Wigan Athletic 1 Bristol City 1 – five talking points

August 13, 2022: Wigan Athletic 1 Bristol City 1

It was a “game of two halves” but much credit is due to Wigan Athletic for the way they clawed themselves back into the game following an early reverse.

 With Curtis Tilt injured, Jack Whatmough returned to his usual position as right centre back, Jason Kerr being moved to the left, a less familiar position for him.

The Robins had scored in the 6th minute, a big gap being open on the left -hand side of Wigan’s defence, after Latics had lost the ball up field. Tommy Conway’s cross found Andreas Weimann at the far post, who notched his fourth goal of the season. Wigan’s main mode of attack was to launch hopeful long balls towards an isolated Josh Magennis up front. It was a largely ineffective ploy, but when the big striker got into the penalty box, he had three chances to score, although none of them were easy. Latics went into the half time interval a goal behind.

There was a surprise at the beginning of the second half with Thelo Aasgaard replacing Joe Bennett, who had had an off-day being fortunate not having received a red card following a scuffle with Joe Williams. Aasgaard moved to the left wing with James McClean taking over at left back. Aasgaard’s arrival coincided with a change in approach from Wigan, with controlled football gradually replacing the long ball.

An injury to Ben Amos caused him to be replaced by Jamie Jones after 54 minutes. Wigan were playing much better. Will Keane equalised in the 62nd minute after a goalmouth melee. Mark Sykes, a bargain signing from Oxford United, had been a thorn in the side for Latics on the right wing. Soon after Keane’s goal he launched a superb long cross to the six-yard box, but Conway somehow headed wide of a gaping net. Latics continued to press and looked dangerous, but the visitors also threatened with their rapid counterattacks.

In the end a draw was a fair result, Wigan’s third in the first three games.

Kerr stakes a claim

Jason Kerr, signed from St Johnstone in January, has had to bide his time to stake a claim as a frequent starter. Last season he was played on the right of a block of three central defenders, a position in which he had excelled when helping the Perth club to win both the Scottish Cup and the Scottish League Cup.

Kerr had come on to replace Jack Whatmough in a flat back four in the Preston game, growing more self-assured as the game went on. He continued in that right centre half position at Norwich where he was arguably Latics’ Man of the Match. This was the first time we have seen him on the left side of defence. Once again, he got better and better as the game progressed and was excellent in the second half.

Lang can make it in the Championship

It is Callum Lang’s first season in the Championship and the early stages have been testing for him. Faced against left sided defenders of superior quality to League 1, Lang has not been able to find the same amount of space and freedom as last season. Yesterday he was heavily policed by big defender Robert Atkinson, giving him no turning space, particularly in the first half. But as the game progressed, he began to find space and managed to threaten the opposition defence and goalkeeper.

Lang has been a key player for Latics, his goals being vital in their fight to avoid relegation, then to win the division. He is still only 23 and his best is ahead of him. At times he falls rather too easily, and he has done himself no favours with referees with his frequent arguing over decisions. But he has been a superb finisher at League 1 level, and this will surely translate into goals in the Championship. Lang ‘s willingness to run at the defence can unsettle them and create opportunities for teammates.

It is still early to make any judgements as to how effective Lang will be in this division. Much will depend on the help he receives from the coaches and his willingness to embrace it.

Magennis shows his commitment

The DW Stadium crowd have always liked a trier: a player willing to give his all for the team. Josh Magennis certainly did that yesterday and deserved the applause he got when he left the field after 76 minutes for Nathan Broadhead.

Magennis was signed in January as a direct replacement for Charlie Wyke at the time. Although 32 years old he was given a two and a half-year contract, an indication of the club’s keenness to sign him. He made a slow start to his Latics’ career but his game improved as he approached genuine match-fitness. As Wyke’s replacement it was a hard act to follow. Yesterday he showed that same sort of willingness that Wyke had shown to play the target man role, a physically demanding task against big central defenders.

After just 12 minutes of the live feed yesterday Tommy Gore remarked that Magennis had won 70-80% of his headers but there had been no teammates close by to take advantage. Magennis is not the first Latics centre forward to lack support. Indeed, I recall an old article of mine on this site where I brought up a commentary by ex-number 9, Gary Birtles, during the Martinez era where he lamented the lack of support for Connor Sammon. His most cutting comment was that “He (Sammon) was chasing his own flick-ons at times. When a system is just not working: change it!!”

Leam Richardson changed it in the second half yesterday and Latics looked a better team for it.

Last season Magennis scored three goals and made one assist in 17 games for Latics. His goals were all headed. He has a career record of 0.18 goals per game, compared with Nathan Broadhead (0.29), Ashely Fletcher (0.16) Stephen Humphrys (0.22), Callum Lang (0.30) and Charlie Wyke (0.33). It should be noted that almost half of Humphry’s career appearances have been made coming in off the bench.

Magennis is by no means an instinctive goalscorer. His strong points are his aerial threat in the penalty area and his commitment to the cause.

Big refereeing decisions going Wigan’s way

Joe Bennett was fortunate not to receive a red card after lashing out at Joe Williams who had fouled him and stamped on him. In such circumstances it tends to be the victim rather than the initial aggressor who is disciplined. Justice is not often served. However, the likelihood is that most referees would have sent Bennett off yesterday. In the event he received a yellow.

Latics also got the benefit of the decisions at Norwich, who had five penalty appeals turned down. The validity of each appeal may be up to debate, but it takes a strong and confident referee to stand up to the baying of the crowd in such circumstances.

Timewasting rears its ugly head

Modern football abounds with gamesmanship: blatant diving seeks rewards in free kicks, penalties, cards for opponents; teams mob referees to pressurise them into decisions in their favour; systematic professional fouling neutralises opposition attacks.

Time-wasting is rife. Players take their time with throw-ins, goal kicks, in walking their way off the pitch when being substituted. But one that particularly denigrates the game for the spectator is the feigning of injury. In football-talk it comes under the banner of “managing the game”. It is a ploy that is used by practically all teams to varying degrees. In the closing periods of the game, with the opposition gathering momentum a player goes down “injured”. Sometimes those injuries can be genuine, sometimes they can be cramp induced as players tire, but they can also be fake. A stoppage of say, three minutes, can be enough to dampen the momentum the opposition had built up. Repeated stoppages make it very difficult for the attacking side.

I am unaware of any stats that detail the amount of time consumed by teams when their players go down in the final 20 minutes of a game. If they were to be available on a cumulative team by team basis it would make fascinating reading.

One wonders where Nigel Pearson’s Bristol City would appear in such a table of such stats.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Wigan Athletic: signing the “right type” of player as Nyambe and Broadhead arrive

“The team’s style of play is quite unique so I’m looking forward to that”

What was Ryan Nyambe really saying when he made that comment after signing a one-year contract for Wigan Athletic?

Wigan Athletic’s recruitment over this summer has contrasted so much with that of a year ago. At the beginning of last summer, the squad had been threadbare and so many new players had to be brought in. Most of them are still with the club and form the backbone of a squad charged with the task of consolidation in the Championship. Perhaps the most outstanding signing was a 24-year-old Jack Whatmough, with 136 appearances under his belt on a free from Portsmouth. Whatmough went on to be voted Player of the Year.

Recruitment this summer has been a slow process, much to the frustration of the fans.  But after weeks of waiting fans were positive about the first new senior squad acquisition over the summer. It was reminiscent of the signing of Whatmough: a young player with lots of prior experience, a free agent. Nyambe is only 24 years old but already has 150 Championship appearances under his belt, together with 29 in League 1. 

But there are questions over Nyambe’s signing. Why was he signed on a one-year deal? Moreover, reports from Blackburn fans suggest that the player excels in a defensive role but is not so proficient on the attacking side. Given Leam Richardson’s expectation for full backs to push forward is Nyambe the right kind of player to bring in?

However, although Nyambe’s preferred position is right back he has also played in the centre of defence and at left back.

Today the club announced the signing 24-year-old Nathan Broadhead on loan from Everton.

The 5ft 10 in tall Welshman played off target man centre forward Ross Stewart  when on loan at Sunderland last season, scoring 10 goals in 15 League 1 starts and 10 appearances off the bench. He had a previous loan spell with Burton Albion in 2019-20 making 10 league starts and 2 appearances as a substitute, scoring 2 goals. Although his specialist position is as a striker he can play in wide positions. But how will Broadhead primarily be used in Wigan’s system?

Nyambe and Broadhead are welcome additions. But with the squad still in need of reinforcement fans are hoping that more new players will be coming in sooner rather than later, having seen what has happened in the past.

In their last season in the Championship, 2019-20, they signed multiple players around the start of the season, with more arriving later during August. Prior to the first game against Cardiff City on August 3 they had picked up four new players in July with Jamal Lowe and Dujon Sterling signing on August 1. Kieffer Moore signed on August 5, Tom Pearce on August 8 and Charlie Mulgrew a day later. The starting line up in the last game of August against Barnsley included five players who had not played against Cardiff.

Paul Cook’s team got off to a poor start in 2019-20 winning just one and drawing two of their first seven league games. With so many changes in playing staff it was going to take the team a long time to gel.

However, it is an entirely different situation this time around. The massive recruitment drive of last summer was aimed at not only putting together a squad good enough to get the club out of League 1, but to provide a nucleus that would serve in the Championship. A handful of new signings, several of whom will be loanees, are expected to come in to complement a settled squad.

Leam Richardson’s team has made by no means a bad start to the season. A cautious 0-0 draw at home to Preston was followed by a courageous performance in drawing 1-1 at title favourites Norwich. As expected, Richardson stuck with his trusted senior pros and his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, building on the momentum of last season’s successes.

 James McClean summed it up in a post-match interview “We have a mindset in that dressing room where we know what quality we have and we are not going into every game to survive or settle for a draw. We are going out to win every game because we know the quality we have. The lads will fight to the death for each other and that shows, we have a positive mindset every time we step onto the pitch.”

Keeping up that morale among the squad is crucial to Latics’ consolidation as a Championship club. That high morale is surely down to Richardson and his staff. Last season it was maintained throughout despite the manager’s loyalty to certain players at the expense of others. Many managers will regularly rotate the starting line-ups, not hesitating to make substitutions if things are not going to plan. It is quite the opposite with Richardson, but perhaps through personal charisma, he has managed to minimise any disgruntlement of players regularly left out of the starting eleven.

Bringing in “the right kind” of new players will be key to Wigan’s fortunes this season. It is not only the attitudes of incoming players and the way they react to the status quo, but it is also how they will fit into what Nyambe referred to as a “unique style of play”. The current team is physically strong and resilient. It typically involves playing with a big target man up front, with the full backs pushing well forward. At its best it produces results. At its worst it can revert to a route one approach.

The physicality of Richardson’s team served them well in League 1 but needs moderation in a higher division. Even in League 1 there were teams whose players went to ground easily against Wigan’s muscular approach. This is likely to happen much more in a division sandwiched between the combative League 1 and the Premier League where skilful players are protected from over-physical challenges by strict – some would say overstrict – refereeing.

Last season Richardson varied his formation, switching between 4-2-3-1 and what can loosely be described as 3-4-3. The latter formation not only helped provide tactical variation but allowed some players flexibility in their roles. In 3-4-3 Callum Lang was not so confined to the right wing, but able to move into the space around the central striker. It might well prove to be his best role. It can also be adapted to playing twin strikers: Josh Magennis and Stephen Humphries were employed during Lang’s absence through injury. Has Broadhead has been signed largely to play in that front three? Will he be played in a wide position in 4-2-3-1?

The injury to Jack Whatmough in the Preston game gave Jason Kerr the chance to play his first league game as a centre half in a back four. He was outstanding at Norwich, arguably Latics’ Man of the Match. In his previous games he had been used only on the right-hand side of a back three, a position he had excelled in at St Johnstone.

Richardson prefers a left footer in the left of central defence. Despite having no prior experience in the second tier and now 31 years old, Curtis Tilt has performed well in the first two games in that position. Tilt’s positional sense, physicality and heading ability could play an important part. It was rumoured that Latics wanted Kell Watts back on loan to compete for that left central position, but injury has put paid to that possibility. Should no additions be made to the squad Richardson will have to employ a right footer, perhaps Kerr or Nyambe, in that position.

Bristol City visit the DW Stadium on Saturday on the back of defeats to Hull City and Sunderland. In the financial year ending 2021 they made a loss of £38.4m. To avoid falling foul of the EFL’s Profit and Sustainability rules they have been trimming their budget, releasing high earners and seeking transfer revenue. Their owner, Steve Lansdown, is seeking outside investment for the club, having put a huge amount of money into it over two decades. In June he once again wrote off £15m of club debt by converting it into shares. Over the previous two years he had written off a sum of £81m in the same manner. The club remains £79m in debt. City are not the only Championship club that has massively overspent to get into the Premier League. It has been such a common occurrence.

The weekend encounter will most likely involve ex-Latics favourites Kal Naismith and Joe Williams. One wonders if Richardson will accommodate a returning Jack Whatmough and show faith in Jason Kerr by switching to a back three. It will be a fascinating encounter between two clubs in very differing situations. Perhaps Latics will have more new signings announced by then?

Wigan Athletic: a quiet and measured approach to surviving in the Championship

Mal Brannigan: “I think we’ll be quiet, I think we’ll be measured…and I think it comes back to making sure this football club is a Championship club this time next year…”

The fans have been getting anxious. The Daily Mail’s sensationalist headline about the club being late in paying their staff twice in recent weeks certainly caused ripples, even if many put it down to a journalist with a gripe. There was anxiety too about the announcement of the new kit, but the club came out of it well, not only by displaying an attractive new uniform, but gathering praise for the appearance of the Big Help Project on the front of the shirts.  

But the biggest issue: no new signings announcements for the senior squad with the season starting in just over two weeks’ time. When will it happen? Will Latics be able to afford to bring in the quality players who can make a difference in the Championship? Some fans ask why there has been so little recent communication about the matter.

However, Mal Brannigan’s comment was consistent with the approach he has taken since being recruited as CEO in April 2021. Many fans had clamoured for the much-loved Jonathan Jackson to continue in that position, but the new ownership opted for a new face in that position.

Together with chairman Talal Al Hammad, Brannigan has done a wonderful job in lifting the spirits of Wigan Athletic supporters whilst keeping a firm hand on the reins. The League 1 title was won with a minimal amount spent on transfer fees, with real eye towards recruitment bargains.

In the current economic climate EFL clubs are primarily looking at the free agent market. However, although making a very significant saving in transfer costs Latics’ signing of players on free transfers has come at a price. Last summer they were able to make top acquisitions for League 1 by being competitive in the market. However, to attract such players, it was necessary to offer better terms than competitors. It is not only a higher salary that will be attractive to a player: the length of the contract can so often be key in the negotiations, especially for players in the later stages of their careers.

Of the current squad Latics have nine players aged 30 or over. Ben Amos, Joe Bennett, Tendayi Darikwa, Jamie Jones, James McClean and Curtis Tilt have one more year remaining on their contract. The contracts of Josh Magennis, Tom Naylor and Graeme Shinnie expire in 2024.

Four players from last seasons squad have now left. Gavin Massey departed at the end of his contract and loan players Tom Bayliss. Glen Rea and Kell Watts have returned to their former clubs.

Every summer the social media is awash with fan debates about how many new players need to be added to a squad and in what positions. There are those who are currently saying that this current squad needs a major overhaul if it is to be able to compete in the Championship. Others will say that players were recruited not only to get Latics out of League 1, but to provide the spine of a squad that can consolidate in the second tier.

Around half of the current squad have considerable experience in the Championship or the Premier League with at least 40 appearances in the past. Others have been top performers in Leagues 1 or 2 or the SPL.

Given the fact that Latics have so many players already contracted it is unlikely that we will see a big influx of new players. Last summer was certainly the exception, with the squad having been threadbare at the end of the 2019-20 season. There has been so much flux in playing staff over recent years and current management might see a need for more stability. Comments from the manager, chief executive and chairman suggest that they have confidence in the squad, with the possibility of bringing maybe half a dozen new faces.

The new faces are likely to include players with ample experience in the higher tiers of English football, almost certainly on free transfers. Young loan players from Premier League clubs have been used to effect by Championship clubs in recent years. Although it is unlikely Latics will secure a player with the impact of Reece James in 2018-19 the loan players could play a crucial role. But what of planning for the future, given a squad that is not the youngest?

Ideally the club will make progress in developing young players that will serve them for years ahead, as opposed to those brought in on a loan from other clubs.

The youngest players appearing in last season’s League 1 team were Thelo Aasgaard, (now 20), Adam Long (21) and Luke Robinson (21), all graduates of the Latics Academy. Long and Robinson started in one game apiece, Aasgaard starting in five.

Of the players in their early to mid-twenties Callum Lang (24) and Jack Whatmough (25) were regular starters. Jason Kerr (25) started only when Latics played with a back three. Stephen Humphrys (24) started in 12 games and Tom Pearce (23) in 16 games.

Leam Richardson’s success in the past two seasons has been built upon a physical style of play and a reliance on his more experienced players. In 2020-21 the club was initially forced to bring in its young players, following the decimation of the squad due to administration. However, in the January window the manager was able to bring in more experience, which went a long way to avoiding relegation. Last season with the loss of Charlie Wyke he brought in the experienced Josh Magennis (31) in January who leapfrogged ahead of Stephen Humphrys in the packing order.

We can expect incomings and outgoings in the senior squad over the next couple of weeks. It appears that Jordan Jones is close to leaving, rumour suggesting that he will go back to Scotland for another loan spell. A permanent transfer is less likely because of the inability of most SPL teams to meet the kind of salary the player will be on. Latics signed Jones from Rangers last summer for a fee reputed to be around £500,000. He still has two years to run on his contract and Latics will try to mitigate costs by the other club paying a fraction of his salary. The manager has made it clear that Jones is not in his plans. One wonders what might have happened if the club had not made a late signing of James McClean, after Jones and Gwion Edwards had joined Callum Lang and Gavin Massey to compete for the two wide forward positions. Jones can count himself unlucky in not receiving the kind of backing from the manager that the likes of Edwards and Massey received.

There has been lots of hype from the Scottish media about the possible returns up north for Jamie McGrath and Graeme Shinnie. Both were signed for bargain prices in the January transfer window and looked good additions to the squad. But McGrath was only given one start in League 1, Shinnie just six. Speculation has abounded on the social media about why the pair were not given more opportunities. As the season was nearing its close some fans were suggesting that they were signed with a view to the coming season. Others retorted that the two did not fit into the long-ball approach of the manager, the ball passing over their heads so much of the time.

It has been good to see McGrath played at right wing back in pre-season, where his pace, control and passing vision has been impressive. It remains to be seen if the manager will continue to utilise him in that role or release him to go back to Scotland.

The ultimate composition of the squad will give us a strong indication of the type of football Richardson plans to play this season. Will flair players of the likes of McGrath and Aasgaard be given the opportunities they have been denied in the past?

The pre-season schedule is less than impressive, the only whiff of real opposition being in the final game against League 1 Sheffield Wednesday. Only time will tell if it can provide a fit and raring to go Latics for that tough opening match against the old adversary, Preston.

How good is Will Keane?

In late November 2013 a 20-year-old centre forward signed for Wigan Athletic on a month’s loan from Manchester United, joining another player already borrowed from that same club for a year. Both were to leave Wigan that season to return in later years. Will Keane and Nick Powell would go on to become major figures in Latics’ history.

Keane had played for England at U16, U17, U19 and U21 levels and had made his Premier League debut in December 2011 against Blackburn Rovers. He made his debut for Latics on December 1, 2013, only to be replaced at half time with Wigan 3-0 down to Derby County. He started the next game at Leeds United but was substituted after 55 minutes. After making two more appearances off the bench his stay at Wigan was cut short by a groin injury.

After such a promising start as a young player Will Keane’s career meandered. He went on to loan spells at Queens Park Rangers, Sheffield Wednesday and Preston before signing for Hull City for £1m in August 2016. In November 2016 he suffered a serious knee injury that saw him out of first team action for over a year. After making 22 appearances for the Tigers, scoring one goal, he joined Ipswich Town on loan in January 2019. After being given a free transfer by Hull he signed a one-year contract at Ipswich with the club having an option of a further 12 months. However, with football suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic Ipswich chose not to take up their option and Keane left in May 2021 after scoring 6 goals in 34 league appearances for the Tractor Boys.

Keane ‘s return to Wigan in October 2020 was hardly greeted by a fanfare. He was joining a club that was on its knees under the yoke of administration with a threadbare squad. The club’s future was in the balance and even if new owners were to be found it was going to be an uphill battle to avoid relegation. He had signed a short-term contract until early January. He made his debut in a 3-0 defeat at Crewe, then appeared in losses to Charlton and Peterborough. However, on October 24 he scored the equaliser in a 1-1 draw with Plymouth. By the time his contract was up he had scored 4 goals in 9 League 1 appearances. On January 15 Keane signed another contract for the remainder of the season.

Will Keane proved to be a key player as the season continued, being more often played in a role behind the central striker. After spending his career as a number 9 he began to thrive in his new role, which better allowed him to showcase his broader range of skills. It was certainly a learning experience, but he looked a much better player. By the end of the season, he had scored 11 in 34 appearances, the best goalscoring ratio of his career. Moreover, he had overcome most of the career-long injuries and niggles that had dogged his career. It was the first season he had made more than 30 senior team appearances in a season.

Having witnessed Keane’s football renaissance Latics gave him a new 2-year-contract in June 2021. The player has gone from strength to strength, being one of the first names to be penciled into Leam Richardson’s team selections. Although he has occasionally been employed as a centre forward, he has usually operated in a number 10 or inside forward role.

Courtesy of bbc.co.uk

The other players appearing in the above stats typically play as centre forwards. Keane’s ability to find space coming through from midfield has brought him so many goals.

Keane is at his best when linking up with midfield and initiating attacks. At 6ft 2in height he is a constant threat in the opponents’ penalty box, but he also plays a major shift in helping his own defence deal with set pieces. His ability to ghost his way into the box and get into the right place at the right time has caused problems for so many defences. Despite receiving lots of attention from the opposition trying to close down his threat he maintains his self-discipline, as evidenced by his receiving just two yellow cards this season.

Keane’s fine form brought him to the attention of Republic of Ireland manager, Stephen Kenny. Although he represented England at junior levels he decided to opt for Ireland, his father being Irish, at senior level. He made his debut for Ireland in a world Cup qualifier against Portugal in November.

Will Keane has resurrected his football career. He is an intelligent player with sound technical skills and good vision. Should Latics get promoted this weekend, as they almost certainly will, he will be able to showcase his skills once more in the Championship. This time around he will be at the peak of his career, with the self-confidence and fitness that may have been lacking in his previous spells in the second tier

Players reach their peak at different ages. Keane is now 29 years old and will be out to show the football world what a fine player he is. Will he reach his peak next season?

Portsmouth 3 Wigan Athletic 2: Latics limp towards promotion with mathematics on their side

In purely mathematical terms Wigan Athletic took a further step towards promotion last night. Losing by a one goal margin means that they go into the final game of the season at Shrewsbury with a +6 goal difference advantage over MK Dons. The odds against MK overcoming that goal difference are very high as they must travel to Plymouth to face a team eager to cement a place in the layoffs.

Courtesy of bbc.co.uk

Following the frustrating defeat for Wigan the Portsmouth manager, Danny Cowley, commented:

“A great way to end the season at Fratton Park. I am just pleased for the supporters and proud of the players for the way they responded, because we had played well first half. We just had two difficult moments, but Wigan, to be fair, are a really good team and they capitalised on them.”

It is hard to disagree with Cowley’s comments. Pompey were the better team in the first half, despite Latics scoring two stunning goals. As the game progressed, Latics reverted to their default mode – hoofball. There was to be little respite for the beleaguered Wigan defence with those “hopeful” long balls throwing away possession, inviting further Portsmouth pressure. It was reminiscent of the worst of the Paul Cook days when Latics could not hold on to a lead away from home.

 The trip to Fratton Park was always going to be difficult. The home crowd can be passionate and raucous, and they were keen to beat Latics. Portsmouth were the form team with three wins in a draw from their previous four games. In contrast Latics had not won in their previous four.

Despite the run of poor results Latics remain in pole position. A draw at Shrewsbury will mathematically ensure promotion, with MK Dons unable to catch them. Rotherham have a tricky away game at Gillingham who need a good result to stay in the division. If Latics can match the Yorkshire team’s result on the day, they will almost certainly win the division (providing MK Dons do not win with an avalanche of goals at Plymouth).

Leam Richardson merits his selection as EFL Manager of the Season. In the future he will likely reflect upon his successes over the past two seasons. Which would be the greater success: avoiding relegation with the club in administration and a threadbare squad or gaining promotion the following season?

However, Latics are limping towards promotion with the players looking jaded and stale. The decisions to seek cancellation of games during international breaks put undue physical pressure on the players in the second half of the season. Moreover, the manager has not rotated the key players who form the backbone of the team. The result has been that they have looked short of energy, not at their best, if able to show moments of quality in flashes. Any players coming in have struggled due to lack of game time. On Saturday Tom Pearce looked out of touch, but last night he made two brilliant crosses that led to goals.  

Team selection in recent games has been puzzling. In the home defeat to Cambridge the manager ditched the 3-4-1-2 system that had served so well in a positive run of results, only to reinstall it at half time. Will Keane’s opportunistic brace contributed to a precarious draw at Ipswich. Prior to the Plymouth match Richardson admitted he had a selection problem. Jordan Cousins, a key player earlier in the season, was back to fitness. The manager duly found a space for Cousins by pushing Max Power into the number 10 position. That pushed will Keane upfront, which is not his best position. Moreover, Joe Bennett was moved to left centre back with Tom Pearce at left wing back. The net result was having two left backs on the field and two specialist strikers, Stephen Humphrys and Josh Magennis, on the bench.

The use of substitutes continues to baffle. It was refreshing to see Richardson make bold changes at half time in the Cambridge game bringing on two substitutes off the bench to revert to 3-4-1-2. The manager generally prefers to make changes late in the game, which is fine if things are going well. However, the changes tend to unimaginative or reactive to changes made by the other team, rather than proactively making the changes to rest tired legs or change tactics as the opposition cause threats.

What can be expected on Saturday? Will Richardson bring in a central striker and push Keane back into midfield where he is most effective? Will he continue to use Bennett as a left centre back? Or will he bring back Kell Watts for his last game before returning to Newcastle?  

The most important thing on Saturday is not to concede goals that can help narrow the gap between Wigan and MK Dons. Will Richardson go in with a defensive formation or will he be bold and try to win the match and the title?

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com