Another point for Latics as takeover looms

It was another of those games when Wigan Athletic had their chances, but just could not put the ball into the back of the net. Although not at their best, Wigan played some quality football at times against a Peterborough side keen to get a result. The visitors gave a good account of themselves, looking better than their current 9th position placing in League 1.

A third consecutive goalless draw at the DW Stadium is hardly the kind of thing that will attract the “floating” fan. Saturday’s attendance was 8,602 which included 399 from Peterborough. The average for the season so far is 9,084.

But despite the goalless draws, Latics have collected 21 points over the past 10 matches.  Although they have scored just one goal in their last four league matches, they have not conceded a goal in the last seven. However, they will be keeping a close eye on Blackburn Rovers, undefeated in 15 league matches. Over the last ten they have gathered 24 points to Wigan’s 21. They had an important 3-1 win over Shrewsbury on Saturday, bringing them to within 5 points of Latics, 2 points behind the Shrews.

When Aston Villa won the First Division title in the 1980/81 season they used only 14 players in a 42-game season. In contrast, Chelsea employed 24 to win last season’s Premier League in a season of 38 matches. In modern day the strength of the entire squad has become of increasing importance, not only in the first tier of English football. When Sheffield United won the League 1 title last season they used 28 players. When Gary Caldwell’s Latics won it the previous season they had 36 players involved.

The key to promotion from League 1 has typically been to have a nucleus of players who are regular names on the team sheet, together with quality back-up. Paul Cook’s recruitment over summer provided him with just that. That Wigan Athletic are top of the division at this stage of the season is no surprise, given the ability and experience of the core players and the quality in depth that they have. Only Blackburn Rovers have the kind of squad that can come close to Cook’s in terms of quality. They too are serious challengers for automatic promotion.

Shrewsbury Town have been the surprise team of the season. They do not have a squad with the depth of those of Latics or Blackburn, but continue to challenge for automatic promotion. Their success has largely been based on the successful chemistry between a nucleus of players largely drawn from the lower leagues. In fact, 10 of their squad have played in 23 games or more of the 26 they have played so far.

Back in 1980/81 Aston Villa employed such a small number of players during the season for several reasons. One is that teams were only allowed to use one substitute in that era. But a key factor is that their key players stayed clear of injury and suspensions. Shrewsbury are a physically competitive team, not afraid to disrupt the opposition’s game. However, they are well disciplined and have received just one red card and 33 yellows in 26 league games.  Should they manage to stay clear of injuries they could well sustain their challenge at the top of the table.

Given the impending takeover of the club by a Far East consortium, it has been hard to predict the short-term effects the potential change would have.  Despite the uncertainty of what will happen under new ownership, Cook has seemingly managed to keep the players focused, judging by the points accrued during an 11-game unbeaten run. Given the scenario, policy in the transfer market was going to be difficult to predict. Would it be driven by the current ownership or the future buyers?

Up to this point the recruitment in the January window bears the hallmark of the current ownership. Lee Evans left for Sheffield United, after they paid Wolves £750,000 for his services. Two other loan players, Matija Sarkic and Ivan Toney, have been recalled by their parent clubs, through lack of game time at Wigan. Cook will be hoping he can cling on to his other two loan players, Christian Walton and Callum Elder. The arrivals of Jamie Walker and James Vaughan will strengthen the squad, their bargain price signings being typical of the Sharpe era. But we have come to expect the club to seek incoming funds to compensate for the £500,000 or so that has been spent. It appears that Jack Byrne is going to Oldham on a permanent contract, although it is unclear how much compensation, if any, Latics will receive. Can we expect more departures?

The surprise up to this point is that there have been no rumours linking Latics to a right full back, as back-up for Nathan Byrne. Walker will effectively take Jack Byrne’s place in the squad, with Vaughan replacing Toney. Another winger would certainly strengthen the squad and Latics have been linked to Morton’s Jai Quitongo, who could be picked up at a bargain price since his contract expires in summer. Having already lost three loan players, Cook will surely also be scouring the loan market to add to his squad.

Should Alan Nixon be correct in his estimate of 10 more days, the takeover will happen before the ending of the transfer window. However, by then we can expect most of Cook’s adjustments to the squad to have been finalised. He will continue to focus on promotion back to the Championship. Should that happen, and Cook continue to be in charge, we can expect major transfer activity in summer.

We can only hope that the new ownership will invest more seriously in the squad than the current incumbents did in the summer of 2016. It remains to be seen whether the consortium would be willing to go a stage further by putting up the kind of money needed to challenge for a place back in the Premier League.


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An Amigo View – Wigan Athletic 0 Charlton Athletic 0 – five talking points


On paper it looked like a home banker, but a low-energy Latics struggled to find their way around Karl Robinson’s parked bus. With his squad ravaged by injury the normally more positive Charlton manager decided to make it as difficult as possible for Wigan to score.

After the game Paul Cook opined that:

“We have to respect that when teams come to the DW now, they are going to come with different ways to frustrate us. Tonight was no different to Plymouth and Northampton, but in those games we managed to get a goal, unfortunately tonight we didn’t and that can be football. If we would have won tonight and it would have been 1-0 we’d have all been euphoric and we would have been delighted.”

Sam Morsy had almost given Latics that crucial goal in stoppage time, but his deflected shot hit the post. It just was not to be Wigan’s night.

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

A need for some degree of rotation

Cook decided to rest Reece James, bringing in Callum Elder. But despite playing their third game in a space of six days, there were no other rotations.

So many players looked jaded and the high-energy approach that has produced Wigan’s best performances of the season was sadly absent. In its place was a ponderously slow build up, interspersed with hopeful long crosses.

Uwe Rosler might have been nicknamed “Tinkerman” for his constant squad rotations, but Cook goes to the other extreme. Not only did he fail to freshen up his starting lineup, but he introduced his second and third substitutes five minutes before the end.

Home entertainment

Given the way so many visiting teams this season have “parked the bus”, the entertainment value for home fans at the DW Stadium has not been the best. An early goal for Latics can open up the game, but that does not always happen. A flying start is crucial and it is important that Wigan employ the high press from the start, putting the visiting defence under intense pressure. But high pressing requires a physical demand that the players were not up to yesterday.

Away games have generally been more entertaining this season. Latics have scored 28 goals on the road and 21 at home, although they have played two more games at the DW than away from home.

The other night I was watching Newcastle parking the bus in a home game against Manchester City. I felt sorry for the home crowd. Heaven help us if League 1 sides consistently do that when hosting Latics.

Too many games

As Paul Cook would say, League 1 is an endurance, a marathon. Each team plays 46 games, which means that they always have their eyes on the next one coming up. A team that is two goals up in a game will so often look to consolidate its lead, rather than extend it. Moreover, key players might be removed from the field of play before the 90 minutes are up.

The Christmas/New Year period highlights the issue. In a space of eight days, between Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, Latics will have played four games. Historically the holiday season has been the one in which attendances soar, but with so many fixtures condensed in a short period few teams will be able to excel in all the matches.

Wigan have won one and drawn two since Boxing Day. A win at Northampton would be welcome in maintaining the momentum at the top of the table.

Two strikers

Cook is no fan of a twin striker formation, but he brought Ivan Toney on for a jaded Gavin Massey after 59 minutes, putting him up front with Will Grigg. It allowed the option of launching long balls to the two. It was a gambit worth trying and they did get heads on to some of the long balls, but with no end result. Despite Grigg’s uplifting hat trick against Oxford, he has not delivered in the last couple of games.

So many Latics fans remember the days of Ellington and Roberts with affection. Since then the game has changed, although some teams still play 4-4-2. But would you give a duo of Toney and Grigg  preference over the 4-2-3-1 system that has served Latics so well under Cook?

Parking the bus

Playing with ten or eleven men in massed defence is, unfortunately, a far too common sight in the modern game. Professional football is basically an entertainment sport, but such tactics detract from the game. Roberto Martinez’ men showed in the 2013 FA Cup Final that a team of underdogs can beat the most expensively assembled squad in the world by sticking to their principles and trying to play good football. But how many managers have the bravery and belief of Martinez?

Paul Cook deserves to be commended for his comments on “parking the bus”:

“With the greatest respect, Christian hasn’t made a save again, but the emphasis…and we’re seeing it a lot in the modern game…and we’ll never do it, I don’t care who we play, we’ll never park the bus. While I’m manager of this club, I don’t care who we play, at home or away, we won’t do it.”

If only there were more like PC and RM…….

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An Amigo View – Wigan Athletic 3 Doncaster Rovers 0 – five talking points

Last night we saw a Wigan Athletic team keen to put Saturday’s reverse against Bradford behind them. They went at Doncaster from the get-go and were rewarded with a flattering scoreline in their favour. There were several people on the pitch last night seemingly wanting to stand out. Among them were Ryan Colclough and referee Carl Boyeson.

Colclough’s two goals and his rapid departure to the hospital after 60 minutes of the game will be a tale told by Latics fans over future generations. It was such a good story it even made giant American newspapers, USA Today and the Washington Post. From where I was sitting in the Boston Stand it was hard to figure out why the player had left the field of play so early. Indeed some fans were clearly irritated to see him being pulled out of the action when he had just scored his second goal and was up for a hat trick. But it turned out to be a happy ending for both player and club.

Paul Cook had made four changes, bringing in Colclough, Lee Evans, Reece James and Will Grigg.  In the absence of Nick Powell, Max Power started in the number 10 position, but as the match progressed the lines became blurred regarding the positions of players in advanced midfield.

Just before the referee blew his whistle to start the game a spectator sitting close to us offered his view on why Latics had lost to Bradford. His view was that, like other teams Wigan have recently faced, Bradford had figured out the way Latics play and had learned how to deal with it. There may be some credence in that, but I put Saturday’s defeat down to a “soft” goal in the 92nd minute.

Wigan’s plan to compensate for the absence of orchestrator Powell seemed to be working to some degree as they showed urgency and threatened the Doncaster goal. But they looked edgy and gaps were opening up in the home defence that we were not seeing earlier in the season. In the event Latics had Doncaster centre forward john Marquis to thank for missing a sitter with the home defence all at sea. Wigan were to go into the dressing room at half time ahead thanks to a crisp strike from Michael Jacobs which took a deflection on its way home, with another deflection helping Colclough to notch a second.

Perhaps the most noticeable figure on the pitch in that first half was referee Boyeson.  From the start he had drawn our attention through an over-officious approach, allied with some poorly judged decisions. At the beginning of the second half both teams had been lined up for the kickoff for several minutes before the refereeing team made its entrance on the pitch, accompanied by jeers from the crowd. Boyeson continued to annoy the paying spectators for the remainder of the match.

A brave header by Colclough made it three, the win putting Latics within one point of leaders Shrewsbury who lost 1-0 at bottom club Bury.

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

Will Cook’s centre forwards ever score many goals?

Will Grigg looked a forlorn figure last night, his body language hardly suggesting he was going to score. So often he was having to deal with high balls launched in his general direction, with corpulent opposition defenders seemingly being given carte blanche to use their arms to keep   him shackled. Despite Grigg’s frequent appeals the referee continued to allow it to continue. But, opposition fouling withstanding, is Grigg the kind of centre forward to thrive on Cook’s style of play?

Cook employs the flanks to great effect, full backs and wingers being expected to combine and produce crosses into the box. It happened again last night, some crosses being wayward, others posing danger to the opposition goal. But Grigg was mostly a lonely figure trying to latch on to them. Heading is not the player’s strength anyhow.  Grigg feeds on incisive low passes, his movement making him a real threat to opposing defences. He got few of those last night.

Ivan Toney might not so often make the intelligent movements of Grigg, but he can certainly head the ball. But he too has looked out of touch, shackled by rugged central defenders. One of the main criticisms of Toney is that he goes to ground too easily. There is an element of truth there but so often, like Grigg, he has been outwrestled by big centre halves. Not only Boyeson, but League 1 referees in general, permit excessive use of the arms by defenders. Both Toney and Grigg have been on a hiding to nothing, making them look worse players than they are.

Up to this point Grigg and Toney have scored 7 goals between them in 18 league matches. The chance of either reaching the 20 mark by the end of the season seems remote at this stage.

Reece James should be offered a new contract

James came back last night in his first league appearance since late September. He once again showed what a good player he is. James has been kept out of the team by the fine form of Callum Elder, on loan from Leicester City. With the diminutive Nathan Byrne at right back, the 6 ft tall Elder has added height to the defence as well as being an excellent attacking full back at League 1 level. However, of the two James is arguably stronger defensively and his crossing is at least as good as Elder’s, if not better. Cook will count himself fortunate to have such talent at hand for the left back position.

James was recruited from Manchester United by Gary Caldwell in the summer of 2015, on a three year contract. Like Elder he has had his ups and downs with injuries. But assuming that James is now fully recovered from a long term foot injury, Latics would do well to tie him into a new contract.

Can Colclough become a regular starter?

Ryan Colclough had his first league start yesterday under Paul Cook. The 22 year old only made two starts for Latics last season. He made 7 starts in the 2015-16 season after being signed by Gary Caldwell in January 2016.

In fact Colclough has a career record of 58 starts and 49 appearances off the bench for Wigan, MK Dons and Crewe Alexandra.  Will he ever become a regular starter under Cook?

Colclough’s goals came at the time of the arrival of his second child, not an easy time to focus upon claiming a regular place in the team. But he is a talented player, having already scored 5 goals in all competitions, despite limited game time.

Can Cook get the best out of him?

Is there room for Evans, Morsy and Power?

Lee Evans was excellent last night, strong in defence and distribution. He has been a key player in a successful season so far.

Evans was signed on loan from Wolves in summer when it looked like Max Power was leaving. The Welshman’s suspension for a red card at Scunthorpe gave Power the chance to get back into the starting lineup, which he did successfully. With Sam Morsy seemingly being an automatic choice, Cook made the decision to include all three last night.

Should Powell be fit to play on Saturday, Cook will face a difficult decision to make.

Jack Byrne to be back?

Byrne is a gifted footballer, naturally suited to that number 10 role behind the centre forward. The 21 year old was signed by Warren Joyce from Manchester City in January 2017 on a three year contract. However, Byrne received scant favour from the manager, making just two substitute appearances over four months. Rumours suggested that there were issues with both temperament and fitness. Byrne was to receive no favours from Cook either, the new manager sending to train with the youth team before dispatching him off to Oldham Athletic on loan until January.

However, the 21 year old Dubliner has enjoyed a highly successful loan stint at Boundary Park up to this point. He has been an inspiration behind a team that was struggling in the relegation zone, but has now climbed up to 16th place. Byrne has made 17 starts, scoring 5 goals with 3 assists. In terms of fitness, Byrne has completed the full 90-minutes-plus in the majority of games he has played and when he has been substituted it has typically been in the closing minutes.

Cook has already hinted that there will be some additions to the Latics squad in January. Assuming Byrne continues to impress at Oldham a recall looks probable. Byrne is certainly a young talent, potentially capable of not only impressing in League 1, but in higher divisions.


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An Amigo View – Gillingham 1 Wigan Athletic 1 – Five talking points


On the face of it, a point against an outfit second from bottom is a trifle disappointing for a team riding at the top of the table. Shrewsbury’s 4-0 win over Bristol Rovers put them back to first place, as they impressively stretched their unbeaten league record to 14 games. But another 32 matches remain and the point gained at Priestfield might well prove crucial in the long run.

Latics had started well and had opportunities in the first half hour that would have materialised into goals with more clinical finishing. But the home team grew into the game and started to punch above their weight, with bouts of skilful football mixed with a determination not to be overwhelmed by their more highly-rated rivals.

When Chey Dunkley allowed 6 ft 5 in centre forward Eaves to head home in the 55th minute it was clear that Latics had an uphill task ahead of them. Just as at Shrewsbury they were rattled by the energy and hunger of the home team. It took a beautifully struck goal by Sam Morsy after 82 minutes to get Latics back in the game.

The scenes at the end of the game were reminiscent of those at the recent encounter at Peterborough with the Gills players waiting around on the pitch to receive a standing ovation from the crowd. Unlike some other teams Latics have played this season Gillingham did make an effort to attack and play constructive football. The ovation was well deserved.

Let’s take a look at some talking points arising from the game and the recent news of the club.

The centre forwards are still not getting enough goals

Ivan Toney had a disappointing evening and was taken off after 72 minutes, to be replaced by Will Grigg who too struggled to make an impact. Grigg went off injured after 88 minutes to be replaced by Noel Hunt. Cook will be hoping Grigg’s injury is not serious with matches against Blackburn and Bradford coming up.

Should Grigg be out for some time, Cook might well call on Nick Powell to play as a central striker with Gary Roberts operating behind him in the number 10 role.

However, for the moment, we can only surmise on how many more goals Latics would have scored this season if their central strikers had been sharper. Grigg typically gets the bulk of his goals in the second half of the season. Will he do so again this season?

Nick Powell played the full 93 minutes

Cook and his staff have done a wonderful job up to this point in nurturing Powell back to fitness. To go until the final whistle without being substituted is a milestone for the player after being dogged by injury for so long.

Powell is essentially a Premier League player operating in League 1. Although he has still not hit top form he is almost indispensable to Cook, being at the heart of the creativity, also the top scorer. Should he stay fit we can expect him to hit the 20-goal mark before the end of the season.

Chey Dunkley is a work in progress

As the cross was coming in for the Gills goal, Dunkley was calling to Nathan Byrne to come across to mark a player who was coming into the box. The cross somehow eluded Dan Burn and Dunkley’s lack of concentration allowed Eaves to score. Up to that point he and Burn had headed away countless crosses, looking comfortable in doing so.

Dunkley remains a work in progress. His red card against Portsmouth was a hard pill to swallow, but following his suspension he got back in the team in place of the capable and experienced Alex Bruce. Cook clearly has faith in the 25-year old. Other than the matter of the goal conceded, Dunkley did not have a bad game and he made an outstanding tackle in the first half as Eaves looked like he was going to score.  Dunkley is usually excellent in the air and forms a strong partnership with Burn. Moreover he shows sound  positional sense and is vocal on the pitch.

Sam Morsy is an inspirational captain

Morsy’s indiscipline on the field has been a talking point this season and he picked up another yellow card just a couple of minutes after scoring that vital goal. It was sadly no surprise.

However, Morsy had hit a screamer earlier on that fizzed wide when it looked like it might be going in. He was not happy for his team to be behind and he continued to push himself and his team forward. It is the sheer determination that the player shows that makes him a captain to be reckoned with. But not only is he fierce in the tackle and tireless in his efforts, but he has a fine technique and vision.

With Morsy as captain the team is never going to lie down. Despite his disciplinary lapses he is an inspirational captain.

Paul Cook must not be sacrificed in any takeover

Cook has made a wonderful start to his new job at Wigan. He has transformed a team that was too scared to open-up and play into one that clearly relishes it. It is years since we have seen such a positive, attacking brand of football at Wigan. Moreover he is showing faith in a core of players in the early to mid-twenties who could hold their own in the Championship were Latics to be promoted.

Much is clearly happening behind the scenes at the club, with the incredibly successful 22-year reign of the Whelan family seemingly nearing its end. Put simply, without Dave Whelan’s vision, determination and sheer hard work Latics could never have dreamed to have had the successes they have enjoyed over a span of decades.

Should the takeover happen by the end of the year, as the media seems to suggest, it would be sad if Cook’s position were destabilised. Put simply, he is the best thing that has happened to Latics in a long time.


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Five talking points arising from the home win against Plymouth


Result: Wigan Athletic 1 Plymouth Argyle 0

Wigan Athletic did not play badly, but found a massed Plymouth defence difficult to penetrate. Despite having 23 attempts on goal it took a penalty to break the deadlock and give Latics a single goal victory.

The three points gained from the match enabled Wigan to move up to second place, still four points behind a Shrewsbury side which continues to play out of its skin. The Shrews record of W8 D2 L0 is highly impressive. But do they have the quality in the squad to keep it going?

Let’s take a look at some points from yesterday’s game.

Was Nick Powell kept on too long?

Nick Powell had not completed 90 minutes in a competitive match for so long. He did yesterday and it could be seen as an indicator that he is on the way to overcoming those fitness issues that have beset his career. But the player was clearly in discomfort as he was helped off the field in the 90th minute to be substituted by Noel Hunt. Up to that point Paul Cook had been judicious in the amount of time he was giving Powell in each game. But was 90 minutes too long?

Cook had kept Powell on the field much longer than usual, presumably because he needed the kind of spark that the ex-Man U player could provide to break down a stubborn Plymouth defence. But after Powell had put away the 82nd minute penalty one expected Cook to withdraw him.

It could prove a costly mistake.

The centre forwards need to score goals

Wigan Athletic have scored 18 league goals up to this point. The two centre forwards have scored a combined total of three of those.

But Grigg just has not got back to his best since his injury. Grigg’s key strength is his movement. We have seen that, but the end-result has not been forthcoming. One goal in six starts and four appearances off the bench is unimpressive from a striker who has passed the 20 goal per season mark three times previously.

Toney has more physical presence than Grigg and is more likely to score headed goals. But his two goals so far have been a perhaps fortunate deflection and a tap-in. He has come close so many times but has not been able to put the ball in the net with enough regularity.

Grigg is the first to admit that he is not yet up to peak fitness. He speaks with confidence about his ability to get another 20 goal haul this season. Toney has looked lively in his approach play and fits well into the style of play. Toney has a career record of 0.23 goals per league game, having scored 26 goals from 70 starts and 43 appearances off the bench. Grigg’s average is 0.31 goals per game, with 82 goals from 173 starts and 87 appearances off the bench.

Most League 1 managers will envy Cook for having both Grigg and Toney at his disposal. Both are good players at this level. It appears to be a matter of time until one or the other starts firing on all cylinders. Cook is fortunate that his advanced midfield trio of Michael Jacobs, Gavin Massey and Nick Powell have already notched a combined total of 12 goals in 10 matches up to this point.

Goal threat from corner kicks

Latics had 15 corners yesterday. With Dan Burn and Chey Dunkley coming forward into the box and with good headers of the ball like Powell and Toney also there, could we not expect more of a threat from corner kicks? Lee Evans usually takes them, from the right and left. His delivery is by no means bad, but could more variety be introduced? Using left footers Reece James or Callum Elder could be a possibility.

Is it something that Cook and his coaches will be working on during training?

The full backs are important in Cook’s system

Nathan Byrne’s form has been a revelation this season. His attacking down the right hand side has been a pleasure to watch and he has worked hard on the defensive side of his game. The problem is that Cook has no back-up right back if Byrne gets injured.

On the left-hand side Reece James has been impressive since his long lay-off from injury. Callum Elder looked lively yesterday when he came on for James. He is a naturally attacking left back with a sweet left foot.

Cook expects a lot physically from his full backs, being expected not only to be solid in defence, but to race forward almost like wingers. They have been a key part of the good football we have been seeing so far this season.

Expect more parking of buses

In 2004 Jose Mourinho coined the term “parking the bus” following a match between his Chelsea team and Tottenham. It has come to convey a team using all of its players defensively when they want to draw a game or defend a narrow margin. Wigan Athletic’s Warren Joyce tried it several times last season.

Both Northampton Town and Plymouth Argyle came to Wigan to park their buses. Their tactics were ruined by a spectacular goal (by Michael Jacobs) and giving away a “soft” penalty.

With Latics being the favourites to win the League 1 title we are likely to see lots more teams come to the DW to park their buses. In the last two home games Latics have certainly had to show patience against massed defences.

The key to such games lies in Wigan getting an early goal, forcing the visiting team to change its tactics. It remains to be seen if Walsall will try to park the bus on Saturday. From an entertainment point of view one hopes not, but an early Wigan goal could be the signal for more to follow later.