Fighting for points through set pieces?

buxton

Jake Buxton’s header at QPR brought a great save from Alex Smithies

It almost happened again. A good corner kick from Jamie Hanson and a bullet header from Jake Buxton. It would have put Latics 2-1 up at QPR, but a fine save by Alex Smithies prevented it.

Another header from Buxton from a Max Power corner had given Wigan Athletic an invaluable three points at Wolves a week before. A week earlier and Omar Bogle had headed home a goal against Norwich from corner kick launched by Michael Jacobs. Jacobs had also provided the delivery from the corner for Callum Connolly’s second goal at Burton in mid-January. Has Warren Joyce been placing more focus on set pieces during training?

Barnsley, Cardiff City and Newcastle United have the best record in the Championship division on set pieces in the season so far, each with 17 goals. Leeds United come next with 16 goals, 10 of which came from corners. Wigan only have 8, second worst to Aston Villa with 3. In fact, one of the most frustrating aspects of Latics’ play this season has been their performance on corners and free kicks. Too often the delivery from corners has failed to reach the centre of the goalmouth and the players waiting in and around the box have been too passive in their approach.

Latics have an average of 11.4 shots per game, only Blackburn Rovers having a lower average count. The stats show that Latics average a respectable 13.3 shots per game at home, but away from home only 9.6 shots per game, the lowest in the division. Wigan are clearly more disciplined when playing at home, where they have collected 28 yellow cards. They have received 42 away from home, the highest in the division.

West Bromwich Albion lead the Premier League in terms of goals from set pieces. They have 15, 11 of which have come from corners. Under Tony Pulis they have become a compact unit, with a tough defence and a high work rate. They have the lowest average possession rate at 40.7%.

There are arguments to the effect that football teams should not be obsessed with possession. But Roberto Martinez was certainly a believer and by maintaining possession his teams were more able to withstand the physical demands of the Premier League, more often than not playing against teams with technically superior players. In fact the top six teams in the Premier League table also have the top six possession statistics.

Wigan Athletic’s current average possession rate of 49.3% is the 13th highest in the division, but has been on a strong downward trend since the departure of Gary Caldwell. The emphasis on passing has been superseded by what is euphemistically called a more “direct approach” under Warren Joyce. Given Joyce’s previous reputation as coach of a Manchester United reserve team that played entertaining, flowing football it is difficult to fathom why he has resorted to such methods. Is Joyce trying to stave off relegation by transitioning to a Pulis-type approach?

However, 45% of West Bromwich’s goals have come from set pieces, compared with 27% for Wigan. Given the lack of flowing football from Joyce’s teams, making goals from open play relatively scarce, it is essential that they improve their conversion rate on set pieces.

In the 2014-15 season when they were to be relegated Wigan Athletic’s average possession was 51.6 %. They had an average of 13.7 shots per game. They scored 15 goals from set pieces, 8 of which were from corners. The previous season when they reached the Championship playoffs they had 52.3% possession and 14.7 shots per game, with 17 goals from set pieces.

Although results are the primary concern for Wigan Athletic fans at this moment in time there are many who would like to see Joyce’s team playing in what David Sharpe once named “The Wigan Way”. What that actually means is open to conjecture. The best quality football that Wigan Athletic have probably ever consistently played was from March to May 2012 under Roberto Martinez, while among the most exciting was the attacking play of the Paul Jewell era.

The football played by the current team is far removed from those halcyon times, closer to that of the days of Malky Mackay. But the very minimum most fans want is for Joyce to send his team out to win, rather than not to lose.

In the meantime, with the shortage of goals from open play and a lack of willingness to throw players forward, it is the set pieces that can prove crucial for Latics’ survival in the Championship division.

What are the chances of a set piece goal against Nottingham Forest tomorrow?

 
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