Five talking points following a Sharp defeat at Bramall Lane

Sheffield United 4 Wigan Athletic 2

Following a run of insipid away performances, we witnessed a much better one at Bramall Lane. Rather than looking like a team that had come to defend, Wigan Athletic attacked Sheffield United from the start. There was pace, there was balance, there was ambition. The problem was that the home team had Billy Sharp and his hat trick destroyed Latics after Chey Dunkley’s own goal had given the Blades the lead.

Sharp is hardly an Aguero or Kane. He has played just two games in the Premier League, those being for Southampton six seasons ago. But he is a very experienced Championship level striker and scored 13 goals in 34 appearances last season for Sheffield United. He gave Wigan’s centre backs a torrid time yesterday, scoring three opportunist goals.

Paul Cook decided to stick to his usual 4-2-3-1 formation, bringing back Nathan Byrne and Gary Roberts on the wings, replacing Cedric Kipre with Dan Burn, with Callum Connolly moving inside the unavailable Lee Evans.

The manager commented after the match: “We didn’t come under any great pressure in the game, but we conceded four goals and they hit the underside of the bar for five, whilst we have had chances in the game too. The disappointing thing is that at home we can look so sound defensively but I have to stress that when we speak about defending, I mean the team, not just the defenders and the goalkeeper. If we are to have success in the league this year, then we have to iron out the mistakes.”

 Let’s take a look at some points arising from the game:

Cook deserves support

There has been a dramatic drop for Latics in the month of October with a record of W1 D1 L3. Over the course of the season so far so many games have been somewhat naively thrown away or lost tactically.

But at the same time, one must give immense credit to Paul Cook for the positives. He had a whopping challenge in losing the Burn/Byrne brothers at beginning of season, having to bed in a new defence, followed by injuries to key attackers Grigg, Jacobs and Massey interrupting form.

Despite recent results Latics are in a respectable 14th place, 8 points clear of relegation. Moreover, the table is so tight that two wins (or losses) can cause a dramatic rise or fall.

Cook was also without Lee Evans yesterday.  Evans is a quality player in every aspect except speed/acceleration. He is tactically aware, quick thinking, has vision and an excellent technique. He was sorely missed, not least in the quality of his kicks from set pieces.

This is a season of consolidation for Latics. The squad is probably not strong enough to get into a playoff spot but is certainly good enough to avoid relegation. Were they to finish the season in this current 14th place it would be regarded as a success.

Following the game Paul Cook talked about aiming for consolidation:

We must remember the criteria for us all is that we are trying to sustain a foothold in the division and along the way we know it is going to be tough. Today was a tough day. We have had a smashing start and we have difficult games coming up that we know could see this run get worse, though the bigger picture for everyone says that we want to sustain our league status this year and people should never forget that.”

Following an awful display at Millwall, where the hoof was the main form of attack, yesterday’s performance was breath of fresh air. The manager selected a balanced lineup and Latics played some very good football at times.

Wigan have had some difficult fixtures of late and injuries have restricted the manager’s team selection.

It is the manager who takes the flak when the players don’t deliver. Cook is never one to blame the players and he rarely gives excuses. He deserves credit for getting Latics into their current position with a third of the season gone.

More additions to the injury list

Gary Roberts’ hamstring pull after 35 minutes signalled the end of the game for him, with Kal Naismith replacing him. He joins Will Grigg, Michael Jacobs and Gavin Massey on the hamstring injury list. It is a worrying trend: fans are asking if it is something associated with the players’ physical preparation. Or is it merely a coincidence?

Nick Powell’s departure with an ankle injury on 66 minutes was particularly worrying. He had to be helped off the field with a man on each side supporting him. If Latics have one player they cannot afford to lose for a long period of time, it is Powell.

Burn and Dunkley have off days

The exclusion of Kipre for Burn was a bold move by Cook, who maybe thought Burn’s experience would be more important on the day. But although Burn and Dunkley played so many games together last season, this was their first pairing as central defenders this season. It showed as they both struggled against the aggression and movement of the home team’s attacks.

But given their lack of game time together this season it was perhaps understandable that they were not the cohesive unit we saw in League 1. Moreover, in his post-match comments Cook alluded to the lack of protection the defence might have received.

Reece James in midfield

Following Callum McManaman’s introduction on 66 minutes for Nick Powell, Cook put Nathan Byrne at right back, pushing Reece James into a midfield holding role. The hapless Callum Connolly had been taken off 8 minutes earlier.

James is a fine all-round footballer and he looked immediately comfortable in that role, making himself available to receive the ball, using it effectively.

Nathan Byrne is back in contention

It has been a difficult season for Byrne, suffering injury problems and not being able to regain the right back position due to the excellent form of Reece James. However, Byrne can still have an important role to play this season.

Byrne made a welcome return against West Bromwich playing on the right wing. He was rested for the Millwall game but brought back to the right wing yesterday. He was arguably Latics outstanding player, linking up well with James and providing the assist for Kal Naismith’s goal.  Later in the game he was moved to his more customary position at right back, with James pushed into midfield.

With Gavin Massey due to be out for a long period of time, Byrne will most likely be the main contender for the right wing spot. Moreover, his presence gives Cook the option of bolstering his midfield in the latter stages of games by switching James’ and Byrne’s positions.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A back three for Cook at Bramall Lane?

Three at the back for Latics?

“I’ve been speaking to a few people and the best way of getting into the Brighton team would be on the left-hand side of a back three.”

Dan Burn was thinking ahead of his expected move to Brighton in January. But was it in the back of his mind that he might be playing there too for Latics over the next couple of months?

Paul Cook reverted to a line of three central defenders in the final third of the Millwall game, Burn looking so much more comfortable there after a difficult time as a makeshift left back.

Most managers have a favourite formation and Cook is no exception. The 4-2-3-1 that has been the default system during his tenure as Latics manager has enabled not only good results, but good football too. Under that formation Latics have used the flanks to great advantage, stretching the opposition defences wide. Sadly, Cook has lost his most favoured wingers – Michael Jacobs and Gavin Massey – to injury. The two were able to not only attack with pace but play a key role in dropping back to help regain possession. Their all-round team play been sorely missed.

Another feature of Wigan’s best performances this season has been the high press, with the defence pushing up in a high line and Christian Walton playing an important role as keeper/sweeper behind the defence. Although still evident in home games it has been not the norm on the road since the attacking performances in the first two away games at Aston Villa and Stoke, where Latics’ play was a joy to watch.

Some managers are stubborn in sticking to the same formation, come what may. It has advantages in that recruitment can be built around the needs of that system, with players knowing precisely the role they are playing. The disadvantage is that the opposition know exactly what to expect and can find ways of shutting it down.

At Portsmouth Cook was criticised for not having a “Plan B”. But at Millwall he started out with a version of 4-4-2 and switched to 3-5-2 in the second half. Wigan’s football at the New Den could be best described as “direct”. Last season in League 1 we had witnessed similar occurrences, with long balls being launched forwards in a Plan B mode.

Not many teams play 4-4-2 these days, but some do, and they can use it successfully. Like any other system its successful functioning depends on having the right players in the right positions. It could be argued that 4-4-2 lends itself better to a more direct approach than 4-2-3-1, with defenders able to put in weighted long passes to twin strikers. The problem with the version of 4-4-2 we saw at Millwall was that the long passing was rarely well weighted.

Some managers will change their starting formations according to the opposition. Uwe Rosler did that very successfully in his first season at Wigan, switching between 4-3-3 and 3-4-3/3-5-2. Is Cook now looking at doing something similar?

Burn has shown himself to be an accomplished central defender at Championship level. However, Cook will be loath to break up a blossoming central defensive partnership of Dunkley and Kipre. Cook can solve some of his headaches by operating a 3-4-1-2 system, with full backs James and Robinson able to push forward with more security behind them. Nick Powell could play a similar role as before between the holding midfield and the forwards. We have seen so little of Callum McManaman so far, the pundits suggesting that he is still not fully fit and does not track back from the wing in the style of Jacobs and Massey. McManaman thrived in Roberto Martinez’ 3-4-3 where had a free role.

With Lee Evans unable to play against his parent club, Callum Connolly will most probably move into central midfield tomorrow. Were Cook to decide to play with three at the back we could see a lineup something akin to: Walton – Kipre, Dunkley, Burn – James, Connolly, Morsy, Robinson – Powell – McManaman, Windass.

Cook’s dilemma rests in whether to switch to three at the back – which is really five when under pressure – or to stick with the 4-2-3-1 system that has served him so well.

No matter which formation the manager adopts the discerning fan will be looking for an attacking approach following the lack of ambition shown in recent away games. Seeing Latics adopting the high press early on would be a good sign. Keeping the hoofing to a minimum would also mean less pressure on the defence as more possession is retained.

Cook deserves great credit in bringing Latics through to a mid-table position at this stage of the season. They have already shown they can compete with the top teams. Should Latics adopt an attacking approach at Bramall Lane tomorrow and get badly beaten the manager will suffer some degree of flak. On the other hand, were they to be as negative as in recent away games and still lose he would suffer even more.

 

 

Five talking points following three points lost at Millwall

Millwall 2 Wigan Athletic 1

Justice was done and the better side won, but a smash and grab could have given Latics the three points.

Despite being outplayed in the first half Wigan had gone ahead courtesy of an own goal. Then in the 49th minute James Vaughan was clean through, but his heavy touch let him down. On the hour mark Latics were awarded a soft penalty as Vaughan had gone down in the box, only for the spot kick to be spooned way over the bar by Josh Windass.

Windass’ miss breathed life into the home side and they equalised a minute later after another soft penalty was awarded. Given the balance of play it was no surprise when Steve Morison netted the winning goal on 82 minutes.

Following the game Paul Cook commented: “We put ourselves in a position to win the game tonight and we didn’t see it through, that’s disappointing. The penalty miss galvanised them. You can’t give teams legs up in this division and we managed to do that. Some of our play was very naive in terms of the areas on the pitch that we tried to play in. If you go 2-0 up at the Den you can imagine how the atmosphere changes, but credit to Millwall, whether they deserved to win the game I’ll have to watch back and see, but they certainly didn’t deserve to lose the game, that’s for sure.”

Let’s take a look at some points arising from the game:

Cook’s starting lineup raises eyebrows

The announcement of Paul Cook’s starting lineup an hour before kick-off raised eyebrows for some of us. Nick Powell on the bench, Callum Connolly in for Nathan Byrne and Kal Naismith for Gary Roberts. James Vaughan back in at centre forward.

Once more Cook decided to play without a right winger, Connolly being brought in to presumably stiffen up the midfield. Naismith was making his first start for the club.

The formation that resulted was somewhere between 4-3-3 and 4-4-2, with Vaughan and Windass operating as twin strikers and Naismith on the left.

It was a far cry from the balanced 4-2-3-1 formation the manager usually employs.

The long ball rears its head

Wigan’s play was not a pretty sight. Latics’ best football this season has come as a result of the central midfielders dropping back to receive the ball, acting as the link between defence and attack. But last night the norm was to be long balls and hoofs.

Nick Powell is Wigan’s most creative player and he has dovetailed so well with Lee Evans and Sam Morsy in midfield. But Powell was on the bench and Evans and Morsy were not at their best. Moreover, there was a lack of width with no winger on the right and Dan Burn and Kal Naismith struggling on the left. The long ball therefore became the main form of attack.

This is not to say that long ball cannot be a valid style of play. But those long balls need to be measured passes rather than speculative punts forward. What we saw last night was more akin to “hoofing” rather than a methodical “long ball” approach.

Were Millwall there for the taking?

In his pre-match build-up Cook had stressed what a difficult trip it would be to the New Den, where Latics have a poor record.

Millwall were playing a 4-4-2 system that sometimes looked like 4-2-4 as they threw players forward into attack. They repeatedly carved open the Wigan defence in the first half and their football was a cut above that of the visitors.

However, in putting so many players forward there were going to be gaps left behind that could be exploited. But a Latics team lacking in pace, width and creativity was largely unable to capitalise on the gaps.

Vaughan should not be a scapegoat

Paul Cook has four centre forwards in his squad, who all need regular game time. With Will Grigg being injured he selected Vaughan and Windass, leaving Garner on the bench.

This was James Vaughan’s second league start of the season. Garner has made three league starts, Grigg eight and Windass one in the centre forward position.

On his arrival from Sunderland in January, Vaughan had to play second fiddle to Grigg, largely being used as a substitute. The signings of Garner and Windass in the summer have made it even more difficult for the player to get a regular game.

If Vaughan had been sharper, he would have scored in the 49th minute. But given his lack of game time he was not going to be at his sharpest.

Vaughan had one of his better games for Latics last night, feeding off the few scraps that came his way. His work rate was as excellent as always.

A left back to be signed in January?

Dan Burn was again drafted into the left back position for the rested Antonee Robinson. Burn was given a torrid time by Millwall right winger Jed Wallace. It was a relief for Burn when he was moved into a back three in the second half.

However, as things got more comfortable for one player they got less so for another. In the tactical reshuffle Kal Naismith was moved to left wing back. In the pre-season Naismith had a torrid time playing at left back, a position which did not suit him. Naismith does not have the tackling skills to be an effective full back/wing back. However, he does have a good left foot and a decent career strike record from wide midfield positions.

Robinson is excellent going forward, but his defending can be suspect. If anything, his best position is left wing back, allowing him more scope to attack. Will Cook continue with his back line of three at Sheffield United on Saturday? Burn, Dunkley and Kipre make a formidable trio. With James and Robinson as wing backs Latics would have the width that they were lacking at Millwall.

Another left back is a priority for Cook in the January transfer window.

Five talking points following a momentous win over West Brom

Wigan Athletic 1 West Bromwich Albion 0

 

What an uplifting performance and result! Latics fans had been so down in the dumps following a dismal performance at Preston, but this rousing display has once again lifted spirits.

The augurs did not look good for Paul Cook’s side, with Will Grigg and Michael Jacobs joining Gavin Massey on the “major hamstring injury list”. There was a certain amount of doom and gloom prior to the game and Cook’s team selection looked uninspiring. It was no surprise to see Dan Burn come in for Antonee Robinson, but the selection of Nathan Byrne and Gary Roberts on the flanks, at the expense of Callum McManaman did not impress. But the end result was that Cook’s team selection and tactics worked in securing a win over a team whose wage bill dwarfs that of Wigan.

It took a moment of opportunism from Josh Windass after 74 minutes to bring home the three points, outpacing a central defender following Nick Powell’s flick-on header. His finish was resolute. West Bromwich had dominated the early possession and looked the more threatening, but as the game unfolded Latics looked the more dominant attacking threat.

Following the game West Brom manager Darren Moore commented: “Those type of games are there lying and waiting in the Championship. I’ve no complaints. It was a game where both teams were battling, not much goalmouth action. Whatever goalmouth action there was it was off target. From a neutral it looked like it was going to be a nil nil. The chance fell to them, the boy took it really well and you suffer a defeat.”

Moore was largely accurate in his appraisal of the game, although most neutrals present would have most likely said that on the balance on things, Latics deserved their win.

Let’s look at some talking points arising:

A change in tactical approach

When Wigan lined up it looked like the regular 4-2-3-1 formation that has been the norm in Cook’s tenure. However, the two central defenders were switched with Kipre put on the right side and Dunkley on the left. West Brom’s front two of Dwight Gayle and Jay Rodriguez had already scored 15 goals between them, one goal more than Latics entire team had mustered up to that point. But following a tough time at Preston, Wigan’s centre backs rose to the occasion and kept Gayle and Rodriguez on a short leash. Kipre had what must be one of his best performances for Latics and Dunkley once again showed his mettle.

It looked like Cook had given Windass the opportunity to play in the lone striker role, but as the game progressed we would see he and Powell exchanging positions. It proved to be a masterstroke as the opposition defence found their movement hard to deal with. Moreover, the synergy between the two gave us a glimpse of a fine partnership developing.

We get a glimpse of why Windass was signed

Josh Windass had looked like a duck out of water playing wide. Given the opportunity to play a more central role he looked a fine player, industrious, intelligent in the timing of his runs, a headache for the visiting defence. Windass had 6 shots, with 3 of them on target. Given Latics’ shot-shy record in recent games it was refreshing.

Cook had had so many of us fans rubbing their heads as to why he would pay £2m for a player who prefers to play as a central striker when he already had three others fighting for a place in that position. But much was revealed after yesterday’s game when the manager said:

“Today, we had natural balance with Gary Roberts – who was absolutely magnificent – and Nathan Byrne the same. That allowed Josh to play in a position that we have brought him into the club to do and you saw the energy he has got, whilst he also can finish – his goal was top class.”

 Seeing the way Windass linked up with Powell one could get a glimpse of Cook’s belief in the player.

But Cook still has Garner, Grigg and Vaughan fighting for a striker position, which will be a dilemma for the manager.

Another line of thought is that Windass was signed as a back up for Powell, should he leave in January.

Powell’s continued tenure at Wigan will depend on the stance of the new IEG owners, when the takeover happens, assumedly in November. Where would this current team be without Powell’s superb build-up play and his ability to score and assist in making goals?

Gary Roberts deserves commendation

Roberts has prior experience at Championship level and he looked a class act. Although 34 years old and with just 7 minutes of second tier match play behind him this season he worked hard for 89 minutes, putting in finely weighted passes and crosses.

He has not been the most popular of players with Wigan fans, the cynics regarding him as an old pal of Cook’s from Chesterfield and Portsmouth. Indeed, questions were asked as to why someone at this stage of his career would be offered an extended contract.

Roberts has never been particularly fast. If he had been he would have played in the top tier. But last season’s stats reportedly suggest that when he was involved he covered more ground than most of his teammates, with a sweet left foot to match.

He got a merited ovation as he left the DW pitch yesterday.

Reece James to Brighton?

Reece James was once again excellent yesterday. Although only 18 he is the complete full back, strong in defence, skilful in attack, but more than anything else he has a great football mind. Barring serious injury or calamity he looks destined to be the regular right back for England.

Media reports tell us that Brighton will make a £10m bid for him.

But would Chelsea seriously consider such an offer for a player of his level? Admittedly the Chelsea academy produces so many fine players whose chances of first team selection are minimal, but James is something special.

Should Brighton get him at that price it would be a bargain.

Looking forward to Millwall

Millwall lie in 22nd position, with just two wins so far, but at home they have beaten Derby County and Aston Villa and drawn with Leeds United and Middlesbrough.

A trip to the New Den has never been easy for Latics and their away form has been unimpressive of late. Moreover, Latics have an inferior record in games against Millwall.

Barring injuries, Cook is likely to name an unchanged line-up. What Latics can expect is a fight on their hands. Do the players who played most of the game against West Brom have the energy and determination to fend off a side that has had difficult home fixtures so far, but has an intimidating support?

It might not be pretty, but Cook’s men must be ready to slug it out with the home team. The complacency we saw at Preston could lead to calamity.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

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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