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

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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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Cook gets it wrong – Wigan Athletic 3 Scunthorpe 3

“Great credit to the players because we never looked like getting a point and we dug one out.”

Paul Cook was once again displaying that refreshing type of honesty that has characterised his interactions with the media.  But with just one win in their last five league games, Wigan’s promotion challenge is faltering.

We have certainly learned that Cook does not favour squad rotation, preferring to stick with a settled lineup. But with the fixture pileup Latics were facing we could have expected a little more flexibility from the manager. In the event he opted for just two changes from the starting lineup at Blackburn.

The introduction of Reece James for Callum Elder was no surprise. Neither was the insertion of David Perkins for his first league start in six months in place of wide player Gavin Massey. Before the game started it looked like a conservative change. Massey’s recent form had been indifferent, but Cook had resisted the chance to put in either Ryan Colclough, Gary Roberts or Jamie Walker as a like-for-like replacement. It seemed like Perkins would play a wide midfield role.

In the event, Perkins lined up in the centre-left midfield role, with Sam Morsy centre right and Max Power pushed towards the right flank. It changed the chemistry of Wigan’s football. With Nick Powell often dropping back to receive the ball, the midfield looked crowded, somewhat akin to what we saw in the era of Warren Joyce. With more men in midfield we could have expected Latics to nullify much of the threat from the opposition, but far too often Scunthorpe were able to find gaps which they could exploit. The midfield just was not able to provide the cover for the back four that has typified Cook’s teams this season. Moreover, with only one natural wide player, Michael Jacobs on the left, the play lacked the balance we have come to expect.

Scunthorpe had come into the game with a positive approach, with a willingness to push men forward. In Ivan Toney and Will Hopper up front they posed a constant aerial threat that was to prove the undoing of Wigan’s central defence. Dan Burn and Chey Dunkley have proven close to invincible in the air this season, but yesterday they were caught out, with all three Scunthorpe goals deriving from lofted balls into the area. Burn had been the stand-out player for Latics this season, but in recent games he has looked lethargic and not at his best. Dunkley was at fault for the second goal, not seeming to know where Hopper was as he headed home from beyond the far post.

Although they lacked fluency yesterday, Latics did show their fighting qualities. Dunkley had put them ahead after Scunthorpe keeper Matt Gilks had not reached Max Power’s corner. The second and third goals were deflected. Cook is not renowned for his tactical flexibility but chose another option yesterday when he brought on Alex Bruce to play in the centre of a back three. Given the recent porosity of the centre of defence it might be an option that he will continue to experiment with at Bradford on Tuesday. Bruce may lack the pace he had before injury intervened but could be part of a formidable trio with Burn and Dunkley.

The FA Cup is once more approaching. Prior to the Manchester City game, Latics were poor in losing to both Southend and Blackpool. At the time we surmised that the players had the big cup match in their heads and just could not apply themselves as normal. Or maybe an imminent takeover of the club was about to happen, unsettling the playing staff.

That takeover still has not happened and we can but ponder on what might happen if the Whelan family continues to hold the reins. In the meantime, it leaves Cook and his staff in a vacuum, not knowing if the necessary funding would be available to consolidate in the Championship were promotion to be achieved.

With the FA Cup continuing to cast a shadow on Wigan’s league performances and severe dropping off in the form of key players, Cook will surely bring in some fresh blood at Bradford. To make wholesale changes would be a mistake, but some adjustments will need to be made. The manager will also have to decide whether to revert to that 4-2-3-1 system that had served him so well before.

Following the victory over Manchester City, Cook’s popularity rating was at a high. However, he faces serious challenges in the coming weeks. Yesterday’s performance was gritty, rather than fluent. His challenge will be in helping his key players get back to their best form. Too many looked jaded yesterday and Cook will need to take a more serious look at squad rotation if the situation is to be rectified.

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An Amigo View – Northampton Town 0 Wigan Athletic 1 – five talking points

It was not the most inspiring display of the season, but a fifth minute goal from Nick Powell, combined with resolute defence, was enough to collect three points at Sixfields. Paul Cook had once again resisted rotating his squad, making just one change to his starting lineup, despite it being Latics’ fourth game in eight days. Reece James had returned to the left back position, where he once again performed well. It is a mystery why the 24-year-old has still not been signed on an expended contract.

After a pretty bright first half, Latics did what is colloquially known as” a professional job” in the second, restricting the home team. It looked like their tired legs were just not up to keeping up the degree of intensity of the first 45 minutes.

Despite their humble league position, the Cobblers proved to be worthy opponents. They had some bright spells in the first half, then came out in the second determined to get back into the game. That they did not is a reflection on both Wigan’s capable defending and a lack of conviction in their finishing.

Let’s look at some talking points:

Another clean sheet

Wigan Athletic have conceded just 12 goals in 25 league matches, with 16 clean sheets. Yesterday saw their sixth consecutive game shutting out the opposition from scoring.

Those last six matches coincide with the return of Christian Walton between the posts, following injury. Yesterday he was excellent, not only in his confident handling but in his role as “sweeper” behind the defence, racing out of his box to clear danger from through balls.

Dunkley excels

Dan Burn is usually the one who wins the plaudits for his defensive work, but Chey Dunkley too has proved himself to be an excellent acquisition. Like Burn, he was signed as a free agent, having run his contract down at Oxford.

Dunkley was Man of the Match for me yesterday. He was as powerful as always in the air, resolute in the tackle, showing excellent positional sense. Although a physical type of player he has conceded only 9 fouls in 22 league starts, a commendable statistic for a big central defender. His sending off against Portsmouth in August distorts an otherwise excellent disciplinary record, with just one yellow card to his name this season.

The need for another winger

The rumours of Latics trying to sign winger Jamie Walker from Hearts are no surprise. Walker is on the final year of his contract and Wigan could get a bargain price on the player.

Ryan Colclough was once again conspicuously absent from the team sheet yesterday and when Gavin Massey went off after 70 minutes it was central midfielder, Max Power, who came on to replace him.

Massey had started with some promise but faded out as the game progressed. But it was a surprise that Michael Jacobs was not taken off. There had been media coverage of the player’s return to his home town club, but it turned out to be another indifferent performance from Jacobs.

It really needed wingers with fresh legs out there yesterday, but both Massey and Jacobs looked jaded. Massey is a hard-working team player who relies on rapid acceleration to get past defenders. That is what happened in the 5th minute, when he latched on to Sam Morsy’s excellent crossfield pass, before putting in a measured cross for Powell’s opportunist goal.

Jacobs is a different type of player, a right footed left winger encouraged to cut inside to shoot. He has already scored 7 goals in the league this season in addition to being a major creative force in the team when on-song. However, the player’s all-action style means he burns up so much energy. Jacobs has looked far from energised in recent games, which is no negative reflection on him, but on the lack of alternatives available to Cook.

In the meantime, we will await news from the club on Colclough and Walker.

The importance of Powell

Nick Powell’s languid style sometimes gives people the impression he is not giving his all for the team. Moreover, there are fans who berate him, suggesting he thinks he is too good to play at Wigan. Others will say the team has played better as a unit when he has not been available. However, Powell’s performances speak for themselves. He not only orchestrates the midfield, but is the leading goalscorer with 11 from 22 starts. Moreover, his manager has emphasised that Powell does have the right attitude, despite his critics.

Rumours of an impending departure to Aston Villa are worrisome. Powell is an essential cog in a very effective team unit, his creativity catalysing Wigan’s best football. Put simply, although he has to play within himself due to hamstring problems, he is a class above any other player at the club.

A time of uncertainty

The projected takeover of the club by the K8 consortium was due to happen before Christmas, if one can believe media reports. Recent theories suggest it has not happened yet because no agreement has been made regarding the continuation of David Sharpe, and possibly Jonathan Jackson, at the club.

In the meantime, Paul Cook and his players will continue to focus upon getting Latics back in the Championship division. Having such a degree of uncertainty revolving around the ownership of the club is hardly conducive to Cook’s efforts.

The transfer window

The rumours regarding Jamie Walker fit in with what we have come to expect over recent years at Wigan. Latics have made a number of important signings of players whose contracts have been running down.

Neither is it a surprise to hear that Jack Byrne might be going to the Edinburgh club. The talented young Irishman seemed to be doing well at Oldham, but their manager, Riche Wellens, unleashed a stinging attack on the player, saying:

“I’ve given Jack Byrne a free role for a number of games but I’ve been disappointed with Jack. He looks good on the ball but his end product is no assists. He got two goals against Northampton and a goal at Crewe, but that’s a long time since he’s scored a goal. For the position and the amount of freedom I give him in a game, I would expect more. That deal is down to whether we want to do it or not, so we’ll make a decision. Jack is speaking to a couple of other clubs anyway, which is his right to do.”

Byrne is certainly a talented player, but Cook appears reluctant to bring him back, even with the possible departure of Nick Powell. There have been rumours about the young Irishman being difficult to manage, but the more likely factor is an unwillingness on Cook’s behalf to give any player a free role.

An exchange plus cash deal might be in the pipeline.

However, the shadow of a possibly imminent takeover of the club looms above the transfer window. Some cynics even go so far as suggesting Sharpe will sell off prized assets to make a quick buck for the Whelan family prior to a takeover. But the more positive among us will say that the pursuit of Walker is a sign that Sharpe continues to run the club in his familiar style.

The sale of Yanic Wildschut in the last January window severely weakened the Latics’ attack. We can only hope that something similar does not happen this time around.

 

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