Five talking points following an exciting performance at Villa

Aston Villa 3 Wigan Athletic 2

 

It was a spirited performance by Wigan Athletic, another five-goal feast of entertainment following the Sheffield Wednesday encounter. Latics attacked Villa from the get-go and to lose to a goal in the 93rd minute was heart-breaking.

Let’s take a look at some points arising from the game:

Connolly preferred to Evans

With Darron Gibson ruled out by injury most of us would have expected Lee Evans to replace him in the starting line-up. Was Callum Connolly preferred because of his defensive qualities in an effort to contain Jack Grealish?

By all accounts Connolly impressed in holding midfield when on loan to Ipswich last season, more so than in his more regular role at full back. In the event Grealish went on to dominate the proceedings. Neymar was so heavily criticised for going down too easily in the World Cup, but in this game Grealish proved equally adept at falling to the ground and getting free kicks. The result was that Wigan players were reluctant to engage him. Villa fans might say that Grealish is a skilful player who should be protected by referees, but in this case, it went too far.

Evans came on in the 53rd minute and immediately fitted in to the style of play. Connolly was moved to the right wing and a couple of minutes later scored Wigan’s second goal meeting Nick Powell’s cross ahead of Alan Hutton.

Cook clearly rates Connolly and we can expect to see him in a variety of roles this season.

A rookie defence

Despite good individual performances the defence had looked all-at-sea on occasions against Sheffield Wednesday. It was a rookie defence composed of players who had never previously played together as a unit. Between the four of them the number of seasons played in league football totalled the same number, just four.

Before the game one wondered how that defence would cope with the experience and ability of Aston Villa’s attack. Not surprisingly they looked wobbly throughout.

Injuries to Dan Burn and Nathan Byrne have come at a difficult time. Burn appears to be out for some time, but Byrne seems to be taking a long time to get over what was originally referred to as a minor injury.

Cook recognises the need for defensive reinforcements having stated: “I think defensively, probably in the centre of the defence, we’re going to need something. Hopefully we’re going to look at and be able to address that before the loan window closes.”

In the meantime, he could look at the option of bringing in the experienced Alex Bruce and playing with a back line of three. The young full backs Reece James and Antonee Robinson would surely thrive in wing back positions.

Naivety or simply positive?

Once again Latics kept pressing forward in the final quarter of the game, rather than slow things down and look at securing a point. Most of the pundits we hear on television would probably lambast Paul Cook, call him naïve, citing a need for better “game management”.

But over the course of the season how many draws can be turned into wins if Cook continues to have his team play like this?

The Refereeing

In the Premier League years Latics fans would talk about facing the twelve men prior to going to support their team at Old Trafford. So many awful decisions were made in the home team’s favour, whether it were due to the roars of the large crowd or the manager at the time.

Now Steve Bruce is hardly a Ferguson. His teams have typically played with a physical approach, but not particularly cynical. But for some reason Latics got the rough end of the stick with the officials at Villa Park. It was not only allowing theatrics from Grealish, but so many decisions went the home team’s way.

How will Cook use Windass?

It was a surprise when Latics paid some £2.5 m for Josh Windass. But it was no surprise to see him come off the bench to replace Nick Powell after 67 minutes. Now Windass does not have the silky skills of Powell, but he is fast and direct.

A couple of minutes after Windass came on Lee Evans launched one of his trademark long diagonal crosses. Windass reached it with a diving header at the far post which went narrowly wide. What a pity it did not go in!

Rangers used Windass in a variety of positions. Will Cook use him as a winger, central striker or as an alternative to Powell in the number 10 role?

 

 

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Five talking points arising from the Sheffield Wednesday game

Wigan Athletic 3 Sheffield Wednesday 2

Wigan Athletic rarely start the season with a victory, but this one was an exception. Not only did Latics pick up the three points, but they did it in style.

There were concerns about the back four, with three debutants starting alongside Chey Dunkley. Other than that Paul Cook had kept faith in the players who had performed with success last season, with the exception of Darron Gibson who was preferred to Max Power.

Entertainment returns to the DW Stadium

After last season when so many teams tried to “park the bus” at the DW this was refreshing. Wednesday had come to play an attacking game and Wigan more than matched them.

Latics had been 3-1 up when the Argentinian, Fernando Forestieri, finished off a slick move in the 67th minute. But rather than close the game down by packing their defence Latics continued to attack. There were some nervy moments for the Wigan defence with the 6 ft 3 in Wednesday substitute Lucas Joao causing problems after he joined the combative 6 ft 5 in Kosovan battering-ram Atdhe Nuhui up front. But at the other end Latics’ enterprising football caused constant problems for the Sheffield defence.

As the clock counted down one wondered whether we would see Cook’s team hold the ball in the corners, time-waste and keep possession in the manner that is so prevalent in the modern game. But to the manager’s great credit they did not do that, but continued to hone in on the Wednesday goal at every opportunity.

How many managers are there in the modern game who would do that?

Gibson silences his critics

Darron Gibson has had a frustrating career after starting at a young age for Manchester United. Niggling injuries and off the field issues have led to him not being able to realize his full potential. He had his critics among Latics fans even before he signed a short term contract with the club. But yesterday he surely silenced his critics.

The 30 year old played a key role in holding midfield, his vision and the precision of his passing adding an extra dimension to Latics’ play.

Jacobs and Massey excel

Michael Jacobs scored two opportunist goals, hit the woodwork with a cracking shot and played a key role in the third goal. Moreover he worked hard on the defensive side of his game, tireless in his harrying of the opposition.

There have been questions about the player’s ability to truly succeed in the second tier.  He was not an automatic choice at Derby or Wolves.  Although he was one of the first names on the team sheet under Gary Caldwell and Warren Joyce he struggled to dominate Championship defences in the 2016-17 season. But so often under Joyce he was chained to defensive duties at the expense of his attacking forte.

Yesterday he played at probably his highest level since he has been at Wigan. His intelligent movement and ability to find space made him a constant threat to the visiting defence. When he came on after the interval he received a great ovation from the crowd in the east stand following a sparkling first half. He looked like a player on a mission to show us that he can be a force in the Championship division. He went a long way towards proving that yesterday.

Gavin Massey too has had his doubters, but yesterday he looked a class act, showing blistering pace and a fine touch on the ball. Perhaps the second tier will be more to his liking, away from the up and tumble of League 1?

Two Dunkleys in defence?

The signing of Cedric Kipre from Motherwell was a surprise to most of us who had never heard of him before. On first sight some wag in the crowd suggested we have two Chey Dunkleys playing, likening the two players not only in their physique, but in their rugged defending. Another likened him to Arouna Kone who sported a similar hair style.

When Dunkley was signed from Oxford United he had only played one full season in league football. Dunkley proved himself to be a very capable player at League 1 level, although there were questions as to how he would cope in a higher division. He had a fine game yesterday dealing with Nuhui who has been a thorn in the side for previous Latics teams.

Kipre too has only had one season of league football, that being in the SPL.  But he looked a force to be reckoned with yesterday, with not only an imposing physique, but pace to match.

Is Dan Burn leaving?

The signing of Kipre raised concerns among fans that Dan Burn might be leaving. This was backed up today by reports suggesting that Brighton have offered £3m for him.

Once again it may be mere speculation but Latics fans will be hoping there is no truth in it. Burn is a prize asset with a wealth of experience in the Championship, a key player in Cook’s team.

However, Burn is not the only one who could be gone in the coming week, with the club still having not tied down contracts with so many of its top players.

The uplifting start to the season could soon fall flat if Burn or other such pivotal players depart. But we have become accustomed to the wheeler-dealing that happens as the transfer deadline approaches. If one of more of those players does leave we can surely expect more new arrivals.

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Latics almost washed out at the Memorial Ground

Result: Bristol Rovers 1 Wigan Athletic 1

The Sunday Times named Bristol the best place to live in Britain in 2017. Indeed, a trip to the south of the city in the August sunshine of 2016 was quite pleasant, despite Gary Caldwell’s team going down in the 90th minute. Latics will be back to Ashton Gate next season, this time with memories of a difficult night in the north of Bristol at the rustic Memorial Ground.

The Memorial Ground was named in honour of rugby union players who died in the First World War. It hosted rugby from 1921 until Bristol RUFC moved to Ashton Gate in 2014. Bristol Rovers moved there in 1996 and, despite efforts to build a purpose-built stadium elsewhere, remain rooted at the old stadium. Arriving there last night in torrential rain I asked a steward how to find my seat, being told that it was under the canopy around the corner. The term “temporary stand” did not fully depict that canopy.

It was a difficult night for spectators and Wigan Athletic players alike. Rovers adapted extremely well to the terrible conditions and posed an attacking threat from the onset. Latics had their fair share of the ball in the first half, but there was no penetration to their attacks and James Vaughan was a truly “lone” striker. There had been talk among Latics fans prior to the game about players being out on the town at the weekend, celebrating the promotion sealed at Fleetwood. Indeed, many of us wondered if the team would be at its best, given what had happened. Those fears proved to have some foundation.

Paul Cook had let us know beforehand that he would be making changes in his line-up, that Michael Jacobs would be back after being rested at the weekend. “Crackers” did return in place of Ryan Colclough, with James Vaughan replacing Will Grigg, but Cook once more resisted a more significant  freshening-up of the team. For most of the game a “washed out” Latics were outplayed by a Rovers team who moved the ball round well in the appalling conditions, the Memorial Ground pitch somehow holding up despite the quantities of water pouring down on it.

Rovers opened the scoring in the 28th minute as Liam Sercombe’s low shot beat Christian Walton. It was not the first time we had seen the big keeper beaten by a shot like that, but to his great credit the young Cornishman went on to be Wigan’s Man of the Match, making a series of excellent saves to keep his side in the game. The 6 ft 5 in Walton will surely need to keep working on getting down to low shots, but the rest of his all-round play has been excellent throughout the season.

So often when Latics have not been firing on all cylinders the lack of impact of the wingers has been particularly noticeable. Last night neither Jacobs not Massey were able to get past their markers, with the latter being called off after 67 minutes for Colclough. The simultaneous introduction of Will Grigg for Vaughan was no surprise. Many of us were hoping for a change in tactical shape, but it remained 4-2-3-1.

With Rovers continuing to threaten, Latics somehow managed not to concede another goal and on the 76th minute mark Cook finally bit the bullet and brought on Devante Cole for an ineffective Gary Roberts. The introduction of a second striker made an immediate difference, energising the Wigan attack. Cole was soon to put the ball in the back of the net, controversially being called offside by the linesman. But Colclough’s long-range drive was fluffed by home keeper Slocombe after 80 minutes and Latics went on to claim a point, although Rovers hit the post in the closing minutes.

Cook’s next challenge will be to get his players mentally and physically ready to face a Wimbledon team on Saturday that will be keen to pick up at least a point, being placed just above the relegation zone. Nick Powell was very much missed last night, but rumours suggest he is out for the rest of the season. Cook will have to decide whether to continue with the 34-year-old Roberts in the number 10 position, to bring in Jamie Walker, or change his tactical formation.

I have not seen a Wigan win in my two recent visits to Bristol. Perhaps at the more luxurious Ashton Gate next season? Meanwhile Rovers’ Jordanian owner Wael Al-Qadi will continue to look at refurbishing the Memorial Stadium as well as building a new training ground at Almondsbury.

After many years in the doldrums, Bristol Rovers are looking to move ahead. In the meantime, Wigan Athletic fans will have to wait and see whether the club will be taken over by a consortium willing to invest the kind of money needed to survive on a regular basis in the Championship. Should the anticipated takeover by IEG not happen over the coming weeks we can bet that Messrs Sharpe and Jackson will be anxious to secure the continuance of Cook, who has shown before that he can work wonders on a small budget.

Do we show these teams too much respect?

 

“Rotherham were a tough test for us ahead of the last five games, so it was important for us not to get beat.”

The words of Dan Burn after a disappointing performance.

Prior to this goalless draw at the DW Stadium, Rotherham United had lost their previous three away games, conceding eight goals in the process. But they deserved not to lose yesterday. They packed the midfield, pressing Latics into making mistakes and their big lone striker proved a physical handful for the Wigan defence.

Latics looked pedestrian, plodding along, not the dynamic outfit who had scored nine goals in the previous two games. Passes were misplaced, and the build-up was painfully slow. Although it was their third game in the space of eight days, once again Paul Cook resisted the opportunity to freshen up his pack and stuck with the same starting eleven.

Thanks to a Bristol Rovers goal in the fourth minute of stoppage time, Latics remain on top of League 1, ahead of Blackburn on goal difference. They are in pole position, with a game in hand to Blackburn and five-point buffer ahead of Shrewsbury. Latics have five games left: two at home and three away.

Dan Burn emphasised the importance of not having lost to Rotherham, who remain in fourth place. His comment begs the question as to whether Latics were  focused on not losing more than actually winning.

It was the kind of performance that we have seen before in home games against teams from the top ten. In so many of them Latics have seemed unwilling to fully commit men forward, in fear of counterattack. At the DW they have beaten only one team currently in the top ten and that was a tight 1-0 win over Plymouth, who were bottom of the table at the time. On the other side of the coin, they have only lost one, that being against Blackpool prior to the Manchester City epic. They shared the points in the others, five of those being goalless draws.

The counter-argument is that Latics are the prize scalp in the division and that visiting teams come looking for a draw, doing all they can to dull Wigan’s attacking threat. Most of Latics’ best performances this season have been away from home, where the opposition has had to show more attacking intent. The stats show that Wigan have picked up 44 points from 20 games on the road, compared with 43 points from 21 games at home. Against the top ten teams away from home they have a record of W4 D2 L3, whereas at home it is W1 D7 L1.

Cook’s record last season at Portsmouth against the other teams who finished in the top ten makes interesting reading. Like Wigan their results against their closer rivals were not impressive. Pompey’s home record read W4 D2 L3, whereas on the road it was W4 D1 L4. They  failed to score in two of those home games against top ten opposition.

Yesterday Cook resisted the chance to bring on James Vaughan after half time for the injured Nick Powell, instead introducing Gary Roberts. Vaughan had teamed up with great effect with Will Grigg after coming on at Rochdale but Cook chose the more conservative option by making a like-for-like replacement. Cook was clearly concerned about losing further control in the midfield.

After the game the manager commented that:

“We can’t win every game and steam roll every team, football is not like that. It’s a difficult game and every point towards the end of the season is golden.”

Cook was obviously keen to pick up one point if he could not pick up the three.

Wigan’s performance yesterday and in previous home games against top ten opponents begs the question whether too much respect has been shown to such opposition. But for the moment Latics are in a great position to consolidate their promotion to the Championship division. Cook deserves commendation for helping his team get to such a point with only three weeks of the season remaining.

 

Thanks to Jordan for his revealing analysis on Twitter.

Points more important than entertainment – Walsall 0 Wigan Athletic 3

 

“The game was a bit bitty and the pitches are what they are at this stage of the season so it is difficult to play a certain type of game. We have been adapting a little bit more with Vaughany up top and going a bit longer, quicker, in our pursuit of trying to get points on the board.”

Paul Cook once again summed it up well. It was the dullest of games with two teams playing the long ball, on a surface that was cutting up quickly. If football were purely a form of entertainment some 4,000 or so spectators would have been within their rights to claim a refund for their admission last night.

But for Wigan Athletic supporters at this stage of the season, winning was more important than entertainment. The win puts Latics within a point of Shrewsbury and two of Blackburn, with two games in hand.

To be fair there were a few memorable moments, before the game came to resemble a training match for Latics. Nick Powell looked by far and away the most cultured player on the pitch, even before his sublime pass with the outside of his right foot was excellently converted by Michael Jacobs after 31 minutes. It was reminiscent of the memorable pass Powell made at Plymouth, but this time from the left, rather than the right.

To all intents and purposes the game was all over within the next ten minutes. Jay Fulton justified his first league start with a beautifully struck shot from the edge of the box following a goalmouth melee from Max Power’s free kick. Chey Dunkley added a third from close range after the home goalkeeper had come out to intercept a corner kick but fluffed it.

Modern football has become more about winning more than anything else. Whereas in a bygone era a team that was three goals up by half time would go out to try to add to its tally, the modern team has its eye on the next match and looks to conserve its energy.

Following on the Southampton game on Sunday we had wondered if Cook’s team would have the stomach to fight a team close to the relegation zone on a difficult pitch. But Wigan came in with a determination to get a good result, albeit sacrificing the quality of their football to get it. Strangely enough Latics had not played well in the first half, despite going into the half time break with a three-goal cushion.

The second half seemed more like a training game for Wigan, sadly lacking in entertainment. The mystery was why Cook chose not to bring on his substitutes earlier. He switched James Vaughan for Will Grigg after 70 minutes but left it until 81 minutes to introduce Gary Roberts for Fulton. He brought on Devante Cole after 89 minutes, begging the question why it had not happened when Vaughan went off.

Paul Cook has shown us before that he can be a pragmatist. Although he clearly prefers his team to play attractive, expansive football he is realistic enough to know how hard it can be on a pitch like that at the Bescot Stadium. The long-ball approach led to an important win.

Despite their new manager, Walsall could not produce the goods. They lacked not only technique, but also aggression. It was  the easiest game of the season to referee a Wigan league encounter. Nick Powell was able to stroll through the game largely unscathed, not something to which he has been accustomed over these months. The foul count read 12 fouls by Walsall, 8 by Wigan. There was just one yellow card, that being received by Max Power.

It is unlikely that Bury will respond like Walsall when Latics visit Gigg Lane on Saturday. Although the Shakers are in bottom place, with a relegation practically a certainty, we can certainly expect some fireworks from them. Some will say that it is better to face a mid-table team with little to play for at this time of the season, rather than a team in the relegation dog-fight, even if Bury look dead and buried.

Cook’s team will surely be prepared for a scrap on Saturday. They would have expected it last night, but hardly got it.

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