Wigan Athletic 1 Sheffield United 2: Latics go down, but show so much promise

Kolo Toure (courtesy of Getty Images)

“There’s an awful lot of games still to be played, including hopefully a few games in the cup. and we’ll know a lot more about where we are, maybe after the games in January.

I think we just need to ensure we are first and foremost a Championship club, which will give us a good foundation for next season and beyond, and building beyond that.”

Mal Brannigan is not expecting a quick fix but is showing faith in a new manager who he believes can install a modern philosophy of football at the club that will enable Latics to compete on a more even keel in the Championship.

Kolo Toure has already made a major impact upon the style of play, evidenced by a composed display at Millwall and the excerpts of quality football we saw last night. Few of us expected Latics to get a good result against a high-flying Sheffield United side, built upon a budget that dwarfs that of Wigan. Some will say Toure is swimming against the tide, working on a transformation in style and approach that should more practically have started in pre-season. The clock is ticking, and he has a big job on his hands to do what Brannigan suggests.

The first half was not a pretty sight for Latics fans with the Blades’ high press, pace and movement causing all kinds of problems for the defence. Admittedly John Egan’s headed goal was gifted by woeful marking by the home defence, but the visitors could have been 3-4 goals ahead but spurned multiple chances. Going into the dressing room just a goal behind gave Wigan some chance to get back in the game. Their play had been riddled with constant errors as players struggled to adjust to the demands of their new manager.

However, despite Billy Sharp’s well-taken goal putting the Blades ahead after 56 minutes, Latics began to show the kind of “bravery on the ball” that Toure is seeking. Those “hopeful long balls” from defence were minimised and the quality of their football really improved and was of a level that we have not seen for a long time, especially in home games. Such was the improvement in the second half that the home team could possibly count themselves unlucky in not coming out of it with a point.

Toure has made a very bright start in an uphill task. He has the January transfer window ahead and the owners are apparently willing to support him in the transfer market. It is never easy in January, when clubs are reluctant to lose important players. The loan market will be important. Moreover, the club will need to offload some players in order to recruit others.

It is already plain to see that some players are adapting to the Toure brand of football quicker than others. Will Keane and Callum Lang, in particular, were both excellent last night. Toure has given the first opportunity to those players who did so well in getting the club out of League 1, but immediately dispensed with starting with a big target man and his use of substitutes and choice of players on the bench provide further indications of change.

One point in two games may not appear the best of starts for a new manager, but Kolo Toure is on the right track to establish Latics as a Championship side to be reckoned with.


Millwall 1 Wigan Athletic 1: five talking points as Touré makes a good start

The Den is not an easy place for visiting teams. Before the match started, we were told that Wigan Athletic had only won once in fourteen encounters there. Moreover, this current Millwall team had a home record of W7D1L2 going into this game.

Given the stiff test ahead Kolo Touré elected to largely stick with the core of senior professionals that Leam Richardson had shown great faith in. It was to be that familiar 4-2-3-1 formation, but with the selection of Nathan Broadhead at centre forward, rather than the big target man that had been the hallmark of the Richardson era.

Latics started the game well, playing with composure and building moves up through the midfield, resisting the urge to pump the ball long. Will Keane scored an opportunist goal after 33 minutes, his initial shot being deflected back to him to have a second bite of the cherry. However, Millwall’s Dutch number 10, Zian Flemming, levelled up with a clinical finish before the half time whistle.

With Latics still playing with confidence and composure Touré did not rush into making substitutions in the second half. He brought on Josh Magennis for Broadhead after 74 minutes. After 80 minutes Jordan Cousins took over from Tom Naylor with Thelo Aasgaard coming on for Callum Lang.

A draw was a fair result and that point lifted Latics out of the bottom three: an encouraging start to the Touré era. Following the game, the manager remarked:

“The boys played unbelievably well, and I’m very proud of the team. We’ve only had one week of work with the players, and the boys implemented the game plan really well. I’m very proud of all of them – they worked hard defensively and offensively – did everything that we asked for. We had a game plan, and it was to make sure we could really stop their strength. The players implemented the plan well, and I’m very proud of the team.”

Some talking points:

The same, but different

Touré wisely resisted the opportunity to make wholesale changes to the starting lineup and formation. It was one of Latics’ better performances of the season, building on the 2-1 defeat of Blackpool on November 12. Wigan have always looked a better team when they have placed less reliance on hopeful long balls towards a big target man. But despite that bad run of only 4 points out of 30, there were times earlier in the season when Latics made a conscious effort to play with a more composed approach.

However, there were differences in the style of play. By playing Broadhead at centre forward Touré was emphasising the importance of building up through the midfield. Centre backs, Jack Whatmough and Curtis Tilt, made much more effort to play the ball along the ground and be accurate with their passing. But the key aspect of Wigan’s play was their movement off the ball when in possession. It allowed a more fluid approach, with players having more passing options when on the ball. Throw-ins too were much improved as a result of that movement.

Touré recognises Keane’s talent, Lang shines

During the week Touré had lauded the skills of Will Keane. The player responded with one of his most complete displays for Wigan. His opportunist goal brings his season tally to 9, well on the way to a 20-goal season. Moreover, his passing and nimble footwork enabled him to be at the fulcrum of a series of flowing moves during the first half. He will benefit from the style of play that is going to characterise the Touré era.

It has been a tough season for Callum Lang. Moving up a division is always a challenge and Lang has had his share of injuries too. At times he has cut a frustrating figure, constantly shackled by defenders, blatantly diving, complaining to referees. At Millwall he looked much more like the player we have seen in the past. With more movement by his teammates Lang found the kind of freedom he needs. He too will be a major beneficiary of a more modern style of play.

Latics play with composure

It looked like it might become a repeat of what we had seen on previous occasions: going ahead, the opposition equalising, piling on the pressure, the defence dropping back deeper and deeper. Millwall had certainly come out with intent following the interval. Latics had been playing a higher than usual defensive line but were getting pushed back.

But this Wigan team withstood the pressure and started to put together passing movements, holding possession. They showed a composure that had not seen for some time.

Touré’s challenge: to find the best balance for the style of football he wants to see

There were certainly some glitches as players accustomed to a certain style of play had to adjust to new instructions. It is much harder for players under pressure to make more effort to play their way out of danger rather than simply lumping the ball forward. There were hairy moments when things were not working out.

Some players will cope with the change in playing style with relative ease, others less so. With time Touré will decide which players in the current squad are best suited to the style he prefers. He has the January transfer window coming up for adjustments to be made to the squad.

Touré will have some difficult decisions to make, the situation being exacerbated by the majority of players in the senior squad having contracts that expire in June 2023.

Will loan players be recalled?

The announcement that Scott Smith has been recalled early from his loan at Torquay has fans questioning whether others will also be coming back.

Jamie McGrath’s signing from St Mirren last January had been well received by the fans. Here was a skilful, pacey player whose natural position is as a number 10 but could also play wide. He went on to make just one league start before being sent off to Dundee United on loan in summer.

McGrath made a good account of himself in the Republic of Ireland’s 1-0 win in Malta in mid-November. Following the game, he commented:

“If you spend a few months in the cold, you’re with your thoughts on that but personally I felt I didn’t fall out of form, any time I played, I thought I played well so it was one of those ones where it wasn’t in my hands so I couldn’t really blame myself which was probably a positive.”

Jordan Jones has been out on loan in Scotland since January 2022, initially with St Mirren, now with Kilmarnock. He had played for Latics in early games in 2021-22 but the arrival of James McClean put paid to his chances.

Stephen Humphrys never established himself under Richardson despite showing promise. He is currently with Hearts where his appearances have been limited by injury.

Luke Robinson is currently on loan at Tranmere Rovers. Given the long-term injury suffered by Tom Pearce will he be recalled to provide cover for the left back position?

Ironically, although so many of the senior squad were recruited as free agents, fees were involved in the acquisitions of Humphrys, Jones and McGrath. Were they let go because they did not fit into the style of play? Or was it that their faces did not fit?

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Leam Richardson: a much-loved but frustrating figure at Wigan Athletic

“In Leam we trust”

Few football managers are referred to by their first name by their fan base, yet at Wigan Athletic, the above phrase has become something of a mantra to be rolled out on social channels at any hint of critique of the current manager’s ability to keep the Latics on course.

Indeed, Leam Richardson is among the most-loved in the long line of Wigan Athletic managers since the club’s origins in 1932. When so many others fled a sinking ship, he stayed on and not only kept things afloat but did so with admirable dignity and positivity. He cut a determined figure through those gloomy times — the glue that held it all together motivating a hodge-podge of experienced journeymen and youth players week in and week out as the club literally faced an existential crisis. On the pitch, through wise recruitment in January 2021 and excellent man-management in the subsequent months, he managed to steer the club away from an immediate drop to League 2. He then oversaw a massive recruitment drive in the summer of 2021 and took the club back to the Championship. Somewhere in the middle of all of that he saved his centre forward’s life. Which to any neutrals may sound like hyperbole, but is exactly what happened, just as Simon Kjaer heroically did for Cristian Eriksen the summer prior.

Furthermore, Richardson is a terrific club ambassador – a genial presence characterised by rare decency and humility, with an unwillingness to criticise opposition or match officials. He’s the kind of manager who shakes every last player’s hand after a match, be it his own players or the opposition.  To say there is an emotional bond between Wigan Athletic and Richardson is an understatement; and the club has made appropriately meaningful gestures of gratitude in response, renaming the South Stand at the DW Stadium the Leam Richardson Stand, and extending his contract a further three years.  

Football moves fast, however. While the decision to renew Richardson’s contract was likely taken some weeks ago, in recent weeks Latics have plummeted down the league table, losing five on the bounce and mired in the relegation places. Poor form and results has a cruel way of exposing weaknesses that have been there all along but compensated for in other ways. What we’ve witnessed in recent Latics performances is reminiscent of the darkest days of Warren Joyce-led Latics in a similar Championship position several years ago – but shouldn’t come as a total surprise.

For all of Richardson’s incredible talents in man-management, his success in League 1, and his inspirational character traits as a human being and leader, his tactical approach has never been sophisticated. Even in League 1, where Latics could overpower most opposition, there were struggles against ball-playing sides who played with flair and the ball on the ground. Effort, physicality, strength from set pieces defined his team in League 1, and define his team in the Championship.

The problem of course, is that there is a large gulf in quality between League 1 and the Championship, and you either have to level up the playing talent, the tactical approach, or both – but neither has happened as yet. Whereas Latics could steamroll teams in League 1—a division in which James McClean could breeze past his fullback in the 80th minute—they get steamrolled in the Championship, with speedy ex-Premier League wingers breezing past the Irishman. Concerns over a shortage of skilful football last season were largely assuaged by positive results, but the pattern was clear. When Latics struggled, they’d hoof and hope.

An EFL season of 46 games is a long and physically draining marathon. Latics struggled near the end as the games came in thick and fast, the players looking jaded, but they eventually limped through to the title with a 3-0 win at Shrewsbury in the final encounter. Richardson had once again showed himself to be a motivational manager with the players consistently giving their all despite the fatigue and niggling injuries that made things more difficult for them. However, the manager’s reluctance to rotate the squad meant that so many players were struggling to reach their previous levels because of fatigue.

The  long ball had always been a feature of Richardson’s football, but so often it lapsed into hopeful punts upfield, resulting in loss of possession and increased pressure on the defence by the opposition. Richardson’s squad was far superior to most in the division enabling them to grind out wins even when not playing well. However, they struggled playing against teams who played skilful, possession-based football. Both Sheffield Wednesday and Sunderland did the double over Latics. Milton Keynes Dons might have had a smaller budget, but their silky football made them a real challenge for Richardson’s team.

Recruitment in summer 2021 was more focused on getting Latics out of League 1, rather than building a side that could hold its own in the Championship. Most of the contracts offered were for two years, running out next summer. According to transfermarkt.co.uk Wigan have 16 players whose contracts run out at the end of this season, 3 of whom are on loan from other clubs. There are 6 whose have contracts until June 2024 and those of Callum Lang and Anthony Scully expire in June 2025.

Having so many player contracts due to expire at the end of the season makes it by no means easy for the manager. Being uncertain as to his near future at the club is unsettling to a player. Moreover, the current squad has 16 players who are aged 28 years or over. Whether Latics manage to avoid relegation or not there will be a significant amount of recruitment to be done in summer.

Throughout his time at Wigan the manager has relied heavily on his senior professionals and those who have previously commanded a regular place in the team. Riding on the confidence afforded by their League 1 title win those players got Latics off to a good start to the season, with their form away from home being impressive. However, their displays at the DW Stadium were distinctly muted. As the games came in thick and fast the energy within that core of players diminished, with the manager stubbornly sticking to those he felt he could trust, the new signings being used sparingly.

The trio of Will Keane, James McClean, Max Power have started in all of the 18 games played so far. Jack Whatmough missed just one through injury. Stats provided by soccerway.com show that Power has spent 1620 minutes on the field, not having been substituted in any game so far. Of the new signings Nathan Broadhead has played 706 minutes, compared with Josh Magennis 794. Ryan Nyambe has played 567 minutes, Ashley Fletcher 34, Anthony Scully 16 and Ramani Edmonds-Green 16 minute

Although Richardson remains well loved by so many fans for what he has done for the club the current situation is giving them much cause for concern. Many are asking why the manager was given a new three year contract with the standard of football played by his team being so poor. On Wednesday Latics were facing a Stoke team that had lost its previous three matches and was only just above the relegation zone. Playing with three centre backs and three holding midfielders was never likely to provide entertainment value for the home fans. When the team sheet was announced before the game the inference was that Richardson was playing not to lose, hoping for a goal from a set piece or bringing on his big target men in the latter stages with the scores tied.

Following a Stoke goal that was gifted to them by an inept Wigan rear guard the manager introduced both Charlie Wyke and Josh Magennis for the last 20 minutes. The football produced during that time ranked among the worst I have seen from Latics over decades of following them. It was totally depressing.

The praise that Richardson has received from Latics fans in the past has been very much merited. He is still held in high regard on a personal level, but there have always been flaws in his tactical approach. Having a squad that was superior to most in League 1 meant that the cracks were papered over. However, they are fully exposed in a Championship division against superior players and managers with more tactical nous.

The frustration among the fans is very much influenced by a run of poor results, but it is the manager’s stubborn resistance to changing the way he sets up his team that can truly aggravate  people. Richardson must adapt his tactical approach and install a modern footballing philosophy to replace an archaic approach that is simply not going to work in the second tier.

Sunderland 2 Wigan Athletic 1: five talking points

Charlie Wyke’s brilliantly taken goal after 44 minutes was a rich reward for a Latics side that had held their own with Sunderland’s intricate close passing and their intimidating crowd. If Wigan could hold on to the 1-0 scoreline it would put them in the top six if other results remained the same.

But Tony Mowbray’s more expensively assembled side were to dominate the second half and the final scoreline was not a surprise, given the pressure they had put Wigan under.

It was a disappointing result but there were positives in today’s display that suggest that Latics are making the transition towards being a team capable of holding its own in the Championship.

Let’s take a look at some talking points:

Latics show composure

The composure shown in the first half was a very good sign. Rather than lump the ball long during periods of opposition pressure Wigan made a real effort to keep possession.

There are critics who will say that the players are not up to playing possession football, being a largely a third tier squad playing in the Championship. However, there are lots of teams in League 1 who refute the long ball approach and like to build up from the back. Last season’s MK Dons side was a shining example of how teams can play effective, attractive possession-based football without having a bloated wage bill.

So often in the Cook/Richardson era we have seen hopeful long balls launched forward from defence in an attempt to relieve pressure. The result has been quite the opposite with possession squandered inviting the opposition to continue their pressure.

The composure in the first half was not matched in the second, but it was nevertheless welcoming to see.

Charlie Wyke shows his mettle in the second tier

So much has been said about Wyke’s courage and resilience in facing serious medical conditions and coming back to play his first season in the second tier of English football. Leam Richardson has wisely eased him into the side, giving the player time to adjust back to playing full time competitive football again.

Wyke is by no means a pacey centre forward and can look ungainly, leading to questions as to whether he can be effective in the Championship. Last season we learned that he can effectively play the traditional target man role and he played a major role in the earlier days.

However, Wyke is much more than a target man. He is intelligent and links up well with his teammates. His brilliant pass to set up Nathan Broadhead’s winner at Birmingham was memorable as was his left footed finish today.

Wyke is now 29 and if he can maintain his fitness and health, he will have the chance to show us all that he has the quality to be a successful central striker in the Championship.

Pushed back in defence?

“I just thought in the second half we possibly played the result a little bit. For 15-20 minutes we were maybe five yards too deep…”

Leam Richardson was right. They were way too deep. But was it Wigan’s tired legs that pushed them back in defence? Or could the manager have insisted they play further forward?

Magennis is not a replacement for Wyke

Josh Magennis is a player who gives 100% for the cause, someone who cannot be criticised for his commitment. Such players will always be appreciated by home crowds who recognise that level of involvement and hope that other players would be as full of effort.

However, Magennis is a striker with a poor scoring ratio in his career. He has scored 4 goals in 28 appearances for Latics. 

The pundits will say that Magennis’ signing in January 2022 was a knee-jerk reaction after Richardson lost Charlie Wyke last season.  The manager insists on having a target man upfront and he thought that Magennis was the best choice available on his budget.

The big Northern Irishman was released by Hull City after helping them get promoted the previous season. He had his most successful goalscoring season, with 18 goals from 40 appearances in League 1.  However, he had scored 2 goals in 19 appearances in the Championship when Richardson signed him.

Magennis is not a natural target man. He can outjump defenders, but so few of those defections result in Latics gaining possession. He plays much better in a front two where he has time to use his pace and crossing ability.

Richardson and substitutions

A delay in making substitutions has always been an issue in the Cook/Richardson era. Both have tended to change things much later than opposition managers.

Richardson was too slow to react to Sunderland’s second half dominance. The home team’s half time change of Diallo for Gooch proved to be the catalyst for their second half dominance. Richardson’s first substitution was Magennis for Wyke after 68 minutes and there was no change in shape. That came when there were just 10 minutes remaining.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Wigan Athletic: an assessment after 9 games in the Championship

Courtesy of bbc.co.uk

It has been a pretty solid start to the season, with 13 points from 9 games. The home record of W0D3L2 strongly contrasts with that of W3D1L0 away from home. Leam Richardson has kept faith in players who were part of last season’s squad, new signings being used sparingly up to this point.

On their return to the Championship in 2018-19 under the Cook/Richardson management team Latics took 16 points from their first 9 games. But their fine early form dissipated as they gathered only 10 points from the next 16 games until the end of December. Their record was W2D4L10.

The current team still has a winning mentality and togetherness from winning L1 but that can soon dissipate after a run of losses as happened four years previously. With fixture congestion in October before the World Cup, Leam Richardson will have to rotate more than he is comfortable doing, or their competitive edge of fitness and work rate will count for nothing as they tire. 

My main concern is the style of play and the lack of invention. The long ball will always be part of this manager’s tactics, but it offers an easy way out for defenders under pressure, rather than short passing their way out of trouble. When the opposition play a high press Latics defenders look ill-equipped to cope with it. It so often leads to a loss of possession. There have been recent signs that Latics are trying to play the ball out of defence and midfield rather than simply launching it long. The presence of Graeme Shinnie in midfield is paramount to keeping the ball on the ground. Up to this point the play through midfield from the back has been slow and repetitive, but it is to be hoped that Richardson will persevere. Wigan must resist those hopeful long balls to an isolated centre forward which rarely achieve anything constructive.

The lack of invention is something that must be dealt with, especially in home games where the opposition sits back in defence. Richardson has players in his squad who are capable of unlocking defences, but he must get the balance right in his team selections. Nowhere is the lack of invention so apparent than from throw-ins. So often they result in either giving the ball back to the opposition or sending it backwards sometimes even ending up in the hands of the goalkeeper.

Of the new signings, Nathan Broadhead has the look of a player who can make a mark this season. Richardson might give him a chance on the wing in place of Thelo Aasgard, who is immensely talented and should get a start every few matches but is still making naive mistakes. Using him as an impact sub for another half a season seems prudent with a view to earning his place in the second half of the season. Having said that, Richardson should be rotating them more often in the coming weeks which creates the opportunity to rest Will Keane every 3-4 matches and play Aasgaard centrally. 

Charlie Wyke has been used sparingly: appropriately after coming back from a life-threatening event. We are surely rooting for him, so to speak, but it would be good to see more of Ashley Fletcher and his mobility. Fletcher has a much higher ceiling than Wyke or Magennis if he can find form and fitness and click with Latics. That’s a big if, of course. 

It is not surprising that Latics better away from home because they lack guile in the attacking third. Lang needs to sharpen his finishing which has been wasteful, but also promising, in the last few games. Magennis won’t score much. Keane was unlucky with header in his last outing but has struggled to make a major impact, although he remains Wigan’s most likely goalscorer. Aasgard will score some crackers but Broadhead may be a more reliable source over a season. What’s been missing is set piece goals! There is better defending on set-pieces in this division; but Latics are due one.

Ryan Nyambe has already shown his quality and will push Tendayi Darikwa for his place. Nyambe is physically strong, capable of rock-solid defence and surging runs forward, although he needs to work on his crossing. Darikwa is naturally attacking full back, well suited to a wing back role.

The situation on the other flank of defence appears uncertain. James McClean has lots of experience for Latics and Ireland in the left wing-back position, but there are question marks over his ability to play as a left full back. Both Joe Bennett and Tom Pearce have disappeared off the radar. Bennett has not played since being sent off at Birmingham, which is strange since his suspension was rescinded by the EFL. Pearce’s only league appearance was as s substitute in the first game against Preston.

There are rumours linking Latics to players available as free agents. Danny Rose has been touted as a possible signing. Should this happen McClean will compete with Anthony Scully and Gwion Edwards for the left wing position. McClean and Scully are very different types of player, Scully being an inverted winger who will cut in and shoot. He scored 25 goals in 61 starts and 25 substitute appearances for Lincoln. Edwards too will cut inside on his right foot, but his strike record is not as impressive as that of Scully.

Another free agent who might be interesting Richardson is Dale Stephens. The midfielder now 33, born in Bolton, was released by Burnley. With the fitness of Jordan Cousins remaining uncertain and the announcement of Scott Smith being released on loan to Torquay, a new arrival may be imminent.

On paper there is an easier run of fixtures coming up. We can only hope that Richardson rotates prudently enough to sustain that positive momentum and winning mentality!