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.

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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 – AFC Wimbledon 0 Wigan Athletic 4 – five talking points

 

In summer Erik Samuelson, Chief Executive of AFC Wimbledon, wrote to fans asking them to donate money to boost the wage bill and help keep their club in League 1. Around the same time Wigan Athletic were courting Chinese investors interested in taking over the club. With an injection of serious cash maybe Latics could even get back to the Premier League.

The match highlighted the difference between the wage bills of the two sides. The Dons, a club owned by supporters, rose six tiers in the English football pyramid to reach League 1 last season. To finish in mid-table was an accomplishment, given their resources. But yesterday’s defeat saw them plummet to 23rd place, with Wigan Athletic continuing to head the table. Understandably there was a big gulf between the standard of football the teams played, the home team’s long ball approach so often finding the heads of Wigan’s tall central defenders.

The first half saw Latics play their usual brand of football, which could be termed “stylish” for League 1. They created chances, but could not put them away, as the home team played with spirit, employing their uncomplicated brand of football. Moreover, on a tight pitch, with the crowd so close to the play, it was by no means easy for the away side.

The beginning of the second half saw an increase in tempo, with three Wimbledon players and Nick Powell being booked within the first ten minutes. It was becoming very competitive, but Latics were to go ahead in the 57th minute through Michael Jacobs. The home team continued to play with spirit but were rocked on 69 minutes when Harry Forrester was sent off after receiving his second yellow card. Latics went on to dominate with Nick Powell and Max Power scoring with blistering drives and Ivan Toney getting another in the closing minutes.

In the end, the 4-0 scoreline flattered Wigan, but they were the better team throughout. Any chance that Wimbledon had of winning the game had disappeared with Forrester’s dismissal.

Let’s take a look at some talking points:

Max’s goal

 

Max Power has never been a prolific scorer. Prior to joining Latics he scored 12 goals in 99 starts and 10 substitute appearances in league football for Tranmere. But in the 2015-16 season he scored 6 for Gary Caldwell’s League 1 title winning side, in addition to coming close to being voted “Player of the Season”. Until yesterday his last goal had been scored at Swindon in March 2016. After a wait of 72 games it was no wonder he celebrated his goal. He has now scored 7 goals in 91 league starts and 10 substitute appearances for Latics.

Power has played in a variety of positions over the past three seasons, but largely as a central midfielder. This season he has not been able to command a regular place in that position due to the form of Lee Evans and Sam Morsy. Evans has a career record of 11 league goals in 109 appearances and 26 appearances off the bench. Morsy has scored 15 goals in the league from 200 starts and 34 substitute appearances.

Massey closer to good form

Although only Gavin Massey is only 25 years old he has a career record of 198 starts in the lower two tiers of the EFL. Last season he made 36 league appearances for Leyton Orient, scoring 8 goals for a club which was to suffer relegation from the EFL. Massey is by no means a dynamic winger, but has genuine pace and a real work ethic on the pitch. Earlier in the season he was an essential cog in Paul Cook’s system of play. Over recent weeks his form had waned, and he lost his place to Ryan Colclough. With Colclough unavailable yesterday, Massey came back into the starting lineup, coming close to a goal in the early stages and setting up the first one for Michael Jacobs.

Massey and Colclough have different attributes. Colclough has a superior career record as a goalscorer, but has lacked consistency and has never commanded a regular place at Wigan since Caldwell signed him from Crewe in January 2016. He remains a work in progress, but he is still only 22.

There is a tendency among a minority of Latics supporters to jeer their own players. Gavin Massey does not deserve such treatment. He is a committed professional, a team player and has been an integral part of Wigan’s fine start to the season. Moreover, with more experience in a team that is high flying at the top of the division, he can continue to develop his game.

In Massey and Colclough, Cook has good options for the right wing position. It would not be a surprise if he were to seek someone in the transfer window to challenge Michael Jacobs for his place on the other wing.

The outstanding Burn

Yesterday’s game was meat and drink for Dan Burn and he must have loved it. I lost count of the number of long balls that he headed away. Given the tendency of players in League 1 to launch long balls a player with Burn’s aerial ability is of paramount importance to Wigan’s promotion push. But Burn has been much more than just a heading machine. His positional play and tackling has been excellent. Burn keeps it simple: when under pressure he clears his lines, with no ceremony.

When Burn first arrived at the club he struggled to cope with Caldwell’s insistence of playing out from the back. Moreover, his more uncomfortable moments this season have been when he has been challenged by smaller, speedy forwards. But Burn showed last year that he is good enough to be a successful central defender in the Championship division, but could he eventually make the transition to the Premier League?

For the moment, Dan Burn is probably the key player in Cook’s lineup. Is there another central defender in the division who can match him?

The chasing pack

There are those who argue that League 1 is weaker this season than it was a couple of seasons ago when Latics were there. Such an argument is purely academic and is hard to substantiate. What we can see at this stage is that, despite their outstanding record in the season so far, Latics are being pursued by a pack of teams. A comparison with the table around this time of year two years ago shows that the pack of this season is overperforming:

However, in 2015-16 three of the top six were to fall out of contention for promotion by time the playoffs started in May 2016.

Will the same happen this season?

AFC Wimbledon’s future

Although the football played by clubs bearing the name of Wimbledon has not always been aesthetically pleasing, one can only admire the huge achievements of the current club. Formed in 2002 their ascent to League 1 has been stunning, particularly given their lack of financial clout. Their projected move to Plough Lane, near the home of their previous encarnation, is something special. In the era of “Moneyball Football” it is refreshing to see a club that is community run show such a sense of ambition. One can only wish them well in their efforts.

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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 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.