Fighting for points through set pieces?

buxton

Jake Buxton’s header at QPR brought a great save from Alex Smithies

It almost happened again. A good corner kick from Jamie Hanson and a bullet header from Jake Buxton. It would have put Latics 2-1 up at QPR, but a fine save by Alex Smithies prevented it.

Another header from Buxton from a Max Power corner had given Wigan Athletic an invaluable three points at Wolves a week before. A week earlier and Omar Bogle had headed home a goal against Norwich from corner kick launched by Michael Jacobs. Jacobs had also provided the delivery from the corner for Callum Connolly’s second goal at Burton in mid-January. Has Warren Joyce been placing more focus on set pieces during training?

Barnsley, Cardiff City and Newcastle United have the best record in the Championship division on set pieces in the season so far, each with 17 goals. Leeds United come next with 16 goals, 10 of which came from corners. Wigan only have 8, second worst to Aston Villa with 3. In fact, one of the most frustrating aspects of Latics’ play this season has been their performance on corners and free kicks. Too often the delivery from corners has failed to reach the centre of the goalmouth and the players waiting in and around the box have been too passive in their approach.

Latics have an average of 11.4 shots per game, only Blackburn Rovers having a lower average count. The stats show that Latics average a respectable 13.3 shots per game at home, but away from home only 9.6 shots per game, the lowest in the division. Wigan are clearly more disciplined when playing at home, where they have collected 28 yellow cards. They have received 42 away from home, the highest in the division.

West Bromwich Albion lead the Premier League in terms of goals from set pieces. They have 15, 11 of which have come from corners. Under Tony Pulis they have become a compact unit, with a tough defence and a high work rate. They have the lowest average possession rate at 40.7%.

There are arguments to the effect that football teams should not be obsessed with possession. But Roberto Martinez was certainly a believer and by maintaining possession his teams were more able to withstand the physical demands of the Premier League, more often than not playing against teams with technically superior players. In fact the top six teams in the Premier League table also have the top six possession statistics.

Wigan Athletic’s current average possession rate of 49.3% is the 13th highest in the division, but has been on a strong downward trend since the departure of Gary Caldwell. The emphasis on passing has been superseded by what is euphemistically called a more “direct approach” under Warren Joyce. Given Joyce’s previous reputation as coach of a Manchester United reserve team that played entertaining, flowing football it is difficult to fathom why he has resorted to such methods. Is Joyce trying to stave off relegation by transitioning to a Pulis-type approach?

However, 45% of West Bromwich’s goals have come from set pieces, compared with 27% for Wigan. Given the lack of flowing football from Joyce’s teams, making goals from open play relatively scarce, it is essential that they improve their conversion rate on set pieces.

In the 2014-15 season when they were to be relegated Wigan Athletic’s average possession was 51.6 %. They had an average of 13.7 shots per game. They scored 15 goals from set pieces, 8 of which were from corners. The previous season when they reached the Championship playoffs they had 52.3% possession and 14.7 shots per game, with 17 goals from set pieces.

Although results are the primary concern for Wigan Athletic fans at this moment in time there are many who would like to see Joyce’s team playing in what David Sharpe once named “The Wigan Way”. What that actually means is open to conjecture. The best quality football that Wigan Athletic have probably ever consistently played was from March to May 2012 under Roberto Martinez, while among the most exciting was the attacking play of the Paul Jewell era.

The football played by the current team is far removed from those halcyon times, closer to that of the days of Malky Mackay. But the very minimum most fans want is for Joyce to send his team out to win, rather than not to lose.

In the meantime, with the shortage of goals from open play and a lack of willingness to throw players forward, it is the set pieces that can prove crucial for Latics’ survival in the Championship division.

What are the chances of a set piece goal against Nottingham Forest tomorrow?

 
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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.