Wigan Athletic: five talking points after grabbing a point at Cardiff

January 14, 2023: Cardiff City 1 Wigan Athletic 1

A game between the two teams with the worst records in the division over the past 10 matches was always going to be tense. It was a mediocre spectacle, with neither team able to play with any fluency.

Kolo Toure had opted for another conservative lineup with Steven Caulker coming in to play in the middle of a back three and Callum Lang and Will Keane up front.

Callum O’Dowda’s 82nd minute deflected shot gave the home team the lead, but Latics did not cave and Keane was once again in the right place at the right time to equalise after 96 minutes.

Following the game Toure commented:

“I have to praise the players because they worked hard, and gave everything in the game. We started the game well, and I believe we were the better team in the first half. We created so many chances, but we have to be more clinical. In the second half, it was more balanced, but they started to dominate and scored.

This afternoon, you could see the players were together and wanted to come back. It shows the team spirit that we are trying to create here, and we want our players to hate losing games.I have to praise them (the players) for their fighting spirit, and their mentality in refusing to lose. We want to make sure we give everything in every single game, so we can have no regrets.”

Some talking points:

A valuable point gained

Following three successive 4-1 defeats in the league it was important to halt that losing streak. Toure continued with the defensive approach that he used for the draw in the FA Cup at Luton. It looked like he was playing for a draw until Cardiff scored, after which Latics had to play with more attacking intent.  

At this stage of the season with the composition of the squad in a state of flux, with morale so low, any point gained is a blessing.

The point helped keep Wigan from falling further away from the rest of the relegation pack.

How long will it take for Toure be able to find a happy medium with his tactical approach?

Kolo Toure remains winless after 7 games in charge. His first two games showed promise: a composed performance producing a 1-1 draw at Millwall, then a second half fight back after going two goals behind against high flying Sheffield United. Latics had shown bravery on the ball, loose long balls from defence were minimised and the quality of their football really improved.

However, the following three matches saw the defence torn apart with the team looking short of organisation and shape.

What we saw yesterday was akin to the approach shown by Leam Richardson in his worst times before he was dismissed. It was effectively playing five at the back with three holding midfielders, with the two front men starved of decent service. Max Power’s ugly long throws, largely ineffective under the previous manager, once again reared their ugly head.

The hope is that Toure can find a happy medium between the two extremes.

Caulker makes a good debut

Much has been said about Steven Caulker’s career and the number of clubs he has had. However, he played a key role in the point gained at Cardiff. Caulker was a rock in the centre of the back line, not only having a good game individually, but playing a key role in marshalling the teammates around him.

Latics had needed that kind of experience in their rearguard for some time.

Azeez offers something different

When Jordan Cousins limped off after 49 minutes Miguel Azeez took over his role in left midfield. He entered the field with a bit of a swagger, wearing short socks with little protection for his shins. He went close to scoring 6 minutes after being on the field, making an intelligent run to the centre of the box latching on to an incisive pass from Tom Naylor. His effort sadly passed over the crossbar, but his movement was good to see.

Azeez clearly has a touch of class, something that Toure can build on. But will the defensive aspects of his game be strong enough for him to warrant a regular place in the starting lineup?

Lang and Power off form

Callum Lang has had a difficult season adjusting to the play in a higher division. He looked a forlorn sight yesterday, unable to retain possession of the ball. It was no surprise when he was substituted after 71 minutes.

Max Power was largely anonymous in this game until he made a superb cross for that last-minute equaliser. His recent form has been disappointing.

Both players have lost their way over these months. Lang would be a constant danger to League 1 defences and Power’s pinpoint crossing produced so many chances last season.

Toure’s dilemma is in whether to continue to show faith in them or to give them time on the bench to go back to re-examine their games.


Kolo Toure’s New Year Shopping List

The dust of Leam Richardson’s shock departure has practically settled. Kolo Toure has already made a positive impact, but can he succeed in keeping Wigan Athletic in the Championship division?

Yesterday’s defeat at Middlesbrough was not a surprise against a team in a rich vein of form. What was disturbing was the manner is which the home team’s goals were conceded.

In the space of just three games Toure has revolutionised the way Latics play when they have the ball: now when a player goes forward, he has so many more attacking options. The manager was brought in to modernise the way the team plays football and he has already made rapid progress. But although they look so much better on the ball, there are concerns about closing the opposition down when they have possession.

The Wigan defence looked porous yesterday. There were big gaps in midfield in front of them, leaving the centre backs and full backs exposed. Moreover, the absence of Jack Whatmough was a blow to Toure, given that he was already short of centre backs with Jason Kerr being ruled out for the season.

Whatmough has had a tough season adjusting to the Championship, too often losing his man on opposition set pieces, guilty of launching so many hopeful long balls which the opponents would gobble up.  The arrival of Toure has required him to be braver on the ball, to search for an accurate pass rather than take the easier “going long” option. However, Whatmough has the potential to be a top player at Championship level: he is strong in the tackle and in the air, with pace to match most opposition central strikers. If he can improve on his concentration and his passing of the ball, he will be a key player in Toure’s team.

The Toure style of play certainly requires defenders who can play their way out of trouble without conceding possession. It also needs midfielders to provide adequate cover to those defenders. Tom Naylor was a key cog in Leam Richardson’s machine, playing an important protective role in front of defence. Naylor’s tackling and intercepting was excellent, as was his height and heading ability from set-pieces. However, so often he would make a simple pass sideways or backwards, with Max Power taking on the responsibility of being the more creative central midfielder. Power thrived on that in League 1, his crossing providing so many goalscoring opportunities. However, on his return to the Championship he has found it difficult to replicate the accuracy of his passing and crossing, particularly against teams playing a high defensive line.

Much has been said over the course of the season about the recruitment over the summer. The critics will say not only that the board did not back Richardson sufficiently in the transfer market, but also that too many players in the existing squad were always going to struggle in the second tier. In hindsight there has been speculation that the board already had reservations about the style of football and were reluctant to make major investment in players that would fit into Richardson’s scheme.

January is not the best time for bargains in the transfer market. Clubs are loath to lose key players for the second half of the season. However, in January 2021, with Latics under administration, Leam Richardson managed to bring in a group of seasoned professionals that would play a key role in avoiding relegation to League 2.

Given the Kerr injury at least one more central defender needs to be found. The left back position has proved problematic and will surely be a priority. Some fans will advocate for sweeping changes in the squad: goalkeeper, right back, a speedy winger, a mobile central striker, a box to box midfielder. For major changes to occur some of the existing squad would need to be shipped out.

It remains early for Toure to make instant decisions on what positions are priorities for recruitment. If he is to directly replace players, he will need to find now ones who are better than what he already has, or at the very minimum, would fit into his style of play. He will need to make decisions on possible recalls of Stephen Humphrys, Jordan Jones and Jamie McGrath, who the previous manager sent on loan to Scottish clubs. They might not have fitted into the Richardson style of football, but would they fit into the Toure version?

For the moment the new manager will continue to give opportunities to senior squad members who were starved of opportunities in the previous regime.

But whether Toure ultimately brings in a host of new players or whether he largely sticks with the hand he has been dealt; it will take time for the team to adapt to the more modern style of football that we are to see. As Mal Brannigan recently said:

“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.”

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

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