Wigan Athletic: an assessment after 9 games in the Championship

Courtesy of bbc.co.uk

It has been a pretty solid start to the season, with 13 points from 9 games. The home record of W0D3L2 strongly contrasts with that of W3D1L0 away from home. Leam Richardson has kept faith in players who were part of last season’s squad, new signings being used sparingly up to this point.

On their return to the Championship in 2018-19 under the Cook/Richardson management team Latics took 16 points from their first 9 games. But their fine early form dissipated as they gathered only 10 points from the next 16 games until the end of December. Their record was W2D4L10.

The current team still has a winning mentality and togetherness from winning L1 but that can soon dissipate after a run of losses as happened four years previously. With fixture congestion in October before the World Cup, Leam Richardson will have to rotate more than he is comfortable doing, or their competitive edge of fitness and work rate will count for nothing as they tire. 

My main concern is the style of play and the lack of invention. The long ball will always be part of this manager’s tactics, but it offers an easy way out for defenders under pressure, rather than short passing their way out of trouble. When the opposition play a high press Latics defenders look ill-equipped to cope with it. It so often leads to a loss of possession. There have been recent signs that Latics are trying to play the ball out of defence and midfield rather than simply launching it long. The presence of Graeme Shinnie in midfield is paramount to keeping the ball on the ground. Up to this point the play through midfield from the back has been slow and repetitive, but it is to be hoped that Richardson will persevere. Wigan must resist those hopeful long balls to an isolated centre forward which rarely achieve anything constructive.

The lack of invention is something that must be dealt with, especially in home games where the opposition sits back in defence. Richardson has players in his squad who are capable of unlocking defences, but he must get the balance right in his team selections. Nowhere is the lack of invention so apparent than from throw-ins. So often they result in either giving the ball back to the opposition or sending it backwards sometimes even ending up in the hands of the goalkeeper.

Of the new signings, Nathan Broadhead has the look of a player who can make a mark this season. Richardson might give him a chance on the wing in place of Thelo Aasgard, who is immensely talented and should get a start every few matches but is still making naive mistakes. Using him as an impact sub for another half a season seems prudent with a view to earning his place in the second half of the season. Having said that, Richardson should be rotating them more often in the coming weeks which creates the opportunity to rest Will Keane every 3-4 matches and play Aasgaard centrally. 

Charlie Wyke has been used sparingly: appropriately after coming back from a life-threatening event. We are surely rooting for him, so to speak, but it would be good to see more of Ashley Fletcher and his mobility. Fletcher has a much higher ceiling than Wyke or Magennis if he can find form and fitness and click with Latics. That’s a big if, of course. 

It is not surprising that Latics better away from home because they lack guile in the attacking third. Lang needs to sharpen his finishing which has been wasteful, but also promising, in the last few games. Magennis won’t score much. Keane was unlucky with header in his last outing but has struggled to make a major impact, although he remains Wigan’s most likely goalscorer. Aasgard will score some crackers but Broadhead may be a more reliable source over a season. What’s been missing is set piece goals! There is better defending on set-pieces in this division; but Latics are due one.

Ryan Nyambe has already shown his quality and will push Tendayi Darikwa for his place. Nyambe is physically strong, capable of rock-solid defence and surging runs forward, although he needs to work on his crossing. Darikwa is naturally attacking full back, well suited to a wing back role.

The situation on the other flank of defence appears uncertain. James McClean has lots of experience for Latics and Ireland in the left wing-back position, but there are question marks over his ability to play as a left full back. Both Joe Bennett and Tom Pearce have disappeared off the radar. Bennett has not played since being sent off at Birmingham, which is strange since his suspension was rescinded by the EFL. Pearce’s only league appearance was as s substitute in the first game against Preston.

There are rumours linking Latics to players available as free agents. Danny Rose has been touted as a possible signing. Should this happen McClean will compete with Anthony Scully and Gwion Edwards for the left wing position. McClean and Scully are very different types of player, Scully being an inverted winger who will cut in and shoot. He scored 25 goals in 61 starts and 25 substitute appearances for Lincoln. Edwards too will cut inside on his right foot, but his strike record is not as impressive as that of Scully.

Another free agent who might be interesting Richardson is Dale Stephens. The midfielder now 33, born in Bolton, was released by Burnley. With the fitness of Jordan Cousins remaining uncertain and the announcement of Scott Smith being released on loan to Torquay, a new arrival may be imminent.

On paper there is an easier run of fixtures coming up. We can only hope that Richardson rotates prudently enough to sustain that positive momentum and winning mentality!

Luton Town 1 Wigan Athletic 2: a triumph for plan B

When Paul Cook arrived at Wigan in summer 2017, we were told by Portsmouth fans that he was a successful manager but one who rigidly stuck with his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, struggled against teams that “park the bus” on home turf, that he was a good motivator and it was rare for Pompey to lose consecutive games, that he did not have a Plan B.

So much of what we were told about Cook rang true during his time at Latics. However, we did witness a Plan B. It involved pumping long balls towards the centre forward’s head.

Following the arrival of the 6ft 5in tall Kieffer Moore in August 2019 that same Plan B became the main style of play. Moore looked a lonely and forlorn figure up front, spending his energy chasing hopeful punts from the defence. It took months for Latics to change that approach, but when they did it worked. Not only did results improve, but Moore was able to show the kinds of skills that big strikers of his ilk rarely possess. Put simply, Latics started to build up moves through the midfield to attack, keeping the ball on the ground, basically using their skills to play football rather than hoofball.

Paul Cook and Leam Richardson appeared to be joined at the hip. They had successful records as a managerial duo. Some would say they were a modern day, lower division, equivalent of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor. When Cook left Wigan and later joined Ipswich many expected Richardson to follow his old partner. Fortunately for Latics he did not, instead keeping the club afloat during the dire era of administration. He kept Wigan in League 1 in 2020-21 then won the title in 2021-22.

During Richardson’s time as Wigan Athletic’s manager we have seen a similar mix of football to what we saw when he worked with his previous partner. Indeed, many of the positive and negative profiles of the prior regime have continued to be evident.

But Richardson has shown himself to be more flexible in his tactics. Cook occasionally veered away from 4-2-3-1 towards playing a line of three central defenders, whilst Richardson has shown he can switch between the two. Another trait of the Cook/Richardson era was to be cautious in the use of substitutes, often leaving it late in the game to make changes. With the advent of being able to use five substitutes this season Richardson has already shown that he can be more proactive than before.

I found the first hour of play at Luton depressing. It was reminiscent of the early days of the Moore era. “Hopeful” long balls launched from the goalkeeper and his defence towards an isolated Josh Magennis. Luton are by no means an attractive footballing side, their main approach being to launch crosses from the flanks to two burly central strikers. However, it was still more constructive than Wigan’s approach and they would have added to their one goal lead if it had not been for the excellence of Ben Amos and resilience in defence.

Richardson’s three substitutions after 62 minutes changed the whole pattern of the game. Graeme Shinnie transformed the midfield by not only his tenacity, but by his ability to pass the ball on the ground to initiate attacks. Nathan Broadhead’s movement and Thelo Aasgaard’s sheer class and calm on the ball shone through. Callum Lang was having a torrid afternoon, but his stubbed shot was deflected into the net by a Luton defender in the 80th minute. Aasgaard’s stunning winner in the 88th minute came from an incisive pass along the ground by Lang, after Ashley Fletcher had drawn defenders away to provide the space.

The LaticsTV commentary remarked on the manager’s genius at making those bold substitutions, but the majority of fans on the social media asked why he had not put out a line-up like that from the start.

The pessimists are already suggesting that Richardson will revert to type for the upcoming Blackburn game, keeping faith in the senior professionals who helped win promotion last season, launching long balls to a big target man. It was Plan A in the Luton game, Plan B being playing constructive football with the ball on the ground.

What will Plan A be against Blackburn?

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Phoenix 2021 declare their intent with long contracts for Lang and Aasgaard

Chairman Talal Al-Hammad and Chief Executive Mal Brannigan have set such a positive tone since their arrival at Wigan Athletic. Their shrewd running of the club has been underpinned by a skilful and sensitive approach to human resources and PR. The have not only brought the club back on to an even keel, but they have given supporters so much hope for the future. Their recruitment has been particularly impressive, bringing in the experienced and savvy James Beattie and Rob Kelly to support Leam Richardson and showing real shrewdness in the transfer market.

From the get-go the representatives of Phoenix 2021 stated their intention to continue to develop the Latics Academy. Over the past seven days they have secured the long-term services of academy products Callum Lang and Thelo Aasgaard through new contracts. The length of the contracts is stunning. The 22 -year-old Lang’s new contract goes to summer 2025, that of the 19-year-old Aasgaard to summer 2026.

Both players joined Wigan Athletic as 14 -year-olds. However, their career trajectories differ.

After being a key player in the Latics youth team Lang was sent on a season-long loan to Morecambe in League 2 while still only 18. He went on to make 30 appearances, scoring 10 goals. The following season saw him continue to do well in League 2 with 13 goals in 42 appearances for Oldham Athletic. The next loan was at League 1 Shrewsbury where a metatarsal injury limited him to 16 appearances, scoring two goals. Last season saw him score 3 goals in 17 appearances for Motherwell before being recalled by Latics in January. He proved to be a key player in the fight against relegation, his 7 goals in 17 appearances being crucial.

Lang’s form this season has been sensational. Despite usually playing in a wide position he is the leading goalscorer with 10 goals and 4 assists.

Aasgaard’s passage through the Academy to the first team squad was by no means easy. In his own words:

I had a tough journey with the Under 18s because I was growing so much, I was missing games through injuries and the staff really helped me all the way, from sports science to the physios and analysts. 

Gregor Rioch has really looked after me from the development phase to stepping into first team football and Leam Richardson had his trust in me last year to perform on the pitch and hopefully, I can continue to do that.

With the issues we had last year, it was a tough time for the Club but for me, it was a chance to prove that I am up for the challenge. It was up to me to take advantage of the opportunity and luckily I did.”

Aasgaard too played an important part in helping Latics avoid relegation last season.  Although his natural position is as a number 10, he showed his versatility by appearing in various midfield roles. He made 13 starts in League 1, with 20 substitute appearances, scoring 3 goals.

The confirmation of the prolonged contracts for Lang and Aasgaard has brought a sigh of relief among Latics fans. Following the raiding last season of Alfie Devine, Joe Gelhardt and Jensen Weir by Premier League clubs and Kyle Joseph by Championship team Swansea, for fees way below market value, the club has made a statement. It will resist efforts by elite clubs to poach its young talent. Should Lang or Aasgaard eventually leave, the club will receive compensation around market value.

Lang is a key player in Leam Richardson’s promotion-seeking side. His name is among the first on the team sheet.

Aasgaard has only had one league start this season, with four appearances off the bench. His appearances have been somewhat curtailed by injuries, plus he has had to compete with a bunch of capable and experienced pros to even gain a place on the bench. What Aasgaard needs to develop further is regular game time and given the current situation at Wigan he is not going to get it. Richardson faces the choice of sending the player out on loan in January or retaining him as a fringe member of the senior squad. There is no doubt that should the player stay injury-free and get regular games under his belt, he will be a force to reckon with. He has always had that sublime skill, but now has the physique to resist the rough and tumble of the third tier.

Decisions will also need to be made about Adam Long and Luke Robinson, who made major strides last season in stepping up to the senior squad. With a large senior team squad packed with experience they have fallen way down the pecking order. Long is only 21, Robinson is 19.  

Phoenix 2021 have made a major statement about investing in their young talent though the long contracts offered to Lang and Aasgaard. Elite clubs take note!

Amigo and Social Media reaction to an entertaining draw against Wycombe

August 17, 2021: Wigan Athletic 1 Wycombe Wanderers 1

“Results don’t always match performances” is an old adage in football, but it could certainly be used in the context of this match. Wigan Athletic played some scintillating football and would have won the game with a canter had they put their chances away. But they did not and tired legs in the last quarter invited Wycombe pressure, resulting in a 91st minute equaliser as Kell Watts was outjumped at the far post from a corner kick.

The game was so different to that we saw on Saturday against Rotherham. That dour encounter was won by a late, late header from Will Keane. This was an entertaining affair.

Leam Richardson had retained the back four that completed the previous game, with Tendayi Darikwa  at left back and two specialists for that position on the bench. It proved to be a successful move as Darikwa had one of his better games. Jordan Jones was brought in on the left wing and his running and accurate crossing promised much for the future. Latics had gone ahead after 47 minutes from a thunderbolt finish from Callum Lang. The goal rattled the visitors and Latics were looking dangerous but were unable to add to their lead.

Keane’s header had hit the crossbar in the 69th minute with Jones taken off soon after, being replaced by Gavin Massey. Massey had looked more like his old self coming off the bench against Rotherham, playing on the right. However, this time he was placed on the left where, time after time, he has failed to deliver. Richardson is a wonderful motivator of his players, but his substitutions can be unimaginative and ill-timed. Gareth Ainsworth had made two substitutions for Wycombe in the 59th minute, the third being the huge Akinfenwa after 73 minutes. It signalled an aerial bombardment from the visitors who looked full of running at that stage compared with Latics.

After the game Richardson commented:

“I thought in the first-half we were excellent, and we were worthy of going in at half-time in-front. With the quality and the energy levels that we show, and the entries into their final third, we’ve got to be pleased.

Wycombe are a fantastic, well-drilled football team, and they are a threat from any dead-ball and set-piece, as well as from open play. If you do not put the game to bed, you obviously succumb to what we did.

I thought we were worthy to go in front and we started the second half where we left off. If we were going to be disappointed, it would be for the result, and possibly the last 15-20 minutes where we came off the page a little bit and started trading blows with Wycombe which is what they want.”

Let’s take a look at how fans reacted to the match through the message boards and social media. Our thanks go to the Vital Wigan – Latics Speyk Forum and Twitter for providing the media for the posts below to happen. Thanks go to all whose contributions are identified below:

Zeb2 commented:

Football eh ?…..probably got two more points than we deserved on Saturday ….and got two less than we deserved tonight.
not conceded from open play in 3 matches but two direct from corners.

Went way too deep last few minutes (a long standing trait with us) and invited waves of attack which caused us to crack in the end, but we should have been out of sight by HT….maybe we ran out of gas in that last ten/fifteen minutes ….unfortunately they didn’t.

C_Latic stated:

The positive is that we’ll play a hell of a lot worse than that this season and win. That Wycombe side are a very good team who like Rotherham will be right in the top six equation and we’ve absolutely pummelled them.

I’d say if we can get one more win from our next two, we’ll be a good spot heading into the international break. Then the fixtures will ease up and we can look at putting together a run.

JockLatic added:

Best I’ve seen us play in some time….shuda been 2/3 nil up at half time & thoroughly deserved our goal, such a shame we couldn’t have got a second as that would have seen out the game. Unfortunately we sat back & had little possession the last 10 mins or so n it just seemed like they were gonna equalise….didn’t think it was a corner n possibly a free kick to us beforehand. If we play like that for a good chunk of the season we won’t be far off so long as we convert the chances. Disappointed coming away from the ground tonight but only because we should have been out of sight in 1st half…..

Made in Wigan opined:

Disappointing ending but will look at the bigger picture. It’s a brand new team and we have some decent players. We can only improve as the season progresses if McLean doesn’t upset the apple cart.

We really do need to start taking our chances. Miss of the season contenders in consecutive games and today its cost us two points. Whilst Wycombe were okay I thought Rotherham looked a tougher opponent. That said I don’t think we’ve much to fear in this league though the time it will take the team to gel and for LR to find his best team and tactics means we’ll have to come from behind to make any impact of the league table.

Stats courtesy of Whoscored.com

John Sheridan: the right appointment to keep Wigan Athletic in League 1?

I first saw John Sheridan play in March 1987 when second division Leeds United visited Springfield Park for a 6th round F.A. Cup match. Under the management of Ray Mathias third division Latics had knocked out first division Norwich in the previous round. However, on a wind-swept day, in front of a crowd of 12,479, they were beaten 2-0. The Leeds side was workmanlike with Sheridan adding class in the centre of midfield.

A year later, after seven years at Leeds with 230 appearances and 47 goals under his belt, he moved to join Brian Clough at first division Nottingham Forest for a fee of £650,000. Sheridan only made one appearance for Forest before he joined Sheffield Wednesday, where he was to spend seven years making 199 appearances, scoring 25 goals, including a scorcher which helped the Owls beat Manchester United in the 1991 League Cup final. After spells at Bolton and Doncaster he completed his playing career at Oldham Athletic where he spent six years, retiring in his fortieth year. Born in Manchester, of Irish parents, Sheridan made 35 appearances for the Republic of Ireland.

It was at Oldham where Sheridan began his long managerial career.

Stats courtesy of Wikipedia

John Sheridan has not been the kind of manager to take charge at a club high-flying in its division.  His relationship with Oldham Athletic has been remarkable, spending different five spells there, so often steadying the ship. He won the League 2 title with Chesterfield in 2010-11, followed by the Johnstone’s Paints Trophy in 2012, but so many times he was brought in to help a struggling club.

After leaving Chesterfield he joined Plymouth Argyle in January 2013 on a short-term contract until the end of the season. Argyle were two points off the bottom of League 2 and had only won one of their last 16 games. Sheridan helped Argyle to avoid relegation by winning 8 and drawing 4 of their last 19 games.

In October 2015 he took over at Newport County who were bottom of League 2, with only 5 points from the first 10 matches. They got only one point from his first three games, but then went on a 10-game unbeaten run. They finished in 22nd place, nine points clear of relegation.

In February 2016 he joined Fleetwood Town who were 20th in League 1 having lost their last eight games under Uwe Rosler. By the end of the season they finished in 14th place seven points above the relegation zone.

Sheridan has certainly had his ups and downs as a manager. But he has experience of working under relegation pressure and producing results.

There will be Wigan Athletic fans who are less than enthused about his appointment. But given the instability of recent months at Wigan it is important to steady the ship and avoid a further relegation. Sheridan will work on a low budget, his team likely to be a mixture of youth and experienced professionals who have become free agents in the era of Covid-19.

Although the majority of last season’s squad has departed it would be no surprise to see more of them leave over the next couple of weeks as the club continues to cut back its wage bill. Sheridan will then have the opportunity to bring in some of his own players.

John Sheridan may not be a marquee appointment, but he could prove to be just what Wigan Athletic need at this moment in their history.