Five talking points following an impressive display against Bolton

Wigan Athletic 5 Bolton Wanderers 2

It was throwback to the Wigan Athletic we had seen at the start of the season. Latics were full of energy and invention and their attacking approach simply blew away their near neighbours. This emphatic win puts them 10 points ahead of a Bolton side seemingly doomed for relegation.

After the game Cook commented: “I would have taken anything today as long as we won, I thought the result against Reading was an absolute disgrace, we were very flat again against Blackburn Rovers on Tuesday night, but we’ve bounced back today and I’m sure our fans will be delighted. We’ve set out a great chance of achieving what we wanted to at the start of the season with that performance today…..Tonight everyone will feel a little bit happier, but until the final ball is kicked on the final day no one can relax, we certainly won’t rest on our laurels as we play a very strong Brentford side here next.”

Let’s take a look at some points arising:

Garner’s early goal was crucial

Joe Garner’s header in the fourth minute gave Latics a big psychological boost. They had started with attacking intent, Michael Jacobs causing problems for Jason Lowe, the Bolton right back being given a yellow card after just three minutes. The early intervention by the referee helped set the tone in a game that could boil over at any time. In the event it was certainly a physical encounter, but Lowe’s card was the only one the referee deemed worthy to give in the remaining 92 minutes. Garner’s header had come from Reece James’ free kick following Lowe’s booking.

Garner once again showed that he is worthy of his starting place at centre forward. Yesterday he linked up intelligently with the creative trio of Jacobs, Massey and Powell and gave the corpulent Bolton defenders a hard time. His goal came at a crucial time for a Latics side who desperately needed a boost after an awful display at Blackburn.

Getting the best out of Jacobs and Massey

Cook took Gavin Massey off after 45 minutes in the previous game at Blackburn; Michael Jacobs went off after 61 minutes, with Rovers already two goals up. Was Cook saving them for the Bolton game?

Both Jacobs and Massey have had long spells out through injury this season and the cutting edge they provide was badly missed when they were absent. They both had excellent games, each scoring a well-taken goal, Jacobs also getting the assist for Nick Powell’s goal. Massey was substituted after 82 minutes but Jacobs completed the whole 90 plus. Their interplay with Powell has always been a joy to watch, as it was once more yesterday.

Last season both Jacobs and Massey made 50 appearances. They were key players in the League 1 title winning team.

When Latics were last in the Championship in 2016-17 Jacobs was a regular starter and made 46 appearances, scoring 3 goals. However, he did not totally convince that he was a Championship-level player. This season he has made 21 appearances, scoring 4 goals. Yesterday he certainly looked up to the task and showed the kind of energy and creativity that Latics had been lacking when he was put injured. At 27 he is at his peak.

Massey scored 6 goals last season, but only one of those was bagged at the DW.  Massey is now 26 years old and nearing his peak. After a career in the lower divisions he looks very much at home in the Championship.

A defender almost scores

Late in the proceedings Nathan Byrne hit the post with a rocket shot from 25 yards. If it had gone in it would have been only the second goal scored by a defender for Latics this season and Byrne’s first in 89 appearances. A few minutes earlier Byrne had put in a beautiful long cross for Leon Clarke to head home Wigan’s fifth.

Walton back for Jones

Jamie Jones took over the starting goalkeeping position from Christian Walton in early January. It had been a long wait for the Brighton loan player to get his place back.

Walton looked more assertive than he had looked in December and could not be faulted for either of the Bolton goals. Both goalkeepers have their strengths and will continue to compete for a place in the starting lineup. One of Jones’ real strengths is his distribution, and this is something Walton needs to continue to work on.

Danny Fox will be back

With an international break coming up there is time for Danny Fox to recover from his knee injury. Fox’s experience and organisational skills would have been helpful yesterday when Latics defence let in two soft goals that could have allowed Bolton back into the game if it had not been for Wigan’s ability to strike back in attack.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

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Wigan Athletic: caretaker manager needed NOW

It’s now or never.

The performance against a weakened Blackburn side was probably the worst of the season, riddled with errors from players so short on confidence. Relegation is looming and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Paul Cook needs to be sent on “gardening leave”, allowing a caretaker manager to come in and lift the squad for the final nine games.

It would be folly to wait until after the Bolton game. There is an international break afterwards, and only four days to prepare if Cook were to step down today. BUT there is nothing to gain by keeping him on at this point. He’s toast. Whereas removing Cook, and putting a caretaker (such as Peter Reid or Joe Royle) in charge could give them a boost ahead of a MUST WIN match. This is truly a must win. Ipswich was, and Cook got that badly wrong and then gave the most disheartening press conference afterwards.

We on this site have, in the past, advocated giving Cook more time, but the situation has reached a critical point. If action is not taken the most likely outcome will be Wigan Athletic back in League 1 next season.

 

Getting the right balance in an unforgiving league

It’s an unforgiving league” is a phrase that Paul Cook has frequently used over the course of the 2018-19 EFL Championship season. It is one which Wigan Athletic fans will hope he will not be using after this week’s encounters with neighbours, Blackburn and Bolton.

Compared with League 1 the Championship is more unforgiving. Mistakes are more likely to be punished playing against teams with higher quality players and managers who are more tactically aware.

Last season Latics had a wage budget in excess of £12 m compared with a League 1 average closer to £3 m. Rival team managers would have been so often justified if they had called last season’s Wigan team “unforgiving”.  Put simply, Latics had higher quality players on higher salaries than any other team in the division bar Blackburn Rovers. Even when not playing particularly well they had a solid defence and the kinds of players in midfield and up front who could produce something special when things were not going so well.

The boot this season has been on the other foot. Wigan’s wage budget is modest for a division in which the clubs with the lower budgets typically occupy the lower parts of the table. That Latics are competing with clubs with similarly modest budgets like Bolton, Ipswich, Millwall and Rotherham to avoid relegation comes as no surprise.

But clubs can punch above their weight as Latics proved in the most emphatic way during their time in the Premier League. Despite a modest budget by Premier League standards they stayed in the division for eight years, reaching the League Cup Final and winning the FA Cup. During those eight years they recorded victories over those giant elite clubs that dominate that division.

Wigan Athletic were punching above their weight in the early stages of the current season. Although rather suspect in defence they were playing a brand of “no fear” attacking football, built upon the momentum of winning the League 1 title. Cook had continued to use the 4-2-3-1 formation that had brought success in League 1.

However, Gavin Massey’s injury at QPR at the end of August was a blow to Cook’s style of play. Moreover an injury to Michael Jacobs meant that both first choice wingers were unavailable for the next game at home to Rotherham.  Callum Connolly was drafted in on the right for Massey and Josh Windass for Jacobs. It was a dour game with Rotherham “parking the bus”. Both Nick Powell and Will Grigg were taken off after 60 minutes and a skillful passing approach gave way to a speculative long-ball scenario.

Jacobs returned in place of Connolly for the next game, a 1-0 win over Rotherham and played a part in victories over Hull and Bristol City. But an injury sustained in a 4-0 defeat at Preston in early October saw him out of action until mid-January.

In the absence of specialist wingers Massey and Jacobs for periods of months Cook could have been expected to use the speed and trickery of Callum McManaman, but his initial preference was to play such as Windass and Connolly out of position. He later employed the 34 year old Gary Roberts in wide positions. McManaman continued to be snubbed. The result was a lack of pace and cutting edge from the flanks. The manager’s problems were further exacerbated by the absence of the midfield playmaker Nick Powell through injury from the end of November to the middle of February. In the absence of Jacobs, Massey and Powell the quality of football plummeted, especially in away games with the “hoof” being far too prominent.

Cook now has the trio back at his disposal, but must be careful not to overuse them and risk injury. On Saturday at Reading the quality of football once again plummeted when Massey and Powell left the field, Wigan unable to retain possession, conceding late goals.  With Anthony Pilkington not on the bench Cook brought on Kal Naismith to replace Massey. Leon Clarke replaced Powell.

Cook’s substitutions on Saturday were ill-thought and allowed Reading back into the game. Rather than allow Reading to come forward and have speedy players ready to launch counterattacks he chose to put on a big centre forward and play a version of 4-4-2. The more obvious replacement for Powell was Josh Windass who has been used in the number 10 role before and has pace. Naismith was the obvious substitute for Massey, but rather than play him in his natural role on the left and switching Jacobs across the right the manager chose to play the Scot in a position where he looked out of his depth.

Cook will surely name the trio of Jacobs, Massey and Powell in his starting lineup at Blackburn tomorrow, providing they are fit. However, one can only hope that he can make better contingency plans for substitutions as they tire. Putting Clarke and Garner up front late in the game might be a valid tactic if Latics are behind, but it is not the way to protect a one goal lead. If Latics do get ahead against Blackburn he should either stick to a successful formula – usually 4-2-3-1 – and avoid that 4-4-2 long ball approach like the plague. An alternative on Saturday would have been to bring Cedric Kipre off the bench to play in a back three, with Nathan Byrne and Antonee Robinson moving to wing back roles. It could have provided extra defensive cover whilst bolstering the midfield.

That trio of Jacobs, Massey and Powell are crucial for Wigan’s survival in the Championship. An injury to either one would be a hammer-blow. Cook will have to be careful of not pushing them too hard given their recoveries from injury. That means that he will need to be proactive, rather than reactive, in keeping the team balanced if one or more of them is not on the pitch. Above all that hoofball approach that cedes possession to the opposition needs to be avoided.

We can only hope that the manager has learned from the mistakes he has made this season and will open his kind to more insightful approaches. Might he even consider McManaman as a possible stand-in for Jacobs or Massey?

Five talking points as pressure mounts on Cook after Reading defeat

Reading 3 Wigan Athletic 2

For the first 78 minutes it looked like the Wigan Athletic we took pride in watching in late summer. That positive attacking approach had returned with Nick Powell orchestrating from midfield and the home defence being stretched by Wigan’s nimble wide men. With Latics 2-1 ahead Reading goalkeeper Martinez made an outstanding point blank save from Nick Powell when a goal had looked certain. But Latics took off the tiring Massey and Powell after 73 and 78 minutes and the game swung back in Reading’s favour.

Following the last minute defeat the social media and message boards were awash with fans voicing their frustration with the manager’s substitutions and his tactical nous.

For his part Paul Cook commented: “I wanted a reaction from the players, I wanted us to find the identity which we had last year and at the start of this season and, to be fair, I thought the lads were excellent today – probably as good as we have played for a long, long time…It was a big game; I wanted to make sure we turned up and did we turn up? Yes, I thought we did. Our big players, did they play well? I thought they were excellent all over the pitch. Tactics, formations, that hasn’t influenced the game today – we were excellent but unfortunately we haven’t managed to get the result”

Let’s take a look at some points arising:

Cook chooses an attacking starting lineup

So often this season the starting lineup has given us a pretty good idea of what to expect. It was certainly the case in this match with the manager reuniting the trio of Michael Jacobs, Gavin Massey and Nick Powell who had been behind so much of the good football that has surfaced during the manager’s tenure. Moreover, he had benched the ineffective Leon Clarke for Joe Garner and, at last, brought in his specialist left back Antonee Robinson. He also brought experience into the centre of defence in a potentially tense encounter by bringing in Jonas Olsson for Cedric Kipre.

The starting lineup gave us promise that we could expect good football, far apart from the hoofball/scrapball approach we have seen so often in away games. To be fair to the manager it was the first time since August that Jacobs, Massey and Powell had all been fit enough to be included as a trio in the starting lineup. If they had not suffered from those long-term injuries Latics would surely not have been locked in a relegation battle at this point of the season.

Fitness issues were always going to weigh heavy

Cook certainly got his starting lineup right but there was going to come a time in the game when he would have to take off some of his key players. The question was who would it be and how many would he have to substitute?

Olsson had not played competitive football since December. Robinson’s last game was on November 10, but he had been back in contention for a matter of weeks and it had been a surprise that Cook had not given him any game time before this match. Given previous injuries to his attacking trio Cook would need to be careful not to risk more problems by overextending the members that attacking trio.

Cook’s substitutions handed the initiative to Reading

The manager knew beforehand that he would have to make substitutions at some stage and had the time to draw up contingency plans. His challenge was to be how he could make the substitutions yet maintain the positive momentum built up by his starting lineup.

In the event Cook replaced Massey with Kal Naismith and Powell with Leon Clarke. His substitutions wrecked the 4-2-3-1 shape that had been working so well and destroyed that momentum. Naismith was like a duck out of water on the right wing. Clarke was simply ineffective and his presence invited long balls from defenders with possession being squandered.

Cook shot himself in the foot with the comment  that “Tactics, formations, that hasn’t influenced the game today” after seeing how his substitutions saw a change from flowing football to the fightball approach that has reared its ugly head far too often.

Another game decided by fine margins

Despite the manager’s ineffective substitutions Latics could still have come away with points had “luck” favoured them a little more. If Powell’s shot had not been somehow blocked by Martinez Wigan would have had a two goal cushion and Reading’s morale would have taken a severe hit.

Reading’s second goal was certainly controversial with the home team on the edge of unsporting behaviour after the referee had dropped the ball to Sam Morsy. The result was a lack of midfield cover with Reece James off the pitch and Morsy marooned on the half way line. Barrow ran through unmarked to hit the type of  long-range shot that can beat Jamie Jones. The winning goal in the 97th minute was scored after Olsson had been jostled to the ground in the penalty box as the set piece was launched. Reading had been putting constant pressure on the referee, as do so many teams in this division.

A manager under pressure

The calls for Cook to be replaced have intensified. Although we on this site have previously advocated that he be given more time the worry is that the manager just does not seem to be learning from his mistakes with his team selections, substitutions and tactical approach.

Darren Royle and IEC have been supportive up to this point but are they willing to continue to back a manager and backroom staff that could take the club back to League 1?

If Cook were to go would the highly experienced Peter Reid or Joe Royle take temporary control? Or would a snap appointment be brought in from the outside?

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

Five talking points after an opportunity missed at Derby

Derby County 2 Wigan Athletic 1

It had been one of Wigan’s better away performances: a goal up after 25 minutes following a superb counterattack, the home team not looking like they were going to score. Then after 62 minutes Derby substitute Mason Bennett scored a truly spectacular goal that radically changed the game. Wigan’s fragile confidence was severely dented to such an extent that it was no great surprise that the home team scored again 16 minutes later with the Wigan defence all at sea.

Following the game Paul Cook commented: “At one stage, the whole picture looked great for us but unfortunately the picture changed completely. For long periods in the second-half, I thought we were going to score again – I thought we were getting in the right areas but the disappointing thing was Massey and Jacobs tired badly – as to be expected – and we are having to make substitutions. There are no excuses, though, we are at a good level of football and you have got to have something about you to see games out and unfortunately we haven’t been able to do that.”

Let’s look at some points arising:

An opportunity missed

On paper Derby had a stronger lineup than Wigan. Even without players of the quality of Tom Lawrence and Mason Mount they had enough talent to ask questions about a suspect Latics defence. Nevertheless, Derby came into this game after three consecutive league defeats and their play had been fraught with errors. With the home team so nervy and with Latics a goal up going into the interval it was an opportunity for a rare Wigan away win.

Wigan had been unfortunate to be deprived of the experienced and influential Danny Fox through injury after 33 minutes. Would the defence be able to withstand the Derby pressure in his absence? Mason Bennett is by no means a prolific scorer with a record of 6 goals in 90 league appearances. Latics can certainly count themselves unfortunate to have conceded a goal to Bennett that some might label a touch of genius; others might say it was a fluke. Wigan had their chances to win the game, but did not convert them, Leon Clarke being the principal offender in that respect.

In his post-match comments Cook told us he had expected Jacobs and Massey to tire.  Their pace and movement had reminded us of the tempo with which Latics had played early in the season. Both had been sadly missed but their presence could still prove crucial to Latics avoiding relegation. But knowing that both were going to be unable to complete the 90 minutes the manager did not have another winger on the bench to replace them. Kal Naismith had come on at full back for Fox and neither Callum McManaman nor Anthony Pilkington were on the bench.

With the squad that Cook has at his disposal Latics are always going to be hard pressed to get a result against a team in the promotion race or one that is at the top of their form. But this is not the first occasion that they have been unable to beat teams that have been nervy and short of confidence following a bad run of results. It started in early October when they lost 4-0 to a Preston side which had been at low ebb. They just have not been able to capitalize on the opportunities presented to them since then.

Tactics and team selection

Having had some success with a back five in the previous outing it was a surprise that Cook ditched it, although it could be argued that his game-plan was working with Latics a goal up. Despite having one of his better displays against Middlesbrough Naismith was taken off after 60 minutes and found himself on the bench at Pride Park.  It can scarcely have helped the player’s confidence and he was not at his best in this match.

Having decided on a flat back four this time around, Cook retained his midfield trio of Reece James, Lee Evans and Sam Morsy. James did well but Evans and Morsy were distinctly below par. Evans in particular looked lost in his role in right midfield.

With a prior background in the lower leagues Cook has struggled with the tactical side of the game in the Championship. It scarcely helps that his assistant manager and first team coach come from similar backgrounds.  With a relatively low budget squad he has to get the best out of the players at his disposal if the team is to compete and avoid relegation. He also needs to adjust his tactical approach according to the opposition he faces.

Last season’s success was based on a 4-2-3-1 system, with a long-ball approach to 4-4-2 being the Plan B. Latics started this season successfully with 4-2-3-1, but injuries to Jacobs and Massey cut its effectiveness. Cook received some criticism for his tactics against Middlesbrough, packing the central midfield and using a backline of three central defenders, but a point was gained against a top team. Given the goals given away by a shaky defence over recent months it was a surprise that the manager had not employed such a shape in his previous starting lineups, particularly away from home.

Set pieces

Latics’ set piece plays have been so disappointing this season. Lee Evans used to be the main taker of corners and free kicks but Reece James has since taken over most of those duties. The centre backs still have not scored a goal, despite the number of opportunities they have had. Nick Powell’s enforced absence from injury has surely had an effect since he is probably the best header of a ball in set-piece situations.

A goal from a set piece is long overdue. Will it come at Reading on Saturday?

Rays of hope

Although the result did not go Wigan’s way there were some rays of hope emanating from the performance. The sight of Jacobs and Massey running at defences at pace from wide positions was most welcome, as was another short appearance for Nick Powell.

Cook now has to decide how to approach the game at Reading. Will he continue with the ineffective Clarke at centre forward or will he opt for Joe Garner or even Powell in that position? One can only hope he will start with Jacobs, Massey and Powell and that Latics will go in with a positive approach. Should they get an early lead there remains the possibility of reverting to a back three/five later in the game, as the trio tires, with Jonas Olsson coming in off the bench.

Looking forward to next season

Should Latics manage to avoid relegation – which is far from certain at this moment – will Cook and his backroom team be in charge next season? The manager has been fortunate to have kept his job given the indifferent performances and results over these months. Should relegation occur then Cook’s experience in the lower divisions would prove useful. Should Latics stay up will Darren Royle continue to back Cook in the hope that he has learned from his mistakes this season?

Latics started the season with a considerable number of players who had not played at championship level before. They too will have benefited from the experience, tough though it might have been.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com