Five things Wigan Athletic need to do to get better results

With 15 points from 15 games Wigan Athletic are perilously close to the relegation zone. They have scored a paltry 13 goals, with only Middlesbrough having scored less. The midfield lacks creativity, the defence regularly gives away “soft” goals and the forwards are not taking their chances.

The club are looking at consolidation in the Championship this season, but at this stage it could be another struggle to avoid descent to League 1. IEC supported Paul Cook in the summer transfer market by investing over £8m in new players. However, the club’s wage structure does not allow them to compete with the bigger clubs in the division. Latics have to look at players from lower divisions or those who have not managed to force their way into the first team at Premier League clubs.

Of the team that started the last game against Swansea only goalkeeper David Marshall has played Premier League football. That puts them at a disadvantage against most of the teams they are going to face.

Put simply Latics need to punch above their weight to even survive in the division. To do so needs the manager and his coaching staff to get the best out of the players they have, employing a tactical framework that allows them to develop and improve. Facing stronger opposition on a regular basis means that Latics must get their tactics right and not be outthought by opposition managers.

Here are some things that they will need to do if they are to lift themselves out of the relegation dogfight:

Use the central striker more effectively

Signing a 6ft 5in centre forward from League 1 was always going to be a gamble. Kieffer Moore got his first goal from a penalty last weekend after 12 matches without scoring. He has had a torrid time.

Whether Moore can establish himself as a striker in the second tier remains to be seen. Although totally committed to the cause and able to upset opposition defenders through his physicality he has looked short of the skills needed to be successful at this level.

Cook has maintained faith in the big man to the extent that Joe Garner has been largely consigned to the bench. Now Garner is by no means a star at Championship level, but he is an experienced player who can score goals and show moments of invention.

Much of Moore’s job has been to receive long balls from defence, making flick-ons or holding the ball up for teammates coming forward. Although crosses have rained in from the wings into the penalty box he has rarely threatened on goal.

Up to this point Latics’ leading scorer is central defender Chey Dunkley with five goals. No one else has scored more than one. With Joe Garner not having scored a goal this season it means that the total number of goals from the centre forwards is one from 15 matches, indicating some things need to change.

Having a big centre forward spending much of his time fending off defenders for long balls, some thirty yards from goal, facing backwards is hardly an effective ploy. If Moore or Garner is to score goals the style of play needs to change into something more modern and more akin to that played by most of the other clubs at Championship level. Swansea showed at the weekend that you can cause defences problems playing without a big target man, but with other forwards supporting the central striker, something that Wigan are not particularly good at doing.

Something clearly must change if the central strikers are to be successful. A more mobile, pacey player like Josh Windass could be used in that position, although that would necessitate Cook instructing his defenders to stop launching long balls through to the centre forward.

Hire a defensive coach

Swansea’s two goals were indicative of the looseness in defence that has lost Latics so many points this season. In each case the two Swansea attackers in goalscoring positions were outnumbered by Wigan defenders but one was left unmarked to put the ball in the net.

It is a problem that plagued Latics throughout last season also, but the current coaching staff have apparently been unable to correct it. Hiring a defensive coach could well prove to be good investment.

Employ the most suitable players in their best positions

In these days of inverted wingers Cook could consider himself justified in playing either Gavin Massey or Jamal Lowe on the left. Both are naturally right footed. Lowe has struggled to hit top form although his performances have improved over recent games when he has been played on the right wing. For Lowe to play on the right Cook moved Massey to the left, where he has struggled. The manager’s determination to include both Lowe and Massey in the same team has meant that Michael Jacobs, Kal Naismith and Anthony Pilkington have been left out of the starting line-up.

For the away game at Derby Cook employed a 4-3-3 formation with a central midfield trio. It helped Latics to get more midfield control in that game and the next at Bristol City. He used it again in the Swansea game, with Lewis Macleod in front of the back four and Sam Morsy and Joe Williams pushed further forward.

Adopting such a 4-3-3 formation is a valid tactic for obtaining more midfield control. But it cuts out the number 10 position. Morsy has scored 16 goals in his professional career in 310 appearances, Williams has scored one in 74. Although Morsy and Williams cannot be accused of lacking creativity their potential for scoring goals is much less than someone who can play that number 10 position. It means that if Cook opts for 4-3-3 there is more onus on the wingers to support the central striker and score goals.

The departure of Nick Powell over the summer was a hammer blow for Cook. Powell was the main creative force and scored 8 goals last season. In Powell’s absence the manager has tried a variety of players in the number 10 position to mixed effect. The most suited to that role are Joe Gelhardt and Josh Windass. But despite saying how Gelhardt is good enough for the first team the manager has only given him 93 minutes of playing time in the 15 league games played. Is it loyalty to the senior pros that is the issue?

After coming on as a substitute midway through the second half against Swansea Gelhardt’s nimble footwork and accurate passing saw him set up Moore for an opportunity that the big centre forward was unable to take. But the footwork and passing was reminiscent of Powell. It is the kind of thing that has been so lacking in Wigan’s play this season.

Windass appears to be the latest player who has fallen foul of the manager. Although not as creative as Powell, Windass has the ability to unsettle a defence and score goals.

Cook has the players to provide balanced line-ups, with players being employed in their best positions. This means Lowe or Massey alternating on the right wing, Naismith and Jacobs on the left, with Pilkington looking comfortable on either flank. If the manager opts for 4-2-3-1 he has Evans, Macleod, Morsy and Williams to compete for positions in central midfield, with Gelhardt and Windass available for the number 10 position.

Rotate the squad regularly, especially when fixtures are coming in thick and fast

The Championship is one of the most physically demanding leagues in the world, with 46 games to be played, plus cup competitions. Moreover, the international breaks cause fixtures to be further intensified.

During his time at Wigan Uwe Rosler acquired the nickname “Tinkerman” through his constant rotation of the squad. Nevertheless, it worked well in his first season where he lifted Latics up from a lower mid-table position to the play-offs and took Arsenal to penalties in the FA Cup semi-final. Rotating his squad helped keep players fresh and meant that most were getting game-time. Rosler came unstuck through his signings over the summer that followed. Despite having a good squad, he signed a lot of new players, swelling the numbers. Some of his signings were questionable, others just did not get the time to settle and have proved themselves at other clubs since leaving Wigan.

Cook can hardly be called by the same nickname. Barring injuries and abnormally poor performances he goes close to picking the same line-up on a constant basis.  Of the current squad nine players have started in at least 11 of the 15 league games. Four of those were signed over the summer. The critics say that Cook has his favourites and will adjust his line-ups to accommodate them. However, there are advantages in having a backbone of players who know each other’s games and gel together. Only David Marshall and Antonee Robinson have started in all 15 games, the injury to Tom Pearce meaning that there has been no replacement to give Robinson a rest.

Given the physical demands on players, especially during times of fixture congestion, it is advisable to rotate players competing for the same position.

Will Latics stay up?

Wigan Athletic were a match for the high-flying Swansea and their efforts certainly deserved at least a point. At the DW Stadium they have had good results against teams who were near the top of the division when they played them. Cook has a well-balanced squad, with competition in every position, capable of riding through the constant injury problems that clubs face in this competitive division.

It is the away performances that continue to be of concern. Although the manager has said that they approach away games in a similar way to home games, a plethora of aimless long balls has been what we have so often witnessed away from home. There were certainly improvements in performances, if not results, at Derby and Bristol City, with more of an emphasis on building up moves from the back. Playing Lewis Macleod just in front of the back four has meant that defenders have an outlet, someone capable of receiving the ball under pressure, lessening the launching of hopeful long balls.

Cook’s teams are never going to play the kind of football we saw from Swansea which was initiated there in the reign of Roberto Martinez some 15 years ago. But at their best we know that Latics can play a passing game that can trouble any defence in this division. However, that necessitates the manager stamping a more positive style on his team’s play, both at the DW and on the road. He and his coaches must insist that the hopeful long ball is the final option, not the first. Throwing away possession has been the downfall of Cook’s Latics since their return to the Championship division.

Latics certainly have a good enough squad to stay in the division or reach a mid-table position. The question is whether the manager can stamp an indelible football philosophy on his players and can get the best out of the squad that he has.

 

 

 

 

 

Five talking points following a toothless display against Birmingham

Wigan Athletic 0 Birmingham City 3

 

It was a flattering scoreline for a well organised Birmingham side, who capitalized on their chances whereas Wigan squandered theirs. Despite having 63% of the possession Latics made mistakes in defence and in the opposition box.

Following the game Paul Cook commented: “We’re so disappointed at the minute, nothing is falling for us at both ends of the pitch. We had good chances in the game. Birmingham had three attempts on goal and scored all three of them, that’s football. At the minute it’s not going our way.”

Let’s take a look at some points arising:

Cook sticks with the same formula

Following a dire performance at Ipswich one hoped for a new approach, catalysed by the introduction of fresh blood. But it was not to be, the manager bringing back Kal Naismith at left back following suspension, James Vaughan coming in for Will Grigg. Cook stuck with the 4-4-2 formation despite a previous lack of success using that formula.

Cook’s 4-4-2 differs from that employed by Paul Jewell in yesteryear. Jewell’s team were not afraid to make long passes, but the quality of the balls then was so much better than the speculative stuff we have seen in recent weeks. Early in the current season Latics were building moves up from the back rather than relying on the “hoof” from defence.

I watched the game on iFollow, muting the sound regularly, mainly because I find it hard to listen to a radio commentary which lags behind the visual that appears on the screen. But when I did put it on there were a couple of comments in the first half that stick in the memory. One was to the effect that Cook was shouting at Christian Walton to play it long as a move was being played out at the back. The other was a comment that Latics were dominating the play, but Birmingham’s first goal followed within seconds.

But there were flashes of good football from Wigan, amidst a morass of “fightball”.

The formula of sticking with that same group of players and tactics once again failed to produce the desired result.

The goals are not coming

For the third successive match Latics failed to score. In the continued absence of Nick Powell there is a glaring lack of creativity in the midfield and a lack of sharpness from the forwards. But despite the shortage of creative midfield play there have been chances in recent weeks that the strikers could have put away. When early in the game Josh Windass used his pace and aggression to leave a defender behind him his finish was woeful. The same player also had a fine chance with a header but fluffed it.

Cook continues to have faith in Windass, although many fans would question it. The player has scored two goals in 18 starts and 3 substitute appearances, though it should be noted that he was initially played in wide positions.

In the last couple of months Windass has been Cook’s main choice as a starting striker. Of the rest, Will Grigg has 4 goals, three of which were penalties, in 10 starts and 4 appearances off the bench. Joe Garner has one goal from 4 starts (9 as sub), James Vaughan two from  5 starts (11 as sub). Given those stats it is hardly surprising that Cook is looking for new strikers in January.

However, goalscoring is not the sole province of the strikers. Midfielders have chipped in with goals here and there, but what is noticeable is the lack of goals scored by defenders. Cedric Kipre went close in the second half with a header bouncing over off the wood work. There have been so many occasions that Kipre, Dan Burn and Chey Dunkley might have scored from set pieces but just could not get it right.

The January window beckons

Latics have nine players in the squad whose contracts expire next summer. Five of those played yesterday. Although we are approaching the end of December no announcements have been made about extensions for any of those players.

The implication is that several will be leaving in January. If their contracts are not extended over the next eight days we can expect the likes of Nick Powell, Sam Morsy, Gavin Massey, Callum McManaman, James Vaughan and Nathan Byrne to be leaving in January if the right offers come in. Shaun MacDonald has been frozen out by the manager, despite being one of Wigan’s better performers in the division a couple of years ago. He can be expected to leave, most likely on a free.

The lack of progress in the extension of player contracts was initially put down to the transition in ownership, but since the IEG takeover the matter has continued to fester, at the expense of squad morale. Given the uncertainty about their futures those players deserve commendation for their commitment up to this point, although one wonders if they would have performed better if new contracts had been awarded.

The question is whether the lack of decisiveness of ownership is governed by financial reasons or is management looking at moving players on so that fresh blood can be brought in? Rumour has already linked Latics with forwards Jermain Defoe of Bournemouth and Gary Madine of Cardiff City, together with left back/central defender Tyler Blackett of Reading.

Given the awful run of results suffered over the last couple of months Latics might well be pondering some major changes over January, including possible exits for players on more long term contracts. They could well be looking at cutting their losses on players that have not fulfilled expectations, either by cashing in on their transfer values or sending them on loan to cut operating costs.

A return soon for Chey Dunkley?

Dunkley has been one of Wigan’s most consistent players this season and his presence in the centre of defence has been missed in his absence through injury. In his absence the experienced Dan Burn formed the central defensive partnership with Cedric Kipre. Burn has not been at his best, but neither has he been Latics’ worst performer over the past two months. Nevertheless the centre of defence has looked increasingly vulnerable.

Early in the season Dunkley did a fine job in marshaling a rookie defence. He is a leader on the field of play and his partnership with Kipre is one which was continuing to develop. Dunkley is still only 26 and his partnership with the 21-year-old Kipre holds great promise for the future.

With Burn due to leave for Brighton on January 1st the Dunkley-Kipre partnership will shortly resume.

A need for a change of personnel and tactics for the trip to the Hawthorns

Cook has been particularly patient with a group of players who have not shown the kind of form that was needed. Too many have under-performed and confidence is at a low ebb.

It is time for the manager to make changes not only in personnel but also in his tactical approach. Having faith in players is to be commended, but others have been marginalized, not given opportunities. Moreover the style of football has nosedived.

When Cook was appointed, we on this site were delighted to see a manager appointed who had a reputation for his sides playing good football. Last season, in League 1 it was usually, if not always, the case.

Whilst 4-4-2 remains a valid tactic in modern day football, a return to a 4-2-3-1 formation would be welcome. Sadly 4-4-2 in the Cook era has tended to resort to an ugly long ball scenario. 4-2-3-1 is the formation which Cook has used for the best football Latics have played during his tenancy. With Powell still injured, Roberts would be the obvious choice in the number 10 role.

Another alternative is to play 4-1-2-3 with a holding midfielder in front of the back four, the role that MacDonald played effectively in the Warren Joyce era. That would allow such as Evans and Morsy to play further forward.

There is a lot of pressure on Cook at the moment. We do not agree with those who advocate his sacking. This is the manager’s first season at Championship level and it is a learning experience for him.

Nevertheless, there is a need for a change in approach with both team selection and tactics.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

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Five talking points following an ugly football match at Ipswich

Ipswich Town 1 Wigan Athletic 0

 

The windy, wintery conditions were always going to make it difficult to play good football. The outcome was two poor teams unable or unwilling to overcome the weather. It was a dire game of football decided by a bizarre goal after 66 minutes. Neither team deserved a point from their performances, but the home team won only their second game of the season against a Wigan side unrecognisable from that which started the season in style.

Paul Cook commented: “It was a horrible, tough day with a swirling wind and it wasn’t a great game in any shape or form but for me I felt we were the better team for large parts, especially in the second-half when we did take control. Taking control of games doesn’t get you points, though, and unfortunately it was a really disappointing away result.”

Let’s take a look at some points arising:

 Results against teams in relegation zone

Millwall, Reading, Bolton and Ipswich are the bottom four teams in the Championship table. Wigan’s performances against them have been particularly poor as reflected in a results statistic of W0 D2 L2.

Latics’ primary aim this season is consolidation, which basically means avoiding relegation. Improved results against such teams in the second half of the season will be necessary for Latics to achieve their aim.

Cook’s “Plan B”

The injury to Nick Powell is a major blow to Cook. At Portman Road the manager did not even try Josh Windass in the number 10 position but played him alongside Will Grigg upfront. As is the usual case when Latics play 4-4-2 the defence resorted to long balls, so often by-passing the midfield. But the quality of so many of those long balls was poor, the “hoof” predominating.

The use of the long ball was anathema to Roberto Martinez, who insisted on a patient, possession-based style of play. However, Cook is not averse to it. When Cook’s teams play at their best, they control the game in the opposition’s half, using the wings to pepper the penalty box with crosses, looking for through passes, whether delivered over short or long distances. But with conditions making it difficult to play a passing game Cook reverted to his “Plan B”, scrapping for possession, playing a kind of “direct” football akin to that at Bolton.

Cook’s team played very poorly. Their passing was abysmal, inferior to that of a home team desperately low on confidence.

Much has been discussed in the social media and message boards regarding Cook’s choice of players in wide positions. Rather than use the flair and pace of Callum McManaman and Leonardo Da Silva Lopes he continues to rely on Nathan Byrne and Gary Roberts. Byrne was outstanding last season at right full back but looks ill at ease in the wide attacking role he has been occupying. Roberts has a cultured left foot and a good football brain, but at 34 lacks the pace needed to get behind a defence.

Return of injured players

Gavin Massey and Chey Dunkley were on the bench, although they were not used. Michael Jacobs is a few weeks behind in terms of recuperation. We await further news on Nick Powell. Antonee Robinson will be out until February at the earliest.

Jacobs and Massey will add pace and creativity to the flanks when both are match fit. Dunkley will take the place of Dan Burn when he moves to Brighton a couple of weeks from now.

Despite an awful run of results, with two wins in the last 13 league games, Latics remain 6 points above the relegation zone. That is mostly down to the poor form of the teams in the lower reaches.

But would Wigan have maintained their initial momentum if it had not been for injuries to key players?

Rotating centre forwards

Chelsea regularly rotate their two centre forwards, Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata, and it seems to work to some degree. But Cook’s rotation of Joe Garner, Will Grigg and James Vaughan has not produced the desired result, let alone his insistence in regularly playing Josh Windass, as a number 10/twin striker despite indifferent performances.

Garner’s signing appeared to make sense at the time. Despite being 5 ft 10 in tall he can challenge towering central defenders in the air. Given the crosses raining in from the flanks we could have expected Garner to get on the end of some. But the player has lacked sharpness having had a small amount of game time.

Vaughan had his best game for Latics against Blackburn. He constantly pressured Rovers’ defence. But his arrival on the pitch has so often courted hopeful punts from defenders. If anything, Garner is better suited to that kind of role. Vaughan plays best alongside a centre forward. He cannot be faulted for effort, but Cook has not got the best out of him.

Grigg has had injury problems, but despite not having level of the upper tier experience of Garner or Vaughan, he can provide more balance when Latics desist from the long ball and build up from the back. His intelligent movement helps him link up with the skilful probing of Powell and Jacobs. But Grigg is hardly a Cook-style centre forward. He is not particularly good at heading in long crosses from the wings.

At times one wonders if Cook would prefer a giant centre forward of the ilk of Atdhe Nuhiu of Sheffield Wednesday. So, it is no big surprise that rumour suggests he wants to sign Gary Madine from Cardiff City on loan. Madine does not have a good strike ratio but poses a physical presence.

But then again, if the rumours of Jermain Defoe are true, how would the manager use the 36-year-old? Defoe has been a fine player, but at his age, with only four starts last season at Bournemouth, would this be a good short-term signing?

At least one of Garner, Grigg or Vaughan are likely to be leaving in January, if the rumours have any substance.

Still no contract announcements

We heard this week that negotiations are in effect to renew Nathan Byrne’s contract that expires in summer. But without even mentioning Nick Powell there were three others who played at Ipswich who are in the same boat: Sam Morsy, Gary Roberts and James Vaughan. To those can be added Alex Bruce, Jamie Jones, Gavin Massey, Callum McManaman, Shaun MacDonald.

Such uncertainty can hardly help squad morale.

Let’s hope for some announcements this week.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

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