Some talking points following a good performance at Birmingham

Birmingham City 1 Wigan Athletic 1

 

After gifting a goal to Birmingham City with just two minutes gone Wigan Athletic fought back to gain a well-deserved point. But it could have been three points with more clinical finishing and more favourable treatment from the match officials.

Paul Cook made eight changes from the team that started against Preston, reverting to the 3-4-2-1 formation he employed at Bristol City. England Youth players, Joe Gelhardt and Jensen Weir, were on the bench, as was the 18-year-old Adam Long.

City’s early goal was a blow for Latics, but they took the game to the home team, carving out chances, with Nick Powell’s deflected equaliser coming in the 38th minute.

Following the game assistant manager, Leam Richardson, commented: “It’s a long season and you normally end up finishing where you deserve to. We did suffer with a few injuries in the middle of the season, but our lads have stuck at it and they’ve always believed that they’re good enough. They’ve stuck together and there haven’t been any fallings out. They’ve had their heads down every time they come back in after a game and worked hard to go again. We’re looking to finish our season strongly and the lads deserve great credit for sticking at it all year.”

Let’s take a look at some points arising:

Olsson recovers from early error. An improved display from Darron Gibson

As has so often happened this season Latics gave away a soft goal. With Jamie Jones rooted on his line Jonas Olsson failed to deal with Lukas Jutkiewicz’s run, the striker poking the ball home between Jones’ legs.

Olsson is 36 years old and his short-term contract is up in June. After making some 250 appearances for West Bromwich Albion he left them by mutual agreement in March 2017, returning to Sweden to join Stockholm club, Djurgardens.

It has been a tough return for Olsson who has not been able to claim a regular starting place. However, despite the early mix-up with Jones he went on to have possibly his best game to date for Latics. Cook wisely placed him at the centre of the back three where he could use his vast experience to help marshal the defence. The result was the defence held firm and limited the home team’s direct attempts on goal.

The 30-year-old Gibson too has had a tough time over recent months, but yesterday his performance was much improved in a holding midfield role.  His contract also expires in June.

In addition to Olsson and Gibson and the loan players there a number of others whose contracts expire shortly. They include Leon Clarke, Callum McManaman, Shaun MacDonald, Gavin Massey, and Nick Powell.

Gelhardt and Weir make their league debuts

The inclusion of the 16-year-old Joe Gelhardt and the 17-year-old Jensen Weir in the matchday squad was a welcome surprise, but we can scarcely have expected more than a brief appearance on the pitch for either. But Josh Windass’ injury led to Gelhardt being thrust into the action after the interval and he took the opportunity to impress. Despite robust challenges by Birmingham he was not deterred and showed a willingness to run at the home team’s defence. Naturally left-footed he was played on the right. Weir too came on after 81 minutes for Nick Powell, being employed in an attacking midfield role. However, with the game petering out in the closing minutes he was starved of possession and we did not get much of a glimpse as to what he is capable of.

Joe Gelhardt joined Latics at the age of 10. He made 6 appearances for the England under-16 side, scoring 3 goals, together with 7 goals in 12 outings for the England under-17 side. The Liverpool-born forward signed a three-year professional contract with the club in August after making his senior team debut at Rotherham in the Carabou Cup.

Jensen Weir, born in Warrington, is the son of ex-Everton centre half David Weir. He was captain of Scotland under-16s, for whom he made 9 appearances. Weir also played for Scotland at the under-17 level before switching allegiances to join the England under-17 team for whom he has made 6 appearances. Weir holds the record as the youngest player ever to play for Latics, having made his debut in a Checkatrade Trophy game against Accrington Stanley at the age of 15. He joined Latics at 8 years of age, leaving them when he was 11, returning when 12.

Adam Long is an 18-year old central defender from the Isle of Man. He began his career with local side St Georges, joining Latics in 2017. He made his Latics debut in an EFL Trophy game against Middlesbrough under-23s in October 2017. Although he did not come off the bench at Birmingham perhaps we will get a glimpse of him in the final game of the season against Millwall.

Powell’s last goal for Latics?

Nick Powell’s goal was his 8th of the season, making him Latics’ top scorer, despite having missed a considerable chunk of the season through injury. He also leads the assists with 6.

Over the course of the season there has been so much speculation on the message boards and social media about Powell’s future. There have been so many tweets urgng him to sign a new contract. He is Wigan’s most talented player and the catalyst behind most of the good football we have seen from Latics this season and last.

Although some fans still cling on to the hope that he will decide to stay the likelihood is that he will be leaving. The goal at Birmingham could be the last one Powell scores for Latics.

Has Cook turned the corner?

The manager has gone through a particularly tough part of his career over the past six months. His lowest ebb was probably after the defeat at Hull on April 10 when Latics once again gave away soft goals to throw away a lead. It left them with an away record of LLWLLLLLLLDLLDLLLDLLLDL with the manager seemingly unable to steady a sinking ship.

However, there were some rays of hope following a 1-1 draw in the next match with table-topping Norwich, Latics employing the high press and having the confidence to attack the Canaries. The next game at Leeds was the turning point as Latics managed to beat the second-placed team despite losing Cedric Kipre to a yellow card after 15 minutes and being a goal behind two minutes later. Despite being down to 10 men Cook insisted on keeping Leon Clarke and Gavin Massey forward, moving Kal Naismith into an unfamiliar role at centre back rather than bringing on specialist Jonas Olsson following Kipre’s dismissal. It was a brave move by Cook which was to pay high dividends.

Cook’s supporters will say that he was new to management in the second tier of English football and injuries to key players hit hard in those winter months. His critics will say that his team selections and substitutions have been poor, his approach away from home was too negative and performances against teams in the lower part of the table have so often been dire.

However, in recent games we have seen a  more dynamic and enterprising approach from the players with the manager being more positive in his team selections and tactics. The clock has seemingly been put back to August when the team started so well and played “without fear”. Cook has experimented with his tactical formations and now Latics look comfortable in both the 4-2-3-1 shape previously favoured by the manager and with three at the back in a 3-4-2-1 formation.

In the darkest of days of February and March it appeared that the manager was just not learning from his mistakes. Has the upturn in April been due to a change in “luck”? Or has it been due to good management?

The truth most likely lies somewhere between the two.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

 

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The importance of a Category 2 Academy for Royle and IEC

Last Saturday Wigan Athletic’s under-18 team strengthened their leadership of the EFL Youth Alliance Group B with a 2-0 win over Rochdale.

The first goal was scored by Scotland under-18 left back Luke Robinson with a beautifully struck free kick from well outside the penalty box. Another Scotland under-18 player, Kyle Joseph, got Wigan’s second with an opportunist tap-in. Wigan’s England under-17 striking sensation, Joe Gelhardt, did not play and his teammate at national level, Jensen Weir, came on after 88 minutes. Click here to see the highlights.

The Youth Alliance is effectively the third tier of U18 football. The Alliance consists of 49 teams divided into four groups on a geographical basis. The vast majority come from clubs in League 1 and League 2.

Although Gelhardt, Joseph, Robinson and Weir represent their countries at international level they are confined to the third tier of English youth football. They cannot play in the top tier Premier U18 League or in the second tier Professional Development League.

Over 23 years the Whelan family pumped in some £100m to keep Wigan afloat in the higher levels of English football. Like so many football clubs in the country, Wigan Athletic have rarely been able to accumulate enough revenue to exceed their outgoings. Put simply, the Whelans have had to constantly subsidise the club for it to punch above its weight.

Despite eight years in the Premier League and an FA Cup win, Latics still have a small fan base compared with most clubs in the Championship division. In order to keep the fan base that they have it has been necessary to keep ticket costs that a level that has been economically unfavourable for the club. Moreover, commercial revenues have been low compared with other clubs in the upper tiers.

The IEC, through the guidance of executive chairman, Darren Royle, will surely look at increasing commercial revenues. Royle will review season ticket prices in due course, but even a 20% increase in prices would not bring the club anywhere near to breaking even, let alone risk reducing the fan base. The club is basically a loss maker, as are the majority in the Championship with wages exceeding revenues. Barring significant sums coming in over the January transfer window Latics will lose in excess of £10m in the current season, in an attempt to consolidate in the division.

Royle has set his sights on a return to the Premier League for the club, although he has not given any kind of timeline for it. His strategy is based on building a strong academy which can provide a constant stream of players for the first team. The first step is investing in the kinds of facilities and programmes that can elevate the Wigan Athletic academy to Category 2 status rather than the current Category 3.

There are 7 Championship clubs that have their youth teams in the Premier U18 League, that which consists of clubs with Category 1 academies.  Another 12 of them participate in the Professional Development League from clubs with Category 2 academies.

Should Latics gain Category 2 status they would be largely joining clubs whose senior sides are in the Premier League or the Championship. But it is to be noted that League 1 clubs Barnsley, Charlton Athletic, Coventry City, together with League 2 Colchester United and Crewe Alexandra also compete at that level.

There can be no doubt that Wigan’s talented youngsters would benefit from playing at a higher level that of the Youth Alliance. The move towards Category 2 status is to be commended. However, so often in recent years the club has had exciting young players whose development has been limited by lack of opportunity within the club. So many have fallen by the wayside.

Critics will say that the club has so often nurtured young players on loan from upper tier clubs at the expense of its homegrown talent. It is something that Royle will need to look at in terms of not only developing homegrown youth, but as a part of overall recruitment policy.

Jensen Weir (left) and Joe Gelhardt.
Photo courtesy of skysports.com

 

Where will the likes of Gelhardt and Weir be some five years from now?

Let’s hope they too don’t fall by the wayside.

 

 

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Five talking points following on from the QPR game

QPR 1 Wigan Athletic 0

Queens Park Rangers are so-called because when they were formed in 1886 most of their players came from Queens Park, which is some three miles away from where they currently play.

Loftus Road is situated in the buzzing, multi-ethnic White City area of Shepherd’s Bush. It is a fascinating place to visit, with lots of sporting history, the old White City Stadium having hosted the 1908 Olympics and a match in the 1966 World Cup.

Some three weeks ago, on the train traveling to Wigan for the first game of the season I was talking to some QPR supporters on their way to Preston. They said it was going to be a tough season for their club and that they would be happy to avoid relegation. They also told me that the view from the elevated tier of the visitors end at Loftus Road is as good as any at the ground.

They were right on both counts. The view was as good as I can remember from an away end, being so close to the pitch. QPR looked a struggling team yesterday, barely able to pass the ball with any degree of fluency. But they got a break from a goal that should not have been allowed and they played with determination and with a well organised defence.

It was enough to see off a somewhat lacklustre Wigan Athletic team.

Loftus Road has rarely been a happy hunting ground for Latics

In midweek Latics had extended their undefeated run against Stoke City to nine games with a stunning 3-0 win.

So often in a match preview a journalist will refer to the history of matches between the two clubs. Many would argue that past history is irrelevant to the current day. In this case an on-form Wigan were facing a pointless QPR, fresh from a 3-0 midweek drubbing by Bristol City at Loftus Road.

The last time Latics won at Loftus Road was in March 2003 in a Division 2 (fourth tier) confrontation. Nathan Ellington scored the only goal of the game in the 47th minute to extend Wigan’s lead at the top of the table.

But yesterday’s result means that Wigan have lost 6 and drawn one of their last 7 visits to Loftus Road. They have won only 2 of their 16 home and away encounters with the West London club.

Cook resists the opportunity to freshen his line up

We can rarely expect Paul Cook to tamper with a winning team. But prior to this match he had said:

“The likelihood is it will be a changed team for Saturday, which is on one hand disappointing because the lads are doing smashing. But on the other hand it gives the lads an opportunity to come and play. Some changes have been forced upon us, possibly one or two are due to the weight of fixtures as well.”

In the event he made only two changes, resting the 18-year-old Reece James, bringing back Nathan Byrne, replacing the injured Michael Jacobs with Josh Windass. Should he have made more changes after two demanding games in just over a week?

Yesterday’s performance was by no means a bad one. The defence looked strong enough to deal with what the home team could muster, and the midfield play was neat enough, if the wingers did not make such an impact. When Gavin Massey limped off after 31 minutes most of us expected Callum McManaman to come on, but instead James was introduced with Byrne moving to the right wing. James made an uncharacteristically hesitant start but improved as the game went on. On the left side of Wigan’s attack Antonee Robinson was not showing the kind of spark that we know he is capable of, with Windass tucking inside.

Cook was able to give James a rest – at least for the first third of the game – because he had an experienced and capable specialist right back to replace the Chelsea youngster. He did not have that option on the left. Playing with a right footed left winger Cook’s system relies on a left footed full back to provide variety. Kal Naismith was tried there in pre-season but struggles defensively. Callum Connolly can certainly play there, having done that for Everton U23s when Jonjoe Kenny would occupy the right back position. Connolly is a fine young player and Cook will most likely use him sometimes in the left back position. But with Connolly being right footed the balance could only be retained by playing a left footer like Naismith or Gary Roberts on the left wing.

Whether Latics would have done better if Cook had rested more weary legs, both during the latter part of the game at Stoke and in yesterday’s game, is academic. But the manager was more able to stick with his low rotation formula in League 1 where the combined mental and physical load is less demanding than in the Championship. Moreover, he faces dealing with disenchanted players in his squad if he does not rotate more.

Evans shines

Lee Evans was excellent again yesterday, solid in defence and a force going forward. Moreover, his quality delivery from set-pieces threatened the home defence. It was a pity that Chey Dunkley could not put away another of Evans’ sumptuous deliveries in the closing minutes.

Bringing back Evans to the club could prove to be the best piece of business the club did over summer.

VAR and Latics

While the Latics were playing at QPR, Barcelona were winning 1-0 at Valladolid until the home team had thought they had equalised in stoppage time. But as in all the major European football leagues bar two (the English Premier League and Championship), La Liga uses VAR. In this case the video assistant referee ruled that the goal had come from an offside position.

Were VAR to have been used last weekend at the DW Stadium, Cash’s 89th minute dive would surely not have resulted in a penalty. Moreover, the follow up by the encroaching Soudani to Walton’s save from the spot-kick would have been spotted. The blatant push on Dunkley yesterday, leading to Hamed’s goal would also have been picked up by VAR.

VAR will most likely be introduced in England’s top two tiers next season. In the meantime, there will be those that argue that major refereeing decisions, for and against a team, balance out over the course of a season. Judging by the balance of the major decisions made during Wigan’s eight seasons in the Premier League does this really hold true? One doubts that. Too often the balance of refereeing decisions have been unduly influenced by bigger clubs which have more “clout”, at the expense of smaller clubs.

Moreover, with VAR referees can feel under greater scrutiny.

Welcome news that Joe Gelhardt has signed a professional contract

The 16-year-old had been linked with possible moves to Everton, Liverpool and Manchester United, before signing a 3-year professional contract for Latics in midweek.

Chief Executive Jonathan Jackson commented: “Joe is a player with huge potential, who has starred on the international scene for England’s youth teams in recent years as a result of his natural talent and dedication to football. Having joined the club in 2013, Joe is an example of the excellent work we see at the academy daily.”

Following the contract extension for the 19-year-old Callum Lang, this is another welcome move by the club.

However, with the loan transfer window still one for another five days we await news on the permanence of key players in the senior squad, whose contracts expire in June 2019.

 

 

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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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