I think Roberto Martinez did a really important thing last season at the striker position. He picked his guy – Franco Di Santo – at the beginning of the season, and stuck with him all year, rather than changing his starting frontman whenever the current line-leader was out of form. This is something that’s often difficult to do for a manager under pressure to get results each week, especially when his team is sitting at the bottom of the table for long stretches of time. A striker without confidence will rarely turn his luck around with a scattered handful of appearances in a small chunk of the season; this is something that largely (and unfortunately) gets ignored when discussing Mauro Boselli. True, he did not make much of an impact during his previous stay in the first team, but you can hardly be surprised when someone coming from a different language, league and continent who is only given a couple of chances (in a team that isn’t scoring much anyway) doesn’t immediately light the world on fire. It honestly wouldn’t surprise me if the faith Martinez put in Franco Di Santo this season has roots in his learning from previous seasons, when he went with the striker-by-committee route with the result of nobody finding form.
Indeed, giving Di Santo a steady role in the first team has really allowed him to show the strongest parts of his game, several of which were extremely important to the way we played in our system last year. For one thing, his offensive and defensive work rate is terrific. The 2-1 Arsenal game at the end of last year was an excellent demonstration of this. We played a very defensive, counter-attacking game, and he played the game as our defender placed highest up the field, sprinting around among the Arsenal back line and not allowing them to get too comfortable on the ball. When the ball was advanced further into our zone, it was not uncommon to see him right outside the box, closing down and harassing the Arsenal midfield. Yet when we won the ball back, he would sprint back up the field on the counter, which led directly to the through ball he received from Jordi Gomez that resulted in his goal. It was an all-around showing of exactly what we needed and it really had a significant impact on his game.
Without going into quite as much detail with examples, Di Santo’s ability to hold the ball up and help us build attacks has been a key part of our strategy as well. Combined with his stamina, work rate and offensive and defensive running, he has essentially become the perfect lone striker for our new system. Almost, anyway. Unfortunately for him – and us – there remains one glaring weakness in his game: his finishing ability, or more specifically the lack thereof. A lack of goals was one of the biggest problem areas in our team last year, and if you are going to only play with one striker, you need him to be able to get on the score sheet by consistently finishing his chances. Di Santo, however, only managed 7 goals in 32 appearances last season, and a considerable portion of those came on heavy deflections that wrong footed or looped over the goalkeeper (strikes against Wolves and QPR come to mind). It’s easy to remember, for example, the win against Blackburn that came as our sixth in eight towards the end of the season. What gets lost is that our best chance of the game came when Di Santo broke free behind the Blackburn defence and shot tamely at Paul Robinson, drawing a routine save. We ended up relying on centre back AntolÃn Alcaraz that game for a late winner.
Conor Sammon looks to be viewed as an backup so far, and his hold-up play, energetic running, and lack of any real production (a bit unfair to judge him on this however as he’s seen very few starts or consistent minutes) seem to make him a similar option to Di Santo. However, the return of the aforementioned Mauro Boselli could provide an interesting dilemma for Roberto Martinez in selecting a starting striker for the upcoming campaign. See, Boselli is known as a natural finisher, which is what led to his first arrival at the club back in 2010. There have been a number of reasons given for his failure to settle in his first stint in the first team, but whatever the reasons, he got only a handful of scattered opportunities to impress, and has been farmed out on loan for the majority of the seasons since.
Yet he proved last season back at Estudiantes that he is still a capable goalscorer, and was even at one point rated the deadliest striker in South America. In addition, his preseason opportunities thus far have seen him score twice in two games, with another cleared off the line – if it was only a goalscorer that was needed, Boselli would seem very worthy of earning another shot, with an excellent chance of surpassing Di Santo’s scoring record from last season if given a similar opportunity.
So, done and dusted, right? Well, not quite. We already know that Di Santo fits perfectly into our system; one would wonder if Boselli would be capable of the running that proved so crucial in that Arsenal game, or of the hold-up play that Di Santo has demonstrated equally well. Di Santo is also a known quantity as far as his scoring ability goes – though it isn’t a particularly high quantity, and the likes of Charles N’Zogbia, Hugo Rodallega, and even Amr Zaki have posted better numbers in recent seasons.
So although we do have three strikers on the books, a fourth option remains – the recruitment of a new striker, one who possesses the tactical advantages of a Di Santo and the killer instinct of a Boselli. Our transfer rumours in this area have been few and far between this summer (though to be fair, so have our transfer rumours in general, which is actually probably a good thing), but one that stands out is Everton’s Victor Anichebe. This is not to say that we look likely to sign him, but rather to observe that he fits all the criteria of the type of player we’d be looking for. He is big, fast, powerful, and has reasonably young and energetic legs at 24. His goalscoring record for Everton is not particularly impressive, but is more so when you consider that the majority (65 of 104) of his appearances have been as a substitute, and that he has had multiple seasons interrupted by untimely injuries. In fact, he showed his incisiveness against us just last season, coming off the bench to equalize in a 1-1 draw. Now don’t get me wrong, this is not to say that I think he’ll be arriving soon, as much as to demonstrate that it would be very reasonable for us to pursue another option at striker, provided that he fills all of these criteria and would come at a reasonable cost.
To summarise, then, we have three primary options at striker: Di Santo/Sammon (likely the former), who fits our system but has so far struggled to produce as a centre forward should; Boselli, who looks able to score but might not be the ideal man for our system; or a newcomer who can do all of the above, but who would take up a transfer fee and wages that might be better spent on other areas of the squad. As for my own personal verdict? Well, it’d be nice to see Boselli get a real run in the squad, sure. Yet although he lacked incisiveness last season, Martinez is always talking about how Di Santo is constantly improving. So ultimately, I will be backing whoever Martinez chooses to send out as the right man for the job, be it Boz, Di Santo, Sammon or a mystery fourth. My only hope is that whoever is chosen is given a true opportunity as our first team striker – enough time to settle in, find his form, and contribute as much as he possibly can to the Roberto Martinez brand of Wigan Athletic football.
TL;DR: Di Santo fits the system but doesn’t provide the goals; Boselli can provide the goals but may not fit the system; a third possibility is a new signing who combines the best of both. The best option is whichever Martinez chooses, providing he is given a long enough run in the first team to properly prove his worth.
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