A big step towards automatic promotion – Gillingham (H) match reaction & highlights

 

“This can give us belief, though, and we can kick on from here

So commented Gary Caldwell after Craig Morgan’s 96th minute header had given Wigan Athletic a crucial victory over promotion rivals Gillingham. Despite the victory Latics remain in 5th place, but they are now only 6 points behind the 2nd place Gills, with a game in hand. Automatic promotion is now looking a distinct possibility.

The visit of the high flying Gills was never going to be easy for Latics, who had not beaten any of the teams above them up to that point. For most of the game Gillingham played with the confidence one could expect from a team in their position. They were well organised in defence and purposeful in attack. In contrast Latics looked pale and disjointed. However, after Gillingham went two up on the 53rd minute mark one wondered if that fighting spirit that Caldwell’s new era Latics has shown over the course of recent months would resurface. It certainly did, but it was aided by a couple of defensive errors from the visitors to seal the game for Wigan.

Caldwell decided to return to a formation that could be labelled 3-4-3, but was more precisely 3-4-2-1. He recalled Leon Barnett to play in a backline of three, with Craig Morgan and Jason Pearce. Donervon Daniels and Reece James were the wing backs, with Max Power and David Perkins in holding midfield. Will Grigg was the lone striker with Michael Jacobs and Andy Kellett in “number 10” roles between him and holding midfield.

Latics started cautiously in a scrappy first half that did not reflect well on the standards of League 1 football. Over the past decade or so at Wigan we have got used to watching players of high technical ability on the pitch, but there was not so much evidence of that last night. Gillingham manager, Justin Edinburgh, has done a fine job in building a promotion-challenging squad on a budget of around £2m. The whole has been more than the sum of its parts for the Gills this season, whereas the same could not be said for Caldwell’s Latics with a budget four to five times as big. Too often in the first half Wigan players would misplace their passes. Grigg was left in a truly lone striker role, with Latics rarely throwing enough players in the opposition penalty box. The wing backs were not pushing up and central midfield was too static.

Gillingham playmaker Bradley Dack hit the inside of the post with a superb free kick after 14 minutes as Latics just could not get coherence into their play. But Latics kept plugging away and Pearce should have scored from Perkins’ cross instead of poking a weak shot at the Gills keeper Stuart Nelson from close range. The ball had fallen to Pearce’s weaker right foot.

But it came as no surprise when in the 25th minute Dominick Samuel’s pace took him past Pearce and his shot beat Jussi Jaaskelainen at his near post. Despite still not playing well, Latics continued to plug away. Jacobs had a shot saved by Nelson, then Kellett found himself unmarked at the far post from a corner but put his header woefully wide. Soon after it looked like Jacobs was going to score, latching on to a low cross from Daniels, but he could not make the necessary contact and another chance went begging. Latics went off at half time a goal behind after not playing well, but if they had taken their chances they would have been ahead.

One wondered if Wigan would step up their efforts in the second half, but their performance in the opening minutes was worse than what we had seen in the first half. Gillingham were attacking with purpose and Latics just could not string their passes together. On 53 minutes Rory Donnelly headed home an inswinging cross from the right, too easily evading his marker Daniels. Caldwell immediately responded by bringing on Chris McCann to replace James at left wing back and Jordy Hiwula for Kellett. The shape moved to 3-4-1-2, with Hiwula partnering Grigg upfront.

With the extra forward in place Latics looked more dangerous in attack and within a quarter of an hour Hiwula’s cross from the left was nodded back by Jacobs at the far post for Grigg to force home with his left foot. The goal breathed life into Latics and they started playing with more confidence. Three minutes later a speculative long range shot from Power found the net due to awful handling by the Gills’ goalkeeper Nelson. Latics were back into the match at 2-2 with 23 minutes of normal time remaining. They were getting on top, although Gillingham continued to threaten the Wigan goal at times. Somehow 6 additional minutes were added on. Craig Davies was brought on in the first of those minutes as Latics launched long balls up front. They went on to score in that final minute when Gillingham left Craig Morgan unmarked from a corner which he headed home.

The Good

Once again Latics showed the fighting spirit needed to get back into a game that looked lost. Caldwell’s substitutions were to prove effective. McCann made surging runs through the opposition defence in a way in which James had previously been unable. Hiwula added an extra attacking threat in partnership with Grigg.

The win over Gillingham has not only helped narrow the gap between Latics and the teams above them, but it will boost confidence. It is the “belief” to which Caldwell was referring that is the key to a serious challenge for an automatic promotion place. The next step is to pick up three more points in the home tie against Sheffield United next Tuesday.

The Bad

As in previous games where Latics have come back with a late rally the questions are once again being asked about Caldwell’s tactics. The 3-4-2-1 system that he employed is surely better suited to playing away from home. In the first two thirds of the game Latics looked lightweight up front, with insufficient attacking intent. It was only when Caldwell brought on another forward and switched to 3-4-1-2 that Latics posed a more consistent attacking threat.

Once again we saw a hesitant, nervy start with Latics seeming to treat the Gills with too much respect. Is it a lack of confidence that underlies this trend? Or is it tactical?

In a post-match interview captain Craig Morgan acknowledged that the team’s version of possession football might not go down too well with the fans, but intimated that it pays dividends later in the game as opponents tire after chasing after the ball so long. Gillingham certainly wilted in the closing minutes, possibly paying the price for disrupting Wigan’s game by high pressing. Or was it psychological in that their goalkeeper had let Latics back into a game that they thought they had all but won?

The debates will continue not only as to whether Caldwell should play with twin strikers, but also whether the emphasis needs to be changed from a slow, methodical approach towards a more direct and dynamic style.

 

Three home games towards automatic promotion

Three successive away games is a bit of a rarity in League 1. But if it were to happen to a team and they collected 7 points from those encounters, their fans could be expected to be pleased. But there is a nervousness among Wigan Athletic fans, as Gary Caldwell’s team seeks automatic promotion.

Latics have collected those 7 points playing in less than ideal weather conditions on tight pitches, hardly an ideal scenario for a club that prides itself in playing football “The Wigan Way”. Earlier in the season Latics were strong at home, but away performances had left much to be desired. Since then consecutive defeats by Burton Albion and Blackpool were to shatter an unbeaten home record. But on the road Latics have really improved their results, with 5 draws and 4 wins coming out of the last 9 away games.

The 2-0 win at Barnsley was achieved on a pitch that is 5 yards shorter than that of the DW Stadium. According to the Football Ground Guide  the pitch at Oakwell is 110 yards long and 75 yards wide, compared with Wigan’s at 115 x 74. Fleetwood’s pitch measures 112 x 74, Scunthorpe’s 111 x 73.

But the smallest pitch Latics have played on this season was that of Roots Hall, where Latics played out a goalless draw with Southend United. The conditions that day had made good football very difficult. Latics had to grit their teeth and grind out a result against a team keen to overcome them. Given the conditions it was no surprise that Latics’ goal threat had come largely through set pieces, with Leon Barnett going close on three occasions.

Latics have clearly had to modify their approach away from home. They have tightened up defensively, conceding 8 goals in those last nine games, after allowing 9 in their first four. The recent performances on the road would be more aptly labelled “professional” rather than “free-flowing”.

The professional performance at Scunthorpe on Saturday was enough to claim a point. But with three of the four teams above them winning, it produced more anxiety for fans who saw the gap between Latics and the teams in the automatic promotion places widen to 9 points. However, with teams below them not getting good results the gap between Latics top six and Southend at the head of the teams outside the playoff zone widened to 4 points.

A tally of 17 points from 9 away games signifies that Wigan Athletic are genuine contenders for an automatic promotion place. But in contrast with earlier in the season it has been their home form that has been letting Latics down. After mediocre 1-0 victories against lowly Swindon and Shrewsbury they were beaten 1-0 by Burton Albion in a game where the result could have gone either way. That was followed by an abject 1-0 defeat by Blackpool.

Caldwell’s team have certainly learned how to graft and painstakingly grind out results away from the DW. But they need to find a more pragmatic approach at home. So many teams will come to “park the bus”, looking for goals on the break or through set pieces.

Over the past couple of months Latics have relied heavily on Yanic Wildschut for inspiration, but he has gone back to Middlesbrough, at least for the time being. However, Caldwell will be buoyed by the return to form of Michael Jacobs, now back in his best role, just behind the central striker. But other than Jacobs, who else can provide those moments of quality and the kind of spark offered by Wildschut?

Playing in an advanced midfield role, Andy Kellett has provided some memorable moments of skill in recent games, with well taken goals at Barnsley and Fleetwood. Kellett will most likely keep his place against Gillingham with Caldwell operating a 3-4-3 formation with Kellett and Jacobs operating behind Will Grigg. However, both Craig Davies and Haris Vuckic, each of whom can offer something special are waiting for their opportunity.

It is a mystery why Davies has not been used more since his return to fitness. Caldwell’s preference for a lone centre forward in the starting lineup is a major factor, but Alex Revell seemed to have jumped over Davies in the pecking order prior to his return to Cardiff. Then on Saturday, Jordy Hiwula was brought off the bench in preference to him. Admittedly Hiwula is a different type of player, lacking the physical power of Davies, but with an excellent strike record of 6 goals in his 7 starts and 5 substitute experiences.

Vuckic has practically disappeared off the radar. He was on the bench at Fleetwood, but was left out completely against Scunthorpe. Vuckic is exactly the kind of player to fit into the kind of role currently occupied by Andy Kellett.

Caldwell simply has not got the best out of Davies or Vuckic, although injuries have not helped. However, there is lots of time left this season for that to happen.

Gillingham on Thursday is the first of three consecutive home games, being followed by Sheffield United on the Tuesday and Chesterfield the next weekend. With such a gap between Latics and the teams in the automatic promotion positions these games take on extra importance.

The word “massive” is wildly overused in football circles when describing upcoming games. But it comes close to describing the Gillingham match as far as automatic promotion is concerned, with the Kent club currently in second place. Moreover a win over the Gills, followed by successive victories over Sheffield United and Chesterfield, would put pressure on those clubs above Latics who fear their ascendency.

The results in the next three matches will provide a barometer reading for Wigan Athletic’s chances of automatic promotion. The gap between Latics and the teams above them needs to be narrowed – better sooner than later.