigan Athletic continues to surprise outsiders by surviving in England’s top flight, and will look to do for a fourth consecutive season after finishing 14th last year with 40 points.

Steve Bruce is a very underrated manager who has crafted a nice career for himself in taking, and I mean no offense here, low-profile, low-prestige teams (Sheffield United, Huddersfield Town, Wigan, Crystal Palace, and Birmingham City) and exceeding expectations. He’s had to work for everything he’s achieved, starting in the Championship and eventually working his way up to the Premiership.

Without his rearrival at Wigan after leaving Birmingham late last November, the Latics would’ve been relegated. They were moving in reverse under Chris Hutchings, and Bruce proved to be the master of the 0-0 draw and 1-0 victory. His club went unbeaten in five of their last six games a season ago, and had another unbeaten stretch of four games prior to that.

Because of Wigan’s location — they’re based in suburban Manchester, where they fly under the radar and are overshadowed by United, City, and even Blackburn — and unattractive style of play, Bruce didn’t get a lot of credit for the job he did, but he’s a capable manager and the club is in good hands with him at the helm. Don’t get me wrong, he’s not the type of guy who can win you something, but he’s a survivor and a fighter and his players take on their manager’s approach.

Bruce doesn’t have much of a transfer budget to work with; he’s bought Olivier Kapo, a talented attacking midfielder he had at Birmingham last year, and Lee Cattermole from Middlesbrough, but he’s sold a few spare parts to do so (Andreas Granqvist, Julius Aghahowa, and Andy Webster) and often uses loan deals, as he did with striker Amr Zaky from Egyptian side Zamalek, and free transfers to bring in players. Cattermole and Kapo will both see plenty of playing time in midfield, if not start, while none of the departed players had a role of any real significance. Zaky will replace Marcus Bent as Emile Heskey’s partner up front.

Especially now with those two on board, midfield is Wigan’s strongest asset. Michael Brown is one of the dirtiest players in England but can be a solid central midfielder when his mind is right. Wilson Palacios was one of last summer’s best signings and fellow Spanish-speaker Antonio Valencia can play on either wing and is good on both. Jason Koumas can make plays from the right side and provide a spark off the bench when called upon. Kevin Kilbane played mostly at left back last year as the club struggled to find a replacement for Leighton Baines, but is a natural left-sided midfielder. Antoine Sibierski is still useful as an attacking midfielder and will provide valuable depth behind Kapo. Dutchman DaniĆ«l de Ridder, another summer signing, is another versatile player like Valencia. The once-extremely promising career of Ryan Taylor has been curtailed by injury problems, but he’s a terrific set piece taker and can play right wing and right back.

Projected Starting Lineup (4-4-2):
GK: Chris Kirkland

RB: Mario Melchiot (captain)
CB: Emmerson Boyce
CB: Paul Scharner
LB: Kilbane

RMF: Valencia
CMF: Cattermole
AMF: Palacios
LMF: Kapo

ST: Heskey
ST: Zaky

Out of teams 11-20 last year, Wigan had the best defensive record with only 51 goals conceded. They’ll be in every game, home and away, but they need to get over the hump on the road and pick up some more points there to avoid another relegation fight.

January is the toughest month on Wigan’s schedule, with away dates at Manchester City and Aston Villa and home games against Tottenham and Liverpool.

Bruce’s boys will welcome Arsenal and Manchester United to the JJB Stadium in successive weeks in the middle of April before closing the season out with five manageable games, three of which are certainly winnable (Bolton, @ West Brom, @ Stoke).

Aside from January, there is no difficult stretch of any length, but there isn’t an easy patch either. This team likely won’t have much consistency over the course of the year; you’re not going to see any long winning streaks and you also likely won’t see them fail to pick up points in a three or four-game span.

Bottom Line: Steve Bruce is as experienced as they come in leading this type of team. Having been one himself, and a successful one at that with Manchester United, he’s a player’s manager and doesn’t have large egos to tread carefully around. Wigan won’t get blown out too often, and they won’t pound anyone into the ground either. You may not be happy with the brand of soccer Wigan plays under Bruce, but it’s effective, and it will keep you in the Premiership for another year.

Tomorrow we move closer to the middle of the table with places 14 and 13, where the threat of relegation shouldn’t be a problem.

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