A refreshing change in formation for Wigan Athletic

In the summer of 2014 Uwe Rosler was a popular man with Latics followers. The German had taken over in early December with Wigan Athletic lying in the depths of the Championship table. Rosler went on to take them to 5th place and the FA Cup semi-final. They were narrowly defeated by QPR in the Championship playoffs and by Arsenal at Wembley. Although a section of the fanbase had not been happy with his squad rotation policy he produced the results and repaired the damage caused during Owen Coyle’s awful tenure.

The adage “Managers are judged on results” rang true for Rosler. Latics had been one of the bookmakers’ favourites for promotion but by mid-November the German had been sacked as they had slid down the table.

Leam Richardson too is popular with Latics fans. He worked wonders in helping the club avoid relegation last season and his newly assembled squad, with 15 new signings, has made an impressive start to the season. But three midweek home defeats, with the players looking “flat” had led to questions about whether he was too set in his ways, rigidly sticking to his favoured 4-2-3-1 system, not rotating his squad sufficiently to keep players fresh, making substitutions too late in the game, as fixture were piling-up.

If there was one factor that led to Uwe Rosler’s downfall it would be in making too many new signings over the summer, when he already had a strong squad. Richardson’s case differs in that he only had five contracted players when summer recruitment started. However, he now has a big squad which is going to need careful management in ensuring that fringe players do not get disenchanted through lack of game time.

Richardson took a major step forward in the Burton Albion game on Saturday when he brought in Curtis Tilt and Stephen Humphys and gave a League 1 debut to Jason Kerr. Fan concerns about the depth of quality of the squad soon diminished as all three players made fine contributions.

But the real surprise was a switch away from 4-2-3-1 to a 3-4-1-2 formation. Kerr was employed as a right centre back, a role in which he enjoyed great success in St Johnstone’s run to win both the Scottish Cup and the Scottish League Cup last season. Jack Whatmough looked very comfortable in the centre of the back three, with the experienced Tilt to his left. Max Power played a deep midfield role with Tom Bayliss more advanced. James McClean looked so at home at left wing back, a position he occupies for the Republic of Ireland. Tendayi Darikwa looked so much better back on the right- hand side and was afforded more freedom in the wing back role. The new formation allowed Richardson to play twin strikers in Humphrys and Charlie Wyke. Humphrys is a talented player who has spent too much time on the bench with only one central striker being employed in 4-2-3-1. Will Keane has looked somewhat jaded in recent games. The return of Thelo Aasgaard from injury will provide Richardson with a back-up in that number 10/creative central midfield role.

With Latics a goal up and Burton down to ten men after 15 minutes it is hard to evaluate the success of the new formation. But credit must go to Richardson for his willingness to go against his own previous orthodoxy. It was noticeable that there was less of a gap in the centre of the field and there was so much less long ball than we have been seeing so frequently. The formation helped to facilitate a more possession-based build up.  

3-4-1-2 offers differing opportunities to players than 4-2-3-1. Callum Lang was suspended and did not play. Lang nominally plays on the right flank but is not a conventional winger. He is a key player because of his willingness to run at opposition defences and he is always a candidate for scoring a goal. His ideal position is open to conjecture, but he would surely be comfortable in the front two of a 3-4-1-2 system.

Richardson has made a response to critics who have had concerns about the rigidity of his tactical outlook. He has shown himself to be a great motivator of his players and is a fine ambassador for the club, discreet in his comments, showing a dignity that is not the norm in football club managers. It was heartening to see him make this change.

Roberto Martinez made the switch to 3-4-3 in the middle of the 2009-10 season when relegation was imminent. It led to the most successful set of results in Wigan’s league history. It also paved the way to winning the FA Cup. Despite those successes there are Latics fans who do not favour a system with three at the back.

In the Cook/Richardson era Latics flitted with systems playing three at the back, but it could never really compete with the 4-2-3-1. Let’s hope that Richardson will give his new system enough time to evaluate it.  Another criticism Richardson has faced has been a lack of a Plan B. Getting his players accustomed to a change in shape, either from game to game, or within a game, would be a major step forward in his development as a manager.

The likelihood is that 4-2-3-1 will continue to be the modus operandi for Richardson, but one hopes that he will keep an open mind towards changes in shape. One way of looking at things is to decide on a system and look at how well players fit into it. Another way is to look at the individual talent in the squad and devise a system that can get the best out of them in their entirety.

Amigo and Social Media Reactions to a home defeat to Lincoln

Wigan Athletic 1 Lincoln City 2

“We’ll learn from tonight” said Leam Richardson after a third consecutive midweek home defeat.

After a high intensity performance at Wimbledon on Saturday this was quite the reverse. The Wigan players just did not have the energy and drive to deal with a stubborn and determined Lincoln side. They simply looked jaded as they did in those other Tuesday night defeats to Sheffield Wednesday and MK Dons.

The style of football we have seen since Richardson took over has been a carbon copy of that we saw in the Paul Cook era. At its best it is dynamic, high intensity attacking football. At its worst it is lethargic, with seemingly endless, sterile, inter-passing across the back four, too often terminating in a hopeful punt forward.

Paul Cook’s side won promotion by a canter, buoyed by a solid defence, a functional midfield and flair up front. David Sharpe had allowed him a wage bill of some £12m, retaining a key core of players from the Championship, with Dan Burn bossing the defence and the talents of Nick Powell and Will Grigg further forward. The wage bill for this squad is reportedly well above the norms of League 1 but will surely not approach that which Cook was afforded.

Even with the departure of Cook his legacy has remained. Latics continue to play 4-3-2-1, doggedly sticking to the system even when things are not going well. Management remains loyal to a core group of established senior pros, substitutions are made later in the game than those made by the opposition and are “like for like”, with no modification of the team’s shape.

Despite there being 46 games to play in a League 1 season and despite having a squad laden with players of quality and experience, Richardson continues to stick to the same starting line-up, unless injuries intervene. Regular squad rotation is resisted, resulting in key players looking jaded as the fixtures pile up.

Despite now having experienced assistants and coaches around him Richardson continues to doggedly follow the old, familiar blueprint. However, that is not to say it does not have its advantages: sticking to a similar starting XI and that familiar 4-2-3-1 formation leads to a certain type of cohesion and motivation among those chosen players.

Despite those midweek home defeats Latics have 28 points from 14 matches, just two points behind the top two teams. A fine start to the season with a newly assembled squad, for which the manager and his coaches deserve credit. The challenge for Richardson is to avoid burnout of his key players and to provide opportunities to all of his squad. But, like Cook, he is reluctant to tamper with a formula that he has had success with in the past. However, adjustments will need to be made and he needs to seek a balance between squad rotation and keeping a settled team together.

Let’s take a look at how fans reacted to the match through the message boards and social media. Our thanks go to the Vital Wigan – Latics Speyk Forum and Twitter for providing the media for the posts below to happen. Thanks go to all whose contributions are identified below:

Zakky commented:

Why are all our passes 15-20-25yarders every team that comes play short pass and move pass and move and play through us as there goal tonight. We are far better away and very frustrating to watch at home and if we don’t remedy this home form it will cost us dear.

He later added:

That was truly dreadful, Sunderland Sheff Wed MKDons Lincoln all played the same way pass and move and we just can’t cope with it.

FrancosLoveChild opined:

Probs the worst start we played so far this season, players losing every ball and can’t even play simple passes. Tactically outplayed so far, teams are starting to learn how to play Vs long balls.

Jocklatic commented:

For the last month or so been taking the usual path to the DW for a much anticipated under floodlight game hoping to see a tantalising, energetic & rip roaring game with three points or a cup progression in the bag….sadly this hasn’t been the case & surely this isn’t going to be a monkey on our back – a win at home midweek??

Tonight was much the same as previous visits where the visitors have sussed us out very early doors, counter act us, get on top & inevitably take control with us becoming an unrecognisable team who fluff passes, panic in possession & become a team who uncharacteristically lose confidence in what they’ve been doing well in previous matches. Sadly imo LR follows the team & seems unable to react to the oppositions gameplan…doesn’t bode well going forward & I really hope this midweek hoodoo doesn’t hang around long.

Jeffsright summarised:

All down to Leam. No hoodoo, no ultra tiredness. Just down to Leam and how we play at home.
Wolves youth, Sunderland, Sheff Weds, Milton Keynes and now Lincoln. Possession football and too many passes, lack of wideman, wing backs one up top, players out of position is just not working in home games.

The_Pon concluded:

I’m not having it that Lincoln were a decent team, nor did they play well. They were absolute cr.p. But somehow, we managed to be even worse. I can take losing to MK. They were a good team, well organised, came with a plan, executed it well, and fair play to them. It happens. Losing to Lincoln is an absolute embarrassment though. We need to change how we play.

Power is not a RB. He’s also too slow (not necessarily pace, though he’s no Usain Bolt, but I mean that far too often, he takes too many touches and ends up under pressure and playing it backwards, losing all our attacking momentum). He needs some practice hitting passes and crosses first time if he’s going to continue in that position.

Darikwa isn’t a left footer, so shouldn’t be playing at LB. He has to cut inside to hit a good pass or cross from wide positions, which isn’t going to work long term because good RBs force him outside so he can’t get a ball away. He should be playing RB, because that’s his natural position and he’s top quality when he plays there.

Bayliss isn’t a holding mid. He’s a #10 or attacking mid. Playing him so deep is wasting his attacking ability, and he’s not defensively minded so he gets caught out of position in that role, which puts him under pressure and then passes go astray. Further up the pitch, he’s going to look for those killer balls and if we attack with pace, he’ll create a lot because he has the attacking instinct; he won’t have to take half a second to think what to do: further up the pitch, it comes naturally.

Looks like Tom Naylor is going to be out for a while. I reckon it’s a hamstring from how he went down and he looked to be in a lot of pain. Could mean Power will step into midfield, which I have mixed feelings about: love his attitude, professionalism and commitment, but I still don’t really rate him for ability. Keane looks knackered. We know he’s a quality player, but maybe time to give him a couple of games R&R: let Bayliss play in his natural position because he’s a perfect like-for-like deputy for Keane.

Humphrys is a good striker, but he’s not a target man. To get the best out of him, we can’t just lump long balls to him. He needs proper service. Same goes for Wyke… though Wyke is more suited to that role, I still think we’re going to get far more out of him if we stop the hit and hope stuff.

Not going to get on Leam’s case though. We’ve played well in far more games than we haven’t, but I do hope he now spends some time on the training ground practising some alternative ways to play, because keeping doing the same things when it clearly isn’t working isn’t what genuine promotion chasing teams do. They have different ways to play, can switch between them on the fly, and by doing so find what works during the course of the game.

Hopefully, losing to such a poor team will be the catalyst for some of the changes we need to happen.

ExiledViking commented:

We’ve won all our Saturday Home games this season, so I’m not concerned at all about the tactics. The problem is Tuesday Night games come too soon after Saturday, Players don’t have enough time to recover and always look leggy and lethargic. 2 midweek games running we’ve been 2nd to the ball every single time. The big test for us will be next Tuesday. If it is tiredness after Saturday, then our 5 game unbeaten away record will disappear at Fleetwood.

Hampton wrote:

Would be very surprised at any tactical changes – 4231 is ingrained into our club and the Cook / Richardson playbook.
Get ready for another no man’s land in the middle of the pitch – hopefully with a different outcome ….!

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Amigo and Social Media Reaction to a stunning win at Bolton

October 16, 2021: Bolton Wanderers 0 Wigan Athletic 4

What a scintillating performance from Wigan! They bossed this game from start to finish, outplaying the home team. Will Keane’s 6th minute goal got Latics off to a flying start. The home team’s main threat was from inverted left winger Dapo Ofolayan, a capable player, but one who has the ability to fall to the ground after the mildest of challenges. His threat was nullified by crowding him out and the tactic seriously hindered Bolton’s attacks. Wigan’s defence was rock solid and they were full of energy in midfield and up front, with the line superbly led by Charlie Wyke.

James McClean had his best match ever for Latics, scoring two and providing the assist for the first goal. A very experienced Premier League and Championship player he is revelling in playing in the third tier. His rocket shot put Latics two up in the 50th minute and he showed good composure to add a fourth in the 80th minute. McClean’s best goalscoring record in league games is 7 goals for Stoke City in the Championship in 2019-20. He already has 3 goals this season and looks like he will go on to eclipse that previous record.

In a post-match interview McClean remarked on his first goal: “It was a great strike. I had a couple in the first half on my right foot which was more Row Z rather than the top corner. To get that away and see it fly into the top corner was a great feeling. It was absolutely fantastic.” He added that Latics have a side that “can pretty much do anything”, being able to play football and match opponents on a physical level when the going gets tough.

It was a memorable performance from Latics, marred only by crowd trouble. The local  police superintendent commented; “I am saddened that a group of individuals took it upon themselves to ruin the game today for the rest of the fans. The game had to be paused several times due to objects being thrown on to the pitch and one of our officers was assaulted, as well as rival supporters causing disorder following the game. This is quite frankly disgusting behaviour and will not be tolerated in any shape or form. We will continue to work closely with the football clubs to carry out a full investigation into the criminal activity that occurred today and bring those involved to justice.”

Let’s take a look at how fans reacted to the match through the message boards and social media. Our thanks go to the Vital Wigan – Latics Speyk Forum and Twitter for providing the media for the posts below to happen. Thanks go to all whose contributions are identified below:

JockLatic commented:

Absolutely brilliant performance, best I’ve seen in a while, from Amos all the way to Wyke who worked his socks off. MoM was JM closely followed by Naylor who mopped up everything that came his way but the rest of the team were top drawer as well. From kick off we didn’t let them settle & at 1 nil we missed a few chance which had me thinking will this come back & bite us in the ar.e – no need to worry once JM screamed the second in much to the dismay of the ‘crazy corner’ ….JM doing what he does best, winding up the opposition fans. Couldn’t go without saying that our fans today played their part with a brilliant atmosphere from start to finish & I’ve no doubt that ‘Bolton get battered everywhere they go’ will be ringing in them Bolton fans ears for some time to come. Coming away from the ground wasn’t too bad but there was certainly a fair few looking for it from both sides…luckily we didn’t see any. Onwards to MK Dons n hopefully a similar performance.

WalgarthJohn said:

The way this fixture is going it’s attracting every trouble maker from both sides. And over the last few times we have played these lot it gets worse every game. our fans. Ripping down hoardings. Was not nice to see. Wigan Athletic has always been a family club. Shameful behaviour from both sets of fans.

KingdeZeeuw summed up:

After the last international break we saw a big improvement in our style of play and we saw another big step forward today. By far our best performance of the season we retained the foundations of out working, out running and out battling the opposition but were far more composed in possession and playing more football. There were long balls but very few of were hopeful punts that came straight back at us they were more targeted into areas that hurt Bolton and helped us. Centre mid is now getting involved in the build up play all the time and it’s made the world of difference. Cousins I felt had his best game for us and was far more positive on the ball so it was a real shame he went off injured – hopefully it’s nothing serious and he’ll not miss any time.

It was a very balanced performance where we looked dangerous every time we had the ball and every time we broke up play we were rapid to counter in numbers. We’ve said all season that we have been very effective without playing great and we hadn’t really seen the finished article yet in terms of style of play. But today all of the hard work and tweaking we’ve done from game to game really started to pay off and it was superb.

Bolton have a lot of method in the way they play and that type of football earlier in the season was causing us issues but today our high press and pressing all over the pitch killed them and they had no plan B. We just forced them into error after error. When you look at the stats they had more possession and lots more passes but it was all possession in non dangerous areas and passes that didn’t really help them – compared to us who were ruthlessly efficient in and out of possession. Evatt I’m sure will do some mental gymnastics to say that their possession and passing proves they’re a better side but we looked a class above them. We’ll be playing MK Dons next who are very much in the same camp of possession based football and playing out from the back. So hopefully we can’t repeat this performance.

Hard to pick anyone out as MOTM as everyone was excellent but special mention to Wyke. He may not have got on the score sheet but he was playing against a much larger centre half in Santos most of the time and he was winning so many balls in the air. His work rate is always high and his hold and link up were great. He looked a proper target man today and it made everything we did so much more dangerous with Lang and Keane anticipating the flick ons.

I bet Evatt wishes he hadn’t talked so much as i got the impression a few of our lads had a little extra spring in their step to put one up him. Evatt has done well for Bolton but he’s firing up other teams and lumping extra pressure on his players with his comments and today should’ve humbled him. But I get the impression he isn’t the type to learn from his mistakes.

No doubt Richardson was backed in the market to bring in a squad better than most in the division but to get them so organised, so fit, so hard working and fight so hard is a massive testament to him and the coaching staff he brought in. It’s still early days so you can’t get too carried away but it feels like they are building something special.

C_Latic commented:

Simply wonderful and the best thing was that wasn’t even the best we’ve played this season. We were better against Wycombe. An absolute pasting and credit to Ian Evatt for the assist with his pre match team talk. Well in Jimmy Mc!

Bolton fan WarrenBluffit commented:

No complaints today guys you were head and shoulders better.

No apologies necessary Becky and no excuses you were head and shoulders better than us today in every area of the pitch. I just don’t know what our lot we’re on today, that’s the worst I’ve seen since the first half of last season, nervous, slow, clumsy and lacking in any kind of passion. I say that without taking anything away from Wigan, you were excellent, won every 50/50 ball, forced us into mistakes and kept your shape for the whole game.

You were clinical where it mattered and defensively in the second half you totally shut us down. You’ll know better your own players but for me Wyke was outstanding, totally dominating Santos and Johnson and nobody else has bullied Santos that way. On that performance I can’t see anyone stopping you going up and it rammed Evatt’s stupid comments right back where the sun don’t shine!! Good luck for the rest of the season and apologies for some of our moron fans who resorted to chucking things.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Wigan Athletic DO have strength in depth, despite poor EFL trophy performances

Image courtesy of the EFL

“Physically, it’s better than training. The lads got some good minutes in there because they’ve gone weeks without match sharpness.”

So said Leam Richardson following a dull 2-0 defeat at Crewe in an EFL Trophy fixture on Tuesday. Crewe were so much better than Wigan, the scoreline not reflecting the superiority of the home team. A fine display by 19-year-old debutant goalkeeper Sam Tickle had helped keep the score down. Crewe had made 8 changes to their team, Latics making 11. The home team had looked cohesive, Wigan disjointed.

The EFL Trophy is not a priority for most managers these days. Richardson used the fixture to give seven of his first team squad a run-out with players from the U23 squad.

The EFL Trophy was launched as the “Associate Members’ Cup” in the 1983-84 season, when it was won by Bournemouth. The following season Bryan Hamilton’s Wigan Athletic won it (as the Freight Rover Trophy), beating Brentford 3-1 at Wembley in front of a crowd of 39,897.

In 1999 Latics won it again (as the Auto Windscreens Shield), with 55,349 spectators watching Ray Matthias’ side beat Millwall 1-0 at Wembley.

Despite constantly poor attendances in the early rounds the competition’s final has always drawn big crowds, the record being the massive 85,021 for the Portsmouth-Sunderland encounter in 2019.

The introduction of U21 teams to the competition has not gone down well with the fans of clubs in Leagues 1 and 2. Attendances reached an all time low on Tuesday and Latics’ game at Crewe was one of eight matches that night with less than 1,000 paying spectators. Some 185 Latics fans travelled to watch a game in which their team just did not show the kind of commitment that wins games. Wigan still have a chance of qualifying from if they win their last group game at Shrewsbury, but on the evidence of the commitment shown in the games against Wolves U21 and Crewe it would be a surprise.

Richardson’s prime goal this season is to secure promotion. The League Cup and EFL Trophy have been secondary considerations and there are few fans who would argue against that. However, the performances of the second string in the EFL Trophy games and in the Sunderland game in the League Cup have been so below par that some fans are questioning the quality of the first team squad players who were involved. If those games have provided an opportunity for fringe players to stake a claim for a place in the senior team starting line-up, then it has not happened. Wigan’s best player at Crewe was Tickle and Kieran Lloyd, Scott Smith and Chris Sze looked as comfortable as any of the senior players.

However, looking at the first team squad analytically there is lots of depth. There are experienced players who have already been successful at League 1 level or above. However, they may be lacking sharpness due to lack of playing time with the manager keeping faith in a group of players who have got the club off to a fine start to the campaign. In the old days those players would have been sent to get game time in the reserve team. Such entities no longer exist in the modern era, having been replaced by development squads, with the emphasis of grooming young players.

However, first team squad players are sometimes drafted into U23 games from time to time. Both Curtis Tilt and Thelo Aasgaard played against Charlton U23s on September 13. Adam Long and Luke Robinson have played in the last four U23 games. Up this point Richardson has used the cup games, rather than U23 games, to help senior players to keep up their match fitness. The next EFL trophy game is on November 9 at Shrewsbury.

Courtesy of bbc.co.uk

The indifferent performances of senior players in the recent cup games is hard to fathom. There was surely enough ability and experience in those line-ups to put up better performances against the second strings of Sunderland and Crewe and the Wolves U21s. One could not expect those Latics XI’s to gel, but despite the lack of cohesion we might have expected some more memorable individual performances.

But the bottom line is that Wigan do have considerable strength in depth. It can only be truly tested when those fringe players are given the opportunity to play in a first team which has already gelled, making it easy for replacements to slot in.

Wigan Athletic: is it time for more squad rotation?

Alex Ferguson liked to use squad rotation as a means of freshening his starting line-up fresh and sending a message to his players that none of them had a guaranteed place there. For each game he would typically change one or two players, often central midfielders. From late 2008 until March 2011, he went 165 games without naming an unchanged starting XI.

On Tuesday night Sunderland manager Lee Johnson made five changes to the line-up that had beaten Bolton 1-0 the previous Saturday. They went on to beat Cheltenham 5-0. That same night Leam Richardson typically made no changes to his starting line-up for the encounter with Sheffield Wednesday. It was a line-up that had been producing a series of good results and the Latics manager saw no need to tamper with it.

Wigan Athletic have seven players who have started in all 9 league matches played this season, with two more players who have played in 8. Having such a backbone of regulars in the starting line-up has enabled the team to gel more quickly than might have been expected. Gary Caldwell’s League 1 title winning team of 2015-16 also had a large influx of new players and initially took time to gel with a record of W4 D2 L3, gaining 11 points in their first 9 games. Latics currently have a record of W6 D1 L2, amassing 19 points.

Leam Richardson has done a terrific job since taking over as manager in November 2020. Keeping Latics out of the relegation zone at the end of last season was a great achievement given the challenging conditions he faced.  He also deserves credit for the start his new squad have made this season.

There has been much conjecture on the social media regarding the splitting of the Cook/Richardson partnership. The former has had a hard time at Ipswich since joining them in March, winning only 22% of games played up to this point. It contrasts with his former assistant’s stats of 35% since last September.  

For so many years the names of Cook and Richardson had been synonymous: they were seemingly joined from the hip. But despite their parting the football Latics have continued to play has been pretty much like we saw in the Cook era. Moreover, Richardson has stuck with that familiar 4-2-3-1 system, being conservative with the introduction of substitutes, loyal to his senior professionals.

Among the strengths of the Latics team this season has been in winning “second balls” and in being dangerous from set pieces. They are a physically imposing team and have the height to trouble the opposition from corners and free kicks. They have proven able to grind down the opposition to the extent of becoming stronger in the latter part of the proceedings. The stats show that on first half goals alone their record is W2 D6 L1, opposed to W6 D2 L1 for the second halves.

Richardson has a squad that is the envy of most of the other clubs in the division. However, the challenge for the manager is to keep players happy who are not getting regular game time. He has a wealth of talent and experience in reserve, either on the bench or not even in the match day squad. He has a big squad with three players whose specialist position is left back, three for the left wing and five central defenders.

The manager has been reluctant, up to this point, to rotate his squad in a manner akin to that practiced by Alex Ferguson. Unless an unprecedented wave of injuries hits the squad there are likely to be players who will be starved of opportunities. Lowest in the pecking order is likely to be the young talent: homegrown players Thelo Aasgaard, Adam Long and Luke Robinson. It would be no surprise to see some of them being sent out on loan at some time during the season.

Will Richardson name an unchanged starting line-up for Saturday’s trip to Gillingham? Or will he make some small adjustments?