Getting the right balance in an unforgiving league

It’s an unforgiving league” is a phrase that Paul Cook has frequently used over the course of the 2018-19 EFL Championship season. It is one which Wigan Athletic fans will hope he will not be using after this week’s encounters with neighbours, Blackburn and Bolton.

Compared with League 1 the Championship is more unforgiving. Mistakes are more likely to be punished playing against teams with higher quality players and managers who are more tactically aware.

Last season Latics had a wage budget in excess of £12 m compared with a League 1 average closer to £3 m. Rival team managers would have been so often justified if they had called last season’s Wigan team “unforgiving”.  Put simply, Latics had higher quality players on higher salaries than any other team in the division bar Blackburn Rovers. Even when not playing particularly well they had a solid defence and the kinds of players in midfield and up front who could produce something special when things were not going so well.

The boot this season has been on the other foot. Wigan’s wage budget is modest for a division in which the clubs with the lower budgets typically occupy the lower parts of the table. That Latics are competing with clubs with similarly modest budgets like Bolton, Ipswich, Millwall and Rotherham to avoid relegation comes as no surprise.

But clubs can punch above their weight as Latics proved in the most emphatic way during their time in the Premier League. Despite a modest budget by Premier League standards they stayed in the division for eight years, reaching the League Cup Final and winning the FA Cup. During those eight years they recorded victories over those giant elite clubs that dominate that division.

Wigan Athletic were punching above their weight in the early stages of the current season. Although rather suspect in defence they were playing a brand of “no fear” attacking football, built upon the momentum of winning the League 1 title. Cook had continued to use the 4-2-3-1 formation that had brought success in League 1.

However, Gavin Massey’s injury at QPR at the end of August was a blow to Cook’s style of play. Moreover an injury to Michael Jacobs meant that both first choice wingers were unavailable for the next game at home to Rotherham.  Callum Connolly was drafted in on the right for Massey and Josh Windass for Jacobs. It was a dour game with Rotherham “parking the bus”. Both Nick Powell and Will Grigg were taken off after 60 minutes and a skillful passing approach gave way to a speculative long-ball scenario.

Jacobs returned in place of Connolly for the next game, a 1-0 win over Rotherham and played a part in victories over Hull and Bristol City. But an injury sustained in a 4-0 defeat at Preston in early October saw him out of action until mid-January.

In the absence of specialist wingers Massey and Jacobs for periods of months Cook could have been expected to use the speed and trickery of Callum McManaman, but his initial preference was to play such as Windass and Connolly out of position. He later employed the 34 year old Gary Roberts in wide positions. McManaman continued to be snubbed. The result was a lack of pace and cutting edge from the flanks. The manager’s problems were further exacerbated by the absence of the midfield playmaker Nick Powell through injury from the end of November to the middle of February. In the absence of Jacobs, Massey and Powell the quality of football plummeted, especially in away games with the “hoof” being far too prominent.

Cook now has the trio back at his disposal, but must be careful not to overuse them and risk injury. On Saturday at Reading the quality of football once again plummeted when Massey and Powell left the field, Wigan unable to retain possession, conceding late goals.  With Anthony Pilkington not on the bench Cook brought on Kal Naismith to replace Massey. Leon Clarke replaced Powell.

Cook’s substitutions on Saturday were ill-thought and allowed Reading back into the game. Rather than allow Reading to come forward and have speedy players ready to launch counterattacks he chose to put on a big centre forward and play a version of 4-4-2. The more obvious replacement for Powell was Josh Windass who has been used in the number 10 role before and has pace. Naismith was the obvious substitute for Massey, but rather than play him in his natural role on the left and switching Jacobs across the right the manager chose to play the Scot in a position where he looked out of his depth.

Cook will surely name the trio of Jacobs, Massey and Powell in his starting lineup at Blackburn tomorrow, providing they are fit. However, one can only hope that he can make better contingency plans for substitutions as they tire. Putting Clarke and Garner up front late in the game might be a valid tactic if Latics are behind, but it is not the way to protect a one goal lead. If Latics do get ahead against Blackburn he should either stick to a successful formula – usually 4-2-3-1 – and avoid that 4-4-2 long ball approach like the plague. An alternative on Saturday would have been to bring Cedric Kipre off the bench to play in a back three, with Nathan Byrne and Antonee Robinson moving to wing back roles. It could have provided extra defensive cover whilst bolstering the midfield.

That trio of Jacobs, Massey and Powell are crucial for Wigan’s survival in the Championship. An injury to either one would be a hammer-blow. Cook will have to be careful of not pushing them too hard given their recoveries from injury. That means that he will need to be proactive, rather than reactive, in keeping the team balanced if one or more of them is not on the pitch. Above all that hoofball approach that cedes possession to the opposition needs to be avoided.

We can only hope that the manager has learned from the mistakes he has made this season and will open his kind to more insightful approaches. Might he even consider McManaman as a possible stand-in for Jacobs or Massey?

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Five talking points as pressure mounts on Cook after Reading defeat

Reading 3 Wigan Athletic 2

For the first 78 minutes it looked like the Wigan Athletic we took pride in watching in late summer. That positive attacking approach had returned with Nick Powell orchestrating from midfield and the home defence being stretched by Wigan’s nimble wide men. With Latics 2-1 ahead Reading goalkeeper Martinez made an outstanding point blank save from Nick Powell when a goal had looked certain. But Latics took off the tiring Massey and Powell after 73 and 78 minutes and the game swung back in Reading’s favour.

Following the last minute defeat the social media and message boards were awash with fans voicing their frustration with the manager’s substitutions and his tactical nous.

For his part Paul Cook commented: “I wanted a reaction from the players, I wanted us to find the identity which we had last year and at the start of this season and, to be fair, I thought the lads were excellent today – probably as good as we have played for a long, long time…It was a big game; I wanted to make sure we turned up and did we turn up? Yes, I thought we did. Our big players, did they play well? I thought they were excellent all over the pitch. Tactics, formations, that hasn’t influenced the game today – we were excellent but unfortunately we haven’t managed to get the result”

Let’s take a look at some points arising:

Cook chooses an attacking starting lineup

So often this season the starting lineup has given us a pretty good idea of what to expect. It was certainly the case in this match with the manager reuniting the trio of Michael Jacobs, Gavin Massey and Nick Powell who had been behind so much of the good football that has surfaced during the manager’s tenure. Moreover, he had benched the ineffective Leon Clarke for Joe Garner and, at last, brought in his specialist left back Antonee Robinson. He also brought experience into the centre of defence in a potentially tense encounter by bringing in Jonas Olsson for Cedric Kipre.

The starting lineup gave us promise that we could expect good football, far apart from the hoofball/scrapball approach we have seen so often in away games. To be fair to the manager it was the first time since August that Jacobs, Massey and Powell had all been fit enough to be included as a trio in the starting lineup. If they had not suffered from those long-term injuries Latics would surely not have been locked in a relegation battle at this point of the season.

Fitness issues were always going to weigh heavy

Cook certainly got his starting lineup right but there was going to come a time in the game when he would have to take off some of his key players. The question was who would it be and how many would he have to substitute?

Olsson had not played competitive football since December. Robinson’s last game was on November 10, but he had been back in contention for a matter of weeks and it had been a surprise that Cook had not given him any game time before this match. Given previous injuries to his attacking trio Cook would need to be careful not to risk more problems by overextending the members that attacking trio.

Cook’s substitutions handed the initiative to Reading

The manager knew beforehand that he would have to make substitutions at some stage and had the time to draw up contingency plans. His challenge was to be how he could make the substitutions yet maintain the positive momentum built up by his starting lineup.

In the event Cook replaced Massey with Kal Naismith and Powell with Leon Clarke. His substitutions wrecked the 4-2-3-1 shape that had been working so well and destroyed that momentum. Naismith was like a duck out of water on the right wing. Clarke was simply ineffective and his presence invited long balls from defenders with possession being squandered.

Cook shot himself in the foot with the comment  that “Tactics, formations, that hasn’t influenced the game today” after seeing how his substitutions saw a change from flowing football to the fightball approach that has reared its ugly head far too often.

Another game decided by fine margins

Despite the manager’s ineffective substitutions Latics could still have come away with points had “luck” favoured them a little more. If Powell’s shot had not been somehow blocked by Martinez Wigan would have had a two goal cushion and Reading’s morale would have taken a severe hit.

Reading’s second goal was certainly controversial with the home team on the edge of unsporting behaviour after the referee had dropped the ball to Sam Morsy. The result was a lack of midfield cover with Reece James off the pitch and Morsy marooned on the half way line. Barrow ran through unmarked to hit the type of  long-range shot that can beat Jamie Jones. The winning goal in the 97th minute was scored after Olsson had been jostled to the ground in the penalty box as the set piece was launched. Reading had been putting constant pressure on the referee, as do so many teams in this division.

A manager under pressure

The calls for Cook to be replaced have intensified. Although we on this site have previously advocated that he be given more time the worry is that the manager just does not seem to be learning from his mistakes with his team selections, substitutions and tactical approach.

Darren Royle and IEC have been supportive up to this point but are they willing to continue to back a manager and backroom staff that could take the club back to League 1?

If Cook were to go would the highly experienced Peter Reid or Joe Royle take temporary control? Or would a snap appointment be brought in from the outside?

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

Five talking points after an opportunity missed at Derby

Derby County 2 Wigan Athletic 1

It had been one of Wigan’s better away performances: a goal up after 25 minutes following a superb counterattack, the home team not looking like they were going to score. Then after 62 minutes Derby substitute Mason Bennett scored a truly spectacular goal that radically changed the game. Wigan’s fragile confidence was severely dented to such an extent that it was no great surprise that the home team scored again 16 minutes later with the Wigan defence all at sea.

Following the game Paul Cook commented: “At one stage, the whole picture looked great for us but unfortunately the picture changed completely. For long periods in the second-half, I thought we were going to score again – I thought we were getting in the right areas but the disappointing thing was Massey and Jacobs tired badly – as to be expected – and we are having to make substitutions. There are no excuses, though, we are at a good level of football and you have got to have something about you to see games out and unfortunately we haven’t been able to do that.”

Let’s look at some points arising:

An opportunity missed

On paper Derby had a stronger lineup than Wigan. Even without players of the quality of Tom Lawrence and Mason Mount they had enough talent to ask questions about a suspect Latics defence. Nevertheless, Derby came into this game after three consecutive league defeats and their play had been fraught with errors. With the home team so nervy and with Latics a goal up going into the interval it was an opportunity for a rare Wigan away win.

Wigan had been unfortunate to be deprived of the experienced and influential Danny Fox through injury after 33 minutes. Would the defence be able to withstand the Derby pressure in his absence? Mason Bennett is by no means a prolific scorer with a record of 6 goals in 90 league appearances. Latics can certainly count themselves unfortunate to have conceded a goal to Bennett that some might label a touch of genius; others might say it was a fluke. Wigan had their chances to win the game, but did not convert them, Leon Clarke being the principal offender in that respect.

In his post-match comments Cook told us he had expected Jacobs and Massey to tire.  Their pace and movement had reminded us of the tempo with which Latics had played early in the season. Both had been sadly missed but their presence could still prove crucial to Latics avoiding relegation. But knowing that both were going to be unable to complete the 90 minutes the manager did not have another winger on the bench to replace them. Kal Naismith had come on at full back for Fox and neither Callum McManaman nor Anthony Pilkington were on the bench.

With the squad that Cook has at his disposal Latics are always going to be hard pressed to get a result against a team in the promotion race or one that is at the top of their form. But this is not the first occasion that they have been unable to beat teams that have been nervy and short of confidence following a bad run of results. It started in early October when they lost 4-0 to a Preston side which had been at low ebb. They just have not been able to capitalize on the opportunities presented to them since then.

Tactics and team selection

Having had some success with a back five in the previous outing it was a surprise that Cook ditched it, although it could be argued that his game-plan was working with Latics a goal up. Despite having one of his better displays against Middlesbrough Naismith was taken off after 60 minutes and found himself on the bench at Pride Park.  It can scarcely have helped the player’s confidence and he was not at his best in this match.

Having decided on a flat back four this time around, Cook retained his midfield trio of Reece James, Lee Evans and Sam Morsy. James did well but Evans and Morsy were distinctly below par. Evans in particular looked lost in his role in right midfield.

With a prior background in the lower leagues Cook has struggled with the tactical side of the game in the Championship. It scarcely helps that his assistant manager and first team coach come from similar backgrounds.  With a relatively low budget squad he has to get the best out of the players at his disposal if the team is to compete and avoid relegation. He also needs to adjust his tactical approach according to the opposition he faces.

Last season’s success was based on a 4-2-3-1 system, with a long-ball approach to 4-4-2 being the Plan B. Latics started this season successfully with 4-2-3-1, but injuries to Jacobs and Massey cut its effectiveness. Cook received some criticism for his tactics against Middlesbrough, packing the central midfield and using a backline of three central defenders, but a point was gained against a top team. Given the goals given away by a shaky defence over recent months it was a surprise that the manager had not employed such a shape in his previous starting lineups, particularly away from home.

Set pieces

Latics’ set piece plays have been so disappointing this season. Lee Evans used to be the main taker of corners and free kicks but Reece James has since taken over most of those duties. The centre backs still have not scored a goal, despite the number of opportunities they have had. Nick Powell’s enforced absence from injury has surely had an effect since he is probably the best header of a ball in set-piece situations.

A goal from a set piece is long overdue. Will it come at Reading on Saturday?

Rays of hope

Although the result did not go Wigan’s way there were some rays of hope emanating from the performance. The sight of Jacobs and Massey running at defences at pace from wide positions was most welcome, as was another short appearance for Nick Powell.

Cook now has to decide how to approach the game at Reading. Will he continue with the ineffective Clarke at centre forward or will he opt for Joe Garner or even Powell in that position? One can only hope he will start with Jacobs, Massey and Powell and that Latics will go in with a positive approach. Should they get an early lead there remains the possibility of reverting to a back three/five later in the game, as the trio tires, with Jonas Olsson coming in off the bench.

Looking forward to next season

Should Latics manage to avoid relegation – which is far from certain at this moment – will Cook and his backroom team be in charge next season? The manager has been fortunate to have kept his job given the indifferent performances and results over these months. Should relegation occur then Cook’s experience in the lower divisions would prove useful. Should Latics stay up will Darren Royle continue to back Cook in the hope that he has learned from his mistakes this season?

Latics started the season with a considerable number of players who had not played at championship level before. They too will have benefited from the experience, tough though it might have been.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

Five talking points following a drab display at home to Ipswich

Wigan Athletic 1 Ipswich Town 1

We might have expected Wigan Athletic to come racing out of the blocks following their warm weather trip to Dubai. But it was not to be. A pedestrian Latics side failed to capitalise on Jonas Knudsen’s red card after 25 minutes, going behind five minutes later after a soft penalty was conceded by Chey Dunkley. It took a 91st equaliser from substitute Joe Garner to level the scores.

Paul Cook made two changes from the previous league game with Stoke. Lee Evans returned in central midfield with Reece James being moved to right back in place of Nathan Byrne. Danny Fox came back from injury to replace Cedric Kipre in the centre of defence.

Paul Cook commented: “It has to be a point gained, it has to be – for sure. You’d have to say it’s a feeling of relief, from the situation we found ourselves in. I thought Ipswich started the game well, they came with quite an attacking intent. The sending-off has a large bearing on the game, and you think the likelihood is we should go on and win the game. Ipswich then get a goal pretty quickly, and it’s set up then where they defend very deep and narrow – and rightly so. They frustrated us for long periods, and I didn’t feel we really looked like scoring, to be truthful. At the end of the day it’s a point, it’s not what we wanted, but the relief at the end was there for all to see.”

Let’s look at some points arising:

Another disappointing result against a side in the relegation zone

Latics have won only 1 game out of 7 against the five teams below them in the Championship table, that being a 1-0 win over Rotherham at the DW Stadium at the beginning of September. They lost at Ipswich and Millwall.

The displays against those teams in danger of relegation have been largely characterised by lethargic build-up play and ineffective finishing. Yesterday’s game simply fitted into a pattern we had seen before.

The remaining “6 pointers” are Reading (A) on March 9, Bolton (H) on March 16 and Millwall (H) on May 5, the last day of the season.

Why it is that Wigan have seemingly played without much ambition in those games is hard to fathom, although last season their results against the top teams in League 1 were not impressive. They won only 1 out of 6 against the 2nd, 3rd and 4th placed teams. Is there something in the planning for these encounters that emphasises caution? Or is it a mere coincidence that the players have not been at their best in those games?

What has happened to Leon Clarke?

His return to Wigan was never going to be easy for Leon Clarke. In his previous spell in the second half of the 2014-15 season he had failed to impress, scoring one goal in ten games. Fans queried his appetite for playing the role of the lone centre forward. Clarke impressed in his first game back, scoring a goal and making an assist against QPR. But in the following three games he has been less effective, looking more like the player of the unfortunate era of Malky Mackay.

Clarke is at Wigan on loan from Sheffield United until the end of the season. Last season he scored 19 goals in 39 appearances in the Championship. However, with the loan signing of Gary Madine and at 34 years of age, Clarke was allowed to leave the Blades in January.

With Sheffield United favouring twin strikers Clarke played well last season, his partnership with Billy Sharp being fruitful. At Wigan he has played as the main central striker with Josh Windass behind him.

Is Clarke better in a twin striker role or is it that he is now playing in a struggling team, not getting the kind of service he did at Bramall Lane?

Only time will tell if Clarke’s return to the DW is successful.

Antonee Robinson absent from the team sheet

Robinson’s last league appearance was on November 10th at Middlesbrough. In Robinson’s absence through injury Kal Naismith has established himself as the regular starter at left back, despite his previous lack of experience in that position.

Most of us expected Cook to sign a new left back over the January window but nothing materialised. Naismith has not had an easy time in that position but has improved as time has passed. At times he has looked all at sea and vulnerable to runs from speedy wingers. But he has also made some outstanding blocks and tackles in and around the penalty box. Cook expects his full backs to push far forward and the Scot has shown skill and determination down the flanks, with an ability to launch pinpoint crosses into the box. Although often under pressure from elements in the crowd Naismith has often shown initiative in a side that has been short on such qualities during a dismal run of results in recent months.

In a recent interview Naismith talked about his adjustment to playing at left back: “I’m learning all of the time, I’m happy to be playing in that new role and delighted to be playing in this league and just learning every day. I go back after the game and watch it, I take little bits from it. It’s funny because I feel like my crossing hasn’t been great as it’s my best asset, but my defending is getting better every week. I take the positives from that, I just want to keep learning as a player and keep improving.”

Robinson played the first 62 minutes against Shanghai SIPC in Dubai, being replaced by Naismith. Robinson too has faced criticism from fans on the defensive part of his game, although he can excel when going forward, possessing real pace.

It was a surprise that Robinson did not appear on the team sheet yesterday. Was he suffering a reaction from the game in Dubai?

McManaman preferred to Massey

After a frustrating first half with Latics woefully short of creativity one hoped, in vain, that Cook would make an immediate substitution in the second half to freshen things up. He had been employing two holding midfielders in Evans and Morsy, both sitting deep against a side with ten men. But we had to wait until after the hour mark for Callum McManaman and Nick Powell to come on for Chey Dunkley and Anthony Pilkington. Although Dunkley’s departure was a shock, Morsy being pushed back into the back four, the arrival of McManaman that was a surprise with Gavin Massey staying on the bench.

Powell looked decidedly rusty after such little football over these months but will clearly be a key player in Cook’s plans when fully fit. McManaman looked lively, if well policed by the Ipswich defence.

The manager’s treatment of McManaman has been unpopular with a lot of the fans. Is this an indication that the player will at last be given a genuine opportunity to prove himself over the games that remain?

Can Latics avoid relegation?

Again, the results for the other teams in the relegation went largely in Wigan’s favour. Bolton lost at Leeds, Millwall were defeated at home by Preston, Reading and Rotherham shared the points.

But Latics have been living precariously for weeks. The optimists will say that they are undefeated in their last four matches, but critics will say that three of those were draws when Wigan were happy to stick with a point.

Should just two of those teams have a run of form over the upcoming games then Latics could be in real trouble unless they too start winning matches. Being satisfied with a point rather than seriously trying for the three points might not be enough.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

 

 

 

 

Five talking points after football is the loser at Rotherham

Rotherham United 1 Wigan Athletic 1

It was a truly awful game of football, but the result was one which helped Latics maintain a six-point lead over the Millers in the relegation dog fight.

Paul Cook opted to bring back Chey Dunkley in the centre of defence for Cedric Kipre. In the absence of Sam Morsy through suspension and Lee Evans through illness he brought in the on-loan Beni Baningime.

Rotherham started aggressively and Latics were under constant pressure. A head injury to Danny Fox after 25 minutes caused him to be replaced by Kipre. Rotherham were playing in a style akin to the Stoke City sides of the Pulis era, a constant stream of crosses being poured into Wigan’s box, aided by the long throw-ins of midfielder Will Vaulks.  It was no surprise when big centre half Craig Robertson headed the Millers in front after 28 minutes with Baningwe and Kipre ball watching. But it was a surprise four minutes later when Josh Windass took his chance with aplomb to level the scores. After being outplayed Latics were fortunate to go to the interval on level terms. They had been overwhelmed in midfield and the hoof dominated their play.

The second half was scarcely any better, although there were a few isolated moments when Latics did put some football together, making Rotherham’s defence look less self-assured.

We have seen some horrible football from Latics away from home this season, but this ranks among the ugliest. Are the defenders playing under orders to hoof the ball away at the smallest hint of danger or is the manager unable to get his players to follow his instructions?

After the game Cook commented: “First of all, I think Rotherham were not far off unplayable in the first-half; they were that good, they were that strong, they put the ball in all of the correct areas. We lost Danny Fox, Lee Evans pulled out ill this morning and we lost a bit of physicality with Lee going out and Beni [Baningime] going in. We knew we were going to have to defend. When Rotherham scored the goal, like most people I wondered if we would buckle under the pressure.”

Let’s take a look at some points arising:

Were Rotherham close to being unplayable in the first half?

Cook’s comment will surely haunt him for time to come. Rotherham have one of the lowest budgets in the division and their squad lacks quality.

Cook is to be commended for openness and honesty in his post-match comments, which so often contrasts to the one-sided, mindless stuff that founts from too many opposition managers.

But he shot himself in the foot with this one.

Rotherham had a game plan: did Wigan?

Rotherham’s game plan was simple, relying on crosses aimed towards the 6 ft 3 in Michael Smith, with the big central defenders coming up for set pieces. On a short and narrow pitch Vaulks’ long throws were akin to corner kicks.

Latics in comparison did not seem to have a plan. So often they played into Rotherham’s hands by kicking the ball out of play in their own half, giving Vaulks a pan-full of opportunities to launch his long throws. Moreover, they gave away too many unnecessary free kicks giving Rotherham the opportunity to bring forward their big guns.

That Latics came away with a point can be seen as a reflection of a willingness to fight, to dig in when under adversity. Effort has rarely been lacking in away games this season, but a genuine game plan has been seemingly absent. The bottom-line yesterday was that Rotherham did not have the quality to make their pressure count.

Latics had a good record against Pulis’ Stoke in the Martinez era. They did not lose any of the eight Premier League games against them. Martinez’ teams always had a plan and the players knew exactly what was expected of them. Aware of the rocket throw-ins of Rory Delap they were careful in possession in their own half, disciplined in their tackling.

Even the best of game plans can come unstuck as the game progresses. But it is disturbing to see Latics going into these away games without any obvious game plan other than gritty defence and hoofing upfield or out of play at the slightest danger.

Another Everton loanee makes his debut

Beni Baningime is 20-years-old and has had one Premier League start and seven substitute appearances for Everton. His first game in the Championship was a baptism of fire.

Baningime looked lost for most of the game, unable to stamp his mark on the play. It was only in the final quarter that he showed the confidence to seek out the ball.

His prior experience did not prepare him for this rough-and-tumble occasion. Only time will tell if Baningime will succeed in his half season at Wigan and make a better impression than previous loan players from Everton have made in recent years.

Cook was unfortunate to lose the experienced and physically more imposing Lee Evans prior to the game. Moreover, he did not have a central midfielder on the bench to replace Baningime if he had wanted to. Neither Shaun MacDonald nor Darron Gibson were in the squad. The latter has been off form of late, but why Cook did not opt for MacDonald’s experience in a tough fixture like that is hard to fathom.

When will Olsson be ready?

It was a surprise to see Jonas Olsson on the bench since the last time he played was for Djuurgardens on November 11. Was some thought given by Cook in bringing on the 6 ft 5 in Swede to counter the aerial threat of Michael Smith? Olsson will be 36 on March 10, but John Terry was playing for Aston Villa last season at 37.

In the event Cook chose to bring on Cedric Kipre who looked solid in defence with Chey Dunkley. However, Fox’s early departure surely had an effect on the football Wigan played. Fox has the skill and confidence to start moves from the back and he adds calm to the defence. Earlier in the season Kipre showed decent passing skills for a big centre half, but yesterday like Dunkley he so often chose to hoof the ball away. Again, the two had opportunities from set pieces which they could not convert. Last season Dunkley scored 7 goals for Latics and Kipre one for Motherwell. One wonders what position Latics would be in now if either had put away some of the chances they have had over these past months.

Kal Naismith had a hard time with Rotherham’s Jon Taylor yesterday and Cook surely needs to take another look at the left back position. Will Antonee Robinson be played there against Stoke on Wednesday? Or will Olsson be brought in to central defence with Fox moving to left back?

Playing to strengths

Creative and skilful players like Michael Jacobs, Gavin Massey and Anthony Pilkington can stretch any Championship defence. They played at Rotherham but were largely wasted with the ball by-passing them so often.

However, with the prospect of Nick Powell returning on Wednesday will we see a change in approach from the manager? Cook has good players at his disposal but to get the best out of them he needs to insist on keeping the ball on the ground much more. Latics are ill-suited to a long ball approach yet they have continued with it despite the poor results.

Can Cook get his team’s head straight to strike a reasonable balance between possession football and a more direct approach?

The jury remains out on this one.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored,com