Five talking points following a drab display at home to Ipswich

Wigan Athletic 1 Ipswich Town 1

We might have expected Wigan Athletic to come racing out of the blocks following their warm weather trip to Dubai. But it was not to be. A pedestrian Latics side failed to capitalise on Jonas Knudsen’s red card after 25 minutes, going behind five minutes later after a soft penalty was conceded by Chey Dunkley. It took a 91st equaliser from substitute Joe Garner to level the scores.

Paul Cook made two changes from the previous league game with Stoke. Lee Evans returned in central midfield with Reece James being moved to right back in place of Nathan Byrne. Danny Fox came back from injury to replace Cedric Kipre in the centre of defence.

Paul Cook commented: “It has to be a point gained, it has to be – for sure. You’d have to say it’s a feeling of relief, from the situation we found ourselves in. I thought Ipswich started the game well, they came with quite an attacking intent. The sending-off has a large bearing on the game, and you think the likelihood is we should go on and win the game. Ipswich then get a goal pretty quickly, and it’s set up then where they defend very deep and narrow – and rightly so. They frustrated us for long periods, and I didn’t feel we really looked like scoring, to be truthful. At the end of the day it’s a point, it’s not what we wanted, but the relief at the end was there for all to see.”

Let’s look at some points arising:

Another disappointing result against a side in the relegation zone

Latics have won only 1 game out of 7 against the five teams below them in the Championship table, that being a 1-0 win over Rotherham at the DW Stadium at the beginning of September. They lost at Ipswich and Millwall.

The displays against those teams in danger of relegation have been largely characterised by lethargic build-up play and ineffective finishing. Yesterday’s game simply fitted into a pattern we had seen before.

The remaining “6 pointers” are Reading (A) on March 9, Bolton (H) on March 16 and Millwall (H) on May 5, the last day of the season.

Why it is that Wigan have seemingly played without much ambition in those games is hard to fathom, although last season their results against the top teams in League 1 were not impressive. They won only 1 out of 6 against the 2nd, 3rd and 4th placed teams. Is there something in the planning for these encounters that emphasises caution? Or is it a mere coincidence that the players have not been at their best in those games?

What has happened to Leon Clarke?

His return to Wigan was never going to be easy for Leon Clarke. In his previous spell in the second half of the 2014-15 season he had failed to impress, scoring one goal in ten games. Fans queried his appetite for playing the role of the lone centre forward. Clarke impressed in his first game back, scoring a goal and making an assist against QPR. But in the following three games he has been less effective, looking more like the player of the unfortunate era of Malky Mackay.

Clarke is at Wigan on loan from Sheffield United until the end of the season. Last season he scored 19 goals in 39 appearances in the Championship. However, with the loan signing of Gary Madine and at 34 years of age, Clarke was allowed to leave the Blades in January.

With Sheffield United favouring twin strikers Clarke played well last season, his partnership with Billy Sharp being fruitful. At Wigan he has played as the main central striker with Josh Windass behind him.

Is Clarke better in a twin striker role or is it that he is now playing in a struggling team, not getting the kind of service he did at Bramall Lane?

Only time will tell if Clarke’s return to the DW is successful.

Antonee Robinson absent from the team sheet

Robinson’s last league appearance was on November 10th at Middlesbrough. In Robinson’s absence through injury Kal Naismith has established himself as the regular starter at left back, despite his previous lack of experience in that position.

Most of us expected Cook to sign a new left back over the January window but nothing materialised. Naismith has not had an easy time in that position but has improved as time has passed. At times he has looked all at sea and vulnerable to runs from speedy wingers. But he has also made some outstanding blocks and tackles in and around the penalty box. Cook expects his full backs to push far forward and the Scot has shown skill and determination down the flanks, with an ability to launch pinpoint crosses into the box. Although often under pressure from elements in the crowd Naismith has often shown initiative in a side that has been short on such qualities during a dismal run of results in recent months.

In a recent interview Naismith talked about his adjustment to playing at left back: “I’m learning all of the time, I’m happy to be playing in that new role and delighted to be playing in this league and just learning every day. I go back after the game and watch it, I take little bits from it. It’s funny because I feel like my crossing hasn’t been great as it’s my best asset, but my defending is getting better every week. I take the positives from that, I just want to keep learning as a player and keep improving.”

Robinson played the first 62 minutes against Shanghai SIPC in Dubai, being replaced by Naismith. Robinson too has faced criticism from fans on the defensive part of his game, although he can excel when going forward, possessing real pace.

It was a surprise that Robinson did not appear on the team sheet yesterday. Was he suffering a reaction from the game in Dubai?

McManaman preferred to Massey

After a frustrating first half with Latics woefully short of creativity one hoped, in vain, that Cook would make an immediate substitution in the second half to freshen things up. He had been employing two holding midfielders in Evans and Morsy, both sitting deep against a side with ten men. But we had to wait until after the hour mark for Callum McManaman and Nick Powell to come on for Chey Dunkley and Anthony Pilkington. Although Dunkley’s departure was a shock, Morsy being pushed back into the back four, the arrival of McManaman that was a surprise with Gavin Massey staying on the bench.

Powell looked decidedly rusty after such little football over these months but will clearly be a key player in Cook’s plans when fully fit. McManaman looked lively, if well policed by the Ipswich defence.

The manager’s treatment of McManaman has been unpopular with a lot of the fans. Is this an indication that the player will at last be given a genuine opportunity to prove himself over the games that remain?

Can Latics avoid relegation?

Again, the results for the other teams in the relegation went largely in Wigan’s favour. Bolton lost at Leeds, Millwall were defeated at home by Preston, Reading and Rotherham shared the points.

But Latics have been living precariously for weeks. The optimists will say that they are undefeated in their last four matches, but critics will say that three of those were draws when Wigan were happy to stick with a point.

Should just two of those teams have a run of form over the upcoming games then Latics could be in real trouble unless they too start winning matches. Being satisfied with a point rather than seriously trying for the three points might not be enough.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

 

 

 

 

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Five talking points after football is the loser at Rotherham

Rotherham United 1 Wigan Athletic 1

It was a truly awful game of football, but the result was one which helped Latics maintain a six-point lead over the Millers in the relegation dog fight.

Paul Cook opted to bring back Chey Dunkley in the centre of defence for Cedric Kipre. In the absence of Sam Morsy through suspension and Lee Evans through illness he brought in the on-loan Beni Baningime.

Rotherham started aggressively and Latics were under constant pressure. A head injury to Danny Fox after 25 minutes caused him to be replaced by Kipre. Rotherham were playing in a style akin to the Stoke City sides of the Pulis era, a constant stream of crosses being poured into Wigan’s box, aided by the long throw-ins of midfielder Will Vaulks.  It was no surprise when big centre half Craig Robertson headed the Millers in front after 28 minutes with Baningwe and Kipre ball watching. But it was a surprise four minutes later when Josh Windass took his chance with aplomb to level the scores. After being outplayed Latics were fortunate to go to the interval on level terms. They had been overwhelmed in midfield and the hoof dominated their play.

The second half was scarcely any better, although there were a few isolated moments when Latics did put some football together, making Rotherham’s defence look less self-assured.

We have seen some horrible football from Latics away from home this season, but this ranks among the ugliest. Are the defenders playing under orders to hoof the ball away at the smallest hint of danger or is the manager unable to get his players to follow his instructions?

After the game Cook commented: “First of all, I think Rotherham were not far off unplayable in the first-half; they were that good, they were that strong, they put the ball in all of the correct areas. We lost Danny Fox, Lee Evans pulled out ill this morning and we lost a bit of physicality with Lee going out and Beni [Baningime] going in. We knew we were going to have to defend. When Rotherham scored the goal, like most people I wondered if we would buckle under the pressure.”

Let’s take a look at some points arising:

Were Rotherham close to being unplayable in the first half?

Cook’s comment will surely haunt him for time to come. Rotherham have one of the lowest budgets in the division and their squad lacks quality.

Cook is to be commended for openness and honesty in his post-match comments, which so often contrasts to the one-sided, mindless stuff that founts from too many opposition managers.

But he shot himself in the foot with this one.

Rotherham had a game plan: did Wigan?

Rotherham’s game plan was simple, relying on crosses aimed towards the 6 ft 3 in Michael Smith, with the big central defenders coming up for set pieces. On a short and narrow pitch Vaulks’ long throws were akin to corner kicks.

Latics in comparison did not seem to have a plan. So often they played into Rotherham’s hands by kicking the ball out of play in their own half, giving Vaulks a pan-full of opportunities to launch his long throws. Moreover, they gave away too many unnecessary free kicks giving Rotherham the opportunity to bring forward their big guns.

That Latics came away with a point can be seen as a reflection of a willingness to fight, to dig in when under adversity. Effort has rarely been lacking in away games this season, but a genuine game plan has been seemingly absent. The bottom-line yesterday was that Rotherham did not have the quality to make their pressure count.

Latics had a good record against Pulis’ Stoke in the Martinez era. They did not lose any of the eight Premier League games against them. Martinez’ teams always had a plan and the players knew exactly what was expected of them. Aware of the rocket throw-ins of Rory Delap they were careful in possession in their own half, disciplined in their tackling.

Even the best of game plans can come unstuck as the game progresses. But it is disturbing to see Latics going into these away games without any obvious game plan other than gritty defence and hoofing upfield or out of play at the slightest danger.

Another Everton loanee makes his debut

Beni Baningime is 20-years-old and has had one Premier League start and seven substitute appearances for Everton. His first game in the Championship was a baptism of fire.

Baningime looked lost for most of the game, unable to stamp his mark on the play. It was only in the final quarter that he showed the confidence to seek out the ball.

His prior experience did not prepare him for this rough-and-tumble occasion. Only time will tell if Baningime will succeed in his half season at Wigan and make a better impression than previous loan players from Everton have made in recent years.

Cook was unfortunate to lose the experienced and physically more imposing Lee Evans prior to the game. Moreover, he did not have a central midfielder on the bench to replace Baningime if he had wanted to. Neither Shaun MacDonald nor Darron Gibson were in the squad. The latter has been off form of late, but why Cook did not opt for MacDonald’s experience in a tough fixture like that is hard to fathom.

When will Olsson be ready?

It was a surprise to see Jonas Olsson on the bench since the last time he played was for Djuurgardens on November 11. Was some thought given by Cook in bringing on the 6 ft 5 in Swede to counter the aerial threat of Michael Smith? Olsson will be 36 on March 10, but John Terry was playing for Aston Villa last season at 37.

In the event Cook chose to bring on Cedric Kipre who looked solid in defence with Chey Dunkley. However, Fox’s early departure surely had an effect on the football Wigan played. Fox has the skill and confidence to start moves from the back and he adds calm to the defence. Earlier in the season Kipre showed decent passing skills for a big centre half, but yesterday like Dunkley he so often chose to hoof the ball away. Again, the two had opportunities from set pieces which they could not convert. Last season Dunkley scored 7 goals for Latics and Kipre one for Motherwell. One wonders what position Latics would be in now if either had put away some of the chances they have had over these past months.

Kal Naismith had a hard time with Rotherham’s Jon Taylor yesterday and Cook surely needs to take another look at the left back position. Will Antonee Robinson be played there against Stoke on Wednesday? Or will Olsson be brought in to central defence with Fox moving to left back?

Playing to strengths

Creative and skilful players like Michael Jacobs, Gavin Massey and Anthony Pilkington can stretch any Championship defence. They played at Rotherham but were largely wasted with the ball by-passing them so often.

However, with the prospect of Nick Powell returning on Wednesday will we see a change in approach from the manager? Cook has good players at his disposal but to get the best out of them he needs to insist on keeping the ball on the ground much more. Latics are ill-suited to a long ball approach yet they have continued with it despite the poor results.

Can Cook get his team’s head straight to strike a reasonable balance between possession football and a more direct approach?

The jury remains out on this one.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored,com

 

Five talking points from an important win over QPR

Wigan Athletic 2 Queens Park Rangers 1

Wigan Athletic gained an important three points with a tight victory over QPR. Latics had been two goals up with a quarter of an hour to go but a deflected goal for the visitors changed the complexion of the game, Latics hanging on in grim defence until the final whistle. This time Wigan took their chances better than the opposition, having 7 shots on goal compared with 21 for the visitors.

Following the match Paul Cook commented: “I’m delighted with the lads, it’s been a tough week for the club with Will Grigg leaving but with the type of money that was offered there was nothing we could do, it was the correct thing to do. The new lads have come in and done great today, I’m delighted for the owners and for the chairman, for everyone. It was a big win for us today, a much-needed win and I’m delighted for the players. You need a bit of luck and fortune as well as the good players and we’ve done it so we will enjoy tonight, it’s a good night for us after a tough week for everyone but when you win football matches, football clubs are always happy places.”

 Let’s take look at some points arising:

A surprise in the team selection?

The inclusion in the starting lineup of new acquisitions Leon Clarke and Danny Fox came as no surprise. But playing the latter at centre back, leaving Chey Dunkley on the bench, was somewhat unexpected.

One of the frustrations of fans over the transfer window was the failure to sign a specialist left back. Although Fox played in that position so many times in his earlier career his more recent experience has been at centre back. So, Cook decided to continue with Kal Naismith at left back, not a universally popular decision with supporters. In the event, Naismith was one of the better performers on the day. Antonee Robinson is now back in training and will be challenging for a place over the coming weeks. Will Naismith and Robinson be the contenders for the left back position for the remainder of the season? Or will Cook opt for more experience by bringing in Jonas Olsson at centre back and pushing Fox across to full back?

Dunkley has so often been the stalwart of Latics’ defence, so it was a surprise to see him left out. However, his distribution in recent games had left much to be desired. It is the part of his game that he needs to work on, if he is to prove himself as a quality player at Championship level. Dunkley made his entrance after 77 minutes for Fox.

The other surprise was to see Reece James replacing the suspended Sam Morsy in midfield, rather than Darron Gibson or newcomer Beni Baningime. But James had been pushed forward late in previous encounters and had looked comfortable there. After an uncertain start James grew into this match, showing his great range of skills.

The result of those selections was some degree of improvement in the passing of the ball from the back and added creativity and drive in midfield.

Clarke to be Cook’s first choice striker?

The departure of Will Grigg caused a lot of ripples among the Latics faithful. Grigg’s goals twice propelled Wigan out of League 1 and were a major feature in last season’s FA Cup run. But more than that it was his combination with players like Michael Jacobs, Gavin Massey and Nick Powell that led to Latics playing their best football in recent years.

The signing of Leon Clarke for the second time and the departure of Grigg did not go down well with many fans. Clarke had been unimpressive in his previous spell under Malky Mackay in 2015, scoring just one goal in ten games. Earlier in the transfer window rumours had linked Latics with big target men such as Gary Madine and Tom Eaves. It was therefore no surprise that the 6 ft 2 in Clarke was signed. Neither was it a surprise that Grigg was sold, having been consistently snubbed by Cook in his team selections.

Clarke was arguably Wigan’s best performer against QPR, scoring a goal and providing an assist. Moreover, his hold-up play was excellent. Although we did see intermittent spells of good football from Latics in this game the approach was largely direct. It would not have suited Grigg.

With the departures of Grigg to Sunderland and James Vaughan to Portsmouth we can expect Clarke and Joe Garner to be the main choices for the central striker position, although Cook still has the option of using Nick Powell in that position when he is fit. For the moment it looks like Clarke will be the first-choice. His linking up with Josh Windass was a feature of this game and holds promise for the future.

Experience has been brought in

While the January 2019 transfer window will be immediately memorable for the departure of a Latics icon it might well prove to be successful in terms of bringing in experience. Leon Clarke (33), Danny Fox (32), Jonas Olsson (35) and Anthony Pilkington (30) are seasoned professionals at Premier League and Championship levels. Cook has talked about needing leaders in the dressing room. His choice of Fox as captain in his first game for the club underlines that.

Alex Bruce (34) departed for Kilmarnock, but despite that there is now a better balance in the squad in terms of youth and experience.

A nervy finish

Osayi-Samuels’ deflected 74th minute goal gave QPR new impetus. Cook’s reaction was to bring on Gibson and Garner for Pilkington and Clarke, then Dunkley for Fox three minutes later. The substitutions were most likely due to fitness issues. The outcome was Latics being very much under siege, frequently hoofing the ball away only for it to return very quickly.

In the end Latics did survive although the visitors hit the crossbar and had a strong penalty appeal turned down. The substitutions hardly improved things, Gibson in particular having a torrid time. But Latics’ confidence is still brittle, and they did not have the confidence to patiently build up moves from the back and manage the game more effectively. Nevertheless, aimless long balls to nobody in particular hardly help such game management.

Discipline on the field

Latics picked up three yellow cards to QPR’s one. It takes their yellow card tally to 66 for the league season so far, with 3 reds.

Only Nottingham Forest have a worse disciplinary record with 75 yellows and 5 reds. Neighbours Bolton closely follow Wigan with 61 yellows and 2 reds.

On the positive side it could be said that the stats indicate a team putting in lots of effort in a fight to avoid relegation. On the other hand, how many of those cards could have been avoided by a more controlled aggression?

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

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Five talking points following a depressing performance at Hillsborough

Sheffield Wednesday 1 Wigan Athletic 0

 

Following the uplifting display against Aston Villa we witnessed another depressing performance at Hillsborough. Two poor teams offered little by the way of entertainment, although the conditions did not make things easy for either side. The game was decided by an excellent strike by Wednesday centre forward Steven Fletcher, aided by a lack of challenge from the Wigan midfield. But the home side were deserved winners, having eight shots on target compared with one from a toothless Latics outfit.

Paul Cook had named an unchanged side. Latics started positively but they were reluctant to push men forward to support the lone striker, Joe Garner. The high tempo, high pressing game that we saw against Villa was not evident. It was the home side who posed the greater goal threat and Jamie Jones was much the busier keeper. Wednesday could well have scored had it not been for superb last-ditch tackles from Chey Dunkley and Cedric Kipre and good goalkeeping by Jones.

But Latics managed to keep it at 0-0 when the teams marched off to the half time interval. The second half revealed that depressing type of play that has been so often the norm in recent months. The “hoof” was very much prevalent, and Wigan struggled to do anything constructive with the ball. After Fletcher’s goal in the 62nd minute one hoped for a riposte from Wigan, but nothing resulted. If another goal was to come in the game, it would most likely be the home team that scored it.

Following the match Paul Cook commented: “At half-time I was thinking there was something there for us but in the second-half Sheffield Wednesday totally dominated the game and fully deserved the victory. We got ourselves into a position to possibly get something from the game but, unfortunately, we fell away in the second-half and Sheffield Wednesday were full value for the win. We never got a foothold in the game or got into positions to hurt them and that is great credit to them.”

Jones once again impresses

But for an excellent display by Jamie Jones the scoreline would have been quite different. Although it is the keeper’s first season in the Championship at the age of 29, he looks far from overawed. In fact, he seems to be relishing it. Again, he was assertive in his box, making some fine saves. Moreover, as soon as he catches a ball, he is quick to step forward, looking for a quick throw to a player in space. Sadly, yesterday there were too few of his teammates moving to make themselves available to receive the ball. Far too often the keeper had to kick long, typically resulting in lost possession.

A product of the Everton youth system Jones joined Leyton Orient as a 19-year-old, spending 6 seasons there, making 161 league appearances. After letting his contract run down at the O’s he joined Preston as a free agent in July 2014. During his two years at Preston he made 14 league appearances, with another 34 on loan at Colchester, Coventry and Rochdale. Jones joined Stevenage in January 2016 and went on to make 53 appearances for them in League 2 before joining Latics as a free agent in August 2017.

An unbalanced midfield

Rather than play side by side in central midfield Lee Evans and Sam Morsy were given different roles. Evans was put in front of the back four with Morsy pushed further forward. Then midway through the first half Gary Roberts was moved from the left wing to play an inside left position. Josh Windass was moved to the wing.

The net result was Evans being swamped by the heavily populated home midfield, with Morsy and Roberts able to create few openings going forward. Windass had played one of his better games against Villa in a mobile number 10 role, but the switch saw him consigned to the wing where he rarely plays his best.

The lack of midfield cover was plain to see in Fletcher’s goal.

What on earth was Cook trying to achieve? Wednesday playmaker Barry Bannan had the freedom of the park.

What happens at half time?

Despite not playing particularly well in the first period Latics went in to the interval on level terms. For many teams playing away such a situation could be seen as a springboard to getting a positive result. But in Latics’ case this season it has rarely happened.

Based on goals scored in the first half of league games this season Latics would be placed in 16th position with 35 points. However, based on goals scored in the second half they would be 22nd with 26 points. Moreover, in away games Latics’ second half goals place them in 23rd position. Tables provided by Soccerstats.com can be viewed here.

Latics were 2-0 up at Swansea after dominating the game in the first half through high tempo, high pressing football. In the second half the intensity just was not there, and the home team came back to level the scores. Like yesterday in the second half Wigan had started employing the hoof.

Are the reasons for the disappointing second half performances due to physical reasons? Or are they psychological? Or the result of tactics discussions during the interval? After a fine performance against Aston Villa, where the intensity did not diminish in the second half, we were hoping for something similar yesterday.

Injuries hit hard again

After making an excellent debut last week Anthony Pilkington had to leave the field of play at half time after turning his ankle over. Cedric Kipre continued to play despite an ankle niggle. But it was Will Grigg’s injury that looked the more serious.

Cook is having no luck on the injury front and he remarked after the game that: “That’s what the league is, you get injuries, we were in a bit of fog but getting towards clear light and now it looks like we are heading back into that fog – that’s the way it is, though.”

Grigg to Sunderland off

The constant media barrage of “Grigg to Sunderland” has been wearing thin with Wigan Athletic supporters. But if Grigg’s injury is as serious as it appeared, he surely will not be leaving this month.

Will Grigg remains a favourite of so many Latics fans, though there are those who do not consider him to be a Championship level striker. His season has been riddled with injury, but even when fit he has often been left out of the starting lineup.

In the meantime, Devante Cole has returned from his loan spell at Burton Albion after making 6 starts and 7 substitute appearances, scoring 2 goals. If Grigg is out long-term will Cook look for a replacement in the transfer window or will he give Cole the genuine opportunity he was denied in the second half of last season?

 

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

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Five talking points following a high intensity victory over Aston Villa

Wigan Athletic 3 Aston Villa 0

 

It was as if the clock had been turned back. That negative long-ball approach was no longer evident. In its place was the high intensity football that has underpinned Latics’ best performances this season. They did it at Swansea for half a game, but this time they kept it going in the second half, the high press disrupting Villa’s passing game, threatening their defence.

Paul Cook looked to have taken a gamble by including Anthony Pilkington in the starting lineup, given that the player had not made an appearance for Cardiff’s senior side since April 2018. He also made a bold move in bringing in Jamie Jones in goal.

Both players made a difference in an impressive win over the big spending visitors, but a mix up between Jones and Cedric Kipre after 10 minutes ended up with Tammy Abraham missing a relatively easy chance. If Abraham had scored it could have been a killer blow for a Latics side with such brittle confidence. Fortunately for Wigan he didn’t and in the 41st minute a sublime piece of skill from Pilkington saw him dribble past his full back and pass to Gary Roberts who blasted the ball home. Michael Jacobs came on for Pilkington after 60 minutes and within ten minutes he scored with a spectacular diving header from Lee Evans’ long cross. Joe Garner slotted home a “soft” penalty after Josh Windass had gone down following a challenge from Glenn Whelan.

Following the game Paul Cook made the pertinent comment that: “All of the big moments in the games recently have gone against us but today the key moments went for us.”

Let’s look at some points arising:

Jones and Pilkington make a difference

Cook’s boldness in bringing in Jamie Jones and Anthony Pilkington certainly paid off. Apart from the mix-up with Kipre, Jones looked calm and confident in goal. Although the visitors failed to get a single shot on target Jones commanded the penalty box and his handling was excellent.

Pilkington fitted instantly into the style of play, adding an extra dimension to Wigan’s midfield. He was calm in receiving the ball under pressure, showing good control and change of pace. The trickery he showed in getting past his full back to set up Roberts’ goal was spectacular.

Pilkington looks an excellent signing and his versatility will give Cook more options.

Latics can punch above their weight in the Championship

Wigan’s starting lineup contained two loan players and five signed on free transfers. Their wage bill is one of the lowest in the division.

They were competing against players whose salaries dwarf theirs. Yannick Bolasie’s annual salary is around £3.5 m, Tammy Abraham gets some £2.8 m per year. Jack Grealish did not play in this match, but his annual salary is around £2.6 m. Scott Hogan, Ross McCormack and Micah Richards all earn over £1.5million per year. No Latics player earns as much as any of those three Villa substitutes who were not called upon in this match.

Aston Villa are England’s fifth most successful club as measured by winning the top division. But it is 38 years since they last won the old First Division. Last season they were beaten in the Championship playoff final by Fulham.

In their desperation to get back into the top-flight Villa run the risk of breaking FFP rules. In order to comply they could sell their major asset, Jack Grealish, whose market value is around £30 m. However, the HS2 train line cuts through their training ground at Bodymoor Heath, giving them an option of selling it to a property company owned by one of the billionaire owners Wes Edens and Nassef Sawaris. Such a sale would count as income and help them keep within FFP rules.

Villa are one of so many big city clubs in the Championship division who continue to splash huge sums of money into a race to get back into the Premier League. But Latics matched them in the first game at Villa Park, unluckily losing to a goal in time added on. Moreover, they showed on Saturday that they can punch above their weight with that 3-0 victory.

Dean Smith’s post-match comments

Paul Cook is loath to criticise opposing team managers and their tactics. He stands out like a beacon compared with so many managers in the Championship division.

The Villa manager’s post-match comments did not reflect well upon him. Neither did attempts by some of his players to persuade the referee to give Wigan players red cards. Both Joe Garner and Sam Morsy are surely well known to the referees in the division for being robust. But neither deserved a red card in this game. Wigan fans might recall Sam Morsy’s sending off at Brentford in September while Smith oversaw the Bees.

Lee Evans back in form

Like others around him Lee Evans has had a torrid time in recent weeks. He has been a shadow of the player we saw earlier in the season. But on Saturday we saw him back to his best. Evans was excellent in defence and constructive in attack. He is an important creative force for Latics and leads in assists this season, tying with Nick Powell on four.

Evans’ longer passes are so often trademark diagonal balls. That stunning 40-yard cross for Jacobs’ goal was a gem.

Sticking to a winning formula

There had been a ray of hope in the first half display at Swansea a couple of weeks earlier with Latics eschewing the long-ball, building up more patiently from the back, pressing high up the pitch. But for some reason they were not able to maintain it in the second half at the Liberty Stadium.

That same successful formula returned in this game, the difference being that it lasted 90 minutes rather than 45. Playing that kind of high intensity football has significant physical demands on the players and with games coming in thick and fast it can be difficult to keep up.

But in this winter period there are few midweek games. In fact, in the next 8 weeks there is just one for Latics, that being the home game with Stoke on February 13th.

With a less hectic schedule allowing players more recovery time the timing is right for Cook to employ the high intensity approach on a regular basis. Not only does it nullify attacking options for expensively assembled teams like Aston Villa, but it also provides a spectacle for fans who have had scant entertainment in recent months.

If Cook can stick to this winning formula and the injury situation continues to improve, we will surely see Latics climb back up the table in the coming weeks.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com