Wigan Athletic: is it time for more squad rotation?

Alex Ferguson liked to use squad rotation as a means of freshening his starting line-up fresh and sending a message to his players that none of them had a guaranteed place there. For each game he would typically change one or two players, often central midfielders. From late 2008 until March 2011, he went 165 games without naming an unchanged starting XI.

On Tuesday night Sunderland manager Lee Johnson made five changes to the line-up that had beaten Bolton 1-0 the previous Saturday. They went on to beat Cheltenham 5-0. That same night Leam Richardson typically made no changes to his starting line-up for the encounter with Sheffield Wednesday. It was a line-up that had been producing a series of good results and the Latics manager saw no need to tamper with it.

Wigan Athletic have seven players who have started in all 9 league matches played this season, with two more players who have played in 8. Having such a backbone of regulars in the starting line-up has enabled the team to gel more quickly than might have been expected. Gary Caldwell’s League 1 title winning team of 2015-16 also had a large influx of new players and initially took time to gel with a record of W4 D2 L3, gaining 11 points in their first 9 games. Latics currently have a record of W6 D1 L2, amassing 19 points.

Leam Richardson has done a terrific job since taking over as manager in November 2020. Keeping Latics out of the relegation zone at the end of last season was a great achievement given the challenging conditions he faced.  He also deserves credit for the start his new squad have made this season.

There has been much conjecture on the social media regarding the splitting of the Cook/Richardson partnership. The former has had a hard time at Ipswich since joining them in March, winning only 22% of games played up to this point. It contrasts with his former assistant’s stats of 35% since last September.  

For so many years the names of Cook and Richardson had been synonymous: they were seemingly joined from the hip. But despite their parting the football Latics have continued to play has been pretty much like we saw in the Cook era. Moreover, Richardson has stuck with that familiar 4-2-3-1 system, being conservative with the introduction of substitutes, loyal to his senior professionals.

Among the strengths of the Latics team this season has been in winning “second balls” and in being dangerous from set pieces. They are a physically imposing team and have the height to trouble the opposition from corners and free kicks. They have proven able to grind down the opposition to the extent of becoming stronger in the latter part of the proceedings. The stats show that on first half goals alone their record is W2 D6 L1, opposed to W6 D2 L1 for the second halves.

Richardson has a squad that is the envy of most of the other clubs in the division. However, the challenge for the manager is to keep players happy who are not getting regular game time. He has a wealth of talent and experience in reserve, either on the bench or not even in the match day squad. He has a big squad with three players whose specialist position is left back, three for the left wing and five central defenders.

The manager has been reluctant, up to this point, to rotate his squad in a manner akin to that practiced by Alex Ferguson. Unless an unprecedented wave of injuries hits the squad there are likely to be players who will be starved of opportunities. Lowest in the pecking order is likely to be the young talent: homegrown players Thelo Aasgaard, Adam Long and Luke Robinson. It would be no surprise to see some of them being sent out on loan at some time during the season.

Will Richardson name an unchanged starting line-up for Saturday’s trip to Gillingham? Or will he make some small adjustments?

Can Latics get the best out of Charlie Wyke?

In the summer of 2019 Wigan Athletic signed big centre forward, Kieffer Moore, from Barnsley. Despite having a decent strike record at Barnsley and Rotherham before that, Moore had a lean time in front of goal for months. His first goal came in early November after not being able to find the net in his previous 12 appearances. By Christmas he had only added one more to his total.

Moore was playing in the Championship for the first time, against better defenders. There were serious questions about whether this player with successful experience in the lower divisions could reach the standards required in the second tier of English football.

Moore had become a struggling player in a team unable to consistently maintain a standard of football that would keep them out of the lower reaches of the division. Even though there were flashes of quality their performances were riddled with “soft” goals due to defensive errors and an inability to hold on to a lead. Too often defenders under pressure would apply the hoof to clear their lines. The lone centre forward had to feed on morsels, so often chasing wayward long balls with big defenders closely marshalling him.

Moore eventually went on to score 12 goals that season, several of which were of very high quality. It could be argued that he had got used to playing in the Championship and had looked more self-assured. But more than that it was the improvement in the football played by the team as a unit that enabled Moore to showcase his skills. As the season had progressed the hoofball had lessened. Midfielders were dropping back to receive the ball, even if space was tight. Moves were being built up from the back and the defenders were taking more responsibility in retaining the ball. With better ball retention the opposition were less able to constantly pressurise the Wigan defence. Put simply, Moore began to flourish as the team began to play football that had more of an emphasis on possession.

Since the Phoenix 2021 takeover in March the mood at the club and among its supporters has had a major lift. The positivity of the chairman, Talal Al Hammad, has been a major factor. He is relatively young and is adept with the social media, which he regularly employs to communicate with fans. The escape from relegation was a major achievement for a club that was on its knees during the period of administration. With the backing of new owner Abdulrahman Al-Jasmi and the direction provided by new Chief Executive Malachy Brannigan the club has new direction.

On his arrival Brannigan stated:

“The past 12 months have been extremely unfortunate for everybody. Our role and my job is to make sure this football club becomes a stable Championship club. From a business perspective, the assets that are here and the value we are getting for it. Then there is the medium to long-term vision of how we can rebuild the club, put it back on solid foundations and look to grow thereafter. We are not an ownership group that is going to be in and out”.

Since the end of last season there has been a lot of flux in playing staff. Most of those who helped the club avoid relegation have departed and the club has brought in players of proven ability at League 1 level. Most had been out of contract at their previous clubs, but it was uplifting for the supporters to see Latics enticing players from supposedly bigger clubs like Ipswich, Portsmouth, and Sunderland to Wigan.

The signing of Charlie Wyke in early July went down particularly well with the fans. Here was a centre forward who scored 31 goals in 51 appearances last season deciding to move to Wigan at the end of his contract rather than stay at Sunderland, where had recently been voted “Player of the Year”.

The 28-year-old, 6ft 2in striker was born in Middlesbrough and came through the town’s football club’s academy. After signing a 3-year professional contract as an 18-year-old in May 2011 he was sent off on loan spells at Kettering, Hartlepool, and Wimbledon. He left for Carlisle United in January 2015 without making an appearance for Middlesbrough. Wyke went on to score 32 goals in 64 starts and 13 substitute appearances for Carlisle in League 2. In January 2017 he signed for Bradford City for an undisclosed fee. During a season and a half with the Bantams, Wyke scored 22 goals in League 1 from 54 starts and two appearances off the bench.

Wyke signed for Sunderland for a fee around £400,000 in the summer of 2018. In his first two seasons he struggled, scoring only 9 goals in a total of 51 appearances. However, in the 2020-21 season he notched a total of 31 goals including 5 in 6 games in the EFL Trophy.

Wyke made his league debut for Latics last Saturday, at Sunderland of all places. He did not have a particularly good game, but neither did the rest of his teammates. Wigan had started off the game in style. Despite having only three players who were starters in the last game of the previous season the newly assembled team had appeared to gel remarkably quickly. When Gwion Edwards put Wigan ahead after 17 minutes following a flowing move they looked well in control of the game. But it was not to continue.

Just two minutes later Sunderland had scored through a soft penalty conceded by Tendayi Darikwa. They went on to win the game through another “soft” goal from their centre forward who had risen to head home without sufficient challenge from the Wigan defence. The smooth, fast-flowing football of the first quarter of the game had dissipated, with the long ball rearing its head.

Watching Charlie Wyke in the second half of the game brought back images to the mind of Kieffer Moore struggling in the first part of the 2019-20 season. He was receiving poor service as the midfield was being by-passed with hopeful long balls from defenders.  The pattern of the game provided parallels with what we saw happen too frequently in the first half of the 2019-20 season.

Unlike Moore who was playing in the second tier for the first time Wyke has ample prior experience at the level he is playing at. Given the right service from the wings he will score goals. But, like Moore, he will struggle if the ball is simply “lumped” to him from the back. But who will provide the kinds of crosses he needs?

This season’s team can pose a major threat to opposition defences with crosses from set-pieces. There is a potential threat from the aerial abilities of not only the central defenders and centre forward, but also the likes of Callum Lang, Tom Naylor, and Will Keane. However, much depends on the quality of the delivery from the player taking the free kick or corner.

To provide dangerous crosses from the flanks the full backs and wingers must build up a mutual understanding of each other’s play. If the full back advances deeply into opposition territory, there must be midfield coverage behind them to stifle counterattacks if possession is lost. Richardson has a choice as to which left full back he plays. Tom Pearce excelled in the first part of last season in a struggling side, creating chances through his runs and crosses. Luke Robinson is more conservative in attack, but stronger in defence than Pearce. On the right Tendayi Darikwa has shown that he can provide quality crosses but Latics have not yet signed another player who can challenge him in that position. The modern full back role is physically demanding and expecting Darikwa to play most of the 46 league games is a big ask.

Darikwa is well known to Richardson through their time together at Wigan and Chesterfield. The manager clearly has confidence in him through making him captain.

It was pleasing to note the captain’s post-match comment on Saturday evening: “I think we could have probably got the ball down a bit more today but we will look at it as a squad with the manager and come back next week.”

Wyke has made a quiet start at Wigan up to this point. The squad will take time to truly gel, but when it does will Wyke receive the kind of service he needs to be as successful as he was last season?

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Leam’s summer shopping list

The dust has finally settled for Wigan Athletic after such a long period of uncertainty and tension.

It seems like an eternity since the club went into administration in early July 2020. But, unlike so many of its rivals the club is now practically debt-free, and it has new ownership that has been so positive and supportive over these difficult weeks. Moreover, Latics have defied the odds by holding on to their place in the third tier of English football.

Phoenix 2021 have set the goal of Latics becoming a stable Championship club, although they have set no timeline. The current priority is to build a stable platform from which the club can flourish and become more self-sustainable. Building that platform will necessarily involve a reengineering of the management and administration structures within the club.

Following a close escape from relegation Latics will be looking at strengthening their coaching and backroom as well as the first team squad. The coaching and backroom staffing was depleted during administration. It remains to be seen how many of those positions will be reinstated. We can assume that the structure and quantity of such staffing will be commensurate with the norms of League 1.

Leam Richardson will hope that an assistant manager and first team coach will be appointed to help lighten his load. The current first team squad has five players who have contracts beyond the end of this season. They are Thelo Aasgaard, Callum Lang, Adam Long, Luke Robinson and Tom Pearce. Given the momentum of the end of season revival Richardson will look at retaining the services of several of the players whose contracts expire in June. Lee Evans, Jamie Jones and Gavin Massey are the most long-serving of those.

There is lots of speculation from fans on the message boards and social media about who should be offered new contracts for the coming season. Is Richardson going to try to keep the bulk of those players who have given their all in the relegation struggle, retaining a core who could provide the backbone of the new squad?

A couple of weeks ago the club announced that Scott Smith and Sam Tickle of the U23 squad have been offered extended contracts. The U23 team had performed creditably in the first half of the season but were depleted by players leaving in the January window. Latics’ U18 continue to excel, winning the Professional Development League North and giving Everton a real scare in the FA Youth Cup. It was no surprise to hear that seven of them have been offered professional teams. They are Baba Adeeko, James Carragher, Tom Costello, Kieran Lloyd, Harry McGee, Harry McHugh and Sean McGurk.

The circumstances faced by management this season led to younger players being brought into the senior squad. However, in January some of those youngsters were shed in order to bring in more senior professionals. The arrival of eight new senior pros plus the return of Curtis Tilt on loan meant that fewer opportunities were afforded to the youngsters who remained. When Latics played Crewe recently they had two “homegrown” players in their starting eleven: Lang and Robinson. Crewe had six.

It took a considerable time for those new players to gel, but in the end Richardson’s move was justified as the team pulled away out of the bottom four. Richardson richly deserves his new three-year contract as manager through his efforts in keeping things together in a most difficult season. However, Phoenix 2021 have made it clear that they see the Academy as a key factor in the future of the club. Crewe have relied on their Academy for so long to constantly provide players for their first team squad. Although Latics have given youth a chance this season what can we expect for the coming one? Ideally the squad will have a backbone of senior pros but will continue to nurture homegrown talent.

Now that Latics know which division they are playing in next season they can begin the work of negotiating contracts with players they wish to retain. High on the list will be the 19-year-old Kyle Joseph who made a big impression before suffering a long-term injury.

Have issues relating to the DW Stadium been holding up the Garrido group takeover?

Lisa Nandy put the cat among the pigeons in her interviews with Jay Whittle and the PWU Podcast a couple of days ago. Her suggestion that the exclusivity rights for the Garrido group should not be extended was a bombshell. The prospect of other bidders coming into play at this stage of the proceedings was something that split opinion between fans on the message boards and social media.

“We are pleased to report that substantial progress has been made with the Council regarding the assignment of the lease.  In addition further discussions have taken place between the EFL, the bidder and ourselves and, in our opinion, all information requested of the bidders has been supplied including but not limited to proof of funds for the next two seasons.In the light of this progress, the exclusivity period, which expires today, has been extended.  We now await a final answer from the EFL, and no further comment will be made until that is received.”

The administrators’ communique yesterday put the ball back firmly into the hands of Jose Miguel Garrido and his associates.

But what was surprising was to learn that there had been issues involving the Council. Has the issue of the lease been a sticking point in the drawn-out takeover bid by the Spanish investors?

When Dave Whelan built the DW Stadium in 1999 he made a deal with Wigan Council over the lease of the land it was built upon. The agreement contained a requirement that “two sporting clubs be granted a licence for use of the stadium by the tenant.” Wigan Warriors were given a sub-lease for the use of the stadium until 2025. When Ian Lenagan bought the rugby club in 2007 the lease was extended for another 25 years.

Whelan’s ownership of Latics involved him setting up different companies to control the various operations of his purchase. The company that controls the stadium – Wigan Football Company Limited – is currently under administration. Wigan Council owns 15% of its shares.  If the Garrido group are to purchase the remaining 85% of the shares they need to come to an agreement with the Council over the lease. This necessitates the Spanish group coming to an agreement with Ian Lenagan over stadium rental.

Whelan’s agreement with Lenegan involved the Warriors paying rent according to their attendances. Reports have suggested that they contribute around 10% of their attendance money. Local journalist, Phil Wilkinson, estimates the figure to be around £300,000 per annum, although it can hover above or below that figure depending on attendances.

Mudhutter’s revealing tweet – click here to see his analysis on Twitter – reveals the extent to which the stadium is a white elephant to Wigan Athletic.

The figures Mudhutter has compiled show the stadium company losing some £1.5m for the 2018-19 season. With only £800,000 coming in rent from the Warriors and the separate company that runs the football club the stadium company was struggling to meet its expenses of over £4m.

There has been concern among Latics fans that Ian Lenegan might be intent on buying the stadium for the Warriors. However, the administrators have made it clear that the stadium was part of the overall package, although they did sell off the Euxton training facility separately. Moreover, why would Lenagan want to buy a stadium that cannot break even financially? Better to continue to pay rent, especially if it is pitched at such a modest level.

With spectators not able to attend games at the DW due to the Covid-19 crisis the stadium stands to make even greater losses this season. With no share of gate receipts and no income derived from food and drink sales on matchdays there is minimal income coming in. One wonders if the Warriors are getting off virtually rent-free during this period. Or is there a proviso in the agreement that covers such instances?

The administrators’ statement suggests that the bidders have now provided the EFL with the necessary information requested. In the meantime, the terms of stadium lease by the Warriors will need to be finalised between Garrido and Lenagan so that Wigan Council can give approval.

When Dave Whelan made the agreement with the council more than 20 years ago would he have envisaged that the stadium would become a veritable millstone around the club’s neck?

Wigan Athletic: why is there still so much uncertainty?

The uncertainty about the future of Wigan Athletic has posed a challenge for us all: both supporters and those within the club. The message boards and social media have been awash with concerns about the impending takeover with performances on the field of play getting progressively worse. The loss to Chorley was a bitter pill to swallow and the probability that John Sheridan will be taking over at Swindon this week adds to the uncertainty that prevails.

Last night I had watched an excellent first half performance at Tranmere by the youngest side in memory fielded by Wigan Athletic. They scored two cracking goals: a Will Keane header from a cross by Tom Pearce and a rasping drive from outside the box by the 18-year-old Charlie McHugh. The performance was slightly tainted by a schoolboy error that gifted the home team a goal, but the level of movement and accuracy of passing was way above what we have seen in recent weeks. During the half time interval I checked Twitter to see if anyone had posted an opinion on the game so far.

However, the tweets from Latics fans were almost exclusively related to a communique from the EFL regarding the takeover. They once again indicated the concerns of the fans over the stalling of the takeover process that the EFL need to ratify.

The conspiracy theories suggested that the Garrido group’s bid was contingent on Supporters Club (SC) funds helping them to meet the asking price for buying the club. Another train of thought was that the EFL was being careful to be seen that it is doing due diligence and did not want to exclude the possibility of supporter representation on a new board of directors. The cynical line was that the EFL will do whatever it can to make things difficult for Latics.

Discerning the truth of what is happening is very difficult. However, communications over the past couple of months provide some indicators.

On September 30 the SC indicated that:

“We are pleased to share the news that an unnamed bidder has now progressed to the next stage of exclusivity with the joint administrators. Although there remains a long way to go in this process, the Supporters Club has made contact with the bidder and we are currently in discussions regarding the future involvement of the supporters at Wigan Athletic, should their bid be successful.”

On the same day the administrators stated that:

“We are pleased to announce that we have reached agreement with a preferred bidder from Spain. The offer that has been accepted deals with not only the sale of the club but also allows the payment to non-football creditors to avoid the 15-point penalty this season. In addition, a substantial deposit has been received. We are now working with our lawyers and the bidder to produce all of the necessary paperwork to submit to the EFL so that successful transfer of the football share can be made at the earliest opportunity. The preferred bidder who has experience in football has made it plain that they do not wish for their details to be made public until such time as the sale is completed and we are respecting this anonymity. No further details will be released until EFL approval has been obtained.”

Over the next month the paperwork was being put together by the bidders and administrators, although no definitive statement arose regarding the use of the crowdfunder monies in the Spanish consortium’s bid.

The Garrido group representatives and the administrators were to meet with the EFL to clarify the takeover bid on November 3. However, on that same day the SC put out another communique indicating that the bidders had invited them to invest crowdfunder monies as part of the bidder’s purchase of the club but that they felt “unable to move forward with the proposed deal at this time.”

The SC had met with the EFL on October 29, being advised on November 2 that afinal decision was needed regarding the investment by no later than 12noon on Tuesday 3rd November. They added:” The timescales have been insufficient to enable us to investigate the outcomes of that meeting and to hold the proper discussions with our wider committee.”

The SC also stated that:

“We are keen to invest the funds in order to secure equity in Wigan Athletic and a voice for the supporters. However, we must be sure that the proposed bidders have the wherewithal to purchase and fund the operations of the club and stadium successfully independently of our funds based on acceptable financial forecasts. We have been assured by the bidders that this is the case, however we feel it is important that proof of sufficient funds is confirmed by the EFL prior to any supporters’ funding being committed.”

Given these statements it appears that the Garrido group and the administrators went to meet the EFL on November 3 knowing that they could not count on the crowdfunding monies could be used in the purchase of the club. They would have gone into the meeting knowing that they had to provide sufficient proof of funding in their own right for the takeover to be confirmed.

Prior to the EFL communications yesterday evening the administrators had issued an update on the club’s site:

“We have not as yet had a final decision from the EFL regarding the transfer of the Football Share. Both the bidders and ourselves together with our legal team have had regular and ongoing discussions with the EFL regarding their requirements.  Our exclusivity agreement with the bidders, which runs out on the 11th November, has been extended for a further period to try and ensure that we reach a satisfactory conclusion. At this stage we cannot say when that will be as matters rest with the EFL. Whilst we fully understand the fans frustration and the effect generally on the club we must adhere to the procedures set down if we are to be successful.”

The exclusivity agreement has been extended to allow further time for the bidders and administrators to iron out what the EFL describes as “outstanding issues” that need to be resolved.

Jose Miguel Garrido has made his intentions clear through the local press as to what to expect if the takeover is approved. Some fans brought up in the days of the Premier League and Dave Whelan’s patrimony might be less than enthusiastic about the takeover by the Spanish consortium. The club would not rack up the debts that were incurred in recent years in the reigns of David Sharpe and Darren Royle. Money would be invested but with caution, with some £4m-£5m invested into the academy over a period of years to bring it to category 1 status.

For those fans who are concerned about the long-term sustainability of the club Garrido’s plans have great credibility. Latics could remain in the lower divisions for some years. In order to get out of League 1 on the last two attempts the club put itself in financial difficulties through paying player salaries that were hugely disproportionate to the norm in the third tier. However, if the academy continues to grow and a manager is appointed who will nurture young players the club can more than make ends meet.

Let’s hope that this saga ends up in a more satisfactory end result than what happened at Prenton Park last night where we witnessed a penalty shootout in which both teams performed as poorly as I can remember. The final shootout in the takeover proceedings needs to go in Wigan Athletic’s favour!