Getting the right balance in an unforgiving league

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Selling off prized assets would be a hammer blow to good football at Wigan

Nick Powell and Will Grigg to be gone within the coming week? Photo courtesy of Goodbrand Stats@StatsChristian

The writing was on the wall. No contract nailed down for Nick Powell and Will Grigg out of favour with the manager. Given the situation has been festering for weeks it is no surprise to hear the media telling us that Powell will soon be off for Glasgow and Grigg to Sunderland.

Over the summer we were nervous about Wigan Athletic selling off their prized assets. In terms of market transfer value, the trio of Dan Burn, Will Grigg and Nick Powell were head and shoulders above the rest.

It was a relief when the summer transfer window closed and only one of those assets was sold. The sale of Burn to Brighton for around £3m helped underpin the signings of Cedric Kipre (around £1m), Leonardo Da Silva Lopes (around £800,000), Joe Garner (around £1.2m) and Josh Windass (around £2m).

The Powell and Grigg transfers would bring in around £3.5m. Should they leave – and we expect they will – what effect would it have on the team’s ability to stay in the Championship division?

Latics started the season utilising players who were the backbone of the League 1 title winning team. The loss of Dan Burn and Nathan Byrne through injury meant that the 21-year-old Cedric Kipre and the 18-year-old Reece James were drafted into the defence.

Nevertheless, the starting lineup in the first game of the season against Sheffield Wednesday still contained seven of last season’s regulars: Christian Walton, Chey Dunkley, Sam Morsy, Gavin Massey, Michael Jacobs, Nick Powell and Will Grigg. The early season form was promising, built around the mutual understanding between those players whose confidence was high following their previous successes in League 1.

However, as time went injuries took five of those seven out of the equation for periods of months. The front four of Massey, Powell, Jacobs and Grigg had combined so well the previous season and looked like they were going to continue to show that positive chemistry in a higher division. But the last time that quartet was to play together was at Stoke in late August.

Since those early days of the season when Wigan were so enjoyable to watch the quality of football has plummeted. The team has lacked creativity and a cutting edge. The smooth attacking football has only returned on occasions, the norm being a so-called “direct” approach. Nevertheless, even then chances have been created but the finishing touch has not been there. Some would say that had not Cook not left his best goalscorer, Will Grigg, so often on the bench, more points would have been picked up.

Grigg has made only 10 starts in the 28 league games this season. When asked why the player with the best career goalscoring record has been so consistently omitted Cook retorted that it was because his supply line of Jacobs, Massey and Powell had been injured. The bizarre response of the manager is of concern to those of us who prefer an emphasis on a creative approach. Largely through the assistance of that supply line Grigg scored 26 goals in 53 appearances last season, but is that to suggest that he cannot score goals without them? His career record shows that he can.

The debate continues among fans whether Will Grigg is a Championship-level striker. The last time he was there in 2016-17 he scored 7 goals in 38 appearances. In both that season and this he has had niggling injuries that have impeded his progress. Some critics will say that the pressure of playing against higher quality defenders has led to those injuries.

Grigg is an intelligent footballer. He knows how to run into space, timing his runs adeptly to stay onside. He showed his quality against Premier League opposition in the FA Cup last season. His strike against Manchester City will be etched in the memories of Latics fans for year to come. But Grigg also scored at Bournemouth and got two against West Ham.

When Wigan resort to a long-ball approach he has tended to be less effective. But so have the other strikers who have competed with Grigg for his place. In fact, so many of the long balls launched from defence have been of low quality, leaving an unsupported central striker a hopeless task of evading two big central defenders.

Nick Powell’s last appearance was on November 28 against Blackburn Rovers. It could be the last he played for Latics. We have waited since summer to hear news of an extension of his contract, but nothing has resulted. Have the player’s wage demands been beyond what the club is willing to pay? Or are they unwilling to commit to a long-term contract on a salary well above Wigan norms for someone who has had major injury problems over recent years?

If he leaves Powell will be sorely missed. He has been the orchestrator behind the best football the team has played in the past eighteen months, a virtually irreplaceable asset. However, his contract runs out in summer when he can leave as a free agent. Media reports suggests that both Celtic and Rangers are keen to sign him before the transfer window closes in a week’s time.

Latics will press for realistic prices if they are to let both Grigg and Powell leave. Rumour has it that they will push for £1m for Grigg and £2.7m for Powell.

Should the transfers go ahead what proportion of any incoming funds would be invested in new players? Moreover, will the club’s recruitment be more effective than it was in summer?

Up to this point Latics have signed only one player in the January window, free agent Anthony Pilkington. With the departures of Dan Burn and Alex Bruce Latics certainly need cover in the centre of defence. They also need someone who can play left back with Antonee Robinson still injured.

Reports tell us that they have offered Reading £450,000 for Tyler Blackett and Nottingham Forest £200,000 for Danny Fox. Both can play at left back or in central defence. They are also interested in free agent Alex Milosevic, a Swedish international central defender.

Defensive reinforcements will be brought in, but the big question is what is going to happen to the quality of football if Grigg and Powell are released?

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A critical time for Darren Royle and the IEC ownership

Will Darren Royle back Paul Cook? Photo courtesy of Wigan Athletic FC.

 

Another 3-0 home defeat and the social media and notice boards are laden with the comments of fans concerned that Wigan Athletic could suffer relegation once again unless something changes.  They have won only once in their last 13 league games and are now dangerously close to the drop zone.

 

 

Paul Cook’s post-match interview was a sad thing to witness. Some managers might shy away from a post match media conference after such a heavy defeat, but Cook once again stepped up to the plate. Things just have not been going well for the manager since mid-September.

Injuries have deprived him of his first-choice front four, the team subsequently lacking the cutting edge and creativity that we saw in the early weeks of the season. Michael Jacobs has been out since October 6, Nick Powell has not played since November 28 and in the weeks prior to that did not look to be one hundred percent fit. Will Grigg was unavailable for six weeks in October/November. Gavin Massey came back from a three-month absence on December 22, but suffered a serious recurrence of his hamstring injury on Saturday. Defensive lynchpin Chey Dunkley missed two months before returning to the team for the visit to West Bromwich on Boxing Day.

The takeover by IEC seemed to take for ever until it was eventually announced on November 7th. We hoped that, following the takeover, extended contracts would be finalised for key players whose current ones run out in June. But of those nine players in that situation only Sam Morsy’s case has been resolved.

Nick Powell is the most high-profile of those players:

The injuries and uncertainty surrounding the takeover surely have had an impact on the manager and his staff. Cook is not one to complain, but his situation over the past months has been less than satisfactory. What is happening at the club?

Whether the current situation is solely down to Cook is open to debate. But the standard of football has plummeted, and the manager has frustrated fans by rigidly sticking to certain players, sometimes playing them out of position, whilst snubbing others.  But despite these issues we at this site do not advocate sacking Paul Cook.

In mid-November 2014 Uwe Rosler was sacked with Latics in 22nd place in the Championship at the time with three wins from 17 games. Gary Caldwell suffered a similar fate in late October 2016 with Latics in 23rd place with two wins from 14 games. Their successors, Malky Mackay and Warren Joyce, were unable to stop the rot and relegation was the consequence. Although there are fans calling for Cook to be removed there are many who will cite the lessons of the past, fearing what might happen if that were to unfold.

Chairman Darren Royle is faced with a difficult decision regarding Cook’s position. It is compounded by the fact that the transfer window has reopened. If Royle backs Cook, giving him more time to turn things around, how will it affect player recruitment this coming month? If Cook were to be moved on some weeks from now any new manager would be saddled with his recruits.

Uwe Rosler’s downfall was largely brought about by his recruiting over the summer of 2014. So many of his new recruits just did not perform up to the standard expected. The German had done a wonderful job the previous season, after taking over from Owen Coyle in December 2013. He guided Latics to both the FA Cup semi-final and the Championship play-offs.

There are some parallels between Rosler and Cook. Cook too enjoyed considerable success in his first season, winning League 1 and going on an epic FA Cup run, with that stunning win over Manchester City. But his signings have met with mixed success.  Bringing in players who played under him at Portsmouth has not been particularly well received by fans.

Reports suggest that IEC made funds available to Latics for summer signings. Although the club does not usually disclose transfer fees the summer incomings probably amounted to around £6 m, whereas the fee received for Dan Burn’s transfer to Brighton was around £3 m. Cook spent most on Josh Windass (around £2m), Joe Garner (£1.2 m), Cedric Kipre (£1 m), Leonardo da Silva Lopes (£800,000) with Lee Evans being signed on January 1 (£800,000) after playing on a loan-to-buy agreement.  £6 m may be a small outgoing on transfers for most clubs in the Championship, but it is sizeable by Wigan standards. Critics say that Cook paid above market value for those players, some of whom have not impressed to date. It remains to be seen whether how much further cash will be speculated in January and if the Royles, Darren and Joe, will be the prime drivers in the recruitment process even if Cook stays.

Royle might well decide that he must sack Cook. If so, he will need a replacement to step in promptly before further recruitment is effected. A new manager would not only need to look at bringing in new players, but also at moving on others within the club to make space for the newcomers.

If Cook is given the backing of Royle and IEC we can only hope that he will select lineups with more positive intent, giving his players the chance to show their skills, not resorting to the hoofball that we have seen on too many occasions. It is the manager’s first season in charge of a Championship side and he is finding it tough. With adjustments due to be made to the squad during January he will have different options. In the meantime we have to assume that Cook has been reflecting on what he could have done better over these past months, despite the unavailability of players through injury and the uncertainties involved in a long and drawn-out takeover.

 

Thanks to all whose tweets are included above.

The Windass conundrum – can he fit into Paul Cook’s style of play?

 

“Josh wants to be a number nine every game for Rangers and I couldn’t guarantee that. I could guarantee him football matches but maybe in different positions and formations.  Maybe Wigan boss Paul Cook said he could be number nine every week and that may have triggered his decision.”

The words of Rangers manager Steven Gerrard after Josh Windass joined Wigan Athletic on the summer transfer deadline day. The fee was reported to be £2m. That same day Latics paid Ipswich some £1.25m for centre forward Joe Garner. Why did Paul Cook sign both when he already had Will Grigg and James Vaughan competing for the centre forward position?

Cook clearly has a high regard for the 24-year-old Windass, but what were his intentions? Was he signing the Hull-born player as a central striker or one who would poach goals from wide positions?

At the end of last season Cook had three central strikers in the senior squad. Over the summer he opted to send Devante Cole on loan to Burton Albion, leaving Grigg and Vaughan to fight for the position. Cook’s preferred formation involves one central striker, although he will sometimes throw on another in the second half if needs’ be. Garner is a capable and experienced Championship-level central striker and he will compete with Grigg and Vaughan, but where does that leave Windass?

Not surprisingly, given the competition he is facing, Josh Windass has not yet started a game for Latics as a centre forward. He has been confined to the right or left wing. He has made 8 starts, Latics winning 3, drawing 1, losing 4 of those games. He has scored one goal, well taken against Hull City.

Cook’s team last season was characterised by fast and decisive play from the flanks with pacey wingers and full backs pushed far forward. At its best it was exhilarating to watch. Gavin Massey was a key player on the right wing, his pace causing problems for opposing full backs, but his ability to perform the high press and to get back to support his full back underlined his contribution. The loss of Massey through a severe hamstring injury was a bitter pill for Cook to swallow. He had a potential replacement in Callum McManaman, but he too has had injury issues and not been at his best. In the meantime, Cook has used Windass and Michael Jacobs in wide positions, interchanging between right and left.

Windass is not a natural winger. Too often he has looked like a central striker playing wide. But that position is by no means new to him. Rangers had used him there often. Was Gerrard being upfront about Windass’ decision to leave Rangers? The whole thing does not add up.

What we have seen so far of Cook’s preferred style of play has been refreshing. Long-standing Latics fans would have said something similar about Paul Jewell’s football. PJ pulled a masterstroke by converting a centre forward with a low strike record into a left midfielder who was key not only in promotion to the Premier League, but staying there. Big Lee McCulloch was rarely going to beat a defender in his left wing position, but he worked hard in midfield and was a real threat at the far post with his heading ability. Jewell made a pragmatic decision to sacrifice speed on the left wing, for the greater good, McCulloch’s attacking threat in the air adding another dimension. Moreover, in Leighton Baines and Steve McMillan, he had attacking left backs with the ability to cross the ball with their “stronger”  feet.

Cook stuck his neck out with the signing of Josh Windass. His dilemma revolves around how to use the player most effectively for the combined benefit of the team.

Would Windass be effective in that McCulloch role? He is certainly not a right winger but playing on the left provides him with opportunities to cut in for right foot shots. But that is a big part of Michael Jacobs’ game. Jacobs has been a key player for Cook.

Cook surprised us at Preston by replacing an injured Nick Powell with Dan Burn, reverting to a back three. For a manager so passionate about 4-2-3-1 it was a paradigm shift. If he were to persist with such a system, there would be possibilities for twin strikers. Windass and Grigg would provide an interesting pairing. But one senses that Cook’s motivation was to bring Burn back into the fold than anything else. Given the hard times that Antonee Robinson has recently had it would not be a surprise to see Burn appear at left back.

Cook has lots of thinking to do. Does he bring McManaman in to provide pace and balance on the wing or does he keep faith in Windass? Or is he willing to sacrifice 4-2-3-1 to accommodate him as a striker?

Another, if less likely, scenario is at least one central striker leaving in the January transfer window.

The team selection for the game against high flying West Bromwich Albion next weekend will make interesting reading.

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Lang signs new contract – but who will be the next?

The announcement of a new two-year contract for the 19-year-old Callum Lang came at an opportune time. It left Wigan Athletic time to consolidate their investment in a player who has the potential to play in the upper tiers of English football. Lang is to be sent off on loan until January to Oldham Athletic, who were last season relegated to League 2.

It was in mid-May that the media reported that Everton were interested in signing Lang, who was in the Liverpool academy until he joined Latics at the age of 14. He made his Wigan debut in a League Cup game against Blackpool in August 2017 before being loaned to Morecambe for the season.

The 5 ft 11 in tall Lang had a successful loan with the Shrimps, making 14 starts, 16 substitute appearances and scoring 10 goals. Although regarded as a centre forward at Wigan, Lang would often play behind the central striker at Morecambe.

In modern football the majority of the clubs in the top tiers rarely give their young players an extended run in their senior team. The norm is that they are sent on loan to clubs in lower divisions, giving them first team experience in a competitive environment, thereby maximising their value in the transfer market. It is a minority who go back to their parent clubs and establish themselves as first team regulars. So, what are the chances of Lang becoming a major player for Latics?

Wigan Athletic has sadly been a graveyard for young players over recent years. The most recent success story was Leighton Baines and he left for Everton in 2007. So many youngsters have shown promise at youth level and looked destined for higher things, only to depart to clubs in the lower tiers. Latics managers, under pressure for results, have been reluctant to throw youngsters into the fray. But finding suitable loans for young players has never been easy for Wigan.

Last season saw Latics sending six homegrown youngsters on loan to non-league clubs. Three of those have since left the club. Sam Stubbs went to Crewe Alexandra until January, then to AFC Fylde. He too has departed the club. On the club website Callum Lang is listed with the development squad, but the 16-year-old Joe Gelhardt listed with the senior squad.  Gelhardt is clearly a bright young talent, already on the radar with big Premier League clubs.

Providing Gelhardt is not snapped up can we seriously expect him to contend for a place in the senior team? Admittedly, he came on as a substitute in the League Cup defeat at Rotherham, but would Cook even think of giving him an opportunity in a league game?

Lang clearly benefitted from his time in League 2, playing at a club that was struggling to avoid relegation. At the time it was at a level just one tier below where Latics were. Should he make a success in the first half of the season at Oldham, could he contend for a first team place at Wigan in January?

Latics currently have four centre forwards in their senior squad. Given that one is likely to leave there would remain three who would be above Lang in the pecking order. If Lang were to become a candidate for the number 10 role he would compete with Nick Powell, Gary Roberts and possibly Jamie Walker. The probability is that Lang would be sent off on loan again in January.

Given that Lang has been offered an extended contract, what will happen with the senior squad players whose current deals expire next summer? They include Nathan Byrne, Gavin Massey, Shaun MacDonald, Sam Morsy, Nick Powell and James Vaughan. Having already lost Dan Burn in the last year of his contract, can we expect more departures via the loan-to-buy route? Why are the futures of these players still left hanging?

Some fans will cite the change in the ownership as the main issue involved in the contract renewals, but it could amount to more than that. There is a possibility that at least one of those players will leave in the next couple of weeks, together with loans and loan-to-buy deals for those on longer contracts. Cook’s squad is currently unbalanced with a wealth of midfielders and forwards, but a lack of experienced defenders. He can be expected to rebalance the squad.

On the other hand, Will Grigg and Michael Jacobs were in a similar position this time last year. Both went on to sign contracts to bind them to the club until summer 2020, Grigg’s deal being announced in early September and Jacobs’ in mid-October 2017.

Offering Callum Lang, a new contract was a good move by the club. We can only hope they can be equally judicious in their dealings with those key senior squad players whose contracts are winding down.

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