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.

 

 

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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?

 

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.