Ready for Brentford? The challenge for Paul Cook and his squad

What a tempestuous week it has been.

A wonderful performance by the Latics team in blowing away Stoke City raised our hopes of at least a mid-table finish, with lots of optimism for the coming season. Then it was all turned upside down by that stunning announcement of the club going into administration. The Wigan Athletic community is still reeling from that news.

Brentford away is hardly the fixture that one would choose following the turbulence of the last three days. They outplayed Latics at the DW Stadium in November to the tune of a resounding 3-0 scoreline. They have won their last four games and still have a chance of automatic promotion.

Latics were on the crest of a wave following the Stoke game on Tuesday evening. Hopes were high that they could go to west London and give the Bees a run for their money. But now we learn that the players, who had deferred 30% of their salaries in the lockdown period, will only receive a fraction of their salaries today. Paul Cook must somehow lift his players to concentrate on the here and now, despite the uncertain futures at the club that they all now face.

Sam Morsy’s rallying call was admirable and we can only hope that captain, manager and coaches can maintain morale in this difficult hour.

The news and social media have been awash with stories about what has happened to the club.

The EFL’s prompt notification that there will be an automatic 12-point deduction did not go down well with Latics fans. Questions abound how their “Fit and Proper Persons” criteria allowed a shady change of ownership leading to administration within a month of Next Leader Fund taking ownership.

The reasons for NLF opting for administration remain unknown although there is no shortage of conspiracy theories being put forward.

Fans have been putting forward their views on the social media and message boards. Some fear for the very existence of the club. Others are concerned that the points deduction will lead the club back to League 1, although there are optimists who believe the team can gather some 13-14 points from the last 6 games to avoid that happening.

In the meantime, Latics must find the funding to help them complete the season, by no means an easy matter with no money coming into the club from the owners and minimal revenues available from playing behind closed doors.

Should the club manage its way to complete its fixtures and somehow gather enough points to avoid relegation it would be a big step forward. A Championship club is more attractive to a prospective buyer than one in League 1. Moreover, the broadcasting revenues and larger away supporter attendances make it financially more viable, even if the club were going to run on a shoestring budget for a period.

My concern is that the very survival of the club is at stake. After following them to places like Congleton, Winsford and Oswestry I can deal with the likes of Rochdale and Oldham should the club manage to get through this sticky period.

It is a stressful and difficult time for us all who care so much for our club. The game at Brentford tomorrow pales in comparison with the mountain the club must climb to stay in operation. However, a win could really lift our spirits and give us a little more hope for what lies ahead.

Five talking points following a champagne-popping win over Stoke

Wigan Athletic 3 Stoke City 0

Champagne football returned to Wigan last night as Latics blew away Stoke City with the best display of the Paul Cook era. Gone was the hoofball that characterised the worst displays of the season. In its place was champagne football.

Granted, the first two goals were down to poor defensive play, although the third was something special. But the scoreline could have been much greater had Latics taken more of their chances. They were so superior throughout the game.

After the match Paul Cook commented: “That was an absolute top-class performance from us tonight. The only disappointment possibly was that it was only 1-0 at half-time. We created clear-cut chances, we dominated possession, and our appetite for work when we didn’t have the ball was so impressive.”

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

It’s all in the head

Jonjo is right. It is bonkers!

Wigan’s play last night exuded a confidence based upon an impressive unbeaten run.

In November Latics lost 2-1 at Stoke through a Mame Diouf goal in the 93rd minute.

They have come so far since then. But who can explain it?

Cook’s popularity rating rises

There have been times over the past two seasons when Paul Cook’s popularity rating has hit rock bottom. At times the football has been either awful or too frustrating to watch.  Comments on the social media have been brutal at times.

However, since embarking on this unbeaten run in mid-February his popularity with the fans has been gradually increasing. People want results and they have been coming. Some of the previous performances were abysmal, others quite the opposite even if the results did not always correlate with the performances.

The manager summed things up well following the victory over Blackburn at the weekend:

It’s hard to be a manager at this level, because you get abused for much of the time. But then all of a sudden because your team wins a few games, you’re suddenly a good manager again.

The brutal reality is you’re only as good as your player and my players have never, ever let me down, over anything other than inexperience, naivety. When it comes to passion, desire, determination, attitude, they’ve always given me everything. I’ve never had a problem with any of them this season, never had a dressing-room row when I’ve had to question that side of things.”

I’ve certainly had plenty of rows questioning some of the stuff we’ve done, but that’s football. To see them now playing against such strong sides, and limiting them to not many clear-cut chances, is great credit to them.”

Last night we saw a performance matched by a result. It is when the two coincide that we can begin to see a brighter future ahead.

Butland has an off night

Peter Schmeichel once said: “Every player makes mistakes; every goalkeeper makes mistakes. Every manager does, every broadcaster – every person in life makes mistakes. But for goalkeepers, often when they make a mistake, it leads to a goal.”

Jack Butland’s own goal and assist for Kal Naismith’s first goal certainly helped Latics on their way.

Butland is 27 years old and has 9 caps for England. He is by no means a rookie goalkeeper, but his mistakes were costly for his team last night.

Naismith’s second goal was a stunner

When Kal Naismith came on for an injured Michael Jacobs after 32 minutes he went to the right wing. The Glaswegian has played in so many different positions for Latics and opinion is divided as to which is his best. Many would say he has had his best performances at centre back. But he had hardly shone in the past on the few occasions he had been employed on the right wing.

However, he had a fine game last night, giving veteran full back Stephen Ward a torrid time. Ten minutes after coming on he chested down a high ball and unleashed a tremendous effort from over 30 yards which was somehow pushed wide by the ‘keeper. Naismith’s first goal was a tap-in, but the second was the kind that will stick in the mind for years to come. The sheer power of the strike showed the excellent technique that the player has.

(Naismith’s second goal after 1:56 min)

It was a surprise not to see Naismith take the field in the first two games of the season restart. It will be even more of a surprise if he does not feature more regularly in the six games that remain.

Brentford – the acid test

Can Latics keep up their form for the trip to Brentford on Saturday?

The Bees have won their last four games and are only two points away from an automatic promotion place. However, Wigan have already notched up wins away against the teams above Brentford: Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion.

Keeping up an unbeaten run of nine games against another team in fine form is not going to be easy. The encounter will provide an acid test for Cook’s Latics.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

A Nottingham Forest fan’s view of Kieran Dowell

 

Wigan Athletic yesterday announced the signing of 22-year-old Kieran Dowell from Everton on a loan deal until the end of the season. Since the departure of Nick Powell Latics have badly lacked a midfield playmaker/goalscorer and Dowell certainly fits that profile.

The 6 ft 1 in tall attacking midfielder was born in Ormskirk and joined the Everton Academy at the age of seven. After playing for the reserve team he made his first team debut in a Europa League game against Krasnodar in December 2014. Dowell signed a professional contract in March 2015. He went on to make his Premier League debut as a 19-year-old as a substitute in March 2016 against Bournemouth. He made his first start two weeks later in a last day of the season win over Norwich city. He was given a new three-year contract in the summer of 2016. Dowell gained over 40 caps for England at all levels U16 to U20, being part of the under-20 World Cup winning side in the summer of 2017.

In August 2017 he joined Nottingham Forest on a season-long loan. He soon became a regular under Mark Warburton and scored a hat-trick against Hull City in October 2017. He went on to make 31 starts in the Championship with 7 appearances off the bench, scoring 9 goals.

Dowell joined Sheffield United on loan in January 2018 going on to make 8 starts and 8 substitute appearances, scoring 2 goals as the Blades won promotion to the Premier League. He went to Derby on loan in July 2019 making 8 Championship starts and 2 appearances off the bench.

In order to find out how Dowell did at Nottingham we contacted Matt at the Forza Garibaldi fan site (www.forzagaribaldi.com).

Matt commented:

At Forest, Dowell’s first couple of months were electric. He created chances and he scored goals. Some were absolute corkers too. He created something from nothing and was an instrumental part of our side.

 Sadly, Dowell’s impact faded quite dramatically. I won’t pin all of it on him as Forest did do their usual trick of collapsing and a change of manager at the turn of the year clearly disrupted things but he wasn’t the same.

Dowell’s appearances and influence dwindled and when the season ended and he returned to Everton it wasn’t really registered amongst Forest fans. When he signed for Derby on loan in the summer I thought it will either go really well or really badly.

 He may be an excellent addition for Wigan. There is definitely talent there, it just needs extracting. It just looks like a bit of a gamble which Kieron Dowell turns up.

 

Some thoughts: Nottingham Forest (H) 1-0

Wigan Athletic confounded the media with a well-deserved victory over an over-hyped Forest side. The television commentary had given us a vision of a resurgent Forest, unbeaten in 10 games, heading for a return to the top tier of English football where they surely belonged. But in the end, they had to acknowledge that Latics were worthy victors and that their record at the DW Stadium over the calendar year was impressive.

Paul Cook had surprised us by leaving Josh Windass on the bench, playing Gavin Massey in the number 10 position. It was Massey’s fine link-up play with Jamal Lowe that produced the winning goal after 35 minutes.

Following the game Paul Cook commented: “I thought we were good in the game, I enjoyed watching us play. It’s another very strong home performance, and you’d struggle to name our best player because we had so many good performers. We looked a threat against a very strong Forest side. And at the other end, we defended very, very well. They’re not so much big wins, they’re just wins because every game is so tough.”

Let’s look at some points arising:

Lowe gets his breakthrough

Jamal Lowe’s protracted arrival from Portsmouth in summer was well received by Latics fans. Lowe scored 17 goals for the south coast club in League 1 last season although he played mainly on the right flank. The question was whether he could bridge the transition to Championship football.

Until yesterday Lowe had struggled, looking a shadow of the confident, skilful player he had been at Portsmouth. At Wigan he had largely been employed on the left flank, sometimes in the middle of the advanced midfield three.

But at last Lowe was given the chance to play in his more “natural” position on the right wing. Gavin Massey had been pushed across to a more central role where he had been effective around the end of last season, linking up with the big man up front. The result was that the big centre forward in this game, Kieffer Moore, received more support than he has been accustomed to.

In scoring his goal Lowe had taken a blow to the knee and it clearly affected his mobility. But the goal had given him renewed confidence and he began to show the kinds of skills that had been muted in previous appearances. Lowe left the field after 65 minutes to the applause of the home crowd. He had made his breakthrough.

Williams thrives in Morsy’s absence

Sam Morsy’s absence through suspension gave a fresh opportunity to Lewis Macleod, who had appeared in the opening two games, but not since. Macleod is a fine footballer whose career has been thwarted by constant injury problems. However, he looked fit enough in this game, defending with vigour, showing his ability moving forward. That he went the whole 90 minutes-plus is a testament to how his rehabilitation is succeeding.

Joe Williams is a tenacious tackler who has a range of passing skills. He was Wigan’s outstanding performer in this game. Williams is still only 22 years old and looks an excellent signing for Latics.

Both Williams and Morsy can play the role of midfield destroyer. They had been playing together in holding midfield, providing solid protection for the defence. However, the introduction of Macleod for Morsy gave the centre of midfield a more fluid look. There will be times when Latics will need the steel provided by a Morsy-Williams duo, but the option of including a fluid passer of the ball like Macleod is one that Cook will surely consider.

A more measured long ball approach

The “hoof” has been an ugly and ineffective aspect of Latics play since their return to the Championship. All too often defenders have launched hopeful long balls, usually in the general direction of an outnumbered and isolated central striker, sometimes simply to clear the lines. The net result has typically been to concede the ball to the opposition, inviting them to build up moves from the back and pressurise Wigan’s defence further.

The long ball is not going away as long as Paul Cook is in charge at Wigan. It was frequently applied yesterday, interspersed with spells of keeping the ball on the ground. However, in this game most of the long balls were at least “measured” with Kieffer Moore able to receive and shield the ball on some occasions.

A mixed day for Kieffer

Kieffer Moore came into this game on the back of two fine performances for Wales, for whom he looked a much better player than we had seen playing for Latics. Would the big centre forward be able to get his first goal for Wigan after he had notched his first at international level in Slovakia?

Sadly, it was not to be and, as in so many of his previous Latics appearances, he did not look like scoring. Moore was as committed as ever and posed a physical challenge to the Forest defenders, not so isolated up front with Massey providing support.

Gelhardt’s role

Joe Gelhardt captained England’s under 18 side last week and once again showed what a good player he is on the international stage. He would have been full of confidence coming into this game. Surely, he would be brought on at some stage. But no. He remained on the bench once more.

Cook has continued to laud the 17-year-old’s ability and temperament, insisting that he is up to the rigours of Championship football, but the stats show that Gelhardt’s opportunities have been severely limited. He has been on the field for a total of just 73 minutes of the 12 league games played.

Rumour suggests that Gelhardt will be in the centre of a bidding war between elite Premier League clubs in the January transfer window. The more experience he gets at Championship level the higher his potential transfer fee is likely to rise.

There are critics who suggest that Cook is largely paying lip service to treating Gelhardt as a fully- fledged member of the first team squad and that his main role will continue to be as the “home- grown” player that the EFL insists must be included in every match-day squad. They cite the example of Callum McManaman who last season was on the pitch for a total of 439 minutes, which included just one start. He was on the bench 34 times.

Given the lack of creativity in Latics’ and their lack of goals from open play it has been disappointing to see a player of Gelhardt’s flair left so often on the bench. Should he leave in January Cook will have to look for someone else to fulfil the home-grown requirement.

 

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Another away defeat: can Cook stop the hoofball?

Fulham 2 Wigan Athletic 0

“We won’t sit off Fulham in any way, shape or form.”

So said Paul Cook before the match.

The manager’s statement of intent had a degree of credibility in the opening minutes when Latics attacked the home team. But Fulham were soon to take over the running of the game as any initial attempt to play football from Wigan was nullified as they resorted to the hoofball that has been all too typical in away games under Cook’s management. When Latics won the ball they so often gave it back to the home team by launching speculative long balls.

Wigan’s beleaguered defence did well to keep the home team at bay in the first half, despite Fulham’s dominance of possession. The game was goalless at half time, although it had looked like it was going to be a matter of time until Fulham scored. The London team had had twelve shots to Wigan’s one in that first half. Could Cook make some changes for the second half to nullify the home team’s dominance?

The manager did surprise us by making an immediate substitution. Michael Jacobs had once again been ineffective under the regime of hoofball and he was replaced by Kal Naismith.  But within a couple of minutes the seemingly inevitable happened, with Joe Bryan opening the scoring for Fulham.

Needing a goal Latics did at least try to play some football, although they did not convince, with Fulham still looking dangerous. Tom Cairney’s fine goal in the 83rd minute finished it off.

Few of us expected anything other than a defeat at Craven Cottage, given Latics’ miserable record there, facing a Fulham side full of players who played in the Premier League last season. There have been far worse away performances than this over the past twelve months. Neither of the Fulham goals was “soft”; the referee was weak and easily convinced by the home team’s writhing in apparent agony after tackles and he allowed himself to be mobbed by Fulham players pleading their case; the Wigan defence did not crumble and there was no capitulation.

But what is depressing is that Cook, his coaches and his players have still not learned that you cannot play hoofball in the Championship and get away with it for very long. It is “an unforgiving league” in that respect.

There has been a scarcity of discipline in Wigan’s play away from home, together with a lack of tactical awareness on the part of the manager and his coaches. Latics are one of the most physical sides in the division and the home teams are prepared for that. Combative players like Sam Morsy and Joe Williams can expect the referees to be looking out for them. This is not to say that it is right, but it is a reality. Such players need to show self-discipline, or they will soon find their way into the book.

The hoofball that we typically witness away from home is surely not something the manager instructs his players to do. It is more likely down to the lack of a footballing philosophy at the club. It is not only the player who hoofs the ball forward but those who should be helping him when under pressure by getting into positions to receive the ball.

The manager has his tried and tested playing formations and they can work well when the players are showing the kind of discipline required.

How much longer will this continue? We had hoped that the manager and his staff would have addressed these issues by now, but the kind of stuff we saw in the first half at Fulham would have been embarrassing for us when we were a non-league team, pre-1978.

It is simply not good enough for a team in the second tier of English football.