As regular readers will know, I have long prattled on about goal difference as a good indicator of things not being quite right. If a team is higher or lower in the league than their goal difference suggests they should be then before too long they’ll probably regress or progress to their rightful place.
It works again: the only issue at the top of the table is Newcastle (+8) over Chelsea +18) and if that doesn’t sort itself out this year, then it certainly will next.
Moving down slightly we see that Norwich (-11, 11th place) are a bit too high (Swansea -6, WBA -7) but not to the point where imminent collapse need be forecast: GD sees them as 13th, not 11th, which doesn’t matter for our purposes.
Anyway, this brings us to tomorrow’s opponent, Wigan. They are out of the relegation places on merit, according to goal difference, their -25 figure bettering Bolton (-29), Blackburn (-28) and of course, Wolves (-39, and about to be reintroduced to the Championship).
Last year at this time Wigan were 18th of 20, with a goal difference of -23 (the same as Wolves and one better than Blackpool and West Ham). Wigan survived.
In 2009/10 Wigan were soaring in 16th, but weighed down by a goal difference of -34 that only failed to crash land them because Portsmouth, Burnley and Hull were all even worse.
That’s three years in a row that Wigan have looked dodgy at this point in the season, but in all cases they’ve scrambled together some late form and lived to fight another day. Roberto Martinez takes a lot of goodwill for this, but at some point don’t you have to say “well okay, but why does it have to be so messy? Can’t you, you know, win games earlier in the season?”
His predecessor, Steve Bruce, won 33% of his games and had Wigan finishing 11th and 14th in the two seasons preceding Martinez (both with mid-table goal-differences). Martinez has won 25% of his games and seems to specialise in recoveries that almost defy belief (he has beaten Arsenal and Liverpool in the run-in before).
So you have to ask yourself is Martinez some late season wizard, or is he just extremely fortunate that his teams have scrambled into some degree of form when it matters most? As usual, we shall sit on the fence and suggest “a bit of both”.
Let’s see how he’s done it. In January Wigan lost all four league games, home to Sunderland and City and away to QPR and Spurs. All within the realms of normalcy. They drew at home to Everton and beat Bolton away, then drew with Villa and lost to Swansea (both at home). Next they drew with Norwich and WBA. So far so ordinary.
THEN they beat Liverpool, beat Stoke, lost in unfortunate circumstances to Chelsea, beat United and beat Arsenal.
Let’s see if we can see what happened at Liverpool that day. Luckily the man on the scene was the Guardian’s Paul Doyle, as good a match summariser as I know of at the moment.
Creating history can seldom have been this comfortable. Wigan recorded their first-ever win at Anfield without having to conjure anything ingenious: their diligence and determination, added to the deficiencies of their hosts, were enough. Even the visiting manager, Roberto Martinez, admitted his team had played better in each of their last six matches without winning, though that obviously did not deflate his delight at a result that will buoy their survival bid.
Having lost four of their five previous league matches, including Wednesday’s alarming capitulation against another team in the relegation zone, Queens Park Rangers, Liverpool needed an authoritative victory to subdue minor rumblings of Anfield heresy: suggestions that Kenny Dalglish is not the managerial messiah the club crave despite the conquest of the Carling Cup.
Okay, so Liverpool were a mess.
more Liverpool uncertainty led to the concession of a penalty. Jamie Carragher’s attempt to clear a clipped Gary Caldwell cross resulted only in a weak back-header – Skrtel and Victor Moses challenged for it and the forward got there first, only to be inadvertently kicked in the head by the defender. Shaun Maloney fired the spot-kick past Pepe Reina.
Sometimes you need a bit of luck.
Then Liverpool lapsed back into lethargy. Wigan, who were compact and tenacious but rarely dangerous, regained the lead in the 63rd minute. James McCarthy’s speculative shot from the edge of the area after another poor Liverpool clearance deflected off Carragher into the path of Caldwell, who showed unexpected deftness to sidestep Carroll, who had kept him onside, and slot the ball under Reina and into the net
So what does this tell us?
Wigan got a bit lucky in running into Liverpool at precisely the right time. They scored a couple of fortunate goals but weren’t unduly pressured by a poor Liverpool side. You do need luck to go to these big grounds and win and Wigan got it, but there’s nothing in that lot to suggest Martinez pulled some kind of rabbit out of some kind of hat.
Indeed, it sounds very much as if Wigan’s mini revival had begun earlier, but points had not gone their way. Now, with Liverpool and Lady Luck obliging, that changed. Their subsequent form has very much been “4 real” and that’s what makes them a danger to Fulham. It doesn’t matter how you get into wonder-form: once you are there everything is different. Wigan, over the season, have been poor. Wigan, now, are a threat because they are playing well, playing flexibly, and have beaten several better teams than us in short order.
Martinez, one assumes, has merely (ha) “done a Hodgson”, in sticking to principles, working hard and not panicking. Now his team’s form has started to lift off things do look different, but he’s not out of the woods yet and he does need to keep this going.
It won’t be easy. We don’t usually play well against Wigan but often get something out of the games, and Clint Dempsey has a fine scoring record agaisnt this opponent. I think we’ll win going away in the end, but it’s certainly nice to have a fixture like this where anything feels like it could happen, particularly between two football teams in decent form. Looking forward to it.