Getting the right balance in an unforgiving league

It’s an unforgiving league” is a phrase that Paul Cook has frequently used over the course of the 2018-19 EFL Championship season. It is one which Wigan Athletic fans will hope he will not be using after this week’s encounters with neighbours, Blackburn and Bolton.

Compared with League 1 the Championship is more unforgiving. Mistakes are more likely to be punished playing against teams with higher quality players and managers who are more tactically aware.

Last season Latics had a wage budget in excess of £12 m compared with a League 1 average closer to £3 m. Rival team managers would have been so often justified if they had called last season’s Wigan team “unforgiving”.  Put simply, Latics had higher quality players on higher salaries than any other team in the division bar Blackburn Rovers. Even when not playing particularly well they had a solid defence and the kinds of players in midfield and up front who could produce something special when things were not going so well.

The boot this season has been on the other foot. Wigan’s wage budget is modest for a division in which the clubs with the lower budgets typically occupy the lower parts of the table. That Latics are competing with clubs with similarly modest budgets like Bolton, Ipswich, Millwall and Rotherham to avoid relegation comes as no surprise.

But clubs can punch above their weight as Latics proved in the most emphatic way during their time in the Premier League. Despite a modest budget by Premier League standards they stayed in the division for eight years, reaching the League Cup Final and winning the FA Cup. During those eight years they recorded victories over those giant elite clubs that dominate that division.

Wigan Athletic were punching above their weight in the early stages of the current season. Although rather suspect in defence they were playing a brand of “no fear” attacking football, built upon the momentum of winning the League 1 title. Cook had continued to use the 4-2-3-1 formation that had brought success in League 1.

However, Gavin Massey’s injury at QPR at the end of August was a blow to Cook’s style of play. Moreover an injury to Michael Jacobs meant that both first choice wingers were unavailable for the next game at home to Rotherham.  Callum Connolly was drafted in on the right for Massey and Josh Windass for Jacobs. It was a dour game with Rotherham “parking the bus”. Both Nick Powell and Will Grigg were taken off after 60 minutes and a skillful passing approach gave way to a speculative long-ball scenario.

Jacobs returned in place of Connolly for the next game, a 1-0 win over Rotherham and played a part in victories over Hull and Bristol City. But an injury sustained in a 4-0 defeat at Preston in early October saw him out of action until mid-January.

In the absence of specialist wingers Massey and Jacobs for periods of months Cook could have been expected to use the speed and trickery of Callum McManaman, but his initial preference was to play such as Windass and Connolly out of position. He later employed the 34 year old Gary Roberts in wide positions. McManaman continued to be snubbed. The result was a lack of pace and cutting edge from the flanks. The manager’s problems were further exacerbated by the absence of the midfield playmaker Nick Powell through injury from the end of November to the middle of February. In the absence of Jacobs, Massey and Powell the quality of football plummeted, especially in away games with the “hoof” being far too prominent.

Cook now has the trio back at his disposal, but must be careful not to overuse them and risk injury. On Saturday at Reading the quality of football once again plummeted when Massey and Powell left the field, Wigan unable to retain possession, conceding late goals.  With Anthony Pilkington not on the bench Cook brought on Kal Naismith to replace Massey. Leon Clarke replaced Powell.

Cook’s substitutions on Saturday were ill-thought and allowed Reading back into the game. Rather than allow Reading to come forward and have speedy players ready to launch counterattacks he chose to put on a big centre forward and play a version of 4-4-2. The more obvious replacement for Powell was Josh Windass who has been used in the number 10 role before and has pace. Naismith was the obvious substitute for Massey, but rather than play him in his natural role on the left and switching Jacobs across the right the manager chose to play the Scot in a position where he looked out of his depth.

Cook will surely name the trio of Jacobs, Massey and Powell in his starting lineup at Blackburn tomorrow, providing they are fit. However, one can only hope that he can make better contingency plans for substitutions as they tire. Putting Clarke and Garner up front late in the game might be a valid tactic if Latics are behind, but it is not the way to protect a one goal lead. If Latics do get ahead against Blackburn he should either stick to a successful formula – usually 4-2-3-1 – and avoid that 4-4-2 long ball approach like the plague. An alternative on Saturday would have been to bring Cedric Kipre off the bench to play in a back three, with Nathan Byrne and Antonee Robinson moving to wing back roles. It could have provided extra defensive cover whilst bolstering the midfield.

That trio of Jacobs, Massey and Powell are crucial for Wigan’s survival in the Championship. An injury to either one would be a hammer-blow. Cook will have to be careful of not pushing them too hard given their recoveries from injury. That means that he will need to be proactive, rather than reactive, in keeping the team balanced if one or more of them is not on the pitch. Above all that hoofball approach that cedes possession to the opposition needs to be avoided.

We can only hope that the manager has learned from the mistakes he has made this season and will open his kind to more insightful approaches. Might he even consider McManaman as a possible stand-in for Jacobs or Massey?

Advertisements

Reactions on the social media to Latics’ defeat at Forest

Nottingham Forest 3 Wigan Athletic 1

 

The goals were scored by well-hit long-range shots. Unfortunately three were in favour of Forest. Josh Windass’ first half equaliser was not enough as once again Wigan caved in the second half. Hoofball prevailed and Latics now have just 5 points from their 15 away games. It is crisis time and relegation is looming.

After the game Paul Cook commented: “…. I’m looking at each and every one of my players and wondering whether they can give me any more – I’m not so sure they can do. They kept going for the full 90 minutes, but the mistakes we’re making are just repetitive ones, the same ones.”

Are Wigan Athletic good enough to stay up? Is their current plight due to a lack of quality and depth in the squad or inept management from Cook? Or is it both?

It is our norm to write a “Five Talking Points” reaction following a match. But that would mean going over things we have written before. In order to get a broader view than our own we trawled the social media and message boards, attempting to achieve some balance, by no means easy as emotions come into play.

Our overview is that Latics have a low wage budget for the Championship division and it does not look like things will change with the new ownership. They will struggle away from home to mid-table teams such as Forest, whose wage bill is at least double that of Wigan’s. However, with good management Latics can punch above their weight as they did for so many years in the Premier League. The FA Cup win was the prime example of that.

Paul Cook is a lucky man to still be in the job. But it is his first season as a Championship manager and his squad needs strengthening. At times the football we have seen has been no better than some of us saw in the pre-1978 era. But at other times, when the tactics are right and the players diligently follow them, Latics can beat top teams in the division, at home at least.

We continue to advocate for Cook staying on but he continues to frustrate in terms of team selection and tactics. Although the manager carries the can for poor results the players too must shoulder some burden. The physical effort is there for all to see there are too few who are willing to stick their necks out and not take the easy option of a pass backwards or a hoof forward. But Cook has marginalised too many players who have talent, stubbornly keeping faith in his chosen ones who are not delivering.

Our thanks go to the Cockney Latic Forum, the Vital Wigan – Latics Speyk Forum, The Boulevard of Broken Dreams on Facebook, and also Twitter for providing the media for the posts below to happen. Thanks go to all whose contributions are identified below.

True Believer on Latics Speyk commented:

I will repeat what I said last week. We are still six points clear of the drop and the teams below us are as incapable of getting a win as we are, I know it is not what we want football wise but the reality is that we are still in the driving seat. I really cannot see Ipswich and Bolton reversing their form and I hope that we can pull off a result against Rotherham to pull us clear. We have just ticked another game off and with just seventeen games left I really don’t see the teams below us winning two games more than us. Survival was the aim for this season and is still in our grasp.

It was still a sh.t result today though.

SH on the Cockney Latic Forum commented:

Our form is indefensible.

It’s a red herring blaming injuries. Our style of play away from home is unrecognisable. Today the back four hit it long at the first opportunity. Not direct play, aimless play.

Windass and Garner started to form some understanding against Villa with nice link-up play. But Cook continues to shake things up and we end up looking like strangers on the field. Windass and Vaughan never once looked to play each other in, they operated like lone strikers, chasing down long-balls, isolated.

Same can be said for midfield, not that they had much to do today, with the ball flying over their heads. Morsy and Evans should always be paired up. Ideally allowing the former to drive upto the edge of the box and help out in attack. On the right Byrne is wasted, outmuscled, and lacks guile. Stick him in his familiar right-back role and push James into midfield. At least when Pilkington and Massey are unavailable.

This long-ball crap away from home has been going on since October. No one can explain why Cook persists with it. Well, some try, but our points return says it all. And for those hanging onto that 6pt gap to the relegation spots. Let’s focus on ourselves and up expectations. I want us as a club to fulfill our potential and not target one place better than the three worst sides in the division. We all know many clubs in this division have greater resources. But 2pts from 39, away from home, shows we are massively underperforming.

C_Latic on Latics Speyk commented:

The Jones experiment was fun while it lasted, Walton back in for QPR please.

Recruitment team can be blamed for that loss, two goals coming from our LB’s defensive unawareness. Of course if they’d signed a LB that could have been prevented.

Oh and I’m certainly not Grigg’s biggest fan but let’s just allow it to sink in that we’re about it sell him in favour of Vaughan and Garner! Both attempting to outdo each other with how big a sitter each can miss.

Fair play to Jacobs, best player on the pitch, James and Windass not bad either, rest are awful. Dunkley awful long ball passes aside was alright as well, unlike Kipre he actually wins his aerial battles.

 Oi on the Cockney Latic Forum said:

Shame on cooky for not sticking to his word at the beginning of the season. These tactics he’s employing at the moment are awful. I fear we will not win another game this season of cook is allowed to carry on with these tactics. Is it just me or is Gibson one of the worst midfielders we have ever had. How can our defenders “pass” the ball out more than our midfielder. I hate to say it as I really do rate Cook, but I think he has lost his mind with this shite football. Maybe time for management change?

Dave Carter on The Boulevard of Broken Dreams commented:

With five days left till the window shuts, it’s looking likely that there will be no significant money spent. It’s also looking likely that any change of manager will come in May, if that’s the case. Large amounts spent in the next few days will probably mean that Cook’s here for a while. None, or very little, that he’s just keeping the seat warm.

Mr Brownbill on the Cockney Latic Forum opined:

Should have been potted 3 weeks ago….but new man would have had to rework what we have cos looks like we have 1 out 0 in policy. Thank god Bolton and Ipswich really look destined to drop …we are on a par with these at present.He is showing zero signs of getting to grips with the mess and with the form at present how can anyone want to suffer this shit any longer is beyond me……get rid.

The Egg on the Cockney Latic Forum said:

If a salesman is given a target of 100 sales in a year and after 60% of the year has made 60 sales will he get sacked? No because despite not hitting target yet he is in line to do so.

Granted if he had only made 10 sales after 60% they probably would.

Cook was given the task to keep us up. We still haven’t been in the bottom 3 yet and until we are I can’t them pulling the trigger. Think it will be the new man with 7 or 8 games to go scenario.

Made in Wigan on Latics Speyk commented:

Did anyone expect anything but a loss at Forest? Didn’t go, but mate who did said we were absolutely useless again against a woeful forest team.

We are now between a rock and a hard place. Personally I thought the time to change manager was at the start of the month. Would be strange timing to do so now when the window is closing. Regardless I think there comes a time when you have to say enough is enough. It’s like Groundhog Day every away game and I’m struggling to see where the next result is coming from. Bar a couple of home victories our form has nose dived. After the Villa game I was hoping it would be a catalyst but understand today’s game was more of the same dross. Couple that with an intent to sell our best striker for relative peanuts, reluctance to sign a specialist left back and general ineptitude in the transfer which shows no signs of abating I am no longer convinced. It seems our hopes of survival are resting on other teams being worse than us and relying on other teams isn’t a good position to be in.

Despite the odd timing to change managers reluctantly I think Cooks position is now virtually untenable. I say reluctantly as I like him and think he is a better manager than what we are currently witnessing despite the shite he has signed. The dilemma is do we stick or twist before the next block of 4 or 5 fixtures in which we have to pick up a decent points haul from? I think the answer is dependent on who we had lined up to replace him.

Chris Stafford on The Boulevard of Broken Dreams added:

Let’s just limp to the end of the season . I have a feeling this is what the board are thinking . Cook will go at end of season I think and they will get there own man in.

King_dezeeuw06 on Latics Speyk said:

Garner, Evans and Roberts dropped Vaughan, Byrne (on wing) and Gibson in?!

Cook said Garner would score goals if we gave him a run of starts – he has improved a bit in reccent weeks and then gets dropped what are we supposed to make of that?

Byrne on the wing again – why? it has failed miserably every time to offer any threat we tried it and have Macca available or even Roberts better than him for midfield. I rate Byrne as a full back but as a winger Walker who wasn’t ripping up trees in L1 deserves a chance ahead of giving Byrne another start there.

Gibson literally can’t run and has been responsible for so many crap goals. He shouldn’t even be on the bench let alone in before MacDonald.

Before a ball was kicked you knew Bryne would offer zero threat and be subbed or moved into defence, Gibson would stand off everyone and come off knackered and Vaughan would get subbed off after posing zero threat. And all 3 happened like clockwork – how can our management not see this and avoid it?

Jones can’t save a shot if it’s outside the box. He is turning into as much of a liability as Walton but in different ways. Need a new keeper asap neither of ours are good enough. Our midfield can’t not realise this but make no attempt to stop the shot.

Our defensive organisation is all over the place and every time they get the ball down and play we look wide open. Our midfield pressing was so poor we back off and give them time and space to pick a pass or shoot – which is suicidal with Jones in goal.

Our set pieces are just pointless we pose zero threat and most of the time don’t even manage to get the ball into the box. What do we do in training all week?

Morsy is the ball carrier in our team that makes us tick but he was pushed up to accomodate Gibson in a 4-1-4-1 and it nullified his main attributes – bonkers decision. He now misses the QPR and Rotherham game through suspension for yellows too. We are f—ed without him in centre mid for those games. We desperately need another def mid to play with Morsy all 3 summer signings – Evans, Connolly and Gibson are varying degrees of not good enough and not even better than Max was.

Vaughan just not good enough every time he gets anywhere near a decent position he miscontrols the ball or falls over. All he does is run around and foul people. I respect his effort but he’s just not got the ability it shouldn’t be a shock since he hasn’t performed at this level in 5 or so years for Huddersfield, Birmingham, Sunderland or us. Could the taller, stronger and faster Cole really offer less? Despite not doing much in L1 I’d still give him a go ahead of Vaughan at this point.

Thought Dunks and Kipre threw themselves in front of everything and they had to as they had minimal protection it prob would’ve been worse if it wasn’t for them. Jacobs and Windass tried to take some responsibility and run with the ball but had no support if they broke and often mucked up the final ball when they rarely got in great positions. Windass shot prob should’ve been saved by their keeper but at least he had a go which hardly anyone else does. He also won us another penalty that Garner mucked up – why take an identical penalty to the one you took 2 weeks ago?! Especially when the last one only just went in and the Forest keeper is 6’7 and more likely to stretch across if you go the same place and put no power on it.

Forest were crap and easily there for the taking, but we were worse. It was too much long ball and no one getting forward. There is just no tempo, no organisation, no urgency or intensity. So poor again – Villa was clearly a fluke rather than a turning point where lessons were learned – we have been gifted enough teams playing poorly enough to get points but every time we get a bad side we manage to play badly enough to still lose to them. When other teams often go behind they pile on pressure and push the other team back when we go behind the other team ends up pushing us back further.

We stuck with Cook when we had the best opportunity to make the change so we probably arent going to change now. But we are just so poor with no signs of improving our flaws or learning from our mistakes. He should’ve gone by now but he’ll get the next 2 must win games no matter what just got to pray we scrape 4th bottom due to our good start giving us enough of a cushion to somehow keep 3 teams below us. But if you’re best hope is not you being good enough but pray others conspire to be worse than us is a sign what you are doing is not good enough. Staying up this season should be easy with the amount of awful teams and we are going to at best scrape it by the skin our our teeth and I don’t think we may even be good enough to do that. We look a beaten team who’s ran out of ideas who are too afraid to attack and just hoping for the outside chance to not lose.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Burnley 2 Wigan Athletic 0 – Rosler gets it wrong

Uwe Rosler could not get his tactics right this time.

Uwe Rosler could not get his tactics right this time.

“We’ve all got to take lessons from the performance, myself included” said Uwe Rosler post-match.

So often since his arrival Rosler has got his tactics just right. This time he got them totally wrong. Playing hoofball was never going to be the way to get a result at Burnley. It played into the home team’s hands.

Rosler made his usual rotations with Stephen Crainey, Jack Collison, James McClean and Marc-Antoine Fortune coming into the starting lineup, The German adopted a 4-3-3 formation, with McClean playing wide on the right and Beausejour on the left.

The Urban Dictionary describes hoofball as involving the ‘hoof”, a long punt up the pitch by either the goalkeeper or defenders, making sure that the ball travels at least 40 yards in the air. Wigan Athletic’s tactics in the first half at Turf Moor were precisely that.

The result was the ball pinging back and putting pressure on a shaky Latics defence. The left hand side of defence had looked particularly vulnerable and it came as no surprise when Burnley went ahead after 22 minutes. They broke through at pace on Wigan’s left, Dean Marney evading Leon Barnett and putting over a fine cross converted by Ashley Barnes as he timed his run perfectly, ahead of Emmerson Boyce. Soon after Burnley almost got another one through the same players linking up, but Barnes’ effort was saved by Al-Habsi.

Burnley were playing that brand of direct football that Bolton used to employ under Sam Allardyce. Their two strikers Danny Ings and Ashley Barnes were causing Latics’ central defenders problems as Burnley constantly sought them out. Wigan’s sole central striker, Fortune, was having a torrid time out there given the horrendous service he was receiving. However, from Wigan’s first meaningful attack he had a fine header hit the crossbar from a Jordi Gomez free kick, Boyce putting the rebound wide.

Soon after an elbow from Barnes gave Boyce a gash on his forehead. The Burnley player received a yellow card, but Boyce was clearly incensed. The home team continued to dominate and went 2-0 up in the 42nd minute with a superb inswinging free kick from Michael Kightley from the left, which evaded Al-Habsi and the Latics defence. It appeared that the ball had glanced Crainey’s head on the way into the far corner of the net.

With Latics looking set for a hiding, Rosler had to do something at half time. He brought on Callum McManaman for Gomez and Rob Kiernan for the hapless Crainey, reverting to 3-4-3. McManaman looked lively from the start, but Burnley had clearly done their homework and singled him out for physical treatment.

Kightly once again looked dangerous and had a powerful shot go narrowly wide of the post in the 49th minute after he had run through from the half way line. McClean had switched to the left flank, after a torrid first half on the right, and was beginning to find some space. However, his final ball once again left much to be desired. Sheer persistence on the part of Fortune enabled him to get between the defence and the goalkeeper, but his effort was saved.  Ings had a fine effort hit the post. Soon after Boyce had a header go wide.

In the 67th minute Al-Habsi made a fine save from a David Jones free kick. Burnley continued to look dangerous and in the 80th minute Barnes hit a rasping volley that was parried away by Al-Habsi.

The final whistle led to Burnley celebrating their promotion back to the Premier League – a remarkable achievement on a relatively low budget.

The Good

Following the tactical switch at half time Latics had a more balanced look, but in all truth Burnley could still have added more to the score.

The Bad

Wigan’s football in the first half was reminiscent of the darkest of days under Owen Coyle. Burnley’s high pressing put pressure on Wigan defenders and they responded by hoofing the ball. The midfield was largely by-passed but when they did get the ball they were unable to do much with it. Even Jordi Gomez ended up putting through long punts, which were hopeful at best.

At times in that first half it appeared that Latics players were actually following instructions by playing those long, hopeful passes. Wigan have done this under Rosler before, but this time they were made to pay the price.

Wigan were unrecognizable from the side that had played such stylish football against Arsenal and Reading. One longed for the cultured touch of Shaun Maloney, but Rosler resisted the opportunity to bring him on. Roger Espinoza and Martyn Waghorn did not even make the bench. However, Waghorn appeared to have an injury after going off against Reading. Like Maloney, Espinoza has had a lay-off due to injury and in the long-run Rosler’s decision not to use either might well prove to be right.

So often over the past weeks Latics have had dips in their form that could be attributed to sheer tiredness, given the number of games they have had to play. Fatigue may have played a part in this performance too, but it was the approach that was more of a concern in this game.

Player Ratings

Ali Al-Habsi: 5.5 – made some good saves, but looked nervy. Poor distribution.

James Perch: 5 – way below his best.

Emmerson Boyce: 5 – rattled by the injury he received from Barnes’ elbow. Below his best.

Leon Barnett: 5 – lacked composure. Poor distribution.

Stephen Crainey: 4.5 – ineffective. Taken off at half time.

James McArthur: 5 – could not impose himself in midfield. Looked jaded.

Jack Collison: 4.5 – very disappointing.

Jordi Gomez: 5 – marked out of the game. Taken off at half time.

James McClean: 4.5 – anonymous in the first half. Distribution poor. Substituted after 77 minutes.

Marc-Antoine Fortune: 5.5 – toiled unsupported against the robust Burnley central defenders. Unlucky with his header that hit the bar.

Jean Beausejour : 5 – below his best.

Substitutes:

Callum McManaman: – heavily marked, but tried to breathe life into the attack after being brought on after half time.

Rob Kiernan: -looked Latics most composed defender after coming on at half time.

Nicky Maynard: – came on for McClean after 77 minutes.