Five talking points from the month of May at Wigan Athletic


“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that. A lot of football success is in the mind. You must believe you are the best and then make sure that you are. If you are first you are first. If you are second you are nothing.”

 Bill Shankly’s quote maintains its powerful message. He was not everybody’s favourite and his teams played a pragmatic brand of football, but he was a great motivator and he laid the foundations for Liverpool’s successes in the 1970s  and 1980s.

Paul Cook demonstrated in the 2017-18 season that he too is a powerful motivator. The passion and commitment of his League 1 title-winning team is a testament to that. The ecstasy of the players and the traveling support alike, at winning the League 1 title with a narrow victory at Doncaster, showed what it meant.

As Shankly said: a lot of football success is in the mind. Can Cook can put success in the minds of his players next season? But then again, what kind of squad will the manager command in 2018-19? Can Latics consolidate in the second tier following the mistakes of 2016-17?

Let’s take a look at five talking points with regard to events during this month:

It was a relief to hear that Paul Cook has signed a new four-year contract.

We, on this site, welcomed Cook’s appointment in an article of May 2016.

We remain convinced that he is the right man to lead the club forward. It could be said that with the quality of squad at his disposal, with a playing staff budget around three times the norm in the division, promotion was an expectation. But it was not so much the promotion, but the positive style of play that impressed, with more goals scored than in any season in Latics’ 40 years in league football.

Cook has never managed a club above the third tier and next season will be more of a challenge for him. Moreover, the financial circumstances will be totally reversed. Instead of having one of the biggest staffing budgets in the division, Latics will have one of the smallest.

However, the length of Cook’s new contract suggests that the club will stick with him if the going gets rough in the transition to the Championship. Two relegations in four years happened largely because managers were sacked prematurely and replaced by others whose approaches were not only inept, but who favoured “fightball” rather than football. These lessons of the past need to be heeded.

The takeover is about to happen: at last

There was talk of the takeover by the IEG as early as December, then again in February. But now it really does seem imminent. Reading between the lines of recent documentation it appears that the IEG will provide some level of funding for the playing staff over the summer. That is backed up by media reports that Latics have offered £500,000 for left back Dan Potts of Luton Town.

To gain promotion back to the Championship Wigan had to take a substantial financial loss over the season. With a salary bill of some £10m and revenues less than half of that, David Sharpe supported his manager by retaining a backbone of ex-Championship players on salaries well above League 1 norms. Some have said that promotion was a pre-requisite for the takeover. We can assume that the losses incurred have been priced in to the sum to be paid to the Whelan family by IEG.

IEG will surely be aware that it is going to cost them money just to keep Latics in the Championship. Brentford are a club with similar revenue capabilities to Wigan. Since buying the major shareholding in Brentford in 2012, it is estimated that Matthew Benham has put £100m into the club. Benham hopes for the club to be self-sustainable, but with low attendances and commercial revenues it is a challenge. The aim is for a streamlined recruitment policy to provide a steady stream of revenue with through incoming transfer fees.

Player recruitment at Wigan has been hit-and-miss over recent years, with so many “up and coming” players not making the grade and being dispatched away on loan. However, recruitment last summer was more effective, with seven senior squad players picked up for free and loan players playing key roles over the course of the season. The sale of Omar Bogle in summer raised around £700,000 but undisclosed fees were paid for Devante Cole, James Vaughan and Jamie Walker in the January window.

IEG have indicated that two individuals from the current hierarchy at the club will be staying on in the transition. David Sharpe previously stated that he was hoping to stay on, but nothing has been confirmed at this stage. Garry Cook had been brought in to sell the club and may be departing shortly. The continuance of Chief Executive, Jonathan Jackson, also remains to be confirmed.

The retained list was no surprise

Following the sad news of the departure of Luke Burke from the club, we found out that another four were not being offered new contracts. Donervon Daniels (24) and Reece James (23) were first team regulars in the promotion season of 2015-16, but long-term injuries prevented them appearing in the Championship. Daniels was sent on loan to Rochdale in summer, being recalled in January, but went on to make only one appearance by May. James came back from injury and was playing possibly the best football we had seen from him before he was left out in early March. He did not reappear, although fit. Andy Kellett (24) had had his fair share of injury niggles before being sent on loan to Chesterfield for the season. Sam Stubbs (19) had shown lots of promise in the pre-season, but was sent on loan to Crewe, where he made 3 starts, then to AFC Fylde where he made 6.

At the same time as reporting who had not been offered new contracts, the club announced that five players would be given offers. Of those, Jamie Jones (29) has already signed an extension and it was today announced that David Perkins (36) has been signed by Rochdale. Gary Roberts (34), made 6 league starts and 21 substitute appearances last season. Noel Hunt (35) did not make a league start but made 7 appearances off the bench. Alex Bruce (33) made 4 starts and 2 substitute appearances in the league.

In most football clubs it would raise a red flag to see five players below the age of 25 not offered contract extensions while the same number of players approaching or well over the age of 30, none of whom were first choice starters, being given an opportunity to stay. However, it has been a peculiarity in the tenure of Cook as Latics manager.

But Cook’s admirers will say that the manager built a strong young team, many of whom can serve the club for years to come. More senior players were confined to bench-warming at best but played an important role as squad members.

Knowing the way Cook had deployed his forces during the season it was therefore no surprise to see such a retained list.

We can expect more turnover this summer

It is rumoured that Paul Cook wants 5 or 6 new players for his squad. But his immediate challenge will be to deal with a scenario whereby so many senior players have contracts that end in June 2019. They include regulars Dan Burn, Nathan Byrne, Gavin Massey, Nick Powell and Max Power, together with Ryan Colclough, Jordan Flores, Josh Laurent, Craig Morgan and James Vaughan.

Cook will doubtless want to keep his key players through offering them contract extensions. Much will depend on the willingness of the club ownership to meet increased salary demands and commit to longer contracts. Should the contract extensions not be agreed we can expect those players with significant market value to be departing over the summer. Moreover, we can expect movement from some of the “fringe” players.

Loan players had a significant role over the course of last season and we can expect more to come. Lee Evans was excellent before his departure to Sheffield United in January, but Christian Walton and Callum Elder went on to establish themselves as regular starters. Whether the latter two return to Wigan on permanent contracts depends on the demands made by their parent clubs.

The bottom-line for Cook will be to keep the backbone of his squad together but bringing in new players who genuinely are “up and coming” or who have experience in the top two tiers of English football.

Will a home-grown player come into the reckoning this coming season?

Newspaper reports that Everton were interested in the 19-year-old Callum Lang caused ripples among Latics fans. Lang was a star for Latics at youth level and, after a slow start, managed to make an impact on a season-long loan in a struggling Morecambe team. He is a talented young player who can play as a target man or in the hole just behind the central striker. In League 2 he made 14 starts with 16 substitute appearances, scoring 10 goals.

The departures of both Luke Burke and Sam Stubbs once again highlighted the failure of the club in helping talented youngsters to step up to the plate at senior level. Providing Latics can hold on to Lang, will he have a chance of establishing himself in the senior squad?

Cook already has three central strikers in his senior squad in Devante Cole, Will Grigg and James Vaughan. Potential opportunities for Lang in that position would appear slim.

The future of the academy is something that IEG will need to look at. There has been so much promise over the years, but so many of those young players have fallen by the wayside. Will we ever see another career trajectory like that of Leighton Baines?

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Do we show these teams too much respect?

 

“Rotherham were a tough test for us ahead of the last five games, so it was important for us not to get beat.”

The words of Dan Burn after a disappointing performance.

Prior to this goalless draw at the DW Stadium, Rotherham United had lost their previous three away games, conceding eight goals in the process. But they deserved not to lose yesterday. They packed the midfield, pressing Latics into making mistakes and their big lone striker proved a physical handful for the Wigan defence.

Latics looked pedestrian, plodding along, not the dynamic outfit who had scored nine goals in the previous two games. Passes were misplaced, and the build-up was painfully slow. Although it was their third game in the space of eight days, once again Paul Cook resisted the opportunity to freshen up his pack and stuck with the same starting eleven.

Thanks to a Bristol Rovers goal in the fourth minute of stoppage time, Latics remain on top of League 1, ahead of Blackburn on goal difference. They are in pole position, with a game in hand to Blackburn and five-point buffer ahead of Shrewsbury. Latics have five games left: two at home and three away.

Dan Burn emphasised the importance of not having lost to Rotherham, who remain in fourth place. His comment begs the question as to whether Latics were  focused on not losing more than actually winning.

It was the kind of performance that we have seen before in home games against teams from the top ten. In so many of them Latics have seemed unwilling to fully commit men forward, in fear of counterattack. At the DW they have beaten only one team currently in the top ten and that was a tight 1-0 win over Plymouth, who were bottom of the table at the time. On the other side of the coin, they have only lost one, that being against Blackpool prior to the Manchester City epic. They shared the points in the others, five of those being goalless draws.

The counter-argument is that Latics are the prize scalp in the division and that visiting teams come looking for a draw, doing all they can to dull Wigan’s attacking threat. Most of Latics’ best performances this season have been away from home, where the opposition has had to show more attacking intent. The stats show that Wigan have picked up 44 points from 20 games on the road, compared with 43 points from 21 games at home. Against the top ten teams away from home they have a record of W4 D2 L3, whereas at home it is W1 D7 L1.

Cook’s record last season at Portsmouth against the other teams who finished in the top ten makes interesting reading. Like Wigan their results against their closer rivals were not impressive. Pompey’s home record read W4 D2 L3, whereas on the road it was W4 D1 L4. They  failed to score in two of those home games against top ten opposition.

Yesterday Cook resisted the chance to bring on James Vaughan after half time for the injured Nick Powell, instead introducing Gary Roberts. Vaughan had teamed up with great effect with Will Grigg after coming on at Rochdale but Cook chose the more conservative option by making a like-for-like replacement. Cook was clearly concerned about losing further control in the midfield.

After the game the manager commented that:

“We can’t win every game and steam roll every team, football is not like that. It’s a difficult game and every point towards the end of the season is golden.”

Cook was obviously keen to pick up one point if he could not pick up the three.

Wigan’s performance yesterday and in previous home games against top ten opponents begs the question whether too much respect has been shown to such opposition. But for the moment Latics are in a great position to consolidate their promotion to the Championship division. Cook deserves commendation for helping his team get to such a point with only three weeks of the season remaining.

 

Thanks to Jordan for his revealing analysis on Twitter.

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 – 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 victory over Southend

Courtesy of bbc.co.uk

Result: Wigan Athletic 3 Southend United 0

It was not the most exciting of games, but a three-goal win over a team that was lying in mid-table is not to be sneezed at. Moreover, the three points gained propelled Latics to the top of the table.

A sending-off in the 59th minute certainly helped Wigan cruise to a win, but in reality they were already in control before that. Southend had just never looked like scoring and it seemed that perhaps Latics had an eye towards Tuesday’s trip to Gillingham. Two goals in the last ten minutes proved to be the icing on the cake as Wigan had stepped back to allow the visitors to come forward and leave spaces at the back.

After the match Wigan coach Anthony Barry commented that: “We never really got into top gear and never found our rhythm. It’s day like this where we have to grind out a win and it’s important. It was a competitive game, and Southend came with a good game-plan. While we were never in danger of losing the game, we were never at our best.”

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

Gary Roberts is making his mark

Since his arrival from Portsmouth, Roberts has found it hard to get a place in the starting line-up.  He had been a regular starter over the past four years with Portsmouth and Chesterfield. Roberts is, first and foremost, a creative player although he has already shown his willingness to put in a shift for the team.

His two assists yesterday showed what the player is capable of. His perfectly timed through ball allowed Nick Powell to run from the halfway line to score the second goal. Then a perfectly weighted low cross from the left gave Ivan Toney an easy task to slot the ball home.

Roberts can play in any position in the advanced midfield three. He is best in the centre, but although he lacks pace to play wide his delivery can be accurate and cause difficulty for opposition defences. Roberts scored 19 goals in 58 league starts and 16 substitute appearances for Portsmouth. We can surely expect some from him over the coming months.

Are expectations too high?

Shrewsbury remain unbeaten after 13 league matches, but Latics have overtaken them in the best start the club has had since joining the Football League in 1978. Although not looking on top form yesterday they were streets ahead of Southend. One sensed that if they had reached full throttle they would have put half a dozen in the Shrimpers’ net. But are expectations already too high?

In early April last season Doncaster Rovers had already achieved promotion from League 2 and were 6 points ahead of second placed Plymouth and 10 points ahead of third placed Portsmouth, with just 5 games remaining. Doncaster went on to draw their next match, then lose their final four. They finally finished third.

Anthony Barry remarked after yesterday’s game that “It’s nice to be top of the league but we just need to keep on going. We need to carry on with our habits and discipline in training every day and our standards must stay the same too.”

It is that kind of level-headedness that will serve Latics in their quest for promotion. The dangers of complacency and over-confidence will need to be addressed as the season progresses.

Cook is building for the future

The average age of Wigan’s starting line-up yesterday was 25 years.  The eldest is Jamie Jones, at 28. The youngest are Callum Elder, 22, and Nick Powell, 23.

The squad does have more senior players. David Perkins is 35, Noel Hunt is 34, Alex Bruce and Gary Roberts are 33 and Craig Morgan is 32. Morgan has a two-year contract, the others being signed for a year.

The starting line-ups so far, this season, have been dominated by younger players. Should Latics get promoted they will have a backbone of players in their mid-twenties. It remains to be seen whether Reece James (23) will be offered a new contract or whether Cook will seek to sign loan players, Elder and Lee Evans (23), on permanent contracts. At this stage Christian Walton (21) looks certain to return to Brighton at the end of the season.

Michael Jacobs must surely be set to sign a new contract

Jacobs is, almost certainly, playing the best football of his career this season. He made a welcome return to action yesterday after absence through injury. His pace and creative talent make him a key element in Cook’s team. He is surely thriving under the new management; his confidence being lifted after a frustrating season in the Championship.

Given the importance of the player to the team it would be no surprise to hear that Jacobs has signed a contract extension over the next few days.

Another deflected goal, another sending off

There was an element of good fortune in Jacobs’ first half strike, the ball hitting a defender to deceive the goalkeeper. But given the willingness of players in Cook’s team to shoot it is likely that we will see even more deflected goals over the coming months. Last season confidence was low and players were reluctant to try their luck from outside the box, as Jacobs did yesterday. Not so now.

Much has been said about the four red cards picked up by Latics players so far. The first might have been unlucky, but the other three should have been avoided. On the other side of the coin the opposition have also received a total of four red cards, all for aggressive play rather than retaliation.

Given the attacking style of play that is Cook’s expectation, we are likely to see many more opposition red cards and penalties this season than we saw under the dour regime of Warren Joyce last year.

Nathan Byrne – man of the match

Byrne was outstanding yesterday, the best man on the pitch. He has come so far since being jettisoned off to Charlton in January by the hapless Joyce.

Interestingly the Wigan Athletic club web site lists Byrne as a midfield player. But he has certainly shown us that he can cope admirably with the physical demands of constantly pacing up and down the wings as Cook pushes his full backs forward.

Byrne is certainly not an archetypal full back, but he fits the role that the manager requires. He has played an important role in Latics’ fine start to the season.

 

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