An Amigo View – Rotherham United 1 Wigan Athletic 3 – five talking points

 

It was my first visit to the New York Stadium and it proved to be an enjoyable one as a high-energy display by Wigan Athletic saw them overcome the home team. The ground was built in New York Island, so called because of a foundry there that used to export iron and steel to “The Big Apple”.  Although it its capacity is only 12,021 it is a pleasant venue for football.

In talking to Latics supporters before the game, Dan Burn’s absence through suspension was high on the agenda. Rotherham had the division’s leading scorer in the 6 ft 5 in centre forward Kieffer Moore. Replacing Burn in the line-up was the 5 ft 11 in Alex Bruce. Moore’s aerial presence was surely going to be a threat, but the general consensus was that Wigan would still win.

So, it turned out to be. Latics had gone into the game with a determined approach and it was no surprise when they were rewarded with goal after 14 minutes. Will Grigg does not score many headers, but he took this one well, evading his marker from Lee Evans’ free kick to glance the ball home. A couple of minutes later Moore rose unchallenged and flicked a header into the path of the skilful David Ball who took his chance with clinical precision. Latics got back ahead in the 28th minute through Alex Bruce’s invention. A clash between Moore and Dunkley saw both leave the field, with the former coming straight back, but Dunkley going off for some time for repairs. Lee Evans filled in at centre back until the big centre back returned. Moore’s physical approach continued to upset Latics, his flailing arms drawing complaints towards the referee. It had become a physical contest, with an element of needle.

Wigan continued in their dynamic, attacking vein as the second half unfurled. Rotherham’s tactics were based on the long ball approach. However, Dunkley’s challenge left Moore writhing in apparent agony, with the home crowd baying for a red card. Dunkley survived it, getting a yellow, but Moore was to prove a diminished force. On the hour mark Rotherham centre back Michael Ihiekwe was dispossessed by Grigg, who looked certain to score, but home keeper Marek Rodak did well to push the ball away, but not so well when Michael Jacobs’ shot passed by him a couple of seconds later.

In the end it was a result well earned by Latics. They had played the better football throughout.

Let’s take a look at some talking points:

A different blend in midfield

Paul Cook continued with his experiment of playing Max Power in place of Nick Powell. It worked well. Power is by no means a direct replacement for Powell, but he linked up really well with Lee Evans and Sam Morsy, the trio dominating the centre of midfield. Since his return to the starting line-up, Power has demonstrated why he was such a key player in Gary Caldwell’s title winning team in 2015-16.

A mixed day for Dunkley

Chey Dunkley remains a rough diamond, needing a little more polish to become a top player. However, he has shown that he can learn from his experiences. He was the obvious choice to keep a close eye on Kieffer Moore. But nobody challenged Moore when he flicked the header that led to David Ball’s goal.

Dunkley is nothing, if not resilient. He reappeared after at least ten minutes off the pitch due to the injury he had picked up in an aerial challenge with Moore. From then on he seemed determined to win his battle with the big man. Moreover, he looked threatening on attack, coming close to scoring.

A weaker referee might have sent Dunkley off for his second half challenge on Moore, but it was not a red card offence. Dunkley had a fine second half.

A positive return for Bruce

Alex Bruce is 33 and is still playing despite an Achilles injury that threatened his career. Although he does not have the pace he used to have, his reading of the game makes him a very useful performer at League 1 level. If Leonel Messi had scored a goal like the one of Bruce it would have made the headlines. Bruce showed great touch and imagination with his goal, not something expected from a centre back. He was also a solid presence in defence.

Despite his extensive experience in higher divisions, Bruce has had to bide his time. He stood in capably when Chey Dunkley was suspended in September, but had not appeared in a league game since.

It is an indication of the strength of Wigan’s squad that players of Bruce’s quality can step in when injuries and suspensions come into play.

Stand up if you love Latics

There is certainly a contrast between the vocal support Latics receive home and away. At the DW the crowd can often be muted, sometimes outshouted by opposition fans. However, away from home the reverse is true.

As a phenomenon it is not peculiar to Wigan Athletic. Other clubs have similar outcomes. But the noise that the visiting support made at the New York Stadium on Saturday surely spurred their team on.

It makes one wonder if the players actually prefer playing away where their support seems so much more vocal than at the DW.

As an away supporter one is confined to one end of a stadium, where it is difficult to follow the play at the other extreme. But it is heartening to be surrounded by like-minded people whose passion for the club is commendable.

What can be frustrating for the more senior supporters is having to stand in an all seater stadium. “Stand up if you love Wigan/Latics” is a rousing chant, but….

Food outside

The New York Stadium is not in a scenic area, but it has a pleasant atmosphere. Before kick-off the club was selling food and drink from within the stadium, but to fans who were still outside. There was not a hint of trouble.

The Amex Stadium in Brighton is another which offers something different. Home supporters can enjoy food and drink after the game in their main stand and people can stay for an hour or two after the game chewing the cud.

Food for thought maybe?

 
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Five talking points arising from a landmark win at Charlton

 

The Valley had not been a happy hunting ground for Wigan Athletic, but it was last night. Latics simply blew a decent Charlton side away with a scintillating display of football.

Gavin Massey has been growing in stature as the season has progressed, gradually making the adjustment to a higher division. His brace of goals will do his confidence a world of good.

Latics have now moved up to 6th place, 2 points behind Charlton in 3rd. Their next games are at home to Bristol Rovers (currently in 12th place) and Northampton Town (17th).

Let’s take a look at some talking points arising from yesterday’s match:

Paul Cook’s side plays a “fearless” brand of football

Latics were traveling to play a side who were second in the table, with an impressive home record over several months. Moreover they had gained just one point from their previous two matches. But they attacked Charlton from the get-go, with Gavin Massey almost scoring in the first minute from Michael Jacobs’ superb cross.

Cook has revolutionised the style of play. No longer does the team make a slow, cautious start, more concerned about the danger posed by the opposition. Last night the Charlton defence was under fire, as Latics employed a high press and poured men into the box. Massey’s first goal was scored from the kind of position a centre forward would take up and central midfielder Sam Morsy had moved forward into the box to notch the third.

There will be games where Cook’s side cannot quite get their act together, as we saw on Saturday at Shrewsbury. But their intent is going to be attacking, come what may.

Sam Morsy needs to keep a cool head

Morsy is a complete midfield player, rugged in defence, but so capable going forward. Given the way Cook throws men forward in attack the protection Morsy provides his back four is crucial. His passion for the game is what makes him a fine choice as captain, leading by example, totally committed to the cause. However, there can be times when he looks close to receiving a red card. Last night he was clearly incensed by a bad tackle on Nick Powell, his teammates having to drag him away. Opposition players also know he has a short fuse and last night a Charlton player followed him after he had been dragged away from the scene of the foul.

Morsy will continue to be baited by the opposition as the season continues. His challenge is to retain his passion, but to keep a cool head at crucial moments.

Reece James was a revelation last night

There were certainly doubts whether James would get back to his previous fitness levels following a season and a half out through injury. Indeed Cook brought in Callum Elder for cover.  However, James has been excellent since his return.

Cook expects his full backs to push forward into attack. Nathan Byrne clearly relishes that role on the right. Under Gary Caldwell, James was often played as a wing back, although he tended to be conservative in his play. However, in this brief spell under Cook there has been a transformation that has seen the player attack with gusto and no mean level of skill. It was from his crosses that the first and third goals came last night.

James is still only 23 years of age and his contract expires at the end of the season. Providing he stays clear of injury can we expect him to be offered an extended contract?

The centre of defence is solid

The loss of Chey Dunkley through suspension looked like it would unsettle the defence, but Alex Bruce has made a seamless transition into the side. Dan Burn remains a tower of strength and either Bruce or Dunkley can step in at his side.

There will be much more to come from a Grigg-Powell partnership

Will Grigg is still finding his feet after a long injury lay-off. Nick Powell continues his rehabilitation, his time on the pitch being carefully monitored by Cook. Should they both reach full fitness and match sharpness, League 1 defences had better beware. They are both intelligent players who know how to get into good positions. What a partnership it could become.

 

 

High turnover but what’s changed? A perspective on Wigan’s latest window

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Management hates it, the media loves it, fans have little choice but to be glued to it in hope and trepidation. Transfer deadline day is bigger business every year that goes by. It’s one of the ways – the lack of a winter break being the other obvious one – in which the British game likes to make things that bit more complicated (and profitable) than the rest of the world.

For clubs that swapped managers during the first half of the season, the January transfer window has become an opportunity for the new regime to stamp its authority on the squad. Ship out players that don’t fit the tactical model; replace them with players that do; balance the books by shedding big earners and reinvesting in problem positions. It’s a pattern that has become all too familiar at Wigan, with last year’s success in League 1 the notable exception.

There are a couple problems with this approach. First, you have less time in January than in the summer, not only to recruit good players and find a home for high-earning misfits, but just as importantly to provide incomings the tactical and personal adaptation period they need to succeed. On top of that, you have to navigate an inflated market to negotiate fair prices for players, which can be particularly challenging if you appear desperate, as one does in a relegation fight, for example.

Another unpleasant feature of the January transfer window well known to Latics, particularly in the Premier League days, is the risk of losing your most successful players. It tends to be instigated by agents or players themselves, and to materialize in the dying hours of the window, preventing the club from finding an adequate replacement. Sometimes, these decisions become of huge financial importance to the club, and their approval is beyond the manager’s control.

Add to this Wigan’s very limited spending power compared to its Championship competitors – and you realize what a big ask we as fans are making of the manager. It’s worth pausing to put oneself in Warren Joyce’s shoes. There are plenty of arguments claiming the manager should only be judged after a window. I’d take them a step further to suggest that’s still nowhere near enough time. The new players haven’t had a pre-season with him; many will need to adjust to playing at a higher level; all will have to adapt to new surroundings and teammates; and Joyce himself will need to adapt his tactics, having lost his most valuable player.

The counter argument, of course, is that Joyce brought some of these challenges upon himself. Too much turnover is bad for any organization, specially in a short period of time, and the high number of ins and outs will breed instability. Was it really necessary to bring in so many people, so many loanees in particular? Right when the team was gaining some consistency and producing results on the pitch? Plenty to debate. In the meantime, here are some ups and down on another busy window:

Good News: The whopping fee received for Yanic Wildschut (£7.5 million according to Sky,£7 million elsewhere.) It’s hard to take, given his status as Latics’ best attacking threat, with pace and strength to burn, and room to improve. But his finishing was often frustrating, he was inconsistent, and very much rough around the edges. If he had to go, credit is due the club for gaining such a huge profit on their investment.

Bad News: Yanic again. Being gone so late in the window. It’s hard to ignore that Wigan have scored three goals fewer than Rotherham, and yet just sold their most effective attacker.

Good News: In Gabriel Obertan, the club have found as close to a direct replacement as could be expected. We’ll be left to imagine what Joyce’s team might have looked like with two pacey wingers on the pitch. But at least Obertan’s defining attributes are similar to Wildschut’s: pace and strength, some trickery, abundant potential yet inconsistent finishing. He should be entering his peak years, has something to prove, and lots of experience at a higher level. Joyce knows him, he’s apparently a good professional, and they have said encouraging things about each other. The term of contract is short, therefore financial risk is too. All in all, a gamble worth taking.

Bad news: The squad feels unbalanced and bloated. There are a lot of midfielders, but few wingers or attacking playmakers given Nick Powell’s absence. With Obertan almost certain to start, it’s likely Michael Jacobs (in desperate need of a goal) on the other wing, with Colclough, Weir and Browne all unproven backups. Meanwhile, in the centre of midfield, Joyce has Power, Morsy, Perkins, MacDonald, Gilbey, Tunnicliffe, Hanson, Byrne, and Laurent to keep happy. Perhaps some of these players will be used in different positions (Hanson as defensive cover, etc.), but it’s a bloated, uneven squad that Joyce may have a hard time keeping happy.

Good News: Welcome Omar Bogle! He may need time to adapt. But the club beat out competitors to get him, and on paper, he has everything he needs to succeed at Championship level. A lot of hope is resting on his inexperienced shoulders, but if his teammates can provide him service, there is reason to believe. The option of a little-and-large Grigg and Bogle parternship is also intriguing. He’s left-footed, too.

Bad News: Banking on lower division signings is playing with fire. If Grigg is to become injured, Latics are left with Bogle, and Mikael Mandron to lead the line. Both have potential, but their success has come in League 2 and the Conference, respectively. They are completely unproven at this level, and playing with new teammates.

Good News: Alex Bruce appears an astute short-term signing, with potential for a longer stay. Dan Burn and Jake Buxton have developed a useful partnership in recent games, but Bruce is a dependable and experienced head to provide backup, who should also be good to have around the place.

Bad News: He hasn’t played all season due to an Achilles injury.

Good News: Keeping Sam Morsy and Max Power. Much of the attention has been on keeping Morsy, who has performed very well since his return. Power may not have started strongly, but has been steadily improving and remains a player of undoubted potential. Had rumours of his departure materialised, Latics would have lost an opportunity to reap the rewards of blooding him at this level. Good things should come of establishing Power and Morsy as a partnership.

Bad News: Too many loanees. In order to secure loan signings, managers often have to pledge a certain number of game time to the players’ parent clubs. Given the maximum of five loan signings per match-day squad, it looks an impossibility Latics’ recent loan signings will all get their wish to show what they can do. Jakob Haugaard may find himself sacrificed given the arrival of Matt Gilks. Callum Connolly is certain to play. That leaves Jamie Hanson, Marcus Browne, James Weir, Ryan Tunnicliffe, Bruce and Haugaard to vie for the other berths. Presumably, borrowing players and not giving them a game reduces the chances of players being borrowed from the same clubs in the future. Given many of these players are expected to be fringe players anyway, might Latics have been better off without a few of them?

Good News: Joyce appears to have both a short-term, and long-term plan. Signings like Gilks, Bruce and Obertan point to survival needs, while the signings of Jack Byrne, Mandron, and Josh Laurent show a continued desire to invest in youth and capitalize on Joyce’s wealth of experience in the area of player development. Byrne, in particular, was highly rated at City and appears a good long-term signing.

Verdict

Despite the high turnover, it doesn’t appear likely there will be immediate, dramatic changes to the starting lineup – Obertan in for Wildschut, perhaps the goalkeeper, and a new striking option in Bogle off the bench. This should prove a blessing, given the progress made in recent weeks. But it also calls into question the need for such a high number of incomings and outgoings. Joyce would do well to resist the urge of upsetting the players who have recently given him good commitment and results.

As supporters, patience is going to be important. Demanding instant impact from players adapting to a higher level is unfair, as is demanding instant adjustment from a team that became dependent on Wildschut to create for it. But if the new signings can add to the promising form shown of late and provide cover for injuries, we can be cautiously optimistic that, with a new crew of Joyce-loyal players and relative stability in the starting XI, we’re better off than before the window.

Full squad can be seen here