Sheffield United 4 Wigan Athletic 2
Following a run of insipid away performances, we witnessed a much better one at Bramall Lane. Rather than looking like a team that had come to defend, Wigan Athletic attacked Sheffield United from the start. There was pace, there was balance, there was ambition. The problem was that the home team had Billy Sharp and his hat trick destroyed Latics after Chey Dunkley’s own goal had given the Blades the lead.
Sharp is hardly an Aguero or Kane. He has played just two games in the Premier League, those being for Southampton six seasons ago. But he is a very experienced Championship level striker and scored 13 goals in 34 appearances last season for Sheffield United. He gave Wigan’s centre backs a torrid time yesterday, scoring three opportunist goals.
Paul Cook decided to stick to his usual 4-2-3-1 formation, bringing back Nathan Byrne and Gary Roberts on the wings, replacing Cedric Kipre with Dan Burn, with Callum Connolly moving inside the unavailable Lee Evans.
The manager commented after the match: “We didn’t come under any great pressure in the game, but we conceded four goals and they hit the underside of the bar for five, whilst we have had chances in the game too. The disappointing thing is that at home we can look so sound defensively but I have to stress that when we speak about defending, I mean the team, not just the defenders and the goalkeeper. If we are to have success in the league this year, then we have to iron out the mistakes.”
Let’s take a look at some points arising from the game:
Cook deserves support
There has been a dramatic drop for Latics in the month of October with a record of W1 D1 L3. Over the course of the season so far so many games have been somewhat naively thrown away or lost tactically.
But at the same time, one must give immense credit to Paul Cook for the positives. He had a whopping challenge in losing the Burn/Byrne brothers at beginning of season, having to bed in a new defence, followed by injuries to key attackers Grigg, Jacobs and Massey interrupting form.
Despite recent results Latics are in a respectable 14th place, 8 points clear of relegation. Moreover, the table is so tight that two wins (or losses) can cause a dramatic rise or fall.
Cook was also without Lee Evans yesterday. Evans is a quality player in every aspect except speed/acceleration. He is tactically aware, quick thinking, has vision and an excellent technique. He was sorely missed, not least in the quality of his kicks from set pieces.
This is a season of consolidation for Latics. The squad is probably not strong enough to get into a playoff spot but is certainly good enough to avoid relegation. Were they to finish the season in this current 14th place it would be regarded as a success.
Following the game Paul Cook talked about aiming for consolidation:
“We must remember the criteria for us all is that we are trying to sustain a foothold in the division and along the way we know it is going to be tough. Today was a tough day. We have had a smashing start and we have difficult games coming up that we know could see this run get worse, though the bigger picture for everyone says that we want to sustain our league status this year and people should never forget that.”
Following an awful display at Millwall, where the hoof was the main form of attack, yesterday’s performance was breath of fresh air. The manager selected a balanced lineup and Latics played some very good football at times.
Wigan have had some difficult fixtures of late and injuries have restricted the manager’s team selection.
It is the manager who takes the flak when the players don’t deliver. Cook is never one to blame the players and he rarely gives excuses. He deserves credit for getting Latics into their current position with a third of the season gone.
More additions to the injury list
Gary Roberts’ hamstring pull after 35 minutes signalled the end of the game for him, with Kal Naismith replacing him. He joins Will Grigg, Michael Jacobs and Gavin Massey on the hamstring injury list. It is a worrying trend: fans are asking if it is something associated with the players’ physical preparation. Or is it merely a coincidence?
Nick Powell’s departure with an ankle injury on 66 minutes was particularly worrying. He had to be helped off the field with a man on each side supporting him. If Latics have one player they cannot afford to lose for a long period of time, it is Powell.
Burn and Dunkley have off days
The exclusion of Kipre for Burn was a bold move by Cook, who maybe thought Burn’s experience would be more important on the day. But although Burn and Dunkley played so many games together last season, this was their first pairing as central defenders this season. It showed as they both struggled against the aggression and movement of the home team’s attacks.
But given their lack of game time together this season it was perhaps understandable that they were not the cohesive unit we saw in League 1. Moreover, in his post-match comments Cook alluded to the lack of protection the defence might have received.
Reece James in midfield
Following Callum McManaman’s introduction on 66 minutes for Nick Powell, Cook put Nathan Byrne at right back, pushing Reece James into a midfield holding role. The hapless Callum Connolly had been taken off 8 minutes earlier.
James is a fine all-round footballer and he looked immediately comfortable in that role, making himself available to receive the ball, using it effectively.
Nathan Byrne is back in contention
It has been a difficult season for Byrne, suffering injury problems and not being able to regain the right back position due to the excellent form of Reece James. However, Byrne can still have an important role to play this season.
Byrne made a welcome return against West Bromwich playing on the right wing. He was rested for the Millwall game but brought back to the right wing yesterday. He was arguably Latics outstanding player, linking up well with James and providing the assist for Kal Naismith’s goal. Later in the game he was moved to his more customary position at right back, with James pushed into midfield.
With Gavin Massey due to be out for a long period of time, Byrne will most likely be the main contender for the right wing spot. Moreover, his presence gives Cook the option of bolstering his midfield in the latter stages of games by switching James’ and Byrne’s positions.