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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Paul Cook’s Christmas Shopping List

A year ago, Paul Cook was manager of a Portsmouth side in fourth place in League 2, seven points shy of an automatic promotion position. Over the January transfer window he picked up four new players, with three leaving. Of the new players midfielder Jamal Lowe went on to make 17 appearances and striker Eion Doyle 12.

Wigan Athletic are currently top of League 1, four points ahead of Shrewsbury Town and five ahead of Blackburn Rovers. Given the circumstances, can we expect much activity from Cook over the January 2018 transfer window?

Over the summer Cook did an excellent job in ensuring that he had a minimum of two players competing for each position, except for the right back berth.  Up to the transfer window 12 players were brought in and a greater number moved out as Cook reduced the size of his squad. Wigan Athletic did not pay any transfer fees in the summer recruitment.

Nathan Byrne has not only occupied the right back position for all the 21 league games up to this point, but has not missed a single minute. Although it could be viewed as an indication of Byrne’s excellent form and fitness, it could also be said that Cook had no real alternative.

In summer Cook released his other specialist right back, Luke Burke, for a loan period at AFC Fylde. At the time it appeared a strange decision, but there remained the possibility of Max Power or one of the centre backs moving across to the right, if needed. Moreover, Burke had not looked the player he had been a year earlier when he was to enjoy a brief spell in Gary Caldwell’s Championship division side. Up to this point Burke has been a regular starter at Fylde, his confidence returning as a result. Burke is still only 19 and signed a long-term contract for Latics last year. His loan at Fylde expires in January. The question is whether Cook will bring him back or allow him to continue to bolster his confidence by prolonging the loan. Should Burke not return in January, Cook will surely scour the market for a specialist right back to challenge Byrne for his place. Ironically it could well be a loan signing.

The other loan decision Cook will need to make is that of Jack Byrne at Oldham. The young Irishman’s loan deal also finishes in January. Despite rumours of him lacking fitness, Byrne has been a revelation for the other Latics. He is the obvious candidate to compete with Nick Powell for the number 10 spot. The question is whether Cook will want him back with things going so well.

Cook will need to be cautious in terms of changing the chemistry of a squad that has high morale. Providing there are no surprise departures he will keep changes to a minimum. Last January the departure of Yanic Wildschut to Norwich helped to seal relegation. Latics fans will be praying that they will not lose a key player again this year.

However, Sun journalist Alan Nixon continues to tweet about a takeover:

Should this takeover be finalised prior to the January transfer window, what would be the implications for the remainder of the season? Would an incoming new ownership want to splash money in January by recruiting players who could be an asset in the Championship? Or would they want to keep the status quo until next season?

It promises to be an interesting time coming up at Wigan Athletic.

 

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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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Seeking a balance in midfield

A more balanced midfield with Paul Cook in charge?

“So close to a famous win, absolutely devastated. Atmosphere was incredible.

So tweeted James McArthur after Harry Kane’s late equaliser had robbed them of victory in a game they did not really deserve to win.

He had come on as a substitute at the beginning of the second half in the cauldron that Hampden Park so often can be. In the eyes of an admittedly biased Wigan Athletic fan he should have been on from the start, but James Morrison and Scott Brown were chosen instead.

But seeing McArthur brought back memories of his partnership with James McCarthy. Both were signed from a modest club in Hamilton Academical, seemingly “players for the future”. But what a future it proved to be for them at Wigan as the pair became the engine room of the club’s greatest ever successes. Pitched up against the likes of Gerrard, Lampard and Scholes they held their own, famous victories over England’s richest and most powerful clubs resulting.

Roberto Martinez had developed what was loosely called a 3-4-3 system. McArthur and McCarthy supplied the energy and vision from the centre of midfield, with the excellent wing backs Emmerson Boyce and Jean Beausejour providing the width. One of the front three, Shaun Maloney or Jordi Gomez, would drop back to reinforce midfield and add to the creativity. The end result was a balanced midfield, capable of challenging the best in the land.

It is more than three years now since McArthur left Wigan, McCarthy having gone a year earlier. Since then Latics have had a plethora of midfield players pass through the club. The Macs had played together for three years, developing a mutual understanding, covering for each other when it was needed.

But last season that kind of understanding was sadly lacking, players too often being unable to find their teammates with their passes. Midfield players who had been key in winning League 1 the previous season had clearly found the step up to the Championship a tough one. Perhaps Gary Caldwell had realised that the midfielders of the title winning team might struggle in the higher division. He brought in reinforcements in Shaun MacDonald, Alex Gilbey and Nick Powell, but the latter two were to be stricken by injury. MacDonald had been a box to box midfielder at Bournemouth, but Caldwell was to use him in a “Busquets role” in front of the back four. He had used Sam Morsy in that role in the previous season, but the player had been dispatched off to Barnsley on loan.

MacDonald went on to become a rock in front of the defence, also being favoured by Warren Joyce when he arrived in November. Although he would rarely show the range of passing that we had seen from Morsy, MacDonald was equally firm in the tackle and his reading of the game. Moreover he was strong in the air. Sadly his horrendous injury at Reading is likely to rule him out for the large part of the coming season.

As part of his return from Barnsley, Morsy had been offered an improved contract with Joyce being keen to get him back. With MacDonald anchoring at the back, Morsy was pushed forward into a more creative role where he initially seemed to thrive. However, Joyce’s obsession with 4-5-1 was to mean that any midfielder’s role was to be primarily defensive. Like the other midfielders, Morsy just did not look as effective as he had earlier. The midfield was to shoulder the bulk of the frustration of fans wanting to see them push further forward to support the lone centre forward. The lack of creativity was to be exacerbated as Joyce was to play four central midfielders in his starting line-up, a tactic that was also to be followed by Graham Barrow when he took over as caretaker manager.

Latics fans will be hoping for a more positive approach from new manager Paul Cook. Cook’s preferred formation appears to be 4-2-3-1, so it is unlikely he will use someone in the anchor role occupied by MacDonald. David Perkins has been given a new short term contract, although he is now 35. However, Perkins was the Player of the Year in League 1 in 2015-16 and his infectious enthusiasm was a key element in the team’s success. Max Power was the subject of an offer by Birmingham City in January. Although he had a disappointing season he remains a young player with good technique who might well benefit from a move. Morsy has already proved himself in League 1 and would surely be in contention for a place, but his increased salary might prove too much for Latics to swallow, given their much decreasing revenues. It would be no surprise if both Power and Morsy were sold over the summer.

Cook already has players who can form the trio behind the centre forward. He has those who can play wide in Michael Jacobs and Nathan Byrne, plus “number 10s” in Jack Byrne, Alex Gilbey, Josh Laurent and Nick Powell. Nathan Byrne has genuine pace, making Joyce’s decision to send him on loan to Charlton difficult to understand. With both Wildschut and Byrne leaving his side was distinctly short of pace. Rumour suggests that Byrne had a falling out with the manager and was dispatched as a result. It could be that the player has already burnt his bridges at Wigan and will be gone over summer, but he has a fine record in League 1 and could be an important player, if he were to stay. Salary could also be an issue.

For the moment Latics are short on holding midfielders and Cook will be looking at bringing in at least a couple more. He will also look for more wide players. Jordan Flores can play wide on the left of midfield, but there is still no news of him signing a new contract.

Finding the right balance in midfield will be of paramount importance to Paul Cook if he is to build a squad good enough to get the club back to the Championship division. Continuity is something that has been so lacking at Wigan over the past three seasons. Ideally Cook will put together a midfield not only to get the club out of League 1, but also one which can serve the club more long-term as did the “Macs” in the Martinez era.

 

 

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Jack Byrne –the best of the January 2017 signings?

 

Warren Joyce must have been looking forward to the January transfer window. It presented him with the opportunity to bring in his own men. Joyce had been appointed in early November to take over a squad used to playing possession football under their previous manager. Joyce was determined to change that approach to a more direct style of play.

But by the time the window had opened he had won just one of the nine games he had been in charge. Getting the right players in during the January window was never going to be easy. Clubs are not keen to lose key players in mid-season and the pickings in January tend to be thin.

Joyce went on to contract six new players, plus another seven on loan. He had a fair amount to say about the new arrivals, but his words about Jack Byrne were kept to a minimum:

“Jack is one for the long-term, a really hungry player who we feel can develop here over the next few seasons, a real talent.”

It was almost as if he was playing down Byrne’s signing, although the player had been given a three and a half year contract and had excellent reviews as a young player at Manchester City. The sale of Byrne did not go down well with quite a few City fans, frustrated that another talented young player coming through the ranks had been sold off. The transfer fee was of the “undisclosed” category, but City were unlikely to let the player go for peanuts. They had sold another talented young player to Latics a couple of years earlier. Wigan paid them around £2.5 m for Emyr Huws, who was 20 at the time. City would expect something substantial for Byrne, also 20.

One wonders if Joyce himself was responsible for Byrne’s signing or whether it was someone else within the club. Patrick Vieira, Manchester City youth team coach, had said a year ago that: “If you want to play direct, Jack will be useless but if you want to keep the ball on the floor, and you need someone really creative, Jack will be the player who can do that.” Joyce’s preferred playing style was certainly “direct”.

Byrne did not set foot on the pitch for the senior team during Joyce’s reign which was prematurely terminated in mid-March. But he does seem to feature in Graham Barrow’s thinking, having come on off the bench in the recent wins over Rotherham and Barnsley.

Born in Dublin, Jack Byrne joined Manchester City as a 14 year old. Byrne has played for the Republic of Ireland at U17,U18 and U21 levels. In 2014-15 he was a key player in a  Manchester City team that reached the quarter finals of the UEFA Youth League, scoring 6 goals in 8 appearances, including two against Bayern Munich.

Last season Byrne was sent to Cambuur to play in the Dutch Eredivisie. He made his debut in mid-September against FC Twente after a 6 week layoff due to an ankle injury.

The Irish site SportsJoe spoke to the Chairman of  De Kern van Cambuur (the Cambuur Supporters Club), Kees Elzinga. Referring to Byrne he commented:

Jack reminds me of the Welsh player Gareth Bale but he could probably learn a lot from Wesley Sneijder is mostly playing midfield and is able to give long distance passes to his left and right wing teammates. He also tries to get forward and threaten the goal of the opponent and he tries to score with long distance shots. Jack is well known in our Premier League; Dutch television (mostly FOX Sport) shows quite a lot of his actions and other teams do their best to keep him out of the play.”

 

Byrne went on to play 27 games for the Dutch team, scoring four goals.

Following a successful season in Holland, Byrne was sent on a season-long loan to Blackburn Rovers  last summer. It turned out to be a bad move for him as Owen Coyle so often left him out of the lineup. Byrne’s loan was cut short and he returned to Manchester City in early January.

Wigan Athletic have been desperately short of creativity this season. Jordi Gomez was too often sidelined before leaving in January. Both Nick Powell and Alex Gilbey had long spells out through injury. Byrne appeared late in the 85th minute against Rotherham, but was brought on after 54 minutes against Barnsley. His Wigan Athletic career has now been kick started.

Of all the January signings Byrne was perhaps the least heralded. But given his talent he will surely play a key creative role for Latics over the coming season, if properly nurtured. He has the ability to become a top player. Only time will tell if he proves to be the best of the January 2017 signings.


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