February 26, 2022: Wigan Athletic 0 Sunderland 3
“I’ve got to be respectful to the players and the staff in that we haven’t lost here since October. The good thing about football is that we’re able to make it right over the next couple of days and we’ve got another game on Tuesday to do that.”
Leam Richardson was as philosophical as usual in his post-match comments.
But Wigan Athletic’s big day in front of a home crowd of over 20,000 was a big let-down. A well taken goal by Bailey Wright after two minutes was followed by two “soft” penalties for a runaway win for the visitors, their third against Wigan this season.
The run of fixtures at Rotherham and Wycombe at home to Sunderland was always going to be demanding. Four points from the three games in the space of eight days against top League 1 opposition is not such a bad tally, but this defeat in front of the biggest DW crowd in a decade really hurt.
Let’s take a look at some discussion points from the game:
Latics rely on having high energy levels
Conceding a goal in the first two minutes was a hammer blow, but on previous occasions when Wigan have fallen behind, they have so many times clawed their way back to win. This is certainly the fittest Latics squad for years and among the most physical. They will typically grind the opposition down by attrition, piling on more and more pressure as the other team tires.
That those high energy levels were not evident yesterday was no surprise following demanding trips to Rotherham and Wycombe within the space of just over a week. Richardson had employed a degree of squad rotation for those games, but there were eight players who played in all three.
Richardson is always reluctant to change a winning lineup, unlike Alex Ferguson who invariably made one or two changes, nevertheless keeping the core of the lineup. Midfield is a key area in the battleground of Richardson’s team, but Tom Naylor and Max Power looked jaded yesterday, with Will Keane struggling to impose himself. Richardson has quality and experienced midfield cover in Graeme Shinnie, Glen Rea and Jamie McGrath. The latter seems to have disappeared off the radar despite a promising start to a Latics career. The other two have been used sparingly.
Getting the best out of the flair players
At their best Latics have created their chances from the wings, with Callum Lang and James McClean, constantly attacking opposition defences and Will Keane following through from centre midfield. Latics once more looked over-reliant on Lang and he was well policed by the Sunderland defence. McClean was sadly played at left back and much of his attacking edge was dulled by his defensive responsibilities. At his best Keane has not only scored crucial goals, but he has also provided a link between defence and attack. But Keane has too often been pushed forward, leaving a gap between holding midfield and the attack.
Lang, McClean and Keane are always likely to be among the first names on the manager’s team sheet. Richardson has Gavin Massey available to come in as backup for Lang, Gwion Edwards for McClean and McGrath for Keane.
Lumping it long to the centre forward
Since the arrival of the Cook/Richardson duo in 2017 the style of football at Wigan has been predominantly long ball. At its best it has been a targeted approach with measured long passes to attacking players, putting pressure on the opposition defences, subsequently opening them up from the flanks. At its worst it has deteriorated to hoofball, with the centre forward having a near hopeless task feeding on scraps.
Kieffer Moore is a centre forward who remains well loved by Latics fans for his role in that epic fight against a 15- point deduction in 2019-20. Moore had a torrid time in his early days at Wigan constantly chasing those hopeful long balls and receiving scant service. Although signed in summer it took him until November to score his first goal. He went on to score 10 in 36 appearances, including some real crackers. It could be said that Moore took some time adapting to the Championship after playing in the lower leagues. But more than that, he benefitted from a gradual shift of the team playing the ball more through midfield and defenders cutting down on those balls lumped forward.
Josh Magennis is struggling in the same way that Moore did in his early days. Magennis is an experienced centre forward who has played in the Championship, the Scottish Premier League and the EFL League 1. He can hardly be called a “poacher” with a career record of 76 goals in 413 appearances in those three leagues. But is he the right person to play the target man role in Richardson’s style of play? Is it the best way to employ him?
To be fair on Magennis it is a thankless task chasing hopeful long balls. Richardson replaced an ineffective Magennis after 62 minutes at Wycombe on Tuesday but later stated the player had been “excellent”. His comment beggared belief.
There was a moment in this game when we saw Magennis at his best. He ran down a channel on the right, showing keen acceleration and put in a superb low cross that McClean, running in from the left back position, almost scored. Magennis does make runs into space, but rarely receives the right pass. If he is to be successful at Wigan it is going to be when his teammates play to his strengths.
Adapting tactics according to the opponent’s style of play
Sunderland manager Alex Neil is a wily tactician and it would be no surprise to see his team perform well in the coming weeks. They have a had a torrid time recently, but yesterday looked well balanced, with a solid defence, a creative midfield and the threat of Ross Stewart up front.
Latics were clearly shaken by the early goal but looked tactically limited. That has been the case on previous occasions when they have faced teams with the ability to keep the ball on the ground and pass through the midfield.
The MK Dons pose a threat to Latics, now being level with them on points, but having played three games more. The Dons play that same kind of skilful football that we saw in flashes from Sunderland. It will be interesting to see how Richardson plans to deal with them in the game at the superb Stadium MK on March 12. Would a change in midfield formation be a possibility?
Promotion is still on the cards
The immediate task is for Richardson to lift his players for the home game with Fleetwood on Tuesday. It is followed by Wimbledon’s visit on Saturday when MK Dons play at Rotherham. Latics will be keen to get maximum points in those two games before their next fixture at the Stadium MK.
Latics and Rotherham remain firm favourites for automatic promotion. In Wigan’s case it can be done provided the manager effectively uses the talent at his disposal and orders his players to stop that awful lumping of the ball forward.