Three home games towards automatic promotion

Three successive away games is a bit of a rarity in League 1. But if it were to happen to a team and they collected 7 points from those encounters, their fans could be expected to be pleased. But there is a nervousness among Wigan Athletic fans, as Gary Caldwell’s team seeks automatic promotion.

Latics have collected those 7 points playing in less than ideal weather conditions on tight pitches, hardly an ideal scenario for a club that prides itself in playing football “The Wigan Way”. Earlier in the season Latics were strong at home, but away performances had left much to be desired. Since then consecutive defeats by Burton Albion and Blackpool were to shatter an unbeaten home record. But on the road Latics have really improved their results, with 5 draws and 4 wins coming out of the last 9 away games.

The 2-0 win at Barnsley was achieved on a pitch that is 5 yards shorter than that of the DW Stadium. According to the Football Ground Guide  the pitch at Oakwell is 110 yards long and 75 yards wide, compared with Wigan’s at 115 x 74. Fleetwood’s pitch measures 112 x 74, Scunthorpe’s 111 x 73.

But the smallest pitch Latics have played on this season was that of Roots Hall, where Latics played out a goalless draw with Southend United. The conditions that day had made good football very difficult. Latics had to grit their teeth and grind out a result against a team keen to overcome them. Given the conditions it was no surprise that Latics’ goal threat had come largely through set pieces, with Leon Barnett going close on three occasions.

Latics have clearly had to modify their approach away from home. They have tightened up defensively, conceding 8 goals in those last nine games, after allowing 9 in their first four. The recent performances on the road would be more aptly labelled “professional” rather than “free-flowing”.

The professional performance at Scunthorpe on Saturday was enough to claim a point. But with three of the four teams above them winning, it produced more anxiety for fans who saw the gap between Latics and the teams in the automatic promotion places widen to 9 points. However, with teams below them not getting good results the gap between Latics top six and Southend at the head of the teams outside the playoff zone widened to 4 points.

A tally of 17 points from 9 away games signifies that Wigan Athletic are genuine contenders for an automatic promotion place. But in contrast with earlier in the season it has been their home form that has been letting Latics down. After mediocre 1-0 victories against lowly Swindon and Shrewsbury they were beaten 1-0 by Burton Albion in a game where the result could have gone either way. That was followed by an abject 1-0 defeat by Blackpool.

Caldwell’s team have certainly learned how to graft and painstakingly grind out results away from the DW. But they need to find a more pragmatic approach at home. So many teams will come to “park the bus”, looking for goals on the break or through set pieces.

Over the past couple of months Latics have relied heavily on Yanic Wildschut for inspiration, but he has gone back to Middlesbrough, at least for the time being. However, Caldwell will be buoyed by the return to form of Michael Jacobs, now back in his best role, just behind the central striker. But other than Jacobs, who else can provide those moments of quality and the kind of spark offered by Wildschut?

Playing in an advanced midfield role, Andy Kellett has provided some memorable moments of skill in recent games, with well taken goals at Barnsley and Fleetwood. Kellett will most likely keep his place against Gillingham with Caldwell operating a 3-4-3 formation with Kellett and Jacobs operating behind Will Grigg. However, both Craig Davies and Haris Vuckic, each of whom can offer something special are waiting for their opportunity.

It is a mystery why Davies has not been used more since his return to fitness. Caldwell’s preference for a lone centre forward in the starting lineup is a major factor, but Alex Revell seemed to have jumped over Davies in the pecking order prior to his return to Cardiff. Then on Saturday, Jordy Hiwula was brought off the bench in preference to him. Admittedly Hiwula is a different type of player, lacking the physical power of Davies, but with an excellent strike record of 6 goals in his 7 starts and 5 substitute experiences.

Vuckic has practically disappeared off the radar. He was on the bench at Fleetwood, but was left out completely against Scunthorpe. Vuckic is exactly the kind of player to fit into the kind of role currently occupied by Andy Kellett.

Caldwell simply has not got the best out of Davies or Vuckic, although injuries have not helped. However, there is lots of time left this season for that to happen.

Gillingham on Thursday is the first of three consecutive home games, being followed by Sheffield United on the Tuesday and Chesterfield the next weekend. With such a gap between Latics and the teams in the automatic promotion positions these games take on extra importance.

The word “massive” is wildly overused in football circles when describing upcoming games. But it comes close to describing the Gillingham match as far as automatic promotion is concerned, with the Kent club currently in second place. Moreover a win over the Gills, followed by successive victories over Sheffield United and Chesterfield, would put pressure on those clubs above Latics who fear their ascendency.

The results in the next three matches will provide a barometer reading for Wigan Athletic’s chances of automatic promotion. The gap between Latics and the teams above them needs to be narrowed – better sooner than later.

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