West Bromwich Albion 2 Wigan Athletic 0
After the pattern of football we have seen in recent months there were few reasons to be optimistic for the trip to the Hawthorns.
The first half followed a familiar pattern with Latics launching long balls forward and the home team looking superior. It was no surprise when Albion scored after 8 minutes when Dwight Gayle launched a routine cross into Wigan’s box and Jay Rodriguez headed in with remarkable ease. Gayle left the field of play after the goal, perhaps fortunately for Latics, to be replaced by Hal Robson-Kanu. Rodgriguez went on to score a second after 69 minutes with a spectacular strike from outside the box, although he was scarcely challenged by the Wigan defenders.
Paul Cook put out a changed lineup, partially signalling a much-needed shakeup. Nathan Byrne made way for Gavin Massey, Callum Connolly came in for Lee Evans. Gary Roberts was omitted with Chey Dunkley coming back to the left centre of defence with Dan Burn moving over to left back and Kal Naismith to left midfield. Some out of form players had been rested, but both Christian Walton and Josh Windass kept their places.
Sadly, despite the changes in personnel Cook had stuck with the same 4-4-2 that has been synonymous with a long-ball approach over the past weeks. But the introduction of Callum McManaman after 54 minutes signaled a much-needed shift in approach with much less long ball and more constructive football. Latics looked a much better side as a result and built up some fine moves in the final quarter of the game.
After the game Cook commented: “It was nice that Chey Dunkley was on the pitch today. Gavin Massey started his first game since coming back and Michael Jacobs will be back in a week or two, Nick Powell could back in January too and we may dip into the January transfer market.It is a long season; we are all feeling a little bit low at the minute with the results because we are not on a great run like we have been in the last 18 months. The players are doing as much as they can, though, lads like Kal Naismith are growing in the team and Callum McManaman was excellent today – he gave us a spark that we haven’t had and that’s great credit to him.”
Let’s take a look at some points arising from the game:
Playing to your strengths
Joe Garner is 5 ft 10 in tall and Josh Windass 5 ft 9 in. West Bromwich’s central defenders were Ahmed Hegazi (6 ft 4 in) and Craig Dawson (6 ft 2 in). The Albion pair were untroubled by Wigan’s long balls, gobbling them up with ease. During the course of the match Hegazi won 11 aerials, Dawson 5. Not surprisingly neither Garner nor Windass had good games and both were substituted in the second half.
The overall match stats show the home team winning 62% of aerial duels compared with Wigan’s 38%.
Although their football is based more on movement and possession West Bromwich are a physically imposing side, with more tall players in their lineup yesterday than Latics.
Put simply, playing the long ball against a bigger team is hardly playing to one’s strengths.
A promising return for Gavin Massey
This was Massey’s first start since August 25th when he suffered a serious hamstring injury at QPR. He had come on in the 59th minute in the last game at Birmingham, but yesterday he looked closer to full fitness.
Massey’s searing pace is a key aspect to his game, so the injury to his hamstring will have been worrying for Latics’ medical staff. But he was moving at good pace at the Hawthorns, adding an extra dimension to Wigan’s game. Although not yet at his best he was constructive going forward and attentive in defence.
Let’s hope Michael Jacobs too will be back soon after his hamstring injury. He has not played since the game at Preston on October 6.
Both players have been sorely missed, as has Nick Powell who might not be available for another month.
A left back is desperately needed
Dan Burn cannot be faulted for effort, but he is no left back. He was put there so Kal Naismith could move further forward on the left. It was not an easy afternoon for either Burn or Naismith.
With Antonee Robinson out long-term a left back is desperately needed in the transfer window that opens next week.
A chance to shine for Callum McManaman
Much has been said about Cook’s treatment of Callum McManaman, a creative talent who has hardly been given a chance in a team in desperate straits, so short on invention and the ability to unsettle the opposition. The reasons for his tiny amount of game time have been palpably unclear to us as fans.
Once again McManaman’s was on the bench yesterday and one expected him to be brought on in the closing minutes, if at all.
But Cook surprised us by withdrawing the hapless Windass after 54 minutes, whereas his substitutions usually come later than that. McManaman was excellent, running at the home team defence which had to resort to foul means to stop him. It is a long time since a Latics player has shown that kind of trickery and skill. So often in a team low on confidence the norm has been to pass the ball backwards or sideways or make a speculative cross that has led nowhere. McManaman was a breath of fresh air in comparison.
Moreover, the player’s arrival signaled a more cultured approach from Latics, reminiscent of what we saw earlier in the season when things were going much better.
One swallow does not make a summer, but it was such a refreshing change. We all know that there will be games when McManaman struggles to make an impact and he might not be so good defensively as some. But he has that ability to change a game.
Following an excellent performance McManaman has staked his claim for a start at Swansea on Saturday. Let’s wait and see.
Rays of hope for the future?
Football managers can be very stubborn and can stick to rigid ideas. Cook was in such a frame of mind as he stuck with the ineffective 4-4-2 formation yesterday that had become synonymous with long ball.
However, there were rays of hope in the second half when Latics made efforts to revive the passing football that had been so uplifting in August and September.
One can only hope that Cook has seen the light on the road to Damascus. It could not only be the saving of Latics from relegation, but the means of the manager holding on to his job.
David Sharpe once made a statement regarding playing football “The Wigan Way”. Let’s hope that the manager has the courage to allow his players to express themselves on the pitch rather than continue with the kind of scrapball that was the norm in the reigns of Malky Mackay and Warren Joyce.