Five talking points following a drab display at home to Ipswich

Wigan Athletic 1 Ipswich Town 1

We might have expected Wigan Athletic to come racing out of the blocks following their warm weather trip to Dubai. But it was not to be. A pedestrian Latics side failed to capitalise on Jonas Knudsen’s red card after 25 minutes, going behind five minutes later after a soft penalty was conceded by Chey Dunkley. It took a 91st equaliser from substitute Joe Garner to level the scores.

Paul Cook made two changes from the previous league game with Stoke. Lee Evans returned in central midfield with Reece James being moved to right back in place of Nathan Byrne. Danny Fox came back from injury to replace Cedric Kipre in the centre of defence.

Paul Cook commented: “It has to be a point gained, it has to be – for sure. You’d have to say it’s a feeling of relief, from the situation we found ourselves in. I thought Ipswich started the game well, they came with quite an attacking intent. The sending-off has a large bearing on the game, and you think the likelihood is we should go on and win the game. Ipswich then get a goal pretty quickly, and it’s set up then where they defend very deep and narrow – and rightly so. They frustrated us for long periods, and I didn’t feel we really looked like scoring, to be truthful. At the end of the day it’s a point, it’s not what we wanted, but the relief at the end was there for all to see.”

Let’s look at some points arising:

Another disappointing result against a side in the relegation zone

Latics have won only 1 game out of 7 against the five teams below them in the Championship table, that being a 1-0 win over Rotherham at the DW Stadium at the beginning of September. They lost at Ipswich and Millwall.

The displays against those teams in danger of relegation have been largely characterised by lethargic build-up play and ineffective finishing. Yesterday’s game simply fitted into a pattern we had seen before.

The remaining “6 pointers” are Reading (A) on March 9, Bolton (H) on March 16 and Millwall (H) on May 5, the last day of the season.

Why it is that Wigan have seemingly played without much ambition in those games is hard to fathom, although last season their results against the top teams in League 1 were not impressive. They won only 1 out of 6 against the 2nd, 3rd and 4th placed teams. Is there something in the planning for these encounters that emphasises caution? Or is it a mere coincidence that the players have not been at their best in those games?

What has happened to Leon Clarke?

His return to Wigan was never going to be easy for Leon Clarke. In his previous spell in the second half of the 2014-15 season he had failed to impress, scoring one goal in ten games. Fans queried his appetite for playing the role of the lone centre forward. Clarke impressed in his first game back, scoring a goal and making an assist against QPR. But in the following three games he has been less effective, looking more like the player of the unfortunate era of Malky Mackay.

Clarke is at Wigan on loan from Sheffield United until the end of the season. Last season he scored 19 goals in 39 appearances in the Championship. However, with the loan signing of Gary Madine and at 34 years of age, Clarke was allowed to leave the Blades in January.

With Sheffield United favouring twin strikers Clarke played well last season, his partnership with Billy Sharp being fruitful. At Wigan he has played as the main central striker with Josh Windass behind him.

Is Clarke better in a twin striker role or is it that he is now playing in a struggling team, not getting the kind of service he did at Bramall Lane?

Only time will tell if Clarke’s return to the DW is successful.

Antonee Robinson absent from the team sheet

Robinson’s last league appearance was on November 10th at Middlesbrough. In Robinson’s absence through injury Kal Naismith has established himself as the regular starter at left back, despite his previous lack of experience in that position.

Most of us expected Cook to sign a new left back over the January window but nothing materialised. Naismith has not had an easy time in that position but has improved as time has passed. At times he has looked all at sea and vulnerable to runs from speedy wingers. But he has also made some outstanding blocks and tackles in and around the penalty box. Cook expects his full backs to push far forward and the Scot has shown skill and determination down the flanks, with an ability to launch pinpoint crosses into the box. Although often under pressure from elements in the crowd Naismith has often shown initiative in a side that has been short on such qualities during a dismal run of results in recent months.

In a recent interview Naismith talked about his adjustment to playing at left back: “I’m learning all of the time, I’m happy to be playing in that new role and delighted to be playing in this league and just learning every day. I go back after the game and watch it, I take little bits from it. It’s funny because I feel like my crossing hasn’t been great as it’s my best asset, but my defending is getting better every week. I take the positives from that, I just want to keep learning as a player and keep improving.”

Robinson played the first 62 minutes against Shanghai SIPC in Dubai, being replaced by Naismith. Robinson too has faced criticism from fans on the defensive part of his game, although he can excel when going forward, possessing real pace.

It was a surprise that Robinson did not appear on the team sheet yesterday. Was he suffering a reaction from the game in Dubai?

McManaman preferred to Massey

After a frustrating first half with Latics woefully short of creativity one hoped, in vain, that Cook would make an immediate substitution in the second half to freshen things up. He had been employing two holding midfielders in Evans and Morsy, both sitting deep against a side with ten men. But we had to wait until after the hour mark for Callum McManaman and Nick Powell to come on for Chey Dunkley and Anthony Pilkington. Although Dunkley’s departure was a shock, Morsy being pushed back into the back four, the arrival of McManaman that was a surprise with Gavin Massey staying on the bench.

Powell looked decidedly rusty after such little football over these months but will clearly be a key player in Cook’s plans when fully fit. McManaman looked lively, if well policed by the Ipswich defence.

The manager’s treatment of McManaman has been unpopular with a lot of the fans. Is this an indication that the player will at last be given a genuine opportunity to prove himself over the games that remain?

Can Latics avoid relegation?

Again, the results for the other teams in the relegation went largely in Wigan’s favour. Bolton lost at Leeds, Millwall were defeated at home by Preston, Reading and Rotherham shared the points.

But Latics have been living precariously for weeks. The optimists will say that they are undefeated in their last four matches, but critics will say that three of those were draws when Wigan were happy to stick with a point.

Should just two of those teams have a run of form over the upcoming games then Latics could be in real trouble unless they too start winning matches. Being satisfied with a point rather than seriously trying for the three points might not be enough.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

 

 

 

 

Five talking points following an encouraging finale at West Bromwich

West Bromwich Albion 2 Wigan Athletic 0

After the pattern of football we have seen in recent months there were few reasons to be optimistic for the trip to the Hawthorns.

The first half followed a familiar pattern with Latics launching long balls forward and the home team looking superior. It was no surprise when Albion scored after 8 minutes when Dwight Gayle launched a routine cross into Wigan’s box and Jay Rodriguez headed in with remarkable ease. Gayle left the field of play after the goal, perhaps fortunately for Latics, to be replaced by Hal Robson-Kanu. Rodgriguez went on to score a second after 69 minutes with a spectacular strike from outside the box, although he was scarcely challenged by the Wigan defenders.

Paul Cook put out a changed lineup, partially signalling a much-needed shakeup. Nathan Byrne made way for Gavin Massey, Callum Connolly came in for Lee Evans. Gary Roberts was omitted with Chey Dunkley coming back to the left centre of defence with Dan Burn moving over to left back and Kal Naismith to left midfield. Some out of form players had been rested, but both Christian Walton and Josh Windass kept their places.

Sadly, despite the changes in personnel Cook had stuck with the same 4-4-2 that has been synonymous with a long-ball approach over the past weeks. But the introduction of Callum McManaman after 54 minutes signaled a much-needed shift in approach with much less long ball and more constructive football. Latics looked a much better side as a result and built up some fine moves in the final quarter of the game.

After the game Cook commented: “It was nice that Chey Dunkley was on the pitch today. Gavin Massey started his first game since coming back and Michael Jacobs will be back in a week or two, Nick Powell could back in January too and we may dip into the January transfer market.It is a long season; we are all feeling a little bit low at the minute with the results because we are not on a great run like we have been in the last 18 months. The players are doing as much as they can, though, lads like Kal Naismith are growing in the team and Callum McManaman was excellent today – he gave us a spark that we haven’t had and that’s great credit to him.”

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

Playing to your strengths

Joe Garner is 5 ft 10 in tall and Josh Windass 5 ft 9 in. West Bromwich’s central defenders were Ahmed Hegazi  (6 ft 4 in) and Craig Dawson (6 ft 2 in). The Albion pair were untroubled by Wigan’s long balls, gobbling them up with ease. During the course of the match Hegazi won 11 aerials, Dawson 5. Not surprisingly neither Garner nor Windass had good games and both were substituted in the second half.

The overall match stats show the home team winning 62% of aerial duels compared with Wigan’s 38%.

Although their football is based more on movement and possession West Bromwich are a physically imposing side, with more tall players in their lineup yesterday than Latics.

Put simply, playing the long ball against a bigger team is hardly playing to one’s strengths.

A promising return for Gavin Massey

This was Massey’s first start since August 25th when he suffered a serious hamstring injury at QPR. He had come on in the 59th minute in the last game at Birmingham, but yesterday he looked closer to full fitness.

Massey’s searing pace is a key aspect to his game, so the injury to his hamstring will have been worrying for Latics’ medical staff. But he was moving at good pace at the Hawthorns, adding an extra dimension to Wigan’s game. Although not yet at his best he was constructive going forward and attentive in defence.

Let’s hope Michael Jacobs too will be back soon after his hamstring injury. He has not played since the game at Preston on October 6.

Both players have been sorely missed, as has Nick Powell who might not be available for another month.

A left back is desperately needed

Dan Burn cannot be faulted for effort, but  he is no left back. He was put there so Kal Naismith could move further forward on the left. It was not an easy afternoon for either Burn or Naismith.

With Antonee Robinson out long-term  a left back is desperately needed in the transfer window that opens next week.

A chance to shine for Callum McManaman

Much has been said about Cook’s treatment of Callum McManaman, a creative talent who has hardly been given a chance in a team in desperate straits, so short on invention and the ability to unsettle the opposition. The reasons for his tiny amount of game time have been palpably unclear to us as fans.

Once again McManaman’s was on the bench yesterday and one expected him to be brought on in the closing minutes, if at all.

But Cook surprised us by withdrawing the hapless Windass after 54 minutes, whereas his substitutions usually come later than that. McManaman was excellent, running at the home team defence which had to resort to foul means to stop him. It is a long time since a Latics player has shown that kind of trickery and skill. So often in a team low on confidence the norm has been to pass the ball backwards or sideways or make a speculative cross that has led nowhere. McManaman was a breath of fresh air in comparison.

Moreover, the player’s arrival signaled a more cultured approach from Latics, reminiscent of what we saw earlier in the season when things were going much better.

One swallow does not make a summer, but it was such a refreshing change. We all know that there will be games when McManaman struggles to make an impact and he might not be so good defensively as some. But he has that ability to change a game.

Following an excellent performance McManaman has staked his claim for a start at Swansea on Saturday. Let’s wait and see.

Rays of hope for the future?

 Football managers can be very stubborn and can stick to rigid ideas. Cook was in such a frame of mind as he stuck with the ineffective 4-4-2 formation yesterday that had become synonymous with long ball.

However, there were rays of hope in the second half when Latics made efforts to revive the passing football that had been so uplifting in August and September.

One can only hope that Cook has seen the light on the road to Damascus. It could not only be the saving of Latics from relegation, but the means of the manager holding on to his job.

David Sharpe once made a statement regarding playing football “The Wigan Way”. Let’s hope that the manager has the courage to allow his players to express themselves on the pitch rather than continue with the kind of scrapball that was the norm in the reigns of Malky Mackay and Warren Joyce.

 

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

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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