Five talking points following a champagne-popping win over Stoke

Wigan Athletic 3 Stoke City 0

Champagne football returned to Wigan last night as Latics blew away Stoke City with the best display of the Paul Cook era. Gone was the hoofball that characterised the worst displays of the season. In its place was champagne football.

Granted, the first two goals were down to poor defensive play, although the third was something special. But the scoreline could have been much greater had Latics taken more of their chances. They were so superior throughout the game.

After the match Paul Cook commented: “That was an absolute top-class performance from us tonight. The only disappointment possibly was that it was only 1-0 at half-time. We created clear-cut chances, we dominated possession, and our appetite for work when we didn’t have the ball was so impressive.”

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

It’s all in the head

Jonjo is right. It is bonkers!

Wigan’s play last night exuded a confidence based upon an impressive unbeaten run.

In November Latics lost 2-1 at Stoke through a Mame Diouf goal in the 93rd minute.

They have come so far since then. But who can explain it?

Cook’s popularity rating rises

There have been times over the past two seasons when Paul Cook’s popularity rating has hit rock bottom. At times the football has been either awful or too frustrating to watch.  Comments on the social media have been brutal at times.

However, since embarking on this unbeaten run in mid-February his popularity with the fans has been gradually increasing. People want results and they have been coming. Some of the previous performances were abysmal, others quite the opposite even if the results did not always correlate with the performances.

The manager summed things up well following the victory over Blackburn at the weekend:

It’s hard to be a manager at this level, because you get abused for much of the time. But then all of a sudden because your team wins a few games, you’re suddenly a good manager again.

The brutal reality is you’re only as good as your player and my players have never, ever let me down, over anything other than inexperience, naivety. When it comes to passion, desire, determination, attitude, they’ve always given me everything. I’ve never had a problem with any of them this season, never had a dressing-room row when I’ve had to question that side of things.”

I’ve certainly had plenty of rows questioning some of the stuff we’ve done, but that’s football. To see them now playing against such strong sides, and limiting them to not many clear-cut chances, is great credit to them.”

Last night we saw a performance matched by a result. It is when the two coincide that we can begin to see a brighter future ahead.

Butland has an off night

Peter Schmeichel once said: “Every player makes mistakes; every goalkeeper makes mistakes. Every manager does, every broadcaster – every person in life makes mistakes. But for goalkeepers, often when they make a mistake, it leads to a goal.”

Jack Butland’s own goal and assist for Kal Naismith’s first goal certainly helped Latics on their way.

Butland is 27 years old and has 9 caps for England. He is by no means a rookie goalkeeper, but his mistakes were costly for his team last night.

Naismith’s second goal was a stunner

When Kal Naismith came on for an injured Michael Jacobs after 32 minutes he went to the right wing. The Glaswegian has played in so many different positions for Latics and opinion is divided as to which is his best. Many would say he has had his best performances at centre back. But he had hardly shone in the past on the few occasions he had been employed on the right wing.

However, he had a fine game last night, giving veteran full back Stephen Ward a torrid time. Ten minutes after coming on he chested down a high ball and unleashed a tremendous effort from over 30 yards which was somehow pushed wide by the ‘keeper. Naismith’s first goal was a tap-in, but the second was the kind that will stick in the mind for years to come. The sheer power of the strike showed the excellent technique that the player has.

(Naismith’s second goal after 1:56 min)

It was a surprise not to see Naismith take the field in the first two games of the season restart. It will be even more of a surprise if he does not feature more regularly in the six games that remain.

Brentford – the acid test

Can Latics keep up their form for the trip to Brentford on Saturday?

The Bees have won their last four games and are only two points away from an automatic promotion place. However, Wigan have already notched up wins away against the teams above Brentford: Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion.

Keeping up an unbeaten run of nine games against another team in fine form is not going to be easy. The encounter will provide an acid test for Cook’s Latics.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Champagne football returns to the DW –Latics 3 Blackburn Rovers 0 – with match highlights

It was probably Nick Powell's best display in a Wigan shirt.

It was probably Nick Powell’s best display in a Wigan shirt.

It brought back memories of the champagne football of yesteryear. Admittedly Rovers looked a poor side, but the quality of Wigan’s play in the first half was reminiscent of that of those glorious times of the tail end of the 2012-13 season. In those days Shaun Maloney had been at the heart of it: yesterday it was Nick Powell.

Gary Caldwell stuck with the 3-5-2 formation. With Jake Buxton suspended, Stephen Warnock moved to left centre back, with Dan Burn in the middle and Craig Morgan on the right. David Perkins was played as a left wing back, with Nick Powell taking his place in midfield.

Wigan soon settled into a positive rhythm, building up from the back, but not averse to launching calculated long balls. The wing backs were lively, the midfield fluid and classy, the two forwards constantly searching for space. Latics’ high pressing caused Blackburn problems from the start and Alex Gilbey might have scored as early as the third minute after Yanic Wildschut had dispossessed centre back Shaun Duffy and rolled the ball into his path. Gilbey fired narrowly wide.

Given Wigan’s dominance it came as no surprise when they scored after 14 minutes. A glorious long diagonal pass from Morgan to Wildschut initiated a move that saw Max Power teed up for a shot from outside the box. Power’s shot was wayward, but Will Grigg instinctively got his head to the ball and it flashed into the net. The champagne football continued, with Powell orchestrating the play, together with his midfield partners, Gilbey and Power. Latics almost went two up after 25 minutes with Wildschut hitting the crossbar but another goal was surely coming. It happened in the 33rd minute when Powell curled in a free kick from the left side of the penalty area, goalkeeper Steele getting hands to it, but unable to keep it out.

Latics went into half time with a two goal lead after playing scintillating football. But one wondered if they could keep it going or whether they would go into their shells as they did at Bristol a week before. Could they keep up that same intensity?

It turned out that they couldn’t. However, although they were to take their foot off the gas they remained in control. As the second half wore on, Powell’s influence was to diminish, as was the high pressing that had characterized their first half display. Powell was to go off after 62 minutes, being replaced by Michael Jacobs.

The visitors had started to come back into the game, but a minute later an own goal by the unfortunate Duffy from a superb cross by Jacobs was to knock them back on their heels. Tim Chow replaced the excellent Luke Burke after 75 minutes, with Craig Davies coming on for an equally excellent Will Grigg after 81 minutes. The game was to peter away with Latics seemingly having Tuesday’s game against Birmingham City uppermost in their minds.

The Good

The signing of Nick Powell a couple of weeks ago was a gamble. Lacking first team football over the past two years and being beset by injuries, Caldwell was nevertheless hoping the player could regain that spark that he showed in Owen Coyle’s days at Wigan. But Powell’s midfield play was a revelation in this match, probably his best display in Latics colours. He looked a complete player in midfield, his technical abilities being allied with a keen workrate. Gary Caldwell later remarked that:

That’s what Nick can do when he has got his mind on it and he’s right. He’s been first class since he came in, worked really hard with the fitness coaches – credit to them for getting him fit – and I’d probably say he’s working at a fitness level of about 60% at the moment and yet you saw today what he could produce.

Alex Gilbey also had a fine game. He is another player with a great technique, but he was to ally that with excellent movement off the ball and a willingness to fight for possession. Although in some ways a similar type of player to Max Power there seems to be room in the Wigan midfield for the two.

Luke Burke continues to impress. He is the complete wing back, intelligent in his distribution, strong in the tackle, with a level of composure that belies his 18 years of age. One wonders how he will fare when used as an orthodox right back when the manager opts for a conventional back four. On the evidence of what we have seen so far he should slot in seamlessly.

David Perkins was also impressive at wing back, constantly supporting attacks, solid in defence. The back three were strong, Craig Morgan being his usual calm influence, with his fine distribution. Dan Burn looked much more comfortable in the centre of the back three, where he was able to use his height to greater effect, winning headers, but he was also effective on the ground. Stephen Warnock was excellent throughout, tenacious in the tackle, thoughtful in his positioning, showing better judgement with his passing.

There have been questions as to whether Will Grigg can perform above League 1 level. On the basis of this performance there is no doubt that he can. Although faced with two uncompromising central defenders he led them a merry dance, his intelligent movement creating space. Yanic Wildschut was also impressive in a role where he has freedom to roam, rather being tied to a wide position which makes it easier for the opposition to nullify his efforts. Moreover the Dutchman is showing an increasing awareness of the positioning of his colleagues, more effective in his passing.

The Bad

Once again the second half performance was a disappointment after the first. Is there something in the players’ mindsets, is it a fitness issue, is it the manager’s desire to drop back on defence and hit on the counterattack? Or is it associated with the natural ebb and flow of a football game?

Whatever it is it needs to be addressed. Not only is it unfair on the fans, who go to a match hoping for entertainment, but it also lets teams off the hook who could have been dead and buried if the intensity had been kept up.

Uwe Rosler used the high pressing tactic to great effect during his better days at the club, although his players were unable to sustain it beyond the first half. Yesterday it was enough to unbalance the Blackburn defence in the early stages, but it dissipated as the game progressed.

It would be refreshing to see a Latics team, in the lead at the interval, come out and attack the opposition as soon as the second half starts. One can understand a team taking its foot off the gas in the final quarter, given another encounter being just three days away. But the second half slump is something that needs to be addressed.

Player Ratings

Adam Bogdan: 7 – had a fairly quiet time.

Luke Burke: 8 – excellent.

Craig Morgan: 8 – an understated, consistent performer and a calming influence on the defence.

Dan Burn: 8 – his best game so far.

Stephen Warnock: 8.5 – seems to relish that left centre back position. Influential.

David Perkins: 8 – as selfless as ever, but showing no mean level of skill too.

Max Power: 8 – getting back to his old form. Will he claim an assist for Grigg’s goal?

Alex Gilbey: 8.5 – looks a class player.

Nick Powell: 9 – a terrific display.

Will Grigg: 8.5 – a fine performance. His goal bore the stamp of a true poacher.

Yanic Wildschut: 8 – very good.

Substitutes:

Michael Jacobs: – came on after 63 minutes. Worked hard.

Tim Chow: – on for Burke after 75 minutes.

Craig Davies: – it was good to see the big man come on in the last 10 minutes for a tired Grigg. There have been rumours that he is on his way out of the club, but his physical presence gives Caldwell more options.

 

 

Result needed

How many times during Roberto Martinez’ tenure at Wigan have his team played really well, but not got a result? Too many, Latics fans would reply.

It was that same old story at the Eastlands in midweek. Latics gave us a dose of that wonderful brand of champagne football that kept them afloat last year. In the process they made the Premier League champions look very ordinary. The problem was that they came home pointless.

The issue was highlighted in a recent quote from Martinez:  “We didn’t go to Manchester City for a point or damage limitation. We wanted to win and we deserved to win. But we have to learn. When we deserve to win, we have to win.”

There are 6 games left this season. Wigan need at  least 3 wins to stay up. Given their form over the season, there is as much chance  winning matches away as at home. Of the three teams to play away it is West Ham who have the weakest home record. So far this season their record at the Boleyn Ground has been 7 wins, 5 draws and 4 defeats.

Latics are therefore going to be looking for a win at West Ham tomorrow. The Hammers come in following a 2-2 draw with Manchester United, the upcoming champions equalising with a goal that Sam Allardyce considered offside. Despite only having 34% of the possession  the Hammers were still able to score two goals. They are that kind of team – their football is far from pretty and they don’t have a lot of quality players in their squad – but they are resilient and can get results.

Given the threat of aerial bombardment,  Martinez might well keep the backline of three central defenders that played at Manchester City. He has talked about rotating his squad, with so many games coming up in a short period.

On Wednesday he made two changes, bringing in Joel Robles and Franco Di Santo. It will be a challenge for him to make any more changes for Saturday, without disrupting the rhythm of a team that has been playing better lately.

Wigan beat West Ham 4-1 in a League Cup tie earlier in the season at the Boleyn Ground, but both clubs put out weakened lineups. They also beat them 2-1 at home in  the league. Providing they can maintain current form they can certainly get a good result at West Ham. The question for Wigan is whether recent matches have taken a physical and mental toll on key players. Their fans will not want to see the kind of jaded,  insipid performance they saw a couple of weeks ago against QPR.

No matter how they do it – by grinding the opposition down or by attacking them in style – Latics need to go all out for a win. It has been a funny old season and it is going to be hard for Wigan to stay afloat. They have done last minute escape acts before, but are we expecting too much in asking them to do it again?

Although accepting that this year’s relegation battle is the toughest for many years, Roberto Martinez believes Wigan can still make it. Given his past record Wigan remain a force to be reckoned with near the end of a season. Let’s see what they can do at West Ham tomorrow.

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Nottingham Forest vs. Wigan Athletic: Match Preview

After witnessing champagne moments in Latics’ victory at Southampton on Saturday, up comes another match. It is the Capital One Cup, the latest name for the Football League Cup. Will it be champagne or mere morsels this time around? One recalls the heroics of the 2005-2006 Latics side, knocking out Arsenal in the semi-final, only to be undone by Manchester United in Cardiff. It was not so much champagne football with that Latics side in their first Premier League season, but it was exuberant and exciting.

I liked the name of the “Milk Cup”, that the tournament had in the 80’s when sponsored by Dairy Crest. The League Cup is still with us, despite the sparse attendances it has suffered since its introduction in 1960. In those days the FA Cup was a big thing, drawing in the crowds. Maybe they thought the League Cup could get on that same bandwagon? The reality has been that most Premier League clubs have repeatedly put out weakened teams in this competition, so “giant killing” has been prevalent, at least on outward appearance.

I really enjoyed the Southampton match. Two well taken goals, but more than that it was an oozing of sheer class by Latics that sticks in my mind. There was a spell in the second half where Latics just wouldn’t let Southampton get the ball. The passing ability of Latics’ defenders defies belief compared the norms of previous eras. Robert Martinez has got his team playing stylish, skillful football whilst maintaining a steely, competitive edge. How ironic that Brendan Rodgers has been lauded for the good football his Swansea team played last season. No disrespect to Rodgers, who did a great job taking Swansea into the Premier League and having a good first season. However, it is the Martinez stamp that reigns indelible on the Swansea style of play.

When I trawled the Latics news on the internet a few minutes ago I found headlines such as “Martinez set to rotate squad” and “ Martinez set to test squad depth”. Hardly a surprise. In the old days it would be said that he is putting out his reserve team. I suppose the difference now is that those fringe first team squad players rarely play for the reserves .

So it is an opportunity for squad players who have not started so far this season. If so a possible line-up could be: Pollitt – Lopez, Golobart, Kiernan – Stam, Watson, Fyvie (or Jones), Beausejour (or Jones) – Crusat, Boselli, Miyaichi (or McManaman). Not to forget Mustoe and Redmond plus players from the development squad. On paper this looks like a strong enough lineup, but in reality it would be a team that has never played together. On the more positive side Latics have a way of playing that these players can fit into. Martinez continues to view these matches as opportunities for players to show their mettle and their willingness to challenge for a place in the starting lineup. In reality we have seen some abject performances in the cup competitions over the last few years.

Nottingham Forest finished 19th in the Championship last year. They have won one and drawn two of their matches  this season. Like Wigan, they also need to look at upcoming fixtures. One cannot predict what type of lineup they will put out. How things have changed over recent years. Forest were twice European champions under Brian Clough  when Latics were still newcomers in the fourth tier of the Football League.

It would be nice to have another great run in the League Cup. However, performance in cup competitions under Roberto Martinez has been mediocre – it has clearly not been a priority. However, one hopes that those players who make the lineup tonight will play with the passion, skill and professionalism that the first choice lineup showed at Southampton at the weekend.

CONTEMPLATING LIFE WITHOUT BOB

After the joy and euphoria of recent weeks we are now rocked  by Liverpool’s approach to Roberto Martinez. How can we  contemplate a Wigan Athletic without Bob? What is going to happen if he leaves us for  Liverpool in the next 7 days?

Roberto Martinez came back as club manager in 2008, having been an old favourite of those fans who saw him play 188 matches for Latics from 1995-2001. His assistant was to be  Graeme Jones, who scored 44 goals in 96 appearances for Latics from 1996-1999. Another ex-Latics icon – Graham Barrow – was brought in as  coach. Barrow scored 35 goals in 179 appearances for Wigan Athletic from 1981-1986, not bad for a defensive midfield player. He later came back as manager in 1994-95, saving Latics from relegation to the Football Conference.  If you look at the backroom staff at the club you will find the names of other familiar names from yesteryear. Alex Cribley –  club physiotherapist – made 268 appearances for us in the 1980s and has been at the club for 30 years . We even have an executive manager, Jonathan Jackson, whose father was a great servant for the club at board level.

That all these people with strong previous associations  with the club are on the payroll is no coincidence. It is part of a concerted effort to recruit people who love the club. Roberto Martinez has been the orchestrator, melding together his staff to provide an infrastructure for the future. The model is not unlike that of Liverpool in the 1980’s when Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan moved up from the “bootroom” staff to take over the club after the departure of Bill Shankly. It was an incredibly successful model. Paisley won 6 league titles and 3 European Cups during his 9 years as manager.

Roberto Martinez might be offered the Liverpool job this week. If he does he might well take it. No Latics fan would begrudge him such an opportunity. Liverpool FC is not the club it was in the 1980s but its fans still often have unrealistically high expectations. Not an easy place to work, especially if John W. Henry wants instant success. Henry took over as principal owner of the Boston Red Sox baseball team in 2002. They won the coveted World Series in 2004. It is unlikely that Roberto Martinez – or any other manager – could perform a parallel feat at Liverpool FC in two years, given the squad of players currently at the club. What Martinez would do is build for the future and have the team play aesthetically pleasing football, something Liverpool have not been able to do for some time.

If the Liverpool thing does not work out – and we Latics fans have to admit we hope it doesn’t – we will probably have Martinez for another year. The problem is that the more success Wigan Athletic have under his direction, the more likely it is that he will be poached away by another club. We therefore need to think ahead. Are there people on the “bootroom” staff who are capable of replacing him? The obvious candidate is Graeme Jones, but we seldom get a glimpse of him through the media. Does he lack eloquence or is it that Martinez is a control freak and likes to deal with the media? Eric Black was a very well-spoken assistant to Steve Bruce and we saw more of him. If Martinez did move would he take Jones with him? Graham Barrow remains a capable force within the club and might even be a candidate. After the Heysel disaster in 1985 Kenny Dalglish took over as Liverpool player-manager, going on to win three league titles. Would it be within the realms of possibility that Gary Caldwell could perform that same dual role for Latics?

So let’s think ahead. Roberto Martinez will leave sometime, whether it be during the next week or the next year. He has built an infrastructure that we need to keep. If he were to leave he should not be allowed to take away key members of our coaching and backroom staff. The players he has recruited now know how to play the kind of champagne football we could not have dreamed about three years ago when he took over. We also have a tactical formation that really suits the players we have. We do not want a new manager to come in and put us back to square one. Let’s not revert to the physical, long-ball stuff that characterized Steve Bruce’s teams. Very few managers in England could step into this situation and build on what we already have. Only Swansea and Brighton come to mind as teams that play our style of football. Brendan Rodgers has done a great job at Swansea because he has built on the structure that Martinez provided during his time in Wales. Like Martinez he is now in the shop window, with the big clubs admiring the kind of football his team are playing. Gus Poyet has done a fantastic job in bringing Brighton to midway up the Championship playing our kind of football. He might well be a possibility for Latics.

Let’s hope that Roberto Martinez does not go to Liverpool and stays with us at least one more year. It is an exciting prospect! If he does go then we need to make the right appointment. Let’s not bring in somebody who tears apart the coaching and backroom staff to bring in his own men. We don’t need upheaval, we need continuity. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, we just need to keep it rolling. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.