Preston North End 3 Wigan Athletic 0
Wigan Athletic followers had been dizzy as the transfer window closed, with Latics investing some £9m to give Paul Cook a squad stronger than he could ever have imagined. The mood was upbeat, with some wild optimists even envisioning promotion. But this performance was a reality check for all of us.
It was reported that this week Paul Cook had his players watch a video of the 4-0 drubbing received at Preston in early October last season. One would have hoped it would have had the desired effect. But it didn’t: the result was marginally better, but the performance was actually worse. PNE were far superior in all aspects and Wigan never looked as if they were in the game.
The first two goals were results of inept defending, the third beautifully taken. The standard of football played by Preston was far superior.
After the game Paul Cook said: “It was just deja vu – exactly the same as last year,” fumed the Latics boss. We want the lads to improve away from home and come back with some better results. I actually thought coming here first up would be educational in terms of what happened here last year. But we were too soft, too easy to play against. We stuck to the task well towards the end – but by then the game had gone. In any derby match, if you’re not prepared to fight and scrap for everything, you’ll get beat. And I want to assure our supporters that the players will not be getting an easy ride from me – make no mistake about that.”
Let’s take a look at some points arising:
With Anthony Pilkington injured many fans expected either Jamal Lowe or Gavin Massey to be brought in on the right wing. But students of Cook team selections were not surprised to see Kal Naismith chosen ahead of them. Michael Jacobs was moved to the right, where he was woefully ineffective. Cook had two right wingers on the bench in Jamal Lowe and Gavin Massey
It was a surprise to see Cedric Kipre selected ahead of Chey Dunkley. Dunkley had looked uncomfortable at times against Cardiff, but his aerial ability was missed yesterday.
Hoof ball rears its ugly head again
PNE are hardly a club noted for skilful possession football. But they outplayed Latics in that department. In the first half Wigan constantly hoofed hopeful balls forward, only for the PNE defence to gobble them up. Neither Joe Garner, nor his substitute after 26 minutes, Kieffer Moore, had a chance to do much with such awful service.
It is a pattern that prevailed in so many games away from home last season. The manager has not addressed it.
The defence looks so vulnerable
We saw the warning signs against Cardiff. But defensive weaknesses had been secondary to Latics’ attacking prowess and the profligacy of Cardiff’s attackers. David Marshall needs time to regain confidence. He has a fine career record but has looked nervy so far. The defence in front of him has hardly inspired confidence.
Cook’s decision to choose Kipre in place of Dunkley was a surprise since the manager tends to stick with a winning team. He had to replace Pilkington, but not Dunkley. Opinions vary as to who is the better choice: Kipre or Dunkley. Despite Kipre being slightly taller than Dunkley it is the latter who deals much more effectively with aerial threats. Kipre is still only 22 and can lack awareness and positional sense. However, he has an ability to make outstanding tackles and interceptions. Given time the Ivorian can become a top player at this level.
All of the back four were poor yesterday. That included Danny Fox who was substituted after 63 minutes with Naismith moving to centre back. Fox was at fault for PNE’s second goal, leaving Louis Moult unmarked to head home. Against Cardiff his lack of tight marking allowed Omar Bogle to level up the scores. It has not been a good start to the season for the experienced defender, whose presence last season helped to tighten up a porous centre of defence. It remains to be seen if Fox will keep his place with Charlie Mulgrew challenging for a place in the left centre of defence.
Blackburn manager Tony Mowbray commented this week on their club site regarding Mulgrew’s departure: “He’s the captain of our club and has taken us on an amazing journey over the last few years. We have to commend him and thank him for that. Here we are now, allowing him to move on loan. We want to play a different way this year, higher up the pitch, and for the way we want to play I want a bit more athleticism and a bit more ability in covering the ground. At times we will be left one v one and I don’t think that’s a strength of Charlie Mulgrew. He understands that and we felt it would be difficult for him around the club and not playing as much as he’d like.”
Much of the problem with Wigan’s defence away from home has stemmed from playing too deep. The same thing happened at Deepdale, with PNE having acres of space in central midfield, with Lee Evans and Lewis Macleod physically unable to cover that wide area against the home team’s trio of central midfielders. With Preston so dominant in possession in the first half on the situation was crying out for a change in formation but Cook chose to stick with his favoured 4-2-3-1 system.
Moore and Williams make their debuts
Kieffer Moore came on early for Joe Garner but the service to him was poor, largely consisting of hopeful punts in his general direction. The presence of a 6ft 5in centre forward can invite under-pressure defenders to launch such long balls, but it is rarely going to be effective. Although tall and physically strong Moore is not an outstanding header of the ball. He will do better with the ball played to his feet or crossed accurately into the penalty box for him to run on to.
Joe Williams came on after 72 minutes and added energy to the midfield. He is known for his rugged tackling, but also has an eye for a pass.
Many fans had expected Jamal Lowe to start this game on the right wing. He eventually came on after 63 minutes but was not used in his normal position.
Last season Wigan were struck by injuries to key players and the squad was severely stretched. This season’s squad has a better balance and quality and there are at least two players competing for each position. The manager’s challenge will be in keeping players happy who are not getting regular games.
A change in formation and approach
Cook’s successes as a manager have been built on the 4-2-3-1 formation adopted by so many clubs these days. We have seen him experiment, occasionally reverting to a backline of three, typically when trying to close games down.
Given the vulnerability of the centre of defence, particularly away from home, the manager might consider a change in formation. A backline of three of Dunkley, Fox, Kipre or Mulgrew would surely provide more defensive stability, allowing the full backs more attacking freedom in wing back roles. In fact, the 3-4-3 formation utilised by Roberto Martinez at Wigan might well get the best out of the players that Cook has at his disposal.
However, irrespective of the formation he employs the manager must demand that his players build up moves from the back. The hoof ball approach that we so often saw last season has been unsuccessful, particularly away from home. It is not appropriate in the Championship division.
Put simply, Cook must be flexible in determining the best formation after looking at the strengths of his own players and the opposition. Moreover, he must insist on his players having the discipline and patience to play the quality of football necessary for success in the second tier of English football.