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.

 

Paul Cook – the right man for the job

Football took a nose dive at Wigan Athletic last season. What we saw in its place was a kind of “fightball” with players allowed to hoof the ball upfield, the end result being players ultimately unable to pass the ball with any consistent degree of accuracy. The end result was another seemingly inevitable relegation.

It had happened before, in the 2014-15 season, when William Kvist’s long throw-ins into the penalty box had become Malky Mackay’s principal attacking ploy. Who could have guessed that Warren Joyce and Mackay would create such a blot on the landscape of football when they were first appointed?

Owen Coyle’s long ball tactics and lack of tactical expertise had been no surprise to those of us who had seen his teams play prior to his arrival at Wigan. The surprise was more that Dave Whelan had appointed a manager whose style of football was diametrically opposed to that of his predecessor.  The end result in Coyle’s case was a team that should have been challenging for promotion instead languishing in the bottom half of the table. In the cases of Mackay and Joyce the rot was to prove terminal.

Watching Paul Cook’s Chesterfield in the League 1 playoffs a couple of years ago immediately had me reflecting on his days at Wigan. Cook was the kind of player who probably would not have got a place in the teams of managers such as Mackay and Joyce. Harry McNally brought him in as an 18 year old from modest Marine, a club from Crosby who had been regular adversaries for Latics in their days in the Lancashire Combination. But despite his humble footballing origins Cook was a class act, an intelligent footballer with excellent control and a superb left foot. He was a member of Bryan Hamilton’s exciting Latics side of 1985-86, who were desperately unlucky not to be promoted to the second tier, a late run from Derby County pipping them by a single point. Cook continued to be an important player under Ray Mathias, who like Hamilton, encouraged his teams to play good football. But it was no surprise when he was snapped up by Norwich City in 1988, the next step in a career that was to see him go on to amass 642 Football League appearances, scoring 56 goals in the process.

Cook was a cultured player and he expects his teams to play in a similar fashion. He started his managerial career in the lower leagues, spending some six years at Southport, Sligo Rovers and Accrington Stanley before joining Chesterfield in October 2012. His first season saw the Spireites come within two points of the League 2 playoffs, but they were to win the division the following year. They went on to firmly establish themselves in League 1 in 2014-15, reaching 6th place, losing out to Preston North End in the playoffs.

In May 2015 Cook was appointed manager of Portsmouth. Pompey had fallen from the Premier League to 16th place in League 2 within a period of just five years. In 2015-16 Cook lifted them to sixth place and the playoffs, narrowly going down to Plymouth Argyle in the playoffs. They went on to win the division last season under his guidance.

Paul Cook has an impressive 44% win ratio as a manager. Moreover he has done that by insisting that his teams play a version of football akin to that which led Wigan Athletic to the most successful results in their history. Roberto Martinez had led Latics to wins over giants – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United – plus an FA Cup Final victory over Manchester City, by playing possession-based football.

As a young player at Wigan Cook was not universally appreciated by the home crowd. There were those who urged him to “get stuck in” and release the ball quicker. Fortunately in Hamilton and Mathias he had managers who appreciated his style of play and who wanted their teams to play good football.  If there was one thing that Cook lacked it was pace. It meant that he was not to play at the highest levels of English football, despite his technical expertise.

It looks like Paul Cook will be signed up as Wigan Athletic’s manager in the next 24 hours.  Once again he will not be popular with all of the fans. Those who prefer a more direct style of play will be left frustrated. It will signal a reversion to the kind of football most recently employed at Wigan by Gary Caldwell, prematurely dismissed in October. The cynics had said that Caldwell could not get promotion out of League 1 playing possession-based football. They were proven wrong as his team went on to win the division.

On Cook’s seemingly impending arrival at Wigan, his ex-boss Mathias remarked to Wigan Today that:

“He has proved he can do it. I know his upbringing and how he’s lived his life. He can be very strong for Wigan and he can be a strong talker when he has to be.”

 Paul Cook is an experienced manager with an excellent track record in the EPL’s lower divisions. He is the right qualities for the job at Wigan Athletic in this moment of time.

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