The dust of Leam Richardson’s shock departure has practically settled. Kolo Toure has already made a positive impact, but can he succeed in keeping Wigan Athletic in the Championship division?
Yesterday’s defeat at Middlesbrough was not a surprise against a team in a rich vein of form. What was disturbing was the manner is which the home team’s goals were conceded.
In the space of just three games Toure has revolutionised the way Latics play when they have the ball: now when a player goes forward, he has so many more attacking options. The manager was brought in to modernise the way the team plays football and he has already made rapid progress. But although they look so much better on the ball, there are concerns about closing the opposition down when they have possession.
The Wigan defence looked porous yesterday. There were big gaps in midfield in front of them, leaving the centre backs and full backs exposed. Moreover, the absence of Jack Whatmough was a blow to Toure, given that he was already short of centre backs with Jason Kerr being ruled out for the season.
Whatmough has had a tough season adjusting to the Championship, too often losing his man on opposition set pieces, guilty of launching so many hopeful long balls which the opponents would gobble up. The arrival of Toure has required him to be braver on the ball, to search for an accurate pass rather than take the easier “going long” option. However, Whatmough has the potential to be a top player at Championship level: he is strong in the tackle and in the air, with pace to match most opposition central strikers. If he can improve on his concentration and his passing of the ball, he will be a key player in Toure’s team.
The Toure style of play certainly requires defenders who can play their way out of trouble without conceding possession. It also needs midfielders to provide adequate cover to those defenders. Tom Naylor was a key cog in Leam Richardson’s machine, playing an important protective role in front of defence. Naylor’s tackling and intercepting was excellent, as was his height and heading ability from set-pieces. However, so often he would make a simple pass sideways or backwards, with Max Power taking on the responsibility of being the more creative central midfielder. Power thrived on that in League 1, his crossing providing so many goalscoring opportunities. However, on his return to the Championship he has found it difficult to replicate the accuracy of his passing and crossing, particularly against teams playing a high defensive line.
Much has been said over the course of the season about the recruitment over the summer. The critics will say not only that the board did not back Richardson sufficiently in the transfer market, but also that too many players in the existing squad were always going to struggle in the second tier. In hindsight there has been speculation that the board already had reservations about the style of football and were reluctant to make major investment in players that would fit into Richardson’s scheme.
January is not the best time for bargains in the transfer market. Clubs are loath to lose key players for the second half of the season. However, in January 2021, with Latics under administration, Leam Richardson managed to bring in a group of seasoned professionals that would play a key role in avoiding relegation to League 2.
Given the Kerr injury at least one more central defender needs to be found. The left back position has proved problematic and will surely be a priority. Some fans will advocate for sweeping changes in the squad: goalkeeper, right back, a speedy winger, a mobile central striker, a box to box midfielder. For major changes to occur some of the existing squad would need to be shipped out.
It remains early for Toure to make instant decisions on what positions are priorities for recruitment. If he is to directly replace players, he will need to find now ones who are better than what he already has, or at the very minimum, would fit into his style of play. He will need to make decisions on possible recalls of Stephen Humphrys, Jordan Jones and Jamie McGrath, who the previous manager sent on loan to Scottish clubs. They might not have fitted into the Richardson style of football, but would they fit into the Toure version?
For the moment the new manager will continue to give opportunities to senior squad members who were starved of opportunities in the previous regime.
But whether Toure ultimately brings in a host of new players or whether he largely sticks with the hand he has been dealt; it will take time for the team to adapt to the more modern style of football that we are to see. As Mal Brannigan recently said:
“There’s an awful lot of games still to be played, including hopefully a few games in the cup. and we’ll know a lot more about where we are, maybe after the games in January.”