The player Cook must start against Middlesbrough

Photo courtesy of the Sun newspaper

The Sun newspaper reports that Jude Bellingham could on his way to Manchester United for a fee of £30m. Bellingham made his debut for Birmingham City’s under-23 team as a 15-year-old in October 2018. He became their youngest-ever first team player at the age of 16 years, 38 days in an EFL Cup game at Portsmouth in August 2019. Under manager Pep Clotet he has now made 20 starts in the Championship this season.

Photo courtesy of Wigan Athletic

Joe Gelhardt too is a prodigious young talent, although a year older than Bellingham. He made his Wigan Athletic debut as a 16-year-old in an EFL Cup game against Rotherham in August 2018. Under manager Paul Cook he has since made 13 appearances in the Championship, with just one start in the 2-1 defeat of Sheffield Wednesday a couple of weeks ago.

The approaches of Clotet and Cook are certainly contrasting. Clotet has given Bellingham every opportunity to showcase his talents. Cook has used Gelhardt as an impact substitute, although in less than half of the games Latics have played in the Championship this season.

Cook has constantly talked about the need to shield Gelhardt from too much pressure at an early age. His most recent comment was that: “I think all Wigan fans probably want him to start, and the hard thing for me as a manager is trying to protect the young man – as good as he is.” However, he did add that: “He’s only 17, he’s a fantastic talent who makes things happen on a football pitch. His time is coming, that’s for sure.”

Cook got his starting lineup woefully wrong in Saturday’s home match against Preston. Playing with a back five and three defensive midfielders, reminiscent of the Warren Joyce era, was a valid tactic against a Leeds side which was technically superior. However, facing a Preston side that had won only 3 times in 14 away games, it was the wrong ploy. It was only after Preston went 2-0 up that Cook changed his formation and took off a defender to bring on Gelhardt. The youngster went on to provide the pass leading to Chey Dunkley’s goal after 57 minutes, looked dangerous and forced a good save from the Preston keeper in the last minute. As Cook said: Gelhardt makes things happen.

Since the departure of Nick Powell, the manager has experimented with different players in the number 10 position behind the centre forward, none of whom has been able to establish himself there. His recent preference has been to use Joe Williams, a holding midfielder, in that position. Williams is an all-action player who has been one of Latics’ best performers this season, but a number 10 he is not. The player needs to be restored to his best position.

Using Williams or Lee Evans at number 10 has been an option that has given Cook more midfield tackling cover, but there has been a crying-out need for a naturally creative player in that position. It looked like we might have had that kind of player when Kieran Dowell signed on loan from Everton. However, Cook dispatched Dowell to play wide, preferring to continue with Williams as a 10.

In the absence of Dowell through injury there remains one prime candidate for the number 10 position – Joe Gelhardt.

At Wigan, Cook has mentors who had illustrious careers after making their debuts at a tender age. Peter Reid started for Bolton as an 18-year-old while Joe Royle was only 16 when he first played for Everton. It makes the manager’s reluctance to immerse Gelhardt hard to understand.

Middlesbrough have only won two games away from home this season. They can certainly be beaten if Wigan go in with a positive approach.

Playing Gelhardt from the start is paramount. Moreover, he should not be dispatched to a wide position, but played behind the centre forward. The creativity and dynamism that Gelhardt can provide is something that has been so lacking over the course of the season.

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