Wigan Athletic: on track to emulate the success of the Cook/Richardson team of 2017-18

Trawling the social media, I came across this Tweet from a fellow Latics fan. It certainly took me by surprise. Thank you for sharing this, Daymo.

There have been discussions among fans as to whether this current Latics side is as strong as that of 2017-18. It is impossible to compare teams from different eras, but stats can help provide some basis for comparison. For the two teams to have the same WDL stats after 40 games is certainly thought-provoking. Moreover, it is currently a three-horse race, at this as it was at the same stage those four seasons ago.

Last season Hull City won the League 1 title with 89 points with Peterborough United finishing second on 86. In 2015-16 Gary Caldwell’s team won the title with 87 points with Burton Albion following them on 85. At this point it looks like a minimum of around 90 points will be needed for automatic promotion this season.

The Paul Cook/Leam Richardson team went on to win League 1 in 2017-18 with 98 points, after winning three and drawing three of their final six games. The question now to be asked is whether this 2021-22 team can emulate the success of their predecessor of four years earlier?

After 40 games played Richardson’s current team have a greater lead over their rivals than the 2017-18 team. Cook’s primary aim at that time had been to secure promotion. Both Latics and Blackburn had very strong squads with wage bills way above the norm for League 1. Shrewsbury Town had really punched above their weight and had looked like contenders for automatic promotion until they fell back in the final part of the season. Cook’s team went on to win the division with a memorable goal from Will Grigg in the final game at Doncaster.

This current Wigan side are the bookmakers’ clear favourites for promotion. Even if MK Dons were to win all four games remaining, Latics would need only 10 points from their last six matches.  Given the upcoming fixtures for the Dons it would be an outstanding achievement from them to win them all.

Should this side go on to achieve automatic promotion it will be on a budget of somewhere around 60% of that in 2017-18. Superb recruitment and high morale within the club has shown its worth on the field of play. There are players who provide a strong spine to the squad, capable of enabling Wigan Athletic to consolidate in the second tier of English football.

Evatt’s comments rankle, but are Wigan Athletic an over-physical team?

Ian Evatt defends Dapo Afolayan

“I just think that sometimes he has unfairly of having a reputation for diving, but if you’re fouled, you’re fouled. I thought some of the tackles on him today were poor and mistimed and that’s where you need the referees to ignore noise and so-called reputations and give the right decision on a day and I don’t think we got the right decision with McClean’s second yellow in particular.”

Ian Evatt is rarely short of words. The outspoken Bolton boss was right about James McClean’s second yellow for a foul on Dapo Afolayan. It was a reckless action by a player already on a yellow card and it could have ultimately cost Latics all three points. The referee had earlier booked McClean for a foul on Afolayan, that was debatable. Some would say that the Irishman did not even touch the player, but even if he did it was hardly a bookable offence. The referee was surely influenced by the writhing of Afolayan on the ground after his fall.

Wigan were certainly aware of the threat that the 24-year-old Afolayan brings. He is a talented and skilful player who will invariably be heavily marked by League 1 defences. According to the Bolton Evening News he was the most fouled player in the division after the initial 5 matches this season. Given his capabilities it would be a surprise for him to remain at Horwich next season.

This Wigan Athletic side is certainly physical. Over the course of the season, they have outgunned the opposition with their ability to win the second ball, wearing them down by attrition. The stats reflect it with Latics scoring a total of 28 goals in the first half and 40 in the second. It is the fittest Wigan team for many years. Long balls are a feature in Liam Richardson’s style of play. Stats from WhoScored.com show an average of 18% of their passes classed as “long”, compared with Bolton’s average of 11%.

But are Wigan more physical than other teams in League 1? How does their foul and card count compare?

“Wigan had a game plan to come here and stop us playing and when you’ve got a team as experienced, as physical and as well set-up as they are, it makes things difficult.”

So said MK Dons manager, Liam Manning, following Latics’ draw at the MK Stadium in March. The match starts showed the home team having 59% of possession and committing 11 fouls to Wigan’s 16. A draw was a fair result between two teams with contrasting styles. Leam Richardson opted for a backline of three central defenders, with wing backs, matching the formation of the home team. It worked well, the shape and energy of the Wigan team stifling the MK Dons’ usually smooth-flowing football, forcing them into errors.

The Dons are probably the most aesthetically pleasing footballing side in League 1. On average they have committed 8.5 fouls per game, compared with 13.4 by the opposition. Latics and Rotherham can be considered more physical in their style of play and the stats back up the argument. Latics have committed an average of 12.7 fouls per match (11.9 by the opposition) and Rotherham 12.6 (11.5). Wigan’s foul stats, not surprisingly given the difficult circumstances, make better reading than those in the 2020/21 season of 14.7 to 11.7.

Stats courtesy of FootCharts.co.uk

Although Latics and Rotherham come close on foul stats, an examination of those for yellow card stats paints a different picture.  Wigan average 2.1 yellows per game (1.7 by the opposition), whereas Rotherham’s stats are 1.5 to 1.8.

Stats courtesy of FootCharts.co.uk

More than half of Latics’ yellow cards have been accumulated by 4 players: Tendayi Darikwa 13, Callum Lang 11, Max Power 10 and James McClean 8. On the other hand, Jack Whatmough and Tom Naylor who have made so many key tackles and interceptions this season have received 4 and 6 yellows respectively.

The brand of football played by Richardson’s team is certainly akin to that of the Paul Cook era. The stats in Cook’s final season were 13.5 fouls committed per match (13.1 for the opposition), 2.1 yellows per match (1.8 for the opposition).

Style of play notwithstanding, Leam Richardson has done an outstanding job over the last two seasons since Cook left. He kept Latics in League 1 and they are now in with a very good chance of automatic promotion. Moreover, a half the current squad have prior experience of at least 40 matches in the Championship or the Premier League. Should promotion be achieved there would be a strong base to build upon.

Latics may be one of the most physical teams in the division but they are less cynical than many. The standard of refereeing may be near an all time low in League 1, but the officials’ jobs are made so difficult by the diving, shamming of injury, shameless time wasting and mobbing of referees over borderline decisions. The foul and card stats make interesting reading, but do not necessarily paint a full picture.

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.

A refreshing change in formation for Wigan Athletic

In the summer of 2014 Uwe Rosler was a popular man with Latics followers. The German had taken over in early December with Wigan Athletic lying in the depths of the Championship table. Rosler went on to take them to 5th place and the FA Cup semi-final. They were narrowly defeated by QPR in the Championship playoffs and by Arsenal at Wembley. Although a section of the fanbase had not been happy with his squad rotation policy he produced the results and repaired the damage caused during Owen Coyle’s awful tenure.

The adage “Managers are judged on results” rang true for Rosler. Latics had been one of the bookmakers’ favourites for promotion but by mid-November the German had been sacked as they had slid down the table.

Leam Richardson too is popular with Latics fans. He worked wonders in helping the club avoid relegation last season and his newly assembled squad, with 15 new signings, has made an impressive start to the season. But three midweek home defeats, with the players looking “flat” had led to questions about whether he was too set in his ways, rigidly sticking to his favoured 4-2-3-1 system, not rotating his squad sufficiently to keep players fresh, making substitutions too late in the game, as fixture were piling-up.

If there was one factor that led to Uwe Rosler’s downfall it would be in making too many new signings over the summer, when he already had a strong squad. Richardson’s case differs in that he only had five contracted players when summer recruitment started. However, he now has a big squad which is going to need careful management in ensuring that fringe players do not get disenchanted through lack of game time.

Richardson took a major step forward in the Burton Albion game on Saturday when he brought in Curtis Tilt and Stephen Humphys and gave a League 1 debut to Jason Kerr. Fan concerns about the depth of quality of the squad soon diminished as all three players made fine contributions.

But the real surprise was a switch away from 4-2-3-1 to a 3-4-1-2 formation. Kerr was employed as a right centre back, a role in which he enjoyed great success in St Johnstone’s run to win both the Scottish Cup and the Scottish League Cup last season. Jack Whatmough looked very comfortable in the centre of the back three, with the experienced Tilt to his left. Max Power played a deep midfield role with Tom Bayliss more advanced. James McClean looked so at home at left wing back, a position he occupies for the Republic of Ireland. Tendayi Darikwa looked so much better back on the right- hand side and was afforded more freedom in the wing back role. The new formation allowed Richardson to play twin strikers in Humphrys and Charlie Wyke. Humphrys is a talented player who has spent too much time on the bench with only one central striker being employed in 4-2-3-1. Will Keane has looked somewhat jaded in recent games. The return of Thelo Aasgaard from injury will provide Richardson with a back-up in that number 10/creative central midfield role.

With Latics a goal up and Burton down to ten men after 15 minutes it is hard to evaluate the success of the new formation. But credit must go to Richardson for his willingness to go against his own previous orthodoxy. It was noticeable that there was less of a gap in the centre of the field and there was so much less long ball than we have been seeing so frequently. The formation helped to facilitate a more possession-based build up.  

3-4-1-2 offers differing opportunities to players than 4-2-3-1. Callum Lang was suspended and did not play. Lang nominally plays on the right flank but is not a conventional winger. He is a key player because of his willingness to run at opposition defences and he is always a candidate for scoring a goal. His ideal position is open to conjecture, but he would surely be comfortable in the front two of a 3-4-1-2 system.

Richardson has made a response to critics who have had concerns about the rigidity of his tactical outlook. He has shown himself to be a great motivator of his players and is a fine ambassador for the club, discreet in his comments, showing a dignity that is not the norm in football club managers. It was heartening to see him make this change.

Roberto Martinez made the switch to 3-4-3 in the middle of the 2009-10 season when relegation was imminent. It led to the most successful set of results in Wigan’s league history. It also paved the way to winning the FA Cup. Despite those successes there are Latics fans who do not favour a system with three at the back.

In the Cook/Richardson era Latics flitted with systems playing three at the back, but it could never really compete with the 4-2-3-1. Let’s hope that Richardson will give his new system enough time to evaluate it.  Another criticism Richardson has faced has been a lack of a Plan B. Getting his players accustomed to a change in shape, either from game to game, or within a game, would be a major step forward in his development as a manager.

The likelihood is that 4-2-3-1 will continue to be the modus operandi for Richardson, but one hopes that he will keep an open mind towards changes in shape. One way of looking at things is to decide on a system and look at how well players fit into it. Another way is to look at the individual talent in the squad and devise a system that can get the best out of them in their entirety.

Wigan Athletic: is it time for more squad rotation?

Alex Ferguson liked to use squad rotation as a means of freshening his starting line-up fresh and sending a message to his players that none of them had a guaranteed place there. For each game he would typically change one or two players, often central midfielders. From late 2008 until March 2011, he went 165 games without naming an unchanged starting XI.

On Tuesday night Sunderland manager Lee Johnson made five changes to the line-up that had beaten Bolton 1-0 the previous Saturday. They went on to beat Cheltenham 5-0. That same night Leam Richardson typically made no changes to his starting line-up for the encounter with Sheffield Wednesday. It was a line-up that had been producing a series of good results and the Latics manager saw no need to tamper with it.

Wigan Athletic have seven players who have started in all 9 league matches played this season, with two more players who have played in 8. Having such a backbone of regulars in the starting line-up has enabled the team to gel more quickly than might have been expected. Gary Caldwell’s League 1 title winning team of 2015-16 also had a large influx of new players and initially took time to gel with a record of W4 D2 L3, gaining 11 points in their first 9 games. Latics currently have a record of W6 D1 L2, amassing 19 points.

Leam Richardson has done a terrific job since taking over as manager in November 2020. Keeping Latics out of the relegation zone at the end of last season was a great achievement given the challenging conditions he faced.  He also deserves credit for the start his new squad have made this season.

There has been much conjecture on the social media regarding the splitting of the Cook/Richardson partnership. The former has had a hard time at Ipswich since joining them in March, winning only 22% of games played up to this point. It contrasts with his former assistant’s stats of 35% since last September.  

For so many years the names of Cook and Richardson had been synonymous: they were seemingly joined from the hip. But despite their parting the football Latics have continued to play has been pretty much like we saw in the Cook era. Moreover, Richardson has stuck with that familiar 4-2-3-1 system, being conservative with the introduction of substitutes, loyal to his senior professionals.

Among the strengths of the Latics team this season has been in winning “second balls” and in being dangerous from set pieces. They are a physically imposing team and have the height to trouble the opposition from corners and free kicks. They have proven able to grind down the opposition to the extent of becoming stronger in the latter part of the proceedings. The stats show that on first half goals alone their record is W2 D6 L1, opposed to W6 D2 L1 for the second halves.

Richardson has a squad that is the envy of most of the other clubs in the division. However, the challenge for the manager is to keep players happy who are not getting regular game time. He has a wealth of talent and experience in reserve, either on the bench or not even in the match day squad. He has a big squad with three players whose specialist position is left back, three for the left wing and five central defenders.

The manager has been reluctant, up to this point, to rotate his squad in a manner akin to that practiced by Alex Ferguson. Unless an unprecedented wave of injuries hits the squad there are likely to be players who will be starved of opportunities. Lowest in the pecking order is likely to be the young talent: homegrown players Thelo Aasgaard, Adam Long and Luke Robinson. It would be no surprise to see some of them being sent out on loan at some time during the season.

Will Richardson name an unchanged starting line-up for Saturday’s trip to Gillingham? Or will he make some small adjustments?