Five talking points as pressure mounts on Cook after Reading defeat

Reading 3 Wigan Athletic 2

For the first 78 minutes it looked like the Wigan Athletic we took pride in watching in late summer. That positive attacking approach had returned with Nick Powell orchestrating from midfield and the home defence being stretched by Wigan’s nimble wide men. With Latics 2-1 ahead Reading goalkeeper Martinez made an outstanding point blank save from Nick Powell when a goal had looked certain. But Latics took off the tiring Massey and Powell after 73 and 78 minutes and the game swung back in Reading’s favour.

Following the last minute defeat the social media and message boards were awash with fans voicing their frustration with the manager’s substitutions and his tactical nous.

For his part Paul Cook commented: “I wanted a reaction from the players, I wanted us to find the identity which we had last year and at the start of this season and, to be fair, I thought the lads were excellent today – probably as good as we have played for a long, long time…It was a big game; I wanted to make sure we turned up and did we turn up? Yes, I thought we did. Our big players, did they play well? I thought they were excellent all over the pitch. Tactics, formations, that hasn’t influenced the game today – we were excellent but unfortunately we haven’t managed to get the result”

Let’s take a look at some points arising:

Cook chooses an attacking starting lineup

So often this season the starting lineup has given us a pretty good idea of what to expect. It was certainly the case in this match with the manager reuniting the trio of Michael Jacobs, Gavin Massey and Nick Powell who had been behind so much of the good football that has surfaced during the manager’s tenure. Moreover, he had benched the ineffective Leon Clarke for Joe Garner and, at last, brought in his specialist left back Antonee Robinson. He also brought experience into the centre of defence in a potentially tense encounter by bringing in Jonas Olsson for Cedric Kipre.

The starting lineup gave us promise that we could expect good football, far apart from the hoofball/scrapball approach we have seen so often in away games. To be fair to the manager it was the first time since August that Jacobs, Massey and Powell had all been fit enough to be included as a trio in the starting lineup. If they had not suffered from those long-term injuries Latics would surely not have been locked in a relegation battle at this point of the season.

Fitness issues were always going to weigh heavy

Cook certainly got his starting lineup right but there was going to come a time in the game when he would have to take off some of his key players. The question was who would it be and how many would he have to substitute?

Olsson had not played competitive football since December. Robinson’s last game was on November 10, but he had been back in contention for a matter of weeks and it had been a surprise that Cook had not given him any game time before this match. Given previous injuries to his attacking trio Cook would need to be careful not to risk more problems by overextending the members that attacking trio.

Cook’s substitutions handed the initiative to Reading

The manager knew beforehand that he would have to make substitutions at some stage and had the time to draw up contingency plans. His challenge was to be how he could make the substitutions yet maintain the positive momentum built up by his starting lineup.

In the event Cook replaced Massey with Kal Naismith and Powell with Leon Clarke. His substitutions wrecked the 4-2-3-1 shape that had been working so well and destroyed that momentum. Naismith was like a duck out of water on the right wing. Clarke was simply ineffective and his presence invited long balls from defenders with possession being squandered.

Cook shot himself in the foot with the comment  that “Tactics, formations, that hasn’t influenced the game today” after seeing how his substitutions saw a change from flowing football to the fightball approach that has reared its ugly head far too often.

Another game decided by fine margins

Despite the manager’s ineffective substitutions Latics could still have come away with points had “luck” favoured them a little more. If Powell’s shot had not been somehow blocked by Martinez Wigan would have had a two goal cushion and Reading’s morale would have taken a severe hit.

Reading’s second goal was certainly controversial with the home team on the edge of unsporting behaviour after the referee had dropped the ball to Sam Morsy. The result was a lack of midfield cover with Reece James off the pitch and Morsy marooned on the half way line. Barrow ran through unmarked to hit the type of  long-range shot that can beat Jamie Jones. The winning goal in the 97th minute was scored after Olsson had been jostled to the ground in the penalty box as the set piece was launched. Reading had been putting constant pressure on the referee, as do so many teams in this division.

A manager under pressure

The calls for Cook to be replaced have intensified. Although we on this site have previously advocated that he be given more time the worry is that the manager just does not seem to be learning from his mistakes with his team selections, substitutions and tactical approach.

Darren Royle and IEC have been supportive up to this point but are they willing to continue to back a manager and backroom staff that could take the club back to League 1?

If Cook were to go would the highly experienced Peter Reid or Joe Royle take temporary control? Or would a snap appointment be brought in from the outside?

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

Five talking points after an opportunity missed at Derby

Derby County 2 Wigan Athletic 1

It had been one of Wigan’s better away performances: a goal up after 25 minutes following a superb counterattack, the home team not looking like they were going to score. Then after 62 minutes Derby substitute Mason Bennett scored a truly spectacular goal that radically changed the game. Wigan’s fragile confidence was severely dented to such an extent that it was no great surprise that the home team scored again 16 minutes later with the Wigan defence all at sea.

Following the game Paul Cook commented: “At one stage, the whole picture looked great for us but unfortunately the picture changed completely. For long periods in the second-half, I thought we were going to score again – I thought we were getting in the right areas but the disappointing thing was Massey and Jacobs tired badly – as to be expected – and we are having to make substitutions. There are no excuses, though, we are at a good level of football and you have got to have something about you to see games out and unfortunately we haven’t been able to do that.”

Let’s look at some points arising:

An opportunity missed

On paper Derby had a stronger lineup than Wigan. Even without players of the quality of Tom Lawrence and Mason Mount they had enough talent to ask questions about a suspect Latics defence. Nevertheless, Derby came into this game after three consecutive league defeats and their play had been fraught with errors. With the home team so nervy and with Latics a goal up going into the interval it was an opportunity for a rare Wigan away win.

Wigan had been unfortunate to be deprived of the experienced and influential Danny Fox through injury after 33 minutes. Would the defence be able to withstand the Derby pressure in his absence? Mason Bennett is by no means a prolific scorer with a record of 6 goals in 90 league appearances. Latics can certainly count themselves unfortunate to have conceded a goal to Bennett that some might label a touch of genius; others might say it was a fluke. Wigan had their chances to win the game, but did not convert them, Leon Clarke being the principal offender in that respect.

In his post-match comments Cook told us he had expected Jacobs and Massey to tire.  Their pace and movement had reminded us of the tempo with which Latics had played early in the season. Both had been sadly missed but their presence could still prove crucial to Latics avoiding relegation. But knowing that both were going to be unable to complete the 90 minutes the manager did not have another winger on the bench to replace them. Kal Naismith had come on at full back for Fox and neither Callum McManaman nor Anthony Pilkington were on the bench.

With the squad that Cook has at his disposal Latics are always going to be hard pressed to get a result against a team in the promotion race or one that is at the top of their form. But this is not the first occasion that they have been unable to beat teams that have been nervy and short of confidence following a bad run of results. It started in early October when they lost 4-0 to a Preston side which had been at low ebb. They just have not been able to capitalize on the opportunities presented to them since then.

Tactics and team selection

Having had some success with a back five in the previous outing it was a surprise that Cook ditched it, although it could be argued that his game-plan was working with Latics a goal up. Despite having one of his better displays against Middlesbrough Naismith was taken off after 60 minutes and found himself on the bench at Pride Park.  It can scarcely have helped the player’s confidence and he was not at his best in this match.

Having decided on a flat back four this time around, Cook retained his midfield trio of Reece James, Lee Evans and Sam Morsy. James did well but Evans and Morsy were distinctly below par. Evans in particular looked lost in his role in right midfield.

With a prior background in the lower leagues Cook has struggled with the tactical side of the game in the Championship. It scarcely helps that his assistant manager and first team coach come from similar backgrounds.  With a relatively low budget squad he has to get the best out of the players at his disposal if the team is to compete and avoid relegation. He also needs to adjust his tactical approach according to the opposition he faces.

Last season’s success was based on a 4-2-3-1 system, with a long-ball approach to 4-4-2 being the Plan B. Latics started this season successfully with 4-2-3-1, but injuries to Jacobs and Massey cut its effectiveness. Cook received some criticism for his tactics against Middlesbrough, packing the central midfield and using a backline of three central defenders, but a point was gained against a top team. Given the goals given away by a shaky defence over recent months it was a surprise that the manager had not employed such a shape in his previous starting lineups, particularly away from home.

Set pieces

Latics’ set piece plays have been so disappointing this season. Lee Evans used to be the main taker of corners and free kicks but Reece James has since taken over most of those duties. The centre backs still have not scored a goal, despite the number of opportunities they have had. Nick Powell’s enforced absence from injury has surely had an effect since he is probably the best header of a ball in set-piece situations.

A goal from a set piece is long overdue. Will it come at Reading on Saturday?

Rays of hope

Although the result did not go Wigan’s way there were some rays of hope emanating from the performance. The sight of Jacobs and Massey running at defences at pace from wide positions was most welcome, as was another short appearance for Nick Powell.

Cook now has to decide how to approach the game at Reading. Will he continue with the ineffective Clarke at centre forward or will he opt for Joe Garner or even Powell in that position? One can only hope he will start with Jacobs, Massey and Powell and that Latics will go in with a positive approach. Should they get an early lead there remains the possibility of reverting to a back three/five later in the game, as the trio tires, with Jonas Olsson coming in off the bench.

Looking forward to next season

Should Latics manage to avoid relegation – which is far from certain at this moment – will Cook and his backroom team be in charge next season? The manager has been fortunate to have kept his job given the indifferent performances and results over these months. Should relegation occur then Cook’s experience in the lower divisions would prove useful. Should Latics stay up will Darren Royle continue to back Cook in the hope that he has learned from his mistakes this season?

Latics started the season with a considerable number of players who had not played at championship level before. They too will have benefited from the experience, tough though it might have been.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

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

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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