Wigan Athletic: signing the “right type” of player as Nyambe and Broadhead arrive

“The team’s style of play is quite unique so I’m looking forward to that”

What was Ryan Nyambe really saying when he made that comment after signing a one-year contract for Wigan Athletic?

Wigan Athletic’s recruitment over this summer has contrasted so much with that of a year ago. At the beginning of last summer, the squad had been threadbare and so many new players had to be brought in. Most of them are still with the club and form the backbone of a squad charged with the task of consolidation in the Championship. Perhaps the most outstanding signing was a 24-year-old Jack Whatmough, with 136 appearances under his belt on a free from Portsmouth. Whatmough went on to be voted Player of the Year.

Recruitment this summer has been a slow process, much to the frustration of the fans.  But after weeks of waiting fans were positive about the first new senior squad acquisition over the summer. It was reminiscent of the signing of Whatmough: a young player with lots of prior experience, a free agent. Nyambe is only 24 years old but already has 150 Championship appearances under his belt, together with 29 in League 1. 

But there are questions over Nyambe’s signing. Why was he signed on a one-year deal? Moreover, reports from Blackburn fans suggest that the player excels in a defensive role but is not so proficient on the attacking side. Given Leam Richardson’s expectation for full backs to push forward is Nyambe the right kind of player to bring in?

However, although Nyambe’s preferred position is right back he has also played in the centre of defence and at left back.

Today the club announced the signing 24-year-old Nathan Broadhead on loan from Everton.

The 5ft 10 in tall Welshman played off target man centre forward Ross Stewart  when on loan at Sunderland last season, scoring 10 goals in 15 League 1 starts and 10 appearances off the bench. He had a previous loan spell with Burton Albion in 2019-20 making 10 league starts and 2 appearances as a substitute, scoring 2 goals. Although his specialist position is as a striker he can play in wide positions. But how will Broadhead primarily be used in Wigan’s system?

Nyambe and Broadhead are welcome additions. But with the squad still in need of reinforcement fans are hoping that more new players will be coming in sooner rather than later, having seen what has happened in the past.

In their last season in the Championship, 2019-20, they signed multiple players around the start of the season, with more arriving later during August. Prior to the first game against Cardiff City on August 3 they had picked up four new players in July with Jamal Lowe and Dujon Sterling signing on August 1. Kieffer Moore signed on August 5, Tom Pearce on August 8 and Charlie Mulgrew a day later. The starting line up in the last game of August against Barnsley included five players who had not played against Cardiff.

Paul Cook’s team got off to a poor start in 2019-20 winning just one and drawing two of their first seven league games. With so many changes in playing staff it was going to take the team a long time to gel.

However, it is an entirely different situation this time around. The massive recruitment drive of last summer was aimed at not only putting together a squad good enough to get the club out of League 1, but to provide a nucleus that would serve in the Championship. A handful of new signings, several of whom will be loanees, are expected to come in to complement a settled squad.

Leam Richardson’s team has made by no means a bad start to the season. A cautious 0-0 draw at home to Preston was followed by a courageous performance in drawing 1-1 at title favourites Norwich. As expected, Richardson stuck with his trusted senior pros and his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, building on the momentum of last season’s successes.

 James McClean summed it up in a post-match interview “We have a mindset in that dressing room where we know what quality we have and we are not going into every game to survive or settle for a draw. We are going out to win every game because we know the quality we have. The lads will fight to the death for each other and that shows, we have a positive mindset every time we step onto the pitch.”

Keeping up that morale among the squad is crucial to Latics’ consolidation as a Championship club. That high morale is surely down to Richardson and his staff. Last season it was maintained throughout despite the manager’s loyalty to certain players at the expense of others. Many managers will regularly rotate the starting line-ups, not hesitating to make substitutions if things are not going to plan. It is quite the opposite with Richardson, but perhaps through personal charisma, he has managed to minimise any disgruntlement of players regularly left out of the starting eleven.

Bringing in “the right kind” of new players will be key to Wigan’s fortunes this season. It is not only the attitudes of incoming players and the way they react to the status quo, but it is also how they will fit into what Nyambe referred to as a “unique style of play”. The current team is physically strong and resilient. It typically involves playing with a big target man up front, with the full backs pushing well forward. At its best it produces results. At its worst it can revert to a route one approach.

The physicality of Richardson’s team served them well in League 1 but needs moderation in a higher division. Even in League 1 there were teams whose players went to ground easily against Wigan’s muscular approach. This is likely to happen much more in a division sandwiched between the combative League 1 and the Premier League where skilful players are protected from over-physical challenges by strict – some would say overstrict – refereeing.

Last season Richardson varied his formation, switching between 4-2-3-1 and what can loosely be described as 3-4-3. The latter formation not only helped provide tactical variation but allowed some players flexibility in their roles. In 3-4-3 Callum Lang was not so confined to the right wing, but able to move into the space around the central striker. It might well prove to be his best role. It can also be adapted to playing twin strikers: Josh Magennis and Stephen Humphries were employed during Lang’s absence through injury. Has Broadhead has been signed largely to play in that front three? Will he be played in a wide position in 4-2-3-1?

The injury to Jack Whatmough in the Preston game gave Jason Kerr the chance to play his first league game as a centre half in a back four. He was outstanding at Norwich, arguably Latics’ Man of the Match. In his previous games he had been used only on the right-hand side of a back three, a position he had excelled in at St Johnstone.

Richardson prefers a left footer in the left of central defence. Despite having no prior experience in the second tier and now 31 years old, Curtis Tilt has performed well in the first two games in that position. Tilt’s positional sense, physicality and heading ability could play an important part. It was rumoured that Latics wanted Kell Watts back on loan to compete for that left central position, but injury has put paid to that possibility. Should no additions be made to the squad Richardson will have to employ a right footer, perhaps Kerr or Nyambe, in that position.

Bristol City visit the DW Stadium on Saturday on the back of defeats to Hull City and Sunderland. In the financial year ending 2021 they made a loss of £38.4m. To avoid falling foul of the EFL’s Profit and Sustainability rules they have been trimming their budget, releasing high earners and seeking transfer revenue. Their owner, Steve Lansdown, is seeking outside investment for the club, having put a huge amount of money into it over two decades. In June he once again wrote off £15m of club debt by converting it into shares. Over the previous two years he had written off a sum of £81m in the same manner. The club remains £79m in debt. City are not the only Championship club that has massively overspent to get into the Premier League. It has been such a common occurrence.

The weekend encounter will most likely involve ex-Latics favourites Kal Naismith and Joe Williams. One wonders if Richardson will accommodate a returning Jack Whatmough and show faith in Jason Kerr by switching to a back three. It will be a fascinating encounter between two clubs in very differing situations. Perhaps Latics will have more new signings announced by then?

Wigan Athletic: a quiet and measured approach to surviving in the Championship

Mal Brannigan: “I think we’ll be quiet, I think we’ll be measured…and I think it comes back to making sure this football club is a Championship club this time next year…”

The fans have been getting anxious. The Daily Mail’s sensationalist headline about the club being late in paying their staff twice in recent weeks certainly caused ripples, even if many put it down to a journalist with a gripe. There was anxiety too about the announcement of the new kit, but the club came out of it well, not only by displaying an attractive new uniform, but gathering praise for the appearance of the Big Help Project on the front of the shirts.  

But the biggest issue: no new signings announcements for the senior squad with the season starting in just over two weeks’ time. When will it happen? Will Latics be able to afford to bring in the quality players who can make a difference in the Championship? Some fans ask why there has been so little recent communication about the matter.

However, Mal Brannigan’s comment was consistent with the approach he has taken since being recruited as CEO in April 2021. Many fans had clamoured for the much-loved Jonathan Jackson to continue in that position, but the new ownership opted for a new face in that position.

Together with chairman Talal Al Hammad, Brannigan has done a wonderful job in lifting the spirits of Wigan Athletic supporters whilst keeping a firm hand on the reins. The League 1 title was won with a minimal amount spent on transfer fees, with real eye towards recruitment bargains.

In the current economic climate EFL clubs are primarily looking at the free agent market. However, although making a very significant saving in transfer costs Latics’ signing of players on free transfers has come at a price. Last summer they were able to make top acquisitions for League 1 by being competitive in the market. However, to attract such players, it was necessary to offer better terms than competitors. It is not only a higher salary that will be attractive to a player: the length of the contract can so often be key in the negotiations, especially for players in the later stages of their careers.

Of the current squad Latics have nine players aged 30 or over. Ben Amos, Joe Bennett, Tendayi Darikwa, Jamie Jones, James McClean and Curtis Tilt have one more year remaining on their contract. The contracts of Josh Magennis, Tom Naylor and Graeme Shinnie expire in 2024.

Four players from last seasons squad have now left. Gavin Massey departed at the end of his contract and loan players Tom Bayliss. Glen Rea and Kell Watts have returned to their former clubs.

Every summer the social media is awash with fan debates about how many new players need to be added to a squad and in what positions. There are those who are currently saying that this current squad needs a major overhaul if it is to be able to compete in the Championship. Others will say that players were recruited not only to get Latics out of League 1, but to provide the spine of a squad that can consolidate in the second tier.

Around half of the current squad have considerable experience in the Championship or the Premier League with at least 40 appearances in the past. Others have been top performers in Leagues 1 or 2 or the SPL.

Given the fact that Latics have so many players already contracted it is unlikely that we will see a big influx of new players. Last summer was certainly the exception, with the squad having been threadbare at the end of the 2019-20 season. There has been so much flux in playing staff over recent years and current management might see a need for more stability. Comments from the manager, chief executive and chairman suggest that they have confidence in the squad, with the possibility of bringing maybe half a dozen new faces.

The new faces are likely to include players with ample experience in the higher tiers of English football, almost certainly on free transfers. Young loan players from Premier League clubs have been used to effect by Championship clubs in recent years. Although it is unlikely Latics will secure a player with the impact of Reece James in 2018-19 the loan players could play a crucial role. But what of planning for the future, given a squad that is not the youngest?

Ideally the club will make progress in developing young players that will serve them for years ahead, as opposed to those brought in on a loan from other clubs.

The youngest players appearing in last season’s League 1 team were Thelo Aasgaard, (now 20), Adam Long (21) and Luke Robinson (21), all graduates of the Latics Academy. Long and Robinson started in one game apiece, Aasgaard starting in five.

Of the players in their early to mid-twenties Callum Lang (24) and Jack Whatmough (25) were regular starters. Jason Kerr (25) started only when Latics played with a back three. Stephen Humphrys (24) started in 12 games and Tom Pearce (23) in 16 games.

Leam Richardson’s success in the past two seasons has been built upon a physical style of play and a reliance on his more experienced players. In 2020-21 the club was initially forced to bring in its young players, following the decimation of the squad due to administration. However, in the January window the manager was able to bring in more experience, which went a long way to avoiding relegation. Last season with the loss of Charlie Wyke he brought in the experienced Josh Magennis (31) in January who leapfrogged ahead of Stephen Humphrys in the packing order.

We can expect incomings and outgoings in the senior squad over the next couple of weeks. It appears that Jordan Jones is close to leaving, rumour suggesting that he will go back to Scotland for another loan spell. A permanent transfer is less likely because of the inability of most SPL teams to meet the kind of salary the player will be on. Latics signed Jones from Rangers last summer for a fee reputed to be around £500,000. He still has two years to run on his contract and Latics will try to mitigate costs by the other club paying a fraction of his salary. The manager has made it clear that Jones is not in his plans. One wonders what might have happened if the club had not made a late signing of James McClean, after Jones and Gwion Edwards had joined Callum Lang and Gavin Massey to compete for the two wide forward positions. Jones can count himself unlucky in not receiving the kind of backing from the manager that the likes of Edwards and Massey received.

There has been lots of hype from the Scottish media about the possible returns up north for Jamie McGrath and Graeme Shinnie. Both were signed for bargain prices in the January transfer window and looked good additions to the squad. But McGrath was only given one start in League 1, Shinnie just six. Speculation has abounded on the social media about why the pair were not given more opportunities. As the season was nearing its close some fans were suggesting that they were signed with a view to the coming season. Others retorted that the two did not fit into the long-ball approach of the manager, the ball passing over their heads so much of the time.

It has been good to see McGrath played at right wing back in pre-season, where his pace, control and passing vision has been impressive. It remains to be seen if the manager will continue to utilise him in that role or release him to go back to Scotland.

The ultimate composition of the squad will give us a strong indication of the type of football Richardson plans to play this season. Will flair players of the likes of McGrath and Aasgaard be given the opportunities they have been denied in the past?

The pre-season schedule is less than impressive, the only whiff of real opposition being in the final game against League 1 Sheffield Wednesday. Only time will tell if it can provide a fit and raring to go Latics for that tough opening match against the old adversary, Preston.

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.