Jim White

Big weeks ahead for pass masters

Jim White

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Owen Coyle

Recently, I had the chance to interview Owen Coyle. So I asked the pretty obvious question: you may talk about trying to play an aesthetically-pleasing passing game, but doesn't the reality of staring relegation in the face compel a manager to throw such niceties out the window and yell at his players to chuck it in the mixer?

"Where we are now, I don't think that is conducive to getting us points," was Coyle's reply. "As much as we realise it's the business end of the season, if you believe in your philosophy - believe that is the way to progress - then now is the time to stick with that.

"Anyway what makes you think we'd get more points hoofing it?"

It is an interesting philosophy, clearly shared by the manager plying his trade five miles down the road from Coyle. At Christmas, nobody gave Roberto Martinez a prayer of doing his standard trick and avoiding relegation at the last.

As recently as a month ago, Ladbroke's were not exactly inundated with those putting the mortgage on Wigan being a Premier League team at the start of next season. Particularly when you took a look at their run-in fixtures.

Then they won at Liverpool, embarrassed the potential champions at home, before rounding off their great escape by winning away at Arsenal. It might seem the riskiest of strategies to leave it so late, against such an elevated triumvirate to seize the required points. But Martinez was never in doubt it would happen.

And what is surprising is the manner in which it has been done. Arsene Wenger may have been too churlish to acknowledge the fact, but Wigan won at the Emirates not by hoofing it or elbowing or kicking or otherwise bullying their way to success - they did it by passing. That is how they have been playing recently. No wonder Sir Alex Ferguson, after seeing his team not so much beaten as demolished at the DW, was moved to lavish praise on Wigan and predict they could win again at Arsenal.

It may seem horribly reckless to go into a game as important as that playing a wildly speculative 3-4-3 formation. But Martinez's bravery paid off against the Gunners. He was rewarded with the points and the applause of those Gooners who stayed to the end.

He deserved that recognition, as he does all the plaudits that have come his way since engineering his improbable escape. He stuck to his beliefs, beliefs incidentally he has been banging on about consistently all season, to the degree some observers suggest made him sound deluded. Now he has the points to back up his argument.

But then, if you think about it, Coyle is right: the Martinez way makes far more sense in a relegation struggle than espousing hit and hope. The only way you are going to gain the necessary points when faced with the trapdoor is to win matches. It is not enough in dire straits merely to close down, defend like titans and hope for a draw. One point is rarely sufficient. You need three.

And the best way to win, if you are used to passing the ball, is to do just that. Suddenly hoofing won't help you. All it does is increase the likelihood of the ball being given to the opposition.

Martinez has been proselytising the progressive game, and not simply because he likes pretty patterns being spun across the field. He has been preaching it because he thinks he will win more matches that way.

And he is right: a win at Fulham tomorrow and Wigan are safe. So safe, Dave Whelan, their owner, can afford the luxury of calculating how much more he will earn for every place in the table his team climbs.

Bolton, meanwhile, are still in the mire.

"I've said all along our only target is to have one more point that three other teams in the Barclays Premier League," said Coyle, who, by the number of times he name-checks the sponsor in interviews we can only assume does not bank with NatWest.

With Wolves effectively already gone and Blackburn doing their best to join them, it appears Coyle is battling to stay one step ahead of either QPR or Villa. And while his team are not the most obvious ambassadors for tippy-tappy in the division (sorry, the Barclays Premier League) his creed is undoubtedly one of getting the ball down and pass it.

What remains to be seen is whether his belief that going long is no safety net prevails against two managers more pragmatic in their attitude.

Those who espouse progressive football face a testing couple of weeks.

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