Stoke 2 Latics 1: Time for a Change

My wife has so often reminded me how much Wigan Athletic results affect my moods. She would tell me how grumpy and depressed I could get when they lose. I cannot argue with her: she is right.

But I grew up in a family in the south of Wigan surrounded by a morass of rugby. My father was a beacon of light for me being one of the few Latics supporters in the area, not afraid to stand up against the rugby hordes of the time and let them know of his love for Latics. He was there for Latics’ first ever game against Port Vale Reserves as a 12 year old in 1932. He passed on his devotion to the football club not just to me but to my son, Ned, who has never lived in the town but simply adores Wigan Athletic.

My son and I started up this site when Latics were in the Premier League. For a couple of years our articles were posted on the site of ESPN, the world’s largest sports media company. There were ups and downs over those years, but we were incredibly proud of our club punching above their weight. Writing for the site was a pleasure.

The years since leaving the Premier League have been topsy-turvy. Awful managerial appointments were made and relegation ensued twice. The names of Owen Coyle, Malky Mackay and Warren Joyce became synonymous with a fightball/long ball approach. The seeds that Roberto Martinez put into place in the Premier League days were firmly embedded until poor ownership decisions brought in managers whose style of play was light years apart from the Spaniard’s football. In comparison Martinez’ legacy at his previous club, Swansea, remains in place. Possession football is not everyone’s cup of tea but for me it is infinitely preferable to the dross we have so often witnessed over the past 15 months.

I watched today’s game with my American son-in-law who quickly pointed out that Latics constantly hoofed the ball forward, only to concede possession. Was that a valid tactic he asked? Giving away possession so easily was surely going to put increasing pressure on their defence as the match proceeded. Even with a one goal lead at half time I told him not to expect Latics to hold it. I told him it has become habitual for Latics to hoof the ball even more in the second half and that a winning goal for the home team would most likely come when the Wigan defence was tired in added time.

I take no pleasure in my predictions becoming reality.  I have become so numbed by the dross I have seen so often since our return to the second tier. I am not grumpy after this performance. It is beyond that.

The football offered by Paul Cook and his coaches belongs to the Stone Age in comparison with that of the likes of Swansea and Brentford. The emphasis is on sweat and toil, rather than on developing footballers’ skills. When Cook was appointed we were supportive as we believed that his teams played good football. But what we have seen is no better than that of Coyle, Mackay or Joyce.

Darren Royle’s problem is exacerbated by the fact that the previous chairman gave an extended contract to a manager with no prior experience in the Championship.

Nevertheless it is time for a change.

Five things Wigan Athletic need to do to get better results

With 15 points from 15 games Wigan Athletic are perilously close to the relegation zone. They have scored a paltry 13 goals, with only Middlesbrough having scored less. The midfield lacks creativity, the defence regularly gives away “soft” goals and the forwards are not taking their chances.

The club are looking at consolidation in the Championship this season, but at this stage it could be another struggle to avoid descent to League 1. IEC supported Paul Cook in the summer transfer market by investing over £8m in new players. However, the club’s wage structure does not allow them to compete with the bigger clubs in the division. Latics have to look at players from lower divisions or those who have not managed to force their way into the first team at Premier League clubs.

Of the team that started the last game against Swansea only goalkeeper David Marshall has played Premier League football. That puts them at a disadvantage against most of the teams they are going to face.

Put simply Latics need to punch above their weight to even survive in the division. To do so needs the manager and his coaching staff to get the best out of the players they have, employing a tactical framework that allows them to develop and improve. Facing stronger opposition on a regular basis means that Latics must get their tactics right and not be outthought by opposition managers.

Here are some things that they will need to do if they are to lift themselves out of the relegation dogfight:

Use the central striker more effectively

Signing a 6ft 5in centre forward from League 1 was always going to be a gamble. Kieffer Moore got his first goal from a penalty last weekend after 12 matches without scoring. He has had a torrid time.

Whether Moore can establish himself as a striker in the second tier remains to be seen. Although totally committed to the cause and able to upset opposition defenders through his physicality he has looked short of the skills needed to be successful at this level.

Cook has maintained faith in the big man to the extent that Joe Garner has been largely consigned to the bench. Now Garner is by no means a star at Championship level, but he is an experienced player who can score goals and show moments of invention.

Much of Moore’s job has been to receive long balls from defence, making flick-ons or holding the ball up for teammates coming forward. Although crosses have rained in from the wings into the penalty box he has rarely threatened on goal.

Up to this point Latics’ leading scorer is central defender Chey Dunkley with five goals. No one else has scored more than one. With Joe Garner not having scored a goal this season it means that the total number of goals from the centre forwards is one from 15 matches, indicating some things need to change.

Having a big centre forward spending much of his time fending off defenders for long balls, some thirty yards from goal, facing backwards is hardly an effective ploy. If Moore or Garner is to score goals the style of play needs to change into something more modern and more akin to that played by most of the other clubs at Championship level. Swansea showed at the weekend that you can cause defences problems playing without a big target man, but with other forwards supporting the central striker, something that Wigan are not particularly good at doing.

Something clearly must change if the central strikers are to be successful. A more mobile, pacey player like Josh Windass could be used in that position, although that would necessitate Cook instructing his defenders to stop launching long balls through to the centre forward.

Hire a defensive coach

Swansea’s two goals were indicative of the looseness in defence that has lost Latics so many points this season. In each case the two Swansea attackers in goalscoring positions were outnumbered by Wigan defenders but one was left unmarked to put the ball in the net.

It is a problem that plagued Latics throughout last season also, but the current coaching staff have apparently been unable to correct it. Hiring a defensive coach could well prove to be good investment.

Employ the most suitable players in their best positions

In these days of inverted wingers Cook could consider himself justified in playing either Gavin Massey or Jamal Lowe on the left. Both are naturally right footed. Lowe has struggled to hit top form although his performances have improved over recent games when he has been played on the right wing. For Lowe to play on the right Cook moved Massey to the left, where he has struggled. The manager’s determination to include both Lowe and Massey in the same team has meant that Michael Jacobs, Kal Naismith and Anthony Pilkington have been left out of the starting line-up.

For the away game at Derby Cook employed a 4-3-3 formation with a central midfield trio. It helped Latics to get more midfield control in that game and the next at Bristol City. He used it again in the Swansea game, with Lewis Macleod in front of the back four and Sam Morsy and Joe Williams pushed further forward.

Adopting such a 4-3-3 formation is a valid tactic for obtaining more midfield control. But it cuts out the number 10 position. Morsy has scored 16 goals in his professional career in 310 appearances, Williams has scored one in 74. Although Morsy and Williams cannot be accused of lacking creativity their potential for scoring goals is much less than someone who can play that number 10 position. It means that if Cook opts for 4-3-3 there is more onus on the wingers to support the central striker and score goals.

The departure of Nick Powell over the summer was a hammer blow for Cook. Powell was the main creative force and scored 8 goals last season. In Powell’s absence the manager has tried a variety of players in the number 10 position to mixed effect. The most suited to that role are Joe Gelhardt and Josh Windass. But despite saying how Gelhardt is good enough for the first team the manager has only given him 93 minutes of playing time in the 15 league games played. Is it loyalty to the senior pros that is the issue?

After coming on as a substitute midway through the second half against Swansea Gelhardt’s nimble footwork and accurate passing saw him set up Moore for an opportunity that the big centre forward was unable to take. But the footwork and passing was reminiscent of Powell. It is the kind of thing that has been so lacking in Wigan’s play this season.

Windass appears to be the latest player who has fallen foul of the manager. Although not as creative as Powell, Windass has the ability to unsettle a defence and score goals.

Cook has the players to provide balanced line-ups, with players being employed in their best positions. This means Lowe or Massey alternating on the right wing, Naismith and Jacobs on the left, with Pilkington looking comfortable on either flank. If the manager opts for 4-2-3-1 he has Evans, Macleod, Morsy and Williams to compete for positions in central midfield, with Gelhardt and Windass available for the number 10 position.

Rotate the squad regularly, especially when fixtures are coming in thick and fast

The Championship is one of the most physically demanding leagues in the world, with 46 games to be played, plus cup competitions. Moreover, the international breaks cause fixtures to be further intensified.

During his time at Wigan Uwe Rosler acquired the nickname “Tinkerman” through his constant rotation of the squad. Nevertheless, it worked well in his first season where he lifted Latics up from a lower mid-table position to the play-offs and took Arsenal to penalties in the FA Cup semi-final. Rotating his squad helped keep players fresh and meant that most were getting game-time. Rosler came unstuck through his signings over the summer that followed. Despite having a good squad, he signed a lot of new players, swelling the numbers. Some of his signings were questionable, others just did not get the time to settle and have proved themselves at other clubs since leaving Wigan.

Cook can hardly be called by the same nickname. Barring injuries and abnormally poor performances he goes close to picking the same line-up on a constant basis.  Of the current squad nine players have started in at least 11 of the 15 league games. Four of those were signed over the summer. The critics say that Cook has his favourites and will adjust his line-ups to accommodate them. However, there are advantages in having a backbone of players who know each other’s games and gel together. Only David Marshall and Antonee Robinson have started in all 15 games, the injury to Tom Pearce meaning that there has been no replacement to give Robinson a rest.

Given the physical demands on players, especially during times of fixture congestion, it is advisable to rotate players competing for the same position.

Will Latics stay up?

Wigan Athletic were a match for the high-flying Swansea and their efforts certainly deserved at least a point. At the DW Stadium they have had good results against teams who were near the top of the division when they played them. Cook has a well-balanced squad, with competition in every position, capable of riding through the constant injury problems that clubs face in this competitive division.

It is the away performances that continue to be of concern. Although the manager has said that they approach away games in a similar way to home games, a plethora of aimless long balls has been what we have so often witnessed away from home. There were certainly improvements in performances, if not results, at Derby and Bristol City, with more of an emphasis on building up moves from the back. Playing Lewis Macleod just in front of the back four has meant that defenders have an outlet, someone capable of receiving the ball under pressure, lessening the launching of hopeful long balls.

Cook’s teams are never going to play the kind of football we saw from Swansea which was initiated there in the reign of Roberto Martinez some 15 years ago. But at their best we know that Latics can play a passing game that can trouble any defence in this division. However, that necessitates the manager stamping a more positive style on his team’s play, both at the DW and on the road. He and his coaches must insist that the hopeful long ball is the final option, not the first. Throwing away possession has been the downfall of Cook’s Latics since their return to the Championship division.

Latics certainly have a good enough squad to stay in the division or reach a mid-table position. The question is whether the manager can stamp an indelible football philosophy on his players and can get the best out of the squad that he has.

 

 

 

 

 

A revitalised midfield for Latics

A competitive midfield trio of Macleod, Morsy and Williams can move Latics ahead.

On paper, one point from two consecutive away games is hardly impressive, but performances and results don’t always correlate. The quality of football we saw last week at Derby and Bristol City was light years ahead of the aimless long-ball approach we have so often witnessed in away days over the past twelve months.

“I’m really positive about the performances we’ve put in this week. We’ve arrived at Derby County and Bristol City and been positive, we’re not setting up to be negative, which is one of the things I said to supporters at the fans’ forum.”

Paul Cook’s comments after the Bristol game made interesting reading. Debates over his statements made in the fans’ forum will continue, but the bottom line is that Latics really were positive at Derby and Bristol, pushing men forward, pressing the home side defences. It was so refreshing to see after month after month of tactically inept away performances.

The signings of Lewis Macleod and Joe Williams over the summer were hardly greeted with universal acclaim by Wigan Athletic fans. Although highly rated as a young player at Rangers, Macleod’s career had been in the doldrums after making just 43 appearances over a four year stay at Brentford. Williams had spent the previous two seasons on loan at Barnsley and Bolton, before Everton sold him to Wigan. His reputation was of a hard-tackling midfielder who could do a job at Wigan.

In the excellent home win over Nottingham Forest Cook  brought in Macleod for the suspended Sam Morsy. The Scot had started in the first two games of the season, Morsy again being suspended, but it had taken six weeks before he appeared again. Macleod had a fine game against Forest, linking up well with Williams.

The underlying reasons for Latics’ woeful away form over the past year have been up for debate for so long. The manager himself has been at a loss to explain it, suggesting that he has employed the same tactics on the road as at home. But the overall impression has been of a lack of creativity, posing little threat on the opponents’ goal and a porous defence capable of giving away “soft” goals, especially in the closing minutes. A common theme has been the inability of the midfield to provide adequate protection for the defence and not providing the link between defence and attack, resulting in defenders launching long balls.

At Bristol Macleod was particularly effective in sitting in front of the back four, available to receive the ball and make accurate passes to teammates. Morsy and Williams played on either side of him, forming a combative, but creative, trio.

Williams has been a revelation, not only strong in his defensive work but showing flair and vision in his play. Still only 22-years old he looks a complete central midfielder. Macleod is now 25 and after so many injury-plagued seasons he is looking fit and sharp, as evidenced by the fact that he has played the full 90-plus in each of the last three games.

Despite conceding late goals at Derby and Bristol the defence has also shown improvement over recent weeks. With an improved defence and a more functional midfield Latics will surely compete better away from the DW Stadium. However, it will need more sharpness and poise from the forwards for them to become truly competitive on the road.

Derby 1 Wigan Athletic 0 – the social media reaction

It was yet another away defeat, although with better finishing Latics could have won.

After the game Paul Cook commented: “We haven’t played as well as that away from home for a long time. And even the most biased person inside the ground would have to admit we certainly deserved something from the game.To come away from here with nothing is not right. If we’d come away with a draw, we’d have been thinking we deserved to win the game. But we never got nothing, and that’s football. Moments come and go in games that you’ve got to take if you are going to be successful. We had enough moments to ensure we won the game, and unfortunately we never took them.”

Let’s take a look at how fans reacted to the match through the message boards and social media.

Our thanks go to the Cockney Latic Forum, the Vital Wigan – Latics Speyk Forum and Twitter for providing the media for the posts below to happen. Thanks go to all whose contributions are identified below.

Jrfatfan on the Cockney Latic forum commented:

No negatives from me on that performance. We are finally looking like a team, players left everything on the pitch.
Creating chances to, one goal would have probably seen 2 or 3. Their man looked offside and in the goalies line of view for the goal.
I’m gutted for Cook and all the players.

The_Pon on the Latics Speyk Forum commented:

Should’ve won that. Had the better of the chances and again looked completely inept in front of goal. Williams Mom again, by a mile this time. After 90 minutes I still had no idea what the formation was but at least it wasn’t just a load of long balls. Team selection was again very odd, and the subs were far too late to make an impact. No specific criticism for Garner or Naismith though. They didn’t have time to even get properly warmed up. No points again against very weak opposition, again. How long does this have to go on before questions are asked of Cook at a higher level than us lot?

 

Mightytics on the Latics Speyk Forum commented:

Moore is starting to get frustrated , you can see it in his body language trying to close down 3 defenders on his own , his touch is very poor and for a target man he does not bring m,any players into the game to keep it flowing .With Mulgrew in we look solid and looked edgey when Kipre came on.  Lowe should of had a couple tonight and we should of been 3 up
From the first minute i saw Williams i said he was different class and now he is proving it , if i stood with Paul Cook all night he could not explain to me why Joffy was not introduced with 15 minutes to go , if he does not get game time soon he should tell his agent he wants to leave because we are going to ruin his career sitting such a talent on the bench then playing him in the 23s were he is far too good and will not test him.

Markgreen433  on the Latics Speyk Forum commented:

 Watched live and thought the midfield 3 were great. Williams stood out, but McLeod and Morsy were really solid. Good switching of play to the overlapping full backs. Moore worked hard, but not sure if he’s the answer for how we play at the moment, though he held the ball up well and tried to link up play. Not sure about Lowe, but wonder if he would be better through the middle, as Moore doesn’t seem to have the pace to trouble defences… Maybe Gelhardt should have had a chance tonight. Turning point for me was Mulgrew going off. Not blaming Kipre but he does slip a lot in the box. But we didn’t seem as organised towards the end.

King_dezeeuw06 on the Latics Speyk Forum commented:

Derby were diabolical and there for the taking – we keep coming across teams that are having off days and keep failing to capitalise on what should be gifted 3 points. When you are in the relegation dog fight like we are you can’t keep messing up those games without eventually paying the consequences.

We worked hard were the better team (it wasnt hard with how bad Derby were) , we created the better chances but looked like we lacked belief we could get a goal. I don’t think you can fault the effort from the lads but today was a golden opportunity and we missed our chances. Unlucky to lose like we did but also have only ourselves to blame for not putting Derby to the sword on the night long before the injury time goal.

We’ve had a decent amount of time to judge Moore now and Im sorry to say im really losing faith in him – he was terrible tonight. He’s a big physical presence no doubt but for his size he doesn’t win as much in the as you’d expect and gets pushed off the ball easier than you’d think. His movement off the ball has been bothering me but I put it down to a complete lack of service but he’s had a few decent crosses put into the box over last couple of games and he’s never anywhere near them. But what really concerned me wss when he has the ball at his feet he’s looks like a fish out of water. I was excited at getting him in but the more I’ve seen the more I think he’s not a Championship player unfortunately. He’s a physical presence we miss when he’s not on the pitch but I don’t think he’s the answer and neither is Garner. Compare him to Martin who came on for Derby and it was night and day comparing target men. We’d have been better bringing Leon Clarke back from what we’ve seen.

The away form is beyond doubt a physiological problem at this stage even sitting watching at no point did I fancy us to see it out no matter how Derby were struggling.

Disappointing again but not surprising in the least. We couldn’t ask for a more off form opposition than tonight – it was like Boro again and we still couldn’t win away. Cook clearly doesn’t have the answers to the away form. We are literally trying to stay up playing only half of the games the rest of the division play as you can virtually write off all away games as losses.

 

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

That’s a criticism of myself and the players, because at 0-0 you’re always liable for a sucker-punch.

Some thoughts: Nottingham Forest (H) 1-0

Wigan Athletic confounded the media with a well-deserved victory over an over-hyped Forest side. The television commentary had given us a vision of a resurgent Forest, unbeaten in 10 games, heading for a return to the top tier of English football where they surely belonged. But in the end, they had to acknowledge that Latics were worthy victors and that their record at the DW Stadium over the calendar year was impressive.

Paul Cook had surprised us by leaving Josh Windass on the bench, playing Gavin Massey in the number 10 position. It was Massey’s fine link-up play with Jamal Lowe that produced the winning goal after 35 minutes.

Following the game Paul Cook commented: “I thought we were good in the game, I enjoyed watching us play. It’s another very strong home performance, and you’d struggle to name our best player because we had so many good performers. We looked a threat against a very strong Forest side. And at the other end, we defended very, very well. They’re not so much big wins, they’re just wins because every game is so tough.”

Let’s look at some points arising:

Lowe gets his breakthrough

Jamal Lowe’s protracted arrival from Portsmouth in summer was well received by Latics fans. Lowe scored 17 goals for the south coast club in League 1 last season although he played mainly on the right flank. The question was whether he could bridge the transition to Championship football.

Until yesterday Lowe had struggled, looking a shadow of the confident, skilful player he had been at Portsmouth. At Wigan he had largely been employed on the left flank, sometimes in the middle of the advanced midfield three.

But at last Lowe was given the chance to play in his more “natural” position on the right wing. Gavin Massey had been pushed across to a more central role where he had been effective around the end of last season, linking up with the big man up front. The result was that the big centre forward in this game, Kieffer Moore, received more support than he has been accustomed to.

In scoring his goal Lowe had taken a blow to the knee and it clearly affected his mobility. But the goal had given him renewed confidence and he began to show the kinds of skills that had been muted in previous appearances. Lowe left the field after 65 minutes to the applause of the home crowd. He had made his breakthrough.

Williams thrives in Morsy’s absence

Sam Morsy’s absence through suspension gave a fresh opportunity to Lewis Macleod, who had appeared in the opening two games, but not since. Macleod is a fine footballer whose career has been thwarted by constant injury problems. However, he looked fit enough in this game, defending with vigour, showing his ability moving forward. That he went the whole 90 minutes-plus is a testament to how his rehabilitation is succeeding.

Joe Williams is a tenacious tackler who has a range of passing skills. He was Wigan’s outstanding performer in this game. Williams is still only 22 years old and looks an excellent signing for Latics.

Both Williams and Morsy can play the role of midfield destroyer. They had been playing together in holding midfield, providing solid protection for the defence. However, the introduction of Macleod for Morsy gave the centre of midfield a more fluid look. There will be times when Latics will need the steel provided by a Morsy-Williams duo, but the option of including a fluid passer of the ball like Macleod is one that Cook will surely consider.

A more measured long ball approach

The “hoof” has been an ugly and ineffective aspect of Latics play since their return to the Championship. All too often defenders have launched hopeful long balls, usually in the general direction of an outnumbered and isolated central striker, sometimes simply to clear the lines. The net result has typically been to concede the ball to the opposition, inviting them to build up moves from the back and pressurise Wigan’s defence further.

The long ball is not going away as long as Paul Cook is in charge at Wigan. It was frequently applied yesterday, interspersed with spells of keeping the ball on the ground. However, in this game most of the long balls were at least “measured” with Kieffer Moore able to receive and shield the ball on some occasions.

A mixed day for Kieffer

Kieffer Moore came into this game on the back of two fine performances for Wales, for whom he looked a much better player than we had seen playing for Latics. Would the big centre forward be able to get his first goal for Wigan after he had notched his first at international level in Slovakia?

Sadly, it was not to be and, as in so many of his previous Latics appearances, he did not look like scoring. Moore was as committed as ever and posed a physical challenge to the Forest defenders, not so isolated up front with Massey providing support.

Gelhardt’s role

Joe Gelhardt captained England’s under 18 side last week and once again showed what a good player he is on the international stage. He would have been full of confidence coming into this game. Surely, he would be brought on at some stage. But no. He remained on the bench once more.

Cook has continued to laud the 17-year-old’s ability and temperament, insisting that he is up to the rigours of Championship football, but the stats show that Gelhardt’s opportunities have been severely limited. He has been on the field for a total of just 73 minutes of the 12 league games played.

Rumour suggests that Gelhardt will be in the centre of a bidding war between elite Premier League clubs in the January transfer window. The more experience he gets at Championship level the higher his potential transfer fee is likely to rise.

There are critics who suggest that Cook is largely paying lip service to treating Gelhardt as a fully- fledged member of the first team squad and that his main role will continue to be as the “home- grown” player that the EFL insists must be included in every match-day squad. They cite the example of Callum McManaman who last season was on the pitch for a total of 439 minutes, which included just one start. He was on the bench 34 times.

Given the lack of creativity in Latics’ and their lack of goals from open play it has been disappointing to see a player of Gelhardt’s flair left so often on the bench. Should he leave in January Cook will have to look for someone else to fulfil the home-grown requirement.

 

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com