Wigan Athletic: on track to emulate the success of the Cook/Richardson team of 2017-18

Trawling the social media, I came across this Tweet from a fellow Latics fan. It certainly took me by surprise. Thank you for sharing this, Daymo.

There have been discussions among fans as to whether this current Latics side is as strong as that of 2017-18. It is impossible to compare teams from different eras, but stats can help provide some basis for comparison. For the two teams to have the same WDL stats after 40 games is certainly thought-provoking. Moreover, it is currently a three-horse race, at this as it was at the same stage those four seasons ago.

Last season Hull City won the League 1 title with 89 points with Peterborough United finishing second on 86. In 2015-16 Gary Caldwell’s team won the title with 87 points with Burton Albion following them on 85. At this point it looks like a minimum of around 90 points will be needed for automatic promotion this season.

The Paul Cook/Leam Richardson team went on to win League 1 in 2017-18 with 98 points, after winning three and drawing three of their final six games. The question now to be asked is whether this 2021-22 team can emulate the success of their predecessor of four years earlier?

After 40 games played Richardson’s current team have a greater lead over their rivals than the 2017-18 team. Cook’s primary aim at that time had been to secure promotion. Both Latics and Blackburn had very strong squads with wage bills way above the norm for League 1. Shrewsbury Town had really punched above their weight and had looked like contenders for automatic promotion until they fell back in the final part of the season. Cook’s team went on to win the division with a memorable goal from Will Grigg in the final game at Doncaster.

This current Wigan side are the bookmakers’ clear favourites for promotion. Even if MK Dons were to win all four games remaining, Latics would need only 10 points from their last six matches.  Given the upcoming fixtures for the Dons it would be an outstanding achievement from them to win them all.

Should this side go on to achieve automatic promotion it will be on a budget of somewhere around 60% of that in 2017-18. Superb recruitment and high morale within the club has shown its worth on the field of play. There are players who provide a strong spine to the squad, capable of enabling Wigan Athletic to consolidate in the second tier of English football.

Evatt’s comments rankle, but are Wigan Athletic an over-physical team?

Ian Evatt defends Dapo Afolayan

“I just think that sometimes he has unfairly of having a reputation for diving, but if you’re fouled, you’re fouled. I thought some of the tackles on him today were poor and mistimed and that’s where you need the referees to ignore noise and so-called reputations and give the right decision on a day and I don’t think we got the right decision with McClean’s second yellow in particular.”

Ian Evatt is rarely short of words. The outspoken Bolton boss was right about James McClean’s second yellow for a foul on Dapo Afolayan. It was a reckless action by a player already on a yellow card and it could have ultimately cost Latics all three points. The referee had earlier booked McClean for a foul on Afolayan, that was debatable. Some would say that the Irishman did not even touch the player, but even if he did it was hardly a bookable offence. The referee was surely influenced by the writhing of Afolayan on the ground after his fall.

Wigan were certainly aware of the threat that the 24-year-old Afolayan brings. He is a talented and skilful player who will invariably be heavily marked by League 1 defences. According to the Bolton Evening News he was the most fouled player in the division after the initial 5 matches this season. Given his capabilities it would be a surprise for him to remain at Horwich next season.

This Wigan Athletic side is certainly physical. Over the course of the season, they have outgunned the opposition with their ability to win the second ball, wearing them down by attrition. The stats reflect it with Latics scoring a total of 28 goals in the first half and 40 in the second. It is the fittest Wigan team for many years. Long balls are a feature in Liam Richardson’s style of play. Stats from WhoScored.com show an average of 18% of their passes classed as “long”, compared with Bolton’s average of 11%.

But are Wigan more physical than other teams in League 1? How does their foul and card count compare?

“Wigan had a game plan to come here and stop us playing and when you’ve got a team as experienced, as physical and as well set-up as they are, it makes things difficult.”

So said MK Dons manager, Liam Manning, following Latics’ draw at the MK Stadium in March. The match starts showed the home team having 59% of possession and committing 11 fouls to Wigan’s 16. A draw was a fair result between two teams with contrasting styles. Leam Richardson opted for a backline of three central defenders, with wing backs, matching the formation of the home team. It worked well, the shape and energy of the Wigan team stifling the MK Dons’ usually smooth-flowing football, forcing them into errors.

The Dons are probably the most aesthetically pleasing footballing side in League 1. On average they have committed 8.5 fouls per game, compared with 13.4 by the opposition. Latics and Rotherham can be considered more physical in their style of play and the stats back up the argument. Latics have committed an average of 12.7 fouls per match (11.9 by the opposition) and Rotherham 12.6 (11.5). Wigan’s foul stats, not surprisingly given the difficult circumstances, make better reading than those in the 2020/21 season of 14.7 to 11.7.

Stats courtesy of FootCharts.co.uk

Although Latics and Rotherham come close on foul stats, an examination of those for yellow card stats paints a different picture.  Wigan average 2.1 yellows per game (1.7 by the opposition), whereas Rotherham’s stats are 1.5 to 1.8.

Stats courtesy of FootCharts.co.uk

More than half of Latics’ yellow cards have been accumulated by 4 players: Tendayi Darikwa 13, Callum Lang 11, Max Power 10 and James McClean 8. On the other hand, Jack Whatmough and Tom Naylor who have made so many key tackles and interceptions this season have received 4 and 6 yellows respectively.

The brand of football played by Richardson’s team is certainly akin to that of the Paul Cook era. The stats in Cook’s final season were 13.5 fouls committed per match (13.1 for the opposition), 2.1 yellows per match (1.8 for the opposition).

Style of play notwithstanding, Leam Richardson has done an outstanding job over the last two seasons since Cook left. He kept Latics in League 1 and they are now in with a very good chance of automatic promotion. Moreover, a half the current squad have prior experience of at least 40 matches in the Championship or the Premier League. Should promotion be achieved there would be a strong base to build upon.

Latics may be one of the most physical teams in the division but they are less cynical than many. The standard of refereeing may be near an all time low in League 1, but the officials’ jobs are made so difficult by the diving, shamming of injury, shameless time wasting and mobbing of referees over borderline decisions. The foul and card stats make interesting reading, but do not necessarily paint a full picture.

Five talking points after Wigan Athletic earn a draw at Milton Keynes

March 12, 2022: MK Dons 1 Wigan Athletic 1

Wigan Athletic significantly strengthened their bid for an automatic promotion place in League 1 by gaining a point at the MK Stadium. The result means that the teams remain level on points, MK having 8 games left to play and Wigan 11.

Courtesy of FootyStats.com

Leam Richardson described it as “a commendable performance” by his players, citing how they had worked tirelessly hard in and out of possession. It was what could be termed a “professional performance” with Wigan’s work rate, energy and physicality dulling the keen edge of the home team’s usual style of smooth football.

MK manager Liam Manning summed it up in saying: “Wigan had a game plan to come here and stop us playing and when you’ve got a team as experienced and physical and well set-up as they are, it made things difficult. They came here well structured, well drilled and difficult to break down.”

Tom Naylor’s 59th minute goal had looked yards offside at the time, although video replays suggest it was a borderline decision that went in Latics’ favour. The home team’s equaliser in the 88th minute was a frustrating one for Wigan to concede, with a free header from a corner.

In the end a draw was a fair result.

Richardson gets it right

Leam Richardson opted for a backline of three central defenders, with wing backs, matching the formation of the home team. It worked well, the shape and energy of the Wigan team stifling the MK Dons’ usually smooth-flowing football, forcing them into errors.

Madley stays strong

When it was announced that Bobby Madley was to officiate this game there were groans from Wigan fans. He had made some decisions in previous Latics matches that were both puzzling and infuriating.

However, Madley stayed strong. It was a tense affair between two teams vying for automatic promotion, each having a contrasting style of play. Madley’s decision to allow Naylor’s goal was pivotal, as was his strength in resisting simulations from the home team.

Unnecessary Yellow cards

One of the frustrations of Wigan’s play this season has been the accumulation of unnecessary yellow cards. Yesterday Latics were without Tendayi Darikwa, James McClean and Graeme Shinnie through suspension. Callum Lang picked up another one yesterday and will miss the next two matches.

Fortunately for Richardson, Latics have a strong squad. However, they have lost important players through long-term injury, on top of the normal shorter-term injury toll. To lose more players through suspensions which could have been avoided by better self-discipline adds to the pressure.

Lang will miss the next two games

Callum Lang has been such a key player since his return to Wigan in January 2021. Without his opportunism and drive Latics would almost certainly have been relegated last season. This season he has become an automatic starter in a strong Latics side heading for promotion.

In recent matches Lang has not been on his best form. Reports have suggested that he has been carrying an injury. Yesterday he was heavily policed by the MK Dons defence, giving him little space to work in, dulling his effectiveness.

The yellow card he received yesterday means that Lang will be suspended from the next two league games. It is a blow for Latics even if they face lowly opposition in Crewe and Morecambe this week. However, in the long run an enforced rest might prove beneficial to a player who has put so much energy into the team that he risks burning himself out.

Darling’s equaliser

Wigan’s ability to repel aerial threats has been key in their rise as a promotion-chasing team. They have four quality centre backs to choose from and tall midfielders and attackers who come back to help defend set-pieces. Moreover, Ben Amos has shown his ability to punch the ball away in a crowded goalmouth.

MK Dons central defender Harry Darling scored his eighth goal of the season yesterday. Given his goal tally one would have expected him to be better policed from the corner kick that led to the equaliser.

Wigan’s last League 1 title winning team had Dan Burn and Chey Dunkley marshalling the centre of defence, a robust duo who were superb in the air. Richardson’s preferred centre back pairing has been Jack Whatmough and Curtis Tilt, their physicality and ability in the air akin to that of Burn and Dunkley. Together with Jason Kerr they got the better of the home team forwards yesterday until two minutes from normal time. Amos could be blamed for missing his punch away, but where was his cover?

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Five talking points following an abject display against Sunderland

February 26, 2022: Wigan Athletic 0 Sunderland 3

“I’ve got to be respectful to the players and the staff in that we haven’t lost here since October. The good thing about football is that we’re able to make it right over the next couple of days and we’ve got another game on Tuesday to do that.”

Leam Richardson was as philosophical as usual in his post-match comments.

But Wigan Athletic’s big day in front of a home crowd of over 20,000 was a big let-down. A well taken goal by Bailey Wright after two minutes was followed by two “soft” penalties for a runaway win for the visitors, their third against Wigan this season.

The run of fixtures at Rotherham and Wycombe at home to Sunderland was always going to be demanding. Four points from the three games in the space of eight days against top League 1 opposition is not such a bad tally, but this defeat in front of the biggest DW crowd in a decade really hurt.

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

Latics rely on having high energy levels

Conceding a goal in the first two minutes was a hammer blow, but on previous occasions when Wigan have fallen behind, they have so many times clawed their way back to win. This is certainly the fittest Latics squad for years and among the most physical. They will typically grind the opposition down by attrition, piling on more and more pressure as the other team tires.

That those high energy levels were not evident yesterday was no surprise following demanding trips to Rotherham and Wycombe within the space of just over a week. Richardson had employed a degree of squad rotation for those games, but there were eight players who played in all three.

Richardson is always reluctant to change a winning lineup, unlike Alex Ferguson who invariably made one or two changes, nevertheless keeping the core of the lineup. Midfield is a key area in the battleground of Richardson’s team, but Tom Naylor and Max Power looked jaded yesterday, with Will Keane struggling to impose himself. Richardson has quality and experienced midfield cover in Graeme Shinnie, Glen Rea and Jamie McGrath. The latter seems to have disappeared off the radar despite a promising start to a Latics career. The other two have been used sparingly.

Getting the best out of the flair players

At their best Latics have created their chances from the wings, with Callum Lang and James McClean, constantly attacking opposition defences and Will Keane following through from centre midfield. Latics once more looked over-reliant on Lang and he was well policed by the Sunderland defence. McClean was sadly played at left back and much of his attacking edge was dulled by his defensive responsibilities. At his best Keane has not only scored crucial goals, but he has also provided a link between defence and attack. But Keane has too often been pushed forward, leaving a gap between holding midfield and the attack.

Lang, McClean and Keane are always likely to be among the first names on the manager’s team sheet. Richardson has Gavin Massey available to come in as backup for Lang, Gwion Edwards for McClean and McGrath for Keane.

Lumping it long to the centre forward

Since the arrival of the Cook/Richardson duo in 2017 the style of football at Wigan has been predominantly long ball. At its best it has been a targeted approach with measured long passes to attacking players, putting pressure on the opposition defences, subsequently opening them up from the flanks. At its worst it has deteriorated to hoofball, with the centre forward having a near hopeless task feeding on scraps.

Kieffer Moore is a centre forward who remains well loved by Latics fans for his role in that epic fight against a 15- point deduction in 2019-20. Moore had a torrid time in his early days at Wigan constantly chasing those hopeful long balls and receiving scant service. Although signed in summer it took him until November to score his first goal. He went on to score 10 in 36 appearances, including some real crackers. It could be said that Moore took some time adapting to the Championship after playing in the lower leagues. But more than that, he benefitted from a gradual shift of the team playing the ball more through midfield and defenders cutting down on those balls lumped forward.

Josh Magennis is struggling in the same way that Moore did in his early days. Magennis is an experienced centre forward who has played in the Championship, the Scottish Premier League and the EFL League 1. He can hardly be called a “poacher” with a career record of 76 goals in 413 appearances in those three leagues. But is he the right person to play the target man role in Richardson’s style of play? Is it the best way to employ him?

To be fair on Magennis it is a thankless task chasing hopeful long balls. Richardson replaced an ineffective Magennis after 62 minutes at Wycombe on Tuesday but later stated the player had been “excellent”. His comment beggared belief.

There was a moment in this game when we saw Magennis at his best. He ran down a channel on the right, showing keen acceleration and put in a superb low cross that McClean, running in from the left back position, almost scored. Magennis does make runs into space, but rarely receives the right pass. If he is to be successful at Wigan it is going to be when his teammates play to his strengths.

Adapting tactics according to the opponent’s style of play

Sunderland manager Alex Neil is a wily tactician and it would be no surprise to see his team perform well in the coming weeks. They have a had a torrid time recently, but yesterday looked well balanced, with a solid defence, a creative midfield and the threat of Ross Stewart up front.

Latics were clearly shaken by the early goal but looked tactically limited. That has been the case on previous occasions when they have faced teams with the ability to keep the ball on the ground and pass through the midfield.

The MK Dons pose a threat to Latics, now being level with them on points, but having played three games more. The Dons play that same kind of skilful football that we saw in flashes from Sunderland. It will be interesting to see how Richardson plans to deal with them in the game at the superb Stadium MK on March 12. Would a change in midfield formation be a possibility?  

Promotion is still on the cards

The immediate task is for Richardson to lift his players for the home game with Fleetwood on Tuesday. It is followed by Wimbledon’s visit on Saturday when MK Dons play at Rotherham. Latics will be keen to get maximum points in those two games before their next fixture at the Stadium MK.

Latics and Rotherham remain firm favourites for automatic promotion. In Wigan’s case it can be done provided the manager effectively uses the talent at his disposal and orders his players to stop that awful lumping of the ball forward.  

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Amigo and Social Media reaction to an exciting comeback at Wycombe

February 22, 2022: Wycombe Wanderers 1 Wigan Athletic 3

“The first half wasn’t like us. We didn’t get enough second balls or hold the ball well enough. But as soon as we got the first goal, we knew we could get three which we did, and I thought the second half was a great performance. We got it wide which is always dangerous when you have pace. Gwion [Edwards] and Humps [Stephen Humphrys] coming on changed the game really as they are direct players.”

Tom Naylor’s comment summed up what happened at Wycombe. It was a classic “game of two halves”, with Latics making an exciting comeback after being a goal behind at half time.

Leam Richardson reverted to his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation with James McClean at left back and Gavin Massey on the left wing. Josh Magennis was once again in the starting lineup with Stephen Humphrys left on the bench.

Once again Latics constantly used the long ball to poor effect in the first half. But in the second period Wycombe could not cope with the football that Wigan played. There is constant debate among fans as to why Latics too often use that long ball/hoofball tactic, given the quality of the players in their squad. Not only is their football better to watch when they desist from the “hoof” but it produces better results.

Richardson brought on Humphrys and Edwards after 62 minutes, in place of the ineffective Magennis and Massey. Magennis continues to struggle in the role of target man: is it the best way to utilise him? It was a pity to see Massey pushed out on the left where he is so much less effective than on the right. Many will say that those two substitutes should have been on from the start.

 Let’s take a look at how fans reacted to the match through the message boards and social media. Our thanks go to the Vital Wigan – Latics Speyk Forum and Twitter for providing the media for the posts below to happen. Thanks go to all whose contributions are identified below:

King_dezeeuw06 wrote:

Useless long ball as usual to start the game just giving the ball away constantly playing in a way Ainsworth would’ve picked for us to give them the easiest possible time. After plan A gets in trouble again we switch to plan B start to try and play football we absolutely batter them and turn it around magnificently. If you took out the part of the game before we switched style that was possibly the best performance of the season – we were untouchable.

After the switch was flipped and we started to pass the ball rather than hoofing it to no one we were unlucky to not be in the lead at half time. Wycombe went from bullying us to their only touches of the ball was a clearance or a tackle. They were chasing shadows and it was a matter of time before we scored. Totally blew them away after we stopped playing into their hands and played our game that we seem bizarrely reluctant to accept we are so good at. The lads were diabolical going long and utterly immense playing football – can we stop pretending Warren Joyce like 70 yards pumps to the strikers head is remotely justifiable when we are capable of playing like that.

It wasn’t tika taka and it’s not like we were afraid to mix it up and go long on occasion – but we weren’t hoofing and hoping and were looking to try and play whenever possible. That is what loads of fans have been saying all season – it’s not reinventing the wheel or trying to learn a new style – we don’t need time or new signing, we already know how to do it and it suits the players we have – it’s just a case of starting games with those tactics.

When you stop being 1 trick and predictable the opposition can’t set up to deal with your long balls the same so ironically playing more passing football makes the long balls work better too.

But why do we only start trying to playing football after it’s gone wrong, why do we keep insisting on going long when we are woeful at it. We’ve been through this pattern so often – use plan B to try and recover from the mess made by plan A. Why can’t we just start with plan B as we are a really good at it.

The penny surely has to drop now – scrap trying to be sh.t Tony Pulis era Stoke tribute act and be the best team we can be. Let’s stop grinding out wins playing to our weaknesses and start blowing teams away playing to our strengths. When we pass the ball we are hands down the best team in the league by miles.

Richardson has built a superb team, their fitness, spirit, battle and quality are unmatched at this level but he hides it by keeping going back to long ball. He needs to show off the absolute beast he’s created by switching patently to the passing game and we’ll start smashing teams.

Hampton commented:

First half hoofball – terrible
Second half football – terrific

Got to start with the finishing 11 and associated tactics Saturday – haven’t we ?

Tree and Crown added:

We wouldn’t have won that game tonight if Magennis and Massey had stayed on!

Humphrys and Edwards offered much more, must be due a start Saturday the pair of em.

Roy Race opined:

Awesome performance that. Reminded me of earlier in the season. Apart from the first 20 mins we were by far the better team.

Should have gone in at half time in the lead and second half stepped it up a couple of gears.

Mixed it up well, went long when needed and played some neat stuff as the game was stretched.

It was the change in tempo that did it plus the fact that Humphrys won more aerial challenges in his first 5 mins than Magennis did all night.

Special mention to Edwards, was a live wire when he came on. Seems to do well as an impact sub but struggles when starting.

Up the long ball Tics!

Hindleymon summarised:

When we play football on the deck nobody gets near us.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com