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?

Latics on the road to promotion – Rochdale (A) match reaction

 

What a difference a week can make. An abject defeat at Bury, followed by a 4-0 trouncing of Blackpool, then this 2-0 win at Rochdale. Gary Caldwell’s “new era” squad shows the kind of resilience that can surely send Latics on the road to promotion.

Caldwell had read the riot act to his players following the Bury fiasco, then made ten changes for the Blackpool game. Granted, the Seasiders were poor opposition on Tuesday night, but the performance nevertheless highlighted the strength in depth that Latics now have. Yesterday Caldwell fielded what must be pretty close to his first choice starting lineup, but still had players of the quality of Will Grigg, Francisco Junior and Chris McCann on the bench.

We have seen various tactical formations from Caldwell this season and one is never quite sure what he will do next. In the event he put out a 4-2-3-1 lineup, meaning that he had four specialist attack-minded players on the field. Jason Pearce and Craig Morgan formed an experienced partnership at the centre of defence, with the young Donervan Daniels and Reece James at full back. David Perkins and Max Power have now established themselves in the holding midfield positions and they played behind an advanced midfield trio. New signing Alex Revell started wide on the right, Yanic Wildschut on the left, Michael Jacobs in the centre. Craig Davies played the lone centre forward role. The 40 year old Jussi Jaaskelainen was once again preferred to Richard O’Donnell in goal.

Latics totally dominated the first half, the home team not managing a single shot on target. The running of Jacobs and Wildschut in particular was causing constant problems for Rochdale. Wigan’s tackling was crisp and they really took the game to the opposition. Pearce’s header from Jacobs’ free kick after 16 minutes had put Wigan in the driving seat, but they were unable to add another goal before half time, despite their dominance. Moreover James went off injured after 37 minutes to be replaced by Chris McCann.

One wondered at half time if Latics could continue to subdue the home team in that same way. Surely Keith Hill would make some changes at some stage in an attempt to wrest back some of the initiative for his team. If Rochdale were to get an early goal it would change the whole complexion of the match.

It almost happened early on in the second half when Jaaskelainen made a mess of a cross, the ball falling to Rochdale centre forward Joe Bunney, who spooned the ball over the bar to Wigan’s relief. Rochdale had pushed Wigan back deeper and were enjoying more possession. However, Latics’ pace was a threat on the counterattack. On 61 minutes a long pass from Daniels found Wildschut on the left. The Dutchman used his electrifying pace to get past the full back to the by line. His pull back found Jacobs who steered the ball home expertly. Rochdale then brought on two substitutes, with Latics introducing Don Cowie for Davies, Revell moving to centre forward.

However, that second goal had knocked the wind out of Rochdale’s sails. Although Jaaskelainen was forced to make a fine save from Bunney’s shot, Latics proved worthy winners in the end.

It had been a hard fought game with some full blooded physical confrontations. But unlike some of their near neighbours in League 1 Rochdale are a footballing side, as are Wigan. The foul count was to read 10 against the Dale, 6 against Latics. Having a Premier League referee, Neil Swarbrick, officiating helped keep things under control and the football flowing.

The Good

Despite yet another change in shape Latics looked well organised, particularly in defence where Pearce and Morgan were formidable.  At the beginning of the season it looked like the two were going to be the bastions of the Latics defence.  But injuries to both players, Pearce in particular, have meant they have played together less than a handful of times. Pearce had a typical all-action performance and showed how much he has been missed. Daniels once more showed that he can do a good job at full back, not only strong defensively, but showing a considerable amount of skill for a big man more used to playing in the centre of defence.

Latics appeared a well-oiled unit with all the players showing their commitment, a far cry from the dark days of last season. Power and Perkins have become the lynchpins of the midfield, full of energy and enterprise.

Wildschut’s direct running and lightning speed continues to be a constant threat to opposition defences. In the past he has been criticised for a lack of vision, in not delivering an end-product. However, his pass for Jacobs’ goal after skinning his full back revealed a maturity that belies such criticism. Will Caldwell be able to hang on to this dynamic player when his loan runs out in January?

Jacobs returned to form yesterday. Since Wildschut’s arrival he has seemed out of sorts. Some have questioned whether the two could both play effectively in the same team, given their need for a significant share of the ball. However, Jacobs reveled yesterday in the role just behind the centre forward, with Wildschut wide on the left. With an assist and a goal Jacobs stood out.

The Bad

It is to be hoped that the injury to James is not serious. McCann did a good job coming on at left back, but he was fortunate in not having a speedy winger on his side. Andy Kellett had a fine game against Blackpool in midweek at wing back, but there are question marks about his defensive abilities as a full back. Should James not be fit for the next match Caldwell will have to decide between the two.

Player Ratings

Jussi Jaaskelainen:  7 – good distribution and a fine save from Bunney, but his error in making a hash of a cross could have led to an equalizer.

Donervon Daniels: 7 – solid in defence and bright in attack. Had a good shot parried by the goalkeeper early on.

Craig Morgan: 7.5 – looks a good player at this level. He has had to play with a lot of different partners at centre back this year, but his partnership with Pearce seems the best option.

Jason Pearce: 8.5 – a well taken goals and a towering defensive performance.

Reece James:  – injured. Went off after 37 minutes.

David Perkins: 7.5 – as industrious and determined as ever. Also put in some good passes and had a rasping drive saved near the end.

Max Power: 7.5 – has matured rapidly over the past weeks. He always had the skill and technique, but now he has learned how to graft and tackle. Looks like a top player for the future.

Alex Revell: 6 – worked hard in his first appearance.

Michael Jacobs: 9 – an excellent all round performance from an accomplished footballer.

Yanic Wildschut: 8.5 – a constant threat to Rochdale. Also worked hard in his defensive duties.

Craig Davies: 7 – worked hard in the lone centre forward role. Unlucky with a run in the first half, his shot with the outside of his right foot going narrowly wide. Went off after 62 minutes.

Substitutes

Chris McCann: – did a good job at left back.

Don Cowie: – came on for Davies after 62 minutes.

Tim Chow: – came on for Power after 82 minutes.