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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The stats behind Latics’ rise to the top

The table tells no lies. The stats show us that Wigan Athletic not only top League 1, but they have not only scored more goals than the other teams in the division, but they have conceded only 12 in 21 games, a ratio unequalled in the four tiers of English football.

Paul Cook’s strategy as a manager has differed from those of his recent predecessors. Uwe Rosler did a fine job in the 2013-14 season, getting Latics to the Championship playoffs and an FA Cup semi-final. He did it with a rotation policy. It was not universally popular with the fans but his results that season were outstanding. Cook certainly does not adhere to a philosophy of rotation for rotation’s sake, largely preferring to stick with a nucleus of players who play week in, week out in the League 1 competition. He has saved his major rotations for cup games.

The stats show that seven players have made a minimum of 18 starts in the 21 games so far. Nathan Byrne has been ever-present, with Dan Burn and Michael Jacobs missing just one game each. Chey Dunkley missed three games, through suspension. Sam Morsy missed one through suspension and another due to international duty. Nick Powell has already started in 18 games, which is remarkable considering that he had not started a league match for two seasons until rejoining Wigan last season and making just 10 starts. Gavin Massey has also started in 18 matches.

Goalkeeping duties have been shared between Jamie Jones (15 starts) and Christian Walton (6). The left back position too has been shared between Reece James (13 starts) and Callum Elder (8). The most equitable sharing has been for the centre forward position with Will Grigg making 11 starts and Ivan Toney 10. Lee Evans has made 16 appearances in central midfield.

Goalscoring

In Cook’s 4-2-3-1 system the advanced midfield three are expected to play a leading part in not just the creation of chances, but in scoring goals. Nick Powell is Latics’ leading scorer with 9 goals, followed by Michael Jacobs with 8. Gavin Massey has scored 3, as has Ryan Colclough.

Goalscoring has not been easy for the centre forwards, Grigg and Toney notching 4 each. The centre backs have helped out with Chey Dunkley scoring 3 goals and Alex Bruce and Dan Burn 2 each. Of the central midfielders Morsy has scored 2, with Evans, David Perkins and Max Power 1 each.

Assists

Lee Evans’ excellent delivery has him leading the assists with 6. Cook pushes his full backs well forward, expecting them to shower the opposition penalty box with crosses. Nathan Byrne has 3 assists and Reece James 2. Gary Roberts has not featured as much for Latics as he did for his previous clubs, making just 2 starts and 9 substitute appearances, but retains an eye for the killer pass, making 3 assists to date. Jacobs, Massey, Perkins and Toney have 2.

Foul counts

Given his combative approach it is no surprised that Sam Morsy has conceded the most, with a total of 38. However, he has also had 34 committed against him. In contrast Lee Evans has committed 18 fouls, receiving 33.

Given his key role in orchestrating play one would expect Nick Powell to receive a lot of fouls and he leads the field with 38. But Powell is not afraid to “get stuck in” and has committed 23. Michael Jacobs is also a main creative source and he has received 35 fouls, committing 22.

The foul counts for the two mainstay centre backs make interesting reading. Chey Dunkley has committed only 8 fouls in 18 starts (albeit one foul resulting in a red card), receiving 6. But Dan Burn has committed 23 fouls and suffered 16 in his 20 starts.

Card Counts

Latics have received 4 red cards – one each for Colclough, Dunkley, Elder and Evans.

Sam Morsy has accumulated 7 yellow cards, Dan Burn 5, with Nathan Byrne, Nick Powell and Ivan Toney on 4.

Stats courtesy of espnfc.com

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An Amigo View – Rotherham United 1 Wigan Athletic 3 – five talking points

 

It was my first visit to the New York Stadium and it proved to be an enjoyable one as a high-energy display by Wigan Athletic saw them overcome the home team. The ground was built in New York Island, so called because of a foundry there that used to export iron and steel to “The Big Apple”.  Although it its capacity is only 12,021 it is a pleasant venue for football.

In talking to Latics supporters before the game, Dan Burn’s absence through suspension was high on the agenda. Rotherham had the division’s leading scorer in the 6 ft 5 in centre forward Kieffer Moore. Replacing Burn in the line-up was the 5 ft 11 in Alex Bruce. Moore’s aerial presence was surely going to be a threat, but the general consensus was that Wigan would still win.

So, it turned out to be. Latics had gone into the game with a determined approach and it was no surprise when they were rewarded with goal after 14 minutes. Will Grigg does not score many headers, but he took this one well, evading his marker from Lee Evans’ free kick to glance the ball home. A couple of minutes later Moore rose unchallenged and flicked a header into the path of the skilful David Ball who took his chance with clinical precision. Latics got back ahead in the 28th minute through Alex Bruce’s invention. A clash between Moore and Dunkley saw both leave the field, with the former coming straight back, but Dunkley going off for some time for repairs. Lee Evans filled in at centre back until the big centre back returned. Moore’s physical approach continued to upset Latics, his flailing arms drawing complaints towards the referee. It had become a physical contest, with an element of needle.

Wigan continued in their dynamic, attacking vein as the second half unfurled. Rotherham’s tactics were based on the long ball approach. However, Dunkley’s challenge left Moore writhing in apparent agony, with the home crowd baying for a red card. Dunkley survived it, getting a yellow, but Moore was to prove a diminished force. On the hour mark Rotherham centre back Michael Ihiekwe was dispossessed by Grigg, who looked certain to score, but home keeper Marek Rodak did well to push the ball away, but not so well when Michael Jacobs’ shot passed by him a couple of seconds later.

In the end it was a result well earned by Latics. They had played the better football throughout.

Let’s take a look at some talking points:

A different blend in midfield

Paul Cook continued with his experiment of playing Max Power in place of Nick Powell. It worked well. Power is by no means a direct replacement for Powell, but he linked up really well with Lee Evans and Sam Morsy, the trio dominating the centre of midfield. Since his return to the starting line-up, Power has demonstrated why he was such a key player in Gary Caldwell’s title winning team in 2015-16.

A mixed day for Dunkley

Chey Dunkley remains a rough diamond, needing a little more polish to become a top player. However, he has shown that he can learn from his experiences. He was the obvious choice to keep a close eye on Kieffer Moore. But nobody challenged Moore when he flicked the header that led to David Ball’s goal.

Dunkley is nothing, if not resilient. He reappeared after at least ten minutes off the pitch due to the injury he had picked up in an aerial challenge with Moore. From then on he seemed determined to win his battle with the big man. Moreover, he looked threatening on attack, coming close to scoring.

A weaker referee might have sent Dunkley off for his second half challenge on Moore, but it was not a red card offence. Dunkley had a fine second half.

A positive return for Bruce

Alex Bruce is 33 and is still playing despite an Achilles injury that threatened his career. Although he does not have the pace he used to have, his reading of the game makes him a very useful performer at League 1 level. If Leonel Messi had scored a goal like the one of Bruce it would have made the headlines. Bruce showed great touch and imagination with his goal, not something expected from a centre back. He was also a solid presence in defence.

Despite his extensive experience in higher divisions, Bruce has had to bide his time. He stood in capably when Chey Dunkley was suspended in September, but had not appeared in a league game since.

It is an indication of the strength of Wigan’s squad that players of Bruce’s quality can step in when injuries and suspensions come into play.

Stand up if you love Latics

There is certainly a contrast between the vocal support Latics receive home and away. At the DW the crowd can often be muted, sometimes outshouted by opposition fans. However, away from home the reverse is true.

As a phenomenon it is not peculiar to Wigan Athletic. Other clubs have similar outcomes. But the noise that the visiting support made at the New York Stadium on Saturday surely spurred their team on.

It makes one wonder if the players actually prefer playing away where their support seems so much more vocal than at the DW.

As an away supporter one is confined to one end of a stadium, where it is difficult to follow the play at the other extreme. But it is heartening to be surrounded by like-minded people whose passion for the club is commendable.

What can be frustrating for the more senior supporters is having to stand in an all seater stadium. “Stand up if you love Wigan/Latics” is a rousing chant, but….

Food outside

The New York Stadium is not in a scenic area, but it has a pleasant atmosphere. Before kick-off the club was selling food and drink from within the stadium, but to fans who were still outside. There was not a hint of trouble.

The Amex Stadium in Brighton is another which offers something different. Home supporters can enjoy food and drink after the game in their main stand and people can stay for an hour or two after the game chewing the cud.

Food for thought maybe?

 
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