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?

 

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In need of a transfer policy

In: David Marshall (Hull City, free)

Out: Devante Cole (Motherwell, loan), Shaun MacDonald (Rotherham, free), Callum McManaman (Luton, free), Nick Powell (Stoke City, free), Jamie Walker (Hearts, free)

The deadline for Championship clubs for all incoming permanent and loan registrations is due to close at 5pm on Thursday August 8, 2019. It leaves Wigan Athletic just under four weeks to complete their recruitment for the first half of the season. It appears that enough time remains, but nevertheless the fans are getting nervous. Five players out and just one man in up to this point. What is happening?

The concerns of fans are reflected in the social media and message boards. They see that other clubs in the division are streets ahead of Latics in their recruitment at this stage. The Bristol Post yesterday published a list of comings and goings among Championship clubs. It makes interesting reading. Latics rank among the highest in players leaving, among the lowest in players coming in.

At this time last year Latics had signed Leo Da Silva Lopes and Kal Naismith on permanent contracts and Reece James and Christian Walton on loan. Why is it taking longer this year? Some fans say that players will not be keen on joining a club that could once again be battling against relegation. Others say that Latics simply cannot or will not compete with other Championship clubs who are splashing money around like water. Reports suggest that Wigan were prepared to offer the 34-year-old free agent Alan Hutton a two-year contract but were unable to agree terms with him.

The fee Southampton want for Gallagher is rumoured to be around £5m. It was a surprise to many of us that Wigan Athletic were actively pursuing a player from a Premier League club, given inflated transfer fees and salaries in that division. The interest in Portsmouth’s Jamal Lowe was more predictable, although the £3m tag put on him by the south coast club seems excessive for a League 1 player who has never played above that level. The summer transfer activity will surely provide a litmus test for the IEC’s willingness to invest in player recruitment.

Chairman Darren Royle is hardly a David Sharpe in terms of communicating with the fans. But he is certainly addressing issues within the club. The DW Stadium needs an overhaul, the club needs to bring in more commercial revenue, the Academy needs upgrading to at least a category 2 level.  Royle may be less comfortable with the media than his predecessor but is tidying up things that had been left on hold.

IEC made it clear on buying the club that they were willing to invest but would do so judiciously. Investing in infrastructure is already underway. It is the club’s recruitment policy that is unknown. During Paul Cook’s reign the players coming in have typically come from the British Isles. The club’s homegrown players have been largely ignored with young loan players from big clubs brought in. The manager typically brings in veteran players who he believes will add to the dressing room climate and positively influence the younger players. Last season Cook splashed money on signing Josh Windass (around £1.8m), Cedric Kipre (around £1m), Leo Da Silva Lopes (around £800,000). Windass and Kipre impressed at times, but generally struggled to adjust to second tier English football. Da Silva Lopes was sent out on loan to Gillingham. Windass is now 25 years old, Kipre is 22 and Da Silva Lopes is 20.

Royle and the IEC are keen to develop the academy as a potential source of first team players. Latics have some fine prospects on their hands at the moment and it is to be hoped that the likes of Joe Gelhardt and Jensen Weir will not fall by the wayside as so many young players have at Wigan over the years.

 

Callum Lang is now 20 but has made 72 senior appearances in the past two seasons on loan at Morecambe and Oldham, scoring 23 goals. The loans have given him valuable experience. Now the time has come for the player to be given a chance in the Championship. Last season an under-pressure Cook was loath to bring in home grown talent.

Wigan Athletic’s recruitment policy has hardly been coherent in recent seasons. It contrasts with that of Brentford, whose data-driven approach helps them scout talent not only in the British Isles, but all over Europe. No matter that managers have come and gone they have stuck with a formula that has brought in significant funds from transfers, helping them stay solvent. They have shown that a small club can compete with the heavyweights of the Championship, finishing in the top ten in each of the past four years.

The 25 year-old Macleod is a free agent after letting his contract run down at Brentford. He has made 41 appearances for the Bees since signing from Rangers in December 2014. Macleod is a very capable player whose career has been riddled with injury problems, hamstring issues in particular. If he does sign for Latics will Cook and his medical team be able to get the best out of him and resurrect his career as they did with Nick Powell?

The next four weeks will certainly give us an indication of the recruitment policy to be supported by the new owners. Will the club continue to bring in young loan players from big clubs at the expense of home-grown talent?

Some talking points about Wigan Athletic staying in the Championship

Things were looking grim. A frustratingly predictable defeat at Hull, giving Latics an away record of LLWLLLLLLLDLLDLLLDLLLDL, with games against table-toppers Norwich and Leeds United coming up.

Even at the start of the season some of the more hardened Latics fans were saying that last game against Millwall could be crucial. They could well be right.

Spirits were low in midweek, but the gloom was lifted to some degree by a 1-1 draw with Norwich, even if Rotherham scored a late equaliser at Stoke.

Can Latics stay up? What will it depend on?

Over the past months the cushion provided through a good start to the season, coupled with poor results for teams in the relegation zone, seemed to be enough. But, despite having a solid home record, Wigan’s away performances have put them in severe danger of relegation.

There are now four games left. Latics travel to Leeds and Birmingham and have Preston and Millwall at home.

Is there light at the end of the tunnel?

Let’s take a look at some talking points.

The display against Norwich gives hope

When Paul Cook named his starting line-up to face the division leaders eyebrows were raised. Bringing back Leon Clarke and Kal Naismith hardly seemed like inspired choices, let alone leaving Nick Powell on the bench and playing Lee Evans in the number 10 position.

In the event, the manager’s choices were vindicated, all three putting in excellent performances. Latics were unlucky not to beat the Canaries with a display reminiscent of those fighting performances in the days of “Believe”.

Cook commented after the game: “In the game, we have gone against a very good Norwich side who are excellent at what they do. We’ve took the game to them, we’ve pressed them at the top end of the pitch, I thought we were unlucky not to see the game out and win but we respect the opposition, that’s for sure. While there’s a touch of disappointment around the club and when you’re playing the teams that we do, we’re happy with it. Today we picked a team that was designed to do one thing and one job, which was to press teams high up and have the energy to keep doing it and I thought the lads who I drafted in to do that, implemented it absolutely excellently.”

Wigan’s pressing was key to the display on Saturday. It prevented Norwich getting into a rhythm which could have caused serious problems for the home team’s defence. Cook had his plan and the players supported him in its delivery, something that they have not always been able to do consistently this season.

In need of the Rub of the Green

Cook has so often talked about the fine margins in football. In the era when VAR is not employed in the EFL there will be contentious refereeing decisions that go unchecked. Had VAR been employed would the results at the DW and Bet365 Stadiums have stayed the same on Saturday?

Norwich fans will say Latics were fortunate with the penalty, but the offside decision to annul Clarke’s late “goal” was tight to say the least.

The bottom line is that football is unpredictable. So much can depend on getting “the rub of the green” from refereeing decisions. As in every football season we have seen a considerable number of controversial ones. The theory is that the ones for and against average out over the course of the season, but is there any scientific basis to suggest that it is the case?

Cook gets better

The manager has hardly won the plaudits from the fans for his team selections, substitutions and tactics over the course of a difficult season. But he has impressed recently. His 3-4-2-1 innovation brought a point at promotion-challenging Bristol City and his tactics at Hull were working until they were undone by individual errors.

Cook deserves commendation for his set-up against Norwich. It took courage on his part to choose the starting eleven that did such a fine job.

Cook’s supporters will say he is a manager who has been on a steep learning curve in his first season in the second tier of English football. His detractors will say that he should have been dismissed some months ago and that he is lucky to still have his job.

Cook’s past successes have so often been with clubs with modest budgets punching above their weight. Should Latics suffer relegation and severely-reduce their budget he would as good a bet as any to get them back up. Last time they were relegated to League 1 they had a budget around four times the average in the division, taking a financial hit over the course of the season. Under the IEC it is unlikely they would have such funding.

Should Latics suffer relegation it would not be easy to get out of League 1. Money talks.

In the meantime, we have some hope that Cook has learned from experience and can guide Wigan through this difficult period. Latics’ budget this season places them in the lower levels of the Championship, so it is not a surprise that they face relegation issues.

Should Wigan Athletic avoid relegation would we look back in future years and give Paul Cook due credit? The short-term goal is consolidation, with the club improving its marketing, increasing revenues, investing in facilities to bring its Academy up to Category 2 status. For the moment any final league placing above the bottom three should be regarded as successful consolidation in the Championship division.

But whether Latics are in the Championship or League 1 next season will we see youngsters at the club given opportunities at senior level? Callum Lang is the most likely to be given a chance and will most likely be a regular in the match day squad. The EFL rule that clubs must name at least one homegrown player, a role that was largely taken on by Callum McManaman this season. We can only hope that Lang will be treated better than McManaman was.

 

 

Wigan Athletic: caretaker manager needed NOW

It’s now or never.

The performance against a weakened Blackburn side was probably the worst of the season, riddled with errors from players so short on confidence. Relegation is looming and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Paul Cook needs to be sent on “gardening leave”, allowing a caretaker manager to come in and lift the squad for the final nine games.

It would be folly to wait until after the Bolton game. There is an international break afterwards, and only four days to prepare if Cook were to step down today. BUT there is nothing to gain by keeping him on at this point. He’s toast. Whereas removing Cook, and putting a caretaker (such as Peter Reid or Joe Royle) in charge could give them a boost ahead of a MUST WIN match. This is truly a must win. Ipswich was, and Cook got that badly wrong and then gave the most disheartening press conference afterwards.

We on this site have, in the past, advocated giving Cook more time, but the situation has reached a critical point. If action is not taken the most likely outcome will be Wigan Athletic back in League 1 next season.

 

Getting the right balance in an unforgiving league

It’s an unforgiving league” is a phrase that Paul Cook has frequently used over the course of the 2018-19 EFL Championship season. It is one which Wigan Athletic fans will hope he will not be using after this week’s encounters with neighbours, Blackburn and Bolton.

Compared with League 1 the Championship is more unforgiving. Mistakes are more likely to be punished playing against teams with higher quality players and managers who are more tactically aware.

Last season Latics had a wage budget in excess of £12 m compared with a League 1 average closer to £3 m. Rival team managers would have been so often justified if they had called last season’s Wigan team “unforgiving”.  Put simply, Latics had higher quality players on higher salaries than any other team in the division bar Blackburn Rovers. Even when not playing particularly well they had a solid defence and the kinds of players in midfield and up front who could produce something special when things were not going so well.

The boot this season has been on the other foot. Wigan’s wage budget is modest for a division in which the clubs with the lower budgets typically occupy the lower parts of the table. That Latics are competing with clubs with similarly modest budgets like Bolton, Ipswich, Millwall and Rotherham to avoid relegation comes as no surprise.

But clubs can punch above their weight as Latics proved in the most emphatic way during their time in the Premier League. Despite a modest budget by Premier League standards they stayed in the division for eight years, reaching the League Cup Final and winning the FA Cup. During those eight years they recorded victories over those giant elite clubs that dominate that division.

Wigan Athletic were punching above their weight in the early stages of the current season. Although rather suspect in defence they were playing a brand of “no fear” attacking football, built upon the momentum of winning the League 1 title. Cook had continued to use the 4-2-3-1 formation that had brought success in League 1.

However, Gavin Massey’s injury at QPR at the end of August was a blow to Cook’s style of play. Moreover an injury to Michael Jacobs meant that both first choice wingers were unavailable for the next game at home to Rotherham.  Callum Connolly was drafted in on the right for Massey and Josh Windass for Jacobs. It was a dour game with Rotherham “parking the bus”. Both Nick Powell and Will Grigg were taken off after 60 minutes and a skillful passing approach gave way to a speculative long-ball scenario.

Jacobs returned in place of Connolly for the next game, a 1-0 win over Rotherham and played a part in victories over Hull and Bristol City. But an injury sustained in a 4-0 defeat at Preston in early October saw him out of action until mid-January.

In the absence of specialist wingers Massey and Jacobs for periods of months Cook could have been expected to use the speed and trickery of Callum McManaman, but his initial preference was to play such as Windass and Connolly out of position. He later employed the 34 year old Gary Roberts in wide positions. McManaman continued to be snubbed. The result was a lack of pace and cutting edge from the flanks. The manager’s problems were further exacerbated by the absence of the midfield playmaker Nick Powell through injury from the end of November to the middle of February. In the absence of Jacobs, Massey and Powell the quality of football plummeted, especially in away games with the “hoof” being far too prominent.

Cook now has the trio back at his disposal, but must be careful not to overuse them and risk injury. On Saturday at Reading the quality of football once again plummeted when Massey and Powell left the field, Wigan unable to retain possession, conceding late goals.  With Anthony Pilkington not on the bench Cook brought on Kal Naismith to replace Massey. Leon Clarke replaced Powell.

Cook’s substitutions on Saturday were ill-thought and allowed Reading back into the game. Rather than allow Reading to come forward and have speedy players ready to launch counterattacks he chose to put on a big centre forward and play a version of 4-4-2. The more obvious replacement for Powell was Josh Windass who has been used in the number 10 role before and has pace. Naismith was the obvious substitute for Massey, but rather than play him in his natural role on the left and switching Jacobs across the right the manager chose to play the Scot in a position where he looked out of his depth.

Cook will surely name the trio of Jacobs, Massey and Powell in his starting lineup at Blackburn tomorrow, providing they are fit. However, one can only hope that he can make better contingency plans for substitutions as they tire. Putting Clarke and Garner up front late in the game might be a valid tactic if Latics are behind, but it is not the way to protect a one goal lead. If Latics do get ahead against Blackburn he should either stick to a successful formula – usually 4-2-3-1 – and avoid that 4-4-2 long ball approach like the plague. An alternative on Saturday would have been to bring Cedric Kipre off the bench to play in a back three, with Nathan Byrne and Antonee Robinson moving to wing back roles. It could have provided extra defensive cover whilst bolstering the midfield.

That trio of Jacobs, Massey and Powell are crucial for Wigan’s survival in the Championship. An injury to either one would be a hammer-blow. Cook will have to be careful of not pushing them too hard given their recoveries from injury. That means that he will need to be proactive, rather than reactive, in keeping the team balanced if one or more of them is not on the pitch. Above all that hoofball approach that cedes possession to the opposition needs to be avoided.

We can only hope that the manager has learned from the mistakes he has made this season and will open his kind to more insightful approaches. Might he even consider McManaman as a possible stand-in for Jacobs or Massey?