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.
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?