Five talking points following a Sharp defeat at Bramall Lane

Sheffield United 4 Wigan Athletic 2

Following a run of insipid away performances, we witnessed a much better one at Bramall Lane. Rather than looking like a team that had come to defend, Wigan Athletic attacked Sheffield United from the start. There was pace, there was balance, there was ambition. The problem was that the home team had Billy Sharp and his hat trick destroyed Latics after Chey Dunkley’s own goal had given the Blades the lead.

Sharp is hardly an Aguero or Kane. He has played just two games in the Premier League, those being for Southampton six seasons ago. But he is a very experienced Championship level striker and scored 13 goals in 34 appearances last season for Sheffield United. He gave Wigan’s centre backs a torrid time yesterday, scoring three opportunist goals.

Paul Cook decided to stick to his usual 4-2-3-1 formation, bringing back Nathan Byrne and Gary Roberts on the wings, replacing Cedric Kipre with Dan Burn, with Callum Connolly moving inside the unavailable Lee Evans.

The manager commented after the match: “We didn’t come under any great pressure in the game, but we conceded four goals and they hit the underside of the bar for five, whilst we have had chances in the game too. The disappointing thing is that at home we can look so sound defensively but I have to stress that when we speak about defending, I mean the team, not just the defenders and the goalkeeper. If we are to have success in the league this year, then we have to iron out the mistakes.”

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

Cook deserves support

There has been a dramatic drop for Latics in the month of October with a record of W1 D1 L3. Over the course of the season so far so many games have been somewhat naively thrown away or lost tactically.

But at the same time, one must give immense credit to Paul Cook for the positives. He had a whopping challenge in losing the Burn/Byrne brothers at beginning of season, having to bed in a new defence, followed by injuries to key attackers Grigg, Jacobs and Massey interrupting form.

Despite recent results Latics are in a respectable 14th place, 8 points clear of relegation. Moreover, the table is so tight that two wins (or losses) can cause a dramatic rise or fall.

Cook was also without Lee Evans yesterday.  Evans is a quality player in every aspect except speed/acceleration. He is tactically aware, quick thinking, has vision and an excellent technique. He was sorely missed, not least in the quality of his kicks from set pieces.

This is a season of consolidation for Latics. The squad is probably not strong enough to get into a playoff spot but is certainly good enough to avoid relegation. Were they to finish the season in this current 14th place it would be regarded as a success.

Following the game Paul Cook talked about aiming for consolidation:

We must remember the criteria for us all is that we are trying to sustain a foothold in the division and along the way we know it is going to be tough. Today was a tough day. We have had a smashing start and we have difficult games coming up that we know could see this run get worse, though the bigger picture for everyone says that we want to sustain our league status this year and people should never forget that.”

Following an awful display at Millwall, where the hoof was the main form of attack, yesterday’s performance was breath of fresh air. The manager selected a balanced lineup and Latics played some very good football at times.

Wigan have had some difficult fixtures of late and injuries have restricted the manager’s team selection.

It is the manager who takes the flak when the players don’t deliver. Cook is never one to blame the players and he rarely gives excuses. He deserves credit for getting Latics into their current position with a third of the season gone.

More additions to the injury list

Gary Roberts’ hamstring pull after 35 minutes signalled the end of the game for him, with Kal Naismith replacing him. He joins Will Grigg, Michael Jacobs and Gavin Massey on the hamstring injury list. It is a worrying trend: fans are asking if it is something associated with the players’ physical preparation. Or is it merely a coincidence?

Nick Powell’s departure with an ankle injury on 66 minutes was particularly worrying. He had to be helped off the field with a man on each side supporting him. If Latics have one player they cannot afford to lose for a long period of time, it is Powell.

Burn and Dunkley have off days

The exclusion of Kipre for Burn was a bold move by Cook, who maybe thought Burn’s experience would be more important on the day. But although Burn and Dunkley played so many games together last season, this was their first pairing as central defenders this season. It showed as they both struggled against the aggression and movement of the home team’s attacks.

But given their lack of game time together this season it was perhaps understandable that they were not the cohesive unit we saw in League 1. Moreover, in his post-match comments Cook alluded to the lack of protection the defence might have received.

Reece James in midfield

Following Callum McManaman’s introduction on 66 minutes for Nick Powell, Cook put Nathan Byrne at right back, pushing Reece James into a midfield holding role. The hapless Callum Connolly had been taken off 8 minutes earlier.

James is a fine all-round footballer and he looked immediately comfortable in that role, making himself available to receive the ball, using it effectively.

Nathan Byrne is back in contention

It has been a difficult season for Byrne, suffering injury problems and not being able to regain the right back position due to the excellent form of Reece James. However, Byrne can still have an important role to play this season.

Byrne made a welcome return against West Bromwich playing on the right wing. He was rested for the Millwall game but brought back to the right wing yesterday. He was arguably Latics outstanding player, linking up well with James and providing the assist for Kal Naismith’s goal.  Later in the game he was moved to his more customary position at right back, with James pushed into midfield.

With Gavin Massey due to be out for a long period of time, Byrne will most likely be the main contender for the right wing spot. Moreover, his presence gives Cook the option of bolstering his midfield in the latter stages of games by switching James’ and Byrne’s positions.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A back three for Cook at Bramall Lane?

Three at the back for Latics?

“I’ve been speaking to a few people and the best way of getting into the Brighton team would be on the left-hand side of a back three.”

Dan Burn was thinking ahead of his expected move to Brighton in January. But was it in the back of his mind that he might be playing there too for Latics over the next couple of months?

Paul Cook reverted to a line of three central defenders in the final third of the Millwall game, Burn looking so much more comfortable there after a difficult time as a makeshift left back.

Most managers have a favourite formation and Cook is no exception. The 4-2-3-1 that has been the default system during his tenure as Latics manager has enabled not only good results, but good football too. Under that formation Latics have used the flanks to great advantage, stretching the opposition defences wide. Sadly, Cook has lost his most favoured wingers – Michael Jacobs and Gavin Massey – to injury. The two were able to not only attack with pace but play a key role in dropping back to help regain possession. Their all-round team play been sorely missed.

Another feature of Wigan’s best performances this season has been the high press, with the defence pushing up in a high line and Christian Walton playing an important role as keeper/sweeper behind the defence. Although still evident in home games it has been not the norm on the road since the attacking performances in the first two away games at Aston Villa and Stoke, where Latics’ play was a joy to watch.

Some managers are stubborn in sticking to the same formation, come what may. It has advantages in that recruitment can be built around the needs of that system, with players knowing precisely the role they are playing. The disadvantage is that the opposition know exactly what to expect and can find ways of shutting it down.

At Portsmouth Cook was criticised for not having a “Plan B”. But at Millwall he started out with a version of 4-4-2 and switched to 3-5-2 in the second half. Wigan’s football at the New Den could be best described as “direct”. Last season in League 1 we had witnessed similar occurrences, with long balls being launched forwards in a Plan B mode.

Not many teams play 4-4-2 these days, but some do, and they can use it successfully. Like any other system its successful functioning depends on having the right players in the right positions. It could be argued that 4-4-2 lends itself better to a more direct approach than 4-2-3-1, with defenders able to put in weighted long passes to twin strikers. The problem with the version of 4-4-2 we saw at Millwall was that the long passing was rarely well weighted.

Some managers will change their starting formations according to the opposition. Uwe Rosler did that very successfully in his first season at Wigan, switching between 4-3-3 and 3-4-3/3-5-2. Is Cook now looking at doing something similar?

Burn has shown himself to be an accomplished central defender at Championship level. However, Cook will be loath to break up a blossoming central defensive partnership of Dunkley and Kipre. Cook can solve some of his headaches by operating a 3-4-1-2 system, with full backs James and Robinson able to push forward with more security behind them. Nick Powell could play a similar role as before between the holding midfield and the forwards. We have seen so little of Callum McManaman so far, the pundits suggesting that he is still not fully fit and does not track back from the wing in the style of Jacobs and Massey. McManaman thrived in Roberto Martinez’ 3-4-3 where had a free role.

With Lee Evans unable to play against his parent club, Callum Connolly will most probably move into central midfield tomorrow. Were Cook to decide to play with three at the back we could see a lineup something akin to: Walton – Kipre, Dunkley, Burn – James, Connolly, Morsy, Robinson – Powell – McManaman, Windass.

Cook’s dilemma rests in whether to switch to three at the back – which is really five when under pressure – or to stick with the 4-2-3-1 system that has served him so well.

No matter which formation the manager adopts the discerning fan will be looking for an attacking approach following the lack of ambition shown in recent away games. Seeing Latics adopting the high press early on would be a good sign. Keeping the hoofing to a minimum would also mean less pressure on the defence as more possession is retained.

Cook deserves great credit in bringing Latics through to a mid-table position at this stage of the season. They have already shown they can compete with the top teams. Should Latics adopt an attacking approach at Bramall Lane tomorrow and get badly beaten the manager will suffer some degree of flak. On the other hand, were they to be as negative as in recent away games and still lose he would suffer even more.

 

 

Five talking points arising from the performance at Norwich

Norwich City 1 Wigan Athletic 0

 

The visit to Carrow Road was never going to be easy, with Norwich having won their last four matches. There was certainly no shortage of effort and commitment from Wigan who looked like coming away with a valuable point until a controversial refereeing decision in the 86th minute decided the outcome.

The stats show that Latics had 11 shots compared with 14 from Norwich, but the home team goalkeeper did not have a shot to save.

Paul Cook summed it up by commenting “It is massively disappointing, it really is, because we had done enough in the game to fully deserve a draw, without a shadow of a doubt. We got in great positions in the game without really having that final cutting edge if the truth be known. I don’t know what the stats will reveal but I felt we were in the ascendency in the game and the stuff we had worked on, the lads were doing really well. The game was petering out into a 0-0 and it would have been a 0-0 where you shake hands and you go back happy.”

Let’s take a look at some talking points:

An eventful day for Dunkley

 

Chey Dunkley was playing his 49th consecutive league game for Wigan under Paul Cook’s management. Dunkley had played non-league football for five years before joining Oxford United, where he became a popular figure with the fans.

Dunkley is a rugged central defender, powerful in the air, strong in the tackle. When he signed for Latics as a free agent in the summer of 2017 questions were asked as to whether he would have sufficient quality to become a regular in Cook’s team. But Dunkley went on to form a formidable central defensive partnership with Dan Burn, missing only three league games over the course of the 2017-18 season, those being down to suspension. More questions were being asked over the past summer as to whether the player could handle the step up to the Championship. His performances in the opening 10 games of the 2018-19 season have shown that he certainly can.

Dunkley continues to develop as a player. His positional play and reading of the game is excellent, qualities that have helped weld together the youngest back four Latics may have ever had. Dunkley is clearly a learner, keen to further develop his game. Moreover, he shows enough resilience and determination to succeed to suggest he will continue to improve.

Yesterday he looked jittery early on and half way through the first period he made a weak back pass, subsequently tackling Teemu Pukki from behind as he raced in on goal. Dunkley looked to have given away a penalty and the nature of his challenge could have easily been a red card offence. He was fortunate that referee Webb let him off scot-free.

However, from that point Dunkley showed his resilience, growing into the game, making the kinds of interceptions and blocks that we have come to expect from him. He was Latics’ best performer overall.

Last season Dunkley scored 7 league goals. He has come close to scoring several times this season, but his headers have not hit the target. Perhaps he is due for a goal against Swansea on Tuesday?

An unreliable offside trap

As happened at Brentford, Latics were caught out on several occasions with rapid counterattacks along the flanks. Once more the centre backs were left exposed. However, with last ditch tackles and interceptions the defence managed to keep the Canaries out until the 86th minute.

Given Cook’s preferred style of play with the full backs pushing forward there will always be a chance for the more skilful opponents to counterattack in the spaces left behind. Norwich are a team capable of doing that, as are Brentford.

However, some of the problems yesterday were caused by Wigan players not moving forward as a unit, playing the opposition onside. It is something Cook will surely look at.

Away goals have dried up

After scoring five goals in their first two away games, Latics have not got one in their last three. The QPR performance was particularly disappointing, but both Brentford and Norwich were in-form teams capable of playing the kind of football that can upset any Championship defence.

But after the naivety of their attacking approach in the early games we have seen them growing more and more cautious.  Latics just did not look like scoring yesterday and Cook’s substitutions suggested he was ready to settle for a point, which they went close to getting.

The loss of Gavin Massey to injury has been a bitter pill for the manager to swallow. The winger’s pace on the right-hand side has been sorely missed. Callum Connolly and Josh Windass have been played there, but neither has the pace or dribbling skills of a natural winger. There have been questions from fans why Callum McManaman, Nathan Byrne and Leo Da Silva Lopes, players of pace, have not been played there.

At his best McManaman is a potential match winner, but injuries have apparently taken their toll. Moreover, it is going to take some time for the player to regain his confidence after a frustrating time at Sunderland. Can Cook get the best out of McManaman as he has with Nick Powell?

Byrne seems to have become the forgotten man. Whether he has fallen out of favour with Cook is not privy to us as fans. But after being voted “Player of the Season” by both fans and fellow players he has hardly featured so far. Attacking full back is Byrne’s best position, but he has lots to offer as a right winger, with his pace and intelligent movement.

Despite being only 19 years of age, Da Silva Lopes made over 100 appearances for Peterborough. He is hardly a rookie but has been held back by Cook so far. The manager’s supporters will say that the exciting, if erratic, youngster is being nurtured behind the scenes, but others would question why someone with his explosive ability is rarely included, even on the bench.

Despite his excellent cross for Nick Powell’s winner against Bristol City, Windass has not looked the part as a right winger. His best position is surely centre forward, but Cook’s signing of Joe Garner put him well down the pecking order, with Will Grigg, James Vaughan and even Nick Powell also ahead of him. But Paul Jewell reinvented Lee McCulloch by playing him on the left wing, where his striking rate was as good, if not better, than it was when he played centre forward.

McCulloch played an important role for Jewell’s team, working hard in midfield, dangerous from crosses from the right. Windass has more pace than the Scot and a better career strike ratio at this stage of his career. McCulloch was more dangerous in the air, but Windass has a powerful right foot.

Jewell relied on the pace of the likes of Gary Teale on the right, with McCulloch’s interactions with the left backs, Leighton Baines or Steve McMillan, providing the crosses. Whether that is a model that Cook wants to follow remains to be seen.

But Windass looks like a duck out of water on the right, capable player that he is.

Morsy and Evans taken off

Sam Morsy and Lee Evans form a strong partnership in Wigan’s midfield. Neither is often substituted by Cook, so to see both being taken off yesterday was surprising.

Evans was one of the better performers yesterday but was taken off after 75 minutes for Callum Connolly. The Welshman’s creativity was missed in that final quarter. Was he taken off due to injury, with an eye on Tuesday’s game, or was it a tactical substitution?

Morsy went off after 87 minutes for Will Grigg, which one assumes was a tactical change aimed at getting a late equaliser.

But more than injuries, looking to the next game, or tactics, was Cook sending a message to his squad that nobody is an automatic choice?

Steven Caulker training with Latics

Dan Burn is still apparently a couple of weeks away from contention. He will depart for Brighton in January. Alex Bruce was once again absent yesterday, with no word of whether he is injured or out of favour.

Bruce is a very capable ex-Premier League player whose career was affected by an Achilles injury. He might lack the pace in his younger days, but after being given a contract extension for another year one assumed that he had a part to play this season.

In terms of playing ability Caulker looks a strong potential signing. He is still only 26, has played for England and has lots of higher league experience. The player’s difficulties off the field of play are well documented.

Is Cook willing to take a risk with the player? It could prove a masterstroke, or it could be seriously problematic.

But with Burn going in January, Cook will look at bringing in another centre back, whether in the immediate future or in January.

All will be revealed in due course.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Five talking points from the draw with Nottingham Forest

Wigan Athletic 2 Nottingham Forest 2

 

It was another scintillating performance from Wigan Athletic, making Forest look distinctly mediocre. But a soft penalty decision in the 89th minute gave the visitors a point they did not deserve.

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

No team can play at full throttle for 90+ minutes

Latics attacked Forest from the start, their high pressing and high tempo approach causing all kinds of problems for the visitors’ defence. They were quite superb in the first half, the 2-1 score line at the interval not reflecting their dominance.

However, no team can play at full throttle for 90+ minutes. As the second half wore on the intensity and quality of Wigan’s football diminished. Forest got more and more into the game and Latics were penned in their own half for several minutes, a resolute defence keeping out a seemingly interminable series of corner kicks from the visitors.

Uwe Rosler’s team in 2013-14 often played the high press. Although they could rarely keep it going for more than 30 minutes it was often enough to upset the opposition defence and go in for half time with a lead. With experienced and capable goalkeepers and defenders they were so often able to repel the opposition attackers in the second half.

Paul Cook’s Latics are a younger side on a steep learning curve in the Championship. It could be said that the penalty decision robbed them of a well-deserved win, but they could have put the game out of sight from Forest if they had converted more of their chances in that first half.

An eventful afternoon for Sam Morsy

Sam Morsy is an inspirational captain who does so much to enable the smooth running of Cook’s machine. Morsy is a complete player, not only dogged in defence, but enterprising when he goes forward. Cook likes to give his full backs the opportunity to bomb forward and Antonee Robinson is particularly good at doing that.  When Robinson goes forward it is Morsy who covers him. Until yesterday he had done that well, but this time Morsy was dispossessed leaving the left side of the defence open, resulting in Forest’s first goal.

Despite his early error the captain continued to drive his team forward and was unlucky with a fine shot that hit the post. Together with the excellent Lee Evans he continued to control the midfield. Once again we were to see the fiery side of the captain late in the second half in the middle of an altercation between the two sides.

Then came the penalty decision. There are those who would argue that Morsy clearly fouled Cash, others who would say that Cash dived over Morsy’s outstretched leg. But the bottom line is that Morsy was reckless in putting himself in that position.

Strangely enough, without those two incidents that changed the game, Morsy would have been a candidate for “Man of the Match”.

Another side of Ben Watson

Ben Watson is now 33 and he joined Forest in February 2018 after being released by Watford. Latics’ cup final icon found himself on the bench yesterday but came on to applause after 45 minutes. Watson played for Latics from 2008 to 2015, making 107 appearances in the Premier League and the Championship. He was a fine servant for the club, with his positive and cultured approach.

However, what we saw yesterday from Watson was a bit of a surprise for us. Like Morsy he was at the centre of the altercation between the two teams late in the second half, also receiving a yellow card. Mobbing of the referee is something that football continues to tolerate, an ugly side of the great game. Whether the referee was going to award Forest a penalty or not after Cash’s fall before being intimidated by Watson and his teammates was hard to tell. But the vehemence and aggression of Watson and his teammates surely tested the determination of a weak referee. It was an unsavoury way to get a penalty decision and we saw a side of Watson that I do not recall seeing during his seven years at Wigan.

A role for James Vaughan

When James Vaughan came on to replace Will Grigg after 74 minutes it signalled a switch to long ball tactics for the home side. The service the player received was far from ideal, but as always, Vaughan gave his all, fighting for every ball.

No one will fault Vaughan for effort: it is the approach that Latics tend to use when he plays as a lone centre forward that is the issue. Were Vaughan a kind of battering-ram central striker like Atdhe Nuhiu the long ball tactic might be more effective, but it is not the best way to employ him. Vaughan has been most effective for Latics whilst playing alongside or behind a central striker.

A solid performance by the centre of defence

It has been a tough start for Cedric Kipre, being thrust into Championship football after just one full season of league football in the SPL. If Dan Burn had been available, Cook would have been able to nurture Kipre into being his replacement when “Superman” leaves in January. Instead he has had to throw the Ivorian in at the deep end.

Chey Dunkley too has had a baptism of fire in his first season in the second tier. With three less experienced players alongside him in the back four he has had additional responsibilities thrust upon him at a time when he too has been adjusting to playing in a higher division.

Both were solid yesterday, reacting well under pressure and starting to show that kind of mutual understanding that is so important in a central defensive line.

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Points more important than entertainment – Walsall 0 Wigan Athletic 3

 

“The game was a bit bitty and the pitches are what they are at this stage of the season so it is difficult to play a certain type of game. We have been adapting a little bit more with Vaughany up top and going a bit longer, quicker, in our pursuit of trying to get points on the board.”

Paul Cook once again summed it up well. It was the dullest of games with two teams playing the long ball, on a surface that was cutting up quickly. If football were purely a form of entertainment some 4,000 or so spectators would have been within their rights to claim a refund for their admission last night.

But for Wigan Athletic supporters at this stage of the season, winning was more important than entertainment. The win puts Latics within a point of Shrewsbury and two of Blackburn, with two games in hand.

To be fair there were a few memorable moments, before the game came to resemble a training match for Latics. Nick Powell looked by far and away the most cultured player on the pitch, even before his sublime pass with the outside of his right foot was excellently converted by Michael Jacobs after 31 minutes. It was reminiscent of the memorable pass Powell made at Plymouth, but this time from the left, rather than the right.

To all intents and purposes the game was all over within the next ten minutes. Jay Fulton justified his first league start with a beautifully struck shot from the edge of the box following a goalmouth melee from Max Power’s free kick. Chey Dunkley added a third from close range after the home goalkeeper had come out to intercept a corner kick but fluffed it.

Modern football has become more about winning more than anything else. Whereas in a bygone era a team that was three goals up by half time would go out to try to add to its tally, the modern team has its eye on the next match and looks to conserve its energy.

Following on the Southampton game on Sunday we had wondered if Cook’s team would have the stomach to fight a team close to the relegation zone on a difficult pitch. But Wigan came in with a determination to get a good result, albeit sacrificing the quality of their football to get it. Strangely enough Latics had not played well in the first half, despite going into the half time break with a three-goal cushion.

The second half seemed more like a training game for Wigan, sadly lacking in entertainment. The mystery was why Cook chose not to bring on his substitutes earlier. He switched James Vaughan for Will Grigg after 70 minutes but left it until 81 minutes to introduce Gary Roberts for Fulton. He brought on Devante Cole after 89 minutes, begging the question why it had not happened when Vaughan went off.

Paul Cook has shown us before that he can be a pragmatist. Although he clearly prefers his team to play attractive, expansive football he is realistic enough to know how hard it can be on a pitch like that at the Bescot Stadium. The long-ball approach led to an important win.

Despite their new manager, Walsall could not produce the goods. They lacked not only technique, but also aggression. It was  the easiest game of the season to referee a Wigan league encounter. Nick Powell was able to stroll through the game largely unscathed, not something to which he has been accustomed over these months. The foul count read 12 fouls by Walsall, 8 by Wigan. There was just one yellow card, that being received by Max Power.

It is unlikely that Bury will respond like Walsall when Latics visit Gigg Lane on Saturday. Although the Shakers are in bottom place, with a relegation practically a certainty, we can certainly expect some fireworks from them. Some will say that it is better to face a mid-table team with little to play for at this time of the season, rather than a team in the relegation dog-fight, even if Bury look dead and buried.

Cook’s team will surely be prepared for a scrap on Saturday. They would have expected it last night, but hardly got it.

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