Five talking points following a toothless display against Birmingham

Wigan Athletic 0 Birmingham City 3

 

It was a flattering scoreline for a well organised Birmingham side, who capitalized on their chances whereas Wigan squandered theirs. Despite having 63% of the possession Latics made mistakes in defence and in the opposition box.

Following the game Paul Cook commented: “We’re so disappointed at the minute, nothing is falling for us at both ends of the pitch. We had good chances in the game. Birmingham had three attempts on goal and scored all three of them, that’s football. At the minute it’s not going our way.”

Let’s take a look at some points arising:

Cook sticks with the same formula

Following a dire performance at Ipswich one hoped for a new approach, catalysed by the introduction of fresh blood. But it was not to be, the manager bringing back Kal Naismith at left back following suspension, James Vaughan coming in for Will Grigg. Cook stuck with the 4-4-2 formation despite a previous lack of success using that formula.

Cook’s 4-4-2 differs from that employed by Paul Jewell in yesteryear. Jewell’s team were not afraid to make long passes, but the quality of the balls then was so much better than the speculative stuff we have seen in recent weeks. Early in the current season Latics were building moves up from the back rather than relying on the “hoof” from defence.

I watched the game on iFollow, muting the sound regularly, mainly because I find it hard to listen to a radio commentary which lags behind the visual that appears on the screen. But when I did put it on there were a couple of comments in the first half that stick in the memory. One was to the effect that Cook was shouting at Christian Walton to play it long as a move was being played out at the back. The other was a comment that Latics were dominating the play, but Birmingham’s first goal followed within seconds.

But there were flashes of good football from Wigan, amidst a morass of “fightball”.

The formula of sticking with that same group of players and tactics once again failed to produce the desired result.

The goals are not coming

For the third successive match Latics failed to score. In the continued absence of Nick Powell there is a glaring lack of creativity in the midfield and a lack of sharpness from the forwards. But despite the shortage of creative midfield play there have been chances in recent weeks that the strikers could have put away. When early in the game Josh Windass used his pace and aggression to leave a defender behind him his finish was woeful. The same player also had a fine chance with a header but fluffed it.

Cook continues to have faith in Windass, although many fans would question it. The player has scored two goals in 18 starts and 3 substitute appearances, though it should be noted that he was initially played in wide positions.

In the last couple of months Windass has been Cook’s main choice as a starting striker. Of the rest, Will Grigg has 4 goals, three of which were penalties, in 10 starts and 4 appearances off the bench. Joe Garner has one goal from 4 starts (9 as sub), James Vaughan two from  5 starts (11 as sub). Given those stats it is hardly surprising that Cook is looking for new strikers in January.

However, goalscoring is not the sole province of the strikers. Midfielders have chipped in with goals here and there, but what is noticeable is the lack of goals scored by defenders. Cedric Kipre went close in the second half with a header bouncing over off the wood work. There have been so many occasions that Kipre, Dan Burn and Chey Dunkley might have scored from set pieces but just could not get it right.

The January window beckons

Latics have nine players in the squad whose contracts expire next summer. Five of those played yesterday. Although we are approaching the end of December no announcements have been made about extensions for any of those players.

The implication is that several will be leaving in January. If their contracts are not extended over the next eight days we can expect the likes of Nick Powell, Sam Morsy, Gavin Massey, Callum McManaman, James Vaughan and Nathan Byrne to be leaving in January if the right offers come in. Shaun MacDonald has been frozen out by the manager, despite being one of Wigan’s better performers in the division a couple of years ago. He can be expected to leave, most likely on a free.

The lack of progress in the extension of player contracts was initially put down to the transition in ownership, but since the IEG takeover the matter has continued to fester, at the expense of squad morale. Given the uncertainty about their futures those players deserve commendation for their commitment up to this point, although one wonders if they would have performed better if new contracts had been awarded.

The question is whether the lack of decisiveness of ownership is governed by financial reasons or is management looking at moving players on so that fresh blood can be brought in? Rumour has already linked Latics with forwards Jermain Defoe of Bournemouth and Gary Madine of Cardiff City, together with left back/central defender Tyler Blackett of Reading.

Given the awful run of results suffered over the last couple of months Latics might well be pondering some major changes over January, including possible exits for players on more long term contracts. They could well be looking at cutting their losses on players that have not fulfilled expectations, either by cashing in on their transfer values or sending them on loan to cut operating costs.

A return soon for Chey Dunkley?

Dunkley has been one of Wigan’s most consistent players this season and his presence in the centre of defence has been missed in his absence through injury. In his absence the experienced Dan Burn formed the central defensive partnership with Cedric Kipre. Burn has not been at his best, but neither has he been Latics’ worst performer over the past two months. Nevertheless the centre of defence has looked increasingly vulnerable.

Early in the season Dunkley did a fine job in marshaling a rookie defence. He is a leader on the field of play and his partnership with Kipre is one which was continuing to develop. Dunkley is still only 26 and his partnership with the 21-year-old Kipre holds great promise for the future.

With Burn due to leave for Brighton on January 1st the Dunkley-Kipre partnership will shortly resume.

A need for a change of personnel and tactics for the trip to the Hawthorns

Cook has been particularly patient with a group of players who have not shown the kind of form that was needed. Too many have under-performed and confidence is at a low ebb.

It is time for the manager to make changes not only in personnel but also in his tactical approach. Having faith in players is to be commended, but others have been marginalized, not given opportunities. Moreover the style of football has nosedived.

When Cook was appointed, we on this site were delighted to see a manager appointed who had a reputation for his sides playing good football. Last season, in League 1 it was usually, if not always, the case.

Whilst 4-4-2 remains a valid tactic in modern day football, a return to a 4-2-3-1 formation would be welcome. Sadly 4-4-2 in the Cook era has tended to resort to an ugly long ball scenario. 4-2-3-1 is the formation which Cook has used for the best football Latics have played during his tenancy. With Powell still injured, Roberts would be the obvious choice in the number 10 role.

Another alternative is to play 4-1-2-3 with a holding midfielder in front of the back four, the role that MacDonald played effectively in the Warren Joyce era. That would allow such as Evans and Morsy to play further forward.

There is a lot of pressure on Cook at the moment. We do not agree with those who advocate his sacking. This is the manager’s first season at Championship level and it is a learning experience for him.

Nevertheless, there is a need for a change in approach with both team selection and tactics.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

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Key players stay – five talking points about the transfer window for Latics

Great news that Nick Powell is staying. Can he stay fit and reveal his true potential?

As a Wigan Athletic fan, I have come to dread the last days of the transfer windows. Last night I was anxiously waiting for news, hoping and praying had the chairman would back his manager by letting him keep his key players. Were the likes of Dan Burn, Will Grigg, Michael Jacobs, Sam Morsy, Max Power and Nick Powell going to stay?

The end result was largely a feeling of relief, tempered by the surprise late departure of Alex Gilbey and the absence of a new right back among the signings. But David Sharpe had resisted the urge to cash in on his prized assets, despite the economic pressure weighing heavily on him. It can be seen as a statement of intent that the chairman is willing to provide the broad financial backing needed to get the club back in the Championship division, given the low potential revenues coming in. However, the bitter pill will be somewhat sweetened by some £1.2 m brought in during the summer sales.

How many times in recent years have the dealings made in those transfer windows put the club in a better situation in the longer term? Warren Joyce signed eight last January, only one of whom is with the club now. Uwe Rosler signed nine new players in the summer of 2014, giving him a squad that was too big, making it difficult to handle. Almost half of the new boys were gone by the end of the January window. But worse was to come as Malky Mackay signed twelve in the winter months, only one of whom remained when the 2015-16 season started.

It remains to be seen whether this summer’s transfer activity will leave Latics in a better state that they were in at the end of last season. Harsh economics have come into play, forcing the club to cut its budget in the region of 60%. The reality is that the revenues the club will have coming in League 1 are way below what they had in the Championship, where they were buoyed by parachute payments.

Let’s look at some key points:

The squad remains strong enough to fight for automatic promotion, providing injuries do not prove too troublesome.

The squad is well balanced and has a wealth of quality players for the division they are playing in. When Gary Roberts was brought in it looked like Nick Powell was on his way out, but it turned out to be Alex Gilbey. Like Powell, Roberts has a lot of flair and can both create and score goals. The long-term injury suffered by Craig Morgan meant that another central defender would be brought in. Providing he stays fit Alex Bruce has the know-how and experience to be a top player in League 1.

The right back position remains problematic. It was a surprise not to see a new player drafted in. Nathan Byrne has established himself as the first choice in that position, but both Luke Burke and Donervon Daniels have been sent out on loan. We can only assume that if Byrne is unavailable then one of the central defenders or Max Power will be drafted in there.

Injuries took a major toll last season. Donervon Daniels and Reece James did not play a single league game and Alex Gilbey, Will Grigg, Andy Kellett and Nick Powell were absent for long periods. Gilbey has now been sold. Daniels and Kellett have been sent out on season-long loans with just one year of their contracts remaining. Grigg appears to be approaching full fitness and James has done well since his return. Powell appears to be building up his fitness, but has not yet been able to last the full 90 plus.

However, an injury to the excellent young loan goalkeeper, Christian Walton, is a real blow for Latics. Paul Cook has brought in Matija Sarkic from Aston Villa, but the 20-year-old lacks EFL experience. It appears that Jamie Jones will be first choice until Walton is fit to return.

Paul Cook has made some good moves  in the transfer and loan markets.

Cook’s signings of Noel Hunt and Gary Roberts from Portsmouth have hardly gone down well with most fans. Hunt is 34 and Roberts 33. However, they are on one-year contracts. Based on what happened at Portsmouth, Roberts is more likely to appear more regularly than Hunt who is most likely to be used as a substitute.

But Cook has not paid a penny for any of his 7 permanent signings, all of whom were recruited as free agents. He has raised funds by selling Omar Bogle, Kaiyne Woolery and Alex Gilbey. He has brought in 5 loan players, with Lee Evans, Christian Walton and Ivan Toney being ever-presents in the starting line-ups so far.

Cook has used the pre-season and cup games so far to give youth a chance. The club has some fine prospects coming through its academy, including the 16-year-old Catalan, Victor Maffeo, who made his debut at Blackpool on Tuesday. Cook has sent out four of them on loan to clubs of a suitable level – Luke Burke to AFC Fylde (National League Premier), Callum Lang to Morecambe (League 2), Chris Merrie to Southport (National League North) and Sam Stubbs to Crewe Alexandra (League 2). James Barrigan, Luke Burgess and Josh Gregory remain.

Economics need to be considered.

Dave Whelan has owned Wigan Athletic since 1995. Although his grandson is the club chairman it is Whelan’s financial backing that underpins the club’s future. During the club’s ascent to the Premier League and its eight years in the top-flight Whelan put close to £100 m into the club.

In recent years the club has been closer to making revenues and expenditures match. However, four years of parachute payments have been spent since Latics got relegated from the Premier League and the club is once again in League 1.

It is rumoured that players were asked to take pay cuts when the club was once again relegated. But even if this has been the case and funds have come in through transfers (including that of Yanic Wildschut in January), the imbalance between revenues to be gained and player salary costs is a major issue.

Given the recent history of cutting back on salaries when projected revenues could not support them, it is a surprise that Nick Powell is still at the club. Powell might well have taken a cut on his reputed £16,000 per week, but his salary almost certainly will still dwarf that of other players in League 1.

Has Powell been retained in an ambitious bid for automatic promotion or has his horrendous injury record deterred other clubs from signing him or taking him on loan? Or are the Whelan family taking a gamble on the player regaining full fitness and not only propelling Latics back into the Championship, but also vastly increasing his net worth on the transfer market?

Should this squad secure promotion, how would survival in the Championship look?

The recruitment focus in the early Gary Caldwell era was to bring in “hungry” players in their early to mid-twenties who could provide the backbone of the team for the future. Donervon Daniels, Will Grigg, Michael Jacobs, Reece James, Andy Kellett and Max Power were among those. Ryan Colclough, Alex Gilbey, Sam Morsy and Yanic Wildschut were to follow.

Six of those players remain for Cook to call upon next week. Gilbey and Wildschut have gone and Daniels and Kellett sent on season-long loans in the final years of their contracts. Last season’s squad was good enough to ensure survival in the Championship. It was the inept management of Warren Joyce that took Latics down. However, some £12 m in parachute payments underpinned a wage bill of around £18 m.

Put simply: if Latics were to go up it would need significant investment by the Whelan family to keep them there in the absence of parachute payments.

Will Grigg and Michael Jacobs need to be offered new contracts.

Cook had said that contract extensions would be looked at once the transfer window was closed and he had the squad he wanted. Failure to offer the two players extended contracts will mean they will be free agents at the end of the season. The complication is not knowing what division Latics will be in next season.

Let’s not forget Reece James, who will also be out of contract next summer. James has done well to come back after being out for so long and has looked impressive so far. If he can prove his fitness, surely he too will be offered a contract extension.

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Legless Latics crossed out at Bristol

Latics go off for half time to a deserved ovation from the visiting support.

Latics go off for half time to a deserved ovation from the visiting support.

“We had the ball in some good positions and kept the ball well up until half-time, but then in the second-half we didn’t come out, we didn’t pass the ball and we didn’t do anything that we’d mentioned at half-time, so I felt it was only a matter of time before the goal was coming because we couldn’t stem the flow of the game.”

Gary Caldwell was right about that. After a fine first half performance Latics visibly flagged. The earlier intensity and running off the ball that had made them the marginally better team up to the interval seemed to disappear as soon as the second half commenced. City used the tactic so often employed in the Championship: that of bombarding the visiting defence with a barrage of crosses. With Latics unable to stop the flow of the crosses it seemed but a matter of time before the goals would materialize for the home side.

It was a beautiful day in the west of England and some 1,200 fans had made the journey down despite the handicaps imposed by the M5 motorway. Ashton Gate is a fine venue these days, following the construction of two new stands. Not only were the spectator facilities in good condition, but also the pitch, which is shared by Bristol RUFC. But comparisons with the pitch at the DW were hard to make as the rugby union season has not yet started, whereas the Warriors’ rugby league season is nearing its conclusion.

Caldwell made two changes from the starting lineup he had put out at Fleetwood, with Adam Bogdan coming in for Jussi Jaaskelainen and Stephen Warnock for Sam Morsy. It was a 3-5-2 formation with Will Grigg and Yanic Wildschut up front and Alex Gilbey playing a little further forward in central midfield than David Perkins and Max Power.

Wigan soon settled into the game, with the midfield trio linking up well and Grigg and Wildschut looking lively up front. Their movement caused problems for the home team defence. The Latics defence looked solid. Wigan were to get a beautifully worked goal after 32 minutes when Wildschut pulled the ball back for a beautifully struck shot from Gilbey from just outside penalty box. The home team’s main threat came from set pieces, particularly when the 6 ft 6 in central defender Aden Flint came forward.

The half time whistle saw Latics a goal up, having contained the home team and caused danger on the counterattack. One wondered if they could keep it up in the second half, with the home team playing towards a packed home support behind the goal in the rebuilt Wedlock Stand. Grigg’s inclusion in the team had been a surprise after not being able to train for a week. How long could he last?

As soon as the referee blew his whistle for the start of the second half the pattern of the game was to instantly change. City were to focus on flooding the flanks and pumping over crosses. It was to work to great effect. Latics were quickly penned back in their own half, unable to string passes together. The movement that had characterized their performance in the first half was sadly lacking. The crosses continued to ping into the box and it seemed a matter of time for the Latics defence to crack. Wigan’s central midfield just did not seem to have the legs to get into space to receive the ball and the opposition was dominating the centre of the pitch. Surely Caldwell would bring on Sam Morsy to stem the flow and provide some much needed steel in that midfield?

However, the first substitution was made by City manager, Lee Johnson. It was a double change after 67 minutes, with midfielder Bobby Reid and, crucially, the 6 ft 5 in central striker Tammy Abraham coming on to heighten the aerial threat. Grigg’s legs could cope no longer and he went off on the 70th minute to be replaced by Michael Jacobs.

The departure of Grigg meant that Wigan no longer had a centre forward capable of holding the ball up and giving his midfield and defence much needed respite. Their attack had almost completely fizzled out. The crosses continued to rain in and somehow the Latics defence held out. However, the inevitable was to happen in the 81st minute with Abraham bundling home a cross. Bogdan had been having a good debut and he was to make more fine saves and interceptions in the final 10 minutes.

The departure of Wildschut on 85 minutes was a further nail in the coffin for Latics, who were now able to offer zero in terms of attacking options. It was therefore no surprise when Reid scored following a deflection on 90 minutes. Donervon Daniels had been brought on for the injured Luke Burke after 77 minutes, but the man from the Leeward Islands was way out of touch, as was Ryan Colclough who had come on for Grigg. Five minutes added time would normally have provided a window for Latics to at least try to get back into the game, but their efforts were inept. They could hardly string passes together, their heavy legs probably taking toll.

City proved to be worthy winners. A legless Latics side was unable to both stop the crosses coming in and to retain the ball for any period of time.

Although it was not an excuse for a disappointing performance, Latics had not been helped by a referee who was lenient towards the home team in the whole game, giving Latics four yellow cards in the process. After some appalling arbitrage in League 1 last season one would have hoped for better in the Championship.

The Good

Luke Burke is an exciting young talent. The 18 year old former youth team captain made an excellent debut. Reminiscent of Leighton Baines in his younger days, Burke is a complete full back. He is sound in his positioning, thoughtful in his distribution and rugged in the tackle. There were times when he was overrun as City poured players over to their left flank, but he did not panic and made some crucial tackles and interceptions.

Alex Gilbey too made a promising debut, scoring a fine goal. Gilbey looks classy on the ball and can tackle too, although he still has some way to go in that department. Although he has never played above League 1 level before he looked comfortable.

Adam Bogdan had a fine debut in goal. He was assertive in his box, punching away dangerous crosses, making some excellent stops. It is to be hoped that he can put the nightmare of his time at Liverpool behind him and regain the brilliant form he had shown at Bolton before that.

The other debutants, Jake Buxton and Dan Burn, had solid games, keeping their calm in a back three peppered with crosses coming in, especially during the second half. There were lots of teams in League 1 last season who could test the Wigan defence with high balls, but in the Championship it is likely to be more of a threat, given the quality of the wide men putting in the crosses. City put in some wicked ones in this match and Wigan’s defence did well to keep them out for so long.

The Bad

Lee Johnson got the better of Gary Caldwell yesterday. The Bristol City manager made the right substitutions at the right time, both goal scorers having come off the bench. This time around Caldwell did not show the imagination or vision to change the tactical situation with his team under the cosh.

Faced with a midfield overrun by the opposition in the second half, the manager stuck with a midfield trio that was not able to cope. Given Sam Morsy’s combative qualities it was baffling that Caldwell did not choose to introduce him. Is the player out of favour or was it that the manager simply wanted to give the three central midfielders a full 90 minutes?

Moreover in the past Caldwell has shown initiative in changing the shape of his team. Seeing his team creaking in its foundations, with the midfield overrun, was it not time to switch to four at the back, with a strengthened midfield? Or was he once again, looking more long term, giving the new central defensive trio of Buxton, Morgan and Burn a full match to play together?

Last season the wealth of Wigan’s bench was the envy of many other managers in League 1. Yesterday it looked less impressive and the absence of a front man to replace Grigg stood out like a sore thumb. Neither was there a player of the ilk of Conor McAleny or Haris Vuckic to provide more options. Given the injury problems that both Craig Davies and Nick Powell have had over the past couple of years, Caldwell surely be looking at bringing in another central striker.

Michael Jacobs was a key player for Caldwell in League 1, but found himself on the bench yesterday. If Caldwell is going to operate 3-5-2 (or 5-3-2 as it morphed into during the second half yesterday) then the main position for Jacobs is going to be in the role occupied by Gilbey at Bristol. The manager might well be tempted to use Jacobs in that role in home games, but will be looking for more defensive cover when playing away. However, the 4-3-3 system that Caldwell also employs is one which Jacobs can be effectively slotted into, whether in the hole behind the central striker or wide.

Player Ratings

Adam Bogdan: 8 – a promising debut from the big Hungarian.

Luke Burke: 7 – played with composure and determination.

Jake Buxton: 6.5 – a calm influence on the right side of defence.

Craig Morgan: 7 – a gritty performance under pressure.

Dan Burn: 6.5 – kept his composure and made a useful contribution.

Stephen Warnock: 5 – way from his best. Is he fully fit?

David Perkins: 5.5 – as industrious as ever, but is he going to be as effective in the Championship as he was in League 1?

Max Power: 5.5 – below par.

Alex Gilbey: 5.5 – scored a beautifully taken goal, but needs to work on the defensive side of his game.

Will Grigg: 6– effective in the first half, anonymous in the second. Was he really fit to play?

Yanic Wildschut: 6 – a good first half but lost in the second with no service coming through.

Substitutes

Michael Jacobs – came on for Grigg after 70 minutes. Could not impose himself on the game.

Donervon Daniels – came on for Burke after 77 minutes. Looked out of touch. How fit is he?

Ryan Colclough – on after 85 minutes for Wildschut. Looked confused as to his role.