On the face of it a Wigan Athletic shorn of so many players through injury or “unavailability” could not have been expected to draw a friendly match against Liverpool. But they did it in the kind of style that we have not seen at the DW Stadium for a long time.
Can it be that Paul Cook has already changed the mindset of his squad, despite being in charge for such a limited amount of time? More than anything else it was the sheer composure of the players that impressed, whether they were experienced pros or academy graduates in there for the biggest game of their lives.
Latics had played with composure, determination and energy as their more experienced players managed to take the lead against the Merseyside giants, holding it until shortly before half time. There had been the type of cohesion between the players that had been notably lacking last season, even if that final pass remains an area to work upon.
Cook had put out a balanced line up in his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. Nathan Byrne was played at right back, which is hardly his favourite position, but he equipped himself well. Perhaps the absence of an orthodox left winger in the Liverpool side helped, but nevertheless a player who was out of favour and shunted out on loan in January, was back in contention. Cook had started all his more experienced pros, apart from David Perkins and new signing, Gavin Massey, who were to appear immediately after the half time break. But none of them were likely to last beyond the hour mark and Cook would surely have to put in a handful of academy players sooner rather than later in the second period.
Cook’s hand had been forced to a large degree by the absence of so many other senior pros. We knew that Donervon Daniels, Andy Kellett and Shaun MacDonald were long-term absentees and that new signing Chey Dunkley too was injured. Moreover, the absence of Will Grigg was no surprise as he too is presumably still recovering from injury. Given his constant problems with fitness it was no surprise either to see Nick Powell not available. Sam Morsy was apparently rested following his time with Egypt over the summer so far.
But there were senior squad players who were not mentioned by the local press who were noticeably absent on Friday evening. Jack Byrne is one who could have a major impact in League 1, but he too has suffered fitness issues. Mikael Mandron too was absent, as Kaiyne Woolery and Callum Lang made the team in his place. Added to those are the players whose futures at the club are in doubt, having been sent out on loan last season. They are Dan Lavercombe, Sanmi Odelusi and Danny Whitehead.
In the event, the lack of available senior pros forced Cook’s hand and he had no choice but to bring on half a dozen youngsters who have come up through the Latics academy. Of those academy graduates Luke Burke was the one with prior first team experience having made an impact early last season before drifting out of favour. But his tenacious performance will have surely given Cook the message that he is a valid option at right back.
Neither the “home grown” youngsters, nor the imported young players Josh Laurent, Terell Thomas and Kaiyne Woolery, were overawed by the occasion and Latics continued to hold their own as the second half progressed. The 18-year-old Sam Stubbs looked calm and composed in the centre of defence, as did the 20-year-old Owen Evans who had come on for the excellent Christian Walton after 61 minutes. The 18-year-old Luke Burgess came on in the 63rd minute for Michael Jacobs and looked an accomplished player. Callum Lang linked up well with Woolery. Chris Merrie was lively.
It remains to be seen how much faith Cook will have in the young players in the coming season and how many loan players will be brought in. Moreover he will surely lose some of the senior pros over the coming weeks as David Sharpe and Jonathan Jackson chop down the wage bill. But what does look clear is that the manager will stamp his style of football on the players at his disposal.
The realist might say that this was only a pre-season friendly match and that conclusions cannot be drawn at this stage. However, it has been a long time since we have seen a Latics side play with such a degree of organisation and composure.
Let’s hope it continues at Southport on Tuesday.