Five talking points arising from the win against Rotherham

Wigan Athletic 1 Rotherham 0

It was akin to a throwback to the days in League 1. The visiting team had come to “park the bus” and rely on long balls and set pieces as their outlet for threatening the Wigan goal. The previous home games against Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest had been so entertaining. This one was much less so.

Rotherham manager Paul Warne commented after the game that: “We were pleased to get them in at 0-0 at half-time. I thought Wigan were the better side without making our ‘keeper make too many saves. At half-time, we made our defenders play a lot higher up the pitch and our midfielders play higher to give some support to Smithy. I thought we were the better side in the second half. We were pushing for the goal and we had plenty of set-pieces. There was a block here and a block there and it just didn’t drop for us today against an excellent Wigan side, who played Stoke off the park last week.”

Warne summed up the first half well and the Millers certainly threatened in the closing stages with their aerial bombardment, but the Latics defence held firm. Wigan fans might debate Warne’s assertion that Rotherham were the better of the two sides in the second half, using their “direct” approach. It was not pretty to watch but caused some worrying moments for the home crowd.

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

Cook chooses Connolly on the right

A refreshing aspect of Paul Cook’s tenure as Latics manager has been in the balanced starting line-ups he has selected. It has been like a breath of fresh air for Latics fans who had to endure the Warren Joyce playing four holding midfielders across the middle of the park. Cook has placed an emphasis on playing the ball wide, with the full backs bombing forward to link up with speedy wingers.

However, yesterday Cook chose to play without an orthodox right winger although he had both Nathan Byrne and Callum McManaman available. Perhaps he felt that Callum Connolly deserved another run-out and the Everton player certainly reinforced the midfield. But there was not the same degree of pace on the right-hand side as a result.

On the left Josh Windass is in the process of adapting to the role that Michael Jacobs has played over the past year. Windass did not play at all badly and provided the pass to McManaman that led to Wigan’s goal. He also showed his ability on set pieces with a fizzler of a free kick in the first half which sent narrowly wide. Cook will be expecting that Windass’ shooting ability will add an extra dimension to Wigan’s play. However, yesterday Wigan lacked the kind of creativity on the left that Jacobs can provide.

The football took a nose-dive when Grigg and Powell went off

Will Grigg and Nick Powell were taken off after 60 minutes, with James Vaughan and Callum McManaman replacing them. The result was a deterioration in the level of Wigan’s football, with hopeful punts gradually becoming the norm rather than the controlled passing game we had seen up to that point.

Powell is the pivot in midfield through which so much of Latics’ best football flows. As the second half progressed Latics just could not hold on to the ball, putting undue pressure on the defence. Vaughan’s arrival once more coincided with more long balls. One wonders if the players are playing under orders to launch them towards Vaughan, or whether it is the player’s willingness to chase seemingly lost causes that affects the style of play. Or is it simply that in the final third of the game the players tire and just cannot keep that passing game going?

Walton – the most composed player

Christian Walton continues to grow in confidence, after looking nervy in the opening games. Yesterday he looked the most composed player on the pitch, excellent in his anticipation of opposition breakaways, reliable in his box.

Unnecessary free kicks

So many Championship teams are dangerous from set pieces. League 1 teams certainly had tall players who could threaten in the air, but in the second tier the delivery is superior. Following Wigan’s goal, the Millers brought on Kyle Vassell (6 ft) and Jamie Proctor (6 ft 2 in) to join the 6 ft 4 in centre forward Michael Smith.

The Wigan defence looked distinctly wobbly in the past quarter facing an aerial bombardment. It was not helped by the concession of unnecessary fouls giving the visitors the opportunity to launch dangerous crosses.

Powell stays

It was a relief for Wigan Athletic supporters for the loan transfer deadline to pass without the departure of Nick Powell. The next step is for the club to negotiate a new contract for a player whose market will soar if he continues to stay fit.

Reports suggest that the prospective new owners were present at the DW Stadium yesterday. Will the takeover actually happen soon?

Nathan Byrne, Gavin Massey, Shaun MacDonald, Sam Morsy and James Vaughan are in the same position as Powell, with their current contracts expiring in summer. It will be interesting to see how many of them are offered contract extensions.

 

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Five talking points from the draw with Nottingham Forest

Wigan Athletic 2 Nottingham Forest 2

 

It was another scintillating performance from Wigan Athletic, making Forest look distinctly mediocre. But a soft penalty decision in the 89th minute gave the visitors a point they did not deserve.

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

No team can play at full throttle for 90+ minutes

Latics attacked Forest from the start, their high pressing and high tempo approach causing all kinds of problems for the visitors’ defence. They were quite superb in the first half, the 2-1 score line at the interval not reflecting their dominance.

However, no team can play at full throttle for 90+ minutes. As the second half wore on the intensity and quality of Wigan’s football diminished. Forest got more and more into the game and Latics were penned in their own half for several minutes, a resolute defence keeping out a seemingly interminable series of corner kicks from the visitors.

Uwe Rosler’s team in 2013-14 often played the high press. Although they could rarely keep it going for more than 30 minutes it was often enough to upset the opposition defence and go in for half time with a lead. With experienced and capable goalkeepers and defenders they were so often able to repel the opposition attackers in the second half.

Paul Cook’s Latics are a younger side on a steep learning curve in the Championship. It could be said that the penalty decision robbed them of a well-deserved win, but they could have put the game out of sight from Forest if they had converted more of their chances in that first half.

An eventful afternoon for Sam Morsy

Sam Morsy is an inspirational captain who does so much to enable the smooth running of Cook’s machine. Morsy is a complete player, not only dogged in defence, but enterprising when he goes forward. Cook likes to give his full backs the opportunity to bomb forward and Antonee Robinson is particularly good at doing that.  When Robinson goes forward it is Morsy who covers him. Until yesterday he had done that well, but this time Morsy was dispossessed leaving the left side of the defence open, resulting in Forest’s first goal.

Despite his early error the captain continued to drive his team forward and was unlucky with a fine shot that hit the post. Together with the excellent Lee Evans he continued to control the midfield. Once again we were to see the fiery side of the captain late in the second half in the middle of an altercation between the two sides.

Then came the penalty decision. There are those who would argue that Morsy clearly fouled Cash, others who would say that Cash dived over Morsy’s outstretched leg. But the bottom line is that Morsy was reckless in putting himself in that position.

Strangely enough, without those two incidents that changed the game, Morsy would have been a candidate for “Man of the Match”.

Another side of Ben Watson

Ben Watson is now 33 and he joined Forest in February 2018 after being released by Watford. Latics’ cup final icon found himself on the bench yesterday but came on to applause after 45 minutes. Watson played for Latics from 2008 to 2015, making 107 appearances in the Premier League and the Championship. He was a fine servant for the club, with his positive and cultured approach.

However, what we saw yesterday from Watson was a bit of a surprise for us. Like Morsy he was at the centre of the altercation between the two teams late in the second half, also receiving a yellow card. Mobbing of the referee is something that football continues to tolerate, an ugly side of the great game. Whether the referee was going to award Forest a penalty or not after Cash’s fall before being intimidated by Watson and his teammates was hard to tell. But the vehemence and aggression of Watson and his teammates surely tested the determination of a weak referee. It was an unsavoury way to get a penalty decision and we saw a side of Watson that I do not recall seeing during his seven years at Wigan.

A role for James Vaughan

When James Vaughan came on to replace Will Grigg after 74 minutes it signalled a switch to long ball tactics for the home side. The service the player received was far from ideal, but as always, Vaughan gave his all, fighting for every ball.

No one will fault Vaughan for effort: it is the approach that Latics tend to use when he plays as a lone centre forward that is the issue. Were Vaughan a kind of battering-ram central striker like Atdhe Nuhiu the long ball tactic might be more effective, but it is not the best way to employ him. Vaughan has been most effective for Latics whilst playing alongside or behind a central striker.

A solid performance by the centre of defence

It has been a tough start for Cedric Kipre, being thrust into Championship football after just one full season of league football in the SPL. If Dan Burn had been available, Cook would have been able to nurture Kipre into being his replacement when “Superman” leaves in January. Instead he has had to throw the Ivorian in at the deep end.

Chey Dunkley too has had a baptism of fire in his first season in the second tier. With three less experienced players alongside him in the back four he has had additional responsibilities thrust upon him at a time when he too has been adjusting to playing in a higher division.

Both were solid yesterday, reacting well under pressure and starting to show that kind of mutual understanding that is so important in a central defensive line.

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Lang signs new contract – but who will be the next?

The announcement of a new two-year contract for the 19-year-old Callum Lang came at an opportune time. It left Wigan Athletic time to consolidate their investment in a player who has the potential to play in the upper tiers of English football. Lang is to be sent off on loan until January to Oldham Athletic, who were last season relegated to League 2.

It was in mid-May that the media reported that Everton were interested in signing Lang, who was in the Liverpool academy until he joined Latics at the age of 14. He made his Wigan debut in a League Cup game against Blackpool in August 2017 before being loaned to Morecambe for the season.

The 5 ft 11 in tall Lang had a successful loan with the Shrimps, making 14 starts, 16 substitute appearances and scoring 10 goals. Although regarded as a centre forward at Wigan, Lang would often play behind the central striker at Morecambe.

In modern football the majority of the clubs in the top tiers rarely give their young players an extended run in their senior team. The norm is that they are sent on loan to clubs in lower divisions, giving them first team experience in a competitive environment, thereby maximising their value in the transfer market. It is a minority who go back to their parent clubs and establish themselves as first team regulars. So, what are the chances of Lang becoming a major player for Latics?

Wigan Athletic has sadly been a graveyard for young players over recent years. The most recent success story was Leighton Baines and he left for Everton in 2007. So many youngsters have shown promise at youth level and looked destined for higher things, only to depart to clubs in the lower tiers. Latics managers, under pressure for results, have been reluctant to throw youngsters into the fray. But finding suitable loans for young players has never been easy for Wigan.

Last season saw Latics sending six homegrown youngsters on loan to non-league clubs. Three of those have since left the club. Sam Stubbs went to Crewe Alexandra until January, then to AFC Fylde. He too has departed the club. On the club website Callum Lang is listed with the development squad, but the 16-year-old Joe Gelhardt listed with the senior squad.  Gelhardt is clearly a bright young talent, already on the radar with big Premier League clubs.

Providing Gelhardt is not snapped up can we seriously expect him to contend for a place in the senior team? Admittedly, he came on as a substitute in the League Cup defeat at Rotherham, but would Cook even think of giving him an opportunity in a league game?

Lang clearly benefitted from his time in League 2, playing at a club that was struggling to avoid relegation. At the time it was at a level just one tier below where Latics were. Should he make a success in the first half of the season at Oldham, could he contend for a first team place at Wigan in January?

Latics currently have four centre forwards in their senior squad. Given that one is likely to leave there would remain three who would be above Lang in the pecking order. If Lang were to become a candidate for the number 10 role he would compete with Nick Powell, Gary Roberts and possibly Jamie Walker. The probability is that Lang would be sent off on loan again in January.

Given that Lang has been offered an extended contract, what will happen with the senior squad players whose current deals expire next summer? They include Nathan Byrne, Gavin Massey, Shaun MacDonald, Sam Morsy, Nick Powell and James Vaughan. Having already lost Dan Burn in the last year of his contract, can we expect more departures via the loan-to-buy route? Why are the futures of these players still left hanging?

Some fans will cite the change in the ownership as the main issue involved in the contract renewals, but it could amount to more than that. There is a possibility that at least one of those players will leave in the next couple of weeks, together with loans and loan-to-buy deals for those on longer contracts. Cook’s squad is currently unbalanced with a wealth of midfielders and forwards, but a lack of experienced defenders. He can be expected to rebalance the squad.

On the other hand, Will Grigg and Michael Jacobs were in a similar position this time last year. Both went on to sign contracts to bind them to the club until summer 2020, Grigg’s deal being announced in early September and Jacobs’ in mid-October 2017.

Offering Callum Lang, a new contract was a good move by the club. We can only hope they can be equally judicious in their dealings with those key senior squad players whose contracts are winding down.

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Do we show these teams too much respect?

 

“Rotherham were a tough test for us ahead of the last five games, so it was important for us not to get beat.”

The words of Dan Burn after a disappointing performance.

Prior to this goalless draw at the DW Stadium, Rotherham United had lost their previous three away games, conceding eight goals in the process. But they deserved not to lose yesterday. They packed the midfield, pressing Latics into making mistakes and their big lone striker proved a physical handful for the Wigan defence.

Latics looked pedestrian, plodding along, not the dynamic outfit who had scored nine goals in the previous two games. Passes were misplaced, and the build-up was painfully slow. Although it was their third game in the space of eight days, once again Paul Cook resisted the opportunity to freshen up his pack and stuck with the same starting eleven.

Thanks to a Bristol Rovers goal in the fourth minute of stoppage time, Latics remain on top of League 1, ahead of Blackburn on goal difference. They are in pole position, with a game in hand to Blackburn and five-point buffer ahead of Shrewsbury. Latics have five games left: two at home and three away.

Dan Burn emphasised the importance of not having lost to Rotherham, who remain in fourth place. His comment begs the question as to whether Latics were  focused on not losing more than actually winning.

It was the kind of performance that we have seen before in home games against teams from the top ten. In so many of them Latics have seemed unwilling to fully commit men forward, in fear of counterattack. At the DW they have beaten only one team currently in the top ten and that was a tight 1-0 win over Plymouth, who were bottom of the table at the time. On the other side of the coin, they have only lost one, that being against Blackpool prior to the Manchester City epic. They shared the points in the others, five of those being goalless draws.

The counter-argument is that Latics are the prize scalp in the division and that visiting teams come looking for a draw, doing all they can to dull Wigan’s attacking threat. Most of Latics’ best performances this season have been away from home, where the opposition has had to show more attacking intent. The stats show that Wigan have picked up 44 points from 20 games on the road, compared with 43 points from 21 games at home. Against the top ten teams away from home they have a record of W4 D2 L3, whereas at home it is W1 D7 L1.

Cook’s record last season at Portsmouth against the other teams who finished in the top ten makes interesting reading. Like Wigan their results against their closer rivals were not impressive. Pompey’s home record read W4 D2 L3, whereas on the road it was W4 D1 L4. They  failed to score in two of those home games against top ten opposition.

Yesterday Cook resisted the chance to bring on James Vaughan after half time for the injured Nick Powell, instead introducing Gary Roberts. Vaughan had teamed up with great effect with Will Grigg after coming on at Rochdale but Cook chose the more conservative option by making a like-for-like replacement. Cook was clearly concerned about losing further control in the midfield.

After the game the manager commented that:

“We can’t win every game and steam roll every team, football is not like that. It’s a difficult game and every point towards the end of the season is golden.”

Cook was obviously keen to pick up one point if he could not pick up the three.

Wigan’s performance yesterday and in previous home games against top ten opponents begs the question whether too much respect has been shown to such opposition. But for the moment Latics are in a great position to consolidate their promotion to the Championship division. Cook deserves commendation for helping his team get to such a point with only three weeks of the season remaining.

 

Thanks to Jordan for his revealing analysis on Twitter.

Points more important than entertainment – Walsall 0 Wigan Athletic 3

 

“The game was a bit bitty and the pitches are what they are at this stage of the season so it is difficult to play a certain type of game. We have been adapting a little bit more with Vaughany up top and going a bit longer, quicker, in our pursuit of trying to get points on the board.”

Paul Cook once again summed it up well. It was the dullest of games with two teams playing the long ball, on a surface that was cutting up quickly. If football were purely a form of entertainment some 4,000 or so spectators would have been within their rights to claim a refund for their admission last night.

But for Wigan Athletic supporters at this stage of the season, winning was more important than entertainment. The win puts Latics within a point of Shrewsbury and two of Blackburn, with two games in hand.

To be fair there were a few memorable moments, before the game came to resemble a training match for Latics. Nick Powell looked by far and away the most cultured player on the pitch, even before his sublime pass with the outside of his right foot was excellently converted by Michael Jacobs after 31 minutes. It was reminiscent of the memorable pass Powell made at Plymouth, but this time from the left, rather than the right.

To all intents and purposes the game was all over within the next ten minutes. Jay Fulton justified his first league start with a beautifully struck shot from the edge of the box following a goalmouth melee from Max Power’s free kick. Chey Dunkley added a third from close range after the home goalkeeper had come out to intercept a corner kick but fluffed it.

Modern football has become more about winning more than anything else. Whereas in a bygone era a team that was three goals up by half time would go out to try to add to its tally, the modern team has its eye on the next match and looks to conserve its energy.

Following on the Southampton game on Sunday we had wondered if Cook’s team would have the stomach to fight a team close to the relegation zone on a difficult pitch. But Wigan came in with a determination to get a good result, albeit sacrificing the quality of their football to get it. Strangely enough Latics had not played well in the first half, despite going into the half time break with a three-goal cushion.

The second half seemed more like a training game for Wigan, sadly lacking in entertainment. The mystery was why Cook chose not to bring on his substitutes earlier. He switched James Vaughan for Will Grigg after 70 minutes but left it until 81 minutes to introduce Gary Roberts for Fulton. He brought on Devante Cole after 89 minutes, begging the question why it had not happened when Vaughan went off.

Paul Cook has shown us before that he can be a pragmatist. Although he clearly prefers his team to play attractive, expansive football he is realistic enough to know how hard it can be on a pitch like that at the Bescot Stadium. The long-ball approach led to an important win.

Despite their new manager, Walsall could not produce the goods. They lacked not only technique, but also aggression. It was  the easiest game of the season to referee a Wigan league encounter. Nick Powell was able to stroll through the game largely unscathed, not something to which he has been accustomed over these months. The foul count read 12 fouls by Walsall, 8 by Wigan. There was just one yellow card, that being received by Max Power.

It is unlikely that Bury will respond like Walsall when Latics visit Gigg Lane on Saturday. Although the Shakers are in bottom place, with a relegation practically a certainty, we can certainly expect some fireworks from them. Some will say that it is better to face a mid-table team with little to play for at this time of the season, rather than a team in the relegation dog-fight, even if Bury look dead and buried.

Cook’s team will surely be prepared for a scrap on Saturday. They would have expected it last night, but hardly got it.

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