Stoke performance reveals strength in depth

Wigan Athletic’s Gavin Massey (Photo by Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images)

On paper the Wigan Athletic starting lineup at Stoke City looked good enough to compete with the Championship team on an even keel. This was despite the fact that only two players who had started the previous League 1 game against Oxford United were included, those being Gavin Massey and Max Power.

In reality Leam Richardson had used his squad to put together a team that looked well- balanced. But being so hastily cobbled together it was always going to struggle to show the cohesion needed to seriously threaten the home team. Jason Kerr’s slip was unfortunate, but it gave the home team an early lead that was going to be hard for Latics to pull back. Wigan held their own until a very well taken goal by Jacob Brown after 62 minutes was to seal Stoke’s victory.

Newcomers Ben Rea and Jamie McGrath made good starts to their Wigan careers. Rea worked hard in central midfield and certainly let Nick Powell know he was around. Since Sam Morsy’s departure Laics have not had a player of his ilk in their line-ups. McGrath slotted in comfortably and could well compete with Will Keane for the number 10 role, although he can also play in the wide positions.

Tom Bayliss has had a hard time since his arrival in Wigan but had one of his better games yesterday. Josh Magennis toiled with little end-result until being replaced by Stephen Humphrys after Stoke’s second goal.

Gavin Massey was excellent throughout, working hard, rarely wasting the ball and, most notably, showing the bursts of acceleration that were the hallmark of his game before he was dogged by a series of hamstring injuries. Richardson has faced criticism for his loyalty towards Massey, so often playing him ahead of others who were knocking on the door for selection. However, if Massey can display this kind of form, staying fit, he can play a key role in the bid for promotion.

Joe Bennett completed a full 90 minutes plus for the first time since playing for Cardiff City against Middlesbrough in late February last year. It has been a long recuperation for Bennett following the ACL injury that threatened his career. Yesterday he showed us glimpses of the player who made over 300 appearances in the two highest tiers of English football. However, it is going to take time before we see the player approach anything like his best.

The current squad is certainly well blessed with central defenders. Curtis Tilt and Jack Whatmough are the current first choice pairing. Jason Kerr (24) and Kell Watts (22) were a young centre back duo yesterday. With the full backs so often pushing forwards the centre backs can be stretched when the opposition counterattacks. That was the case for Stoke’s first goal, but both players have shown that they can be fine players in League 1 level and possibly at a level above. Given the quality of the centre backs he has at his disposal it is to be hoped that Richardson will more frequently go for a line-up of three central defenders with wing backs.

Latics have another 20 league games to play before the season ends on April 30. It is a tough and demanding schedule, but much will depend on how the manager utilises his full resources and adjust his tactics according to the situation. Richardson is not a manager known for his squad rotation, but if he does not rotate players, he runs the risk of injuries that will prove costly in the long run.

Richardson’s decision to reshape his team’s formation during the first half of the Oxford game was a welcome surprise. The changes he made had an immediate effect.

Promotion is in the air at Wigan, but much will depend on the manager’s ability to choose the right players at the right times, adjusting his tactical approach when needed. He has a very strong squad at his disposal.

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A refreshing change in formation for Wigan Athletic

In the summer of 2014 Uwe Rosler was a popular man with Latics followers. The German had taken over in early December with Wigan Athletic lying in the depths of the Championship table. Rosler went on to take them to 5th place and the FA Cup semi-final. They were narrowly defeated by QPR in the Championship playoffs and by Arsenal at Wembley. Although a section of the fanbase had not been happy with his squad rotation policy he produced the results and repaired the damage caused during Owen Coyle’s awful tenure.

The adage “Managers are judged on results” rang true for Rosler. Latics had been one of the bookmakers’ favourites for promotion but by mid-November the German had been sacked as they had slid down the table.

Leam Richardson too is popular with Latics fans. He worked wonders in helping the club avoid relegation last season and his newly assembled squad, with 15 new signings, has made an impressive start to the season. But three midweek home defeats, with the players looking “flat” had led to questions about whether he was too set in his ways, rigidly sticking to his favoured 4-2-3-1 system, not rotating his squad sufficiently to keep players fresh, making substitutions too late in the game, as fixture were piling-up.

If there was one factor that led to Uwe Rosler’s downfall it would be in making too many new signings over the summer, when he already had a strong squad. Richardson’s case differs in that he only had five contracted players when summer recruitment started. However, he now has a big squad which is going to need careful management in ensuring that fringe players do not get disenchanted through lack of game time.

Richardson took a major step forward in the Burton Albion game on Saturday when he brought in Curtis Tilt and Stephen Humphys and gave a League 1 debut to Jason Kerr. Fan concerns about the depth of quality of the squad soon diminished as all three players made fine contributions.

But the real surprise was a switch away from 4-2-3-1 to a 3-4-1-2 formation. Kerr was employed as a right centre back, a role in which he enjoyed great success in St Johnstone’s run to win both the Scottish Cup and the Scottish League Cup last season. Jack Whatmough looked very comfortable in the centre of the back three, with the experienced Tilt to his left. Max Power played a deep midfield role with Tom Bayliss more advanced. James McClean looked so at home at left wing back, a position he occupies for the Republic of Ireland. Tendayi Darikwa looked so much better back on the right- hand side and was afforded more freedom in the wing back role. The new formation allowed Richardson to play twin strikers in Humphrys and Charlie Wyke. Humphrys is a talented player who has spent too much time on the bench with only one central striker being employed in 4-2-3-1. Will Keane has looked somewhat jaded in recent games. The return of Thelo Aasgaard from injury will provide Richardson with a back-up in that number 10/creative central midfield role.

With Latics a goal up and Burton down to ten men after 15 minutes it is hard to evaluate the success of the new formation. But credit must go to Richardson for his willingness to go against his own previous orthodoxy. It was noticeable that there was less of a gap in the centre of the field and there was so much less long ball than we have been seeing so frequently. The formation helped to facilitate a more possession-based build up.  

3-4-1-2 offers differing opportunities to players than 4-2-3-1. Callum Lang was suspended and did not play. Lang nominally plays on the right flank but is not a conventional winger. He is a key player because of his willingness to run at opposition defences and he is always a candidate for scoring a goal. His ideal position is open to conjecture, but he would surely be comfortable in the front two of a 3-4-1-2 system.

Richardson has made a response to critics who have had concerns about the rigidity of his tactical outlook. He has shown himself to be a great motivator of his players and is a fine ambassador for the club, discreet in his comments, showing a dignity that is not the norm in football club managers. It was heartening to see him make this change.

Roberto Martinez made the switch to 3-4-3 in the middle of the 2009-10 season when relegation was imminent. It led to the most successful set of results in Wigan’s league history. It also paved the way to winning the FA Cup. Despite those successes there are Latics fans who do not favour a system with three at the back.

In the Cook/Richardson era Latics flitted with systems playing three at the back, but it could never really compete with the 4-2-3-1. Let’s hope that Richardson will give his new system enough time to evaluate it.  Another criticism Richardson has faced has been a lack of a Plan B. Getting his players accustomed to a change in shape, either from game to game, or within a game, would be a major step forward in his development as a manager.

The likelihood is that 4-2-3-1 will continue to be the modus operandi for Richardson, but one hopes that he will keep an open mind towards changes in shape. One way of looking at things is to decide on a system and look at how well players fit into it. Another way is to look at the individual talent in the squad and devise a system that can get the best out of them in their entirety.

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.