Five talking points arising from the win against Rotherham

Wigan Athletic 1 Rotherham 0

It was akin to a throwback to the days in League 1. The visiting team had come to “park the bus” and rely on long balls and set pieces as their outlet for threatening the Wigan goal. The previous home games against Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest had been so entertaining. This one was much less so.

Rotherham manager Paul Warne commented after the game that: “We were pleased to get them in at 0-0 at half-time. I thought Wigan were the better side without making our ‘keeper make too many saves. At half-time, we made our defenders play a lot higher up the pitch and our midfielders play higher to give some support to Smithy. I thought we were the better side in the second half. We were pushing for the goal and we had plenty of set-pieces. There was a block here and a block there and it just didn’t drop for us today against an excellent Wigan side, who played Stoke off the park last week.”

Warne summed up the first half well and the Millers certainly threatened in the closing stages with their aerial bombardment, but the Latics defence held firm. Wigan fans might debate Warne’s assertion that Rotherham were the better of the two sides in the second half, using their “direct” approach. It was not pretty to watch but caused some worrying moments for the home crowd.

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

Cook chooses Connolly on the right

A refreshing aspect of Paul Cook’s tenure as Latics manager has been in the balanced starting line-ups he has selected. It has been like a breath of fresh air for Latics fans who had to endure the Warren Joyce playing four holding midfielders across the middle of the park. Cook has placed an emphasis on playing the ball wide, with the full backs bombing forward to link up with speedy wingers.

However, yesterday Cook chose to play without an orthodox right winger although he had both Nathan Byrne and Callum McManaman available. Perhaps he felt that Callum Connolly deserved another run-out and the Everton player certainly reinforced the midfield. But there was not the same degree of pace on the right-hand side as a result.

On the left Josh Windass is in the process of adapting to the role that Michael Jacobs has played over the past year. Windass did not play at all badly and provided the pass to McManaman that led to Wigan’s goal. He also showed his ability on set pieces with a fizzler of a free kick in the first half which sent narrowly wide. Cook will be expecting that Windass’ shooting ability will add an extra dimension to Wigan’s play. However, yesterday Wigan lacked the kind of creativity on the left that Jacobs can provide.

The football took a nose-dive when Grigg and Powell went off

Will Grigg and Nick Powell were taken off after 60 minutes, with James Vaughan and Callum McManaman replacing them. The result was a deterioration in the level of Wigan’s football, with hopeful punts gradually becoming the norm rather than the controlled passing game we had seen up to that point.

Powell is the pivot in midfield through which so much of Latics’ best football flows. As the second half progressed Latics just could not hold on to the ball, putting undue pressure on the defence. Vaughan’s arrival once more coincided with more long balls. One wonders if the players are playing under orders to launch them towards Vaughan, or whether it is the player’s willingness to chase seemingly lost causes that affects the style of play. Or is it simply that in the final third of the game the players tire and just cannot keep that passing game going?

Walton – the most composed player

Christian Walton continues to grow in confidence, after looking nervy in the opening games. Yesterday he looked the most composed player on the pitch, excellent in his anticipation of opposition breakaways, reliable in his box.

Unnecessary free kicks

So many Championship teams are dangerous from set pieces. League 1 teams certainly had tall players who could threaten in the air, but in the second tier the delivery is superior. Following Wigan’s goal, the Millers brought on Kyle Vassell (6 ft) and Jamie Proctor (6 ft 2 in) to join the 6 ft 4 in centre forward Michael Smith.

The Wigan defence looked distinctly wobbly in the past quarter facing an aerial bombardment. It was not helped by the concession of unnecessary fouls giving the visitors the opportunity to launch dangerous crosses.

Powell stays

It was a relief for Wigan Athletic supporters for the loan transfer deadline to pass without the departure of Nick Powell. The next step is for the club to negotiate a new contract for a player whose market will soar if he continues to stay fit.

Reports suggest that the prospective new owners were present at the DW Stadium yesterday. Will the takeover actually happen soon?

Nathan Byrne, Gavin Massey, Shaun MacDonald, Sam Morsy and James Vaughan are in the same position as Powell, with their current contracts expiring in summer. It will be interesting to see how many of them are offered contract extensions.

 

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An excellent performance – Wigan Athletic 0 Southampton 2

 

“At half-time, it was a case of whether we could keep it going, whether we could keep up the intensity. The fitness levels to play like that have to be very good to press them high up the pitch.”

So said Paul Cook after the game.

Wigan’s high press and their enterprising attacking play had made Southampton look distinctly ordinary in the first half. The pity was that they could not convert the half chances they had created into goals. They had certainly put pressure on the away team defence, with a 10-0 corner count in their favour. But football is about goals and Wigan had not been able to convert their outstanding first half performance into a lead.

Whether Southampton came back to dominate the second half might well have been due to a dressing rule rollicking from manager, Mark Hughes. They certainly came out with more purpose they had shown before, but the tiring Wigan legs surely must have influenced the eventual outcome. In the event, the Saints scored a scrappy goal from a corner after 62 minutes. A goal behind, Latics had to try to push forward and the defence became more exposed. It led to Dan Burn giving away a penalty after 73 minutes, with Christian Walton going on to make a fantastic save. Cook had rolled his dice and brought on Noel Hunt in the 80th minute, withdrawing the excellent, but seemingly exhausted, Nathan Byrne. The Irishman had a half chance, but could not put it away, then Southampton sealed their result through the speed of right back Cedric Soares attacking through the left channel.

So, while Southampton look ahead to a semi final against Chelsea, Liverpool or Manchester United, Wigan must now immediately focus upon a trip to Walsall on Wednesday.

The previous time I had seen Latics play at home in a sixth round FA Cup tie was in mid- March 1987. Latics were then in the third tier and were to go down 2-0 to second tier Leeds United in front of a crowd of 12,471. The game had been made all-ticket because of the FA’s fears of problems with the away fans at Springfield Park. The game was broadcast live at the Town Hall and the Queens Hall in a bid to deal with ticketless fans. Conditions were very difficult, with a rock-hard pitch and fierce winds. Latics had been unbeaten at home up to that point and they were the better team in the first half but could not put away the chances they had made. The visitors had the wind behind them in the second half and went on to take advantage of it with two long range goals in the second half. Bobby Campbell and Paul Jewell were playing up front for Wigan, with a 20-year-old Paul Cook on the bench.

Ray Mathias’ team went on to finish fourth in the Third Division that season, losing out to Swindon in the playoffs. The season became remembered largely through the cup run when Latics had beaten Hull City and Norwich City on the way to the sixth round. Promotion to the second tier was to take another 16 years, when Jewell’s side won the division title.

Whether Paul Cook’s side can emulate that of Ray Mathias by achieving promotion from the third tier, in addition to reaching the last eight of the FA Cup, remains to be seen.

The critics have already been suggesting that, should Latics win promotion, a lot of new players will have to be brought in to keep them afloat in the Championship. However, so many of the players have already shown that they can compete at higher levels through their terrific performances in the cup.

Latics certainly have a group of players that are well above the quality of League 1. The question now is whether they have the grit and determination to fight their way through a fixture backlog largely created by this famous FA Cup run.

An Amigo View – Wigan Athletic 1 Bradford City 2 – talking points

 

“We can’t really complain about the result. We were second best for the majority of the game and we would have taken a point in the end with the way the game was going.  We didn’t look threatening enough, we weren’t at the races and we go punished” said Max Power after the game.

For the neutral fan it was a terrific advertisement for League 1 football, with both sides trying to win the game, neither resorting to long ball or cynical tactics. Only 12 fouls were committed in the whole game, with just one yellow card, possession divided almost equally between the two sides. It had looked like ending up a draw until the 92nd minute when Jamie Jones could only parry Tyrell Robinson’s powerful , swerving long distance shot into the net.

Bradford City had come to the DW Stadium on the back of a 1-0 home defeat to bottom club, Plymouth. Latics had been undefeated in their last seven league games. A Latics win was clearly the expectation of the home supporters, but Bradford had shown from the get-go that they wanted to win all three points. Their football was good to watch, with lots of movement and a willingness to thrust players forward. Other than occasional renderings of the current favourite “Blue White  Army” from a section of the East Stand, the home support was strangely muted, with the noise of the 3,000 Bradford fans dominating.

The combination of Tony McMahon and Alex Gilliead on the visitors’ right flank posed problems for Callum Elder and Dan Burn from the start, as Wigan found it hard to get into the game. Centre forward Charlie Wyke put away a chance after 14 minutes, with Wigan’s defence all at sea. It was cancelled out by a Chey Dunkley header ten minutes later. The home team’s chances for winning the match was to take a hammer blow when a distressed Nick Powell limped off with a hamstring injury on the half hour mark. Gary Roberts made an immediate impact in his place, making a couple of fine passes, but his effect was to diminish as the game wore on.

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

The substitutions

Powell’s replacement by Roberts was to be expected. The substitution of David Perkins for Gavin Massey after 54 minutes was hardly so. Massey had struggled to impose himself on the game and at times seemed isolated as Nathan Byrne held back on moving forward. But the substitution was made earlier in the second half than we have come to expect from Paul Cook. Was Massey injured or was it a tactical switch? Ryan Colclough was the expected replacement, but David Perkins was brought in to play on the left flank, with Michael Jacobs moving to the right. Perkins’ presence certainly helped reduce the menace of McMahon and Gilliead, but Colclough would surely have offered more of an attacking threat.

But the strangest occurrence yesterday was the arrival of Will Grigg after 93 minutes. Ivan Toney had been struggling throughout the game and it had seemed only a matter of time until Grigg would replace him. But it was not to be. Toney stayed until the end and despite Grigg being seen warming up well before his final arrival, it was Michael Jacobs who he was to replace.

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

The keyboard warriors are rearing their heads again

Any football manager is a potential target for abuse on the social media and message boards. Wigan Athletic managers are no different than any others in that respect. The social media offers the opportunity to state our opinions and, as such, can be a force for the good.

However, there is a dividing line between critical opinion and downright cynical abuse.

Football managers can be forgiven many things providing they get the results. Paul Cook had enjoyed  a reasonably easy ride until this weekend, when the desired result did not work out. The cancellation of the Rochdale game was frustrating for so many fans who were looking forward to a trip to Spotland. Cook shot himself in the foot with the fans by giving his senior players needed a break. Not only did he get the Rochdale game postponed, but he fielded a woefully inexperienced team in the Checkatrade Trophy against Accrington, at a time when at least half a dozen of his fringe  senior players needed a competitive game to keep up their match sharpness.

Cook might have made some unfortunate decisions in recent weeks, but Latics remain in second place in League 1 and have played the most positive football we have seen for years. He deserves support.

Powell’s injury

Even a half-fit Nick Powell can make a big difference for Latics at League 1 level. The player has not been at his sharpest in recent weeks, but has remained the main creative force within the team. Powell has left the field with hamstring niggles before and returned in upcoming games, but what we saw yesterday suggests it might be a more serious strain than some previous.

The jury remains out on Gary Roberts as Powell’s natural replacement. He certainly started well yesterday, but Roberts needs a run of several games in the starting eleven to be able to perform at his best.

Should Powell be out for some time, Cook will have to decide whether Roberts is up to being a regular starter in the “number 10” position. However, Michael Jacobs would be an obvious option. Although his pace on the flanks would be missed, he has the ability to make the number 10 position his own.

Ryan Colclough might also be considered. Colclough is not a natural winger, perhaps lacking the pace to go outside the full back, but he has considerable technical ability, packing a powerful shot. He is a player whose career has drifted since joining Latics and is in need of a kick-start. Playing him in the centre of the midfield three is an option worth looking at.

Walton is back in action

Christian Walton played for Brighton’s under-23 team at Stoke yesterday. He had been Latics’ first choice between the sticks until his leg injury in late August.  One can only speculate whether Walton would have punched away Robinson’s shot yesterday had he been there and not Jamie Jones.

Up until yesterday Jones had been the automatic first choice goalkeeper, showing the doubters that he was a capable, experienced player.

But how long he will retain his first team place, with Walton challenging him, remains to be seen.

 

 

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Five talking points arising from an uplifting win at MK Dons

Milton Keynes celebrated its 50th birthday this year. It is a city of 260,000 inhabitants, unlike any other of its size in the UK with its wide open spaces and network of roads and shopping malls giving it an almost American feel. It is not everyone’s cup of tea as a place to live, but the city continues to grow as foreign investment continues to come in.

A prior review of the MK Stadium had forewarned us that, from the outside, it looked more like a hotel than a football ground and that it was far too big for a club in League 1. But maybe it was planned in the same way as the city itself, with attendances expected to grow in parallel with the surrounding population. It is a fabulous stadium, better than many in the Championship and even some in the Premier League. The presence of some 1,100 Latics fans yesterday swelled the attendance to over 9,000.

The visit to Milton Keynes proved to be enjoyable, not least due to an uplifting display from Paul Cook’s Wigan Athletic team. The referee almost spoiled it with a first half red card decision against Latics, but he even things up in the second period when he sent off a home player.

In the end Latics thoroughly deserved their 1-0 victory. They were much the better team, with a solid defence protected by a strong and creative midfield. Cook’s starting lineup had looked ambitious, with so many new players drafted in. But despite that there was a look of cohesion, with every player seemingly knowing his role and willing to put in the required amount of sweat and toil for his team. It was instantly noticeable how much movement there was compared with last season, with Latics able to break out of defence with strength and purpose.

The display certainly gave us lots to talk about:

1. Dan Burn must stay. Burn was formidable yesterday, his head seemingly a magnet for the ball. The Dons are by no means a long-ball team. They try to play good football, but whenever the ball did go into the air in the box it was soon snaffled up by Burn or Chey Dunkley. But Burn looked assured in all aspects of his play yesterday and must rank among the best central defenders in the division. He will prove invaluable against teams who prefer the aerial approach above all.

However, despite the departures of Jake Buxton, Matt Gilks, Jack Hendry, Mikael Mandron, Billy McKay and Sanmi Odelusi and with Kaiyne Woolery close to a move back to Forest Green Rovers the clear-out continues. Jack Byrne, Omar Bogle and Max Power are being pushed out and not allowed to train with the senior squad. Nick Powell’s goal yesterday helped to put him back into the shop window, with a loan move to a Championship side a likely outcome.

Burn has become one of Wigan’s major assets. Were he to be sold off by the end of August it would be a massive blow to Cook’s plans.

2. Recruitment up to this point is looking pretty good. The starting lineup yesterday included six new players, four of whom are on loan. Christian Walton continues to exude authority in his box, Chey Dunkley was excellent in the centre of defence. Callum Elder looked lively at left back until his premature departure. Lee Evans is a very important signing: a rock in front of the defence, but with the ability to spray passes around from the back. He and Sam Morsy looked a formidable partnership, willing to scrap it out when necessary, but both capable of launching attacks. Gavin Massey showed flashes of skill, together with a willingness to work hard for the team. Ivan Toney was lively up front, willing to drop back into midfield, his movement causing the home defence some headaches. Terell Thomas came on at left back following Elder’s dismissal, very solid despite being a naturally right-sided central defender playing out of position.

Noel Hunt was on the bench, as he was 19 times last season at Portsmouth. In fact, Hunt only made 3 starts last season and can hardly bear expected to challenge for a regular starting place in Cook’s  starting line-up.

3. Michael Jacobs has been rejuvenated. His display yesterday was a revelation following his disappointing season in the Championship. Jacobs worked tirelessly, showing no mean amount of flair, his performance marred only by his finishing on occcasions. He is an essential component in Cook’s tactic of rapid counterattack. With one year remaining on his contract will he be offered an extension?

4. Will Grigg is back. After so many months out because of injury he looked lively when coming on as a second half substitute. With Bogle seemingly on his way out, will Grigg be offered a contract extension? Or will he be sold off this month? The option of Grigg or Toney, or even both, is something Cook will want to retain. But is David Sharpe going to support his manager by retaining key players, despite Cook’s admission that his squad is still too big and that Latics are a “selling club”?

5. Cook will be hoping his long-term injured players will soon be match fit.  Alex Gilbey and Will Grigg are back in contention, but none of Donervon Daniels, Reece James or Andy Kellett were in the squad.

Nathan Byrne is trying hard at right full back despite it not being a position he enjoys. He steadily improved yesterday after looking a little uncomfortable early on. But is Cook going to bring a specialist right back from outside or is he going to rely on Byrne, Daniels or Luke Burke to cover the position?

With Callum Elder due to be suspended, Cook will need to assess the fitness of James. After 18 months out through injury, James needs to be brought in cautiously, but the team’s needs could push things along. Kellett too can play at left back, but is more productively employed in midfield.

 

 

Reflections on an excellent display against Liverpool

 

On the face of it a Wigan Athletic shorn of so many players through injury or “unavailability” could not have been expected to draw a friendly match against Liverpool. But they did it in the kind of style that we have not seen at the DW Stadium for a long time.

Can it be that Paul Cook has already changed the mindset of his squad, despite being in charge for such a limited amount of time? More than anything else it was the sheer composure of the players that impressed, whether they were experienced pros or academy graduates in there for the biggest game of their lives.

Latics had played with composure, determination and energy as their more experienced players managed to take the lead against the Merseyside giants, holding it until shortly before half time. There had been the type of cohesion between the players that had been notably lacking last season, even if that final pass remains an area to work upon.

Cook had put out a balanced line up in his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. Nathan Byrne was played at right back, which is hardly his favourite position, but he equipped himself well. Perhaps the absence of an orthodox left winger in the Liverpool side helped, but nevertheless a player who was out of favour and shunted out on loan in January, was back in contention. Cook had started all his more experienced pros, apart from David Perkins and new signing, Gavin Massey, who were to appear immediately after the half time break. But none of them were likely to last beyond the hour mark and Cook would surely have to put in a handful of academy players sooner rather than later in the second period.

Cook’s hand had been forced to a large degree by the absence of so many other senior pros. We knew that Donervon Daniels, Andy Kellett and Shaun MacDonald were long-term absentees and that new signing Chey Dunkley too was injured. Moreover, the absence of Will Grigg was no surprise as he too is presumably still recovering from injury. Given his constant problems with fitness it was no surprise either to see Nick Powell not available. Sam Morsy was apparently rested following his time with Egypt over the summer so far.

But there were senior squad players who were not mentioned by the local press who were noticeably absent on Friday evening. Jack Byrne is one who could have a major impact in League 1, but he too has suffered fitness issues. Mikael Mandron too was absent, as Kaiyne Woolery and Callum Lang made the team in his place. Added to those are the players whose futures at the club are in doubt, having been sent out on loan last season. They are Dan Lavercombe, Sanmi Odelusi and Danny Whitehead.

In the event, the lack of available senior pros forced Cook’s hand and he had no choice but to bring on half a dozen youngsters who have come up through the Latics academy. Of those academy graduates Luke Burke was the one with prior first team experience having made an impact early last season before drifting out of favour. But his tenacious performance will have surely given Cook the message that he is a valid option at right back.

Neither the “home grown” youngsters, nor the imported young players Josh Laurent, Terell Thomas and Kaiyne Woolery, were overawed by the occasion and Latics continued to hold their own as the second half progressed. The 18-year-old Sam Stubbs looked calm and composed in the centre of defence, as did the 20-year-old Owen Evans who had come on for the excellent Christian Walton after 61 minutes. The 18-year-old Luke Burgess came on in the 63rd minute for Michael Jacobs and looked an accomplished player. Callum Lang linked up well with Woolery. Chris Merrie was lively.

It remains to be seen how much faith Cook will have in the young players in the coming season and how many loan players will be brought in. Moreover he will surely lose some of the senior pros over the coming weeks as David Sharpe and Jonathan Jackson chop down the wage bill. But what does look clear is that the manager will stamp his style of football on the players at his disposal.

The realist might say that this was only a pre-season friendly match and that conclusions cannot be drawn at this stage. However, it has been a long time since we have seen a Latics side play with such a degree of organisation and composure.

Let’s hope it continues at Southport on Tuesday.