Al Habsi’s excellence remains key for Wigan


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Wigan

1st Team Goalkeepers: Ali Al Habsi (30), Mike Pollitt (40), Lee Nicholls (19) [on loan at Northampton]

It’s hard to know what to expect from Wigan this season. The finished the last campaign with the swagger of a team marching into the Champions League, but the evidence of the season up that point showed there were some serious issues with the team.

The uncertainty extends to Ali Al Habsi. He was simply brilliant last season. He was in fantastic form making a string of great saves and one incredible double save at Wolves. He has grown with each season and the shakiness which was in evidence early on in his Latics career has gradually disappeared from few. He’s now a far more convincing goalkeeper than he once was and combined with his reflexes and athleticism, that makes him a seriously good operator.

As good as his improvement has been, there are still some errors. In fairness to the Omani international, the frequency of those mistakes has reduced and he earns his team far more than he costs them. All goalkeepers make mistakes, but Al Habsi’s can be extra frustrating particularly in view of knowing how good he can be. If he starts the season well and continues to reduce the less than assured moments, his form will be massive in getting Roberto Martinez the good start to the season he wants. If he isn’t, it could be a struggle.

With a couple of weeks to go until the transfer window closes, the options on the bench are a touch worrying for Latics fans. The only other keeper registered in the senior squad is Mike Pollitt. He’s a hugely experienced keeper, but he has already considered retirement a couple of times and that’s not ideal. Previously Chris Kirkland was the second choice, but his history of injuries meant he was often unavailable too. The club released his when his contract expired over the summer and leaves Wigan’s goalkeeping ranks looking rather thin. Lee Nicholls is the club’s ‘one for the future’ and he will begin the season on loan at Northampton.

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Premier League 2011/12 GK Preview: Wigan

Wigan

Ali Al-Habsi

1st Team Squad Goalkeepers: Ali Al Habsi, Chris Kirkland, Mike Pollitt, Lee Nicholls.

Overview: The signing of Ali Al Habsi is huge for Wigan. After the impressive season he had last year, I though Bolton would do everything within their power to reclaim him and turn them into their first choice. In the end, they were more than happy to let Al Habsi go and for a price that could end up looking very cheap in a few years time. It’s not even remotely hyperbolic to say the Omani keeper kept Wigan up last year and his securing of the club’s ‘Player of the Season’ award was thoroughly merited. The Latics will expect more of the same this term and there’s little reason to think it won’t happen. Early on in the season, I felt Al-Habsi played with a degree of uncertainly common in goalkeepers who don’t see much playing time, but as the season went on he settled in and we saw his ability blossom. There were a few mistakes and he isn’t always the cleanest handler of the ball, but he has always responded well after a blip. The affection the fans have for him has surely helped in this respect and undoubtedly had a major influence on his decision to return to the club on a permanent basis.

Al Habsi will start the season as first choice, but in reserve, Roberto Martinez has a couple of interesting options. The story of Chris Kirkland is a touch depressing. On one hand he’s spent much of his career in the Premier League and that’s the dream of many a person who has strapped up the gloves, but on the other, injury has seriously hindered his attempts to fulfill the ability we first saw at Coventry. At various times at various clubs, he has shown flashes of his ability, but no sooner has he got a run of games under his belt than another injury has struck. He’s now in his 30s and you’d have to wonder if he’ll ever get a sustained spell of fitness, but if called upon and if he’s fit, he’s more than capable of doing a job at Premier League level. If Kirkland isn’t in a position to answer the call, Mike Pollitt is next in line. You get the feeling that Kirkland’s injury woes are at least partially the reason why he’s still at Wigan. This season will see him turn 40 and although he’s rarely played for the last few seasons, having him around undoubtedly provides peace of mind.

Worst case scenario: Second season syndrome is the main concern with Al Habsi. It’s causes and it’s very existence are open to debate, but the fact of the matter is he set the bar high last season and if he doesn’t reach a similar level this time around, there will be some grumbles. Injury or a loss of form we see Martinez relying on Kirkland and that may be fine for a few weeks, but you always get the impression that another spell on the sidelines is on it’s way.

What will probably happen: Al Habsi will continue on the form of last season and limited Kirkland to the occasional cup appearance.

The Best Premier League Goalkeepers 2010-11

MOG Premier League Awards
It’s awards season and in the absence of any goalkeepers actually making the PFA Player of the Year or Young Player of the Year shortlists, here’s a look at the best performing goalkeepers of the season. It’s not exactly a list of the most talented goalkeepers, but rather the ones who have consistently performed to the best of their abilities. I haven’t ranked them, but here’s my shortlist.

Van der Sar
Even with retirement approaching, Van der Sar remains one of the league’s best

Ali Al-Habsi
Not even his mum could call Al-Habsi the complete goalkeeper, but he has been extremely effective for Wigan this season. At his best he is an excellent shot-stopper capable of hurling his sizeable frame across the goal with stunning agility and were it not for some vital saves, his team would be further adrift at the bottom of the table rather than one win away from safety. He has been one of the best performers in Roberto Martinez’s squad and was vital in taking a crucial six points from Wolves in two games this season and holding Liverpool to two draws. His handling is suspect, he regularly makes mistakes and his technique isn’t pretty, but he gets the job done and right now that’s all that matters to Wigan. Regardless of Wigan’s fate come the final day of the season, the Omani has almost certainly done enough to ensure he’ll be a fixture in the Premier League for some years to come.

Paul Robinson
Unhappy with being overlooked for England, this season saw the Blackburn goalkeeper make himself unavailable for international duty and his club have reaped the benefits. Like a spurned lover trying to show an ex what they’re missing out on, the perceived insult from Capello has been the driving force behind arguably the best season of his career. This term, Robinson has shown the focus that has often been lacking in his career. He has always been capable, but inconsistent. The disconnect between his natural ability and his concentration meant his career hit something of a glass ceiling when it came to progressing to one of the Premier League’s top teams, but this seen his sense of injustice has been a motivating factor is some excellent displays. If a player needs to have a chip on his shoulder to bring out his very best form, it does raise wider questions about the earlier part of his career, but we’ll blissfully ignore that because this season Robinson has been a joy to watch.

Edwin van der Sar
It may initially seem like a choice motivated entirely by sentiment, but in his final season as a player van der Sar has been the difference between Man Utd being champions elect and scrambling around for a Champions League spot. This is by no means a vintage Man Utd team, but van der Sar’s contributions at vital times have been crucial in smoothing the path to three points. His big saves have earned United points that their actual performances didn’t merit and although he hasn’t been perfect (such as against West Brom at Old Trafford) his attitude is always exceptional and he has brought a big net gain to United overall. He doesn’t let errors get to him and blips remain blips rather than diffusing into a prolonged slump in form. Despite his advanced years, van der Sar is still one of the world’s best. It’s been said many times before, but that doesn’t make it any less true – the Dutchman is leaving some huge boots to fill.

Honourable mentions
Ben Foster who has made some remarkable saves this season, culminating in a superb sowing in the Carling Cup Final. Pepe Reina – without him Liverpool could genuinely be in a relegation dogfight. Petr Cech – who started the season brilliantly to mask Chelsea’s shortcomings before the finger in the dyke become insufficient to plug the leaky defence in front of him. Robert Green – still someway short of the league’s finest, but he has shown character and resilience to bounce back from the low of World Cup 2010. Tim Howard has made some amazing saves for Everton, but he throws in too many clangers to truly be considered amongst the very best in the league this season.