Five talking points following a tired-looking performance at Charlton

Charlton Athletic 2 Wigan Athletic 2

The fight shown by Wigan Athletic’s players since the announcement that the club was going into administration has made the fans proud. They showed the same kind of fighting spirit yesterday at The Valley, but their legs were getting heavier and heavier as the second half wore on. It looked a matter of time before Charlton would eventually get the equaliser. It was to come in stoppage time.

After the game Paul Cook commented: “They’ve probably put more crosses into our box than any team we’ve played against for a long, long time, they kept asking the question. You can break down their equalising goal certainly, and we’re massively disappointed a striker can find himself in 10 yards of space in the penalty areas in the 92nd minute. We had three centre-halves on the pitch, they had two strikers, so that’s not right. But while we want to be self-critical, these players have been absolutely magnificent for our football club, that’s the brutal reality of the situation.”

Let’s look at some points arising:

It was another of those disappointing six pointer performances

Latics have been a revelation since February, moving from the relegation zone to what is a mid-table position until the 12 points are deducted. Much of the improvement has been down to relying less on the long-ball and building moves up from the back. Moreover, the whole team has played its role in developing a more solid defence, every player contributing to the improvement.

Since Paul Cook arrived Latics have not coped well with the “six pointer” games. Despite their dominance in League 1 they did not always impress against other teams in the promotion zone. Their record against clubs near the bottom of the Championship table has been mediocre. The win against Hull in midweek was welcome: it was a stunning performance and scoreline.  But the defeat at Luton and the insipid goalless draw with them at the DW together with two draws against a poor Barnsley side were certainly underwhelming.

What a pity the ghost of the 6 pointers could not have been laid to rest today at The Valley.

Would relegation to League 1 be so tragic?

Whether Latics stay in the Championship depends on results in the final games on Wednesday. It is by no means unlikely that Wigan Athletic will beat Fulham, but even if they did, they could still go down if other results do not go their way. But is it so crucial that Wigan stay in the second tier?

The bottom line for us too at Amigos is that we want the club to survive, whether it be in the second tier or the third next season. Despite the positive spin taken by much of the media regarding new owners coming in there remains a worrying possibility that the club will become defunct. There is validity in the comments made by several fans who ask who would want to take over a club with a wage bill that is more than 160% of its revenue and has made an operating loss in four of the last five years.

Should new owners be found could we expect them to pump in some £1m a month to keep the team competitive in the Championship? There clearly must be a rethink about matching expenditure with revenue.

Player salaries in League 1 are dwarfed by those in the Championship. To survive financially long-term, the club would be better placed in the third tier than the second. Granted, there is a difference of some £4m in broadcasting revenue for clubs in the Championship and League 1. Moreover, a potential owner would more likely be tempted to buy a club in the second tier rather than the third.

Were Latics to stay in the Championship for another season the outlook with a much-trimmed squad on a lower wage bill would be bleak. But the revenues for player sales would be higher.

What a blow for Rioch and the Academy

Perhaps the most welcoming sign for the future during the IEC reign was that they (through the chairman) had a plan to develop homegrown talent as a means for the club to be sustainable. Investments were made to improve academy facilities, leading to a welcome rise to Category 2 status.

For Latics to have young players making the youth teams of England, Scotland and Wales has been an indication of the progress made by Gregor Rioch and his staff. Reports of the 17-year-old Jude Bellingham about to be sold by Birmingham City for £40m are not far-fetched. But while Bellingham has made 31 starts and 9 substitute appearance in the Championship this season Wigan’s Joe Gelhardt has made just 2 starts and 15 as a substitute.

The impending departure of Jensen Weir to Brighton for £500,000 is a bitter pill to swallow. Weir was captain of the Scotland U16 team prior to switching to England at U17 and U18 levels. Although the funds to be received will be important in keeping the club afloat for the moment it is sad to see him go at such a low fee, although it is reported there will be add-ons involved. The transfer value was very much affected by the club’s financial situation, although the player had just one brief Championship appearance as a substitute.

It appears that 15-year-old prodigy Alfie Devine will be going to Tottenham, possibly Gelhardt too.

Given the wealth of young talent that has been coming through it is of paramount importance for the future of the club that Rioch and his key staff are retained despite the swingeing budget cuts that will be coming. The departure of likes of Weir, Gelhardt and Devine will hardly help their morale.

Is Paul Cook on his way out?

Reports of other Championship clubs’ interest in Paul Cook are certainly credible. Although his time at Wigan has been a rollercoaster ride his CV is looking impressive. On top of a wealth of experience in the lower divisions he kept Latics in the Championship on a relatively low budget. Only the 12-point deduction will prevent them from finishing in mid-table this season.

Should Cook stay next season he would almost certainly be facing an uphill task. Most of the players he has closely nurtured will most likely be gone over the summer. Put simply, Cook’s future career prospects would most likely be better served by a move to a bigger club, rather than stay and start a large rebuilding project.

Can Latics raise their game for Wednesday’s clash with Fulham?

Although history might suggest otherwise it is by no means unlikely that Wigan Athletic will beat Fulham on Wednesday. With victories over the top two teams in the table they have shown that they can raise their game against strong opposition.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

An academy and an identity

David Sharpe: "Having a top-class Academy is something I’m so passionate about" Photo courtesy of Sky Sports.

David Sharpe: “Having a top-class Academy is something I’m so passionate about”
Photo courtesy of Sky Sports.

“We strive to keep the way of playing football recognizable; attractive, offensive-minded, creative, fast, fair and preferably far away from the own goal on the opponents’ half.”

One could only wish the statement applied to the Wigan Athletic of today. In these times of fightball, rather than football, it seems light years away. But there is no reason why the club could not take on such an identity in the future.

The statement actually comes from Ajax of Amsterdam. Together with a 4-3-3 formation it sets the direction for football at all levels of the club, from academy to first team.

The Ajax youth system produced great players of the past like Dennis Bergkamp, Johan Cruyff, Edgar Davids, Frank and Ronald de Boer, Patrick Kluivert, Frank Rijkaard and Clarence Seedorf. Its academy has continued to produce top class players and both the club and the Dutch national team reap the benefit. Brazil World Cup players Nigel de Jong, John Heitinga, Wesley Sneijder, Martin Stekelenberg, Gregory van der Wiel and Rafael van der Waart all came through the Ajax academy.

Johan Cruyff was one of the best players the world has known. Ex-Barcelona president Juan Laporta once said that: “As a player he turned football into an art form. Johan came along and revolutionised everything. The modern-day Barca started with him, he is the expression of our identity, he brought us a style of football we love.”

It was Cruyff who inspired Barca to develop a football academy to mirror that of Ajax. La Masia has since become the most famous football academy in the world. Its class of 1987 is its most famous, containing Cesc Fabregas, Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique  and Pedro Rodriguez. In 2010 it became the first academy to produce the three finalists for the award of the Ballon d’Or in Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi.

The original La Masia was an old Catalan farmhouse where Barcelona housed young players who came from outside Barcelona. The academy was actually moved to a purpose-built facility in Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper in 2011.  But the name La Masia remains synonymous with the Barcelona youth academy.

More than 500 young players have been housed at La Masia over the past 30 years. Lionel Messi was one of the three Argentinians who left his family for La Masia. He was 13 years old when he arrived. Although youngsters from Brazil, Cameroon and Senegal have come through La Masia, they were a minority. More than half have come from Catalonia, the rest from other parts of Spain.

La Masia costs around £5 million a year to run, most of the cost being the dormitory. Around 10% have made it into the first team. In 2000 coach Louis Van Gaal was laughed at for his dream of a Barcelona winning the Champions League with a team of La Masia players. But nine years later there were eight of them in the squad that was to win the trophy.

Operating a facility like those at Ajax or Barcelona is clearly way beyond the means of Wigan Athletic. But there are surely basic principles that can be applied in Wigan’s case.

On taking over from his grandfather David Sharpe commented:

Having a top-class Academy is something I’m so passionate about, we have to start making and creating our own players. We’ve only really produced two down the years in Leighton Baines and Callum McManaman, and the plan is to see more Wigan boys playing for Latics.”

The new facility at Charnock Richard remains in the future. We await further news from the club on when it will be completed. In the meantime reports suggest that Gregor Rioch and his team of coaches continue to make good progress in bringing up the level of the Academy. It is to be hoped that Rioch will not be poached by one of the big clubs and that he will continue to lead the youth programme.

The purchase of the golf club and its conversion into a football academy is a costly business, but a significant investment in the club’s future. The critics will say it should have happened years ago and question the ability of the club to finance it. However, the club has received funds from transfers that can help fund the capital investment required. It is the year to year operating costs that will be more of an issue, since a figure of £2 million per year would not be unrealistic. Much will depend on whether Latics will be scouring the country for young talent in addition to bringing in local youth or those from Manchester and Liverpool, as has been their wont in the past. Residence costs for those from outside the area, maybe also including overseas, will remain an expensive item.

However, no matter what the scale of the eventual academy at Charnock Richard there are lessons to be learned from both Ajax and Barcelona.

Both clubs have a well-defined style of play which permeates through all levels at the clubs. This helps players develop their roles and the skills that they need to be successful.

Wigan Athletic were approaching something like that in the Martinez era. The style of play was revolutionised during his time of the club. The Martinez style was not popular with all supporters. There were those who wanted a more direct style of play, which has become increasingly evident since he left. However, players at all levels of the club from academy to senior squad, knew what kind of football to strive to achieve. It was successful to the degree of winning the FA Cup on merit, overcoming an immensely talented Manchester City side with style and skill.

The tragic mistake that Dave Whelan made was in appointing a successor who was out of tune with tiki taca, more an adherent of the long ball. The Martinez legacy has since disappeared without trace over the course of the current season. Fightball has supplanted football.

In the meantime we can dream of a successful academy, underpinned by a shared vision of what constitutes good football. With coaches groomed for management from within, like Liverpool of the 1980s, when Bob Paisley and Roy Evans built success on the groundwork provided by Bill Shankly.

Look at what happened at Barcelona following Van Gaal’s dream of Champions League success with a team of players raised in La Masia.

Maybe David Sharpe’s dream of a top-class academy and Wigan boys playing for Latics is another which will become reality.

However, it is unlikely to do so unless the style of play that the club seeks is identified.

What a delight it would be to see Latics adopt a statement of intent similar to that of Ajax.

What now for the Wigan Athletic youth system?

Last season, Wigan Athletic beat Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United, finishing in 15th place in the formidable Premier League. The reserve team ended 6th out of 8 in the competitive northern division of the Premier Reserve League. The youth team lost more than it won in the Football League Youth Alliance, with clubs like Rochdale and Bury topping them. Over the summer, we have seen a welcome shake-up of the youth scheme with Matt Jackson given the job of making sure the infrastructure is in place to better develop players. We now have an academy, rather than a centre of excellence. But has this shake-up come too late? Are we still being left behind our immediate competitors?

The Premier Reserve League – which started in 1999 — was disbanded at the end of last season. The FA has replaced it with the Professional Development League. We now have “development teams” playing in the new league at under 21, under 18 and under 16 levels.

Will this new infrastructure provide a better outlet for developing young players than the old reserve league? The reserve team concept appears to have been dying a slow death over the years. In reality most Premier League clubs have been fielding mostly young players in their reserve teams. There never seemed to be enough fixtures and matches were being played at training grounds, lacking in atmosphere.

Moreover, the English game has not been producing enough youngsters capable of making the grade at Premier League level. Last season — according to transfermarkt.co.uk — 64% of Premier League players were foreigners, compared with 37% in La Liga, 49% in Serie A and 52% in the Bundesliga. A recent online article in the Daily Mail tells us that in the matches played last weekend, only around 30% of who started who would qualify to play for England. Interestingly enough Norwich were the leaders in English players with 6, whereas Wigan Athletic were the lowest with zero. Although you could argue that Latics’ do have several “homegrown” players such as the Scots, Irish and Emmerson Boyce.

Facing this dearth of young English players, the FA has introduced its Elite Player Performance Plan. This has required club’s academies to be ranked on a 1-4 scale, 1 being the highest. Almost all Premier League clubs have their development teams in Division 1 of the new league, since their academies were placed in category 1. The exceptions are Wigan Athletic, Queens Park Rangers and Swansea. The Latics and QPR academies were given category 2 status, meaning the club’s development squads will play in Division 2 of the new leagues, together with clubs from the Football League. Moreover, according to an interesting article by Alfie Long clubs with academies rated in categories 2-4 run the risk of having their top youngsters poached by category 1 clubs, with minimal compensation.

Only time will tell if the new infrastructure will better produce homegrown players. In Wigan Athletic’s case, the initiative to upgrade the youth system has come a little late, but should be viewed as a step forward. Better for our youth teams to be playing the likes of Leeds and Leicester than those of clubs in Leagues 1 or 2.

There remains an option for senior squad players to get match time with the under 21 team. A goalkeeper and up to three outfield players may be included as “over-age”. In this way, it is pretty close to what we have had in the past. The difference is that, for the near future at least, our under 21 team will be playing against teams from Championship clubs. A backwards step.

The sooner the club’s academy moves into the category 1 rating the better.