Stoke performance reveals strength in depth

Wigan Athletic’s Gavin Massey (Photo by Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images)

On paper the Wigan Athletic starting lineup at Stoke City looked good enough to compete with the Championship team on an even keel. This was despite the fact that only two players who had started the previous League 1 game against Oxford United were included, those being Gavin Massey and Max Power.

In reality Leam Richardson had used his squad to put together a team that looked well- balanced. But being so hastily cobbled together it was always going to struggle to show the cohesion needed to seriously threaten the home team. Jason Kerr’s slip was unfortunate, but it gave the home team an early lead that was going to be hard for Latics to pull back. Wigan held their own until a very well taken goal by Jacob Brown after 62 minutes was to seal Stoke’s victory.

Newcomers Ben Rea and Jamie McGrath made good starts to their Wigan careers. Rea worked hard in central midfield and certainly let Nick Powell know he was around. Since Sam Morsy’s departure Laics have not had a player of his ilk in their line-ups. McGrath slotted in comfortably and could well compete with Will Keane for the number 10 role, although he can also play in the wide positions.

Tom Bayliss has had a hard time since his arrival in Wigan but had one of his better games yesterday. Josh Magennis toiled with little end-result until being replaced by Stephen Humphrys after Stoke’s second goal.

Gavin Massey was excellent throughout, working hard, rarely wasting the ball and, most notably, showing the bursts of acceleration that were the hallmark of his game before he was dogged by a series of hamstring injuries. Richardson has faced criticism for his loyalty towards Massey, so often playing him ahead of others who were knocking on the door for selection. However, if Massey can display this kind of form, staying fit, he can play a key role in the bid for promotion.

Joe Bennett completed a full 90 minutes plus for the first time since playing for Cardiff City against Middlesbrough in late February last year. It has been a long recuperation for Bennett following the ACL injury that threatened his career. Yesterday he showed us glimpses of the player who made over 300 appearances in the two highest tiers of English football. However, it is going to take time before we see the player approach anything like his best.

The current squad is certainly well blessed with central defenders. Curtis Tilt and Jack Whatmough are the current first choice pairing. Jason Kerr (24) and Kell Watts (22) were a young centre back duo yesterday. With the full backs so often pushing forwards the centre backs can be stretched when the opposition counterattacks. That was the case for Stoke’s first goal, but both players have shown that they can be fine players in League 1 level and possibly at a level above. Given the quality of the centre backs he has at his disposal it is to be hoped that Richardson will more frequently go for a line-up of three central defenders with wing backs.

Latics have another 20 league games to play before the season ends on April 30. It is a tough and demanding schedule, but much will depend on how the manager utilises his full resources and adjust his tactics according to the situation. Richardson is not a manager known for his squad rotation, but if he does not rotate players, he runs the risk of injuries that will prove costly in the long run.

Richardson’s decision to reshape his team’s formation during the first half of the Oxford game was a welcome surprise. The changes he made had an immediate effect.

Promotion is in the air at Wigan, but much will depend on the manager’s ability to choose the right players at the right times, adjusting his tactical approach when needed. He has a very strong squad at his disposal.

Wigan Athletic DO have strength in depth, despite poor EFL trophy performances

Image courtesy of the EFL

“Physically, it’s better than training. The lads got some good minutes in there because they’ve gone weeks without match sharpness.”

So said Leam Richardson following a dull 2-0 defeat at Crewe in an EFL Trophy fixture on Tuesday. Crewe were so much better than Wigan, the scoreline not reflecting the superiority of the home team. A fine display by 19-year-old debutant goalkeeper Sam Tickle had helped keep the score down. Crewe had made 8 changes to their team, Latics making 11. The home team had looked cohesive, Wigan disjointed.

The EFL Trophy is not a priority for most managers these days. Richardson used the fixture to give seven of his first team squad a run-out with players from the U23 squad.

The EFL Trophy was launched as the “Associate Members’ Cup” in the 1983-84 season, when it was won by Bournemouth. The following season Bryan Hamilton’s Wigan Athletic won it (as the Freight Rover Trophy), beating Brentford 3-1 at Wembley in front of a crowd of 39,897.

In 1999 Latics won it again (as the Auto Windscreens Shield), with 55,349 spectators watching Ray Matthias’ side beat Millwall 1-0 at Wembley.

Despite constantly poor attendances in the early rounds the competition’s final has always drawn big crowds, the record being the massive 85,021 for the Portsmouth-Sunderland encounter in 2019.

The introduction of U21 teams to the competition has not gone down well with the fans of clubs in Leagues 1 and 2. Attendances reached an all time low on Tuesday and Latics’ game at Crewe was one of eight matches that night with less than 1,000 paying spectators. Some 185 Latics fans travelled to watch a game in which their team just did not show the kind of commitment that wins games. Wigan still have a chance of qualifying from if they win their last group game at Shrewsbury, but on the evidence of the commitment shown in the games against Wolves U21 and Crewe it would be a surprise.

Richardson’s prime goal this season is to secure promotion. The League Cup and EFL Trophy have been secondary considerations and there are few fans who would argue against that. However, the performances of the second string in the EFL Trophy games and in the Sunderland game in the League Cup have been so below par that some fans are questioning the quality of the first team squad players who were involved. If those games have provided an opportunity for fringe players to stake a claim for a place in the senior team starting line-up, then it has not happened. Wigan’s best player at Crewe was Tickle and Kieran Lloyd, Scott Smith and Chris Sze looked as comfortable as any of the senior players.

However, looking at the first team squad analytically there is lots of depth. There are experienced players who have already been successful at League 1 level or above. However, they may be lacking sharpness due to lack of playing time with the manager keeping faith in a group of players who have got the club off to a fine start to the campaign. In the old days those players would have been sent to get game time in the reserve team. Such entities no longer exist in the modern era, having been replaced by development squads, with the emphasis of grooming young players.

However, first team squad players are sometimes drafted into U23 games from time to time. Both Curtis Tilt and Thelo Aasgaard played against Charlton U23s on September 13. Adam Long and Luke Robinson have played in the last four U23 games. Up this point Richardson has used the cup games, rather than U23 games, to help senior players to keep up their match fitness. The next EFL trophy game is on November 9 at Shrewsbury.

Courtesy of bbc.co.uk

The indifferent performances of senior players in the recent cup games is hard to fathom. There was surely enough ability and experience in those line-ups to put up better performances against the second strings of Sunderland and Crewe and the Wolves U21s. One could not expect those Latics XI’s to gel, but despite the lack of cohesion we might have expected some more memorable individual performances.

But the bottom line is that Wigan do have considerable strength in depth. It can only be truly tested when those fringe players are given the opportunity to play in a first team which has already gelled, making it easy for replacements to slot in.

Stormclouds loom over Wigan Athletic’s fight to avoid relegation: time for changes?

The dedication and sheer hard work of the management team of Leam Richardson and Gregor Rioch has kept Wigan Athletic in with a fighting chance of avoiding relegation from League 1. That Latics are not totally adrift of the teams above them in the table is a testimony to their endeavours. The league table shows the task ahead of them.

Courtesy of SkySports.com

After Jamie Jones had somehow allowed an innocuous shot to go through him in the 27th minute on Wednesday evening it was always going to be an uphill struggle for Latics against high flying Hull City. Up to that point they had matched the visitors and had looked solid. However, with five losses in the previous six games Wigan’s confidence was bound to be brittle. Another goal five minutes later was no surprise and as the game continued, with their confidence shot, the Wigan team capitulated. Hull could have scored more than five.

Wigan’s starting line-up against Hull consisted of just one player, Chris Merrie, who had come through their academy. There were five players new to the club over the January transfer window. Much had been said earlier in the season of a young team giving away goals through a lack of experience. In the January window the club had done well to bring in new players who might provide an experienced backbone to the squad. But goals continue to be given away with more seasoned pros having taken the place of U23 players.

With so many new players arriving it was always going to take time for the new blend to gel. The comings and goings of so many players over the course of the season has made things extremely difficult for management. Moreover, the long-term injuries to Kyle Joseph and Tom Pearce have thrown another spanner in the works.

Following poor performances and results against relegation rivals Wimbledon and Swindon, Richardson switched to a back line of three central defenders for the next game at Northampton which was decided by an opportunist strike by Callum Lang. That backline had the experience of Scott Wootton and Curtis Tilt, both 29-years-old, with over 360 career league appearances between them, together with the very capable 22-year-old George Johnston. It looked like a combination that could provide solidity at the back with enough height and muscle to deal with the aerial threat posed by so many teams in the division.

Latics did not perform badly in the following game against an Oxford team in top form, another well taken goal from Lang putting them in front. Sadly they went on to lose the game through goals created by centres into the box.

It was a surprise to see that for the Hull game Richardson had ditched his back three in favour of an orthodox back four, with Johnston pushed to left back. But what was more puzzling was his advanced midfield trio with Viv Solomon-Otabor on the left and Dan Gardner and Will Keane in the centre and on the right. The new shape did not work and all three were taken off after 56 minutes, with Latics already four goals down.

Managers under pressure tend to rely on experienced players and that showed in Richardson’s team selection. Thelo Aasgaard was rested and not in the squad. Luke Robinson and Callum Lang were on the bench and brought on in the second half. Alex Perry, whose range of passing from the centre of the field can be a real asset, has been pushed out by the arrival of the more conservative Funso Ojo. The problem over recent games has been that too many of those senior professionals have been way off form. However, Richardson has stuck with them. Jones in particular has been fortunate to have kept his place despite poor goalkeeping that has cost Latics dearly.

If Latics are to lift themselves for the visit of top-placed Lincoln City tomorrow a shake-up is needed. Having a backbone of experienced players can be of great value in a relegation dog-fight, but some need a break to help them regain their form. There are lots of hungry, talented young players at the club who can step in.

Light at the end of the tunnel for Wigan Athletic

These have been dark and gloomy Covid-19 months for EFL clubs, especially those in the lower tiers who are so much more reliant on gate money. Some financial support is coming in via the EFL and Premier League, but rumour suggests that several clubs are already close to folding.

For Wigan Athletic it has been particularly tough. Going under administration is difficult enough in normal times, but the pandemic has made it so much harder. Why would anyone want to buy a football club with no certainty of when gate receipts will once again underpin the finances of clubs like Latics?

But within the last couple of weeks there has been light showing at the end of the tunnel.

During that time the team has gained two consecutive victories over clubs not far from the top of the League 1 table. The wins have lifted Latics off the bottom, giving hope for what comes next. Moreover, the ownership issues are moving ahead, with Jose Miguel Garrido dropping out of the picture and Felipe Moreno seemingly the potential future owner. Given Moreno’s excellent record as an owner of a club in Spain and that his bid is being supported by the administrators, it is surely a matter of time until the takeover is ratified by the EFL.

The social media and noticeboards have been awash with debate over the Spanish bid and why the administrators have not taken away exclusivity, allowing other parties to bid. Tony Frampton’s interviews with the PWU Podcast and Jay Whittle were certainly seductive in terms of him being a Wiganer who is a director in a multinational company that has a large financial base. Some conspiracy theorists suggested that Frampton was an ally of Ian Lenagan, trying to get control of the football club to hep the rugby. Others thought that some of Frampton’s ideas were pie in the sky.

In the meantime, fans have started to warm to the idea of a Moreno takeover. Simple internet searches reveal the degree of success he has had since taking over Leganes, a relatively small club in the south western suburbs of Madrid.

Miller’s tweet was certainly uplifting. It was soon followed by a quality interview on “The Full Time Whittle” with Madrid-based journalist Sam Leveridge, detailing the achievements of Moreno and his wife, Maria Victoria Pavon, at Leganes:

Administrator Paul Stanley has said that he hopes the EFL stamp of approval will be given before Christmas. The sooner the better for Wigan Athletic with the January transfer window approaching.

The loans of Tom James, Darnell Johnson, Matty Palmer and Curtis Tilt are due to expire as are the short-term contracts of Dan Gardner, Will Keane and Viv Solomon-Otabor. Moreover, there are four players from last season’s senior squad whose contracts expire in June. Reports suggest that Kal Naismith is already interesting a couple of Championship clubs.

The sooner the takeover is ratified the better opportunity the club has of making the right decisions regarding contracts. The aim will be to put together a squad which has a backbone of experienced professionals, with continued opportunities for the under-23 squad players who have made so much progress over these months after being thrown in at the deep end.

Although Latics are still in the relegation zone they are not so far away from safety. So much will depend on what happens in that January window. But after such a gloomy period there is certainly light showing at the end of the tunnel.

A debt-free fresh start for Latics?

Why did Au Yeung Wai Kay waive his rights to the £25.3m “loan”?

We may never know the real reason but there is no shortage of opinions from Latics fans on the social media, with conspiracy theories abounding. But whatever the reason it is great news for the survival of the club.

There remains a £6m debt to be paid off to football creditors and another £4m to non-football creditors. To avoid a 15-point deduction for the coming season Latics need to pay the football creditors in full and pay 25% of the other £4m.

When the change of ownership is completed the administrators will need to be paid off and a figure around £2m could be needed.

There has been consternation among some fans regarding the fire sale that we have seen in recent weeks. Three outstanding youth players were sold off, ifollowed by regular first team starters Kieffer Moore, David Marshall, Antonee Robinson and Joe Williams. Sheffield Wednesday’s purchase of Joss Windass was no surprise, given that he had been on loan there. However, although those players have been released for sums well below their normal market values, the combined revenues will go a long way towards paying off the creditors.

The fire sale may well continue until the ownership issue is resolved. With the debt much reduced than it was a couple of weeks ago the club is now a more attractive package for purchase. However, although five major earners have departed there will need to be more shed if the wage bill is to be commensurate with the division Latics find themselves in.

There have been rumours of other clubs interested in Cedric Kipre and Jamal Lowe. However, it remains to be seen whether the administrators would sell them off in the current buyers’ market or if they would allow the future owners to make such a decision. If a new owner were to come in and continue to fund the wage bill in the short-term it would allow them more time to get better fees for assets yet to be sold off. The administrators have needed ready cash to pay off the club’s debts, rather than following the usual route of transfer fees being received in instalments. Selling any further player contracts by means of instalments would surely provide a higher return and money coming in during the future.

Once the ownership issue is dealt with Latics can expect revenue coming in from the EFL and instalment payments due to them from previous player sales.

It remains to be seen what Latics and other clubs will do about season tickets and televising of matches. Reports suggest that fans will be welcomed back in October but with stadium capacity reduced to 25%.  The capacity of the DW Stadium is listed at 25,138 meaning they would be allowed to accommodate just less than 6,300, a figure close to the number of season tickets they have sold in recent years. However, the new rules are unlikely to include away supporters who pay at a higher rate per game than season ticket owners. Revenues will be relatively small, but at least there will be some money coming into the club.

The UK economy is in recession and football clubs, like other businesses, will be under pressure. More football clubs will most likely go into liquidation over the coming months.

The Swiss Ramble figures for 2018-19 show Wigan Athletic with a lower gross debt – £21m – than most Championship clubs, being dwarfed by the £142m of Blackburn Rovers. Given the recent actions of the administrators that debt is being reduced.

Some clubs are under benevolent ownership, as were Wigan Athletic to a large degree under Dave Whelan. Other clubs have owners willing to allow a club to go into considerable debt in search of a potential Premier League pay off. It is a dangerous path that is being followed by so many clubs.

During the coming week we most likely learn that Wigan Athletic have new owners. Whoever it is they will be taking over a club that has lower debts than many. Following the rocky period that the club has been through in recent months there is a need for stability and a long-term plan sustainability. Let us hope the new owners will be able to provide those things.