If I’m honest, I didn’t believe it when Bobby told us that Ben Watson still had a future at Wigan Athletic. I was sat opposite him, practically looking him in the eye and when he said (and I paraphrase) “it’s up to Ben, he needs to step up to the plate and start looking for the game rather than waiting for it to find him”, I heard “he’s a good player, but his attitude isn’t right, so I’m shipping him out in the hope he plays well and I can get more money for him”. Maybe I was right, maybe that was the plan, but with Paul Scharner showing more and more of his arse each week and West Brom set up to manage without him, Watson came back into the Latics side and more than played his part in dragging us over the finish line and to safety.
So the prodigal son then? Had Watson learnt his lesson in the Championship and come back a different player? I’m going to say, probably not. The Arsenal game was definitely the high point of his Latics career up until then, but, reflecting back on the point that Bobby had made just after he’d left for the midlands, this was more a case of the game finding Ben, or Arsenal giving it to him, than it was him seeking it out. This is illustrated in the chalkboard of Watson’s passing against Arsenal, below, which, even without glorious technicolour makes it fairly clear that the main part of his action that day was restricted to the traditional midfield band either side of the half way line.
His pass rate was good though, ok, maybe it’s not up there with the real top players, but in a side making between 4-500 passes a game, 62 is more than his fair share. When you consider that he takes the majority of our set pieces (which can have a big effect no matter how good you are) then his success rate of 73% isn’t shabby either.
So rather than his epiphany moment, this was the game where Watson proved his manager’s point. The lad had a top performance, ran the bits of the game that Latics had, but at the same time it was a game that just happened for him. Which probably isn’t that much of a surprise considering that a) he was playing against Arsenal and b) he was playing in an unfamiliar ‘holding role’.
It was a bit of a shock for me, at the time, I’d previously only considered Watson as a more traditional, box-to-box, role but I’ve written about the difficulties Latics have had in that area before and the type of player that we might be best having there and, in hindsight, Watson is actually fairly suited to the role (see my articles in the previous two Mudhutters for what I think the role is), when he plays to his potential.
Not convinced? Well let’s compare him to our more typical defensive midfielder, Hendry Thomas. The pass map below is Hendry’s from the Man City game earlier this season. You can see that he’s operating in the same sort of areas as Watson was against Arsenal, but with only two thirds of the passes, a less than 50% success rate (without the excuse of taking set pieces) and relatively few of the successful passes in anyway progressive you can see that well, Watson is more involved and more effective. You can talk about tackles, but Watson was getting on the ball somehow, wasn’t he?
But is that it? Plan-Bobby relies on having someone in the role he’d earmark for Lee Cattermole. Without a deep-lying playmaker to dictate the flow of play we look stunted and unimaginative, and the best we can muster is someone who is suited to the role when everything falls for him? Well actually, no, signs are that, since he’s has got back into the team and since James McCarthy has been around to lend a helping hand, Watson is revelling in the responsibility of his new role. He’s actually starting to look the part of a Premier League player, rather than a very good Championship one.
The pinnacle (so far) came in last weekend’s game against Blackpool. Paired with McCarthy and Diame, Watson didn’t just play his part, he went out and lead the midfield, covering for colleagues, playing a key role in denying Blackpool (and more importantly Charlie Adam) space. Compare his pass map, below, to the one from last season. He’s getting involved all over the pitch, picking the ball up deeper and, even with possibly more, set piece responsibility he’s upped his success rate.
Hopefully the lad is finally coming of age, just at the right time. As someone once said, ‘It’s elementary my dear Watson’.
* Those of you who managed to pick up a copy of The Mudhutter yesterday will have read the first part of this article, but the gremlins stole the end of it, so here it is in it’s entirety, those who didn’t, this is the sort of stuff that you can get 40-odd pages of for just £1.50 of your pocket money, a bargain by any stretch of the imagination.
Needless to say the chalkboards are from the Guardian website