What a pleasant day it was in Nottingham when Wigan Athletic stepped on to a pristine pitch in a stadium that must rank among the best in League 2. After dealing with a less than perfect surface at Southport, Latics would have no excuse for the quality of their football at Meadow Lane.
They had lined up with Paul Cook’s favoured 4-2-3-1 configuration, making a brisk start, immediately imposing their passing game upon County. The home team just could not get the ball as Wigan dominated possession. But possession in itself is not enough to win football matches and shot-shy Latics hardly troubled the home keeper. It was to be a grim reminder of last season when County broke away and Lewis Alessandra got the better of Nathan Byrne to hammer home a cross from Wigan’s left flank. When the half time whistle went we were left pondering on the lack of cutting edge in Latics’ attacks.
It continued into the second half until around the two thirds mark when Cook made multiple substitutions. The youth of the bench had been supplemented with the experience of the 34-year-old Noel Hunt, who was played as a striker, together with the promising Callum Lang. Lang’s pace took him past the home defence and his cross that was heading for Michael Jacobs was deflected into his own goal by home captain Richard Duffy. Another quick counterattack by Latics was to see Lang put away a close range chance from Hunt’s cross.
In the end Latics managed to cling on to a lead that had hardly seemed likely at half time. But what conclusions can be drawn from the performance?
1. Too many Latics players are still in the hangover phase of last season’s happenings. Cook acknowledged this after the game saying that “I just didn’t feel our lads felt they were going to win.” The lack of self-belief among the attacking players was plain to see. So often the moves broke down as Latics reached the opposition penalty box, with a sideways pass being the preferred option to a direct shot on goal.
2. Latics need specialist full backs. In the absence of alternative choices Nathan Byrne and Jordan Flores occupied those roles. Byrne himself has made it apparent that he does not want to be regarded as a right back, preferring to be employed as a wing back or winger. Flores has played in the position before and never convinced. He is a midfield player by nature.
Cook was upbeat about the returns of Donervon Daniels, Will Grigg, Andy Kellett and Nick Powell in a friendly game against Llandudno. Daniels would indeed be a contender for the right back position if he were to regain full fitness after a long absence. Luke Burke was absent from the proceedings yesterday and one wonders what chances he will be given under Cook. County’s Matt Tootle was arguably the best man on the pitch yesterday at right back and his display might have sparked interest from Wigan manager Cook.
The left back position will surely be occupied by Reece James, if fit. But he remains in the recuperation phase from a long absence through injury. Kellett too could offer options at left back, although he is more effectively employed in midfield. But he too has been dogged by injury. David Perkins played the midfield holding role yesterday, but might well be pressed into service on the left of defence during the course of the season.
3. The turnover of goalkeepers looks to have stopped. Christian Walton is an excellent signing for League 1 and he is already providing reassurance for his defenders. Walton once again looked composed and confident, making some fine saves yesterday. Owen Evans too has impressed in pre-season. The question remains whether Cook will settle for him as back-up to Walton or if he will look for an experienced keeper as second choice.
4. The centre forward position is up for grabs. Omar Bogle looks low on confidence and so often is left isolated by his teammates. Will Cook stick with Bogle, who still has the potential to score lots of goals at League 1 level? Will Grigg is still recovering from injury, but is in the final year of his contract and there has already been speculation that he will be sold over summer. Nick Powell would surely be an excellent option, if fit, but the likelihood is that he will be allowed to leave for financial reasons.
Callum Lang has already shown that he is a viable option, although young and inexperienced. How he would cope against robust League 1 central defenders remains to be seen, but he is an exciting addition to the squad.
5. The current crop of youngsters must be given opportunities at the expense of loan players. The introduction of a handful of youngsters in the second half energised Latics’ play. But not only are these players energetic but they have good technical qualities and fit comfortably into the possession football that Cook practices. The impressive Sam Stubbs and Owen Evans were absent yesterday but Luke Burgess, Callum Lang, Chris Merrie and Terrell Thomas impressed. So often in the past loan players have been brought in at the expense of younger players already at the club. The time has come for a change in that policy or practice.
If indeed the first time roster is filled out with the academy graduates instead of loaned players, that’s a great thing. They are so much more likely to play for the shirt and the fans. I think this could be a good year, but I am cautiously optimistic.
Well said, Dan! We will have to wait and see what happens, but let’s hope they will be given opportunities.