Five talking points following a dire performance at Preston

Preston North End 3 Wigan Athletic 0

 

Wigan Athletic followers had been dizzy as the transfer window closed, with Latics investing some £9m to give Paul Cook a squad stronger than he could ever have imagined. The mood was upbeat, with some wild optimists even envisioning promotion. But this performance was a reality check for all of us.

It was reported that this week Paul Cook had his players watch a video of the 4-0 drubbing received at Preston in early October last season. One would have hoped it would have had the desired effect. But it didn’t: the result was marginally better, but the performance was actually worse. PNE were far superior in all aspects and Wigan never looked as if they were in the game.

The first two goals were results of inept defending, the third beautifully taken. The standard of football played by Preston was far superior.

After the game Paul Cook said: “It was just deja vu – exactly the same as last year,” fumed the Latics boss. We want the lads to improve away from home and come back with some better results. I actually thought coming here first up would be educational in terms of what happened here last year. But we were too soft, too easy to play against. We stuck to the task well towards the end – but by then the game had gone. In any derby match, if you’re not prepared to fight and scrap for everything, you’ll get beat. And I want to assure our supporters that the players will not be getting an easy ride from me – make no mistake about that.”

Let’s take a look at some points arising:

Team selection

With Anthony Pilkington injured many fans expected either Jamal Lowe or Gavin Massey to be brought in on the right wing. But students of Cook team selections were not surprised to see Kal Naismith chosen ahead of them. Michael Jacobs was moved to the right, where he was woefully ineffective. Cook had two right wingers on the bench in Jamal Lowe and Gavin Massey

It was a surprise to see Cedric Kipre selected ahead of Chey Dunkley. Dunkley had looked uncomfortable at times against Cardiff, but his aerial ability was missed yesterday.

Hoof ball rears its ugly head again

PNE are hardly a club noted for skilful possession football. But they outplayed Latics in that department. In the first half Wigan constantly hoofed hopeful balls forward, only for the PNE defence to gobble them up. Neither Joe Garner, nor his substitute after 26 minutes, Kieffer Moore, had a chance to do much with such awful service.

It is a pattern that prevailed in so many games away from home last season. The manager has not addressed it.

The defence looks so vulnerable

We saw the warning signs against Cardiff. But defensive weaknesses had been secondary to Latics’ attacking prowess and the profligacy of Cardiff’s attackers. David Marshall needs time to regain confidence. He has a fine career record but has looked nervy so far. The defence in front of him has hardly inspired confidence.

Cook’s decision to choose Kipre in place of Dunkley was a surprise since the manager tends to stick with a winning team. He had to replace Pilkington, but not Dunkley. Opinions vary as to who is the better choice: Kipre or Dunkley. Despite Kipre being slightly taller than Dunkley it is the latter who deals much more effectively with aerial threats. Kipre is still only 22 and can lack awareness and positional sense. However, he has an ability to make outstanding tackles and interceptions. Given time the Ivorian can become a top player at this level.

All of the back four were poor yesterday. That included Danny Fox who was substituted after 63 minutes with Naismith moving to centre back. Fox was at fault for PNE’s second goal, leaving Louis Moult unmarked to head home. Against Cardiff his lack of tight marking allowed Omar Bogle to level up the scores. It has not been a good start to the season for the experienced defender, whose presence last season helped to tighten up a porous centre of defence. It remains to be seen if Fox will keep his place with Charlie Mulgrew challenging for a place in the left centre of defence.

Blackburn manager Tony Mowbray commented this week on their club site regarding Mulgrew’s departure: “He’s the captain of our club and has taken us on an amazing journey over the last few years. We have to commend him and thank him for that. Here we are now, allowing him to move on loan. We want to play a different way this year, higher up the pitch, and for the way we want to play I want a bit more athleticism and a bit more ability in covering the ground. At times we will be left one v one and I don’t think that’s a strength of Charlie Mulgrew. He understands that and we felt it would be difficult for him around the club and not playing as much as he’d like.”

Much of the problem with Wigan’s defence away from home has stemmed from playing too deep. The same thing happened at Deepdale, with PNE having acres of space in central midfield, with Lee Evans and Lewis Macleod physically unable to cover that wide area against the home team’s trio of central midfielders. With Preston so dominant in possession in the first half on the situation was crying out for a change in formation but Cook chose to stick with his favoured 4-2-3-1 system.

Moore and Williams make their debuts

Kieffer Moore came on early for Joe Garner but the service to him was poor, largely consisting of hopeful punts in his general direction. The presence of a 6ft 5in centre forward can invite under-pressure defenders to launch such long balls, but it is rarely going to be effective. Although tall and physically strong Moore is not an outstanding header of the ball. He will do better with the ball played to his feet or crossed accurately into the penalty box for him to run on to.

Joe Williams came on after 72 minutes and added energy to the midfield. He is known for his rugged tackling, but also has an eye for a pass.

Many fans had expected Jamal Lowe to start this game on the right wing. He eventually came on after 63 minutes but was not used in his normal position.

Last season Wigan were struck by injuries to key players and the squad was severely stretched. This season’s squad has a better balance and quality and there are at least two players competing for each position. The manager’s challenge will be in keeping players happy who are not getting regular games.

A change in formation and approach

Cook’s successes as a manager have been built on the 4-2-3-1 formation adopted by so many clubs these days. We have seen him experiment, occasionally reverting to a backline of three, typically when trying to close games down.

Given the vulnerability of the centre of defence, particularly away from home, the manager might consider a change in formation. A backline of three of Dunkley, Fox, Kipre or Mulgrew would surely provide more defensive stability, allowing the full backs more attacking freedom in wing back roles. In fact, the 3-4-3 formation utilised by Roberto Martinez at Wigan might well get the best out of the players that Cook has at his disposal.

However, irrespective of the formation he employs the manager must demand that his players build up moves from the back. The hoof ball approach that we so often saw last season has been unsuccessful, particularly away from home. It is not appropriate in the Championship division.

Put simply, Cook must be flexible in determining the best formation after looking at the strengths of his own players and the opposition. Moreover, he must insist on his players having the discipline and patience to play the quality of football necessary for success in the second tier of English football.

Courtesy of WhoScored.com

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Five talking points following a rousing win over Cardiff

Wigan Athletic 3 Cardiff City 2

A rousing second half performance, capped by three well taken goals saw Wigan Athletic take the three points against a combative Cardiff City side. It was a well-deserved win against a team loaded with players who had played in the Premier League last season.

Paul Cook stuck with his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, largely keeping faith with players who kept the club in the Championship division last season. David Marshall in goal and Lewis Macleod in central midfield for the unavailable Sam Morsy were the new faces in the starting line-up.

Latics started brightly, despite their play being disrupted by the visitors’ physical approach and their ability to counterattack at speed. Wigan looked so much better when they played the ball on the ground, their high crosses being gobbled up by Cardiff’s big central defenders, the 6ft 6in tall Aden Flint and the 6ft 4in Sean Morrison. Although both teams had threatened it was the visitors who scored first, after 20 minutes, Marshall fumbling the ball with midfielder Joe Ralls hitting it home amid a chaotic Wigan defence. Ralls had been lucky not to receive a red card after an awful challenge on Lee Evans. Cardiff went into the interval one goal ahead having conceded 11 fouls to Wigan’s 4, with 3 yellow cards compared with none for the home team.

Wigan came out in the second half with spirit and intensity, building up with skill, challenging Cardiff’s giant defenders on the ground where they were less comfortable. Josh Windass had already been a thorn in the visitors’ side and soon after the interval he outpaced Morrison who nudged him to concede a penalty. It was a surprise to see Windass step up to take the spot-kick, Joe Garner being the normal penalty taker. Unfortunately, Windass could not convert it, the ball striking the post. But in the 59th minute the same player’s deflected free kick fell into the path of Michael Jacobs who slotted it home. Four minutes later Windass gave Wigan the lead, beating Morrison, before finishing with aplomb.

Cardiff continued to pose a threat and Wigan’s defence was exposed when Omar Bogle scored an equaliser after 70 minutes. But within five minutes Wigan were ahead again after Evans had cut in from the left and unleashed a superb right foot curler into the top right-hand corner of the Cardiff goal. Cook then brought on Cedric Kipre for Macleod, changing to a back three. It took brave defence to hold off waves of Cardiff pressure in the closing minutes.

Paul Cook had been awarded a yellow card in the first half, protesting Cardiff’s over-robust approach. He felt that Ralls “shouldn’t be on the pitch. My initial reaction was it wasn’t a hard decision to give a red. We spoke at half-time not to let anyone, including myself, lose their discipline.”

Let’s take a look at some points arising:

Windass in the number 10 role

Nick Powell’s departure for Stoke was a blow for Cook. The burning question has been who he would place in that key number 10 role behind the central striker. Reports have linked Latics to Preston’s creative midfielder Daniel Johnson, who played under the manager at Chesterfield. It was Josh Windass who was chosen to play in that role yesterday.

Windass has played the role before, with limited success. But in this game, he really stepped up to the plate, his mobility and pace causing all kinds of problems for the opposition defence. Windass cannot match Powell in terms of creativity and passing ability: he is a different type of player with different attributes.

Windass can be a frustrating player, seemingly losing concentration at times, misplacing passes, not being aware of those around him. But at his best he can be a real asset, his directness unsettling the opposition.

Macleod could be a key player

Lewis Macleod is a talented midfield player whose career has been dogged by injury. He played for 75 minutes yesterday before making way to Cedric Kipre. Macleod is gradually adjusting to Cook’s style of play, which is quite different than what he was used to at Brentford.

Should he manage to steer clear of injury he could be a key player this season.

Evans back to his best

Lee Evans had a disappointing time last season but has all the attributes to become a top-class midfielder at Championship level. He has good positional sense, is strong in the tackle and has a good technique. He had a fine game in a holding midfield role yesterday, capping it off with a superb goal that was to prove to be the match winner.

During the course of last season Reece James took over Evans’ regular duties of taking free kicks and corners. Yesterday Josh Windass took most of the set pieces. However, Evans is very capable in that area and in crossing the ball into space in open play.

One wonders if Evans lacks the self-belief that he should really have given his footballing abilities. He is such a capable player.

The challenge for Paul Cook is in how to get the best out of the Welshman.

Using a back three

Cook’s continues to prefer a 4-2-3-1 system that has served him so well in the past. He pushes his full backs forward, relying on holding midfielders dropping back to support an exposed defence. At times yesterday the centre of defence looked vulnerable with Cardiff breaking out with pace. Had they taken more of the chances they created they might well have come away with the three points.

Given the way that Cardiff play the manager might well have considered using three centre backs in his starting line-up. Instead he waited until the final quarter. It was certainly the right thing to do to counter the visitors’ aerial threat.

Cook deserves credit for his willingness to try other formations. However, so often when Latics have changed to a back three to close down a game they have dropped too deep in defence, giving the ball back to the opposition so cheaply. Keeping the ball is key to defending under pressure but Latics tend to launch long balls far too freely when a counterattack is on with the opposition pushed so far forward. It is something that the manager and his coaches need to work on with their players.

Looking for a big target man

Joe Garner is 5 ft 10 in tall. Given the height of the central defenders he had to compete with he did remarkably well to challenge for high balls. Garner is a capable centre forward to gives his all for the team, but he plays at his best when the ball is played to his feet.

Following failed attempts to sign big target men in Sam Gallagher and Jordan Hugill it is no surprise to hear that Cook is now trying to sign the 6ft 5in Kieffer Moore from Barnsley. Moore does not have a lot of experience at Championship level but has a better scoring rate than Gallagher or Hugill.

Signing a big centre forward who poses a big aerial threat would add an extra option for Cook. But Latics have enough creativity in midfield not to rely on the long ball which we saw too much of last season.

Let’s hope that the arrival of a tall centre forward is employed to give Latics extra options, rather than a signal to by-pass a capable midfield with long balls.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

 

Some talking points following a good performance at Birmingham

Birmingham City 1 Wigan Athletic 1

 

After gifting a goal to Birmingham City with just two minutes gone Wigan Athletic fought back to gain a well-deserved point. But it could have been three points with more clinical finishing and more favourable treatment from the match officials.

Paul Cook made eight changes from the team that started against Preston, reverting to the 3-4-2-1 formation he employed at Bristol City. England Youth players, Joe Gelhardt and Jensen Weir, were on the bench, as was the 18-year-old Adam Long.

City’s early goal was a blow for Latics, but they took the game to the home team, carving out chances, with Nick Powell’s deflected equaliser coming in the 38th minute.

Following the game assistant manager, Leam Richardson, commented: “It’s a long season and you normally end up finishing where you deserve to. We did suffer with a few injuries in the middle of the season, but our lads have stuck at it and they’ve always believed that they’re good enough. They’ve stuck together and there haven’t been any fallings out. They’ve had their heads down every time they come back in after a game and worked hard to go again. We’re looking to finish our season strongly and the lads deserve great credit for sticking at it all year.”

Let’s take a look at some points arising:

Olsson recovers from early error. An improved display from Darron Gibson

As has so often happened this season Latics gave away a soft goal. With Jamie Jones rooted on his line Jonas Olsson failed to deal with Lukas Jutkiewicz’s run, the striker poking the ball home between Jones’ legs.

Olsson is 36 years old and his short-term contract is up in June. After making some 250 appearances for West Bromwich Albion he left them by mutual agreement in March 2017, returning to Sweden to join Stockholm club, Djurgardens.

It has been a tough return for Olsson who has not been able to claim a regular starting place. However, despite the early mix-up with Jones he went on to have possibly his best game to date for Latics. Cook wisely placed him at the centre of the back three where he could use his vast experience to help marshal the defence. The result was the defence held firm and limited the home team’s direct attempts on goal.

The 30-year-old Gibson too has had a tough time over recent months, but yesterday his performance was much improved in a holding midfield role.  His contract also expires in June.

In addition to Olsson and Gibson and the loan players there a number of others whose contracts expire shortly. They include Leon Clarke, Callum McManaman, Shaun MacDonald, Gavin Massey, and Nick Powell.

Gelhardt and Weir make their league debuts

The inclusion of the 16-year-old Joe Gelhardt and the 17-year-old Jensen Weir in the matchday squad was a welcome surprise, but we can scarcely have expected more than a brief appearance on the pitch for either. But Josh Windass’ injury led to Gelhardt being thrust into the action after the interval and he took the opportunity to impress. Despite robust challenges by Birmingham he was not deterred and showed a willingness to run at the home team’s defence. Naturally left-footed he was played on the right. Weir too came on after 81 minutes for Nick Powell, being employed in an attacking midfield role. However, with the game petering out in the closing minutes he was starved of possession and we did not get much of a glimpse as to what he is capable of.

Joe Gelhardt joined Latics at the age of 10. He made 6 appearances for the England under-16 side, scoring 3 goals, together with 7 goals in 12 outings for the England under-17 side. The Liverpool-born forward signed a three-year professional contract with the club in August after making his senior team debut at Rotherham in the Carabou Cup.

Jensen Weir, born in Warrington, is the son of ex-Everton centre half David Weir. He was captain of Scotland under-16s, for whom he made 9 appearances. Weir also played for Scotland at the under-17 level before switching allegiances to join the England under-17 team for whom he has made 6 appearances. Weir holds the record as the youngest player ever to play for Latics, having made his debut in a Checkatrade Trophy game against Accrington Stanley at the age of 15. He joined Latics at 8 years of age, leaving them when he was 11, returning when 12.

Adam Long is an 18-year old central defender from the Isle of Man. He began his career with local side St Georges, joining Latics in 2017. He made his Latics debut in an EFL Trophy game against Middlesbrough under-23s in October 2017. Although he did not come off the bench at Birmingham perhaps we will get a glimpse of him in the final game of the season against Millwall.

Powell’s last goal for Latics?

Nick Powell’s goal was his 8th of the season, making him Latics’ top scorer, despite having missed a considerable chunk of the season through injury. He also leads the assists with 6.

Over the course of the season there has been so much speculation on the message boards and social media about Powell’s future. There have been so many tweets urgng him to sign a new contract. He is Wigan’s most talented player and the catalyst behind most of the good football we have seen from Latics this season and last.

Although some fans still cling on to the hope that he will decide to stay the likelihood is that he will be leaving. The goal at Birmingham could be the last one Powell scores for Latics.

Has Cook turned the corner?

The manager has gone through a particularly tough part of his career over the past six months. His lowest ebb was probably after the defeat at Hull on April 10 when Latics once again gave away soft goals to throw away a lead. It left them with an away record of LLWLLLLLLLDLLDLLLDLLLDL with the manager seemingly unable to steady a sinking ship.

However, there were some rays of hope following a 1-1 draw in the next match with table-topping Norwich, Latics employing the high press and having the confidence to attack the Canaries. The next game at Leeds was the turning point as Latics managed to beat the second-placed team despite losing Cedric Kipre to a yellow card after 15 minutes and being a goal behind two minutes later. Despite being down to 10 men Cook insisted on keeping Leon Clarke and Gavin Massey forward, moving Kal Naismith into an unfamiliar role at centre back rather than bringing on specialist Jonas Olsson following Kipre’s dismissal. It was a brave move by Cook which was to pay high dividends.

Cook’s supporters will say that he was new to management in the second tier of English football and injuries to key players hit hard in those winter months. His critics will say that his team selections and substitutions have been poor, his approach away from home was too negative and performances against teams in the lower part of the table have so often been dire.

However, in recent games we have seen a  more dynamic and enterprising approach from the players with the manager being more positive in his team selections and tactics. The clock has seemingly been put back to August when the team started so well and played “without fear”. Cook has experimented with his tactical formations and now Latics look comfortable in both the 4-2-3-1 shape previously favoured by the manager and with three at the back in a 3-4-2-1 formation.

In the darkest of days of February and March it appeared that the manager was just not learning from his mistakes. Has the upturn in April been due to a change in “luck”? Or has it been due to good management?

The truth most likely lies somewhere between the two.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

 

Five talking points after gaining an important point at Bristol City

Bristol City 2 Wigan Athletic 2

Bristol is always worth a visit. In 2017 it was named by the Sunday Times as the best place to live in Britain:  “a small city that feels like a big city”, it was praised for being “handily placed for seaside and scenery” but “hardly cut off”. A little less than a year ago I went to the north of the city to see Latics get a 1-1 draw against Bristol Rovers in primitive conditions, sitting under a canopy with the rain lashing in at the rustic Memorial Ground.

The impressive Ashton Gate stadium is some three miles south of the city centre, not far from the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge. Bristol City were in fourth place, following fine wins at Sheffield United and Middlesbrough, facing  a Wigan team low on confidence and in a  relegation dogfight. Gary Caldwell’s promoted side played there in the opening game of the season in August 2016, going into half time with a 1-0 lead, only to go down in the 90th minute after Lee Johnson’s substitutions had changed the game.

This Bristol City side has a high proportion of tall players, posing a serious aerial threat. Knowing that Paul Cook had changed his team’s shape, reverting to a 3-4-2-1 system, with Cedric Kipre brought back as the third centre half. Gavin Massey was left on the bench for Josh Windass to join Nick Powell behind centre forward Joe Garner.

Latics started off well, not being afraid to take the game to the home team. They went into the interval a goal ahead following a prodigious strike from distance by Reece James. The Wigan fans in the John Atyeo Stand were delighted at the half time lead, if somewhat wary of what might follow. Were Latics going to suffer that all-too-familiar second half slump that had let them down in so many away games?

But Latics went into the second half in a similar vein, cancelling out the home team’s efforts and carving out opportunities of their own. But Johnson once again changed the pattern of the game, through making three substitutions after just 58 minutes. A sloppy Wigan backline allowed goals by Matty Taylor after  65 minutes and substitute Kasey Palmer three minutes later. But Wigan had not caved in and continued to create opportunities. On the 81st minute Cook made three substitutions, taking off Kipre, Windass and Joe Garner to bring on Massey, Anthony Pilkington and Leon Clarke. With just a minute remaining of the five added-on  Clarke steamrollered his way through the home defence, his shot being blocked by a defender on the line, only for Pilkington to slot home the loose ball.

The away support went into raptures. In the end it was a point well deserved against a good Bristol City side.

Following the game Paul Cook said: “I think, even for our fans, it’s very much a fair indication of probably where we’re at, at the level. Going forward we’ve genuinely tried to carry a threat and create chances which we’ve done. Unfortunately, defensively, we have the ability just to give teams soft goals and that was no different today. Whilst it’s important we stick together and stay strong, you know there must be a level of improvement in certain departments of the pitch and none more so highlighted than the five minutes today that have seen us go from a comfortable lead to going behind 2-1.The character of the team is good. The subs came on and effected it really well, we carried a threat the whole game. I thought Powell and Windass looked good behind Joe Garner who was excellent, but unfortunately the goals change the game and from there we’re making substitutions we probably didn’t want to make, albeit they had a positive effect.”

Let’s take a look at some points arising:

Clarke shows his worth

When Leon Clarke was brought on with some 10 minutes to go it did not go down particularly well with the away following. The big man has had a difficult return to a club where he had previously failed to impress. Joe Garner has established himself as the first choice centre forward and he had had another good game against City’s three towering central defenders. But Clarke’s physical strength and opportunism helped save the day for Latics.

Whether the 34-year-old will be at Wigan next season remains to be seen, but Cook will be hoping to see more of his opportunism in the six matches that remain.

Cook gets his shape right

Faced with such an aerial threat Cook wisely selected three central defenders, allowing Nathan Byrne and Antonee Robinson more freedom to move forward as wing backs. The lineup was well balanced and helped Latics compete on an even keel with a side vying for promotion.

Cook’s plans were sadly undone by poor defending, Kipre allowing Taylor to out jump him for the first goal, Chey Dunkley’s slip leading to the second.

But the 3-4-2-1 system the manager used in this match could prove to be his preferred formation until the end of the season. Not only does it potentially stiffen the defence but it provides pace up the wings. After being left on the bench presumably because of the formation, Gavin Massey looked to be hobbling along in the closing minutes. Should it prove to be a major injury the manager will be short of his three fastest wingers, since Michael Jacobs and Callum McManaman have already been ruled out.

Over the course of the season, faced with injuries to Jacobs and Massey, Cook persisted with players on the wings who were so much less pacy and incisive than that duo.  One can only hope that the manager sees the benefit of persisting with a 3-4-2-1 which allows his best available players to take the field in positions to which they are suited.

Cook gets his substitutions right

When the second City goal went in there were some away fans asking for Cook to make substitutions. But, despite the defensive errors Latics were playing well against strong opposition. He wisely waited until the 81st minute, changing the shape to his favourite 4-2-3-1.

The manager’s substitutions over recent months have often received criticism. He certainly got it right this time.

Dunkley and Kipre for the future

The Championship season is long and relentless, a constant challenge to players who have come up from lower divisions. Chey Dunkley had a mixed game, his slip leading to a goal, fluffing two headers on goal which last season he would probably have put away. But he nevertheless made important tackles and interventions.

The 27-year-old Dunkley had just two seasons in league football prior to this season, both in League 1. The ascent to the Championship was always going to pose a challenge. With a young defence around him so often Dunkley has had to shoulder the burden. His heading ability has been so important for the team, as have the superb last-gasp tackles he has so often produced. At times he has been caught out and made errors that have proved costly and his distribution has been far from the level expected from a central defender in the second tier. But at Bristol he rarely launched those hoof-balls that have too often characterized his distribution.

Cedric Kipre is only 22-years -old, with a single season behind him in league football, albeit for Motherwell in the SPL. He has a superb physique for a central defender, has pace and passing ability. In recent games he has looked short of confidence, not the player he was earlier in the season. Despite his height and powerful build he is too often beaten in the air, as happened again in this game. Rather than aggressively attacking the ball he can tend to hold back. Earlier in the season Kipre was unafraid to venture forward towards the half way line to make tackles, but playing in a struggling team must have had its effect. Kipre is young and has the potential to become a fine central defender at Championship level. With the right coaching maybe he could go even further?

It has been a steep learning curve for both Dunkley and Kipre. Should Latics manage to avoid relegation the knowledge the two have gained from playing at this level will surely hold them in good stead for the future.

Looking forward to Hull

Hull City sit in 11th place. Their home record is W10 D5 L5, amassing 35 points, just one more than Latics at the DW Stadium.

Although Bristol City were flying high prior to playing Latics their home record had not been impressive. In that respect the trip to Hull could pose more of a challenge.

However, buoyed by the point gained at Bristol, can Latics come away with a good result in east Yorkshire?

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

Five talking points following a tight encounter with Brentford

Wigan Athletic 0 Brentford 0

Wigan Athletic rarely do well after an international break. But this was by no means a bad performance. Whether it was a point gained or two points lost is the current debate among Latics fans.

It was a tight game between two teams of contrasting styles with few clear-cut chances created by either side. Brentford played the better football, but Wigan came closest to scoring.  With 7 games to play Latics are 4 points ahead of the relegation zone but have some difficult games coming up. Some fans are suggesting that their fate could be decided in that final match of the season when Latics host Millwall.

Paul Cook made one change to his starting line-up, preferring the experience of Danny Fox to the youth of Cedric Kipre at centre back. Anthony Pilkington returned to the squad following injury and was brought on after 43 minutes when Michael Jacobs had to go off because of a hamstring injury. Pilkington’s return to action had coincided with Josh Windass being a noticeable omission from the match-day squad.

Following the game Cook commented: “We need to respect the point, it’s a point more towards where we want to be and with seven games to go, we just need to keep believing. It was a case of staying disciplined with our shape and then hitting them on the counter-attack and creating chances. Credit to Brentford, they’re an excellent football side and are one of the best teams we faced here in terms of managing and handling the ball, they take the ball in all areas of the pitch and continually caused our shape problems. We had a couple of good chances, Gavin Massey’s was the most clear-cut chance in the game just after half-time, but we’ve now taken four points from Bolton and Brentford and we move on.”

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

Were Wigan over-physical or were Brentford play-acting?

We learned what excellent possession football Brentford can play in the 2-0 defeat at Griffin Park in mid-September. The Bees were riding high at that time and if it had not been for a good display by Christian Walton they would have won by a much greater margin. We saw that smooth possession football in action again yesterday, their three-man backline calm under pressure, the midfield players making themselves constantly available to enable a seamless transition from defence to attack. Brentford are second to Leeds with average possession stats of 57% over the course of the season. They enjoyed 65% of the possession yesterday. Moreover, their pass accuracy was 82% compared with Wigan’s 63%.

Following the game, the Bees Danish manager, Thomas Frank, commented: “Wigan are very physical…and I don’t think it’s any secret that they try to use that physicality, because they thought that maybe an advantage for them. They used that well, and then it’s up to the referee to protect the players.”

A fierce tackle by Danny Fox in the opening minutes on Brentford’s leading goalscorer Neal Maupay was a signal of things to come. The foul count ended up being 19 against Wigan and 14 against Brentford. Wigan’s average foul count is 13 per game. Latics were certainly physical against a team with technically superior players, but although they committed more fouls than usual, they accumulated only one yellow card compared with Brentford’s two.

In the encounter at Griffin Park there was criticism by Latics fans of what they considered the home side’s “play-acting” and pressuring the referee. Sam Morsy was sent off in the 60th minute, but his suspension was rescinded by the FA. The Bees’ manager at that time was Dean Smith. When his current side, Aston Villa, visited Wigan in mid-January we saw a similar pattern.

Wigan were physical yesterday, but Brentford’s reaction was so often over the top. Is the same behaviour the players learned under Smith being allowed to continue under Frank?

The second half sag

So often this season Latics have sagged in the second half. The high pressing has dissipated, and Wigan have dropped back in defence, unable to string passes together. The same happened yesterday. What are the reasons? Are the players lacking in fitness?  Or are they following the manager’s instructions?

Brendan Rogers once said: “If you can dominate the game with the ball, you have a 79% chance of winning”. Where he got his figures from is up to debate but, put simply, the more the ball is passed around the field, the more the opposition is forced to burn energy.  In the first half yesterday, Brentford were certainly stretching Latics with their possession. In Cook’s words “they take the ball in all areas of the pitch and continually caused our shape problems.”

The likelihood is therefore that by half time Latics had expended more energy than their opponents. Given such a scenario it would have been no surprise for Cook to instruct Latics to sit back and look at hitting the visitors on the counterattack.

Defence holds firm

Chey Dunkley returned to form yesterday, forming a combative central defence with Danny Fox. Dunkley’s form off set pieces has been so disappointing this season and he still has not scored a goal. But he came close his header drawing a fine save from the opposition keeper and he later had another effort bounce off the crossbar. That goal must surely come. At times it has been a difficult learning experience for the big central defender in his first season in the second tier, but nevertheless he has figured among Latics’ most consistent performers over the course of the season.

Fox’s last appearance for Latics had been in the 2-1 defeat at Derby on March 5 when he went off injured after 33 minutes. He had suffered a previous injury after 25 minutes at Rotherham on February 9 that had kept him out for two weeks. Since signing for Latics at the end of the January transfer window he has made just five appearances, including two curtailed by injury. He was excellent yesterday, his reading of the game and positional sense shining through. He is by no means a sophisticated central defender, but his determination and his passing ability make him a player to be reckoned with at Championship level.

Powell completes the full game

Nick Powell was not at his best, but soon after half time he won the ball close to his own penalty box and ran some forty yards to lay off a beautiful pass for Gavin Massey who had intelligently moved into space. Unfortunately, the winger’s effort was well saved by the goalkeeper. Powell is such an important player for Latics that it takes a lot of nervous energy out of us as fans when he looks frail and injury-prone. In this game he misplaced some of his passes, but he was certainly committed and for once Cook did not take him off before the full-time whistle blew.

So often have Latics relied on Powell’s creativity to provide some kind of spark in tight encounters. It is a heavy burden he shoulders. With Michael Jacobs once again struck down by a hamstring injury there will be even more pressure on Powell. Pilkington had been brought on for Jacobs, one creative player for another. But the ex-Cardiff player needs more games under his belt before he is going to play at his best. Since joining Latics in early January he has made just six starts with two appearances off the bench. Pilkington has a good pedigree for the second tier and could prove a key asset in the bid to avoid relegation. If Jacobs is to be out for some time Cook will need Pilkington to stay fit and show the kinds of skills that we know he is capable of.

Commitment with discipline

Sam Morsy talked in the week about the need for him to cut out the unnecessary yellow cards. After being booked four times in five outings he has now gone four games without a yellow. Morsy is a key player in Wigan’s midfield and Cook will not want to lose him through suspension again.

Although Morsy is the leader in yellow cards at the club he is not the only player who has run into problems with referees. Latics average 13 fouls committed per game, with 14 per game being awarded in their favour.  They occupy 17th place in the fouls committed table, with seven teams having a higher foul count. However, in terms of yellow and red cards only Nottingham Forest have a worse record. Latics have 82 yellows and 3 reds in 39 games.

Antonee Robinson deservedly received a yellow card yesterday for a desperation tackle but his teammates managed to avoid one. Last week against Bolton nobody on Wigan’s team received a card.

It appears that Cook and his coaches have been working with the players on improving their discipline. Discipline tends to be associated with the gap between fouls committed and cards received, but it can have a wider meaning. With a young defence Latics have too often given away free kicks near their penalty box that have caused them problems. Throw-ins have been another problem area with too many routinely given away when the ball could have been kept in play. Doing so has invited further pressure from the opposition. “Safety-first” defending – putting the ball out of play at the slightest hint of danger – was not so often punished in League 1 as it has been in the Championship. In the first half against Bolton we saw the visiting side pepper the home defence with crosses and throw-ins, too often given away by the indiscipline of Wigan’s defence. Fortunately, those same defenders, aided by Bolton’s lack of finishing, managed to keep the visitors out until after half time.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com