Can Latics stay up under Cook?

Paul Cook’s approval rating must be around an all-time low with Wigan Athletic fans.  Latics are bottom of the Championship and so much of the football we have witnessed over the past twelve months has been comparable with that of the worst days of Warren Joyce and Malky Mackay. At times the manager’s tactics, team selections and substitutions have looked clueless. Cook can count himself fortunate to still be in the job, but Darren Royle and the IEC have stuck with him, much to the frustrations of fans who cannot wait to see him go.

But despite the frustrations of that last-minute substitution yesterday there has been a welcome shift in the style of football in the past four games. Has Cook seen the light on the road to Damascus? Will it continue? We can only surmise what would have happened if the manager had vigorously discouraged his players employing the “hoof” earlier in the season.

Despite their lowly league position Latics have looked a decent team in those past four games. The quality of their football has shown a big improvement and retaining possession more effectively has meant that legs have not become leaden in the closing minutes. Sadly the performances did not produce a win, although neither did they lose. Significantly three of those draws were at the DW so Latics now have consecutive away games at Nottingham and Birmingham coming up. Given their woeful away record there are few Wigan fans who would predict a win for their team in either of those games. But then again, the performance at Blackburn showed that Latics can perform away from home without giving away freebies to the opposition in the closing minutes.

The unlikely partnership of Cedric Kipre and Kal Naismith in the centre of defence has been a revelation. Both have resisted the hoof, showing their capabilities of building up moves from the back. Moreover they have blended together to form a solid defensive partnership. Too often defenders have put the ball out of play at the merest sniff of danger, inviting more pressure from opposition throw-ins. Moreover unnecessary free kicks have been so often been conceded, turning up that pressure even more. Defensive discipline on a par with that of other Championship clubs is required, rather than the scrapping, falsely “safety first” mentality we have seen that is more akin to lower league football.

Chey Dunkley has been a notable performer for Latics since his arrival from Oxford United in the summer of 2017. He was pivotal in the League 1 title winning team and without the five goals he has scored this season his team would be in much more parlous position. But Dunkley remains a work in progress. His distribution leaves much to be desired. Building moves up from the back is not his forte. It is something the coaches can surely help him with.

Latics have conceded three goals from their last four games, with one clean sheet. But more than anything else it has been a lack of cutting edge in attack that has led to draws rather than victories. Cook has bravely stuck to a more mobile, but less physical strike-force. With Josh Windass at centre forward, rather than orthodox target men Joe Garner and Kieffer Moore, there has been much less of aimless long ball.  Long passes have been more measured, looking to capitalize on the pace of the likes of Windass, Jamal Lowe and Gavin Massey to run beyond the defenders.

Windass remains a frustrating player to watch, capable of moments of inspiration, but also those of lack of concentration. At his best his pace and movement is a threat to any defence, but too often he has been caught offside or his final pass has been ill-judged. Although a valid alternative at centre forward he is best employed in the number 10 position behind a target man.

Lowe has struggled to make the transition from League 1, with just one goal in 20 starts and 4 substitute appearances. Although not lacking in effort he has yet to show that he can be a force at Championship level. One wonders if the player would have progressed better through a more gradual introduction to second tier English football, being brought off the bench in earlier games, giving him the time to adjust to the higher level he was being introduced to? Cook continues to play Lowe at number 10, but surely has better options for that position. Windass and Joe Gelhardt are two of those. Cook also has the option of playing a midfield trio of Evans-Morsy-Williams. Replacing Nick Powell was always going to be difficult, but at this stage Lowe does not look the answer.

Having missed the pre-season through injury Massey has looked a shadow of his former self this season. Rather being heavily involved in build-up play along the right as before he has been largely anonymous. Cook has received a lot of criticism from the fans over his loyalty to Massey and Michael Jacobs who were key wide men in the League 1 title-winning team. Despite their lack of form they have made a total of 37 appearances this season. However, Jacobs had his best game for some time yesterday.

Despite the recent improved performances Paul Cook’s position at the club remains precarious. Royle and the owners have an important decision to make with the transfer window opening on Wednesday coming. Are they willing to back the manager in another transfer market with the club in bottom position despite spending  8m over summer?

Many question Cook’s summer spending, with Jamal Lowe and Kieffer Moore not yet having shown that they have adjusted to a higher level of football. However, in Moore’s case they will point to his fine performances for Wales, which show he can perform at a higher level surrounded by players of the quality of Gareth Bale and Daniel James. For Wigan his main function has been in chasing speculative long balls, some 35 yards from the opposition goal, with his back facing towards it. When the big man is fit again Cook will face the dilemma of whether to start him, with the likelihood that his defenders will once again the easy way out by launching those awful long-balls. So many fans will advocate getting the big man into the box to latch on to crosses from the wings.

Cook also signed Antonee Robinson and Joe Williams over the summer. Robinson continues to improve in his defensive role, although he can be woefully lacking in vision and composure when making his final pass in attack. But Robinson is still only 22 and surely has a bright future ahead. Williams has certainly impressed with his dynamic approach and range of tackling and passing skills. Another very good signing at only 23 years of age.

If Cook is to continue one can only hope that he will persist with the recent style of play we have seen. It has been a breath of fresh air after so many hours of tedious, poor football, particularly away from home. It is very much a matter of sticking with the blend we have seen in the past four games. Incorporating players like Dunkley and Moore into the blend will be tricky, for different reasons. What has been missing from the recent blend has been incisive finishing. Playing in-form players in their natural positions is crucial.

Can Latics stay up if Cook continues?

It is by no means impossible.

Five things Wigan Athletic need to do to get better results

With 15 points from 15 games Wigan Athletic are perilously close to the relegation zone. They have scored a paltry 13 goals, with only Middlesbrough having scored less. The midfield lacks creativity, the defence regularly gives away “soft” goals and the forwards are not taking their chances.

The club are looking at consolidation in the Championship this season, but at this stage it could be another struggle to avoid descent to League 1. IEC supported Paul Cook in the summer transfer market by investing over £8m in new players. However, the club’s wage structure does not allow them to compete with the bigger clubs in the division. Latics have to look at players from lower divisions or those who have not managed to force their way into the first team at Premier League clubs.

Of the team that started the last game against Swansea only goalkeeper David Marshall has played Premier League football. That puts them at a disadvantage against most of the teams they are going to face.

Put simply Latics need to punch above their weight to even survive in the division. To do so needs the manager and his coaching staff to get the best out of the players they have, employing a tactical framework that allows them to develop and improve. Facing stronger opposition on a regular basis means that Latics must get their tactics right and not be outthought by opposition managers.

Here are some things that they will need to do if they are to lift themselves out of the relegation dogfight:

Use the central striker more effectively

Signing a 6ft 5in centre forward from League 1 was always going to be a gamble. Kieffer Moore got his first goal from a penalty last weekend after 12 matches without scoring. He has had a torrid time.

Whether Moore can establish himself as a striker in the second tier remains to be seen. Although totally committed to the cause and able to upset opposition defenders through his physicality he has looked short of the skills needed to be successful at this level.

Cook has maintained faith in the big man to the extent that Joe Garner has been largely consigned to the bench. Now Garner is by no means a star at Championship level, but he is an experienced player who can score goals and show moments of invention.

Much of Moore’s job has been to receive long balls from defence, making flick-ons or holding the ball up for teammates coming forward. Although crosses have rained in from the wings into the penalty box he has rarely threatened on goal.

Up to this point Latics’ leading scorer is central defender Chey Dunkley with five goals. No one else has scored more than one. With Joe Garner not having scored a goal this season it means that the total number of goals from the centre forwards is one from 15 matches, indicating some things need to change.

Having a big centre forward spending much of his time fending off defenders for long balls, some thirty yards from goal, facing backwards is hardly an effective ploy. If Moore or Garner is to score goals the style of play needs to change into something more modern and more akin to that played by most of the other clubs at Championship level. Swansea showed at the weekend that you can cause defences problems playing without a big target man, but with other forwards supporting the central striker, something that Wigan are not particularly good at doing.

Something clearly must change if the central strikers are to be successful. A more mobile, pacey player like Josh Windass could be used in that position, although that would necessitate Cook instructing his defenders to stop launching long balls through to the centre forward.

Hire a defensive coach

Swansea’s two goals were indicative of the looseness in defence that has lost Latics so many points this season. In each case the two Swansea attackers in goalscoring positions were outnumbered by Wigan defenders but one was left unmarked to put the ball in the net.

It is a problem that plagued Latics throughout last season also, but the current coaching staff have apparently been unable to correct it. Hiring a defensive coach could well prove to be good investment.

Employ the most suitable players in their best positions

In these days of inverted wingers Cook could consider himself justified in playing either Gavin Massey or Jamal Lowe on the left. Both are naturally right footed. Lowe has struggled to hit top form although his performances have improved over recent games when he has been played on the right wing. For Lowe to play on the right Cook moved Massey to the left, where he has struggled. The manager’s determination to include both Lowe and Massey in the same team has meant that Michael Jacobs, Kal Naismith and Anthony Pilkington have been left out of the starting line-up.

For the away game at Derby Cook employed a 4-3-3 formation with a central midfield trio. It helped Latics to get more midfield control in that game and the next at Bristol City. He used it again in the Swansea game, with Lewis Macleod in front of the back four and Sam Morsy and Joe Williams pushed further forward.

Adopting such a 4-3-3 formation is a valid tactic for obtaining more midfield control. But it cuts out the number 10 position. Morsy has scored 16 goals in his professional career in 310 appearances, Williams has scored one in 74. Although Morsy and Williams cannot be accused of lacking creativity their potential for scoring goals is much less than someone who can play that number 10 position. It means that if Cook opts for 4-3-3 there is more onus on the wingers to support the central striker and score goals.

The departure of Nick Powell over the summer was a hammer blow for Cook. Powell was the main creative force and scored 8 goals last season. In Powell’s absence the manager has tried a variety of players in the number 10 position to mixed effect. The most suited to that role are Joe Gelhardt and Josh Windass. But despite saying how Gelhardt is good enough for the first team the manager has only given him 93 minutes of playing time in the 15 league games played. Is it loyalty to the senior pros that is the issue?

After coming on as a substitute midway through the second half against Swansea Gelhardt’s nimble footwork and accurate passing saw him set up Moore for an opportunity that the big centre forward was unable to take. But the footwork and passing was reminiscent of Powell. It is the kind of thing that has been so lacking in Wigan’s play this season.

Windass appears to be the latest player who has fallen foul of the manager. Although not as creative as Powell, Windass has the ability to unsettle a defence and score goals.

Cook has the players to provide balanced line-ups, with players being employed in their best positions. This means Lowe or Massey alternating on the right wing, Naismith and Jacobs on the left, with Pilkington looking comfortable on either flank. If the manager opts for 4-2-3-1 he has Evans, Macleod, Morsy and Williams to compete for positions in central midfield, with Gelhardt and Windass available for the number 10 position.

Rotate the squad regularly, especially when fixtures are coming in thick and fast

The Championship is one of the most physically demanding leagues in the world, with 46 games to be played, plus cup competitions. Moreover, the international breaks cause fixtures to be further intensified.

During his time at Wigan Uwe Rosler acquired the nickname “Tinkerman” through his constant rotation of the squad. Nevertheless, it worked well in his first season where he lifted Latics up from a lower mid-table position to the play-offs and took Arsenal to penalties in the FA Cup semi-final. Rotating his squad helped keep players fresh and meant that most were getting game-time. Rosler came unstuck through his signings over the summer that followed. Despite having a good squad, he signed a lot of new players, swelling the numbers. Some of his signings were questionable, others just did not get the time to settle and have proved themselves at other clubs since leaving Wigan.

Cook can hardly be called by the same nickname. Barring injuries and abnormally poor performances he goes close to picking the same line-up on a constant basis.  Of the current squad nine players have started in at least 11 of the 15 league games. Four of those were signed over the summer. The critics say that Cook has his favourites and will adjust his line-ups to accommodate them. However, there are advantages in having a backbone of players who know each other’s games and gel together. Only David Marshall and Antonee Robinson have started in all 15 games, the injury to Tom Pearce meaning that there has been no replacement to give Robinson a rest.

Given the physical demands on players, especially during times of fixture congestion, it is advisable to rotate players competing for the same position.

Will Latics stay up?

Wigan Athletic were a match for the high-flying Swansea and their efforts certainly deserved at least a point. At the DW Stadium they have had good results against teams who were near the top of the division when they played them. Cook has a well-balanced squad, with competition in every position, capable of riding through the constant injury problems that clubs face in this competitive division.

It is the away performances that continue to be of concern. Although the manager has said that they approach away games in a similar way to home games, a plethora of aimless long balls has been what we have so often witnessed away from home. There were certainly improvements in performances, if not results, at Derby and Bristol City, with more of an emphasis on building up moves from the back. Playing Lewis Macleod just in front of the back four has meant that defenders have an outlet, someone capable of receiving the ball under pressure, lessening the launching of hopeful long balls.

Cook’s teams are never going to play the kind of football we saw from Swansea which was initiated there in the reign of Roberto Martinez some 15 years ago. But at their best we know that Latics can play a passing game that can trouble any defence in this division. However, that necessitates the manager stamping a more positive style on his team’s play, both at the DW and on the road. He and his coaches must insist that the hopeful long ball is the final option, not the first. Throwing away possession has been the downfall of Cook’s Latics since their return to the Championship division.

Latics certainly have a good enough squad to stay in the division or reach a mid-table position. The question is whether the manager can stamp an indelible football philosophy on his players and can get the best out of the squad that he has.

 

 

 

 

 

A revitalised midfield for Latics

A competitive midfield trio of Macleod, Morsy and Williams can move Latics ahead.

On paper, one point from two consecutive away games is hardly impressive, but performances and results don’t always correlate. The quality of football we saw last week at Derby and Bristol City was light years ahead of the aimless long-ball approach we have so often witnessed in away days over the past twelve months.

“I’m really positive about the performances we’ve put in this week. We’ve arrived at Derby County and Bristol City and been positive, we’re not setting up to be negative, which is one of the things I said to supporters at the fans’ forum.”

Paul Cook’s comments after the Bristol game made interesting reading. Debates over his statements made in the fans’ forum will continue, but the bottom line is that Latics really were positive at Derby and Bristol, pushing men forward, pressing the home side defences. It was so refreshing to see after month after month of tactically inept away performances.

The signings of Lewis Macleod and Joe Williams over the summer were hardly greeted with universal acclaim by Wigan Athletic fans. Although highly rated as a young player at Rangers, Macleod’s career had been in the doldrums after making just 43 appearances over a four year stay at Brentford. Williams had spent the previous two seasons on loan at Barnsley and Bolton, before Everton sold him to Wigan. His reputation was of a hard-tackling midfielder who could do a job at Wigan.

In the excellent home win over Nottingham Forest Cook  brought in Macleod for the suspended Sam Morsy. The Scot had started in the first two games of the season, Morsy again being suspended, but it had taken six weeks before he appeared again. Macleod had a fine game against Forest, linking up well with Williams.

The underlying reasons for Latics’ woeful away form over the past year have been up for debate for so long. The manager himself has been at a loss to explain it, suggesting that he has employed the same tactics on the road as at home. But the overall impression has been of a lack of creativity, posing little threat on the opponents’ goal and a porous defence capable of giving away “soft” goals, especially in the closing minutes. A common theme has been the inability of the midfield to provide adequate protection for the defence and not providing the link between defence and attack, resulting in defenders launching long balls.

At Bristol Macleod was particularly effective in sitting in front of the back four, available to receive the ball and make accurate passes to teammates. Morsy and Williams played on either side of him, forming a combative, but creative, trio.

Williams has been a revelation, not only strong in his defensive work but showing flair and vision in his play. Still only 22-years old he looks a complete central midfielder. Macleod is now 25 and after so many injury-plagued seasons he is looking fit and sharp, as evidenced by the fact that he has played the full 90-plus in each of the last three games.

Despite conceding late goals at Derby and Bristol the defence has also shown improvement over recent weeks. With an improved defence and a more functional midfield Latics will surely compete better away from the DW Stadium. However, it will need more sharpness and poise from the forwards for them to become truly competitive on the road.

27 passes towards improvement

There are Wigan Athletic fans who were never fans of Roberto Martinez, despite his massive impact on the club’s history. The tiki-taka drove them crazy and they craved a return to the more direct football of the Paul Jewell era.

Martinez’ teams did their best to keep possession, facing opposition which was so often superior in technical ability. Playing against superior opponents means that your players must do a huge amount of running. So often the elite teams in English football will get crucial goals in the closing stages, when the underdogs’ legs are heavy. For Martinez possession was key to maintaining his team’s collective energy to keep a game under control. It could be frustrating to watch, the ball often being passed sideways and backwards, but Martinez always had a plan and a belief in his players that helped his team punch above its weight.

Paul Cook had a plan when he took over to get the club out of League 1. He was a very successful lower league manager with a reputation as a good motivator, whose teams tried to play good football. He brought in his 4-2-3-1 formation, which worked a treat in the third tier. The football was so often good to watch, and his team not only won the League 1 title but had a brilliant FA Cup run.

Cook also looked good in the opening games of last season. Latics were perhaps defensively naive, but they played entertaining football. Over the next six months the standard of football fell, particularly away from home when it was simply awful at times. We had seen Cook’s plan B on occasions in League 1: lumping the ball forward, looking for headers and deflections. It practically became the norm away from home for most of last season.

Following more dire away performances this season, the hoof too prevalent, the performance at Hull last week was a welcome surprise. The players were not on top form, but there seemed to at least be a philosophy developing on how to approach the game. There was less of the hoof and more effort made to retain possession and build up moves from the back.

If someone had told me before the game that Joe Gelhardt’s equaliser came after Wigan had made 27 consecutive passes, I would not have believed it.

It was not like watching Barcelona in their pomp, but what a welcome change from the mindless lumping the ball forward that had become the norm in Latics’ play away from home. What did Cook (or his coaches) say to the players about eschewing the hoof and trying to play constructive football? Whatever it was it brought a change in their mindset.

The hoof was anathema to Martinez. He was never going to accept that unless it was under severe circumstances. Cook had allowed his players to negate their responsibilities for too long, giving them too much leeway in their use of the ball. It had got to the point where some fans were labelling him a long-ball manager.

We knew Cook (and his coaches) were excellent in the third and fourth tiers of English football and that last season was a tough one in what has been so often quoted by them as “an unforgiving league”.  The Championship is certainly a division that is a gulf apart from that of League 1. But what had been worrying for us is that the manager and his coaches had not seemingly learned from their mistakes.

One swallow doth not a summer make. However, those 27 passes stick in the mind, no matter how mediocre the game was.

Have Cook and his aides have turned the corner and insisted that a “hoofball” approach is not only unacceptable for paying spectators, but not a valid tactic in a more sophisticated level of football?

The 27 passes suggest that Cook and Latics are turning the corner.

One can only hope this is the case.

 

 

A blend of pace, youth and experience

Watching Wigan Athletic over the years there have been so many memorable moments. David Unsworth’s penalty at Bramall Lane, Hugo Rodallega’s header at Stoke, Amr Zaki’s blockbuster at Liverpool; not forgetting Ben Watson’s fateful finish at Wembley. We all have our favourites: those that will stick in our minds for years to come.

Most of the ones I remember are associated with key moments in big games for Latics: those that influenced promotion or relegation, winning the FA Cup. I do not recall many from pre-season friendlies.

The encounter on Saturday had the look of a pre-season drubbing. Two goals down after just 11 minutes to a Burnley side that looked like they could go on and win by an emphatic margin. But Latics came back, thanks to moments of inspiration from a couple of young players.

Josh Windass is still only 25 and has not yet reached his peak. Some 20 minutes after Burnley had scored their second Windass produced a touch of class, superbly eluding his marker on the by-line to cut the ball back for Anthony Pilkington to score. Minutes later he shot from just inside the Burnley half, almost catching the goalkeeper out of position.  Windass has showed moments of genuine class before but has not been able to add consistency to his game, tending to drift in and out of things.

Joe Gelhardt is 17. He plays with the air of someone who is not afraid to express himself on the football field. He has a great left foot, pace and vision. Burnley are a big, physical team with robust defenders, but Gelhardt was not intimidated. His goal from Antonee Robinson’s cutback was scored with aplomb.

It is no surprise to hear that other Championship clubs are interested in acquiring a player of Windass’ potential.  He still has time to iron out the flaws in his game and become a coveted player. He has a pace and directness that can trouble opposing defences.

Paul Cook has already intimated that Gelhardt and his fellow 17-year-old Jason Weir could have a role to play in the senior side this season. Were this to become the case it would be a revelation after so many young homegrown players have been denied opportunities in the past by cautious managers fearful of throwing them in at the deep end. So often they have featured in pre-season but have had to take a back seat to young loan players from big clubs who have been brought in.

So many have been sent off on loan to clubs in lower divisions, including non-league. Few have come back and been able to establish themselves as senior squad members. Callum Lang is back at Wigan after two seasons at Morecambe and Oldham. He is still only 20 and has 72 appearances under his belt in the EFL, notching 23 goals. Will Lang be given the chance to prove he can deliver in the Championship, as he did in League 2?

Performances in pre-season games can so often be poor predictors for what is going to follow over the course of the season, when new players will come in and some will leave. But draws with Everton and Burnley will no doubt boost confidence within the camp.

There been much talk in the social media and message boards about Wigan Athletic’s inability to sign players to bolster their squad. Bids of £3-4m were made for centre forwards from Premier League clubs, Sam Gallagher and Jordan Hugill. Neither bid succeeded, but it could be seen as a statement from Darren Royle and IEC that they are willing to seriously invest in the transfer market. Gallagher and Hugill have mediocre career strike records so we can assume that Cook is, above all, looking for a target man, with the weight of goalscoring placed primarily on midfielders.

That Nixon mentions possible interest in Nmecha is therefore no surprise. The big German scored 4 goals in 38 appearances for Preston last season, either at centre forward or on the wing.

But Cook already has five players in his squad who were used as wide players last season: Michael Jacobs, Gavin Massey, Kal Naismith, Anthony Pilkington and Gary Roberts. Interest in Nmecha would most likely be as a target man. But why is the manager offering some £2.6m to bring in Jamal Lowe from Portsmouth, who is a right winger? Is someone on their way out? Or is the manager intending to use some of them in other positions, such as #10?

Up to this point Latics have signed three players: David Marshall (goalkeeper), Antonee Robinson (left back) and Lewis Macleod (centre midfield). Lowe and Joe Williams appear to be available at the right price, although there will be competition from other clubs. Reports suggest that Latics continue to be interested in signing the 19-year-old Chelsea right back Dujon Sterling on loan. Leonardo da Silva Lopes was the starter in that position on Saturday, after being used as a winger against Everton.

Recruitment for most Championship clubs will surely go down to the wire, as it has in previous years. As things currently stand Latics have the experience from the likes of Danny Fox, David Marshall and Gary Roberts to counterbalance the youth of such as Joe Gelhardt and Jensen Weir. With Michael Jacobs, Gavin Massey, Leo Da Silva Lopes, Josh Windass they have pace further forward.

But we can expect more movement over the coming nine days. That will most likely include players leaving to raise funds to offset the transfer fees to be paid out. How long will those moments of inspiration from Gelhardt and Windass stick in the memory? Football clubs are places of constant turnover and who knows what will happen next?