Caps Should Be Doffed To Roberto...Again

The soul-sapping chronicles of Terry Connor, Steve Kean and Alex McLeish have provided much woe. Once again, the neutrals among us love Roberto Martinez...

Last Updated: 10/05/12 at 13:52 Post Comment

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Let's be honest - we all knew Wigan would stay up. It's what they do. But despite its utter predictability, Roberto Martinez's latest successful survival bid has provided a much-needed uplifting narrative amidst a relegation saga that has often featured the relentlessly soul-sapping chronicles of Terry Connor, Steve Kean and Alex McLeish.

A club free (to my knowledge at least) of boozy captains, deluded chicken farmers and nightclub brawlers, Wigan's on-pitch exploits have been wholly gladdening for the neutrals among us, and the praise being lauded upon their manager is difficult to argue with. Given that their Premier League status will soon move into its eighth consecutive season, it is easy to forget (and apologies for the mixed metaphors) that simply by treading water, Wigan are punching well above their weight.

For a club whose average attendance lingers at just over 18,000, Wigan are second only to QPR in terms of the division's lowest gate receipts - and would indeed be rock bottom were it not for Loftus Road's limited capacity. Indeed, QPR spent as much transfer money in one day in January than Wigan have done over the past 12 months. They are based in a part of the world whose reputation is unlikely to conjure the sorts of glitzy images associated with the league's various footballing hotbeds, and the town itself 'boasts' a smaller population than the likes of Oldham and Rochdale. Prospective Premier League footballers, it is fair to say, are unlikely to go to bed at night dreaming of turning out at the humbly titled DW Stadium, and it's hard to imagine blue-and-white Caldwell shirts selling like hotcakes in Singapore.

And yet they remain, and deservedly so. Though he doesn't endear himself to everyone, credit should be given to Dave Whelan not only for modest but significant investment into the club, but also for resisting any urges of knee-jerkery and keeping faith in a manager of proven pedigree when Wigan seemed doomed only a couple of months ago. Such panicking, as Steve Morgan duly proved, rarely ends happily for anyone.

The majority of plaudits, though, should be reserved for Martinez himself. This season, he has once again demonstrated solid management of funds, some delightful tactical innovation, and the nerve, aura and articulacy of a man who belongs in the big time.

The summer sale of the club's crown jewel Charles N'Zogbia (and recouping £9.5million for him looks like some fine negotiating now), was presumably sanctioned with the expectation that the then rather undistinguished Victor Moses could step up and fill the chasm - judgement which has proven more than sound. Moses has taken his time bedding in at Wigan but, allowed to roam behind a central striker in the last few weeks, he has been a potent cocktail of pace, power and poise.

The confidence afforded to him is not an isolated example - Shaun Maloney has at times seemed like Jari Litmanen reborn in recent games, while Gary Caldwell has been transformed from an accident-in-waiting to a commanding, dominant leader of the resurgence. The likes of Antolin Alcaraz, James McArthur and Franco Di Santo have too been worthy survivors, though their roles more low-key. Keeping faith in staff, it seems, is something of a policy throughout the club, and one which has paid its dividends.

The manner of Wigan's success, though, is its most encouraging aspect. Martinez's mantra of tidy, possession-based football has never been compromised, and he has demonstrated that a side doesn't need the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Xabi Alonso in order to work the ball neatly through their midfield. His instillation of a quite inspired 3-4-3 formation has also been something of a masterstroke, with his team managing to both swarm the midfield and break forward in numbers without jeopardising their back line (they've conceded only eight goals in their last ten games). Indeed, Martinez's role, along with fellow Iberian Paulo Sousa, in founding Swansea's flourishing long-term blueprint, should not be forgotten.

A key shortcoming of Martinez thus far is his club's continual need to rely upon their late-season form as a means of survival. As fine as Wigan have been recently, it can now be seen that they were significantly underperforming in the season's opening half, and likewise last term. In this regard, Martinez has displayed a somewhat Moyes-esque propensity for beginning the season poorly. Whether this betrays a limitation of himself as a manager of is merely the symptom of his limited resources, however, is difficult to tell. As a club who tend to see their better players leave each summer (N'Zogbia's sale was foreshadowed by those of Pascal Chimbonda, Wilson Palacios and Antonio Valencia in this respect), it could well be the case that it simply takes time to continually adapt and evolve. At a club with a lesser turnover of its top-end players, the problem could disappear.

Perhaps we will soon get a chance to find out. Though the decision of Martinez last summer to remain loyal to Whelan and Wigan was admirable, it is surely only a matter of time before he does opt to reward himself and fulfil his clear potential. Wigan's tale is a genuinely uplifting one, but the glass ceiling above the clubs falls low. Too low for someone of Martinez's calibre.

At 38, he is still a very young manager, and he should feel no great rush to move on, but the time for him to look onwards and upwards will surely arrive sooner rather than later. There should be no shortage of takers.

Alex Hess (@A_Hess)

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