Some thoughts: Birmingham City (H) 1-0

 

It had “goalless draw” written all over it, but Lee Camp’s error gave Latics the three points they were craving for. There was only an occasional sprinkling of good football for the home crowd to enjoy, but Anthony Pilkington’s first league goal for the club allowed them to go home grateful at least for the win.

Following the dismal defeat at Fulham Paul Cook brought in Josh Windass to play the number 10 role in place of Lee Evans. Gavin Massey replaced Michael Jacobs on the wing.

Apart from picking up three points from an awful game of football there were some signs of improvement. The defence looked more solid and composed than it has for some time, limiting the visitors to few chances.

Following the game, the manager commented: “This win gives us such a different atmosphere around the club. I didn’t ever think we looked like losing to be honest, but I suppose were a bit fortunate with the goal. We just have to keep going. I think that’s the third clean sheet in a row at home. We need points on the board. I don’t care who scores, but it really is a big step up to Championship level. The standard is so high. This was an important win for us, but we must keep challenging.”

Some thoughts:

A dull game but played in good spirit

Footballers and coaches can be cynical. Diving to gain free kicks and penalties, feigning injuries, exaggerated tumbling to the ground, pressurising of referees by mobbing are all so common in the modern game. The Championship division gets its fair share of such behaviours.

However dull this match was it was played in the right spirit, very well officiated by Tim Robinson. What a pleasure to see two teams not resorting to that ugly side of modern football.

A composed and solid defence

Charlie Mulgrew played his best game for Latics yesterday. His positioning was excellent, and he showed all his experience in stifling Birmingham attacks.

Mulgrew links up well with Antonee Robinson to his left and Chey Dunkley to his right. With Nathan Byrne starting to regain his form the defence is looking much more organised and composed. As the men in front of him have been looking more composed so is goalkeeper David Marshall.

The trip to Hillsborough on Saturday poses the next challenge for that back five.

Put Lowe on the right

Jamal Lowe is struggling to bridge the transition between League 1 and the Championship. But his success at Portsmouth was largely down to his performance as a right winger. He looks uncomfortable on the left and out of place as a number 10.

Cook continues to keep faith in both Lowe and Gavin Massey, although neither has hit form up to this point. None of his wingers have been in consistently good form. Michael Jacobs continues to blow hot and cold, sometimes full of spark, but more often on the periphery of play. It is not clear whether Kal Naismith is primarily regarded as a left winger or as a second choice left back until Tom Pearce gets fit. Pilkington is constantly bothered with injury.

Cook and his coaches may believe that Lowe can evolve into an inverted left winger, cutting in to shoot using his right foot. There has been little evidence so far to suggest it is the best way to employ him.

Why not rotate Lowe and Massey on the right wing?

Moore struggles

Kieffer Moore’s signing from Barnsley went down well with most fans, if not all. At last it seemed that Latics would have a big centre forward to get on the end of the countless crosses that have rained into opposition penalty boxes over the past year. But at the time there were fans who not only questioned the money paid for a player unproven in the second tier, but those who feared the standard of football might plummet even further having a big man up front for defenders to launch long balls to.

On the balance of what we have seen so far, the more cautious view has been the case. In fact, some have even gone on the social media and bulletin boards to suggest that Joe Garner be given preference to Moore in the hope that the long balls would dissipate. It can certainly be argued that Garner has not played as much as he might, given his contributions over the past season.

Being a centre forward at Wigan can be a daunting task. In the Premier League days Latics signed Mauro Boselli to play the lone centre forward role, even though he had played as a twin striker for Estudiantes in Argentina. Rather than pair him with Hugo Rodallega up front Roberto Martinez put the latter on the left wing, with Charles N’Zogbia on the right. On paper it looked a move that could work, with all three capable of scoring goals. But Boselli had to play a role that was not his best and received scant service from the two wide men.  Sadly, he is remembered as a striker who could not deliver the goods at Wigan.

Latics fans will be hoping that Moore will have more success than Boselli and lots of other centre forwards at Wigan over recent years. Moore has not looked particularly sharp in the opposition box, but it is going to take some time for him to adjust to the second tier. Moreover, genuine goal chances have been few and far between, with Wigan’s creative players having been somewhat muted by the long-ball approach. When he has been able to retrieve the ball in promising positions, he has so often lacked support from teammates.

It has been a frustrating start of the 2019-20 season for the big striker, as it has for the team in general.

Windass offers something different

Josh Windass does not have universal approval as far as Latics fans are concerned. Nevertheless, he has been missed during his absence through injury.

Windass gives Latics different options. He was lively yesterday, probing from midfield, linking up with Moore. Unlike so many of his teammates Windass is not shy of shooting and his ability to spot gaps in opposition defences makes him dangerous.

Windass is by no means the finished article, but with good coaching and being one of the first names on the team sheet he could become something special.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

Five talking points following a well-deserved victory against Charlton

Wigan Athletic 2 Charlton Athletic 0

Two well-taken goals by Chey Dunkley were enough to see off a Charlton side that had been flying high in the table. There was much more composure in Latics’ play than we have seen for some time. Their victory was well deserved.

After the game Paul Cook commented:

“That’s the second home game in a row now with a clean sheet, albeit great defending by Chey Dunkley and a great save by David Marshall at the end. He had to make a big save, it was a great save from Marshy. It was a really pleasing performance and we were excellent in the first half. We were unfortunate to come in only one goal up and when it’s one there always a chance, but great credit to the players because they’re worked ever so hard on the training ground. We looked a lot more like our old selves today and that’s really pleasing for me.”

Let’s look at some points arising:

Dunkley praises Barry

Chey Dunkley had probably his best game at Championship level, not only scoring a brace of goals but playing a strong role in defence.

After not scoring for some 42 matches he has now scored three in two games.

In an interview on LaticsTV he gave credit to coach Anthony Barry: “We have been talking about Charlie Mulgrew being a set-piece specialist and Crackers [Michael Jacobs] also put some good balls in today. We have been working on it and the staff have said to me that I am getting so many first contacts, we need to start converting them into goals. I have to give a special mention to Anthony Barry [first team coach] because he has been working a lot with me and long may that continue. If I can chip in with goals here and there and I can help the team then that’s a good thing. Anthony has given me lots of stats, he works hard and does his research and comes to me and tells me areas where I am most likely to get my first contacts and even second balls as well.”

But the big central defender admitted that last year he didn’t work on (attacking set pieces) too much.

Last season both Dunkley and Cedric Kipre would so often get into good positions in the opposition box but neither could score. Between them they now have three goals in eight games.

A more solid defence

It was reassuring to see Nathan Byrne regaining some form after a sticky patch. The back four looked more solid than of late. Goalkeeper David Marshall did not have a lot to do until the closing minutes when he made a couple of good saves.

In front of them Sam Morsy and Joe Williams were terriers in the centre of midfield, providing a level of protection that the back four had not enjoyed for some time. Williams looks a fine signing: solid in defence and fluid in his passing.

Dangerous on set-pieces

The arrival of Charlie Mulgrew into the team has added an extra dimension to Wigan’s play. His ability to precision-launch a free kick or corner into danger areas has made Latics look a threat from set-pieces.

In fact, in this game Latics looked more dangerous on set-pieces than in open play.

Robinson is so exciting

The money spent in summer on securing Antonee Robinson on a permanent contract could prove to be one of the best investments Latics have made in recent years. He was at his exciting best in this game, solid in defence and electric in attack, making a series of memorable runs.

Robinson is only 22 and is still a work in progress. Defensively he needs to be more robust and aware, although he has made improvements in these areas since arriving on loan in the summer of 2018. Going forward Robinson is a menace to any defence. He has blistering pace and a great left foot. What he is currently lacking is composure. So often he can get into great positions but either the final pass is lacking, or he has not chosen the best option for his pass. Running at such a pace makes it more difficult to make that killer pass or shot on goal.

In his early career Mo Salah was somewhat similar before he developed the composure to finish with precision. Let’s hope Anthony Barry can coach Robinson into improvements in these areas.

Aim for mid-table

Darren Royle and IEC have been busy investing in the club since the takeover. Their aim is for Latics to get back into the Premier League with a thriving academy to supply potential first team players. They have already spent money on facilities for the stadium and the academy. Moreover, they spent around £10m on summer transfers.

Wigan’s start has certainly been disappointing, but Royle/IEC have continued to back the manager and his staff. The win against Charlton takes Latics out of the bottom three, which makes a difference psychologically, but avoiding relegation is not enough this season. The ownership are expecting an incremental rise up the second tier over the coming seasons.

Latics have a well-balanced squad with lots of competition for places. It is at least capable of getting them a place in mid-table. But to do this the management has to instil the belief in the players that they belong in the division and can beat any other team on their day. This means an end to the “unforgiving league” comments that have so frequently been quoted by the manager. Granted, there are clubs with budgets so much higher than Wigan, but so often those clubs are lumbered with players who have the security of long contracts with high salaries. They do not always perform as one could expect on paper.

Cook has had a learning experience in the second tier. We have to hope that he has learned from it and can set the bar higher for his players.

Stsats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Some talking points following Joe Gelhardt’s sensational equaliser at Hull

Hull City 2 Wigan Athletic 2

 

A moment of inspiration from the 17-year-old Joe Gelhardt helped Wigan Athletic share the points. It had been a scrappy game between two mediocre teams.

Paul Cook had named an unchanged side from the one that had started in a goalless draw with Barnsley.

Chey Dunkley put Latics ahead after 7 minutes after Hull keeper, George Long, had spilled Kieffer Moore’s header. But that early lead was thrown away within a couple of minutes by inept defending with Jarrod Bowen slotting home. Polish winger Kamil Grosicki had been causing Latics problems on the right side of their defence and it was he who scored a fine goal from a free kick after 20 minutes. Wigan went into the half-time interval trailing by a 2-1 margin.

Grosicki had another excellent free kick hit the post as Hull were getting on top. Wigan’s attacking was far from convincing and the game seemed to be heading towards a home win. But Joe Gelhardt was brought on after 72 minutes, playing in a more central role this time. After 75 minutes he turned past a defender in the penalty box and scored at the near post with Long rooted to the spot.

The point gained takes Latics to 5 points from 7 matches, third from bottom.

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

A goal for Dunkley – at last

Chey Dunkley is in his third season at Wigan. In his first, in League1, he was part of a formidable centre of defence with Dan Burn. Not only was Dunkley defensively solid, but he also scored 7 goals over the course of the season.

The transition to the Championship was difficult for a player who had not played at that level before. Like so many other players last season he certainly had his ups and downs, one minute making a superb last-ditch tackle, the next losing concentration. His goals also dried up. So many times, he seemed likely to score, getting himself in good positions, but he just could not put the ball home.

Dunkley’s goal yesterday will do his confidence the world of good. Now he has broken his duck in the Championship we can expect more goals from the big man.

Can Gelhardt seize the number 10 role?

Replacing Nick Powell was never going to be easy for Paul Cook. Lee Evans and Josh Windass have both stepped in with mixed results. Yesterday Cook played Jamal Lowe in a more central role in the advanced midfield trio. Lowe did not do badly but was not particularly convincing.

Powell usually played a classical number 10 role, receiving the ball in deep midfield, linking up with the forwards and overlapping full backs. But sometimes he would be pushed further forward, playing as a second central striker.

Joe Gelhardt certainly has an eye for goal, and he is not deterred by playing at this level. Not only does he have a great left foot, but he also has an eye for a pass. Will Cook be tempted to put the young player in the starting line-up against Charlton, playing behind the central striker?

Is football returning away from home?

Wigan Athletic’s poor away performances over the past twelve months have been typified by a reliance on the long ball. Moreover, signing a 6ft 5in centre forward has further invited under-pressure defenders and midfielders to lump the ball forward.

However, at Hull we saw signs of football returning, albeit riddled with errors. The possession stats showed Wigan at 58.3% and Hull 41.7%. Moreover 74% of Wigan’s passes were successful compared with 65% for the home team. In the previous game against Barnsley Latics’ successful pass stat stood at 64%.

The long-ball approach away from home has been woefully unsuccessful and we can only hope that the manager will insist that his defenders and midfielders minimise their use of the long ball. Nevertheless, it will take courage from players to play the ball out from the back, who have so often taken the easy way out.

The Byrne-Massey axis

The attacking play of Nathan Byrne and Gavin Massey was crucial to Latics’ winning the League 1 title in 2017. Indeed, Byrne went on to be voted Player of the Year. Last season was a difficult year for each of them, with Byrne losing his place to Reece James and Massey having a lot of time out injured. However, with James later being moved to midfield Byrne was able to reclaim the right back position. Massey’s return to the team saw him renew the link-up with Byrne, the two players knowing each other’s games so well.

The Byrne-Massey partnership has had a difficult start to the current season. Neither player has been at his best up to this point. Much of the opposition threat has come from their side of the pitch and their build-up work has not been at its best.

Recovering from injury Massey missed pre-season and still does not look like he is firing on all cylinders.

None of the wingers in Cook’s squad has shown real consistency this season. Michael Jacobs has blown hot and cold, Jamal Lowe has looked out of place on the left, Anthony Pilkington continues to be bogged by injury and Kal Naismith has been used sparingly.

Given the physical demands on the wingers, being expected to track back to help the full backs but also to go sprinting forward, Cook might be well advised to rotate them on a regular basis. With either Massey or Lowe on the right and Jacobs or Naismith on the left he has good options.

In the meantime, Cook will have to decide whether to stick with a below-par Byrne, in the hope that he will regain form, or bring in the young Chelsea loan player, Dujon Sterling, who has not even been appearing on the bench.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Five talking points following a home draw with Barnsley

Wigan Athletic 0 Barnsley 0

Following a spineless display in the defeat at QPR last we saw a spirited Wigan Athletic side fight for a point against Barnsley. The energy was there, but sadly the football was not. It was poor entertainment for the crowd of around 10,000.

After the game Paul Cook commented: “It was a fair result. Both teams were nervous, there was a little bit of nervous energy and tension around the stadium and you can understand that. We’ve had our first clean sheet of the season and it’s so important for me as manager that you give these lads the belief and confidence to go and play. We showed at times today the really good sides and today we had a real appetite to not get beat and that pleased me.”

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

Another disappointing result in a six-pointer

Barnsley came into this match a point above Wigan. Like Latics they had won only one game on the opening day of the season. The Tykes will do well to avoid relegation. A win for Latics would have seen them leapfrog over the Tykes out of the relegation zone.

The more optimistic of Latics fans were expecting their team to pick up three points against a Barnsley team that was struggling. However, for others it was not a surprise to see Wigan once again disappoint in a “six-pointer”. During Cook’s reign Latics have so often disappointed when playing against teams close to them in the league table.

Cook keeps faith with Marshall

David Marshall has been in poor form in recent weeks and fans were clamouring for him to be replaced by Jamie Jones. However, without his fine performance Barnsley would surely have walked away with three points. Cook was justified in keeping faith with the goalkeeper.

Mulgrew can add an extra dimension

Charlie Mulgrew was a surprise signing. Yesterday was his first league start for Latics.

Mulgrew may be 33 years old and lacking the pace he had when younger but could prove to be a very useful signing by Cook. Yesterday he looked solid in the centre of defence and we got a glimpse of what he can do from set-pieces. Last season he scored 11 goals for Blackburn.

The Glaswegian can also play in the centre of midfield, which gives Cook another option. He can do a solid job defensively but having someone who can threaten from set-pieces is a bonus.

Are the new players settling in?

In midweek Cook talked about the settling in of new players: “The international break will be big for us because we get to train for two more weeks. That is something we did not get in pre-season. Our squad was put together very late. That is not a criticism. It is just how it is, to the point now where lads are still making their debuts and formations are coming up with players playing together for the first time.”

The starting line-up for the opening game against Cardiff City contained two new signings: David Marshall and Lewis Macleod. Yesterday there were four: Marshall, Charlie Mulgrew, Jamal Lowe and Joe Williams.

There is much debate on the message boards and social media about the quality of Latics’ players. Is this current squad better than the one that struggled in avoiding relegation last season?

The departures of Reece James and Nick Powell over the summer have hit Latics hard. James was way ahead of any other player in terms of talent, consistency and commitment. Powell had an injury-plagued season, but when he was fit and on-form he made a big difference to the team. Cook was always unlikely to get a like-for-like replacement for Powell, given the high price such a player would cost. He has experimented with other players in that role, but Powell’s creativity has been sorely missed. But the player continues to be plagued by injury and has only played one game for Stoke City in their opening game against QPR.

The results so far this season have been disappointing. It is last season’s players who have been largely involved. Will those new players make the difference over the coming week and help pull Latics out of the relegation zone?

Getting the best out of the more skilful players

The manager reverted to his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation yesterday after experimenting with a backline of three central defenders. The creative trio behind the central striker consisted of Gavin Massey, Jamal Lowe and Michael Jacobs.

On paper Cook had chosen a well-balanced line-up with Sam Morsy and Joe Williams protecting the back four and genuine pace and creativity further forward. However, the reality was something different. In a game where there was more “fightball” than football there was little chance for the creative trio to shine.

The manager would have been pleased with the commitment of his players yesterday. Following that insipid display at QPR he got the team to put in lots of sweat and toil this time around. But football was the loser in this game, and it was not the scenario for the creative trio to show their skills.

A chance for Gelhardt

It was a pleasant surprise to see the 17-year-old Joe Gelhardt come off the bench after 63 minutes. He and Jensen Weir were called up for the England U18 squad this week.

Cook deserves credit for giving youth a chance in a  fiercely competitive match. But what a pity that Gelhardt was played on the right wing, rather than in the number 10 position behind the central striker.

 

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

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