Selling off prized assets would be a hammer blow to good football at Wigan

Nick Powell and Will Grigg to be gone within the coming week? Photo courtesy of Goodbrand Stats@StatsChristian

The writing was on the wall. No contract nailed down for Nick Powell and Will Grigg out of favour with the manager. Given the situation has been festering for weeks it is no surprise to hear the media telling us that Powell will soon be off for Glasgow and Grigg to Sunderland.

Over the summer we were nervous about Wigan Athletic selling off their prized assets. In terms of market transfer value, the trio of Dan Burn, Will Grigg and Nick Powell were head and shoulders above the rest.

It was a relief when the summer transfer window closed and only one of those assets was sold. The sale of Burn to Brighton for around £3m helped underpin the signings of Cedric Kipre (around £1m), Leonardo Da Silva Lopes (around £800,000), Joe Garner (around £1.2m) and Josh Windass (around £2m).

The Powell and Grigg transfers would bring in around £3.5m. Should they leave – and we expect they will – what effect would it have on the team’s ability to stay in the Championship division?

Latics started the season utilising players who were the backbone of the League 1 title winning team. The loss of Dan Burn and Nathan Byrne through injury meant that the 21-year-old Cedric Kipre and the 18-year-old Reece James were drafted into the defence.

Nevertheless, the starting lineup in the first game of the season against Sheffield Wednesday still contained seven of last season’s regulars: Christian Walton, Chey Dunkley, Sam Morsy, Gavin Massey, Michael Jacobs, Nick Powell and Will Grigg. The early season form was promising, built around the mutual understanding between those players whose confidence was high following their previous successes in League 1.

However, as time went injuries took five of those seven out of the equation for periods of months. The front four of Massey, Powell, Jacobs and Grigg had combined so well the previous season and looked like they were going to continue to show that positive chemistry in a higher division. But the last time that quartet was to play together was at Stoke in late August.

Since those early days of the season when Wigan were so enjoyable to watch the quality of football has plummeted. The team has lacked creativity and a cutting edge. The smooth attacking football has only returned on occasions, the norm being a so-called “direct” approach. Nevertheless, even then chances have been created but the finishing touch has not been there. Some would say that had not Cook not left his best goalscorer, Will Grigg, so often on the bench, more points would have been picked up.

Grigg has made only 10 starts in the 28 league games this season. When asked why the player with the best career goalscoring record has been so consistently omitted Cook retorted that it was because his supply line of Jacobs, Massey and Powell had been injured. The bizarre response of the manager is of concern to those of us who prefer an emphasis on a creative approach. Largely through the assistance of that supply line Grigg scored 26 goals in 53 appearances last season, but is that to suggest that he cannot score goals without them? His career record shows that he can.

The debate continues among fans whether Will Grigg is a Championship-level striker. The last time he was there in 2016-17 he scored 7 goals in 38 appearances. In both that season and this he has had niggling injuries that have impeded his progress. Some critics will say that the pressure of playing against higher quality defenders has led to those injuries.

Grigg is an intelligent footballer. He knows how to run into space, timing his runs adeptly to stay onside. He showed his quality against Premier League opposition in the FA Cup last season. His strike against Manchester City will be etched in the memories of Latics fans for year to come. But Grigg also scored at Bournemouth and got two against West Ham.

When Wigan resort to a long-ball approach he has tended to be less effective. But so have the other strikers who have competed with Grigg for his place. In fact, so many of the long balls launched from defence have been of low quality, leaving an unsupported central striker a hopeless task of evading two big central defenders.

Nick Powell’s last appearance was on November 28 against Blackburn Rovers. It could be the last he played for Latics. We have waited since summer to hear news of an extension of his contract, but nothing has resulted. Have the player’s wage demands been beyond what the club is willing to pay? Or are they unwilling to commit to a long-term contract on a salary well above Wigan norms for someone who has had major injury problems over recent years?

If he leaves Powell will be sorely missed. He has been the orchestrator behind the best football the team has played in the past eighteen months, a virtually irreplaceable asset. However, his contract runs out in summer when he can leave as a free agent. Media reports suggests that both Celtic and Rangers are keen to sign him before the transfer window closes in a week’s time.

Latics will press for realistic prices if they are to let both Grigg and Powell leave. Rumour has it that they will push for £1m for Grigg and £2.7m for Powell.

Should the transfers go ahead what proportion of any incoming funds would be invested in new players? Moreover, will the club’s recruitment be more effective than it was in summer?

Up to this point Latics have signed only one player in the January window, free agent Anthony Pilkington. With the departures of Dan Burn and Alex Bruce Latics certainly need cover in the centre of defence. They also need someone who can play left back with Antonee Robinson still injured.

Reports tell us that they have offered Reading £450,000 for Tyler Blackett and Nottingham Forest £200,000 for Danny Fox. Both can play at left back or in central defence. They are also interested in free agent Alex Milosevic, a Swedish international central defender.

Defensive reinforcements will be brought in, but the big question is what is going to happen to the quality of football if Grigg and Powell are released?

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Five talking points following a depressing performance at Hillsborough

Sheffield Wednesday 1 Wigan Athletic 0

 

Following the uplifting display against Aston Villa we witnessed another depressing performance at Hillsborough. Two poor teams offered little by the way of entertainment, although the conditions did not make things easy for either side. The game was decided by an excellent strike by Wednesday centre forward Steven Fletcher, aided by a lack of challenge from the Wigan midfield. But the home side were deserved winners, having eight shots on target compared with one from a toothless Latics outfit.

Paul Cook had named an unchanged side. Latics started positively but they were reluctant to push men forward to support the lone striker, Joe Garner. The high tempo, high pressing game that we saw against Villa was not evident. It was the home side who posed the greater goal threat and Jamie Jones was much the busier keeper. Wednesday could well have scored had it not been for superb last-ditch tackles from Chey Dunkley and Cedric Kipre and good goalkeeping by Jones.

But Latics managed to keep it at 0-0 when the teams marched off to the half time interval. The second half revealed that depressing type of play that has been so often the norm in recent months. The “hoof” was very much prevalent, and Wigan struggled to do anything constructive with the ball. After Fletcher’s goal in the 62nd minute one hoped for a riposte from Wigan, but nothing resulted. If another goal was to come in the game, it would most likely be the home team that scored it.

Following the match Paul Cook commented: “At half-time I was thinking there was something there for us but in the second-half Sheffield Wednesday totally dominated the game and fully deserved the victory. We got ourselves into a position to possibly get something from the game but, unfortunately, we fell away in the second-half and Sheffield Wednesday were full value for the win. We never got a foothold in the game or got into positions to hurt them and that is great credit to them.”

Jones once again impresses

But for an excellent display by Jamie Jones the scoreline would have been quite different. Although it is the keeper’s first season in the Championship at the age of 29, he looks far from overawed. In fact, he seems to be relishing it. Again, he was assertive in his box, making some fine saves. Moreover, as soon as he catches a ball, he is quick to step forward, looking for a quick throw to a player in space. Sadly, yesterday there were too few of his teammates moving to make themselves available to receive the ball. Far too often the keeper had to kick long, typically resulting in lost possession.

A product of the Everton youth system Jones joined Leyton Orient as a 19-year-old, spending 6 seasons there, making 161 league appearances. After letting his contract run down at the O’s he joined Preston as a free agent in July 2014. During his two years at Preston he made 14 league appearances, with another 34 on loan at Colchester, Coventry and Rochdale. Jones joined Stevenage in January 2016 and went on to make 53 appearances for them in League 2 before joining Latics as a free agent in August 2017.

An unbalanced midfield

Rather than play side by side in central midfield Lee Evans and Sam Morsy were given different roles. Evans was put in front of the back four with Morsy pushed further forward. Then midway through the first half Gary Roberts was moved from the left wing to play an inside left position. Josh Windass was moved to the wing.

The net result was Evans being swamped by the heavily populated home midfield, with Morsy and Roberts able to create few openings going forward. Windass had played one of his better games against Villa in a mobile number 10 role, but the switch saw him consigned to the wing where he rarely plays his best.

The lack of midfield cover was plain to see in Fletcher’s goal.

What on earth was Cook trying to achieve? Wednesday playmaker Barry Bannan had the freedom of the park.

What happens at half time?

Despite not playing particularly well in the first period Latics went in to the interval on level terms. For many teams playing away such a situation could be seen as a springboard to getting a positive result. But in Latics’ case this season it has rarely happened.

Based on goals scored in the first half of league games this season Latics would be placed in 16th position with 35 points. However, based on goals scored in the second half they would be 22nd with 26 points. Moreover, in away games Latics’ second half goals place them in 23rd position. Tables provided by Soccerstats.com can be viewed here.

Latics were 2-0 up at Swansea after dominating the game in the first half through high tempo, high pressing football. In the second half the intensity just was not there, and the home team came back to level the scores. Like yesterday in the second half Wigan had started employing the hoof.

Are the reasons for the disappointing second half performances due to physical reasons? Or are they psychological? Or the result of tactics discussions during the interval? After a fine performance against Aston Villa, where the intensity did not diminish in the second half, we were hoping for something similar yesterday.

Injuries hit hard again

After making an excellent debut last week Anthony Pilkington had to leave the field of play at half time after turning his ankle over. Cedric Kipre continued to play despite an ankle niggle. But it was Will Grigg’s injury that looked the more serious.

Cook is having no luck on the injury front and he remarked after the game that: “That’s what the league is, you get injuries, we were in a bit of fog but getting towards clear light and now it looks like we are heading back into that fog – that’s the way it is, though.”

Grigg to Sunderland off

The constant media barrage of “Grigg to Sunderland” has been wearing thin with Wigan Athletic supporters. But if Grigg’s injury is as serious as it appeared, he surely will not be leaving this month.

Will Grigg remains a favourite of so many Latics fans, though there are those who do not consider him to be a Championship level striker. His season has been riddled with injury, but even when fit he has often been left out of the starting lineup.

In the meantime, Devante Cole has returned from his loan spell at Burton Albion after making 6 starts and 7 substitute appearances, scoring 2 goals. If Grigg is out long-term will Cook look for a replacement in the transfer window or will he give Cole the genuine opportunity he was denied in the second half of last season?

 

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

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Five talking points following a high intensity victory over Aston Villa

Wigan Athletic 3 Aston Villa 0

 

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

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

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

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

Let’s look at some points arising:

Jones and Pilkington make a difference

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

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

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

Latics can punch above their weight in the Championship

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

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

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

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

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

Dean Smith’s post-match comments

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

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

Lee Evans back in form

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

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

Sticking to a winning formula

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

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

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

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

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

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Cardiff fan’s view of Anthony Pilkington

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s over to Benjamin:

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

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

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

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

 

 

A critical time for Darren Royle and the IEC ownership

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thanks to all whose tweets are included above.