Wigan Athletic 0 Brentford 0
Wigan Athletic rarely do well after an international break. But this was by no means a bad performance. Whether it was a point gained or two points lost is the current debate among Latics fans.
It was a tight game between two teams of contrasting styles with few clear-cut chances created by either side. Brentford played the better football, but Wigan came closest to scoring. With 7 games to play Latics are 4 points ahead of the relegation zone but have some difficult games coming up. Some fans are suggesting that their fate could be decided in that final match of the season when Latics host Millwall.
Paul Cook made one change to his starting line-up, preferring the experience of Danny Fox to the youth of Cedric Kipre at centre back. Anthony Pilkington returned to the squad following injury and was brought on after 43 minutes when Michael Jacobs had to go off because of a hamstring injury. Pilkington’s return to action had coincided with Josh Windass being a noticeable omission from the match-day squad.
Following the game Cook commented: “We need to respect the point, it’s a point more towards where we want to be and with seven games to go, we just need to keep believing. It was a case of staying disciplined with our shape and then hitting them on the counter-attack and creating chances. Credit to Brentford, they’re an excellent football side and are one of the best teams we faced here in terms of managing and handling the ball, they take the ball in all areas of the pitch and continually caused our shape problems. We had a couple of good chances, Gavin Massey’s was the most clear-cut chance in the game just after half-time, but we’ve now taken four points from Bolton and Brentford and we move on.”
Let’s look at some points arising from the game:
Were Wigan over-physical or were Brentford play-acting?
We learned what excellent possession football Brentford can play in the 2-0 defeat at Griffin Park in mid-September. The Bees were riding high at that time and if it had not been for a good display by Christian Walton they would have won by a much greater margin. We saw that smooth possession football in action again yesterday, their three-man backline calm under pressure, the midfield players making themselves constantly available to enable a seamless transition from defence to attack. Brentford are second to Leeds with average possession stats of 57% over the course of the season. They enjoyed 65% of the possession yesterday. Moreover, their pass accuracy was 82% compared with Wigan’s 63%.
Following the game, the Bees Danish manager, Thomas Frank, commented: “Wigan are very physical…and I don’t think it’s any secret that they try to use that physicality, because they thought that maybe an advantage for them. They used that well, and then it’s up to the referee to protect the players.”
A fierce tackle by Danny Fox in the opening minutes on Brentford’s leading goalscorer Neal Maupay was a signal of things to come. The foul count ended up being 19 against Wigan and 14 against Brentford. Wigan’s average foul count is 13 per game. Latics were certainly physical against a team with technically superior players, but although they committed more fouls than usual, they accumulated only one yellow card compared with Brentford’s two.
In the encounter at Griffin Park there was criticism by Latics fans of what they considered the home side’s “play-acting” and pressuring the referee. Sam Morsy was sent off in the 60th minute, but his suspension was rescinded by the FA. The Bees’ manager at that time was Dean Smith. When his current side, Aston Villa, visited Wigan in mid-January we saw a similar pattern.
Wigan were physical yesterday, but Brentford’s reaction was so often over the top. Is the same behaviour the players learned under Smith being allowed to continue under Frank?
The second half sag
So often this season Latics have sagged in the second half. The high pressing has dissipated, and Wigan have dropped back in defence, unable to string passes together. The same happened yesterday. What are the reasons? Are the players lacking in fitness? Or are they following the manager’s instructions?
Brendan Rogers once said: “If you can dominate the game with the ball, you have a 79% chance of winning”. Where he got his figures from is up to debate but, put simply, the more the ball is passed around the field, the more the opposition is forced to burn energy. In the first half yesterday, Brentford were certainly stretching Latics with their possession. In Cook’s words “they take the ball in all areas of the pitch and continually caused our shape problems.”
The likelihood is therefore that by half time Latics had expended more energy than their opponents. Given such a scenario it would have been no surprise for Cook to instruct Latics to sit back and look at hitting the visitors on the counterattack.
Defence holds firm
Chey Dunkley returned to form yesterday, forming a combative central defence with Danny Fox. Dunkley’s form off set pieces has been so disappointing this season and he still has not scored a goal. But he came close his header drawing a fine save from the opposition keeper and he later had another effort bounce off the crossbar. That goal must surely come. At times it has been a difficult learning experience for the big central defender in his first season in the second tier, but nevertheless he has figured among Latics’ most consistent performers over the course of the season.
Fox’s last appearance for Latics had been in the 2-1 defeat at Derby on March 5 when he went off injured after 33 minutes. He had suffered a previous injury after 25 minutes at Rotherham on February 9 that had kept him out for two weeks. Since signing for Latics at the end of the January transfer window he has made just five appearances, including two curtailed by injury. He was excellent yesterday, his reading of the game and positional sense shining through. He is by no means a sophisticated central defender, but his determination and his passing ability make him a player to be reckoned with at Championship level.
Powell completes the full game
Nick Powell was not at his best, but soon after half time he won the ball close to his own penalty box and ran some forty yards to lay off a beautiful pass for Gavin Massey who had intelligently moved into space. Unfortunately, the winger’s effort was well saved by the goalkeeper. Powell is such an important player for Latics that it takes a lot of nervous energy out of us as fans when he looks frail and injury-prone. In this game he misplaced some of his passes, but he was certainly committed and for once Cook did not take him off before the full-time whistle blew.
So often have Latics relied on Powell’s creativity to provide some kind of spark in tight encounters. It is a heavy burden he shoulders. With Michael Jacobs once again struck down by a hamstring injury there will be even more pressure on Powell. Pilkington had been brought on for Jacobs, one creative player for another. But the ex-Cardiff player needs more games under his belt before he is going to play at his best. Since joining Latics in early January he has made just six starts with two appearances off the bench. Pilkington has a good pedigree for the second tier and could prove a key asset in the bid to avoid relegation. If Jacobs is to be out for some time Cook will need Pilkington to stay fit and show the kinds of skills that we know he is capable of.
Commitment with discipline
Sam Morsy talked in the week about the need for him to cut out the unnecessary yellow cards. After being booked four times in five outings he has now gone four games without a yellow. Morsy is a key player in Wigan’s midfield and Cook will not want to lose him through suspension again.
Although Morsy is the leader in yellow cards at the club he is not the only player who has run into problems with referees. Latics average 13 fouls committed per game, with 14 per game being awarded in their favour. They occupy 17th place in the fouls committed table, with seven teams having a higher foul count. However, in terms of yellow and red cards only Nottingham Forest have a worse record. Latics have 82 yellows and 3 reds in 39 games.
Antonee Robinson deservedly received a yellow card yesterday for a desperation tackle but his teammates managed to avoid one. Last week against Bolton nobody on Wigan’s team received a card.
It appears that Cook and his coaches have been working with the players on improving their discipline. Discipline tends to be associated with the gap between fouls committed and cards received, but it can have a wider meaning. With a young defence Latics have too often given away free kicks near their penalty box that have caused them problems. Throw-ins have been another problem area with too many routinely given away when the ball could have been kept in play. Doing so has invited further pressure from the opposition. “Safety-first” defending – putting the ball out of play at the slightest hint of danger – was not so often punished in League 1 as it has been in the Championship. In the first half against Bolton we saw the visiting side pepper the home defence with crosses and throw-ins, too often given away by the indiscipline of Wigan’s defence. Fortunately, those same defenders, aided by Bolton’s lack of finishing, managed to keep the visitors out until after half time.