Will Wigan Athletic’s upsurge in results continue?

Sam Morsy’s well-taken blast into the West Bromwich net has given Wigan Athletic a massive boost. Three wins in the space of a week have propelled them up the Championship table. They now stand in 19th place, two points above the relegation zone. A win against lowly Luton Town on Saturday could see them climb further out of trouble, but there are fans who question whether that will happen despite the recent upturn in performances and results.

Paul Cook must certainly take credit for the upsurge in results. The seeds of the revival were sown following an abject defeat at Kenilworth Road in early December. Following a winless November, it had looked that Latics could get an uplift by picking up three points against a bottom-placed Luton side.

But students of Cook’s Wigan were already citing mediocre results over the previous 16 months against teams in the lower rungs of the table. It was hardly a surprise to them when Luton scored two late goals to secure their win. Once again, we had seen Wigan Athletic players in an away game looking both clueless and legless in the closing minutes. There was only one team trying to play football in this game: it wasn’t Wigan. Fightball/longball once again failed under Cook’s tutelage.

Cook made seven changes for the next game against league leaders West Bromwich Albion. With Chey Dunkley suspended and Charlie Mulgrew injured Cedric Kipre was brought in with Kal Naismith reverting to the centre of defence and Josh Windass was played at centre forward. Naismith’s passing out of defence was a feature of that game, and the long ball approach hardly reared its ugly head in the absence of a combative target man upfront. Kipre  made a succedssful return to the centre of defence.  Latics had to settle for a draw largely due to a goalkeeping error, but they had been the better team throughout.

Although results remained disappointing in the rest of December the performances were much better. Passing the ball out from the back had become more normal, even if the long ball had not disappeared entirely.

Following the memorable victory at the Hawthorns on Saturday captain Sam Morsy commented:

“People will say there has been a change but all season – I know you can’t – but if you take the last five or ten minutes from some of the games, we would be right up the league. It is not a dramatic or drastic change that we have made…. It has been fine margins and we can’t look back, this isn’t drastic change, we have played well for the majority of the season, but if you don’t win games then things get looked at, the reality is that we have done well and not got the points but this week has been a great week.”

What Morsy did not mention was that the transition from longball/hoofball to a more possession-based approach. The long ball remains a feature of Cook’s football philosophy, but it is being counterbalanced by an emphasis on retaining possession. As a result, the players no longer visibly wilt in the closing minutes after constantly having to chase the opposition to regain possession which has been squandered. Moreover, the change in emphasis has given the players more opportunity to express themselves and so many of them look better as a result.

Morsy himself has looked a far better player over the past couple of months. He has not only cut out the unnecessary yellow cards that had been so prevalent but is playing a much more constructive role going forward. His surging runs from deep in midfield have helped open opposition defences and he is showing much more ambition in his passing.

Following a run of games at centre forward Josh Windass left for a loan spell at Sheffield Wednesday in January. With Windass’ departure some of us wondered if it would signal a return to a long ball with Joe Garner and Kieffer Moore on the receiving end. But it was not to be the case, with Moore looking a much better player as a result. With Latics defenders constantly looking to launch long balls in his general direction he was struggling in his first season in the Championship. But over the past couple of months he has received better service, scoring goals, holding the ball up with strength and intelligence.

Cook’s action of putting Naismith and Kipre together in the centre of defence in December was perhaps one of desperation at the time. Naismith had performed admirably in that position in the landmark 2-1 win at Leeds in April 2019, but he had hardly been considered as a centre back since then. Kipre’s performances earlier in the season had been disappointing and the promise he had shown since his arrival from Motherwell in the summer of 2018 seemed to have evaporated. However, playing together the two players really gelled: the passing out of the ball from the centre of defence became much improved and their reading of the game was as good as any we had seen from central defenders all season.

In the last five games loan signing Leon Balogun has played with Kipre in the centre of defence. Despite a patchy career record where he never found himself an automatic starter in the Bundesliga, with Fortuna Dusseldorf and Mainz, the 31-year-old has looked so impressive, with some fans even calling him the Wigan Van Dijk. Kipre has continued to blossom with his new central defensive partner and has been excellent of late.

Since that low point at Luton there has been a gradual improvement in performance, if not always in results. The centre of defence has become increasingly more solid, the midfield more involved in linking up play between defence and attack. The centre forward is getting better service and Latics are pushing more men forward into the opposition penalty box. Moreover, the “rub of the green” has been more in Wigan’s favour, after being against them for so long.

The tide really does seem to have turned and some fans are already talking about a final placing in mid-table. Others question whether the revival will continue under a manager who has struggled at this level. They accept that Cook will be at the club until summer at least, but question whether he has learned from his mistakes. The hoofball may have largely disappeared and the players are showing better game management when holding on to leads, but there are other aspects upon which they remain to be convinced.

Under Cook’s tenure as manager Latics have had poor results against clubs close to them in the standings. The League 1 title winning team of 2018-19 had a less than stellar record against promotion rivals and last season’s team performed poorly against teams near the bottom of the table. The manager’s critics will say that he has gone into such games with too much caution, allowing the opposition too much respect.

This season’s team also has a less than impressive record in that respect. Their record against clubs currently below them in the table reads W1 D2 L3. It is for these reasons that there are fans who are not convinced that an in-form Latics will put Luton to the sword of Saturday.

The Luton game is an acid test and could be a turning point in Cook’s tenure as Latics manager. A win would relieve relegation fears but anything less than that would suggest that the manager had still not addressed the issue of poor results against relegation rivals.

Stats courtesy of Soccerstats.com

The wingers need to deliver if Latics are to avoid relegation

Les Campbell front extreme left, Harry Lyon centre, Allan Brown second right, Walter Stanley front extreme right

In the mid 1960’s Allan Brown’s Wigan Athletic team played a really entertaining brand of football. The excellent wingers, Les Campbell and Walter Stanley, would put over a stream of tantalizing crosses for the twin strikers to feed on. No wonder that Latics scored 121 goals in the 1964-65 season, when they won the Cheshire County League. Centre forward Harry Lyon led the scoring with 67 goals in all competitions.

How would a player like Lyon do these days in the era of the inverted winger? Lyon was a superb header of the ball, who could shoot with both feet. Sometimes one seemed to know that a goal was coming as soon as a cross was launched from the wing.

Playing on the widest position on the pitch, wingers must have near perfect ball control and the ability to make plays in tight spaces without playing the ball out of play. The winger spends much of his time running down balls played ahead of him, racing by fullbacks with the ball at his feet and tracking back down the wing to defend.

A good winger will also have a consistent and threatening cross. After passing a fullback, the winger needs a quick and accurate trigger foot to feed the strikers. Many of the great wingers have been great dribblers, but there are effective wingers who are not necessarily world class dribblers but have lightning speed. Others are somehow able to squeeze out crosses in the tightest of spaces without beating their man.

Given  the above it appears logical to play a winger on his ‘natural foot’.  Having the strong foot closest to the sideline provides more control and enables the delivery of dangerous outswinging crosses. Strikers with a physical presence, who are strong in the air and know where to position themselves for crosses are best served by natural wingers.

The role of the winger has changed in recent years, and gone are the days when all the winger had to do was make runs up and down the lines as they try to outmanoeuvre the full-back and cross into the penalty area.

An inverted winger (inside-out winger) shows more diagonal movement than a natural winger. A left-footed player will occupy a position on the right flank and a right-footer will play off the left. The tactic that has become commonplace in football over the past decade or so.

With the centres of defences so heavily policed, players Gareth Bale and Arjen Robben on the right and Eden Hazard and Alexis Sanchez on the left have been so effective. The frequent attack pattern of an inverted winger is cutting inside from the wing, which can be completed by shooting with the strong foot or an accurate through ball played at an angle of ninety degrees. Scrappy, poaching strikers content to drop back and pick up loose balls in the box can thrive playing alongside inverted wingers.

hold back and pick up loose balls in the box can thrive playing alongside inverted wingers.

In Paul Cook’s first season as manager at Wigan wingers played key roles in both attack and defence. With natural wingers Gavin Massey or Ryan Colclough on the right and inverted winger Michael Jacobs on the left Latics had a real cutting edge. Jacobs went on to score 13 goals, Colclough and Massey each notching 5 in that 2017-18 season in League 1.

Colclough left at the summer of 2018 and Jacobs and Massey both had injury problems in the course of the 2018-19 season. But Jacobs went on to score 4 goals in 22 appearances in the Championship, Massey notching 5 from 17.

It has been sad to see the wingers struggle this season. Massey was injured when the season started and found his place occupied by new signing Jamal Lowe. Since his return he has not been able to reach the levels he attained previously. Being played so often on the left wing, where he looks like a fish out of water, has hardly helped.

Jacobs has once again been bugged by injuries and has looked a pale shadow of what we have seen before. His critics will say that he is a League 1 player who is not up to it at Championship level. However, under Gary Caldwell and Warren Joyce in the Championship in 2016-17 he was one of the first names on the team sheet, going on to make 46 appearances.

Lowe has certainly enjoyed the backing of the manager. Despite his indifferent form he has made 33 appearances up to this point. Lowe arrived with some hype, having scored 15 goals for Portsmouth last season. His critics consider him too lightweight in possession and he has not yet made the transition to the second tier.

Anthony Pilkington has proved himself in the Premier League and his quality is there for all to see. But fitness is a major issue for the player. Pilkington was signed after making just one start in the 2017-18 Championship season for Cardiff.  He has made only 13 starts in the Championship since joining Latics in the summer of 2018. Pilkington is rare among modern wingers in that he is genuinely two footed and can look as effective on the left as the right.

Kal Naismith originally joined Latics as a left winger but his versatility has seen him being used as a left back and centre back. It is in the latter position that he has impressed most and was becoming one of the most consistent performers until the Preston game when things did not go well for him, among others. With the inclusion of Leon Balogun at Cardiff and the impending return of Chey Dunkley from suspension it appears that Naismith’s chances of resuming his blossoming partnership in the centre of defence with Cedric Kipre are numbered. Will Cook return him to his original left wing role?

Kieffer Moore’s signing last summer was met with general approval by Latics fans last summer, although there some who questioned whether the manager’s intention was to sign a player who would further enable him to continue with his long ball tactics. Moore has had a torrid time with the lack of service from the wings hardly helping. Moore is the kind of old-fashioned centre forward who would have thrived in the era of natural wingers. But his tally of one headed goal in 23 appearances indicates the quality of crosses he has received. With the wingers frequently moving diagonally it has often been the full backs who have made the crosses into the box.Moreover too much of Moore’s effort has been wasted in chasing long balls some thirty yards from the opposition goal with his back to it.

The wingers should be playing key roles in not only creating chances but scoring too.

Last season wingers scored 13 league goals for Latics, at an average of one every 3.5 games. So far this season wingers have scored 5 league goals in 33 games, an average of one every 6.6 games.

Cook needs wingers who are fully fit, played in their best positions and in-form. Given the indifferent form of so many of them there is a case for giving Bournemouth loan player Alex Dobre an opportunity.

The player Cook must start against Middlesbrough

Photo courtesy of the Sun newspaper

The Sun newspaper reports that Jude Bellingham could on his way to Manchester United for a fee of £30m. Bellingham made his debut for Birmingham City’s under-23 team as a 15-year-old in October 2018. He became their youngest-ever first team player at the age of 16 years, 38 days in an EFL Cup game at Portsmouth in August 2019. Under manager Pep Clotet he has now made 20 starts in the Championship this season.

Photo courtesy of Wigan Athletic

Joe Gelhardt too is a prodigious young talent, although a year older than Bellingham. He made his Wigan Athletic debut as a 16-year-old in an EFL Cup game against Rotherham in August 2018. Under manager Paul Cook he has since made 13 appearances in the Championship, with just one start in the 2-1 defeat of Sheffield Wednesday a couple of weeks ago.

The approaches of Clotet and Cook are certainly contrasting. Clotet has given Bellingham every opportunity to showcase his talents. Cook has used Gelhardt as an impact substitute, although in less than half of the games Latics have played in the Championship this season.

Cook has constantly talked about the need to shield Gelhardt from too much pressure at an early age. His most recent comment was that: “I think all Wigan fans probably want him to start, and the hard thing for me as a manager is trying to protect the young man – as good as he is.” However, he did add that: “He’s only 17, he’s a fantastic talent who makes things happen on a football pitch. His time is coming, that’s for sure.”

Cook got his starting lineup woefully wrong in Saturday’s home match against Preston. Playing with a back five and three defensive midfielders, reminiscent of the Warren Joyce era, was a valid tactic against a Leeds side which was technically superior. However, facing a Preston side that had won only 3 times in 14 away games, it was the wrong ploy. It was only after Preston went 2-0 up that Cook changed his formation and took off a defender to bring on Gelhardt. The youngster went on to provide the pass leading to Chey Dunkley’s goal after 57 minutes, looked dangerous and forced a good save from the Preston keeper in the last minute. As Cook said: Gelhardt makes things happen.

Since the departure of Nick Powell, the manager has experimented with different players in the number 10 position behind the centre forward, none of whom has been able to establish himself there. His recent preference has been to use Joe Williams, a holding midfielder, in that position. Williams is an all-action player who has been one of Latics’ best performers this season, but a number 10 he is not. The player needs to be restored to his best position.

Using Williams or Lee Evans at number 10 has been an option that has given Cook more midfield tackling cover, but there has been a crying-out need for a naturally creative player in that position. It looked like we might have had that kind of player when Kieran Dowell signed on loan from Everton. However, Cook dispatched Dowell to play wide, preferring to continue with Williams as a 10.

In the absence of Dowell through injury there remains one prime candidate for the number 10 position – Joe Gelhardt.

At Wigan, Cook has mentors who had illustrious careers after making their debuts at a tender age. Peter Reid started for Bolton as an 18-year-old while Joe Royle was only 16 when he first played for Everton. It makes the manager’s reluctance to immerse Gelhardt hard to understand.

Middlesbrough have only won two games away from home this season. They can certainly be beaten if Wigan go in with a positive approach.

Playing Gelhardt from the start is paramount. Moreover, he should not be dispatched to a wide position, but played behind the centre forward. The creativity and dynamism that Gelhardt can provide is something that has been so lacking over the course of the season.

An underwhelming transfer window for Wigan Athletic

Has this been the worst-ever transfer window for Latics?

The net result:

OUT

  • Charlie Mulgrew – chose to go back to Blackburn.
  • Josh Windass – on loan to Sheffield Wednesday.
  • the unwanted and largely untried Devante Cole signed for Doncaster Rovers.

IN (on loan):

  • Alex Dobre – 21 year-old Romanian winger from Bournemouth. 36 appearances (2 goals) on loan at Bury, Rochdale and Yeovil over past three seasons.
  • Jan Mlakar – 21 year-old Slovenian centre forward from Brighton. 6 Championship appearances on loan for QPR last season, no goals. Previously at Fiorentina, Venezia and Maribor.
  • Leon Balogun – 31 year-old Nigerian central defender from Brighton. 8 Premier League appearances last season. A total of 85 appearances in the Bundesliga for Hannover, Werder Bremen, Fortuna Dusseldorf and Mainz.

Comments:

  1. The Jedi move collapse was a shame for everyone. The fee will go down and dramatically so if Latics are relegated as seems likely given the fact the team is weaker than when the window began, and now Robinson is unsettled.
  2. Josh Windass out — who was one of the few rays of hopes in recent times when Cook started playing him (though sadly, it appears he was only played in order to shift him off the wage bill). A frustrating player but in the right hands could go on to be good at this level. He has a contract at Wigan until summer 2021. Is it a loan-to-buy deal with Wednesday?
  3. Mlakar – hasn’t scored for any single club except Maribor, which suggests he hasn’t adapted well culturally on or off the pitch in either Italy or England. Is he a desperation last minute addition?
  4. Dobre – scored one goal in 21 appearances for Yeovil in League Two. Lowe scored a bunch for Pompey in League One and has struggled. So… hopes are not high.
  5. Balogun looks the most positive on paper — experience and pedigree, at least. But no small detail: hasn’t really played football for two years.

Latics would surely have counted on the Jedi money and had some signings lined up. But they weren’t willing to spend the money when it fell through, in particular, given the perilous league position which is very much down to the manager’s poor performance at Championship level.

The new ownership is running this club as a business, unlike most Chinese owners, and if you do the math and statistical analysis, the crazy January spending most clubs do is bananas and loans are a good way to go.

However, if you do go the loan route you need a manager with credibility and Cook is hardly that. If you are Klopp or Guardiola, Ancelotti or Rodgers, do you send your talented young player who is finding their way to Cook? No — you send them to Cocu or Lampard or someone with a connection to the club or a defined style of play that will evolve rather than devolve them.

Now the optimistic look:  

Kal Naismith and Cedric Kipre look good at centre back. Midfield is doing better. Lowe’s confidence should take a boost and he’s had half a season in the Championship, is clearly talented, and should improve. Kieffer Moore is also looking much better. Joe Gelhardt got his full debut out the way and perhaps he will be a sensation in this final stretch. The fixture list, particularly at home, is favourable.

The owners have backed the club with investments in the stadium and academy, spending over £8m in the summer transfer window, putting in up to £1m per month to cover running costs. They have a blueprint based upon prudent investment in player recruitment and the development of homegrown talent.

Despite the woes of the senior side the youth and U23 teams continue to shine, with great promise.

 

 

 

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.