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.