Five talking points following an encouraging finale at West Bromwich

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.

 

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

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The Windass conundrum – can he fit into Paul Cook’s style of play?

 

“Josh wants to be a number nine every game for Rangers and I couldn’t guarantee that. I could guarantee him football matches but maybe in different positions and formations.  Maybe Wigan boss Paul Cook said he could be number nine every week and that may have triggered his decision.”

The words of Rangers manager Steven Gerrard after Josh Windass joined Wigan Athletic on the summer transfer deadline day. The fee was reported to be £2m. That same day Latics paid Ipswich some £1.25m for centre forward Joe Garner. Why did Paul Cook sign both when he already had Will Grigg and James Vaughan competing for the centre forward position?

Cook clearly has a high regard for the 24-year-old Windass, but what were his intentions? Was he signing the Hull-born player as a central striker or one who would poach goals from wide positions?

At the end of last season Cook had three central strikers in the senior squad. Over the summer he opted to send Devante Cole on loan to Burton Albion, leaving Grigg and Vaughan to fight for the position. Cook’s preferred formation involves one central striker, although he will sometimes throw on another in the second half if needs’ be. Garner is a capable and experienced Championship-level central striker and he will compete with Grigg and Vaughan, but where does that leave Windass?

Not surprisingly, given the competition he is facing, Josh Windass has not yet started a game for Latics as a centre forward. He has been confined to the right or left wing. He has made 8 starts, Latics winning 3, drawing 1, losing 4 of those games. He has scored one goal, well taken against Hull City.

Cook’s team last season was characterised by fast and decisive play from the flanks with pacey wingers and full backs pushed far forward. At its best it was exhilarating to watch. Gavin Massey was a key player on the right wing, his pace causing problems for opposing full backs, but his ability to perform the high press and to get back to support his full back underlined his contribution. The loss of Massey through a severe hamstring injury was a bitter pill for Cook to swallow. He had a potential replacement in Callum McManaman, but he too has had injury issues and not been at his best. In the meantime, Cook has used Windass and Michael Jacobs in wide positions, interchanging between right and left.

Windass is not a natural winger. Too often he has looked like a central striker playing wide. But that position is by no means new to him. Rangers had used him there often. Was Gerrard being upfront about Windass’ decision to leave Rangers? The whole thing does not add up.

What we have seen so far of Cook’s preferred style of play has been refreshing. Long-standing Latics fans would have said something similar about Paul Jewell’s football. PJ pulled a masterstroke by converting a centre forward with a low strike record into a left midfielder who was key not only in promotion to the Premier League, but staying there. Big Lee McCulloch was rarely going to beat a defender in his left wing position, but he worked hard in midfield and was a real threat at the far post with his heading ability. Jewell made a pragmatic decision to sacrifice speed on the left wing, for the greater good, McCulloch’s attacking threat in the air adding another dimension. Moreover, in Leighton Baines and Steve McMillan, he had attacking left backs with the ability to cross the ball with their “stronger”  feet.

Cook stuck his neck out with the signing of Josh Windass. His dilemma revolves around how to use the player most effectively for the combined benefit of the team.

Would Windass be effective in that McCulloch role? He is certainly not a right winger but playing on the left provides him with opportunities to cut in for right foot shots. But that is a big part of Michael Jacobs’ game. Jacobs has been a key player for Cook.

Cook surprised us at Preston by replacing an injured Nick Powell with Dan Burn, reverting to a back three. For a manager so passionate about 4-2-3-1 it was a paradigm shift. If he were to persist with such a system, there would be possibilities for twin strikers. Windass and Grigg would provide an interesting pairing. But one senses that Cook’s motivation was to bring Burn back into the fold than anything else. Given the hard times that Antonee Robinson has recently had it would not be a surprise to see Burn appear at left back.

Cook has lots of thinking to do. Does he bring McManaman in to provide pace and balance on the wing or does he keep faith in Windass? Or is he willing to sacrifice 4-2-3-1 to accommodate him as a striker?

Another, if less likely, scenario is at least one central striker leaving in the January transfer window.

The team selection for the game against high flying West Bromwich Albion next weekend will make interesting reading.

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Lang signs new contract – but who will be the next?

The announcement of a new two-year contract for the 19-year-old Callum Lang came at an opportune time. It left Wigan Athletic time to consolidate their investment in a player who has the potential to play in the upper tiers of English football. Lang is to be sent off on loan until January to Oldham Athletic, who were last season relegated to League 2.

It was in mid-May that the media reported that Everton were interested in signing Lang, who was in the Liverpool academy until he joined Latics at the age of 14. He made his Wigan debut in a League Cup game against Blackpool in August 2017 before being loaned to Morecambe for the season.

The 5 ft 11 in tall Lang had a successful loan with the Shrimps, making 14 starts, 16 substitute appearances and scoring 10 goals. Although regarded as a centre forward at Wigan, Lang would often play behind the central striker at Morecambe.

In modern football the majority of the clubs in the top tiers rarely give their young players an extended run in their senior team. The norm is that they are sent on loan to clubs in lower divisions, giving them first team experience in a competitive environment, thereby maximising their value in the transfer market. It is a minority who go back to their parent clubs and establish themselves as first team regulars. So, what are the chances of Lang becoming a major player for Latics?

Wigan Athletic has sadly been a graveyard for young players over recent years. The most recent success story was Leighton Baines and he left for Everton in 2007. So many youngsters have shown promise at youth level and looked destined for higher things, only to depart to clubs in the lower tiers. Latics managers, under pressure for results, have been reluctant to throw youngsters into the fray. But finding suitable loans for young players has never been easy for Wigan.

Last season saw Latics sending six homegrown youngsters on loan to non-league clubs. Three of those have since left the club. Sam Stubbs went to Crewe Alexandra until January, then to AFC Fylde. He too has departed the club. On the club website Callum Lang is listed with the development squad, but the 16-year-old Joe Gelhardt listed with the senior squad.  Gelhardt is clearly a bright young talent, already on the radar with big Premier League clubs.

Providing Gelhardt is not snapped up can we seriously expect him to contend for a place in the senior team? Admittedly, he came on as a substitute in the League Cup defeat at Rotherham, but would Cook even think of giving him an opportunity in a league game?

Lang clearly benefitted from his time in League 2, playing at a club that was struggling to avoid relegation. At the time it was at a level just one tier below where Latics were. Should he make a success in the first half of the season at Oldham, could he contend for a first team place at Wigan in January?

Latics currently have four centre forwards in their senior squad. Given that one is likely to leave there would remain three who would be above Lang in the pecking order. If Lang were to become a candidate for the number 10 role he would compete with Nick Powell, Gary Roberts and possibly Jamie Walker. The probability is that Lang would be sent off on loan again in January.

Given that Lang has been offered an extended contract, what will happen with the senior squad players whose current deals expire next summer? They include Nathan Byrne, Gavin Massey, Shaun MacDonald, Sam Morsy, Nick Powell and James Vaughan. Having already lost Dan Burn in the last year of his contract, can we expect more departures via the loan-to-buy route? Why are the futures of these players still left hanging?

Some fans will cite the change in the ownership as the main issue involved in the contract renewals, but it could amount to more than that. There is a possibility that at least one of those players will leave in the next couple of weeks, together with loans and loan-to-buy deals for those on longer contracts. Cook’s squad is currently unbalanced with a wealth of midfielders and forwards, but a lack of experienced defenders. He can be expected to rebalance the squad.

On the other hand, Will Grigg and Michael Jacobs were in a similar position this time last year. Both went on to sign contracts to bind them to the club until summer 2020, Grigg’s deal being announced in early September and Jacobs’ in mid-October 2017.

Offering Callum Lang, a new contract was a good move by the club. We can only hope they can be equally judicious in their dealings with those key senior squad players whose contracts are winding down.

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Five talking points arising from the Sheffield Wednesday game

Wigan Athletic 3 Sheffield Wednesday 2

Wigan Athletic rarely start the season with a victory, but this one was an exception. Not only did Latics pick up the three points, but they did it in style.

There were concerns about the back four, with three debutants starting alongside Chey Dunkley. Other than that Paul Cook had kept faith in the players who had performed with success last season, with the exception of Darron Gibson who was preferred to Max Power.

Entertainment returns to the DW Stadium

After last season when so many teams tried to “park the bus” at the DW this was refreshing. Wednesday had come to play an attacking game and Wigan more than matched them.

Latics had been 3-1 up when the Argentinian, Fernando Forestieri, finished off a slick move in the 67th minute. But rather than close the game down by packing their defence Latics continued to attack. There were some nervy moments for the Wigan defence with the 6 ft 3 in Wednesday substitute Lucas Joao causing problems after he joined the combative 6 ft 5 in Kosovan battering-ram Atdhe Nuhui up front. But at the other end Latics’ enterprising football caused constant problems for the Sheffield defence.

As the clock counted down one wondered whether we would see Cook’s team hold the ball in the corners, time-waste and keep possession in the manner that is so prevalent in the modern game. But to the manager’s great credit they did not do that, but continued to hone in on the Wednesday goal at every opportunity.

How many managers are there in the modern game who would do that?

Gibson silences his critics

Darron Gibson has had a frustrating career after starting at a young age for Manchester United. Niggling injuries and off the field issues have led to him not being able to realize his full potential. He had his critics among Latics fans even before he signed a short term contract with the club. But yesterday he surely silenced his critics.

The 30 year old played a key role in holding midfield, his vision and the precision of his passing adding an extra dimension to Latics’ play.

Jacobs and Massey excel

Michael Jacobs scored two opportunist goals, hit the woodwork with a cracking shot and played a key role in the third goal. Moreover he worked hard on the defensive side of his game, tireless in his harrying of the opposition.

There have been questions about the player’s ability to truly succeed in the second tier.  He was not an automatic choice at Derby or Wolves.  Although he was one of the first names on the team sheet under Gary Caldwell and Warren Joyce he struggled to dominate Championship defences in the 2016-17 season. But so often under Joyce he was chained to defensive duties at the expense of his attacking forte.

Yesterday he played at probably his highest level since he has been at Wigan. His intelligent movement and ability to find space made him a constant threat to the visiting defence. When he came on after the interval he received a great ovation from the crowd in the east stand following a sparkling first half. He looked like a player on a mission to show us that he can be a force in the Championship division. He went a long way towards proving that yesterday.

Gavin Massey too has had his doubters, but yesterday he looked a class act, showing blistering pace and a fine touch on the ball. Perhaps the second tier will be more to his liking, away from the up and tumble of League 1?

Two Dunkleys in defence?

The signing of Cedric Kipre from Motherwell was a surprise to most of us who had never heard of him before. On first sight some wag in the crowd suggested we have two Chey Dunkleys playing, likening the two players not only in their physique, but in their rugged defending. Another likened him to Arouna Kone who sported a similar hair style.

When Dunkley was signed from Oxford United he had only played one full season in league football. Dunkley proved himself to be a very capable player at League 1 level, although there were questions as to how he would cope in a higher division. He had a fine game yesterday dealing with Nuhui who has been a thorn in the side for previous Latics teams.

Kipre too has only had one season of league football, that being in the SPL.  But he looked a force to be reckoned with yesterday, with not only an imposing physique, but pace to match.

Is Dan Burn leaving?

The signing of Kipre raised concerns among fans that Dan Burn might be leaving. This was backed up today by reports suggesting that Brighton have offered £3m for him.

Once again it may be mere speculation but Latics fans will be hoping there is no truth in it. Burn is a prize asset with a wealth of experience in the Championship, a key player in Cook’s team.

However, Burn is not the only one who could be gone in the coming week, with the club still having not tied down contracts with so many of its top players.

The uplifting start to the season could soon fall flat if Burn or other such pivotal players depart. But we have become accustomed to the wheeler-dealing that happens as the transfer deadline approaches. If one of more of those players does leave we can surely expect more new arrivals.

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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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