Five talking points following three points lost at Millwall

Millwall 2 Wigan Athletic 1

Justice was done and the better side won, but a smash and grab could have given Latics the three points.

Despite being outplayed in the first half Wigan had gone ahead courtesy of an own goal. Then in the 49th minute James Vaughan was clean through, but his heavy touch let him down. On the hour mark Latics were awarded a soft penalty as Vaughan had gone down in the box, only for the spot kick to be spooned way over the bar by Josh Windass.

Windass’ miss breathed life into the home side and they equalised a minute later after another soft penalty was awarded. Given the balance of play it was no surprise when Steve Morison netted the winning goal on 82 minutes.

Following the game Paul Cook commented: “We put ourselves in a position to win the game tonight and we didn’t see it through, that’s disappointing. The penalty miss galvanised them. You can’t give teams legs up in this division and we managed to do that. Some of our play was very naive in terms of the areas on the pitch that we tried to play in. If you go 2-0 up at the Den you can imagine how the atmosphere changes, but credit to Millwall, whether they deserved to win the game I’ll have to watch back and see, but they certainly didn’t deserve to lose the game, that’s for sure.”

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

Cook’s starting lineup raises eyebrows

The announcement of Paul Cook’s starting lineup an hour before kick-off raised eyebrows for some of us. Nick Powell on the bench, Callum Connolly in for Nathan Byrne and Kal Naismith for Gary Roberts. James Vaughan back in at centre forward.

Once more Cook decided to play without a right winger, Connolly being brought in to presumably stiffen up the midfield. Naismith was making his first start for the club.

The formation that resulted was somewhere between 4-3-3 and 4-4-2, with Vaughan and Windass operating as twin strikers and Naismith on the left.

It was a far cry from the balanced 4-2-3-1 formation the manager usually employs.

The long ball rears its head

Wigan’s play was not a pretty sight. Latics’ best football this season has come as a result of the central midfielders dropping back to receive the ball, acting as the link between defence and attack. But last night the norm was to be long balls and hoofs.

Nick Powell is Wigan’s most creative player and he has dovetailed so well with Lee Evans and Sam Morsy in midfield. But Powell was on the bench and Evans and Morsy were not at their best. Moreover, there was a lack of width with no winger on the right and Dan Burn and Kal Naismith struggling on the left. The long ball therefore became the main form of attack.

This is not to say that long ball cannot be a valid style of play. But those long balls need to be measured passes rather than speculative punts forward. What we saw last night was more akin to “hoofing” rather than a methodical “long ball” approach.

Were Millwall there for the taking?

In his pre-match build-up Cook had stressed what a difficult trip it would be to the New Den, where Latics have a poor record.

Millwall were playing a 4-4-2 system that sometimes looked like 4-2-4 as they threw players forward into attack. They repeatedly carved open the Wigan defence in the first half and their football was a cut above that of the visitors.

However, in putting so many players forward there were going to be gaps left behind that could be exploited. But a Latics team lacking in pace, width and creativity was largely unable to capitalise on the gaps.

Vaughan should not be a scapegoat

Paul Cook has four centre forwards in his squad, who all need regular game time. With Will Grigg being injured he selected Vaughan and Windass, leaving Garner on the bench.

This was James Vaughan’s second league start of the season. Garner has made three league starts, Grigg eight and Windass one in the centre forward position.

On his arrival from Sunderland in January, Vaughan had to play second fiddle to Grigg, largely being used as a substitute. The signings of Garner and Windass in the summer have made it even more difficult for the player to get a regular game.

If Vaughan had been sharper, he would have scored in the 49th minute. But given his lack of game time he was not going to be at his sharpest.

Vaughan had one of his better games for Latics last night, feeding off the few scraps that came his way. His work rate was as excellent as always.

A left back to be signed in January?

Dan Burn was again drafted into the left back position for the rested Antonee Robinson. Burn was given a torrid time by Millwall right winger Jed Wallace. It was a relief for Burn when he was moved into a back three in the second half.

However, as things got more comfortable for one player they got less so for another. In the tactical reshuffle Kal Naismith was moved to left wing back. In the pre-season Naismith had a torrid time playing at left back, a position which did not suit him. Naismith does not have the tackling skills to be an effective full back/wing back. However, he does have a good left foot and a decent career strike record from wide midfield positions.

Robinson is excellent going forward, but his defending can be suspect. If anything, his best position is left wing back, allowing him more scope to attack. Will Cook continue with his back line of three at Sheffield United on Saturday? Burn, Dunkley and Kipre make a formidable trio. With James and Robinson as wing backs Latics would have the width that they were lacking at Millwall.

Another left back is a priority for Cook in the January transfer window.

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Five talking points arising from the home draw with Swansea

Wigan Athletic 0 Swansea 0

It was another learning experience for Wigan Athletic’s young team. After being starved of the ball in the first half, and perhaps fortunate to be on level terms, they improved in the second. As the game progressed the Swans started to tire and Latics started to get a foothold. Despite Swansea’s superiority in possession and shots on goal Will Grigg could have won it for Wigan, but he failed to convert two gilt-edged chances.

After the game Leam Richardson was quoted on saying:

“It was a very good 0-0 and we are really proud of the point.”

Did Richardson’s comment reflect upon Wigan’s approach to the game?

Let’s take a look at some key points.

It was one of the better goalless draws

Richardson was right. Goalless draws are hardly conducive to drawing people to watch football matches, but this one was better than most.

Swansea’s football was akin to that of Roberto Martinez’ best at Wigan. Based on possession with intelligent movement. But that is no surprise since the Swans have been playing in that way since Martinez instilled it in them between 2007 and 2009. Since then many managers have come and gone, but the style of football has remained possession-based. It was a pleasure to watch last night.

Unlike Swansea Wigan’s style has fluctuated wildly over those years, from the approach of Martinez to the dire long ball stuff we saw in the eras of Owen Coyle and Malky Mackay, to the sterile defensive approach from Warren Joyce.

Swansea’s approach work and skill in passing the ball out from the back, despite Wigan’s pressing, was admirable. Their problem is that they don’t possess the quality strikers to put the ball into the back of the net.

Sam Morsy gets a well-deserved rest

Cook wisely rested Sam Morsy, who will benefit from the break after being with Egypt in the summer when his teammates were resting.

Darren Gibson did a reasonable job of replacing him, not afraid to get stuck into the tackle and putting in lots of effort.

But Latics need to get Morsy refreshed and back to his best. Swansea had too much time and space last night and it is players of the physicality of Morsy who can combat that.

Competition for places and giving players game time

Apart from left full back Cook has multiple players competing for places in the other positions. None more so than at centre forward. Will Grigg is Cook’s main choice, but he has to provide Joe Garner and James Vaughan with game time if they are to play a part. Grigg maybe could have done better with the two chances he had, but he was in the right place at the right time to get the opportunities.

Cook has also used Nick Powell at centre forward later in games. Were he to concentrate on being a number 9 Powell would certainly give Grigg, Garner and Vaughan a run for their money.

How good are Swansea?

When Latics got relegated in 2013 they sold and released lots of players to cut costs. They would have been faced with too many players on Premier League wages with much decreased revenue in the second tier. Even allowing for parachute payments they would have faced financial problems. But Premier League regulars such as Ali Al-Habsi, Emmerson Boyce, James McArthur, Shaun Maloney and Ivan Ramis stayed, along with the likes of Jordi Gomez and Ben Watson.

After the dire time under Owen Coyle, Uwe Rosler did a great job in turning the team round and getting them into not only the FA Cup semi-final, but the Championship playoffs. He used a spine of experienced top-flight players together with others brought in during the transfer windows.

Swansea have not done that. Only Kyle Naughton in last night’s side was a regular last season. Over the summer they raked in some £45 m in a fire sale of players, together with sending other big earners off on loan.

New manager Graham Potter has done well up to this point, putting a hotchpotch group of players together to play skilful possession football.

But despite what some confused pundits in the broadcasting and social media might have suggested, this was not a Swansea team laden with ex-Premier League players.

Given the circumstances did Cook and his staff pay the Swans too much respect?

Attacking and defending as a unit

The early games in the season were exhilarating as Latics attacked and defended as a unit. Since then it has gradually become more fragmented. That lack of cohesion allowed Swansea the time and space to look the better side.

Much of this may be down to the physical demands of the Championship with so many games being played in a condensed period. The players were fresh earlier in the season, but that verve has now dissipated as the reality of the fixture congestion has kicked in.

On the bright side it was another clean sheet for Latics and Christian Walton, who was once again excellent between the sticks. The prime goal for Latics this season is consolidation. A tight defence would go a long way towards achieving that.

Latics have conceded just two goals in the last four matches.

Will defensive consolidation be the order of the day to consolidate? Or will we again see that high energy, refreshingly naive, attacking approach that we saw in August?

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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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