Five talking points arising from the win against Walsall

 

Result: Wigan Athletic 2 Walsall 0

In the end it was a comfortable victory over a Walsall side that is as good as any we have seen at the DW this season. It was a scrappy game, with Latics playing their best football in flashes, but they did enough to pick up three more points.

The result keeps Wigan in second place, with Shrewsbury beating Scunthorpe 2-0 to maintain their impressive start to the season.

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

When was the last time Wigan’s home record was so good?

It was this time of year in 2015 when Gary Caldwell’s team played out a goalless draw with Walsall. Their record at home following that match was W3 D3 L0, whereas on the road their record was W1 D1 L3.

This season’s home record is W5 D1 L0. Latics fans will be scratching their heads to remember a better start of a season. However, it has not all been plain sailing and Latics have had to show a lot of patience in breaking down teams who have come to avoid defeat. There have been excerpts of champagne football, mingled with solid defensive play.

Away from home they have fared less well, although there have been several fixtures against teams that were high-flying at the time. The defeats at Shrewsbury and Peterborough were tight affairs. The away record up to this point is W3 D0 L2.

Are Shrewsbury going to be like Burton a couple of years ago?

Burton Albion were formidable in League 1 in 2015-16, a seemingly modest club towering above larger competitors, topping the table for months until Caldwell’s team overtook them in the latter part of the season. By Christmas they were topping the table, with Wigan eight points behind in fifth place. At the time people were questioning whether Burton could maintain their momentum, but they did to a large degree. They had gained 48 points in the first 23 games of the season, going on to accumulate 37 points more in their final 23 outings. That was enough to secure second place to ensure automatic promotion. With shrewd moves in the transfer market they went on to avoid relegation in the Championship last season playing against clubs with budgets that made their own look miniscule in comparison.

Can Shrewsbury do what Burton did? In fact, the Shrews have already made a better start than the Brewers did a couple of years ago. Shrewsbury narrowed their pitch in the summer of 2016 in a move their manager at the time, Micky Mellon, saying that “We had one of the biggest pitches in England and now we have the same size as everyone else, so everybody who we play against will have the same size pitch.” In fact, the current pitch at the New Meadow measures 110 by 72 yards, the same as that of the Pirelli Stadium in Burton. Not many teams will relish a trip to New Meadow these days.

A year ago, Shrewsbury were bottom of League 1, but Paul Hurst arrived in late October and managed to keep them out of relegation, eventually finishing in 18th place. Over the summer Hurst made 8 new signing with 6 players brought in on loan. The transformation has been remarkable.

Jones reaches the 300 mark

When Christian Walton was injured in early September there were concerns about Jamie Jones coming in. However, Jones has done well, giving confidence to his defence through his positioning and handling. Moreover, his intelligent distribution has helped Latics launch rapid attacks. Although he has made 300 career appearances, Jones is still only 28 years old.

Not on fire but getting warmer

Will Grigg’s brace of goals will certainly be good for his confidence. Latics need an “on-fire” Grigg to finish off their often-excellent approach work.

Latics have strength in depth

Michael Jacobs went off at half time, presumably through injury. He had certainly not been his usual self in the first half. But with Ryan Colclough injured, Cook called on David Perkins, who was to prove as lively and industrious as ever.

Reece James had been rested for the game, with Callum Elder having his first home league start. The Australian was excellent, his superb cross leading to the first goal.

Lee Evans has been a key player, but he was taken off after 68 minutes yesterday, Max Power stepping comfortably in to his natural position.

Having a bench which includes the likes of Perkins, Power and Elder, plus Ivan Toney who did not come on, illustrates the strength in depth that Cook possesses.

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Seeking a balance in midfield

A more balanced midfield with Paul Cook in charge?

“So close to a famous win, absolutely devastated. Atmosphere was incredible.

So tweeted James McArthur after Harry Kane’s late equaliser had robbed them of victory in a game they did not really deserve to win.

He had come on as a substitute at the beginning of the second half in the cauldron that Hampden Park so often can be. In the eyes of an admittedly biased Wigan Athletic fan he should have been on from the start, but James Morrison and Scott Brown were chosen instead.

But seeing McArthur brought back memories of his partnership with James McCarthy. Both were signed from a modest club in Hamilton Academical, seemingly “players for the future”. But what a future it proved to be for them at Wigan as the pair became the engine room of the club’s greatest ever successes. Pitched up against the likes of Gerrard, Lampard and Scholes they held their own, famous victories over England’s richest and most powerful clubs resulting.

Roberto Martinez had developed what was loosely called a 3-4-3 system. McArthur and McCarthy supplied the energy and vision from the centre of midfield, with the excellent wing backs Emmerson Boyce and Jean Beausejour providing the width. One of the front three, Shaun Maloney or Jordi Gomez, would drop back to reinforce midfield and add to the creativity. The end result was a balanced midfield, capable of challenging the best in the land.

It is more than three years now since McArthur left Wigan, McCarthy having gone a year earlier. Since then Latics have had a plethora of midfield players pass through the club. The Macs had played together for three years, developing a mutual understanding, covering for each other when it was needed.

But last season that kind of understanding was sadly lacking, players too often being unable to find their teammates with their passes. Midfield players who had been key in winning League 1 the previous season had clearly found the step up to the Championship a tough one. Perhaps Gary Caldwell had realised that the midfielders of the title winning team might struggle in the higher division. He brought in reinforcements in Shaun MacDonald, Alex Gilbey and Nick Powell, but the latter two were to be stricken by injury. MacDonald had been a box to box midfielder at Bournemouth, but Caldwell was to use him in a “Busquets role” in front of the back four. He had used Sam Morsy in that role in the previous season, but the player had been dispatched off to Barnsley on loan.

MacDonald went on to become a rock in front of the defence, also being favoured by Warren Joyce when he arrived in November. Although he would rarely show the range of passing that we had seen from Morsy, MacDonald was equally firm in the tackle and his reading of the game. Moreover he was strong in the air. Sadly his horrendous injury at Reading is likely to rule him out for the large part of the coming season.

As part of his return from Barnsley, Morsy had been offered an improved contract with Joyce being keen to get him back. With MacDonald anchoring at the back, Morsy was pushed forward into a more creative role where he initially seemed to thrive. However, Joyce’s obsession with 4-5-1 was to mean that any midfielder’s role was to be primarily defensive. Like the other midfielders, Morsy just did not look as effective as he had earlier. The midfield was to shoulder the bulk of the frustration of fans wanting to see them push further forward to support the lone centre forward. The lack of creativity was to be exacerbated as Joyce was to play four central midfielders in his starting line-up, a tactic that was also to be followed by Graham Barrow when he took over as caretaker manager.

Latics fans will be hoping for a more positive approach from new manager Paul Cook. Cook’s preferred formation appears to be 4-2-3-1, so it is unlikely he will use someone in the anchor role occupied by MacDonald. David Perkins has been given a new short term contract, although he is now 35. However, Perkins was the Player of the Year in League 1 in 2015-16 and his infectious enthusiasm was a key element in the team’s success. Max Power was the subject of an offer by Birmingham City in January. Although he had a disappointing season he remains a young player with good technique who might well benefit from a move. Morsy has already proved himself in League 1 and would surely be in contention for a place, but his increased salary might prove too much for Latics to swallow, given their much decreasing revenues. It would be no surprise if both Power and Morsy were sold over the summer.

Cook already has players who can form the trio behind the centre forward. He has those who can play wide in Michael Jacobs and Nathan Byrne, plus “number 10s” in Jack Byrne, Alex Gilbey, Josh Laurent and Nick Powell. Nathan Byrne has genuine pace, making Joyce’s decision to send him on loan to Charlton difficult to understand. With both Wildschut and Byrne leaving his side was distinctly short of pace. Rumour suggests that Byrne had a falling out with the manager and was dispatched as a result. It could be that the player has already burnt his bridges at Wigan and will be gone over summer, but he has a fine record in League 1 and could be an important player, if he were to stay. Salary could also be an issue.

For the moment Latics are short on holding midfielders and Cook will be looking at bringing in at least a couple more. He will also look for more wide players. Jordan Flores can play wide on the left of midfield, but there is still no news of him signing a new contract.

Finding the right balance in midfield will be of paramount importance to Paul Cook if he is to build a squad good enough to get the club back to the Championship division. Continuity is something that has been so lacking at Wigan over the past three seasons. Ideally Cook will put together a midfield not only to get the club out of League 1, but also one which can serve the club more long-term as did the “Macs” in the Martinez era.

 

 

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Tightening up the defence

Craig Morgan - has three yellow cards in four league games.

Craig Morgan – has three yellow cards in four league games.

Will Grigg sent another message to his doubters on Saturday. His two opportunist goals at Nottingham had hauled his team back into a game where they had clearly been second best. What a shame his efforts were wasted by abysmal defending giving Forest a win in time added on.

In fact neither team’s defence looked solid. Witnessing the quality of Forest’s midfield play and the movement of their forwards one could have got the impression that they will challenge for promotion. So often they sliced through the Wigan defence like a knife. They scored four, and could conceivably have doubled that tally. But they have defensive problems. Grigg’s two goals were prime examples of opportunism as the centre forward punished the home team defence for their sloppiness.

Wigan too played some attractive football. Alex Gilbey and Michael Jacobs supported Grigg from midfield and Shaun MacDonald gave a promising first half display sitting in front of the back four. But the defence looked shaky from the start.

Gary Caldwell had decided to continue with the experiment of playing Yanic Wildschut as a wing back, as he had in the second half against Birmingham in midweek. It proved to be an ill-judged move.

Not only was the Dutchman lost in the role, but Craig Morgan was left exposed. With so little protection from not only the wing back, but also the midfield, the captain looked a shadow of the player he was last season.  Morgan struggled for pace against speedy attackers flooding his zone.

Given his contribution to last season’s title winning team few fans will openly criticise Morgan. Granted he never was the quickest of defenders, but he was able to use his experience to get into the right positions and make the best decisions. Some doubt that the captain is the right man to lead a defence in the Championship, but acknowledge that he is not alone in lacking pace in the Latics back line. The assertion is that a slow moving defence will have constant problems against the speedy forwards that so many Championship sides possess.

However, rarely will Morgan be as exposed as he was on Saturday. The failure of the midfield to protect the defence was a feature of the team’s performance. The absence of David Perkins was fully felt. Last season he was invaluable in covering his defence in deep positions, together with Max Power, whose defensive performance was found lacking at Nottingham. Moreover Morgan has been moved from his preferred position in the centre of the back three, where speed is an asset but an ability to read the game is paramount. Last season Morgan received one red card and seven yellows  in 38 league appearances. He has picked up three yellows  in the first four league games so far.

Having conceded four goals, despite another fine performance by keeper Adam Bogdan, the defence will inevitably take most of the blame. The decision to jettison Jason Pearce, who formed a formidable central defensive partnership with Morgan last season, continues to be questioned by the pundits. Should that partnership have been maintained, albeit in a higher division of football, where they would have been more tested by the pace and skills of Championship level forwards?

The use of Wildschut as a wing back was a speculative attacking ploy by Caldwell.  Against a stubborn Birmingham defence defending their one goal lead Caldwell had withdrawn his wing backs and placed Michael Jacobs and Wildschut in those positions. It was a bold move, typical of what we have come to expect from the manager over the past year. There were times last season when Caldwell threw caution to the wind and risked his defence being badly exposed. On occasions he got caught out, with the opposition scoring from rapid counterattacks, but there were times when games were won as a result.

There are fans who prefer to see Latics play with a conventional back four, rather than with three centre backs and wing backs. The 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 played by Caldwell’s teams last year saw the wing backs pushed high up the field, almost like wingers. An inherent danger in any type of 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 formation is wing backs being caught far forward and centre backs having to deal with pacy wide players on the break.

It is a far cry from the days in the Premier League when Latics had two excellent wing backs in Emmerson Boyce and Jean Beausejour who were not pushed so far forward. The two were so good at stretching the play by hugging the touchline and making themselves available to receive the ball from defence and support attacks. However, both played key defensive roles , the back three becoming a back five as they dropped back. On Saturday Wildschut looked lost when Forest attacked and Luke Garbutt made more of an impression in attack than in defence.

The three game suspension suffered by the experienced Jake Buxton, together with a long term injury for Donervon Daniels, has reduced Caldwell’s options in the centre of defence.  Following Buxton’s suspension Dan Burn was moved to the centre of the back line of three, with Morgan moving to the right.

With Buxton due to be available again for the match against QPR on Saturday, Caldwell might well opt for his experience on the right, with Morgan in the centre and Dan Burn on the left.  Although the manager did not include the 18 year old Luke Burke from the start at Nottingham, when the young player came on he once again looked the part. Despite his tender years he is the complete wing back. Buxton’s return could also enable Stephen Warnock to return to his more familiar position of left wing back. A return to 4-3-3 is also a possibility with a back four of Burke, Buxton, Morgan and Warnock.

A settled defence is key to Wigan’s chances of success in the Championship. Up to this point they have a record of W1 D1 L2, with a total of 4 points. Last year’s League 1 winning team had exactly the same record this time last year, as did Uwe Rosler’s team the year before which got relegated. It is simply too early in the season to predict what will happen later. Moreover both league defeats up to this point have come through goals in time added on.

In the meantime Caldwell will look at establishing a settled defence with a midfield in front of it that takes its fair share of defensive responsibilities.

A busy week ahead for Caldwell in the transfer market

Will Jordi Gomez be willing to take a pay cut to rejoin Latics?

Will Jordi Gomez be willing to take a pay cut to rejoin Latics?

 “We tried to sign players last year who would not only do well in League One, but who were really Championship quality and I’ve got real confidence that they’ll be able to do a job at this level.”

So said Gary Caldwell, giving a public show of support to the players he signed. But the question is: how many of them will be a success in the Championship?

One player who has been a success in that division is Jordi Gomez. He was voted Player of the Season for Latics in 2013-14 after scoring 11 goals in 43 appearances. Gomez had received a similar award at Swansea in 2008-09, when the Welsh club was in the Championship division.

Rumours of a return for Gomez surfaced several weeks ago, but Gary Caldwell has now confirmed it as a possibility. However, whilst being keen on a return for the Catalan the manager stated through Wigan Today that “If it doesn’t make sense financially, then we’re not going to do it. We have to work within certain budgets, and we have done that.”

Should Gomez return he will have to take a sizeable pay cut. He is on Premier League wages at Sunderland and any offer from Latics is likely to fall short even of the figure he had been on when he left Wigan in the summer of 2014. However, it could be that Sunderland are willing to continue to pay Gomez a fraction of his wages for the coming season in a bid to move him on.

In his heart of hearts Caldwell surely knows that some of his current squad will fall short in the higher division. With the players due back for training in just over a week he will be keen to finalise deals for new players who he believes can be successful in the Championship. But his problem is doing so within a tight budget for a wage bill that will not be supported by parachute payments a year from now.

One year contracts for experienced players in their thirties is a viable option, providing Caldwell can beat off opposition from other clubs willing to offer contracts of longer duration or of more money. The latest rumour is that Latics are looking at the 35 year old Leon Osman, released by Everton.

Transfer rumours abound at this time of year and it is never easy to sift through them to ascertain which are realistic. However, given Latics’ recruitment policy it is unlikely that they will look at signing two other Sunderland players whose names have been mentioned through the social media. Caldwell will be searching for another centre forward but is unlikely to be able offer the right kind of terms for Danny Graham (30) or Steven Fletcher (29).

Last season’s recruitment process involved largely focusing on players out of contract or available at knock-down prices. Indeed the Player of the Season, David Perkins, was recruited when his contract with Blackpool terminated. Moreover Max Power, who finished in second place in the voting, was also a free agent although Latics had to pay compensation to Tranmere Rovers because of his age. Rumours suggest that Latics are currently interested in free agents John McGinn (23, right back, Dundee), Curtis Nelson (25, central defender, Plymouth Argyle) and Alex Gilbey (21, midfielder, Colchester United).

However, David Sharpe has backed Caldwell in paying serious money when a player has become available who could serve the club for years to come. Around £900,000 was spent on Will Grigg and £600,000 for Yanic Wildschut, both in their early to mid-twenties. Latics have reputedly made bids over £500,000 for 25 year old Barnsley midfielder Conor Hourihane and 28 year old Aberdeen winger Jonny Hayes. The latter would be a surprise, given the player’s age.

Last summer Caldwell had a budget advantage over rival managers in League 1. The reverse is the case this summer, with so many Championship clubs having parachute payments exceeding those of Latics in terms of size and longevity. Moreover the budget that Caldwell has is not sustainable beyond one more year.

Caldwell and his recruitment team will continue to focus on picking up younger players who are out of contract or available at bargain prices. But funds will be available for signing young players who represent good value for the future and can add value in the coming season. Caldwell will also ensure that an age balance is maintained by bringing in quality players in the latter stages of their careers on shorter contracts.

We can expect Caldwell to be increasingly active in the transfer market over the coming week as the pre-season training date comes closer and closer.

 

Latics fire off a warning to Burton – form ratings for Swindon 1 Wigan Athletic 4

Will Grigg scores the first goal. Photo courtesy of the Swindon Advertiser.

Will Grigg scores the first goal.
Photo courtesy of the Swindon Advertiser.

If the scoreline was impressive, the performance was even more so. Wigan Athletic have sent warning shots across the bows of their close challengers Burton and Walsall.

It was possibly Wigan’s best performance of the season. They were well organised in defence, tenacious in midfield and dangerous in attack. More than anything else it was the style of football that impressed most. Latics played a brand of football way beyond that one can expect in League 1.

Gary Caldwell springing a surprise is really no surprise at all. But playing with twin strikers would hardly be expected from a manager who prefers a lone centre forward setup. Rather than use his typical 3-4-3, Caldwell opted for a 3-5-2 with Will Grigg and Yanic Wildschut up front. The presence of three central midfielders in front of a back line of three was to give the wing backs the licence to attack with vigour.

Caldwell got his tactics spot-on. The twin strikers were able to harry Swindon’s back line of three, forcing them into launching long passes which more often than not were gobbled up by the Wigan defence. Moreover Wigan’s midfield trio could swarm forward and swamp an overrun Swindon midfield. Wigan’s movement off the ball was a joy to behold.

Grigg took his 15th minute goal with aplomb, evading two close markers to hit home Chris McCann’s superb cross. The Wigan wingbacks, McCann in particular, continued to look lively. Swindon’s attack was largely innocuous.

Latics could have possibly killed the game off in the first 45 minutes, given the chances they squandered, but their opening to the second half was stunning. Their high pressing reduced Swindon’s defence to jelly. Max Power’s stunning right foot shot from the left hand side after 47 minutes will rank as one of the goals of the season. Three minutes later Grigg’s deflected shot gave the Swindon goalkeeper no chance, then Sam Morsy hit home a fine drive from the edge of the box after 51 minutes.

Wigan could have had more goals in the 39 minutes of normal time still remaining, but their finishing was to let them down. As the game progressed they eased their foot on the accelerator, with a home match against Rochdale weighing on their minds. It resulted in a well taken goal for the division’s top goalscorer, Nicky Ajose, after 79 minutes.

The Good

Latics worked liked a well-oiled machine, for once the whole equaling the sum of its parts. They made Swindon look poor in comparison, remarkable in that the home side had lost only one of its previous eight games.

So often teams have tried to stifle Wigan’s playing out from the back by high pressing. This time Latics used it to their own advantage, Swindon being stymied by that tactic.

David Sharpe promised the fans a 20 goal per season striker before the start of the season. Will Grigg reached that mark yesterday, with 17 in the league and 3 in cup matches.

The Bad

With better finishing from Grigg and Wildschut, the scoreline would have been even more emphatic.

It is the norm in modern football for teams to take their foot off the gas when they have a comfortable lead, with another game looming closer. In particular Grigg looked less than delighted to be taken off in the 75th minute with a hat trick a distinct possibility.

It could be argued that a third goal for the centre forward could have been a big confidence boost for him. But Caldwell would surely counter that by saying that he needed a fully fit Grigg for the game on Monday. Such debates occur in all levels of today’s football.

Player Ratings

Jussi Jaaskelainen: 8 – solid and dependable, sound in distribution. Made an excellent save from an Ajose free kick  in the second half.

Reece Wabara: 7 – getting better. Worked hard running up and down the right flank.

Donervon Daniels: 7.5 – his physical presence proved important in keeping the home side at bay.

Craig Morgan: 7.5 – solid in defence and pragmatic with his passing.

Stephen Warnock: 7.5 – another very professional performance from a full back playing in a back line of three.

Chris McCann: 8 – excellent. A constant threat to the right hand side of the Swindon defence.

Sam Morsy: 8.5 – not only adds steel to the midfield, but intelligent in his passing and movement.

Max Power: 7.5 – an all-round player with the class to play at a level well above League 1. Showed superb technique in his goal. Taken off after 64 minutes.

David Perkins: 8.5 – a complete performance, tenacious in his covering. His performance made a mockery of criticisms that he cannot pass the ball.

Will Grigg: 8 – a danger throughout. He has scored 12 goals in his last 13 games. Once again squandered opportunities, but the good news is that he is getting into the right positions to score.

Yanic Wildschut: 7 – worked hard and was a headache for the home defence with his speed and physical presence. But finishing is not always his strong point. Substituted after 71 minutes.

Substitutes:

Tim Chow –  came on for Power after 64 minutes. Worked hard.

Craig Davies – came on for Wildschut after 71 minutes. A physical presence as always.

Haris Vuckic – on for Grigg after 75 minutes. Showed some nice touches.