Complacency. A word to fear, when the stakes are high and the business end of a competition is in full flow. When the advantage is firmly to one side, the potential for complacency creeping in, and the hunger subsiding rises ever higher. After going eight points clear at the top of the league over the weekend, it was time for Manchester United to make the short trip to the DW Stadium to face Wigan Athletic. With Manchester City also playing West Brom on Wednesday evening, United will have been looking to secure all three points and maintain the significant gap at the League’s peak. in 14 attempts, Wigan had never registered a win at Sir Alex Ferguson’s side. Could that statistic be on the verge of change?
A few changes were made to the team that defeated Queens Park Rangers at the weekend. The defensive triquetra of De Gea in goal, with Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans sitting in front of him continued, with Patrice Evra at left back and Phil Jones brought in at right back. In midfield, Michael Carrick was joined by Ryan Giggs centrally with Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young out wide. Up front, United opted for Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez.
The game kicked off with Wigan setting out their stall early on, looking to test De Gea from the get go, and did so when McCarthy sent a quick-fire effort his way from the edge of the box, with the Spaniard tipping over. In fact it was 10 minutes in before United really came forward in what was an open start to proceedings. In truth, Wigan dictated play during the opening exchanges, working the goalkeeper with United struggling to get anything on target. Indeed after nearly half an hour, Wigan thought their hard work had paid off, as Moses headed in, only for the goal to be disallowed due to an apparent foul from Caldwell. And so it continued, with the home side constantly looking to get forward and looking the far more energetic of the two sides, but for all their possession and play, it could not be made to count as the half time whistle blew at 0-0.
Half time saw Young replaced by Cleverley and immediately it was clear Martinez’s side would pick up where they left off. Within minutes, it was made to count as Maloney picked up the ball from a short corner, dribbling across and fire at goal, finding the top corner to give his side a 1-0 lead. Soon after, Hernandez was replaced by Welbeck and Nani came on for Rooney at the 65 minute mark.
As the game wore on, United started to take more control of the game, piling on the pressure with 20 minutes remaining, perhaps the combined effect of a tiring opposition and a few tactical changes. But for all the time spent getting forward, United’s threat was met with a resolute and organised defense, one that bordered on miserly in the attempts they let through. With 15 minutes remaining, a moment of controversy as appeals for a penalty were waved away as the ball appeared to strike the arm of Figeroa having blocked with his leg initially. Regardless, United continued to struggle, and Wigan were able to see the game out at 1-0, lifting them out of the relegation zone and reducing the gap at the top of the table to five points once again. A disappointing evening for the away fans and a timely reminder to Ferguson’s men that every game is important at this stage of the season. With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) The referee was poor for both sides
It would be easy to sit here and simply point out the referee’s errors and claim that this had a major influence on the side and was therefore the reason points were dropped on Wednesday evening. But to do such a thing would be a disservice to the side that won and would simply be false anyway. The fact is there refereeing decisions were poor for both sides and although one could argue about penalties that should have been, it would be fair to say that for the errors, the side deserving of victory still came out on top. Yes, a penalty could and, some may say, should have been awarded for an apparent handball late on and yes, the goal that was given stemmed from a corner that never should have been awarded. But then we should also note, that Wigan’s disallowed goal was perhaps harshly judged for what was a soft challenge. As well as this there could be an argument that Jonny Evans was lucky not to receive a second yellow card. Overall, the officials had, in my opinion, a poor game. However, on balance this had no significant outcome on what was ultimately a far worse performance by United themselves.
2) Wigan are better than their league place suggests and deserved to win
Wednesday’s result was a culmination of an impressive few weeks for Wigan. Stranded at the foot of the table for much of the season so far, they have found themselves on a revival course in recent weeks that has seen them slowly climb up and ultimately found themselves out of the relegation zone with their win over United. Roberto Martinez has always tried to get his side to play a certain style of football and recently they have started to give people reason to believe that they will defy the judgements laid upon them earlier on. Simply put, against United they were by far the better side, a side that seemed to want to win more than the visitors, one that knew what snatching points would do for them at such a crucial time of the season. It speaks volumes that for the whole 90 minutes, United only got one shot on target compared to the home side’s three and that in the first half, Wigan had the greater share of possession.
3) Is switching Hernandez and Welbeck so often of any real benefit?
The last few games have seen Hernandez and Welbeck generally switch starting roles with Ferguson keen to exploit their different aspects of play in different ways and against different opposition. However, is such a tactic really beneficial? It is probably fair to say recent games have not seen the best form from either player, with wasted chances and a sense of almost trying too hard (from Welbeck in particular) seemingly taking over. One must wonder if rotating as much as this does not allow them to build up a greater rapport with the guaranteed strike partner in Wayne Rooney. Also, even though it is clear that Berbatov will be moving on this summer, would it not be fair to say that he should still be in the squad? Surely he still has something to offer in his final weeks at the club despite his apparent status as being surplus to requirements. The thought that his different style can add an extra dimension when needed in games where United are struggling to find solutions to problems, merely feels like a waste given his current exile.
4) The danger of complacency
With proclamations of United apparently being “champions in waiting” and how City’s season had fallen apart, some had lost sight of the fact that the season is not actually over yet, and that any slip up could well be seized upon in certain circumstances. With Manchester City winning 4-0 against West Brom, the lead has immediately been cut to five points and people have now, rightly, stated the title race is back on. The danger with such a lead opening up is that players themselves may back off, almost believing their own hype and one wonders if that was the case on Wednesday, as United almost seemed flat at times, with tactics not coming together as they should, players not performing as well as one would have hoped and Sir Alex Ferguson cutting a frustrated figure on the sideline. In truth, the timing of such a defeat is probably adequate, a timely reminder that the job is not done until the side are officially crowned champions and that there is no room for complacency at this time of the year.
5) No game is easy at this point in the season
Many observers viewed the remaining fixtures for Manchester United and Manchester City and claimed that of the two City had the more difficult due to games against Chelsea and Arsenal among others. However, at this point in the season, it is fair to say that no game is truly easy. As the current campaign draws to a close teams become desperate for points as they fight for European places or struggle for survival. With that, teams show ever more bite in their play and suddenly become far more likely places to drop points. This same logic can be applied to the game against Wigan, where a United side eight points clear of their rivals came up against a side on form and motivated to play well and fight for any points they can get their hands on with a daunting fixture list on their hands. The result of this? Wigan come away with all three points and a well earned victory. It should serve as a wake up call and no doubt this is the way in which Ferguson is likely to handle it as his side remain firmly in the driving seat going into the final games and will likely stress the importance of gaining all available points before coming up against Manchester City later this month. Game on.