Legless Latics crossed out at Bristol

Latics go off for half time to a deserved ovation from the visiting support.

Latics go off for half time to a deserved ovation from the visiting support.

“We had the ball in some good positions and kept the ball well up until half-time, but then in the second-half we didn’t come out, we didn’t pass the ball and we didn’t do anything that we’d mentioned at half-time, so I felt it was only a matter of time before the goal was coming because we couldn’t stem the flow of the game.”

Gary Caldwell was right about that. After a fine first half performance Latics visibly flagged. The earlier intensity and running off the ball that had made them the marginally better team up to the interval seemed to disappear as soon as the second half commenced. City used the tactic so often employed in the Championship: that of bombarding the visiting defence with a barrage of crosses. With Latics unable to stop the flow of the crosses it seemed but a matter of time before the goals would materialize for the home side.

It was a beautiful day in the west of England and some 1,200 fans had made the journey down despite the handicaps imposed by the M5 motorway. Ashton Gate is a fine venue these days, following the construction of two new stands. Not only were the spectator facilities in good condition, but also the pitch, which is shared by Bristol RUFC. But comparisons with the pitch at the DW were hard to make as the rugby union season has not yet started, whereas the Warriors’ rugby league season is nearing its conclusion.

Caldwell made two changes from the starting lineup he had put out at Fleetwood, with Adam Bogdan coming in for Jussi Jaaskelainen and Stephen Warnock for Sam Morsy. It was a 3-5-2 formation with Will Grigg and Yanic Wildschut up front and Alex Gilbey playing a little further forward in central midfield than David Perkins and Max Power.

Wigan soon settled into the game, with the midfield trio linking up well and Grigg and Wildschut looking lively up front. Their movement caused problems for the home team defence. The Latics defence looked solid. Wigan were to get a beautifully worked goal after 32 minutes when Wildschut pulled the ball back for a beautifully struck shot from Gilbey from just outside penalty box. The home team’s main threat came from set pieces, particularly when the 6 ft 6 in central defender Aden Flint came forward.

The half time whistle saw Latics a goal up, having contained the home team and caused danger on the counterattack. One wondered if they could keep it up in the second half, with the home team playing towards a packed home support behind the goal in the rebuilt Wedlock Stand. Grigg’s inclusion in the team had been a surprise after not being able to train for a week. How long could he last?

As soon as the referee blew his whistle for the start of the second half the pattern of the game was to instantly change. City were to focus on flooding the flanks and pumping over crosses. It was to work to great effect. Latics were quickly penned back in their own half, unable to string passes together. The movement that had characterized their performance in the first half was sadly lacking. The crosses continued to ping into the box and it seemed a matter of time for the Latics defence to crack. Wigan’s central midfield just did not seem to have the legs to get into space to receive the ball and the opposition was dominating the centre of the pitch. Surely Caldwell would bring on Sam Morsy to stem the flow and provide some much needed steel in that midfield?

However, the first substitution was made by City manager, Lee Johnson. It was a double change after 67 minutes, with midfielder Bobby Reid and, crucially, the 6 ft 5 in central striker Tammy Abraham coming on to heighten the aerial threat. Grigg’s legs could cope no longer and he went off on the 70th minute to be replaced by Michael Jacobs.

The departure of Grigg meant that Wigan no longer had a centre forward capable of holding the ball up and giving his midfield and defence much needed respite. Their attack had almost completely fizzled out. The crosses continued to rain in and somehow the Latics defence held out. However, the inevitable was to happen in the 81st minute with Abraham bundling home a cross. Bogdan had been having a good debut and he was to make more fine saves and interceptions in the final 10 minutes.

The departure of Wildschut on 85 minutes was a further nail in the coffin for Latics, who were now able to offer zero in terms of attacking options. It was therefore no surprise when Reid scored following a deflection on 90 minutes. Donervon Daniels had been brought on for the injured Luke Burke after 77 minutes, but the man from the Leeward Islands was way out of touch, as was Ryan Colclough who had come on for Grigg. Five minutes added time would normally have provided a window for Latics to at least try to get back into the game, but their efforts were inept. They could hardly string passes together, their heavy legs probably taking toll.

City proved to be worthy winners. A legless Latics side was unable to both stop the crosses coming in and to retain the ball for any period of time.

Although it was not an excuse for a disappointing performance, Latics had not been helped by a referee who was lenient towards the home team in the whole game, giving Latics four yellow cards in the process. After some appalling arbitrage in League 1 last season one would have hoped for better in the Championship.

The Good

Luke Burke is an exciting young talent. The 18 year old former youth team captain made an excellent debut. Reminiscent of Leighton Baines in his younger days, Burke is a complete full back. He is sound in his positioning, thoughtful in his distribution and rugged in the tackle. There were times when he was overrun as City poured players over to their left flank, but he did not panic and made some crucial tackles and interceptions.

Alex Gilbey too made a promising debut, scoring a fine goal. Gilbey looks classy on the ball and can tackle too, although he still has some way to go in that department. Although he has never played above League 1 level before he looked comfortable.

Adam Bogdan had a fine debut in goal. He was assertive in his box, punching away dangerous crosses, making some excellent stops. It is to be hoped that he can put the nightmare of his time at Liverpool behind him and regain the brilliant form he had shown at Bolton before that.

The other debutants, Jake Buxton and Dan Burn, had solid games, keeping their calm in a back three peppered with crosses coming in, especially during the second half. There were lots of teams in League 1 last season who could test the Wigan defence with high balls, but in the Championship it is likely to be more of a threat, given the quality of the wide men putting in the crosses. City put in some wicked ones in this match and Wigan’s defence did well to keep them out for so long.

The Bad

Lee Johnson got the better of Gary Caldwell yesterday. The Bristol City manager made the right substitutions at the right time, both goal scorers having come off the bench. This time around Caldwell did not show the imagination or vision to change the tactical situation with his team under the cosh.

Faced with a midfield overrun by the opposition in the second half, the manager stuck with a midfield trio that was not able to cope. Given Sam Morsy’s combative qualities it was baffling that Caldwell did not choose to introduce him. Is the player out of favour or was it that the manager simply wanted to give the three central midfielders a full 90 minutes?

Moreover in the past Caldwell has shown initiative in changing the shape of his team. Seeing his team creaking in its foundations, with the midfield overrun, was it not time to switch to four at the back, with a strengthened midfield? Or was he once again, looking more long term, giving the new central defensive trio of Buxton, Morgan and Burn a full match to play together?

Last season the wealth of Wigan’s bench was the envy of many other managers in League 1. Yesterday it looked less impressive and the absence of a front man to replace Grigg stood out like a sore thumb. Neither was there a player of the ilk of Conor McAleny or Haris Vuckic to provide more options. Given the injury problems that both Craig Davies and Nick Powell have had over the past couple of years, Caldwell surely be looking at bringing in another central striker.

Michael Jacobs was a key player for Caldwell in League 1, but found himself on the bench yesterday. If Caldwell is going to operate 3-5-2 (or 5-3-2 as it morphed into during the second half yesterday) then the main position for Jacobs is going to be in the role occupied by Gilbey at Bristol. The manager might well be tempted to use Jacobs in that role in home games, but will be looking for more defensive cover when playing away. However, the 4-3-3 system that Caldwell also employs is one which Jacobs can be effectively slotted into, whether in the hole behind the central striker or wide.

Player Ratings

Adam Bogdan: 8 – a promising debut from the big Hungarian.

Luke Burke: 7 – played with composure and determination.

Jake Buxton: 6.5 – a calm influence on the right side of defence.

Craig Morgan: 7 – a gritty performance under pressure.

Dan Burn: 6.5 – kept his composure and made a useful contribution.

Stephen Warnock: 5 – way from his best. Is he fully fit?

David Perkins: 5.5 – as industrious as ever, but is he going to be as effective in the Championship as he was in League 1?

Max Power: 5.5 – below par.

Alex Gilbey: 5.5 – scored a beautifully taken goal, but needs to work on the defensive side of his game.

Will Grigg: 6– effective in the first half, anonymous in the second. Was he really fit to play?

Yanic Wildschut: 6 – a good first half but lost in the second with no service coming through.

Substitutes

Michael Jacobs – came on for Grigg after 70 minutes. Could not impose himself on the game.

Donervon Daniels – came on for Burke after 77 minutes. Looked out of touch. How fit is he?

Ryan Colclough – on after 85 minutes for Wildschut. Looked confused as to his role.

Will it be 4-4-2, 4-3-3 or 3-5-2 for Latics?

Harry Lyon latches on to a Walter Stanley (third from right) cross. Carl Davenport lurks for any rebounds.  Photo courtesy of WiganWorld.

Harry Lyon latches on to a Walter Stanley (third from right) cross. Carl Davenport lurks for any rebounds.
Photo courtesy of WiganWorld.

In the mid 1960’s Allan Brown’s Wigan Athletic team played the kind of football fans liked to watch. There were two excellent wingers, Les Campbell and Walter Stanley, who would put over a stream of tantalizing crosses for the twin strikers to feed on. No wonder that Latics scored 121 goals in the 1964-65 season, when they won the Cheshire County League. Harry Lyon led the scoring with 67 goals in all competitions.

Football was an attacking game in those days, with 4-2-4 prevalent.

Then came England’s World Cup victory in 1966. Alf Ramsey’s team played without wingers, the ‘wingless wonders’ . They packed the midfield with four players, leaving just Geoff Hurst and Roger Hunt up front. With the rugged Nobby Stiles playing the role of  ball winner in front of a back four marshaled by the superb Bobby Moore, England were a very difficult team to play against. Ramsey’s success was based on solid defence, but he also had a superb midfield general and match winner in Bobby Charlton to help generate goals. 4-4-2 was to become the norm for years to come.

Fads come and go, especially football formations. Putting labels on formations is always tricky, as would be the case in Paul Jewell’s side that won promotion to the Premier League in 2005. Dave Whelan had forked out what was a lot of money at the time for twin strikers who would both score more than 20 goals that season.The names of Nathan Ellington and Jason Roberts are etched into the history of the club.

They were fed from the right wing by Gary Teale, as Campbell and Stanley had supplied Lyon and Davenport some forty years before. However, on the left flank was converted centre forward Lee McCulloch. McCulloch could not in any way be called a winger – his role was to bolster the midfield and ghost in at the far post to poach goals, with the opposition defence being occupied in coping with ‘The Duke’ and ‘JR’. The formation they played was usually referred to as 4-4-2, but it could be argued that 4-3-3 was a better descriptor.

Wingers are back in fashion in modern football, although they are expected to play their part in defensive duties too. But many managers shun the idea of playing with twin strikers, preferring to deploy a lone centre forward with support coming through from midfield. Up against two central defenders the lone centre forward has a difficult job. He is not only expected to hold-up the ball when he is almost always outnumbered, but also to score goals. Inevitably the goalscoring ratio of the modern centre forward, in terms of goals per game, has dropped over the years.

In terms of holding up the ball Marc-Antoine Fortune is the best centre forward that Latics currently have. However, his goalscoring ratio for Latics is low even for a modern day lone centre forward – a meagre 1 per 10 games. Although Fortune’s career average is higher – almost 1 in 5 – it is bettered by those of Andy Delort (1 in 3.4) and Oriel Riera (1 in 4). How much longer will Rosler continue to play Fortune at the expense of the other two?

If one trawls the social media and fan forums there are lots of supporters who advocate the kind of attacking approach that uses two wingers with two central strikers. Many refer to it as playing 4-4-2 although it is probably more akin to the older 4-2-4. Over these pasts weeks several fans have advocated starting lineups that include Callum McManaman and James McClean on the wings and Delort and Riera as twin strikers. It brings back memories of the days of Allan Brown.

But it is something that is unlikely under Uwe Rosler or any manager who might succeed him. Most prefer the security of a packed midfield rather than risk putting too many players far forward. Were Rosler to suddenly have a paradigm shift and choose such an attacking formation the reality on the pitch would be something different, with players having to drop back to help a beleaguered midfield?

Some managers like to stick to a set formation and recruit players who can fit into it. Rosler is not one of those. His players are expected to adapt to whatever formation he decides upon, which in turn can often depend on the opposition his team is to face. Having a set formation has its advantages. Roles are clearly defined and players can slot seamlessly into the system. However, it also makes it easier for the opposition to plan their strategy well in advance.

So far this season we have seen formations that can be broadly labeled as 3-5-2, 4-3-3 and 4-4-2. In recent games Rosler has operated a modified 4-4-2. He has deployed three central midfield players, with Roger Espinoza playing further forward than the other two. He has used Don Cowie in right midfield to provide cover for the attacking runs of James Tavernier from the full back position. Fortune has played the target man role with Callum McManaman in a more fluid attacking role.

From time to time Rosler has used a 4-3-3 system with two genuine wingers in McManaman and McClean. The formation offers balance, together with a direct threat to the opposition defence coming from both sides of the pitch. However, both McManaman and McClean need to see a lot of the ball to be effective and this has not always happened. An alternative would be to use Shaun Maloney and Martyn Waghorn in wide positions, with a tendency to move inside. Both have been more consistent goalscorers than McManaman and McClean.

There are those who do not like the 3-5-2 system. They say that it often reverts to 5-3-2 with the wing backs not supporting the forwards. But when properly put into practice it can yield good results. Moreover the squad is well stocked with good quality central defenders and Rosler has lots of options when choosing a back three. He has the aerial power of Leon Barnett and Thomas Rogne to counter those teams who rely on route one football. In Emmerson Boyce and Ivan Ramis he has players who have proved themselves to be as good as any central defender in the division.

Some players thrive more in some tactical formations more than others. James Perch is a solid and dependable right back who has worked hard when pressed into action as a wing back. His attacking play has undergone a significant improvement over the last year. Perch is a fine athlete with good lungs, as evidenced by goals he has scored through getting into positions where he would not have been expected to show up. However, Tavernier has more to offer going forward. His delivery is so often of real quality. But he needs to work hard on the defensive aspects of his game.

One recalls the promise of Ronnie Stam going forward, but he just did not have enough defensively, even as a wing back. At this stage Tavernier looks a good possibility as a wing back or as an attacking option at full back later in a game. Perch remains the best option at right full back.

With three games in less than a week Rosler has already made it known that he will be rotating his squad for the away games at Brighton tomorrow and Bolton on Friday. Delort and Rogne made appearances for the development squad last week and are likely to feature in at least one match. It is to be hoped that Maloney‘s goal against Fulham will help to kick-start his season, which has been disappointing up to this point. Waghorn was a key element of Rosler’s system last season, but has seen little action up to this point. Riera too has seen little playing time over recent weeks and is overdue to return.

Latics have looked at their best this season when they have been able to deliver the high pressing game that the manager espouses. The ability to do that seems to outweigh the tactical formation he chooses to adopt.

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