One of the dangers of writing these predictionless previews, as our Premier League previews have been on twohundredpercent this year, is that it’s very easy to fall into the trap of saying nice things about everyone. When it comes to football, my nature is always to look on the positive side anyway – I’m at a loss to explain this because I can assure you I’m one miserable git in every other walk of life, but on Saturday afternoons I become the eternal optimist. So it is that, while I’m in no sense a Wigan supporter, when I come to look at Roberto Martinez’s squad and make my best assessment of how they’ll do, it’s easy for me to look on the bright side and think – yeah, they’ll be fine.
So I’m going to come at this from the other side and remind myself that three teams have to go down. Realistically, and for all that football so often defies such simplistic narratives, I do expect Blackpool to be one of them. After that, it gets murky. The other two promoted sides have to be contenders of course, both are sticking largely with the squads that brought them up, and there are any number of other teams who could get sucked in to a relegation battle if things conspires against them. But it’s difficult to see any of these teams imploding or being really rubbish and I anticipate the lower reaches of the league being tighter this season than last. And if Wigan can only match last season’s points tally of 36 points, they may find survival is a very narrow squeak indeed.
Some improvement is needed then – where’s it going to come from? Here Wigan continue to defy analysis, as they have done for each of their previous five seasons in the top flight, because they’ve been so good at finding little-known players, particularly from Latin America, who have thrived in the Premier League. Who knew that Valencia and Palacios, or indeed Figueroa and Rodallega would be such good players as they all became at the JJB Stadium? I could mention Mohamed Diamé too, an underrated and important player for them in midfield last season, but another one that I hadn’t heard of before they signed him. So who knows what to make of the latest signings?
Firstly, the players who have left. Jason Koumas (off to Cardiff) didn’t play much last season while Jason Scotland (probably heading to Ipswich) wasn’t a success following his move last summer from Swansea. Of the players who played more significant roles last season, the departees are mostly defenders – Mario Melchiot, Titus Bramble and Paul Scharner (even if the latter sometimes played in midfield), with Erik Edman having also left before the end of last season. Given that Wigan condeded 79 goals last season including a 9-1 at Tottenham and an 8-0 at Chelsea, a turnover in the defensive staff is no bad thing. The more serious departure, if it happens, would be last season’s player of the year Charles N’Zogbia. Doubts about his attitude have followed him from Newcastle, and there were rumours this week that he’d submited a transfer request. These were denied but he may yet leave before the transfer deadline.
Of the newcomers, we’ve already seen a bit of Steve Gohouri at the back end of last season, and (with Gary Caldwell injured) he will probably form a centre-back pairing with Antolin Alcaraz, who had an excellent World Cup for Paraguay and has several years of European experience in Portugal and with Brugge in Belgium, from where Wigan have just signed him. If fitness allows these two sufficient time to work up a partnership then it looks a potentially more solid base than they’ve been working on for a while. Also joining the defence is right-back Ronnie Stam, fresh from winning the Dutch championship with Steve McClaren at FC Twente. Further forward, midfielder James McArthur joins from Hamilton Accies – not to be confused with James McCarthy who they signed from the same club last summer.
The one that really interests me is new striker Mauro Boselli, for whom they’ve paid around six million from Estudiantes in Argentina. Out there he’s been a prolific scorer and has earned himself a couple of caps for the national side (though Argentina’s battery of more notable strikers kept him away from the World Cup). If he can adapt to the Premier League he could be one of the revelations of the season – but so much of this is ifs, buts and maybes. Like all of their other signings over the summer, he has no Premier League experience. In McArthur’s case I at least have the advantage of having seen him play now and then for Hamilton but even there it’s difficult to know how well he’ll cope with the step up. (Besides being a decent player, all I can really say is that he seems to have sufficient strength of character that he won’t be overawed by it. I think he’ll do okay.)
So, on the one hand, they have some good players and some potentially very exciting ones – I haven’t mentioned Victor Moses yet, signed from Crystal Palace last winter. Many of the pundits tipping them for relegation are doing so, I suspect, mostly out of ignorance and have seen no more of these new signings than I have. Given that they’ve been making the same tip for the past five years, you’d think they might be learning to be a bit more circumspect by now. But on the other hand, Wigan are asking a lot of new players and they don’t have much margin for error – they can’t afford for them to take too long to settle in or for several of them just to turn out to be bad signings.
Sorry to sit on the fence then, but I just don’t know at the moment whether Wigan will finish 10th or 20th. If I really have to put money on it, I’ll say they’ll prove the pundits wrong for another season yet. But only just.