Let’s just say that after Saturday (and what has gone before) hopes and expectations for tonight had been adjusted. Avoiding the sort of defeat that might send us away to do the calculations regarding relegation rather than the play-offs, keeping a clean sheet, and putting in a determined performance would I think have been listed as the priorities. And in that context we got what we hoped for, a win to ease the pain.
The team showed no less than seven changes from Saturday, although it was more rotation than revolution. In front of Amos we had Matthews, Pearce, Famewo and Maatsen. With Pratley out of the reckoning Watson started, there was the welcome return of Forster-Caskey, while Smith started and Millar kept his place. Up front Stockley was given a breather, with Washington retained and Aneke starting, his red card (and with it a four-game ban) having been overturned. On the bench Oshilaja and Gunter provided the defensive options, Shinnie and Jaiyesimi for the midfield, with Stockley and Schwartz the forward alternatives.
It looked like a 4-4-2 but proved to be more of a 4-1-4-1, with Watson sitting in front of the defence, Forster-Caskey and Smith flanked by Millar on the right side this time, while Washington played more as left-sided midfielder than second striker, although he seemed to alternate between the two. What the set-up did mean was that the emphasis was more on passing the ball and retaining possession, with the two central midfielders having some freedom, aware that Watson was covering behind them.
And in the first half we did take the game to Wigan, generally controlled the play, had the better opportunities, scored one and really should have had a penalty to round things off shortly before the break, finishing well on top. If there was a criticism it was that we didn’t make the most of promising positions, with too often the final pass or cross into the box overhit, best choices not made, and the actual shooting wayward. But we were playing football and actually passing to each other, with Smith and Forster-Caskey working effectively, Millar always lively, and Washington working hard. At the other end, Wigan threatened sometimes but I can’t remember Amos being forced into a serious save, with Pearce and Watson both making a number of important interceptions. In actual fact Wigan’s best chance came in the first few minutes as they were given too much space down their right and a fairly routine cross split our two centre-backs only for their guy to head wide. It was a dispiriting moment as it was reminiscent of too many poor goals conceded, but to the players’ credit didn’t happen again.
Instead Wigan’s centre-backs conjured up a howler of their own to enable us to take the lead. Washington played it forward for Aneke to chase, but they were first to the ball and seemed to have things under control. Instead their two hesitated, seemed to leave it for each other, and Aneke kept going, finding himself in the clear with the ball. He slotted it under the keeper and into the net. The other two moments of the first half also involved Chucks. On the half-hour Millar combined with Matthews down the right and the cross in wasn’t dealt with but seemed to take Aneke by surprise and he couldn’t convert. Washington shot over from a good position and then with half-time getting close Aneke chased a ball inside the box. He tussled with their centre-half and that ended with Aneke off-balance being clearly shoved over. Just how a defender can make a challenge that ended with both arms outstretched and the forward thrown to the ground and get away with it is absurd, especially when compared with the two penalties given against us on Saturday.
At the break the disappointment was that we were not a couple to the good, giving us a cushion. Wigan looked tired and rather out of sorts. However, to their credit the second half was a different affair. They upped their game, changed formation, and we were pegged back. Our chances came more on the break now and Wigan had extended periods of pressure. One spell saw shots deflected behind and both Matthews and Maatsen tested, but Wigan never managed to turn good positions into clear-cut chances, through a mix of good defending (praise be it’s about time), us getting bodies behind the ball, and indifferent finishing (primarily the shooting).
We did have opportunities to extend our lead and probably make the game safe. Millar shot over from a good position, Washington had a shot blocked after Matthews had created the space down the right, and later Millar made an excellent run into the box only for his shot to beat the keeper but not their guy behind him on the line. Just after that effort Millar was taken off for Jaiyesimi. And more changes followed, with a double-substitution, Smith and Aneke (who had gone down with a possible hamstring) departing for Gunter and Shinnie, with this prompting a switch to a back three/five with Gunter slotting in and Matthews and Maatsen becoming wing-backs and Washington effectively on his own up front. Finally, at the end of normal time Schwartz came on for Washington (and we can only assume that Stockley was carrying a knock as it would have been the obvious alternative). While Wigan huffed and puffed we actually saw out the game reasonably comfortably in the end, their most dangerous spell having come earlier.
We know that three points tonight don’t make up for the other recent results. But let’s just enjoy a win, the fact that the players can’t be faulted for effort and commitment, and that although we often weren’t precise enough in the final third in the first half we played some decent stuff getting there and in the second dug in well enough to keep the points.
Amos – 7/10. Not required to make any outstanding saves, one dodgy moment with a cross that he didn’t get to (he seemed to be blocked and a free-kick was given) but otherwise dealt with all that came his way.
Matthews – 7/10. Did come under pressure at times in the second half and once or twice their guy cut inside into dangerous positions, but also put in a shift and was effective going forward, almost setting up Washington.
Pearce – 8/10. Has to be our man-of-the-match, a number of decisive blocks and a committed display.
Famewo – 7/10. Decent game. Can’t remember him featuring often but aside from that early opportunity their forwards were well contained.
Maatsen – 6/10. Plenty of good stuff, but Steve Brown in the commentary box was pointing to some poor play during Wigan’s spell of pressure and highlighting areas he needs to improve defensively – and he knows a great deal more about defending than me.
Watson – 7/10. Better display. The game and the role suited him, make the interceptions, play it out, which he did well.
Millar – 6/10. Was a threat and more effective than of late, but guilty of not making the most of situations he helped to create, with crosses and shots that could have been better (although he was unlucky with the one off the line).
Forster-Caskey – 7/10. Effective in the first half in along with Smith dominating midfield in the first half.
Smith – 7/10. His best game for us, neat and calm in possession, although less influential in the second half as Wigan got on top.
Washington – 6/10. Put in a shift both down the left and alongside Aneke, but like Millar didn’t deliver the end product.
Aneke – 7/10. Did deliver the end-product once, although the chance was rather gifted to him, might have had a second and should have had a penalty.
Jaiyesimi – 5/10. Probably confusing for him as he came on to replace Millar on the right then not long after was playing almost up front/in the hole, while by the time he came on we were being pushed back.
Gunter – 6/10. Slotted into central defence well enough.
Shinnie – 6/10. Not really an opportunity to do much.
Schwartz – Not on long enough for a mark, which is just as well as in the five minutes he was on the pitch he didn’t touch the ball.