Finding the right place for Thelo Aasgaard

Thelo Aasgaard has worked on the physical side of his game to complement his technical skills

The “Rabona” is probably the most difficult technique in football. When the ball is kicked the kicking leg is crossed behind the back of the standing leg. Eric Lamela made national headlines last season when he scored a Rabona for Tottenham against Arsenal. He made it look easy.

In February 2017 Wigan Athletic posted a video clip on YouTube. It showed a 14-year-old scoring a “Rabona” in a U15 game against Blackburn Rovers. It made Lamela’s effort look pale in comparison.

Thelonious Gerard Aasgaard had joined Latics not long before after having been with Liverpool’s youth system. Although born in Liverpool, his father is of Norwegian heritage and his mother of French. Aasgaard represented Norway at U16 level. During the past week he was called up to their U20 squad.

Aasgaard has dubbed by some as the “Wigan Grealish”, a compliment to a young player with a similarly high level of technical ability. Like Grealish his natural position is as a number 10, but he tends to get played in wide positions. Despite possessing sublime skills, it took Aasgaard some time for him to develop the physique to cope with the competitive side of the game.

Thelo Aasgaard made his senior debut for Latics against Peterborough in a League 1 game on October 20, 2020. He went on to make a major contribution in helping a club in administration to hold on to its place in the division in finishing one point above Rochdale in 20th place. Over the course of the season, he made 13 league starts with 20 appearances off the bench, scoring 3 goals.

In most of Aasgaard’s appearances last season he was played in wide positions. However, in recent months Latics signed wingers Gwion Edwards, Jordan Jones and James McClean. Moreover, both Callum Lang and Gavin Massey, who play wide, remain from last season’s squad. With such competition for places in wide positions what are Aasgaard’s chances of getting regular game time this season?

Aasgaard was a starter in the Carabao Cup match at Hull, then came on after 79 minutes in the draw against Wycombe. With Massey, Edwards and McClean chosen as the advanced midfield three for the Carabao Cup encounter with Bolton he once again found himself on the bench, being brought on after 70 minutes.

It has been acknowledged by management that the club being under administration last season gave opportunities for younger players that they would not normally have had. Over the course of the 2020-21 season ten players from the U23 squad went on to make their League 1 debuts. Ollie Crankshaw, Owen Evans, Charlie Jolley. Kyle Joseph, Chris Merrie, Emeka Obi and Alex Perry have since departed.

Aasgaard, Adam Long and Luke Robinson remain. Between the three of them they amassed 72 league appearances last season. However, with the arrival of so many senior pros their opportunities have been much diminished. Long started in the first game at Sunderland but was displaced by the loan signing of Kell Watts. Robinson started against Hull and in the Rotherham game when he was substituted after 56 minutes.

Latics will be looking at offering extended contracts to both Long and Robinson. Aasgaard signed a new contract in January. But other than appearing in the cup competitions are they likely to feature on the first team roster? Only Aasgaard was in the squad to face Portsmouth on Saturday, with Leam Richardson opting to choose an unbalanced bench without a recognised defender.

Like any other manager given expectations of a high position in the table, Richardson will rely on the experienced senior pros in his squad. Last season he had no choice but to include players from the U23 squad. The majority of them have gone, but what are his plans for the three that remain? Will they go back to being regarded as U23 players, being fielded in cup ties or having occasional appearances from the bench for the senior team? Or will they be sent off on loan to eventually return with more experience?

Callum Lang’s return from a loan spell at Motherwell in January was pivotal. His goals, so well-taken, made a massive contribution towards Latics staying in League 1. Prior to that, Lang had looked like the player Paul Cook just did not want. The player had the potential to follow on from his considerable successes with the club’s youth team. But he was still only 19 when he was sent on loan to Morecambe in 2017. He performed well there as he later did in subsequent loans at Oldham, Shrewsbury and Motherwell over those four years.

However, fans of Cook would say that the manager knew exactly what he was doing in sending a talented young player off on loan for that period of time. The club had been careful to make sure the player’s contract had not lapsed during that era. Lang is a key player in the current squad, and it is so good to hear that his new extended contract is about to be announced.

With the reports suggesting Latics will be signing two more central defenders in the next 24 hours it looks likely that Long will once again be sent off on loan. He was at National League Notts County for a short loan term in the latter part of the 2019-20 season. Robinson is likely to stay as back-up to Tom Pearce, but the latter is in the last year of his contract and the club could cash in the final stages of the transfer window. Reports suggest that Latics are looking to sign another full back, but it could be someone accustomed to playing on either flank.

Aasgaard, Long and Robinson are excellent prospects for the future. Of the three it is Aasgaard who stands out. His high technical ability is backed up with a strong work ethic and a real “football brain”.

Thelo could well become a genuine “Wigan Grealish” if his career trajectory is correctly managed. To see him languishing in the U23 side, with occasional cameos from the bench for the senior team, would be a real waste. But is he is to be sent out on loan, let it be to a club where his talents can be properly utilised?

Let’s hope the club can find the right place for their prodigy.

Naismith gives Latics inspiration and hope

Naismith gives Latics inspiration and hope. Photo courtesy of WiganAthletic.com

Players in teams that are struggling in the relegation mire tend to play safety-first, being afraid to make mistakes or draw derision from the fans for a shot goes miles wide or a pass that seems to go nowhere.

We saw that in the Bristol City game on Saturday, as we have so often since Latics returned to the Championship under Paul Cook. Things are better now than a few weeks ago. At least the central defenders no longer hoof the ball when under the slightest pressure.

When a team is low on confidence, as Latics are, despite the propaganda to the contrary, it takes courage to stick one’s neck out and not take the easy way out, putting the onus on someone else.

The reborn Kal Naismith bucks the trend. When Cook put the Glaswegian at centre back following Cedric Kipre’s red card at Leeds in April 2019, who would have thought that he could do so well? A flash in the pan most of us were probably thinking.

Naismith had been used at left back in the injury-enforced absence of Antonee Robinson and had played with enthusiasm but was looking suspect when genuine right wingers faced him. It was reminiscent of Kevin Kilbane in the Steve Bruce days: a left sided midfielder playing at left back.

But Naismith is clearly a learner.

Since then Naismith has established himself as a first-choice central defender the quality of football played by the team has really improved. The hoof has disappeared and there has been a huge improvement in the play of Cedric Kipre, his central defensive partner. The Frenchman had fallen way down the pecking order of central defenders at Cook’s disposal. His early promise on arrival from Motherwell at the beginning of last season had seemed to evaporate.

But it is not only Naismith’s ability to move forward and play meaningful passes to the midfield and forwards that has impressed. His reading of the game, the timing of his tackles and interceptions have been a revelation. Some said he would have a hard time facing the more physical centre forwards, but that has not been the case.

Naismith has had real lows at Wigan in his 18 month stay. Having followed the manager from Portsmouth some of the crowd frustration at the manager has fallen on him. Nominally a left winger he rarely had a run of games to make his mark, so often being brought off the bench at difficult times or played out of position.

Some fans compare Naismith with Jordi Gomez, who was the whipping boy for too many so-called fans but went on the win “Player of the Year”. It would be no surprise to see Naismith follow in the same way.

This site was set up by my son, Ned, in 2011.

He invited me to write alongside him. I had never written football stuff before. He asked me what nickname I would like to use I suggested “Jakarta Jack”, living in Indonesia at the time. After a quiet start Three Amigos Wigan took off. With Latics in the Premier League the top media companies were interested.

It was a surprise to me when ESPN, the world’s top sports media site, invited us to join them, giving feedback on Roberto Martinez’ Latics. We had to write 3-4 articles per week, published on their site and we also put it on Amigos.

Since those early days Ned has had a change in circumstances, with a young family and a demanding job. I am in regular contact with him and he so often gives me ideas for my articles. I asked him to give me his thoughts on Kal Naismith and here they are:

I think he is fascinating, and I love watching him — particularly now that his transformation is complete from winger to centre back. I didn’t like him as a winger; I did like him as a wingback, and full-back, after his performances in the second half of last season. And now I love him as a centre-back.

Cook has made some appalling tactical decisions over the years, but he actually deserves giant praise for Naismith. The same criticism that has been levelled at his recently for sticking by senior pros out of stubbornness and loyalty, was levelled at him in the early days of Naismith. That was largely because he was being deployed as a left-winger and proving largely ineffective.

You can make an argument that Cook only discovered Naismith’s best position (at this level) by accident. First, Antonee Robinson’s injury last season, forcing him into deploying Naismith as an emergency left wing-back and left-back; and then as a centre-half, to most famous effect in that incredible away with at Leeds. But Cook had seen something in him, to warrant signing him for the Championship despite unimpressive statistical contribution at L2 level. And he has been proven right, eventually. He was a good signing.

In retrospect, I think he clearly lacked pace and dribbling to be a successful winger in the modern game. It’s easy to make comparisons in terms of playing style to David Beckham to justify his existence as a winger, but the game has changed dramatically since Beckham’s days, and there are few players of his kind playing on the wing these days. In fact, many are playing at full-back. It makes David Moyes look quite astute in his deployment of Leighton Baines as a playmaker from that position. Baines too, never had fantastic pace — but sublime technique, poise and intelligence.

So where does he go from here? The sky is the limit, in his new position. He has the athleticism and physique to cope as a centre back. The poise and passing range to play a modern game. And the versatility to prove incredibly useful to managers looking to rotate between a back four and back five, a bit like how Emmerson Boyce gradually became a vital cog in Roberto’s machine. He has the added benefit of being a model pro; content to sit on the side-lines, but performing to a high level when called upon, in a variety of positions.

He’s due a mistake at some point, but his transformation has been dramatic.

Without wanting to write Jamal Lowe off — I do believe think with better man-management and a more gradual introduction he’d be thriving as an impact player off the bench at this stage — Kal is in some ways the anti-Jamal Lowe. He is not blessed with pace or trickery on the ball, or bells and whistles. But he exudes calm and presence of mind. And the impact on those around him is very positive. Instead of rushing or panicking, he is thoughtful and cultured. Those, slightly more intangible skills, should in theory help his further development, should a team higher up the league(s) take note and come calling.

 

 

 

 

Luke Burke’s departure and its significance

He put a brave face on it, but Luke Burke must have been gutted to be told that he was no longer wanted at Wigan Athletic. Burke was a shining light a couple of years ago, playing Championship football for Latics at the tender age of 18.

In August 2016 he made his debut, starting in the opening game of the season at Bristol City and he looked an accomplished player. Burke had been captain of Latics’ most successful-ever youth team the season before, having played for the development squad when just 16.

But things did not happen as one would have hoped. As the season progressed Burke fell out of the limelight and, in February, Warren Joyce sent him out on a two-month loan to Barrow. That was followed by being loaned to AFC Fylde for the 2017-18 season.

Burke certainly looked to have potential, but his career has taken a step backwards. That 2016-17 season was a difficult one at the club, with the dismissal of Gary Caldwell and the appointment of the inept Warren Joyce. Not an ideal time to focus on nurturing young players. But then again, when is a good time to give youth a chance in modern-day football?

Wigan Athletic give the Michael Millett Award each year in honour of a former youth player who was tragically killed in a car crash in 1995. It recognises the outstanding player in the under-18 team. Callum Lang won it in 2016-17. Lang is a well-built, fast, intelligent central striker who spent the 2017-18 season on loan at Morecambe, where he made a significant impact. The 19-year-old made 30 appearances, scoring 10 goals for the struggling League 2 side. He would seem to have a bright future ahead.

But let’s hope Lang can go further than others who have won that award in recent years. Prior to Luke Burke, Louis Robles won it in 2014-15, Matty Hamilton in 2013-14, Joey Johnson in 2012-13 and Ryan Meadows in 2011-12. None of them made a first team appearance in a competitive game at Wigan and their careers have hardly taken off. But Tim Chow (2010-11) and Lee Nicholls (2019-10) did get first team experience at Wigan and although never regular starters have gone on to play regularly at Ross County and MK Dons respectively.

Looking at the club website there are two players in the senior squad who have come up through the ranks. One is Callum Lang, the other is Jordan Flores. The latter is now 22, having been involved in a serious car crash whilst on loan at Chesterfield. Flores is surely a talent, with that sweet left foot and intelligent movement. What has been lacking in the past has been the physical aspect. The coming season would appear to be make-or-break for the Aspull lad.

The shining example of youth development at Latics over recent years is Leighton Baines. As a 17-year-old in 2002 he made his senior debut with Paul Jewell’s to-be third tier champions a League Cup win against West Bromwich Albion. He went on to make 12 appearances that season, 6 in cup competitions, 6 in the Second Division. Baines went on to an illustrious career, with both Latics and Everton, making 30 appearances for England.

When Luke Burke made his debut at Bristol some long-standing supporters were likening him to Baines. Somehow it did not happen for Burke as it did for Baines. Baines was carefully nurtured by Jewell, given his chance early on, then brought on gradually until he became a top player. Perhaps Burke never really had the kind of potential shown by Baines, but football is so much in the head and in the backing that a player can get from management and good coaching. Or maybe sometimes things are not meant to be?

Burke is still young enough to prove that Latics were wrong in rejecting him. Will he go on to the kind of a career that those previous Michael Millett Award winners have been unable to achieve? We wish him well.

In the meantime we can but ponder on the future of the academy at Wigan Athletic. Some things needs to change if homegrown youth is going to get a real chance at the club.

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Unlocking the Jacobs enigma

Photo courtesy of Wigan Athletic FC.

It is the 11th minute of Saturday’s home encounter against the Milton Keynes Dons. Under pressure Nick Powell launches a long ball from his own half. It looks ambitious, speculative. But Wigan’s number 17 gets his head there to nod it on, accelerating past two defenders. It seems like he has run up a blind alley as he finds himself at the by-line, but he squeezes out a left foot cross that allows Will Grigg the formality of putting the ball away.

Michael Jacobs was involved in another assist in that 5-1 win, sprinting at full throttle from his own half to the edge of opposition penalty box to lay on a superb pass for Grigg to claim his hat trick. In the defeat at Fratton Park five days earlier, we saw a different Michael Jacobs, being peripheral, seemingly lacking in energy. More often than not, when Jacobs has been at his most dynamic, it has been reflected in a good team performance.

Stats suggest that scoring first in a football game is so important. That piece of magic from Michael Jacobs produced the opening goal in a game that Latics went on to win. A study based on the Premier League published by smarkets.com shows that the team scoring the first goal from 2014-2017 won 70% of the matches, losing only 12%.

Jacobs showed his drive and creativity against the Dons, but his ability to get crucial goals has had a major effect on Wigan’s promotion push. Indeed, of the 10 he has scored, no less than 8 were opening goals that led to victory for his team. Three of those victories were by 1-0 margins, one of those being in the 90th minute in a crucial game at Bradford. Jacobs was in the right place at the right time as he coolly dispatched a sublime flick from Will Grigg. His 30-yard screamer was the only goal in the home game against Northampton in September, his superb left footed finish from just outside the box gave a weakened Latics a similar result at the DW against Rochdale in February.

Jacobs was a key player in Gary Caldwell’s League 1 title winning side in 2015-16. He scored 10 league goals in 38 appearances. The sceptics said that he would not be able to perform at the same level in the Championship, where he struggled to with both Derby County and Wolves. His return to the second tier of English football could hardly be called an unqualified success, with just 3 goals under Caldwell and Warren Joyce. However, Jacobs was playing for a struggling side and under Joyce he found himself laden with more defensive duties than previously.

Even at League 1 level Michael Jacobs can be enigmatic. So often he can get himself into great positions but cannot show the composure needed to finish a move. His critics would say that he has trouble staying on his feet, going to ground too easily, that his left foot is poor. But Jacobs remains popular among Latics fans for his willingness to put run himself into the ground for his team, together with his moments of brilliance. Some will say that the player would not be at Wigan if he were able to consistently perform to his maximum potential but would be playing in a higher tier of football. But Jacobs is still only 26 and has time to continue to progress as a footballer.

Given the level of commitment that Jacobs shows on the field of play and the physical demands of his role, it is no surprise that the player cannot “turn it on” game-in, game-out. With a hectic schedule where games come in thick and fast it is difficult for any player of his type to consistently perform at a high level. Moreover, Paul Cook is not a manager who favours squad rotation and Jacobs has almost invariably been the first name on the team sheet for one of the wing positions. He has started in 42 games this season, league and FA Cup.

In October 2017 Jacobs signed a new contract that will keep him at Wigan until the summer of 2020. At the time Paul Cook remarked that:

Michael is such a talented footballer who is really thriving off the way we are playing at the moment. I know he is a really popular player amongst the fans, not just for his ability but being such a great lad as well and I am sure this is news that goes down well with everyone associated with the club.”

Jacobs has been a key player for Latics over the course of the season. Cook will be hoping he will be at his scintillating best for the seven matches that remain. The acid test for Jacobs will be a return to the Championship, providing Wigan get promoted. With the backing of Cook and his coaching staff, could the player gain that extra little bit of composure that would make him a force to be reckoned with in the second tier?

 

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The season ahead for Jordan Flores

He didn’t think he had played particularly well, but he had scored the opening goal at a very opportune moment, in the 45th minute. It was a superbly hit strike from outside the box, revealing the kind of technique that could make him a top player.

But Jordan Flores was right: he did not have a good game against Blackpool on Tuesday evening. His goal and a beautifully weighted pass to release Will Grigg were the highlights, but his passing was too often errant and it was clear that he still needs to work on his defensive skills.

But for those who have closely followed Flores’ career the biggest plus of the night was that he played the full 90 minutes plus of the match. It was the first time he had done so in  a competitive match for Wigan after having made his debut at Brentford in the final game of the 2014-15 season.

Jordan Flores is 21 years old, a local lad from Aspull. He played with the Latics juniors, later to re-join the club as a 15-year-old. He was to work his way up through the youth team and the development squad to make that first team debut in May 2015. The club had once prided itself on developing home-grown talent, but had somehow lost its way in recent years. Flores had come on to the field at Brentford to replace Tim Chow, another local lad who had come up through the ranks. Together they represented “homegrown youth” when Latics had for too long preferred to bring in young loan players from other clubs.

Flores is without doubt a talented player. He has the kind of technique that would enable him to feel at home among the talent at La Masia. He is blessed with a sweet left foot, excellent close control and a powerful shot. His best position is probably on the left side of a midfield trio, the kind of role that Chris McCann would often play in the era of Uwe Rosler. Flores is left sided, but not a winger. But in Paul Cook’s preferred 4-2-3-1 system where could Flores fit?

Prior to the Blackpool match the manager had commented: “In Jordan’s case, what’s Jordan’s best position in our line-up? We’re going to have a look at him on Tuesday night in a different position, in the front three behind the striker. Jordan’s a very naturally talented boy, and I think he’s going to be a great player for Wigan Athletic.”

It is not unusual for young footballers with genuine talent to be lacking in the physical side of the game. Flores has clearly been working on his stamina and having to sometimes play at full back or wing back will surely have helped him appreciate more the defensive part of the game. The challenge ahead is for him to be able to display his fine skills, but at the same time complement them with the physical attributes necessary for a successful footballer in the modern era.

When Warren Joyce sent him on loan to Blackpool in January it was by no means certain that Flores would be coming back this season. He was in the final 6 months of his contract with his future at the club seemingly in the balance. However, although he was not able to establish himself as a regular starter he went on to make 14 starts, with 7 appearances off the bench, scoring 3 goals. His total of 1,300 minutes playing time with the seaside club was to dwarf the combined total of 194 minutes he had previously spent on the pitch for Latics.

The relative success of his loan period at Blackpool surely influenced Latics to offer Flores a new two-year contract. It was a surprise at the time that the club were offering new contracts – Craig Morgan and David Perkins also received theirs – when the new manager had not been decided at that stage. Flores was clearly delighted commenting that: “I’m buzzing; I am going into what is my sixth season now and every year I feel like I have made progress. Last season that meant going out on loan and getting game time but this season I will hopefully break into the team. I support this club, I love this club and I have always wanted to play here.”

Cook clearly has faith in Flores’ abilities. However, he also commented about the player that: “But again these lads need to play regular, because you don’t learn much by not playing. These are the challenges ahead, not just for me but for Jordan and players like him. And we’ve got to stick together no matter what the plan is.”

The manager has already let us know that his squad is currently too big and that more players will be leaving. Is he hinting that Flores will be sent off on loan again?

The decision Cook will need to make before the end of August is whether Flores is ready to make an impact in his 4-2-3-1 system, and if he is, in what position? But another loan spell is a distinct possibility.

Jordan Flores remains a bright young talent with his best years ahead of him. With the right amount of nurturing he could become a very fine player.