Evatt’s comments rankle, but are Wigan Athletic an over-physical team?

Ian Evatt defends Dapo Afolayan

“I just think that sometimes he has unfairly of having a reputation for diving, but if you’re fouled, you’re fouled. I thought some of the tackles on him today were poor and mistimed and that’s where you need the referees to ignore noise and so-called reputations and give the right decision on a day and I don’t think we got the right decision with McClean’s second yellow in particular.”

Ian Evatt is rarely short of words. The outspoken Bolton boss was right about James McClean’s second yellow for a foul on Dapo Afolayan. It was a reckless action by a player already on a yellow card and it could have ultimately cost Latics all three points. The referee had earlier booked McClean for a foul on Afolayan, that was debatable. Some would say that the Irishman did not even touch the player, but even if he did it was hardly a bookable offence. The referee was surely influenced by the writhing of Afolayan on the ground after his fall.

Wigan were certainly aware of the threat that the 24-year-old Afolayan brings. He is a talented and skilful player who will invariably be heavily marked by League 1 defences. According to the Bolton Evening News he was the most fouled player in the division after the initial 5 matches this season. Given his capabilities it would be a surprise for him to remain at Horwich next season.

This Wigan Athletic side is certainly physical. Over the course of the season, they have outgunned the opposition with their ability to win the second ball, wearing them down by attrition. The stats reflect it with Latics scoring a total of 28 goals in the first half and 40 in the second. It is the fittest Wigan team for many years. Long balls are a feature in Liam Richardson’s style of play. Stats from WhoScored.com show an average of 18% of their passes classed as “long”, compared with Bolton’s average of 11%.

But are Wigan more physical than other teams in League 1? How does their foul and card count compare?

“Wigan had a game plan to come here and stop us playing and when you’ve got a team as experienced, as physical and as well set-up as they are, it makes things difficult.”

So said MK Dons manager, Liam Manning, following Latics’ draw at the MK Stadium in March. The match starts showed the home team having 59% of possession and committing 11 fouls to Wigan’s 16. A draw was a fair result between two teams with contrasting styles. Leam Richardson opted for a backline of three central defenders, with wing backs, matching the formation of the home team. It worked well, the shape and energy of the Wigan team stifling the MK Dons’ usually smooth-flowing football, forcing them into errors.

The Dons are probably the most aesthetically pleasing footballing side in League 1. On average they have committed 8.5 fouls per game, compared with 13.4 by the opposition. Latics and Rotherham can be considered more physical in their style of play and the stats back up the argument. Latics have committed an average of 12.7 fouls per match (11.9 by the opposition) and Rotherham 12.6 (11.5). Wigan’s foul stats, not surprisingly given the difficult circumstances, make better reading than those in the 2020/21 season of 14.7 to 11.7.

Stats courtesy of FootCharts.co.uk

Although Latics and Rotherham come close on foul stats, an examination of those for yellow card stats paints a different picture.  Wigan average 2.1 yellows per game (1.7 by the opposition), whereas Rotherham’s stats are 1.5 to 1.8.

Stats courtesy of FootCharts.co.uk

More than half of Latics’ yellow cards have been accumulated by 4 players: Tendayi Darikwa 13, Callum Lang 11, Max Power 10 and James McClean 8. On the other hand, Jack Whatmough and Tom Naylor who have made so many key tackles and interceptions this season have received 4 and 6 yellows respectively.

The brand of football played by Richardson’s team is certainly akin to that of the Paul Cook era. The stats in Cook’s final season were 13.5 fouls committed per match (13.1 for the opposition), 2.1 yellows per match (1.8 for the opposition).

Style of play notwithstanding, Leam Richardson has done an outstanding job over the last two seasons since Cook left. He kept Latics in League 1 and they are now in with a very good chance of automatic promotion. Moreover, a half the current squad have prior experience of at least 40 matches in the Championship or the Premier League. Should promotion be achieved there would be a strong base to build upon.

Latics may be one of the most physical teams in the division but they are less cynical than many. The standard of refereeing may be near an all time low in League 1, but the officials’ jobs are made so difficult by the diving, shamming of injury, shameless time wasting and mobbing of referees over borderline decisions. The foul and card stats make interesting reading, but do not necessarily paint a full picture.

Five talking points following an abject display against Sunderland

February 26, 2022: Wigan Athletic 0 Sunderland 3

“I’ve got to be respectful to the players and the staff in that we haven’t lost here since October. The good thing about football is that we’re able to make it right over the next couple of days and we’ve got another game on Tuesday to do that.”

Leam Richardson was as philosophical as usual in his post-match comments.

But Wigan Athletic’s big day in front of a home crowd of over 20,000 was a big let-down. A well taken goal by Bailey Wright after two minutes was followed by two “soft” penalties for a runaway win for the visitors, their third against Wigan this season.

The run of fixtures at Rotherham and Wycombe at home to Sunderland was always going to be demanding. Four points from the three games in the space of eight days against top League 1 opposition is not such a bad tally, but this defeat in front of the biggest DW crowd in a decade really hurt.

Let’s take a look at some discussion points from the game:

Latics rely on having high energy levels

Conceding a goal in the first two minutes was a hammer blow, but on previous occasions when Wigan have fallen behind, they have so many times clawed their way back to win. This is certainly the fittest Latics squad for years and among the most physical. They will typically grind the opposition down by attrition, piling on more and more pressure as the other team tires.

That those high energy levels were not evident yesterday was no surprise following demanding trips to Rotherham and Wycombe within the space of just over a week. Richardson had employed a degree of squad rotation for those games, but there were eight players who played in all three.

Richardson is always reluctant to change a winning lineup, unlike Alex Ferguson who invariably made one or two changes, nevertheless keeping the core of the lineup. Midfield is a key area in the battleground of Richardson’s team, but Tom Naylor and Max Power looked jaded yesterday, with Will Keane struggling to impose himself. Richardson has quality and experienced midfield cover in Graeme Shinnie, Glen Rea and Jamie McGrath. The latter seems to have disappeared off the radar despite a promising start to a Latics career. The other two have been used sparingly.

Getting the best out of the flair players

At their best Latics have created their chances from the wings, with Callum Lang and James McClean, constantly attacking opposition defences and Will Keane following through from centre midfield. Latics once more looked over-reliant on Lang and he was well policed by the Sunderland defence. McClean was sadly played at left back and much of his attacking edge was dulled by his defensive responsibilities. At his best Keane has not only scored crucial goals, but he has also provided a link between defence and attack. But Keane has too often been pushed forward, leaving a gap between holding midfield and the attack.

Lang, McClean and Keane are always likely to be among the first names on the manager’s team sheet. Richardson has Gavin Massey available to come in as backup for Lang, Gwion Edwards for McClean and McGrath for Keane.

Lumping it long to the centre forward

Since the arrival of the Cook/Richardson duo in 2017 the style of football at Wigan has been predominantly long ball. At its best it has been a targeted approach with measured long passes to attacking players, putting pressure on the opposition defences, subsequently opening them up from the flanks. At its worst it has deteriorated to hoofball, with the centre forward having a near hopeless task feeding on scraps.

Kieffer Moore is a centre forward who remains well loved by Latics fans for his role in that epic fight against a 15- point deduction in 2019-20. Moore had a torrid time in his early days at Wigan constantly chasing those hopeful long balls and receiving scant service. Although signed in summer it took him until November to score his first goal. He went on to score 10 in 36 appearances, including some real crackers. It could be said that Moore took some time adapting to the Championship after playing in the lower leagues. But more than that, he benefitted from a gradual shift of the team playing the ball more through midfield and defenders cutting down on those balls lumped forward.

Josh Magennis is struggling in the same way that Moore did in his early days. Magennis is an experienced centre forward who has played in the Championship, the Scottish Premier League and the EFL League 1. He can hardly be called a “poacher” with a career record of 76 goals in 413 appearances in those three leagues. But is he the right person to play the target man role in Richardson’s style of play? Is it the best way to employ him?

To be fair on Magennis it is a thankless task chasing hopeful long balls. Richardson replaced an ineffective Magennis after 62 minutes at Wycombe on Tuesday but later stated the player had been “excellent”. His comment beggared belief.

There was a moment in this game when we saw Magennis at his best. He ran down a channel on the right, showing keen acceleration and put in a superb low cross that McClean, running in from the left back position, almost scored. Magennis does make runs into space, but rarely receives the right pass. If he is to be successful at Wigan it is going to be when his teammates play to his strengths.

Adapting tactics according to the opponent’s style of play

Sunderland manager Alex Neil is a wily tactician and it would be no surprise to see his team perform well in the coming weeks. They have a had a torrid time recently, but yesterday looked well balanced, with a solid defence, a creative midfield and the threat of Ross Stewart up front.

Latics were clearly shaken by the early goal but looked tactically limited. That has been the case on previous occasions when they have faced teams with the ability to keep the ball on the ground and pass through the midfield.

The MK Dons pose a threat to Latics, now being level with them on points, but having played three games more. The Dons play that same kind of skilful football that we saw in flashes from Sunderland. It will be interesting to see how Richardson plans to deal with them in the game at the superb Stadium MK on March 12. Would a change in midfield formation be a possibility?  

Promotion is still on the cards

The immediate task is for Richardson to lift his players for the home game with Fleetwood on Tuesday. It is followed by Wimbledon’s visit on Saturday when MK Dons play at Rotherham. Latics will be keen to get maximum points in those two games before their next fixture at the Stadium MK.

Latics and Rotherham remain firm favourites for automatic promotion. In Wigan’s case it can be done provided the manager effectively uses the talent at his disposal and orders his players to stop that awful lumping of the ball forward.  

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Amigo and Social Media Reaction to a stunning win at Bolton

October 16, 2021: Bolton Wanderers 0 Wigan Athletic 4

What a scintillating performance from Wigan! They bossed this game from start to finish, outplaying the home team. Will Keane’s 6th minute goal got Latics off to a flying start. The home team’s main threat was from inverted left winger Dapo Ofolayan, a capable player, but one who has the ability to fall to the ground after the mildest of challenges. His threat was nullified by crowding him out and the tactic seriously hindered Bolton’s attacks. Wigan’s defence was rock solid and they were full of energy in midfield and up front, with the line superbly led by Charlie Wyke.

James McClean had his best match ever for Latics, scoring two and providing the assist for the first goal. A very experienced Premier League and Championship player he is revelling in playing in the third tier. His rocket shot put Latics two up in the 50th minute and he showed good composure to add a fourth in the 80th minute. McClean’s best goalscoring record in league games is 7 goals for Stoke City in the Championship in 2019-20. He already has 3 goals this season and looks like he will go on to eclipse that previous record.

In a post-match interview McClean remarked on his first goal: “It was a great strike. I had a couple in the first half on my right foot which was more Row Z rather than the top corner. To get that away and see it fly into the top corner was a great feeling. It was absolutely fantastic.” He added that Latics have a side that “can pretty much do anything”, being able to play football and match opponents on a physical level when the going gets tough.

It was a memorable performance from Latics, marred only by crowd trouble. The local  police superintendent commented; “I am saddened that a group of individuals took it upon themselves to ruin the game today for the rest of the fans. The game had to be paused several times due to objects being thrown on to the pitch and one of our officers was assaulted, as well as rival supporters causing disorder following the game. This is quite frankly disgusting behaviour and will not be tolerated in any shape or form. We will continue to work closely with the football clubs to carry out a full investigation into the criminal activity that occurred today and bring those involved to justice.”

Let’s take a look at how fans reacted to the match through the message boards and social media. Our thanks go to the Vital Wigan – Latics Speyk Forum and Twitter for providing the media for the posts below to happen. Thanks go to all whose contributions are identified below:

JockLatic commented:

Absolutely brilliant performance, best I’ve seen in a while, from Amos all the way to Wyke who worked his socks off. MoM was JM closely followed by Naylor who mopped up everything that came his way but the rest of the team were top drawer as well. From kick off we didn’t let them settle & at 1 nil we missed a few chance which had me thinking will this come back & bite us in the ar.e – no need to worry once JM screamed the second in much to the dismay of the ‘crazy corner’ ….JM doing what he does best, winding up the opposition fans. Couldn’t go without saying that our fans today played their part with a brilliant atmosphere from start to finish & I’ve no doubt that ‘Bolton get battered everywhere they go’ will be ringing in them Bolton fans ears for some time to come. Coming away from the ground wasn’t too bad but there was certainly a fair few looking for it from both sides…luckily we didn’t see any. Onwards to MK Dons n hopefully a similar performance.

WalgarthJohn said:

The way this fixture is going it’s attracting every trouble maker from both sides. And over the last few times we have played these lot it gets worse every game. our fans. Ripping down hoardings. Was not nice to see. Wigan Athletic has always been a family club. Shameful behaviour from both sets of fans.

KingdeZeeuw summed up:

After the last international break we saw a big improvement in our style of play and we saw another big step forward today. By far our best performance of the season we retained the foundations of out working, out running and out battling the opposition but were far more composed in possession and playing more football. There were long balls but very few of were hopeful punts that came straight back at us they were more targeted into areas that hurt Bolton and helped us. Centre mid is now getting involved in the build up play all the time and it’s made the world of difference. Cousins I felt had his best game for us and was far more positive on the ball so it was a real shame he went off injured – hopefully it’s nothing serious and he’ll not miss any time.

It was a very balanced performance where we looked dangerous every time we had the ball and every time we broke up play we were rapid to counter in numbers. We’ve said all season that we have been very effective without playing great and we hadn’t really seen the finished article yet in terms of style of play. But today all of the hard work and tweaking we’ve done from game to game really started to pay off and it was superb.

Bolton have a lot of method in the way they play and that type of football earlier in the season was causing us issues but today our high press and pressing all over the pitch killed them and they had no plan B. We just forced them into error after error. When you look at the stats they had more possession and lots more passes but it was all possession in non dangerous areas and passes that didn’t really help them – compared to us who were ruthlessly efficient in and out of possession. Evatt I’m sure will do some mental gymnastics to say that their possession and passing proves they’re a better side but we looked a class above them. We’ll be playing MK Dons next who are very much in the same camp of possession based football and playing out from the back. So hopefully we can’t repeat this performance.

Hard to pick anyone out as MOTM as everyone was excellent but special mention to Wyke. He may not have got on the score sheet but he was playing against a much larger centre half in Santos most of the time and he was winning so many balls in the air. His work rate is always high and his hold and link up were great. He looked a proper target man today and it made everything we did so much more dangerous with Lang and Keane anticipating the flick ons.

I bet Evatt wishes he hadn’t talked so much as i got the impression a few of our lads had a little extra spring in their step to put one up him. Evatt has done well for Bolton but he’s firing up other teams and lumping extra pressure on his players with his comments and today should’ve humbled him. But I get the impression he isn’t the type to learn from his mistakes.

No doubt Richardson was backed in the market to bring in a squad better than most in the division but to get them so organised, so fit, so hard working and fight so hard is a massive testament to him and the coaching staff he brought in. It’s still early days so you can’t get too carried away but it feels like they are building something special.

C_Latic commented:

Simply wonderful and the best thing was that wasn’t even the best we’ve played this season. We were better against Wycombe. An absolute pasting and credit to Ian Evatt for the assist with his pre match team talk. Well in Jimmy Mc!

Bolton fan WarrenBluffit commented:

No complaints today guys you were head and shoulders better.

No apologies necessary Becky and no excuses you were head and shoulders better than us today in every area of the pitch. I just don’t know what our lot we’re on today, that’s the worst I’ve seen since the first half of last season, nervous, slow, clumsy and lacking in any kind of passion. I say that without taking anything away from Wigan, you were excellent, won every 50/50 ball, forced us into mistakes and kept your shape for the whole game.

You were clinical where it mattered and defensively in the second half you totally shut us down. You’ll know better your own players but for me Wyke was outstanding, totally dominating Santos and Johnson and nobody else has bullied Santos that way. On that performance I can’t see anyone stopping you going up and it rammed Evatt’s stupid comments right back where the sun don’t shine!! Good luck for the rest of the season and apologies for some of our moron fans who resorted to chucking things.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Mackay gets it right – Post match reaction Leeds United (A)

Our luck was in today”.

So said James McClean, the architect of Wigan Athletic’s first win since October 25th. McClean’s cross led to a Leeds own goal after 11 minutes, then he sealed the win with a powerful finish in the 82nd minute.

Mackay got his tactics right this time around. He brought in James Tavernier in his best position as right wing back, with Andrew Taylor on the opposite flank and a central defensive trio of James Perch, Ivan Ramis and Rob Kiernan. He stuck with the experienced trio of Don Cowie, Chris McCann and Ben Watson in midfield, with McClean and Marc-Antoine Fortune upfront.

Nobody looked happier with yesterday’s win than the beleaguered manager, Malky Mackay. It was a welcome surprise to see him opt for a 3-5-2 formation, after his sterile tactics in previous matches. Fans were wincing at the prospect of him playing with just one striker, but the change in formation allowed him to play with two, whilst providing more defensive stability.

This time Mackay fielded three of Uwe Rosler’s signings in his starting lineup, having brought in Tavernier to join his trusted lieutenants, Cowie and Taylor. He boldly left out the underperforming FA Cup winning trio of Emmerson Boyce, Callum McManaman and Shaun Maloney.

Maloney might well be leaving the club over the coming weeks, as Latics are likely to want to cash in with his contract expiring at the end of the season. Boyce has been a wonderful club servant and played in Wigan’s most famous victories, but has just not looked the same player this season. At 35 he is now unlikely to be able to command a regular place in the starting lineup.

Ironically McManaman was left out when Mackay opted for the formation that suits him best. Playing wide on the flank makes it too easy for the opposition to snuff him out of the game with multiple markers. In a 3-5-2 system he has the freedom to wander, making it hard for the opposition defence to control him. The young player has received criticism over recent weeks from fans who have thought he has not been sufficiently involved in the game. However, unlike with Rosler, who would often only play him for an hour, he is now expected for play the full ninety.

Mackay is the third manager who has tried to play with the two wide men – McManaman and McClean – in the same lineup to find out it does not work. Of the two, McManaman is the more clinical finisher, although McClean hit home his goal with aplomb yesterday. Would Mackay consider playing the two together as strikers in a 3-5-2 formation, rather than as orthodox wingers?

Even in the Martinez days of 3-5-2 (or a modified 3-4-3), Latics played with at least one target man. In the last season in the Premier League it was Arouna Kone and Franco di Santo before that. Yesterday Mackay had Fortune playing there. Moreover over the past months Wigan’s defenders and goalkeeper have grown accustomed to using the centre forward as an outlet for hopeful long punts. But yesterday saw Ramis and Kiernan restored to the centre of defence and both are capable of resisting the hoof and playing the ball out from the back.

At last Wigan’s luck has changed for the better. In so many matches this season they have done enough to win, but thrown it away through defensive laxness or unlucky goals. This time around the remodeled defence held firm during the onslaught from the home team.

They say that one swallow does not make a summer. But at least fans can now see some light on the horizon. The coming weeks are going to continue to be a rollercoaster ride, both in terms of performance on the pitch and in changes in personnel over the period of the transfer window.

A win can do wonders for a team’s confidence and the players will now be looking forward to Tuesday’s home game with Sheffield Wednesday. They will hope that the ill-luck that has dogged them so much this season has gone for good.

Players who don’t seem to care – Norwich (H) match reaction

Can Mackay turn it around?

Can Mackay turn it around?

Over the years we have seen some abject performances from Latics with woeful scorelines. Too often when they were in the Premier League they would play a top of the table team and hold their own until the opponents scored their first goal. The confidence would sag and the legs would start to go. The exertion required to hold back the tide had taken too much out of the players, both physically and mentally. It almost looked like the players didn’t seem to care. It was akin to capitulation.

But those players did care. It was a learning experience for so many of them, but they would bounce back and get the most amazing results against those same elite clubs. One always felt with Roberto Martinez that he was trying to do something special, despite the very limited resources he had to work with. It was the mental side of things that he was building up. The players had to be mentally tough to compete against teams with so much more individual quality than they had.

After five decades of watching Latics I have rarely felt as depressed as I was after yesterday’s Norwich game. The stats show that Wigan committed just 5 fouls, to the Canaries’ 12. Neither side received a yellow card. Did those players really care? Where was the passion?

It was sad to see Uwe Rosler’s demise. It was inevitable, given the awful results that his team was getting this season. But Rosler at least had a vision of the kind of football he wanted, even if the players were unable or unwilling to produce it.

The football we saw yesterday was reminiscent of the worst days of Rosler’s predecessor, Owen Coyle. The goalkeeper and the defenders hoofing the ball upfield to a lone centre forward. To his credit Fortune did actually defy the odds and win some of those balls yesterday. But the possession he gained was too often squandered by teammates.

Despite his reputation as a motivational manager, Mackay was unable to motivate his players yesterday. His team selection and tactics surely did not help.

The local newspaper had got us excited about Shaun Maloney coming back after illness. When the team was announced it looked like he would play in the attacking midfield position, in front of Chris McCann and Ben Watson. But Maloney was to be confined to the left wing and James McClean occupied that role. McClean was like a fish out of water. He has a repertoire of skills,  but not those needed for that position. Maloney never got into the game and was substituted after 47 minutes.

Mackay left Emmerson Boyce on the bench and neither Gary Caldwell nor Thomas Rogne even appeared there. Instead Mackay brought in Maynor Figueroa at centre back. Figs rarely played for Latics as a centre half in a conventional back four in the Martinez days. When he did it was not particularly successful. He could be excellent playing on the left of a back line of three central defenders, but that is quite distinct from the position he played yesterday.

Mackay took most of us by surprise when he named both of the previously long-term absentees, McCann and Watson in the team to play at Sheffield. It was even more of a shock to see them paired together again yesterday. McCann had actually performed well in his first two matches, but he and Watson were unable to turn it on yesterday. The two are crucial to Latics turning the season around. Mackay is taking a gamble in playing the two so much after their long recuperations from injury. He runs the risk of losing them with their bodies taking a toll of not playing for 8-9 months.

As expected, Don Cowie made his first appearance under Mackay, who had been his manager at both Watford and Cardiff. Cowie went to right midfield where he performed as he has before in that position. Pedestrian to be sure, but Cowie will at least make the effort. The result was Callum McManaman being pushed inside and not seeming to know where he was playing.

The hard-working Fortune was taken off after 82 minutes to be replaced by Roger Espinoza. Given the insipid, characterless stuff we had seen up to that point it was a pity Espinoza had not been brought on earlier. The player has many qualities, not the least of which is to fight for the ball and run forward with enthusiasm. But, even then, he was a midfielder replacing a central striker with Latics a goal behind.

Mackay was to make his biggest gaffe of the afternoon by bringing on Andy Delort after 88 minutes for Chris McCann. Fortune can rarely be faulted for effort and he often does a remarkable job of bringing down and controlling Scott Carson’s long kicks. But he is rarely a threat to the opponents’ goal. Delort has been scoring goals for the development squad. Admittedly there is a gulf between the Final Third Development League and the Championship, but the Frenchman also has a fine goalscoring record in Ligue 2, not light years away. Bringing Delort on so late is hardly going to help his confidence.

Mackay has a difficult task ahead of him. However, for the last two games his players have not competed as they need to. Moreover he has made baffling team selections.

He needs to get his act together soon, or Latics will be in deep, deep trouble.