Five talking points after Latics settle for a point against Reading

Wigan Athletic 0 Reading 0

 

After four consecutive defeats, with ten goals conceded, a clean sheet and a draw was a step forward. But with more clinical finishing Latics could have won by a wide margin. Although not playing well Wigan still managed to create a hatful of opportunities against a mediocre Reading team.

Paul Cook made two changes to his starting line-up, with Sam Morsy coming back from suspension to replace Lee Evans with Kal Naismith coming in for the injured Antonee Robinson. He persisted with the 4-4-1-1 system, with Josh Windass playing behind Nick Powell.

After the game Cook commented: “After suffering four defeats in this league, it’s always nice to stop the rot. It’s not a win, but it’s a rot stopped in a very difficult division. Our fans were begging for players to go forwards in the last few minutes, but when you’re on a bad run, confidence is key, and we had to stop that rot today.”

Let’s take a look at some points arising:

Naismith shows his skills

The injury to Antonee Robinson was a tough one for Cook with no other specialist left back in the squad to replace the Liverpudlian. The manager could have switched Nathan Byrne or Reece James to the left or brought in Callum Connolly who has experience playing in that position with the Everton development squad. But Cook clearly prefers a left footer in that position and continues to show belief in the ability of Kal Naismith to make it at Championship level. But given Naismith’s apparent unease in previous games in playing on the left of defence it appeared to be a risky proposition.

However, Naismith did well and came close to Reece James as Latics’ best performer on the day. He played particularly well in the first half, showing excellent movement, vision and change of pace. His crossing was impressive. His excellent block of substitute Danny Loader’s volley in the closing minutes helped save a point for Latics.

Whether Naismith will retain the left back position in the upcoming games against Blackburn and Bolton remains to be seen. He had Sone Aluko, a left footed midfielder more likely to cut inside rather than race down the touchline. If Bolton were to play Yanic Wildschut on the right wing on Saturday, Naismith could be severely stretched defensively.

After the game Cook commented that: “Kal Naismith was excellent for us at left back today, he’s not a left back…..”

Settling for a draw

The sight of Christian Walton seemingly wasting time on a goal kick in the dying minutes of the game did not go down well with the home fans. After all, Latics were drawing with a team in the relegation zone.

Cook recognised the fans’ frustration in his team’s tactics in commenting that: “Our fans were begging for players to go forwards in the last few minutes, but when you’re on a bad run, confidence is key, and we had to stop that rot today.”

Holes in the midfield

Under Jaap Stam, Reading played patient possession football, finishing in third place, being narrowly defeated in the Championship playoff final by Huddersfield Town. Since then they have slipped down the table but continue to play in the same vein under Paul Clement.

Not surprisingly Reading had 57% possession compared with Wigan’s 43%, but it was the ease with which they were able to bypass the Latics middle line that gave cause for concern. Fortunately for Wigan the final pass by Reading was rarely incisive and the home team’s back four held up well. But those gaps in the central midfield were noticeable.

With Morsy’s return Cook had to choose between Darron Gibson and Lee Evans for the second position in holding midfield. Gibson was his preference. But what was surprising was that when Gibson was withdrawn after 84 minutes it was Callum Connolly who was brought on.

Despite his indifferent performances of late, Cook gave Gibson a vote of confidence yesterday by putting him in the starting line-up. But the manager will surely be considering bringing back the Welshman for the Blackburn game on Wednesday. Evans is not only a solid holding midfielder, but a creative force going forward. His creativity was sorely missed. Moreover, Evans and Morsy work particularly well as a partnership in the centre of the pitch.

McManaman will have his part to play

 “I know people will think that’s negative, it’s not, our time to win games will be in the near future and Callum McManaman will have his part to play.”

Cook was reacting to the fans’ disappointment that Callum Connolly, not Callum McManaman, was the third and final substitute for Latics with six minutes left on the clock.

Cook’s unwillingness to use McManaman, a potential match winner in such situations, was certainly frustrating, even if the manager was basically saying that he was happy to settle for a draw.  But it is not so much Cook’s decision in this game, but his treatment of the unpredictable McManaman over the course of the season so far, that has been hard to fathom.

McManaman has played a total of 210 minutes in the Championship this season, an average of 12 minutes per match. He is on a one-year contract.

But Cook insists that the player will have a part to play.

Being brave under adversity

In August Latics were attacking with abandon, scoring 11 goals in the five league games played. They were exciting to watch, if somewhat naïve. Since then they have scored just 8 goals in the last 13 games. Their tactics have changed from a high pressing game based on high tempo attack to a more defensive approach with the long ball prevalent. The approach in the second half yesterday was symptomatic of what we have seen too often in recent weeks.

But there are mitigating factors. Injuries to key players have proved a hammer-blow. Moreover, the fixture list saw Latics having to play against so many high-flying teams in recent weeks.

At the start of the season Cook had a squad high on confidence after winning League 1. Now he has the opposite, with a need to build up confidence lost by a series of bad results. Cook must first rebuild his team’s morale, before returning to a more attractive tactical approach.

Given the circumstances no manager in Cook’s place would attack with abandon against Blackburn. But a little more attacking flair in the line-up would not be amiss. McManaman or Leo Da Silva Lopes in one of the wide positions might help.

In the long run, with confidence restored, we can expect Cook to return to a more attractive brand of football than we have seen of late.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

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The Windass conundrum – can he fit into Paul Cook’s style of play?

 

“Josh wants to be a number nine every game for Rangers and I couldn’t guarantee that. I could guarantee him football matches but maybe in different positions and formations.  Maybe Wigan boss Paul Cook said he could be number nine every week and that may have triggered his decision.”

The words of Rangers manager Steven Gerrard after Josh Windass joined Wigan Athletic on the summer transfer deadline day. The fee was reported to be £2m. That same day Latics paid Ipswich some £1.25m for centre forward Joe Garner. Why did Paul Cook sign both when he already had Will Grigg and James Vaughan competing for the centre forward position?

Cook clearly has a high regard for the 24-year-old Windass, but what were his intentions? Was he signing the Hull-born player as a central striker or one who would poach goals from wide positions?

At the end of last season Cook had three central strikers in the senior squad. Over the summer he opted to send Devante Cole on loan to Burton Albion, leaving Grigg and Vaughan to fight for the position. Cook’s preferred formation involves one central striker, although he will sometimes throw on another in the second half if needs’ be. Garner is a capable and experienced Championship-level central striker and he will compete with Grigg and Vaughan, but where does that leave Windass?

Not surprisingly, given the competition he is facing, Josh Windass has not yet started a game for Latics as a centre forward. He has been confined to the right or left wing. He has made 8 starts, Latics winning 3, drawing 1, losing 4 of those games. He has scored one goal, well taken against Hull City.

Cook’s team last season was characterised by fast and decisive play from the flanks with pacey wingers and full backs pushed far forward. At its best it was exhilarating to watch. Gavin Massey was a key player on the right wing, his pace causing problems for opposing full backs, but his ability to perform the high press and to get back to support his full back underlined his contribution. The loss of Massey through a severe hamstring injury was a bitter pill for Cook to swallow. He had a potential replacement in Callum McManaman, but he too has had injury issues and not been at his best. In the meantime, Cook has used Windass and Michael Jacobs in wide positions, interchanging between right and left.

Windass is not a natural winger. Too often he has looked like a central striker playing wide. But that position is by no means new to him. Rangers had used him there often. Was Gerrard being upfront about Windass’ decision to leave Rangers? The whole thing does not add up.

What we have seen so far of Cook’s preferred style of play has been refreshing. Long-standing Latics fans would have said something similar about Paul Jewell’s football. PJ pulled a masterstroke by converting a centre forward with a low strike record into a left midfielder who was key not only in promotion to the Premier League, but staying there. Big Lee McCulloch was rarely going to beat a defender in his left wing position, but he worked hard in midfield and was a real threat at the far post with his heading ability. Jewell made a pragmatic decision to sacrifice speed on the left wing, for the greater good, McCulloch’s attacking threat in the air adding another dimension. Moreover, in Leighton Baines and Steve McMillan, he had attacking left backs with the ability to cross the ball with their “stronger”  feet.

Cook stuck his neck out with the signing of Josh Windass. His dilemma revolves around how to use the player most effectively for the combined benefit of the team.

Would Windass be effective in that McCulloch role? He is certainly not a right winger but playing on the left provides him with opportunities to cut in for right foot shots. But that is a big part of Michael Jacobs’ game. Jacobs has been a key player for Cook.

Cook surprised us at Preston by replacing an injured Nick Powell with Dan Burn, reverting to a back three. For a manager so passionate about 4-2-3-1 it was a paradigm shift. If he were to persist with such a system, there would be possibilities for twin strikers. Windass and Grigg would provide an interesting pairing. But one senses that Cook’s motivation was to bring Burn back into the fold than anything else. Given the hard times that Antonee Robinson has recently had it would not be a surprise to see Burn appear at left back.

Cook has lots of thinking to do. Does he bring McManaman in to provide pace and balance on the wing or does he keep faith in Windass? Or is he willing to sacrifice 4-2-3-1 to accommodate him as a striker?

Another, if less likely, scenario is at least one central striker leaving in the January transfer window.

The team selection for the game against high flying West Bromwich Albion next weekend will make interesting reading.

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Five talking points arising from the win against Rotherham

Wigan Athletic 1 Rotherham 0

It was akin to a throwback to the days in League 1. The visiting team had come to “park the bus” and rely on long balls and set pieces as their outlet for threatening the Wigan goal. The previous home games against Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest had been so entertaining. This one was much less so.

Rotherham manager Paul Warne commented after the game that: “We were pleased to get them in at 0-0 at half-time. I thought Wigan were the better side without making our ‘keeper make too many saves. At half-time, we made our defenders play a lot higher up the pitch and our midfielders play higher to give some support to Smithy. I thought we were the better side in the second half. We were pushing for the goal and we had plenty of set-pieces. There was a block here and a block there and it just didn’t drop for us today against an excellent Wigan side, who played Stoke off the park last week.”

Warne summed up the first half well and the Millers certainly threatened in the closing stages with their aerial bombardment, but the Latics defence held firm. Wigan fans might debate Warne’s assertion that Rotherham were the better of the two sides in the second half, using their “direct” approach. It was not pretty to watch but caused some worrying moments for the home crowd.

Let’s take a look at some points arising from the game:

Cook chooses Connolly on the right

A refreshing aspect of Paul Cook’s tenure as Latics manager has been in the balanced starting line-ups he has selected. It has been like a breath of fresh air for Latics fans who had to endure the Warren Joyce playing four holding midfielders across the middle of the park. Cook has placed an emphasis on playing the ball wide, with the full backs bombing forward to link up with speedy wingers.

However, yesterday Cook chose to play without an orthodox right winger although he had both Nathan Byrne and Callum McManaman available. Perhaps he felt that Callum Connolly deserved another run-out and the Everton player certainly reinforced the midfield. But there was not the same degree of pace on the right-hand side as a result.

On the left Josh Windass is in the process of adapting to the role that Michael Jacobs has played over the past year. Windass did not play at all badly and provided the pass to McManaman that led to Wigan’s goal. He also showed his ability on set pieces with a fizzler of a free kick in the first half which sent narrowly wide. Cook will be expecting that Windass’ shooting ability will add an extra dimension to Wigan’s play. However, yesterday Wigan lacked the kind of creativity on the left that Jacobs can provide.

The football took a nose-dive when Grigg and Powell went off

Will Grigg and Nick Powell were taken off after 60 minutes, with James Vaughan and Callum McManaman replacing them. The result was a deterioration in the level of Wigan’s football, with hopeful punts gradually becoming the norm rather than the controlled passing game we had seen up to that point.

Powell is the pivot in midfield through which so much of Latics’ best football flows. As the second half progressed Latics just could not hold on to the ball, putting undue pressure on the defence. Vaughan’s arrival once more coincided with more long balls. One wonders if the players are playing under orders to launch them towards Vaughan, or whether it is the player’s willingness to chase seemingly lost causes that affects the style of play. Or is it simply that in the final third of the game the players tire and just cannot keep that passing game going?

Walton – the most composed player

Christian Walton continues to grow in confidence, after looking nervy in the opening games. Yesterday he looked the most composed player on the pitch, excellent in his anticipation of opposition breakaways, reliable in his box.

Unnecessary free kicks

So many Championship teams are dangerous from set pieces. League 1 teams certainly had tall players who could threaten in the air, but in the second tier the delivery is superior. Following Wigan’s goal, the Millers brought on Kyle Vassell (6 ft) and Jamie Proctor (6 ft 2 in) to join the 6 ft 4 in centre forward Michael Smith.

The Wigan defence looked distinctly wobbly in the past quarter facing an aerial bombardment. It was not helped by the concession of unnecessary fouls giving the visitors the opportunity to launch dangerous crosses.

Powell stays

It was a relief for Wigan Athletic supporters for the loan transfer deadline to pass without the departure of Nick Powell. The next step is for the club to negotiate a new contract for a player whose market will soar if he continues to stay fit.

Reports suggest that the prospective new owners were present at the DW Stadium yesterday. Will the takeover actually happen soon?

Nathan Byrne, Gavin Massey, Shaun MacDonald, Sam Morsy and James Vaughan are in the same position as Powell, with their current contracts expiring in summer. It will be interesting to see how many of them are offered contract extensions.

 

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Change is in the air at Latics

The Liverpool Echo article, published on June 18, told us that the IEG would appoint Joe Royle as Director of Football at Wigan Athletic were a takeover to take place. The 69-year-old would use his experience and contacts to recruit new players for the club.

But six weeks have since passed, the takeover has not yet happened and the EFL transfer window closes on August 9. Paul Cook remains tight-lipped in his comments about the takeover, although Alan Nixon’s tweet gives us an inkling as to the climate in which the manager is currently working.

Nixon remains the main source of titbits about the current situation at Wigan Athletic. He is particularly active on Twitter, where his accessibility gives fans the chance to ask him for information on their clubs.

If Nixon is correct about the takeover being likely to happen in mid-August, what does it mean for recruitment up to August 9?

Up to this point Cook has signed three players on permanent contracts over the summer. Kal Naismith was recruited as a free agent from Portsmouth. Callum McManaman took a pay cut to come back to Wigan from Sunderland. Although the fee is “undisclosed” it could well be minimal, as the north east club look towards slashing their costs following relegation to the third tier. However, Cook was allowed to splash cash in acquiring Leonardo da Silva Lopes for some £750,000-plus from Peterborough. But given the uncertainty regarding the ownership of the club, will funds be made available for him to compete on an even keel in the transfer market?

Given the norms over recent seasons at the club and the continued tenure of David Sharpe as chairman the likelihood is that Cook will have to recoup funds from transfer fees before spending further. Both Ryan Colclough and Devante Cole are likely to be leaving soon, whether on permanent transfers or loans. James McClean has moved from West Bromwich to Stoke for some £5m, with Latics reportedly due to receive a sell-on fee amounting to somewhere between 15% to 20%.

Rumours have suggested that Cook has been interested in signing Bradford City centre forward Charlie Wyke, with the Bantams asking for £750,000. However, the player has a knee injury which may deter current interest.

In early May reports told us that Everton were interested in signing the 19-year-old Callum Lang, whose contract is due to expire next summer. There has since been no news from Wigan about an extended contract for the player who was not in the squads for the pre-season games at Tranmere, Chesterfield and Rangers. Should a reasonable offer come in for Lang in the next 10 days it will be interesting to see if Latics are willing to let go a young player of significant potential.

But Lang is not the only player in the last year of his contract. The list includes last season’s regulars Dan Burn, Nathan Byrne, Gavin Massey, Sam Morsy, Nick Powell and Max Power, together with Jordan Flores, Shaun MacDonald and James Vaughan. No news has been forthcoming from the club about new contracts being signed and the transfer deadline approaches. The Whelan family policy in the past has typically been that players can leave if Latics are offered what they consider the right price. It is in the club’s interests to tie down contracts to those that Cook wants to keep, rather than have them leave as free agents next summer. The worst-case scenario is key players leaving close to the transfer deadline, with no replacements in hand.

The EFL brought forward the closing date of the summer transfer window from September 1 to August 9 for the 2018-19 season. However, the deadline for signing loan players and free agents is August 31. The Sun newspaper suggested on Sunday that should the Wigan takeover happen in time then Callum Connolly, Kieran Dowell and Antonee Robinson might be loan targets. Connolly is known from his previous spell at the DW where he was used as a right back. Dowell is an attacking midfield player and Robinson a left back, both with successful experience on loan in the Championship. Of the three it is Robinson who would most likely to the main target for Cook, given his problems with the left back position. However, a return for Callum Elder from Leicester cannot be ruled out, whether on another loan or a permanent transfer.

Matthew Pennington is a 23-year-old central defender for whom Leeds United paid a reported £500,000 loan fee to make 24 appearances for them last season.

Meanwhile we await a decision on 30-year-old midfielder Darron Gibson’s future at Wigan. Cook already has McDonald, Morsy and Power vying for holding midfield positions, but Gibson’s experience could be useful. The other trialists, James Perch and Ross Wallace, are reported to have left the club. Perch is an old fan favourite at Wigan and many were hoping he would be signed. His versatility in being able to play anywhere in the defence or in holding midfield must have been a plus. Some fans suggested Cook might have had him in mind for the left back position but given the way the manager employed his full backs last season it was unlikely. Moreover, the player had injury problems last season and made only 6 league starts for QPR.

Change is certainly in the air at Wigan Athletic, with ownership issues clouding recruitment policy. The interaction between the Whelan family and IEG is not known to the public. Rumours have been circulated that Joe Royle has attended recent games and together with Nixon’s tweets about Everton loan players it appears that there have been efforts to provide a smooth transition in the control of the club. Moreover, the implications are that it is IEG who have been providing financial support over the summer rather than the Whelans.

Ownership issues apart, we have learned that activity increases as the transfer deadline approaches. Latics fans will be hoping that Cook can keep hold of the players who formed the backbone of the successes of last season. Many will say that Gary Caldwell lost momentum by not keeping faith in the players that were in his League 1 winning squad. Cook has already made it clear that he believes in loyalty and we can expect most of those players to make the starting line-up against Sheffield Wednesday. He has also made it clear that he needs more new players.

Following the defeat at Ibrox we have seen some gloomy comments on the social media and message boards. However, Rangers were always going to be a difficult proposition, playing in front of a large home crowd and being ahead in their physical preparation having already played three matches in the Europa League qualifiers. One of the key features of last season was the solidity of the defence, aided by having a consistent back four. Following Dan Burn’s departure at half time, Latics had only Chey Dunkley present from the back four that finished the season. The defence will surely tighten up when Cook finds a competent specialist left back to play with Burn, Dunkley and Nathan Byrne.

In the meantime, we need to prepare ourselves for the rollercoaster ride that comes as the transfer deadline approaches. That deadline has been brought significantly forward, but did the EFL have to agree on the same dates as the Premier League, whose season starts a week later? The result is that managers at EFL clubs continue to be vulnerable to losing key players when the season has already started.

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No more living in the past

 

All good things must come to an end.

That is something that Wigan Athletic followers know all too well. It is only some twenty months since that euphoric experience at Wembley. But it seems like light years away now.

But life goes on. What happened to the players who were in that famous lineup and where are Wigan Athletic heading now?

That wonderful FA Cup final winning team is now all but gone, only 20 months after that wonderfully heady day at Wembley. It was always a matter of time, but circumstances have accelerated the process.

The news of Ben Watson’s impending departure to Watford was a shock for most of us. In our heart of hearts we knew that Shaun Maloney would soon be on his way and it is no surprise to see the club trying to cash in on Callum McManaman, but the Watson case was a bolt out of the blue.

There has been talk about building a Ben Watson statue outside the DW Stadium. One assumes it would show him hanging in mid-air as the ball leaves his head to go into Joe Hart’s net. But the statue would represent much more than a great header from the admirable Watson.  The header helped them deservedly win that cup and it was the pinnacle of Wigan Athletic’s success. In all likelihood it will never happen again.

The team that beat Manchester City at Wembley is etched into the memory of Latics fans. The names of each player roll off the tongue with ease. But how many will still be at the club at the end of this season?

Not many one would say. It did not take long for Roberto Martinez to take Antolin Alcaraz, Arouna Kone, James McCarthy and Joel Robles. Add to that the retirement of the charismatic Paul Scharner. However, at the start of last season the majority of the FA Cup winning side were still at the club, together with others who missed the final through injury.

At the end of last season we saw the departure of the free agents. Jordi Gomez went to Sunderland, and the underrated Jean Beausejour, who missed the Cup final through injury, went back to Chile. What was to prove the hammer blow for Uwe Rosler was to lose the admirable James McArthur to Crystal Palace.

Since Malky Mackay has arrived we have seen Emmerson Boyce descend to the bench. Roger Espinoza has gone back to the United States, where it looks like Shaun Maloney is also heading. The exciting, if frustrating, Callum McManaman is clearly on his way too, albeit with a cash fillip for Mackay.

That famous team has been dismantled. So too have many of the expectations associated with them. In fact expectations have fallen so low that avoiding relegation from the Championship would be largely viewed as positive.

Like it or lump it, the Mackay era is upon us. The Scot has not had an easy time, given the pressure on him from the FA and the media. His record at Wigan so far beggars belief, a woeful tally.

But Mackay is now going to have something that neither Owen Coyle not Uwe Rosler ever had. That is a lower expectation from fans and dealing with the egos of players who were FA Cup winners.

Latics are no longer going to live in the past.

The question is how long will it take for Mackay to turn it around?