Five talking points arising from the win against Northampton

 

He has only been at the club for some two weeks but Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink has already stamped his mark upon Northampton Town. Well organised, tight in defence, looking for a breakaway goal they were the spitting image of his Burton Albion side a couple of years ago.

Gary Caldwell’s team lost at home to Burton in November 2015, after they could not find a way through the visitors’ defence and conceded a 74th minute goal through counterattack. But against Northampton, Latics were to win, courtesy of a stunning 55th minute goal from Michael Jacobs and resolute defence, which included a brilliant reaction save from Jamie Jones from Leon Barnett’s effort in the 75th minute.

Latics had not played well, but the three points gained from the 1-0 victory propelled them up to second place in the league table.

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

The orchestrator was sorely missed

Gary Roberts was on a hiding to nothing when making his first Wigan Athletic start in the absence of Nick Powell. When Roberts signed from Portsmouth to join his old teammate, Noel Hunt, there was talk of cronyism on the part of Paul Cook. But although Hunt’s role this season is likely to be largely peripheral, Roberts is likely to feature on a regular basis. Roberts had been criticised at Pompey for being over the hill, no longer having the legs to make an impact on a game. But he proved his doubters wrong in this match, putting in a solid shift for 84 minutes, despite having so little time on the field in recent weeks.

But Powell was sorely missed. He is the orchestrator of Wigan’s best football, his intelligent passing and movement being the catalyst for bringing out the creativity of his teammates.

Thank goodness that Dan Burn stayed

There were rumours over the summer that Burn might be going to a Championship club. But if any one player is crucial to Wigan’s promotion hopes it is he. Burn does not only provide an aerial presence, but his anticipation and timing make him a formidable player in League 1. Cook is not a manager to applaud individual player’s performances, but even he had to comment that the player was “absolutely outstanding” against Northampton.

7,777 turned up for the match

It was the lowest league attendance so far this season, the best having been 9,685 against Portsmouth. Prior to the season starting there had been grumbles about ticket prices, some suggesting that attendances would plummet as a result.

However, after four home games up to this point the average attendance is 8,828. After four home games in the 2015-16 season the average was 8,464.

3 goals conceded in 8 games

Cook’s approach is the most attacking that we have seen since the halcyon days of Paul Jewell. However, a measly 3 goals conceded from 8 games shows that they can certainly defend too.

Sam Morsy is suspended

Morsy is the first player in the four tiers of English football to be suspended this season for an accumulation of five yellow cards. Moreover there have been times when it has looked like the player would receive a second yellow in the same game.

Cook clearly believes that Morsy is being targeted by opposing teams. However, he also concedes that “if you take that competitive edge away from Sammy, he wouldn’t be the same player.”

The result is that the captain will not be available for the difficult trip to Peterborough on Saturday. Max Power is the most likely to take his place.

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Five talking points arising from the draw with Portsmouth

The stats don’t always reflect the balance of football games.  On Saturday Wigan Athletic had 18 shots, with 9 on target, while Portsmouth had 5 shots with 2 on target. In this case the stats do actually reflect Wigan’s dominance of the game as they made Pompey look a very ordinary side. The visitors were insipid for most of the proceedings, until Chey Dunkley’s foolishness perked them up. The red card changed the nature of the game and Portsmouth were to get a 76th minute equaliser as Dan Burn left Conor Chaplin unmarked to head the equaliser.

On the day Latics did not capitalise on the wealth of chances on goal that materialised. On another day they could have won by a margin of at least two.

If you finish above Wigan this season, you are probably going to be automatically promoted,’ said Portsmouth manager, Kenny Jackett after the game, as he recognised the quality of Wigan’s current squad. In the meantime we need to hold our breath. Four days remain in the transfer window, during which Latics fans will hope that key players are not sold off.

1. If Michael Jacobs could improve his finishing he could still make it at the highest level. Once again, the admirable Jacobs was full of energy and invention, his electrifying running causing constant headaches for the Pompey defence. Jacobs stands out in League 1, but has never really convinced in his four seasons in the Championship. But the player is still only 25. He gets himself in great positions for scoring or making goals. With a little more self-belief could he possess the poise to make that final touch more effective?

2. A new centre half could be arriving this week. Up until Saturday the Burn-Dunkley partnership had functioned well. But Chey Dunkley’s red card means a three-match ban. Terell Thomas looks a fine young prospect and plays in a style somewhat reminiscent of John Stones, but he lacks EFL experience. Donervon Daniels is fit again, but is not making the first team squad. Reports suggest Latics are interested in the 21-year-old central defender Lloyd Jones from Liverpool. In the meantime we can only keep our fingers crossed that Dan Burn will not be sold off if a new player comes in.

3. Nathan Byrne is becoming an important player in Cook’s team. It has been a surprise to see Byrne establish himself in the problematic right back position. He has made it clear in the past that he did not see himself as a right back and doubts remain about his defensive abilities. But Cook encourages his full backs to attack and Byrne is so well suited to such a role. Moreover he has clearly been working hard on the defensive side of his game.

4. This is the most entertaining side we have had for years. On being appointed Paul Cook had said “I want to attack, pass the ball well, go forwards quickly and excite our own fans.” What a pleasure it is watching a Wigan Athletic side so willing to commit players forward. The transformation from the sterility of last season’s football to what we are seeing now is remarkable, especially given the short amount of time Cook has been in charge.

5. This is a better balanced and stronger squad than Gary Caldwell had a couple of years ago. It was only in the second half of the season that Caldwell’s team really started to gel, but they went on to win the division. Man for man, the current squad appears stronger overall. Yanic Wildschut was crucial to Caldwell’s side, a player who could unbalance the opposition defence. Nick Powell can do likewise, although from a different position. But will he be staying?

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Will Grigg go?

The rumours of departures from Wigan continue to rear their ugly heads. With the summer transfer window due to close on August 31st Wigan Athletic fans will be desperately hoping the club does not shed its best players in the craziness that will abound over the coming week. How many of the likes of Will Grigg, Dan Burn and Nick Powell will still be with us come September?

Paul Cook is currently basking in the luxury of having a strike force that is the envy of other clubs in the League 1. Grigg is now fit after relatively long-term injury to compete with Ivan Toney for the centre forward position. Nick Powell has been playing just behind the central striker up to this point, but is equally adept in that number 9 role.

However, the departure of Powell is seemingly inevitable, given that his salary is reputed to be around £16,000 per week. Put simply it would be hard for a club which needs to reduce its budget from around £18 m to somewhere close to £6 m to hold on to a player on that kind of salary. Moreover, given the player’s past injury record it would appear even more of a risk in keeping him on the books. The romantics among us will continue to hope that David Sharpe will stick his neck out and keep the player at the club, knowing that a fully fit Powell could be pivotal to promotion.

So the likelihood is that Powell will be gone within a week, but what about Grigg? Both he and Michael Jacobs have one year left on their contracts. Will they be offered new contracts or will the club cash in its assets by selling them in the coming week?

Some three weeks ago Cook was quoted as saying “Certainly we know who is in the last year of their contracts, and the big effort is nurturing the squad into the start of the season. Once we start the season, with the squad we want in place, we can start to look at lengths of contracts. And I’m sure once we get into August, September, October, you’ll start to see some movement on that score.

The rumours of Charlton offering in excess of £1m for Grigg are certainly credible, knowing that the player has exceeded the 20 goals per season mark three times previously in League 1. So many Latics fans see Grigg’s continuity at the club as crucial to the promotion push. But if the bid has been made and Latics have rejected it, is it a sign that they intend to keep the player and will not allow him to go to another club from the same division competing for promotion? Or are they expecting a higher fee for the player?

Jacobs too would be an important player in the promotion push. Although his form last season in the Championship was disappointing the player has been electric in the opening games. Jacobs is a quality player at League 1 level and Cook would be loath to see him go.

Cook’s words regarding extended contracts do not give anything away. However, the manager recognises that Latics are a “selling club” and if the right offer comes up a player is likely to be released.

Given his importance to the defence, Latics fans will be hoping that such an offer does not come in for Dan Burn. The loss of Craig Morgan for several months due to a hip injury is a blow to Cook. It appears that Latics are actively looking for another central defender. The immediate assumption is that it would be someone to replace Morgan, but some would argue that Cook has Donervon Daniels fit again and ready to step in and it is a sign that Burn might be leaving.

In the meantime it appears that Jack Byrne has now left the club. Cook has suggested that more departures are on their way, although it is not clear if they would be mainline or fringe players. We can also expect some new ones coming in.

Having a transfer window still open when the season has started can cause serious disruption to football clubs. It is something that might well be rectified a year from now. The immediate danger for Wigan Athletic is of key players leaving the club over the next week, unbalancing a squad that looks strong enough to challenge for automatic promotion.

But at this stage, the underlying reasons for selling players or moving them on are largely economic. The burden lies on the shoulders of David Sharpe and owner Dave Whelan. It is they who will ultimately decide whether players like Grigg, Burn and Powell will be Wigan players come September.

In the meantime, Paul Cook will surely be making contingency plans to cover all possible scenarios.

 

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The financial side of keeping a nucleus for League 1

“Que sera sera…..whatever will be will be….we’re going to Shrewsbury….que sera sera

So sang a group of Wigan Athletic supporters. It certainly took the wind out of the sails of the “going down” taunts of home fans at the Madejski Stadium last Saturday.

Shrewsbury is certainly a pleasant place to visit. Its football team has competed in each of the three EFL divisions. Their New Meadow stadium holds 9,375. Shrewsbury Town met Manchester United in the FA Cup in February 2016. They lost 3-0, which is not surprising given the fact that the Shrews had a wage bill of £2.5 m compared with £210 m of United.

In fact the Shrewsbury wage bill is typical of many clubs in League 1. According to an interesting article on the Daily Mail site, the average salary of a League 1 footballer in 2014-15 was £69,500. It compared with £324,200 in the Championship. The ratio of the average salaries is 1 to 4.7.

There are strong arguments to suggest that the league positions of clubs in the Championship division correlate to their wage bills. In their first season back in the Championship Wigan Athletic finished in a playoff place. The wage bill was around £30 m. Clubs in mid-table would typically have wage bills averaging £20 m.

Latics’ reputed wage bill for the current season is around £17 m. Assuming they were to trim next year’s wage bill according to, say, that previous ratio of average salaries between the two divisions, it would give a figure of around £3.6 m. In 2015-16, still buoyed by parachute payments, Latics had a wage bill of around £6 m in League 1, reportedly second highest after that of Sheffield United.

So at what level will David Sharpe pitch the wage bill for the coming season? As in the Championship there is some degree of correlation between wage bills and success on the playing field in League 1. If the club is to break even financially next season what kind of wage bill would be realistic? Moreover will the club be able to slash its wage bill as successfully as it did in the summer of 2015, when faced with a drop down to the third tier?

In 2015-16 Latics finished top of League 1 with an average attendance of 9,467. Shrewsbury Town finished in 14th place with an average of 5,407. The average attendance for the division was 7,163. Wigan’s cheapest adult season ticket cost  £250 while Shrewsbury’s was £285.

David Sharpe took a bold step in reducing season ticket prices for the club’s return to the Championship. Renewals were pitched at £179, with a price of £199 for new purchasers. The levels were uneconomic compared with those of competitor clubs, but Sharpe was clearly hoping to not only hold on to the core support, but to attract others. With just one match to go in the Championship season Wigan’s average home attendance is 11,560 up by more than 2,000 from the previous season in League 1. However, the bigger clubs in the Championship have brought sizeably larger away support than had those in League 1.

Rumour suggests that the club will maintain the levels of season tickets prices for the coming season. If this is so the £179 price would be almost 40% less than the figure of £295 to be offered by Shrewsbury Town for the coming  season. Moreover should Latics not be as successful as they were last time in League 1 attendances will surely fall. The match day revenue differentials between Wigan and Shrewsbury could merge closer.

Put simply potential match revenues for Wigan Athletic will in no way suffice to give them a competitive advantage over most of their rivals. Some would say that under Gary Caldwell Latics had bought their way out of League 1, having a wage bill twice that of most of their rivals. That was made possible by the parachute payments they were receiving at the time. However, now that the parachute era has come to an end, how can Latics get a financial advantage over most of their competitors in League 1?

One solution is to sell off assets. The second is for the ownership to provide the necessary funding.

The saleable assets Latics have are their players. The club’s main asset, Yanic Wildschut, was sold in January for a hefty premium. Early in the season Will Grigg would have been another major asset: he was scoring goals and looking comfortable in the higher division. It was sad to see how the player later found himself either warming the bench, playing as a lone centre forward with a derisory lack of support, or being played out of position. A player who could have probably drawn a transfer fee in excess of £5 m is now not such an attraction on the transfer market. Better to keep Grigg who has a superb record of goalscoring in League 1.

Nick Powell will surely be on his way. After months out through injury he roared back with spectacular performances as a super sub. In doing so, Powell put himself in the shop window. Dan Burn is another player who has caught the eye and will surely be of interest to Championship clubs. Burn was already an experienced Championship level player when arriving on a free transfer from Fulham. He has since developed a level of self-confidence  previously lacking. Between the two, Latics could possibly raise around £5 m on the market.

Omar Bogle was the most exciting of the January signings. Having scored a lot of goals for Grimsby he arrived brimming with confidence and style. But after a promising start Bogle was to wilt under  a horrible burden put on him by Joyce: that of being the lone striker in a 4-5-1 formation. Injury too was to hold him back. Like Grigg, his potential transfer value has plummeted. But the likelihood is that either Grigg or Bogle will be sold, albeit at a discounted price.

Max Power was almost sold to Birmingham City in January. Although he did not have the season he would have liked, Power remains one of the more saleable assets. Sam Morsy too is a player who could be sought by Championship clubs.

Last weekend Jonathan Jackson stated that “There will be some changes in the squad, but we want to keep the core there.”

Goalkeeper Matt Gilks and ex-captain Craig Morgan will be two of those core members who continue. Gilks was only signed in January on an 18 month contract and Morgan recently signed a two year extension to his contract. The long-term injured players – Donervon Daniels, Reece James, Andy Kellett and Shaun MacDonald – will also be staying. Alex Gilbey is another who has not been able to play in recent games after coming back from long-term injury. Latics will be hoping at least some of those players will be available for the beginning of next season.

It is difficult to predict who else will stay to provide a core for the coming season. The club is going to have to slash its wage bill some 60-70% to be financially viable. Put simply more than half of the players currently under contract are likely to depart over summer, many on free transfers. Others will be sent off on loan.

The players currently under contract for the coming season are:

Goalkeepers: Matt Gilks, Dan Lavercombe

Full Backs – Luke Burke, Reece James.

Centre backs: Dan Burn, Jake Buxton, Donervon Daniels, Jack Hendry, Craig Morgan.

Midfielders: Jack Byrne, Alex Gilbey, Andy Kellett, Josh Laurent, Shaun MacDonald, Sam Morsy, Max Power, Danny Whitehead.

Forwards: Nathan Byrne, Omar Bogle, Ryan Colclough, Will Grigg, Michael Jacobs, Mikael Mandron, Sanmi Odelusi, Nick Powell, Kaiyne Woolery.

The amount of turnover at the end of the 2015 season was remarkable, with 31 incomings and 44 outgoings, including loan players.

Latics currently have seven whose contracts are due to expire – Jordan Flores, Jussi Jaaskelainen, Billy Mckay, Gabriel Obertan, David Perkins, Andrew Taylor and Stephen Warnock. There are another eight players whose loans are coming to an end.

In 2015 Gary Caldwell had already been installed as manager to oversee the massive turnover that took place over the summer.

At this stage we do not know who the next manager is going to be and there have been mutterings about taking the time to choose the right man for the job.

But given a mountain of a task ahead we might well see an appointment made sooner rather than later.
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A rainbow shines at Brentford

rainbow

Brentford is not a particularly attractive place. Neither is Griffin Park football ground, at first glance. The Bees fans still have three more years to wait before their new stadium is built. But for all its faults the old stadium is well maintained, with a superb playing surface and we had a great view from the away supporters end. Moreover it was a rare pleasure to mingle with home fans before the match started, with no hint of the kind of insularity and hostility that can prevail in the vicinity of some English football stadia.

The home supporters were optimistic before the match, their team having scored nine goals in their last two home games. But they were to be disappointed as a resolute Latics side spoiled their afternoon by coming away with a point. One home fan went so far as to say that the only entertainment of his afternoon was provided by the stunning double rainbow which hovered above the stadium in the second half.

On the other hand the Wigan fans were appreciative of what they had seen. Their team had shown the kind of defensive strength that had been missing since the start of the season. That, together with the rainbow, will stick in many of our memories over the weeks to come.

Gary Caldwell’s tactics certainly worked. He packed his midfield, denying the home team of space. Will Grigg cut a lonely figure for most of the first half, the midfielders holding back rather pushing forward to support him. Wigan’s attack was muted, but so was that of the home team as the Latics defence held firm, shielded by a combative midfield. The home crowd had seemed muted too, their hopes of another goal-fest diminishing by the minute.

When the second half started it looked like a goalless draw was the most likely outcome. Could the Wigan defence hold out or was all the good work going to be ruined by sloppiness as the final whistle would approach? Caldwell was likely to bring Yanic Wildschut off the bench at some stage, but it seemed more likely to happen later rather than sooner.

Strangely enough Caldwell made a double substitution in the 57th minute, bringing on Wildschut and Nick Powell for Nathan Byrne and an ineffective Jordi Gomez. Caldwell was opening up the game with the substitutions. On one hand Latics were to increase their attacking intent. On the other Brentford were to enjoy more space. Powell and Wildschut did enliven the Wigan attack, while an under pressure defence still continued to hold firm. The 0-0 score at the end was a fair result for both sides.

The central defensive pairing of Jake Buxton and Dan Burn was strong in this game. They are clearly developing a mutual understanding. After a shaky start at the club Burn has shown his mettle in recent weeks. He was arguably the Man of the Match yesterday, towering above the Brentford forwards, his positioning sound and tackles firm. However, it could be argued that Buxton was just as good. He does not catch the eye as much as Burn can. Buxton just seems to get on with his job, nothing flashy, but solid and reliable. It was noticeable from an early stage in the game that the two had been given licence to clear their lines when under pressure. The inter-passing between defenders that had been problematic in previous matches had taken the back seat to a more pragmatic approach of safety first.

There has been much talk about the merits of 4-3-3 over 3-5-2. Although seemingly playing with a back four yesterday the presence of Shaun MacDonald so close to the central defenders reminded one of the role Ben Watson could play in the Martinez era. After getting so little playing time over the last two years the Welshman is getting back his match fitness and sharpness. He played a key role yesterday.

The point yesterday puts Latics out of the relegation zone. The cohesion is gradually developing and it is starting to look much more like a team rather than a collection of individuals. There will be ups and downs ahead, but the squad has sufficient quality to at least hold its own in the Championship division.

After the game I met up again with Billy Grant of Brentford fan site Beesotted. Billy has provided us with fascinating articles in the past and his podcasts are always worth a listen. His post-match podcast is to be found below. My contribution from a Wigan perspective starts at 8:00 minutes: