There are Wigan Athletic fans who were never fans of Roberto Martinez, despite his massive impact on the club’s history. The tiki-taka drove them crazy and they craved a return to the more direct football of the Paul Jewell era.
Martinez’ teams did their best to keep possession, facing opposition which was so often superior in technical ability. Playing against superior opponents means that your players must do a huge amount of running. So often the elite teams in English football will get crucial goals in the closing stages, when the underdogs’ legs are heavy. For Martinez possession was key to maintaining his team’s collective energy to keep a game under control. It could be frustrating to watch, the ball often being passed sideways and backwards, but Martinez always had a plan and a belief in his players that helped his team punch above its weight.
Paul Cook had a plan when he took over to get the club out of League 1. He was a very successful lower league manager with a reputation as a good motivator, whose teams tried to play good football. He brought in his 4-2-3-1 formation, which worked a treat in the third tier. The football was so often good to watch, and his team not only won the League 1 title but had a brilliant FA Cup run.
Cook also looked good in the opening games of last season. Latics were perhaps defensively naive, but they played entertaining football. Over the next six months the standard of football fell, particularly away from home when it was simply awful at times. We had seen Cook’s plan B on occasions in League 1: lumping the ball forward, looking for headers and deflections. It practically became the norm away from home for most of last season.
Following more dire away performances this season, the hoof too prevalent, the performance at Hull last week was a welcome surprise. The players were not on top form, but there seemed to at least be a philosophy developing on how to approach the game. There was less of the hoof and more effort made to retain possession and build up moves from the back.
If someone had told me before the game that Joe Gelhardt’s equaliser came after Wigan had made 27 consecutive passes, I would not have believed it.
It was not like watching Barcelona in their pomp, but what a welcome change from the mindless lumping the ball forward that had become the norm in Latics’ play away from home. What did Cook (or his coaches) say to the players about eschewing the hoof and trying to play constructive football? Whatever it was it brought a change in their mindset.
The hoof was anathema to Martinez. He was never going to accept that unless it was under severe circumstances. Cook had allowed his players to negate their responsibilities for too long, giving them too much leeway in their use of the ball. It had got to the point where some fans were labelling him a long-ball manager.
We knew Cook (and his coaches) were excellent in the third and fourth tiers of English football and that last season was a tough one in what has been so often quoted by them as “an unforgiving league”. The Championship is certainly a division that is a gulf apart from that of League 1. But what had been worrying for us is that the manager and his coaches had not seemingly learned from their mistakes.
One swallow doth not a summer make. However, those 27 passes stick in the mind, no matter how mediocre the game was.
Have Cook and his aides have turned the corner and insisted that a “hoofball” approach is not only unacceptable for paying spectators, but not a valid tactic in a more sophisticated level of football?
The 27 passes suggest that Cook and Latics are turning the corner.
One can only hope this is the case.