Five talking points following a high intensity victory over Aston Villa

Wigan Athletic 3 Aston Villa 0

 

It was as if the clock had been turned back. That negative long-ball approach was no longer evident. In its place was the high intensity football that has underpinned Latics’ best performances this season. They did it at Swansea for half a game, but this time they kept it going in the second half, the high press disrupting Villa’s passing game, threatening their defence.

Paul Cook looked to have taken a gamble by including Anthony Pilkington in the starting lineup, given that the player had not made an appearance for Cardiff’s senior side since April 2018. He also made a bold move in bringing in Jamie Jones in goal.

Both players made a difference in an impressive win over the big spending visitors, but a mix up between Jones and Cedric Kipre after 10 minutes ended up with Tammy Abraham missing a relatively easy chance. If Abraham had scored it could have been a killer blow for a Latics side with such brittle confidence. Fortunately for Wigan he didn’t and in the 41st minute a sublime piece of skill from Pilkington saw him dribble past his full back and pass to Gary Roberts who blasted the ball home. Michael Jacobs came on for Pilkington after 60 minutes and within ten minutes he scored with a spectacular diving header from Lee Evans’ long cross. Joe Garner slotted home a “soft” penalty after Josh Windass had gone down following a challenge from Glenn Whelan.

Following the game Paul Cook made the pertinent comment that: “All of the big moments in the games recently have gone against us but today the key moments went for us.”

Let’s look at some points arising:

Jones and Pilkington make a difference

Cook’s boldness in bringing in Jamie Jones and Anthony Pilkington certainly paid off. Apart from the mix-up with Kipre, Jones looked calm and confident in goal. Although the visitors failed to get a single shot on target Jones commanded the penalty box and his handling was excellent.

Pilkington fitted instantly into the style of play, adding an extra dimension to Wigan’s midfield. He was calm in receiving the ball under pressure, showing good control and change of pace. The trickery he showed in getting past his full back to set up Roberts’ goal was spectacular.

Pilkington looks an excellent signing and his versatility will give Cook more options.

Latics can punch above their weight in the Championship

Wigan’s starting lineup contained two loan players and five signed on free transfers. Their wage bill is one of the lowest in the division.

They were competing against players whose salaries dwarf theirs. Yannick Bolasie’s annual salary is around £3.5 m, Tammy Abraham gets some £2.8 m per year. Jack Grealish did not play in this match, but his annual salary is around £2.6 m. Scott Hogan, Ross McCormack and Micah Richards all earn over £1.5million per year. No Latics player earns as much as any of those three Villa substitutes who were not called upon in this match.

Aston Villa are England’s fifth most successful club as measured by winning the top division. But it is 38 years since they last won the old First Division. Last season they were beaten in the Championship playoff final by Fulham.

In their desperation to get back into the top-flight Villa run the risk of breaking FFP rules. In order to comply they could sell their major asset, Jack Grealish, whose market value is around £30 m. However, the HS2 train line cuts through their training ground at Bodymoor Heath, giving them an option of selling it to a property company owned by one of the billionaire owners Wes Edens and Nassef Sawaris. Such a sale would count as income and help them keep within FFP rules.

Villa are one of so many big city clubs in the Championship division who continue to splash huge sums of money into a race to get back into the Premier League. But Latics matched them in the first game at Villa Park, unluckily losing to a goal in time added on. Moreover, they showed on Saturday that they can punch above their weight with that 3-0 victory.

Dean Smith’s post-match comments

Paul Cook is loath to criticise opposing team managers and their tactics. He stands out like a beacon compared with so many managers in the Championship division.

The Villa manager’s post-match comments did not reflect well upon him. Neither did attempts by some of his players to persuade the referee to give Wigan players red cards. Both Joe Garner and Sam Morsy are surely well known to the referees in the division for being robust. But neither deserved a red card in this game. Wigan fans might recall Sam Morsy’s sending off at Brentford in September while Smith oversaw the Bees.

Lee Evans back in form

Like others around him Lee Evans has had a torrid time in recent weeks. He has been a shadow of the player we saw earlier in the season. But on Saturday we saw him back to his best. Evans was excellent in defence and constructive in attack. He is an important creative force for Latics and leads in assists this season, tying with Nick Powell on four.

Evans’ longer passes are so often trademark diagonal balls. That stunning 40-yard cross for Jacobs’ goal was a gem.

Sticking to a winning formula

There had been a ray of hope in the first half display at Swansea a couple of weeks earlier with Latics eschewing the long-ball, building up more patiently from the back, pressing high up the pitch. But for some reason they were not able to maintain it in the second half at the Liberty Stadium.

That same successful formula returned in this game, the difference being that it lasted 90 minutes rather than 45. Playing that kind of high intensity football has significant physical demands on the players and with games coming in thick and fast it can be difficult to keep up.

But in this winter period there are few midweek games. In fact, in the next 8 weeks there is just one for Latics, that being the home game with Stoke on February 13th.

With a less hectic schedule allowing players more recovery time the timing is right for Cook to employ the high intensity approach on a regular basis. Not only does it nullify attacking options for expensively assembled teams like Aston Villa, but it also provides a spectacle for fans who have had scant entertainment in recent months.

If Cook can stick to this winning formula and the injury situation continues to improve, we will surely see Latics climb back up the table in the coming weeks.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Cardiff fan’s view of Anthony Pilkington

 

Wigan Athletic have announced the signing of the 30-year-old Anthony Pilkington on an 18-month contract. The winger was signed as a free agent, having left Cardiff City by mutual agreement.

Although Pilkington has not played first team football this season, he has made over 300 career appearances in league football, with three full seasons in the Premier League. Although Pilkington was born in Blackburn, he has made 9 appearances for the Republic of Ireland, qualifying through having an Irish grandparent. He has an impressive goalscoring record for a wide player and can score spectacular goals with either foot. He can also play as a central striker.

On signing the player Paul Cook commented: “Anthony has good experience in the Championship and Premier League, I am delighted to bring him to Wigan Athletic. He won promotion with Cardiff City last season, so he knows what it takes to do well at this level and I am sure he will be a big asset to us for the rest of this campaign and beyond.”

The 6 ft tall Pilkington was part of the youth programs at Preston, Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers, but joined Atherton Collieries as a 17-year-old in November 2005 whilst attending Myerscough College, where the Collieries manager, Alan Lord, was a lecturer. After making a strong impression, scoring 19 goals in 35 games, he signed for Stockport County in December 2006. County were in League 2 at the time. Pilkington made 80 appearances for County over three seasons, scoring 17 goals, one of them helping them to win the League 2 playoffs in 2008.

Pilkington signed for Huddersfield Town, then in League 1, in January 2009. He went on to make 92 appearances for the Terriers, scoring 19 goals.

In the summer of 2011 he joined Norwich City for a fee of £2 m. He went on to make 58 Premier League starts, with 17 appearances off the bench, scoring 14 goals in three seasons with the Canaries.

In July 2014 Pilkington signed for Cardiff City for a fee of £1 m. He went on to make 111 appearances, scoring 23 goals and contributing eight assists. Last season he scored 5 goals in 13 appearances in the Bluebird’s promotion campaign.

In order to learn more about Pilkington’s time at Cardiff we reached out to Benjamin James of the View from the Ninian fan site (http://www.viewfromtheninian.com/).

Here’s over to Benjamin:

Pilks is a Cardiff player who deserved more from his time at Cardiff. He came in the season after we got relegated and was a bright light for us. Committed, scored and assisted and was pretty reliable. When Warnock came in, his space in the team became less of a guarantee and by the start of last year, he was out of the squad consistently.

But he was a model pro and worked hard and clawed his way back into contention. He wasn’t a regular, but he scored some important goals – none more so than his late equaliser at Sheffield United that went a long way to helping us get promoted.

There’s certainly a feeling that he should have had more of a say this season. It was perhaps a little unfair that he was left out the 25 for the Premier League when he could have been in the squad on merit – plus for his lengthy service.

 You’ve got a good player and a top pro on your hands.

 

 

A critical time for Darren Royle and the IEC ownership

Will Darren Royle back Paul Cook? Photo courtesy of Wigan Athletic FC.

 

Another 3-0 home defeat and the social media and notice boards are laden with the comments of fans concerned that Wigan Athletic could suffer relegation once again unless something changes.  They have won only once in their last 13 league games and are now dangerously close to the drop zone.

 

 

Paul Cook’s post-match interview was a sad thing to witness. Some managers might shy away from a post match media conference after such a heavy defeat, but Cook once again stepped up to the plate. Things just have not been going well for the manager since mid-September.

Injuries have deprived him of his first-choice front four, the team subsequently lacking the cutting edge and creativity that we saw in the early weeks of the season. Michael Jacobs has been out since October 6, Nick Powell has not played since November 28 and in the weeks prior to that did not look to be one hundred percent fit. Will Grigg was unavailable for six weeks in October/November. Gavin Massey came back from a three-month absence on December 22, but suffered a serious recurrence of his hamstring injury on Saturday. Defensive lynchpin Chey Dunkley missed two months before returning to the team for the visit to West Bromwich on Boxing Day.

The takeover by IEC seemed to take for ever until it was eventually announced on November 7th. We hoped that, following the takeover, extended contracts would be finalised for key players whose current ones run out in June. But of those nine players in that situation only Sam Morsy’s case has been resolved.

Nick Powell is the most high-profile of those players:

The injuries and uncertainty surrounding the takeover surely have had an impact on the manager and his staff. Cook is not one to complain, but his situation over the past months has been less than satisfactory. What is happening at the club?

Whether the current situation is solely down to Cook is open to debate. But the standard of football has plummeted, and the manager has frustrated fans by rigidly sticking to certain players, sometimes playing them out of position, whilst snubbing others.  But despite these issues we at this site do not advocate sacking Paul Cook.

In mid-November 2014 Uwe Rosler was sacked with Latics in 22nd place in the Championship at the time with three wins from 17 games. Gary Caldwell suffered a similar fate in late October 2016 with Latics in 23rd place with two wins from 14 games. Their successors, Malky Mackay and Warren Joyce, were unable to stop the rot and relegation was the consequence. Although there are fans calling for Cook to be removed there are many who will cite the lessons of the past, fearing what might happen if that were to unfold.

Chairman Darren Royle is faced with a difficult decision regarding Cook’s position. It is compounded by the fact that the transfer window has reopened. If Royle backs Cook, giving him more time to turn things around, how will it affect player recruitment this coming month? If Cook were to be moved on some weeks from now any new manager would be saddled with his recruits.

Uwe Rosler’s downfall was largely brought about by his recruiting over the summer of 2014. So many of his new recruits just did not perform up to the standard expected. The German had done a wonderful job the previous season, after taking over from Owen Coyle in December 2013. He guided Latics to both the FA Cup semi-final and the Championship play-offs.

There are some parallels between Rosler and Cook. Cook too enjoyed considerable success in his first season, winning League 1 and going on an epic FA Cup run, with that stunning win over Manchester City. But his signings have met with mixed success.  Bringing in players who played under him at Portsmouth has not been particularly well received by fans.

Reports suggest that IEC made funds available to Latics for summer signings. Although the club does not usually disclose transfer fees the summer incomings probably amounted to around £6 m, whereas the fee received for Dan Burn’s transfer to Brighton was around £3 m. Cook spent most on Josh Windass (around £2m), Joe Garner (£1.2 m), Cedric Kipre (£1 m), Leonardo da Silva Lopes (£800,000) with Lee Evans being signed on January 1 (£800,000) after playing on a loan-to-buy agreement.  £6 m may be a small outgoing on transfers for most clubs in the Championship, but it is sizeable by Wigan standards. Critics say that Cook paid above market value for those players, some of whom have not impressed to date. It remains to be seen whether how much further cash will be speculated in January and if the Royles, Darren and Joe, will be the prime drivers in the recruitment process even if Cook stays.

Royle might well decide that he must sack Cook. If so, he will need a replacement to step in promptly before further recruitment is effected. A new manager would not only need to look at bringing in new players, but also at moving on others within the club to make space for the newcomers.

If Cook is given the backing of Royle and IEC we can only hope that he will select lineups with more positive intent, giving his players the chance to show their skills, not resorting to the hoofball that we have seen on too many occasions. It is the manager’s first season in charge of a Championship side and he is finding it tough. With adjustments due to be made to the squad during January he will have different options. In the meantime we have to assume that Cook has been reflecting on what he could have done better over these past months, despite the unavailability of players through injury and the uncertainties involved in a long and drawn-out takeover.

 

Thanks to all whose tweets are included above.

Five talking points following a Jekyll and Hyde display at Swansea

Swansea City 2 Wigan Athletic 2

 

To coin a much-used cliché: it was a game of two halves.

Latics totally dominated the first half, going into the interval with a two-goal lead that could have easily been more. Their play was a revelation compared with what we have seen over recent months. High tempo attacking football was the order of the day. But the second half was awful, sadly reminiscent of what we have been seeing far to often. The defensive hoof ball approach once again reared its ugly head, the Swans getting back in the game with soft goals from set pieces.

When the team sheet became available prior to the match there were groans from Latics fans on the social media. How could Callum McManaman not be included following his excellent performance at West Bromwich? Why was Will Grigg not starting?

But Paul Cook’s lineup and tactics worked extremely well in that first half. He had brought Darron Gibson in to sit in front of the back four, with Lee Evans and Sam Morsy pushed further forward. But Latics looked sadly short of any constructive kind of tactical approach in the second half as the home team dominated proceedings. Swansea manager, Darren Potter, had brought on Kyle Naughton and Jefferson Montero at half time, changing his team’s formation. Latics just could not seem to master the new Swansea approach.

Following the game Cook once again mentioned that the Championship was “unforgiving”, but also remarked: “We were in complete control in the first-half and Swansea then changed things tactically in the second-half. We tried our best to adapt to things in the second-half but within adapting to it we have gone deeper than we would have wanted but to concede two goals from set-pieces is hugely disappointing because we changed our formation so Swansea didn’t score in open play and they go and get two from set-pieces.”

Let’s look at some points arising:

Why were Latics so Jekyll and Hyde?

Cook deserves praise for his brave approach at the start of the game. Evans and Morsy were pushed well forward, as were wingers Gavin Massey and Kal Naismith. Swansea are a side who like to play the ball out from the back, not keen on going long. With the four midfielders and Joe Garner putting constant pressure on defenders who had the ball in their own half the home team’s game fell apart. For once Latics had a piece of fortune after just 10 minutes when Wayne Routledge, a winger playing as a wing back, made a clumsy challenge on Naismith with Garner sending Mulder the wrong way from the penalty. Garner’s second goal from a corner after 33 minutes was well deserved and no surprise given Wigan’s dominance.

But that successful approach disappeared when the second half began. Latics fell back on dire defence and could not keep hold of the ball. Cook’s decision to move Dan Burn into a back line of three central defenders was perhaps not a bad idea in theory, but in practice it resulted in a back five. With three holding midfielders in front of them there was little attacking threat.

As always, the manager carries the can when things do not turn out as hoped. But Cook’s supporters will say that he was urging his players to move forward in the second half, but to no avail. Playing a high pressing game can be tiring. Was tiredness a factor? Or was it due to the brittle confidence of players reluctant to push forward or to make short passes that might result in losing possession?

Joe Garner’s best performance so far

The high pressing tactics certainly suited Garner. In the first half he had support and service, rather than being left alone to fight giant central defenders for long balls launched from defence. As a result, Garner looked a much better player and his two goals were both well deserved and well taken.

Garner is by no means an elegant centre forward: he is not the most skilful, but he is an experienced player with a proven goal scoring record. Although not particularly tall, at 5 ft 10 in, he can leap high and challenge much taller players. He scored 10 goals in 29 starts and 3 substitute appearances for Ipswich last season.

With Will Grigg, James Vaughan and Josh Windass challenging him for a place he has had to be satisfied with just 6 starts at Wigan to date.

There are fans who continue to question the signing of Garner, for a fee reported to be around £1.2 m. But he is a combative type of centre forward who can unsettle opposition defences, given decent service.

Kal Naismith continues to hold his own

It is the 26-year-old Naismith’s first season in the Championship, having spent most of his career in League 2, although he made 20 appearances for Portsmouth last season in League 1.  The player had a difficult pre-season with Latics, struggling after being played out of position at left back. But like other players who have played under the manager at previous clubs, Cook clearly believes Naismith can make it in the second tier of English football.

Naismith is not the kind of winger who uses pace to get past his full back. But he is industrious, has a good left foot and has a good strike record for a wide player. At the Liberty Stadium, with Latics 2-0 up he had the chance to virtually seal the game for his side, but his shot went narrowly wide.  But despite the missed chance he was once again one of the consistent performers on the day, playing in his more natural position in left midfield.

After a difficult start to his career at Wigan, playing at a level above he has played before, Naismith continues to develop.

Walton back on track?

Christian Walton, like so many of his teammates, has struggled to maintain the form he showed earlier in the season. But at Swansea he was more dominant in his box and got well behind low shots coming in.

Although he has 100 appearances in league football it is Walton’s first season in the Championship. At 23 he can still develop into a top-class goalkeeper.

Morsy’s contract came through

The news of Sam Morsy’s new contract came through on Christmas Day: odd timing. But it was good news, if rather belated. Morsy is not the most technically gifted player, but his selfless approach and sheer industry, make him a key player in Cook’s team.

But what is of concern is that there have been no announcements of other contract extensions.

What on earth is happening?

 

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

Five talking points following an encouraging finale at West Bromwich

West Bromwich Albion 2 Wigan Athletic 0

After the pattern of football we have seen in recent months there were few reasons to be optimistic for the trip to the Hawthorns.

The first half followed a familiar pattern with Latics launching long balls forward and the home team looking superior. It was no surprise when Albion scored after 8 minutes when Dwight Gayle launched a routine cross into Wigan’s box and Jay Rodriguez headed in with remarkable ease. Gayle left the field of play after the goal, perhaps fortunately for Latics, to be replaced by Hal Robson-Kanu. Rodgriguez went on to score a second after 69 minutes with a spectacular strike from outside the box, although he was scarcely challenged by the Wigan defenders.

Paul Cook put out a changed lineup, partially signalling a much-needed shakeup. Nathan Byrne made way for Gavin Massey, Callum Connolly came in for Lee Evans. Gary Roberts was omitted with Chey Dunkley coming back to the left centre of defence with Dan Burn moving over to left back and Kal Naismith to left midfield. Some out of form players had been rested, but both Christian Walton and Josh Windass kept their places.

Sadly, despite the changes in personnel Cook had stuck with the same 4-4-2 that has been synonymous with a long-ball approach over the past weeks. But the introduction of Callum McManaman after 54 minutes signaled a much-needed shift in approach with much less long ball and more constructive football. Latics looked a much better side as a result and built up some fine moves in the final quarter of the game.

After the game Cook commented: “It was nice that Chey Dunkley was on the pitch today. Gavin Massey started his first game since coming back and Michael Jacobs will be back in a week or two, Nick Powell could back in January too and we may dip into the January transfer market.It is a long season; we are all feeling a little bit low at the minute with the results because we are not on a great run like we have been in the last 18 months. The players are doing as much as they can, though, lads like Kal Naismith are growing in the team and Callum McManaman was excellent today – he gave us a spark that we haven’t had and that’s great credit to him.”

Let’s take a look at some points arising from the game:

Playing to your strengths

Joe Garner is 5 ft 10 in tall and Josh Windass 5 ft 9 in. West Bromwich’s central defenders were Ahmed Hegazi  (6 ft 4 in) and Craig Dawson (6 ft 2 in). The Albion pair were untroubled by Wigan’s long balls, gobbling them up with ease. During the course of the match Hegazi won 11 aerials, Dawson 5. Not surprisingly neither Garner nor Windass had good games and both were substituted in the second half.

The overall match stats show the home team winning 62% of aerial duels compared with Wigan’s 38%.

Although their football is based more on movement and possession West Bromwich are a physically imposing side, with more tall players in their lineup yesterday than Latics.

Put simply, playing the long ball against a bigger team is hardly playing to one’s strengths.

A promising return for Gavin Massey

This was Massey’s first start since August 25th when he suffered a serious hamstring injury at QPR. He had come on in the 59th minute in the last game at Birmingham, but yesterday he looked closer to full fitness.

Massey’s searing pace is a key aspect to his game, so the injury to his hamstring will have been worrying for Latics’ medical staff. But he was moving at good pace at the Hawthorns, adding an extra dimension to Wigan’s game. Although not yet at his best he was constructive going forward and attentive in defence.

Let’s hope Michael Jacobs too will be back soon after his hamstring injury. He has not played since the game at Preston on October 6.

Both players have been sorely missed, as has Nick Powell who might not be available for another month.

A left back is desperately needed

Dan Burn cannot be faulted for effort, but  he is no left back. He was put there so Kal Naismith could move further forward on the left. It was not an easy afternoon for either Burn or Naismith.

With Antonee Robinson out long-term  a left back is desperately needed in the transfer window that opens next week.

A chance to shine for Callum McManaman

Much has been said about Cook’s treatment of Callum McManaman, a creative talent who has hardly been given a chance in a team in desperate straits, so short on invention and the ability to unsettle the opposition. The reasons for his tiny amount of game time have been palpably unclear to us as fans.

Once again McManaman’s was on the bench yesterday and one expected him to be brought on in the closing minutes, if at all.

But Cook surprised us by withdrawing the hapless Windass after 54 minutes, whereas his substitutions usually come later than that. McManaman was excellent, running at the home team defence which had to resort to foul means to stop him. It is a long time since a Latics player has shown that kind of trickery and skill. So often in a team low on confidence the norm has been to pass the ball backwards or sideways or make a speculative cross that has led nowhere. McManaman was a breath of fresh air in comparison.

Moreover, the player’s arrival signaled a more cultured approach from Latics, reminiscent of what we saw earlier in the season when things were going much better.

One swallow does not make a summer, but it was such a refreshing change. We all know that there will be games when McManaman struggles to make an impact and he might not be so good defensively as some. But he has that ability to change a game.

Following an excellent performance McManaman has staked his claim for a start at Swansea on Saturday. Let’s wait and see.

Rays of hope for the future?

 Football managers can be very stubborn and can stick to rigid ideas. Cook was in such a frame of mind as he stuck with the ineffective 4-4-2 formation yesterday that had become synonymous with long ball.

However, there were rays of hope in the second half when Latics made efforts to revive the passing football that had been so uplifting in August and September.

One can only hope that Cook has seen the light on the road to Damascus. It could not only be the saving of Latics from relegation, but the means of the manager holding on to his job.

David Sharpe once made a statement regarding playing football “The Wigan Way”. Let’s hope that the manager has the courage to allow his players to express themselves on the pitch rather than continue with the kind of scrapball that was the norm in the reigns of Malky Mackay and Warren Joyce.

 

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com