Wigan Athletic season preview – Martinez fighting against the odds to preserve Latics’ Premier League status

With this loss of Charles N’Zogbia and Tom Cleverly the challenge of remaining in the Premier League has gotten a lot tougher for Wigan Athletic. But with manager Roberto Martinez still at the helm, the Latics can at least rely on one of the top flight’s most highly-rated young bosses.

Whether the potential of Martinez, the stylish football he espouses and the young group of players at his disposal will be enough to prevent a drop to the Championship will be discovered as the season goes on, and how the 38-year-old copes without midfielders N’Zogbia and Cleverly will largely dictate the club’s future. N’Zogbia and Cleverly between them gave Martinez 14 goals last season, and for a team that found the net only 40 times in 38 league games during 2010-11 that sort of reduction could be a crippling blow. Striker Hugo Rodallega remains but will have to add to his nine goals last season to ease the burden on the rest of the team, while young forwards Franco di Santo, 22, and Victor Moses, 20, must start to come of age. Conor Sammon, signed from Kilmarnock in the January transfer window, also needs to prove his Premier League worth.

The return of goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi, signed in a permanent £4m transfer from Bolton Wanderers after spending last season on loan with Wigan, is a positive note. The Oman international made 34 league appearances in the previous campaign and although he kept precious few clean sheets – only six – his impressive reflexes kept the Latics in contention. The defence in front of the 29-year-old, marshalled by captain Gary Caldwell, as at times porous last season – conceding 61 goals for the poorest goal difference outside the bottom three – but as yet, no re-enforcements have arrived. Antolin Alcaraz’s second season in English football should see the Paraguay international adapt to the rigours of the Premier League more readily, providing a summer spent playing in the Copa America did not do him too much physical harm.

It is replacing the creativity of N’Zogbia and Cleverly that taxes Martinez most, however, although the Spaniard may have a player already in his squad who can at least partly compensate. Former Crystal Palace midfielder Ben Watson has been a growing presence at the DW Stadium under Martinez, returning from loan spells at West Bromwich Albion and Queens Park Rangers to establish himself as a deep-lying playmaker. Watson lost his place in the Wigan side at the start of last season but returned after Christmas, and together with the in-demand James McCarthy – reportedly wanted by Arsenal and Liverpool – and new signing David Jones, a cultured and energetic midfielder picked up on a free transfer from Wolverhampton Wanderers – Watson could form the basis of Wigan’s midfield for the new season. Supplying the chances for Wigan’s forwards, and those forwards capitalising on the midfield’s probing, could make the difference between another unlikely survival and the relegation staved off so dramatically last year.

Manager – Roberto Martinez: Seemingly on the verge of taking over at Aston Villa, Martinez repaid the loyalty shown to him by Dave Whelan by remaining at the club he also served as a player. Growing in experience and stature, having lost a number of important players in pre-season, this season will be a test of Martinez’s character.

Key signing – David Jones: Wigan’s midfield has been gutted over the summer with the departures of N’Zogbia and Cleverly, and so the onus is on the former Wolves player to help plug the gap. A Manchester United youth product, Jones will fit into the cultured style prevalent under Martinez but needs to provide goals from midfield too.

Key departure – Charles N’Zogbia: The Frenchman was more than just a winger to Wigan, ending last season as the side’s top scorer as well as the top creator. The near-£10m received from Aston Villa in return for N’Zogbia’s services will soften the blow of his sale for now, but perhaps not if Wigan find themselves in the Championship next season.

Possible XI:

Al-Habsi

Stam – Caldwell – Alcaraz – Figueroa

Diame – Watson

McCarthy – Rodallega – Moses

Sammon

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