An Amigo View – Wigan Athletic 0 Blackburn Rovers 0 – five talking points

 

Games against Blackburn Rovers have never been easy. Neither was this one. This Rovers team was well organised and strong physically, but they also possessed enough flair to cause some worries for the Wigan defence. Their manager, Tony Mowbray, clearly did his homework beforehand, his team’s tactics diminishing Wigan’s creative threats, leading to a scrappy game in conditions that were far from perfect. A goalless draw resulted.

In the season prior to this match Blackburn had committed an average of around 11 fouls per game, with 10 committed against them. Wigan’s average was 11 committed, 13 against. The figures for yesterday’s game reveal that Rovers gave away 21 fouls, Latics 13.

So, Rovers committed almost twice as many fouls than their average. Many of them were conceded in the midfield, Sam Morsy and Nick Powell being particular targets.  The net result was to dampen Wigan’s creative play, preventing moves developing, disrupting the game, making fluent passing movements unlikely.

Despite a controversial red card for Elliott Bennett after 58 minutes, Latics just could not find a way past Rovers’ resolute defence. Paul Cook summed it up after the game by saying; “Although we had a lot of the ball, we never really opened Blackburn up like we wanted to.”

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

The quality of refereeing

Following the expulsion of Bennett with his second yellow card of the game, Rovers fans chanted “You don’t know what you’re doing”. The Wigan contingent might well have echoed their views, particularly in the first half, as the referee seemingly permitted Rovers to systematically foul Wigan’s key players.

In the referee’s defence it could be said that a derby like this is never going to be an easy game to handle. Moreover, referees in League 1 tend to give players the benefit of the doubt in challenges that would be often be penalised in the Championship division.

However, they have an obligation to stop systematic fouling, which Wigan have suffered not only in this game, but in others prior to it this season. Nick Powell perhaps sometimes makes a meal out of the challenges he receives, but too often this season he has not been able to show his full range of skills because of persistently negative physical challenges against him.

Blackburn are promotion rivals

Following relegation from the Championship, Blackburn had a clear-out of players. However, Mowbray has pieced together a useful squad that will surely challenge for a promotion spot this season. As the new players continue to gel with their teammates we can expect them to get stronger and stronger.

Jacobs is a key player

Michael Jacobs can add dynamism to Wigan’s game by his willingness to run at defenders at full throttle. His running creates room for his teammates. But it was an off-day for the player and Latics suffered as a result. So often he seemed content to make a short pass to Callum Elder to cross the ball into the box. The element of surprise was lost.

But perhaps our expectations for Jacobs are too high. Can we really expect the player to provide that degree of high energy running and commitment on a match-by-match basis?

Morsy avoided provocation

Like Nick Powell, Sam Morsy was also subject to particular attention by the opposition. Were Blackburn trying to muffle his creative talents from deep midfield or hoping to provoke him into retaliation for the treatment he was receiving? Despite his lack of control in prior matches, leading to a string of yellow cards, Morsy showed patience and resilience by not retaliating and trying to get on with his game.

Shrewsbury lose at last

The Shrews 1-0 defeat at Peterborough leaves Latics just one point off first place after 16 games played. It has been a wonderful start to the season by Shrewsbury – but can they keep it up in the same way that another unfancied team, Burton Albion, did a couple of years ago?

Over the course of a season the quality of the squad tends to be the most important factor. Wigan certainly have a strong squad, which is well balanced except for cover for the right back position. It remains a priority for the January transfer window. It remains to be seen whether Shrewsbury have the depth of squad to match over the course of the season.

Are Blackburn Rovers more likely to be a threat? They gained a draw at the New Meadow in late September through a late Bradley Dack equaliser. An interesting statistic is that, unlike the encounter on Saturday, that game produced a total of only 15 fouls from the two teams, with the Shrews conceding 8.

 

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Key players stay – five talking points about the transfer window for Latics

Great news that Nick Powell is staying. Can he stay fit and reveal his true potential?

As a Wigan Athletic fan, I have come to dread the last days of the transfer windows. Last night I was anxiously waiting for news, hoping and praying had the chairman would back his manager by letting him keep his key players. Were the likes of Dan Burn, Will Grigg, Michael Jacobs, Sam Morsy, Max Power and Nick Powell going to stay?

The end result was largely a feeling of relief, tempered by the surprise late departure of Alex Gilbey and the absence of a new right back among the signings. But David Sharpe had resisted the urge to cash in on his prized assets, despite the economic pressure weighing heavily on him. It can be seen as a statement of intent that the chairman is willing to provide the broad financial backing needed to get the club back in the Championship division, given the low potential revenues coming in. However, the bitter pill will be somewhat sweetened by some £1.2 m brought in during the summer sales.

How many times in recent years have the dealings made in those transfer windows put the club in a better situation in the longer term? Warren Joyce signed eight last January, only one of whom is with the club now. Uwe Rosler signed nine new players in the summer of 2014, giving him a squad that was too big, making it difficult to handle. Almost half of the new boys were gone by the end of the January window. But worse was to come as Malky Mackay signed twelve in the winter months, only one of whom remained when the 2015-16 season started.

It remains to be seen whether this summer’s transfer activity will leave Latics in a better state that they were in at the end of last season. Harsh economics have come into play, forcing the club to cut its budget in the region of 60%. The reality is that the revenues the club will have coming in League 1 are way below what they had in the Championship, where they were buoyed by parachute payments.

Let’s look at some key points:

The squad remains strong enough to fight for automatic promotion, providing injuries do not prove too troublesome.

The squad is well balanced and has a wealth of quality players for the division they are playing in. When Gary Roberts was brought in it looked like Nick Powell was on his way out, but it turned out to be Alex Gilbey. Like Powell, Roberts has a lot of flair and can both create and score goals. The long-term injury suffered by Craig Morgan meant that another central defender would be brought in. Providing he stays fit Alex Bruce has the know-how and experience to be a top player in League 1.

The right back position remains problematic. It was a surprise not to see a new player drafted in. Nathan Byrne has established himself as the first choice in that position, but both Luke Burke and Donervon Daniels have been sent out on loan. We can only assume that if Byrne is unavailable then one of the central defenders or Max Power will be drafted in there.

Injuries took a major toll last season. Donervon Daniels and Reece James did not play a single league game and Alex Gilbey, Will Grigg, Andy Kellett and Nick Powell were absent for long periods. Gilbey has now been sold. Daniels and Kellett have been sent out on season-long loans with just one year of their contracts remaining. Grigg appears to be approaching full fitness and James has done well since his return. Powell appears to be building up his fitness, but has not yet been able to last the full 90 plus.

However, an injury to the excellent young loan goalkeeper, Christian Walton, is a real blow for Latics. Paul Cook has brought in Matija Sarkic from Aston Villa, but the 20-year-old lacks EFL experience. It appears that Jamie Jones will be first choice until Walton is fit to return.

Paul Cook has made some good moves  in the transfer and loan markets.

Cook’s signings of Noel Hunt and Gary Roberts from Portsmouth have hardly gone down well with most fans. Hunt is 34 and Roberts 33. However, they are on one-year contracts. Based on what happened at Portsmouth, Roberts is more likely to appear more regularly than Hunt who is most likely to be used as a substitute.

But Cook has not paid a penny for any of his 7 permanent signings, all of whom were recruited as free agents. He has raised funds by selling Omar Bogle, Kaiyne Woolery and Alex Gilbey. He has brought in 5 loan players, with Lee Evans, Christian Walton and Ivan Toney being ever-presents in the starting line-ups so far.

Cook has used the pre-season and cup games so far to give youth a chance. The club has some fine prospects coming through its academy, including the 16-year-old Catalan, Victor Maffeo, who made his debut at Blackpool on Tuesday. Cook has sent out four of them on loan to clubs of a suitable level – Luke Burke to AFC Fylde (National League Premier), Callum Lang to Morecambe (League 2), Chris Merrie to Southport (National League North) and Sam Stubbs to Crewe Alexandra (League 2). James Barrigan, Luke Burgess and Josh Gregory remain.

Economics need to be considered.

Dave Whelan has owned Wigan Athletic since 1995. Although his grandson is the club chairman it is Whelan’s financial backing that underpins the club’s future. During the club’s ascent to the Premier League and its eight years in the top-flight Whelan put close to £100 m into the club.

In recent years the club has been closer to making revenues and expenditures match. However, four years of parachute payments have been spent since Latics got relegated from the Premier League and the club is once again in League 1.

It is rumoured that players were asked to take pay cuts when the club was once again relegated. But even if this has been the case and funds have come in through transfers (including that of Yanic Wildschut in January), the imbalance between revenues to be gained and player salary costs is a major issue.

Given the recent history of cutting back on salaries when projected revenues could not support them, it is a surprise that Nick Powell is still at the club. Powell might well have taken a cut on his reputed £16,000 per week, but his salary almost certainly will still dwarf that of other players in League 1.

Has Powell been retained in an ambitious bid for automatic promotion or has his horrendous injury record deterred other clubs from signing him or taking him on loan? Or are the Whelan family taking a gamble on the player regaining full fitness and not only propelling Latics back into the Championship, but also vastly increasing his net worth on the transfer market?

Should this squad secure promotion, how would survival in the Championship look?

The recruitment focus in the early Gary Caldwell era was to bring in “hungry” players in their early to mid-twenties who could provide the backbone of the team for the future. Donervon Daniels, Will Grigg, Michael Jacobs, Reece James, Andy Kellett and Max Power were among those. Ryan Colclough, Alex Gilbey, Sam Morsy and Yanic Wildschut were to follow.

Six of those players remain for Cook to call upon next week. Gilbey and Wildschut have gone and Daniels and Kellett sent on season-long loans in the final years of their contracts. Last season’s squad was good enough to ensure survival in the Championship. It was the inept management of Warren Joyce that took Latics down. However, some £12 m in parachute payments underpinned a wage bill of around £18 m.

Put simply: if Latics were to go up it would need significant investment by the Whelan family to keep them there in the absence of parachute payments.

Will Grigg and Michael Jacobs need to be offered new contracts.

Cook had said that contract extensions would be looked at once the transfer window was closed and he had the squad he wanted. Failure to offer the two players extended contracts will mean they will be free agents at the end of the season. The complication is not knowing what division Latics will be in next season.

Let’s not forget Reece James, who will also be out of contract next summer. James has done well to come back after being out for so long and has looked impressive so far. If he can prove his fitness, surely he too will be offered a contract extension.

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Overloading the midfield

Preferred position - central midfield.

Preferred position – central midfield.

Owen Coyle had left it late, but he finally got his man on the last day of the summer transfer window in 2013. Nick Powell was 19 years old and still in Alex Ferguson’s plans. Manchester United had paid Crewe £6 million for his services in July 2012. Powell had made his debut for United just a couple of months later, scoring against Latics after coming on as a 71st minute substitute for Ryan Giggs.

“We see him as a central midfield player. Crewe played him as a forward in behind the striker, but I asked a question of [Alex director of football] Dario Gradi as to whether he thought central midfield was his position. That’s what he thinks, and Nick thinks that’s his position too, so we’re all in accord on that.”

Ferguson’s comment seemed to fall on deaf ears with Coyle, who was faced with injuries to his two main central strikers, Marc Antoine Fortune and Grant Holt. Powell was to be played as a centre forward, a position he had played earlier in his career. Over the next couple of months he was to establish himself as the club’s best striker, scoring three goals in Latics’ inaugural appearance in the Europa League. The disastrous Coyle reign ended in early December, but new manager Uwe Rosler continued to play him in the starting lineup. But niggling injuries started to take effect and Powell lost form. By the end of the season he looked a shadow of what we had seen in the short-lived Coyle era.

When Powell returned to Wigan a couple of weeks back many of us looked at his arrival as a boost for an attack so dependent on Will Grigg. Powell could step in as a centre forward, or play just behind the central striker. But in Powell’s first two matches against Blackburn Rovers and Birmingham City he was played as a central midfielder.

Although it was not a position he played in during his earlier days at Wigan, Powell has already looked the part playing there. It is his preferred position, although Gary Caldwell has acknowledged that Powell offers him flexibility through being able to play in different positions. However, if Powell is to be a regular starter in central midfield, who will be giving way for him?

Last season’s central midfield lynchpins were David Perkins and Max Power. They were joined in January by Sam Morsy, who had some highly impressive displays in the “Busquets role” in front of the back four. However, the ex-Chesterfield man also had some disappointing performances. However, many of us saw the 24 year old Morsy as a player for the future, someone who could add steel to the midfield, but who was also able to spray out pinpoint passes.

It was therefore a surprise to hear rumours that Latics were trying to sell Morsy. Both Chesterfield and Sheffield United have apparently matched Wigan’s asking price of around £400,000, but Morsy remains at Wigan, for the time being at least. Morsy will surely be loath to step back down to League 1, after reaching the Championship. He is within his rights to put his foot down and refuse to move on, having two years remaining on his contract at Wigan.

But over the past couple of years we have seen what a powerful machine there is at the club in “helping”, or maybe cajoling, players into moving on. The likelihood is that Morsy will be gone soon, with Latics recently signing a replacement in Shaun MacDonald.

The main contenders for a central midfield role are now MacDonald, Perkins, Powell and Power, with Tim Chow as back up. Alex Gilbey has so far been played a more advanced role, but could also challenge for a holding role.

The term “midfielder “ these days can include wing backs and other wide players. Yanic Wildschut is what might have been described in the old days as a “winger”, nowadays labelled as a midfielder, although he can also play a twin striker role. Michael Jacobs can also be classed as a winger, although his best position is probably in the hole between the midfield and the central striker. Ryan Colclough is usually played wide, but is another who might be more effective in an advanced central midfield role. However, Latics have now signed Jordi Gomez who can operate effectively in that role. Jordan Flores is a bright young talent, also an attacking midfielder. It could be a make or break season for Flores who has struggled with the physical demands of the game, despite his excellent technique and footballing vision. Andy Kellett will provide another option when he regains fitness after surgery.

Caldwell has such a wealth of midfield talent at his disposal that some would say it is an overload. Others would say that there are 46 games to play in a Championship season and you need to rotate your midfielders to keep them fresh. However, Morsy is not likely to be alone in leaving.

Caldwell continues to search for another centre forward of the quality of Grigg. Such players cost big money and he will be looking at raising funds to pay for it. It would not be a surprise to see other players from last season’s League 1 team following Morsy out of the door. In the meantime there could be loan moves for the some of the younger midfielders on the fringes of selection.

For the moment Latics have midfielders who have proven goalscoring records. Gomez and Powell both scored goals in their previous spells at the club and last season Colclough scored 9, Wildschut 7, Jacobs 8, Power 6 and Gilbey got 5. However, Caldwell will also look at protecting his defence and it would be no surprise to see MacDonald in the “Busquets role” if Morsy departs.

The transfer window is nearing its close. Having expected Caldwell to stick with the backbone last year’s team it was notable that the starting lineup in the first league game at Bristol City included five new faces.

Even more change is on its way.

Winning with kids

Gary Caldwell continues to lower the average age of his squad.

Gary Caldwell continues to lower the average age of his squad.

“You can’t win anything with kids”.

So said Alan Hansen after a young Manchester United side had been beaten by Aston Villa. United’s lineup had featured an 18 year old Phil Neville, plus 20 year olds David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes, together with the 21 year old Ryan Giggs. They went on to win the Premier League that same season. Hansen’s comment became infamous in English football history.

As did Alex Ferguson twenty years ago, Gary Caldwell too has put a considerable amount of faith in young players. In fact three of them rank in the top four this season as far as appearances are concerned. That trio of Donervon Daniels, Reece James and Max Power are all 22 years old.

Over the January transfer Caldwell has continued to lower the average age of his squad. Don Cowie (32) and Grant Holt (34) left the club by mutual consent. In came Ryan Colclough (21), Conor McAleny (23), Sam Morsy (24) and Reece Wabara (24). Goalkeeper Dan Lavercombe (19) replaced Richard O’Donnell (27), although for the moment he is back at his previous club, Torquay. Midfielder Danny Whitehead (22) was also signed and loaned back to Macclesfield Town. Yanic Wildschut (24) was signed on a permanent contract following his loan spell from Middlesbrough.

Caldwell and his recruitment team have done a fine job, bringing in no less than 29 new players since summer. Moreover there are signs that the players are starting to gel and the team is starting to approach the point where the whole is at least the sum of its parts. Hopes for automatic promotion have been raised, although it remains a difficult task given the consistency of the teams above them.

Wabara has filled the problematic right wing back position, with Kevin McNaughton now back in training. A few weeks ago losing Michael Jacobs to injury would have left the team short of creative input. But the emergence of Haris Vuckic and the arrival of the confident and accomplished Colclough have helped allay concerns. Morsy has come in to add some steel to the midfield, potentially the replacement for David Perkins, who is now 33. The squad now has a better balance than it did a month ago.

Whether Latics will achieve automatic promotion remains to be seen. But with the talent at Caldwell’s disposal they will pose problems for any team in League 1. The least Latics are currently heading for is a place just below the top two, but  getting promotion through the playoffs is a precarious business where confrontations can be tight and so easily effected by unexpected events. The worst case scenario is at  least one more year in League 1.

Next season Latics will receive around £12 million in parachute payments, the final instalment. If they remain in League 1 they will be able to continue operating a budget three times higher than most clubs in the division. However, if promotion is achieved they will face fierce financial competition from Championship clubs, some boosted by much larger parachute payments, others buoyed by funding from benefactor owners. Moreover when their own parachute payments run out they will be faced with competing on an uneven keel against almost all the clubs in the division.

It is for these reasons that having a quality recruitment programme is key to the club’s long term future. Scouting for bargains in younger players coming from clubs in lower divisions or those released by big clubs will be the order of the day.

At the same time the club will need to be able to attract top teenage talent into its academy. Gregor Rioch came with a fine reputation in building up an academy at Coventry and he has already produced results at Wigan. The under 18 team breaking a club record by reaching the fifth round of the FA Youth Cup and taking Manchester City into extra time is an indicator of how much progress has been made. As in previous eras many of the youngsters recruited have come from the greater Manchester and Liverpool areas, often after being at a Premier League club. The recent loan moves of the 18 year old Adam Anson and the 19 year old Louis Robles, both previously in the Liverpool academy, to Macclesfield continue to show that the club seeks to toughen up the younger talent it is nurturing by sending them to clubs in physically competitive leagues. Sam Cosgrove, 18, previously at the Everton academy, has already had loan spells at Barrow and Chorley.

Over the years Alan Hansen might have come to rue his assertion that “You can’t win anything with kids”. But Premier League stats suggest that there is some degree of validity in his statement. When Manchester United won that title in 1995-96 they had six players under the age of 23 who played in 10 games or more. But nothing of the kind has happened since. In fact the average number of under 23s playing regularly in Premier League title winning squads over the last 20 years is less than three.

The success of Manchester United’s young players those two decades ago was clearly exceptional. But perhaps more importantly those players were to stay at the club, providing the backbone of the team for years to come.

Gary Caldwell will be hoping that this will prove the case for the majority of the young players he has recruited over recent months. He and his recruitment team are striving to build the backbone of a squad to serve the club for years to come.

 

 

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.