“This can give us belief, though, and we can kick on from here”
So commented Gary Caldwell after Craig Morgan’s 96th minute header had given Wigan Athletic a crucial victory over promotion rivals Gillingham. Despite the victory Latics remain in 5th place, but they are now only 6 points behind the 2nd place Gills, with a game in hand. Automatic promotion is now looking a distinct possibility.
The visit of the high flying Gills was never going to be easy for Latics, who had not beaten any of the teams above them up to that point. For most of the game Gillingham played with the confidence one could expect from a team in their position. They were well organised in defence and purposeful in attack. In contrast Latics looked pale and disjointed. However, after Gillingham went two up on the 53rd minute mark one wondered if that fighting spirit that Caldwell’s new era Latics has shown over the course of recent months would resurface. It certainly did, but it was aided by a couple of defensive errors from the visitors to seal the game for Wigan.
Caldwell decided to return to a formation that could be labelled 3-4-3, but was more precisely 3-4-2-1. He recalled Leon Barnett to play in a backline of three, with Craig Morgan and Jason Pearce. Donervon Daniels and Reece James were the wing backs, with Max Power and David Perkins in holding midfield. Will Grigg was the lone striker with Michael Jacobs and Andy Kellett in “number 10” roles between him and holding midfield.
Latics started cautiously in a scrappy first half that did not reflect well on the standards of League 1 football. Over the past decade or so at Wigan we have got used to watching players of high technical ability on the pitch, but there was not so much evidence of that last night. Gillingham manager, Justin Edinburgh, has done a fine job in building a promotion-challenging squad on a budget of around £2m. The whole has been more than the sum of its parts for the Gills this season, whereas the same could not be said for Caldwell’s Latics with a budget four to five times as big. Too often in the first half Wigan players would misplace their passes. Grigg was left in a truly lone striker role, with Latics rarely throwing enough players in the opposition penalty box. The wing backs were not pushing up and central midfield was too static.
Gillingham playmaker Bradley Dack hit the inside of the post with a superb free kick after 14 minutes as Latics just could not get coherence into their play. But Latics kept plugging away and Pearce should have scored from Perkins’ cross instead of poking a weak shot at the Gills keeper Stuart Nelson from close range. The ball had fallen to Pearce’s weaker right foot.
But it came as no surprise when in the 25th minute Dominick Samuel’s pace took him past Pearce and his shot beat Jussi Jaaskelainen at his near post. Despite still not playing well, Latics continued to plug away. Jacobs had a shot saved by Nelson, then Kellett found himself unmarked at the far post from a corner but put his header woefully wide. Soon after it looked like Jacobs was going to score, latching on to a low cross from Daniels, but he could not make the necessary contact and another chance went begging. Latics went off at half time a goal behind after not playing well, but if they had taken their chances they would have been ahead.
One wondered if Wigan would step up their efforts in the second half, but their performance in the opening minutes was worse than what we had seen in the first half. Gillingham were attacking with purpose and Latics just could not string their passes together. On 53 minutes Rory Donnelly headed home an inswinging cross from the right, too easily evading his marker Daniels. Caldwell immediately responded by bringing on Chris McCann to replace James at left wing back and Jordy Hiwula for Kellett. The shape moved to 3-4-1-2, with Hiwula partnering Grigg upfront.
With the extra forward in place Latics looked more dangerous in attack and within a quarter of an hour Hiwula’s cross from the left was nodded back by Jacobs at the far post for Grigg to force home with his left foot. The goal breathed life into Latics and they started playing with more confidence. Three minutes later a speculative long range shot from Power found the net due to awful handling by the Gills’ goalkeeper Nelson. Latics were back into the match at 2-2 with 23 minutes of normal time remaining. They were getting on top, although Gillingham continued to threaten the Wigan goal at times. Somehow 6 additional minutes were added on. Craig Davies was brought on in the first of those minutes as Latics launched long balls up front. They went on to score in that final minute when Gillingham left Craig Morgan unmarked from a corner which he headed home.
Once again Latics showed the fighting spirit needed to get back into a game that looked lost. Caldwell’s substitutions were to prove effective. McCann made surging runs through the opposition defence in a way in which James had previously been unable. Hiwula added an extra attacking threat in partnership with Grigg.
The win over Gillingham has not only helped narrow the gap between Latics and the teams above them, but it will boost confidence. It is the “belief” to which Caldwell was referring that is the key to a serious challenge for an automatic promotion place. The next step is to pick up three more points in the home tie against Sheffield United next Tuesday.
As in previous games where Latics have come back with a late rally the questions are once again being asked about Caldwell’s tactics. The 3-4-2-1 system that he employed is surely better suited to playing away from home. In the first two thirds of the game Latics looked lightweight up front, with insufficient attacking intent. It was only when Caldwell brought on another forward and switched to 3-4-1-2 that Latics posed a more consistent attacking threat.
Once again we saw a hesitant, nervy start with Latics seeming to treat the Gills with too much respect. Is it a lack of confidence that underlies this trend? Or is it tactical?
In a post-match interview captain Craig Morgan acknowledged that the team’s version of possession football might not go down too well with the fans, but intimated that it pays dividends later in the game as opponents tire after chasing after the ball so long. Gillingham certainly wilted in the closing minutes, possibly paying the price for disrupting Wigan’s game by high pressing. Or was it psychological in that their goalkeeper had let Latics back into a game that they thought they had all but won?
The debates will continue not only as to whether Caldwell should play with twin strikers, but also whether the emphasis needs to be changed from a slow, methodical approach towards a more direct and dynamic style.