It brought back memories of the champagne football of yesteryear. Admittedly Rovers looked a poor side, but the quality of Wigan’s play in the first half was reminiscent of that of those glorious times of the tail end of the 2012-13 season. In those days Shaun Maloney had been at the heart of it: yesterday it was Nick Powell.
Gary Caldwell stuck with the 3-5-2 formation. With Jake Buxton suspended, Stephen Warnock moved to left centre back, with Dan Burn in the middle and Craig Morgan on the right. David Perkins was played as a left wing back, with Nick Powell taking his place in midfield.
Wigan soon settled into a positive rhythm, building up from the back, but not averse to launching calculated long balls. The wing backs were lively, the midfield fluid and classy, the two forwards constantly searching for space. Latics’ high pressing caused Blackburn problems from the start and Alex Gilbey might have scored as early as the third minute after Yanic Wildschut had dispossessed centre back Shaun Duffy and rolled the ball into his path. Gilbey fired narrowly wide.
Given Wigan’s dominance it came as no surprise when they scored after 14 minutes. A glorious long diagonal pass from Morgan to Wildschut initiated a move that saw Max Power teed up for a shot from outside the box. Power’s shot was wayward, but Will Grigg instinctively got his head to the ball and it flashed into the net. The champagne football continued, with Powell orchestrating the play, together with his midfield partners, Gilbey and Power. Latics almost went two up after 25 minutes with Wildschut hitting the crossbar but another goal was surely coming. It happened in the 33rd minute when Powell curled in a free kick from the left side of the penalty area, goalkeeper Steele getting hands to it, but unable to keep it out.
Latics went into half time with a two goal lead after playing scintillating football. But one wondered if they could keep it going or whether they would go into their shells as they did at Bristol a week before. Could they keep up that same intensity?
It turned out that they couldn’t. However, although they were to take their foot off the gas they remained in control. As the second half wore on, Powell’s influence was to diminish, as was the high pressing that had characterized their first half display. Powell was to go off after 62 minutes, being replaced by Michael Jacobs.
The visitors had started to come back into the game, but a minute later an own goal by the unfortunate Duffy from a superb cross by Jacobs was to knock them back on their heels. Tim Chow replaced the excellent Luke Burke after 75 minutes, with Craig Davies coming on for an equally excellent Will Grigg after 81 minutes. The game was to peter away with Latics seemingly having Tuesday’s game against Birmingham City uppermost in their minds.
The signing of Nick Powell a couple of weeks ago was a gamble. Lacking first team football over the past two years and being beset by injuries, Caldwell was nevertheless hoping the player could regain that spark that he showed in Owen Coyle’s days at Wigan. But Powell’s midfield play was a revelation in this match, probably his best display in Latics colours. He looked a complete player in midfield, his technical abilities being allied with a keen workrate. Gary Caldwell later remarked that:
“That’s what Nick can do when he has got his mind on it and he’s right. He’s been first class since he came in, worked really hard with the fitness coaches – credit to them for getting him fit – and I’d probably say he’s working at a fitness level of about 60% at the moment and yet you saw today what he could produce.”
Alex Gilbey also had a fine game. He is another player with a great technique, but he was to ally that with excellent movement off the ball and a willingness to fight for possession. Although in some ways a similar type of player to Max Power there seems to be room in the Wigan midfield for the two.
Luke Burke continues to impress. He is the complete wing back, intelligent in his distribution, strong in the tackle, with a level of composure that belies his 18 years of age. One wonders how he will fare when used as an orthodox right back when the manager opts for a conventional back four. On the evidence of what we have seen so far he should slot in seamlessly.
David Perkins was also impressive at wing back, constantly supporting attacks, solid in defence. The back three were strong, Craig Morgan being his usual calm influence, with his fine distribution. Dan Burn looked much more comfortable in the centre of the back three, where he was able to use his height to greater effect, winning headers, but he was also effective on the ground. Stephen Warnock was excellent throughout, tenacious in the tackle, thoughtful in his positioning, showing better judgement with his passing.
There have been questions as to whether Will Grigg can perform above League 1 level. On the basis of this performance there is no doubt that he can. Although faced with two uncompromising central defenders he led them a merry dance, his intelligent movement creating space. Yanic Wildschut was also impressive in a role where he has freedom to roam, rather being tied to a wide position which makes it easier for the opposition to nullify his efforts. Moreover the Dutchman is showing an increasing awareness of the positioning of his colleagues, more effective in his passing.
Once again the second half performance was a disappointment after the first. Is there something in the players’ mindsets, is it a fitness issue, is it the manager’s desire to drop back on defence and hit on the counterattack? Or is it associated with the natural ebb and flow of a football game?
Whatever it is it needs to be addressed. Not only is it unfair on the fans, who go to a match hoping for entertainment, but it also lets teams off the hook who could have been dead and buried if the intensity had been kept up.
Uwe Rosler used the high pressing tactic to great effect during his better days at the club, although his players were unable to sustain it beyond the first half. Yesterday it was enough to unbalance the Blackburn defence in the early stages, but it dissipated as the game progressed.
It would be refreshing to see a Latics team, in the lead at the interval, come out and attack the opposition as soon as the second half starts. One can understand a team taking its foot off the gas in the final quarter, given another encounter being just three days away. But the second half slump is something that needs to be addressed.
Adam Bogdan: 7 – had a fairly quiet time.
Luke Burke: 8 – excellent.
Craig Morgan: 8 – an understated, consistent performer and a calming influence on the defence.
Dan Burn: 8 – his best game so far.
Stephen Warnock: 8.5 – seems to relish that left centre back position. Influential.
David Perkins: 8 – as selfless as ever, but showing no mean level of skill too.
Max Power: 8 – getting back to his old form. Will he claim an assist for Grigg’s goal?
Alex Gilbey: 8.5 – looks a class player.
Nick Powell: 9 – a terrific display.
Will Grigg: 8.5 – a fine performance. His goal bore the stamp of a true poacher.
Yanic Wildschut: 8 – very good.
Michael Jacobs: – came on after 63 minutes. Worked hard.
Tim Chow: – on for Burke after 75 minutes.
Craig Davies: – it was good to see the big man come on in the last 10 minutes for a tired Grigg. There have been rumours that he is on his way out of the club, but his physical presence gives Caldwell more options.