Cook gets it wrong – Wigan Athletic 3 Scunthorpe 3

“Great credit to the players because we never looked like getting a point and we dug one out.”

Paul Cook was once again displaying that refreshing type of honesty that has characterised his interactions with the media.  But with just one win in their last five league games, Wigan’s promotion challenge is faltering.

We have certainly learned that Cook does not favour squad rotation, preferring to stick with a settled lineup. But with the fixture pileup Latics were facing we could have expected a little more flexibility from the manager. In the event he opted for just two changes from the starting lineup at Blackburn.

The introduction of Reece James for Callum Elder was no surprise. Neither was the insertion of David Perkins for his first league start in six months in place of wide player Gavin Massey. Before the game started it looked like a conservative change. Massey’s recent form had been indifferent, but Cook had resisted the chance to put in either Ryan Colclough, Gary Roberts or Jamie Walker as a like-for-like replacement. It seemed like Perkins would play a wide midfield role.

In the event, Perkins lined up in the centre-left midfield role, with Sam Morsy centre right and Max Power pushed towards the right flank. It changed the chemistry of Wigan’s football. With Nick Powell often dropping back to receive the ball, the midfield looked crowded, somewhat akin to what we saw in the era of Warren Joyce. With more men in midfield we could have expected Latics to nullify much of the threat from the opposition, but far too often Scunthorpe were able to find gaps which they could exploit. The midfield just was not able to provide the cover for the back four that has typified Cook’s teams this season. Moreover, with only one natural wide player, Michael Jacobs on the left, the play lacked the balance we have come to expect.

Scunthorpe had come into the game with a positive approach, with a willingness to push men forward. In Ivan Toney and Will Hopper up front they posed a constant aerial threat that was to prove the undoing of Wigan’s central defence. Dan Burn and Chey Dunkley have proven close to invincible in the air this season, but yesterday they were caught out, with all three Scunthorpe goals deriving from lofted balls into the area. Burn had been the stand-out player for Latics this season, but in recent games he has looked lethargic and not at his best. Dunkley was at fault for the second goal, not seeming to know where Hopper was as he headed home from beyond the far post.

Although they lacked fluency yesterday, Latics did show their fighting qualities. Dunkley had put them ahead after Scunthorpe keeper Matt Gilks had not reached Max Power’s corner. The second and third goals were deflected. Cook is not renowned for his tactical flexibility but chose another option yesterday when he brought on Alex Bruce to play in the centre of a back three. Given the recent porosity of the centre of defence it might be an option that he will continue to experiment with at Bradford on Tuesday. Bruce may lack the pace he had before injury intervened but could be part of a formidable trio with Burn and Dunkley.

The FA Cup is once more approaching. Prior to the Manchester City game, Latics were poor in losing to both Southend and Blackpool. At the time we surmised that the players had the big cup match in their heads and just could not apply themselves as normal. Or maybe an imminent takeover of the club was about to happen, unsettling the playing staff.

That takeover still has not happened and we can but ponder on what might happen if the Whelan family continues to hold the reins. In the meantime, it leaves Cook and his staff in a vacuum, not knowing if the necessary funding would be available to consolidate in the Championship were promotion to be achieved.

With the FA Cup continuing to cast a shadow on Wigan’s league performances and severe dropping off in the form of key players, Cook will surely bring in some fresh blood at Bradford. To make wholesale changes would be a mistake, but some adjustments will need to be made. The manager will also have to decide whether to revert to that 4-2-3-1 system that had served him so well before.

Following the victory over Manchester City, Cook’s popularity rating was at a high. However, he faces serious challenges in the coming weeks. Yesterday’s performance was gritty, rather than fluent. His challenge will be in helping his key players get back to their best form. Too many looked jaded yesterday and Cook will need to take a more serious look at squad rotation if the situation is to be rectified.

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Can the Dream Come True Again?


I don’t know if I will ever tire of watching the highlights of that FA Cup Final. I continue to be in love with the flowing football played by Roberto Martinez’s team and Ben Watson’s goal still brings tears to my eyes. It really was a dream come true.

Highlights can so often paint a false picture of a game. Watching the whole ninety minutes-plus can tell a different story.  But in this case the highlights were pretty close to representing a fair reflection of the match.

The key moments that stick in the mind? The superb interplay early on between Callum McManaman and Arouna Kone that almost led to an early goal for the youngster;  Joel Robles somehow getting his legs to Carlos Tevez’s shot that had “goal” written all over it; Shaun Maloney’s free kick  that hit the crossbar; Pablo Zabalata’s red card after McManaman went bursting through;  the celebrations after Watson’s goal.

The statistics showed that Latics more than matched their illustrious opponents. Possession was a close 52-48 in favour of City, both teams had 12 attempts on goal. Wigan had three corners, City had five. City had three yellow cards and a red, Latics had one yellow.

Incredibly for an underdog,  Wigan committed only five fouls (City had eleven). Latics’ football was sublime.

Who could have believed that a team built from bargain signings could compete on an equal footing with the City megastars? Will Wigan Athletic ever produce a display of such class again? How did Latics neutralize the threat of the star-studded midfield and forwards that City possessed?

Latics had been playing a 3-4-3 system, but an horrendous injury situation left Martinez short of defensive options. In the event he played midfielders James McArthur and Roger Espinoza as wing backs, with James McCarthy and Jordi Gomez in the midfield holding roles.  But he did have his first choice front three in Kone, McManaman and Maloney.

McManaman and Watson are the names that stick in the mind, as ‘Man of the Match’ and ‘Match Winner’, but it was the performance of the back three that was the cornerstone of Latics’ victory.  Antolin Alcaraz had come back from yet another injury to join Emmerson Boyce and Paul Scharner. The trio was absolutely superb in snuffing out the menace of Tevez and Aguero.

So what bearing does what happened in May have on Sunday’s sixth round tie at the Etihad?

City have moved on under Manuel Pellegrini and have scored forty three goals against nine in thirteen home matches in the Premier League so far this season.  That would not have happened in the regime of the more defensively-minded Roberto Mancini.  Moreover City thrashed Owen Coyle’s side 5-0 in a League Cup tie in September. Tevez has gone, but the Citizens now have Alvaro Negredo, Stefan Jovetic and Jesus Navas as potential threats together with Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero.

It will be an emotional return for Uwe Rosler to the club where he made his name. However, City can count on no favours from the pragmatic German. Rosler has shown himself to be tactically astute and he will not want to play into City’s hands. More than anything he needs to nullify the threat of City’s midfield and forwards. Doubtless he will adopt the high pressing game that has become the hallmark of his tenure so far at Wigan. Stifling the service to City’s talented midfield will lessen the goal threat, but he also has to keep their forwards on a tight leash.

Rosler is not afraid to vary his team’s shape and at times he has used a backline of three central defenders. It might well be his best bet in this match. An experienced central defensive three of Emmerson Boyce, Ivan Ramis and Leon Barnett is a distinct possibility. The defence becomes a back five with the wing backs – most likely James Perch and Jean Beausejour – dropping back. It is a tactic that has worked against City before.

Before the FA Cup Final the question being asked of Latics’ supporters was whether they would prefer Premier League salvation or an FA Cup win. Now it is a matter of promotion back to the big league or reaching the semi-final of the Cup.

Winning the FA Cup was the best thing that ever happened to Wigan Athletic.  But going out of the competition, with dignity, on Sunday would not be a tragedy with promotion a possibility.

The players that remain from the Wembley victory will be keen to confront City again. Roger Espinoza could not make the Honduras game yesterday because of injury, so might not make it. Jordi Gomez was ‘Man of the Match’ at Nottingham and will stake a strong claim for a place in midfield, with the excellent James McArthur and Chris McCann. If Callum McManaman is fit he will surely play upfront.  With Martyn Waghorn and Nicky Maynard cup-tied, Marc-Antoine Fortune will probably start up front, unless Nick Powell reappears from injury

Although the odds are once again heavily stacked against Latics, only a fool would count them out.

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