A revitalised midfield for Latics

A competitive midfield trio of Macleod, Morsy and Williams can move Latics ahead.

On paper, one point from two consecutive away games is hardly impressive, but performances and results don’t always correlate. The quality of football we saw last week at Derby and Bristol City was light years ahead of the aimless long-ball approach we have so often witnessed in away days over the past twelve months.

“I’m really positive about the performances we’ve put in this week. We’ve arrived at Derby County and Bristol City and been positive, we’re not setting up to be negative, which is one of the things I said to supporters at the fans’ forum.”

Paul Cook’s comments after the Bristol game made interesting reading. Debates over his statements made in the fans’ forum will continue, but the bottom line is that Latics really were positive at Derby and Bristol, pushing men forward, pressing the home side defences. It was so refreshing to see after month after month of tactically inept away performances.

The signings of Lewis Macleod and Joe Williams over the summer were hardly greeted with universal acclaim by Wigan Athletic fans. Although highly rated as a young player at Rangers, Macleod’s career had been in the doldrums after making just 43 appearances over a four year stay at Brentford. Williams had spent the previous two seasons on loan at Barnsley and Bolton, before Everton sold him to Wigan. His reputation was of a hard-tackling midfielder who could do a job at Wigan.

In the excellent home win over Nottingham Forest Cook  brought in Macleod for the suspended Sam Morsy. The Scot had started in the first two games of the season, Morsy again being suspended, but it had taken six weeks before he appeared again. Macleod had a fine game against Forest, linking up well with Williams.

The underlying reasons for Latics’ woeful away form over the past year have been up for debate for so long. The manager himself has been at a loss to explain it, suggesting that he has employed the same tactics on the road as at home. But the overall impression has been of a lack of creativity, posing little threat on the opponents’ goal and a porous defence capable of giving away “soft” goals, especially in the closing minutes. A common theme has been the inability of the midfield to provide adequate protection for the defence and not providing the link between defence and attack, resulting in defenders launching long balls.

At Bristol Macleod was particularly effective in sitting in front of the back four, available to receive the ball and make accurate passes to teammates. Morsy and Williams played on either side of him, forming a combative, but creative, trio.

Williams has been a revelation, not only strong in his defensive work but showing flair and vision in his play. Still only 22-years old he looks a complete central midfielder. Macleod is now 25 and after so many injury-plagued seasons he is looking fit and sharp, as evidenced by the fact that he has played the full 90-plus in each of the last three games.

Despite conceding late goals at Derby and Bristol the defence has also shown improvement over recent weeks. With an improved defence and a more functional midfield Latics will surely compete better away from the DW Stadium. However, it will need more sharpness and poise from the forwards for them to become truly competitive on the road.

Some thoughts: Nottingham Forest (H) 1-0

Wigan Athletic confounded the media with a well-deserved victory over an over-hyped Forest side. The television commentary had given us a vision of a resurgent Forest, unbeaten in 10 games, heading for a return to the top tier of English football where they surely belonged. But in the end, they had to acknowledge that Latics were worthy victors and that their record at the DW Stadium over the calendar year was impressive.

Paul Cook had surprised us by leaving Josh Windass on the bench, playing Gavin Massey in the number 10 position. It was Massey’s fine link-up play with Jamal Lowe that produced the winning goal after 35 minutes.

Following the game Paul Cook commented: “I thought we were good in the game, I enjoyed watching us play. It’s another very strong home performance, and you’d struggle to name our best player because we had so many good performers. We looked a threat against a very strong Forest side. And at the other end, we defended very, very well. They’re not so much big wins, they’re just wins because every game is so tough.”

Let’s look at some points arising:

Lowe gets his breakthrough

Jamal Lowe’s protracted arrival from Portsmouth in summer was well received by Latics fans. Lowe scored 17 goals for the south coast club in League 1 last season although he played mainly on the right flank. The question was whether he could bridge the transition to Championship football.

Until yesterday Lowe had struggled, looking a shadow of the confident, skilful player he had been at Portsmouth. At Wigan he had largely been employed on the left flank, sometimes in the middle of the advanced midfield three.

But at last Lowe was given the chance to play in his more “natural” position on the right wing. Gavin Massey had been pushed across to a more central role where he had been effective around the end of last season, linking up with the big man up front. The result was that the big centre forward in this game, Kieffer Moore, received more support than he has been accustomed to.

In scoring his goal Lowe had taken a blow to the knee and it clearly affected his mobility. But the goal had given him renewed confidence and he began to show the kinds of skills that had been muted in previous appearances. Lowe left the field after 65 minutes to the applause of the home crowd. He had made his breakthrough.

Williams thrives in Morsy’s absence

Sam Morsy’s absence through suspension gave a fresh opportunity to Lewis Macleod, who had appeared in the opening two games, but not since. Macleod is a fine footballer whose career has been thwarted by constant injury problems. However, he looked fit enough in this game, defending with vigour, showing his ability moving forward. That he went the whole 90 minutes-plus is a testament to how his rehabilitation is succeeding.

Joe Williams is a tenacious tackler who has a range of passing skills. He was Wigan’s outstanding performer in this game. Williams is still only 22 years old and looks an excellent signing for Latics.

Both Williams and Morsy can play the role of midfield destroyer. They had been playing together in holding midfield, providing solid protection for the defence. However, the introduction of Macleod for Morsy gave the centre of midfield a more fluid look. There will be times when Latics will need the steel provided by a Morsy-Williams duo, but the option of including a fluid passer of the ball like Macleod is one that Cook will surely consider.

A more measured long ball approach

The “hoof” has been an ugly and ineffective aspect of Latics play since their return to the Championship. All too often defenders have launched hopeful long balls, usually in the general direction of an outnumbered and isolated central striker, sometimes simply to clear the lines. The net result has typically been to concede the ball to the opposition, inviting them to build up moves from the back and pressurise Wigan’s defence further.

The long ball is not going away as long as Paul Cook is in charge at Wigan. It was frequently applied yesterday, interspersed with spells of keeping the ball on the ground. However, in this game most of the long balls were at least “measured” with Kieffer Moore able to receive and shield the ball on some occasions.

A mixed day for Kieffer

Kieffer Moore came into this game on the back of two fine performances for Wales, for whom he looked a much better player than we had seen playing for Latics. Would the big centre forward be able to get his first goal for Wigan after he had notched his first at international level in Slovakia?

Sadly, it was not to be and, as in so many of his previous Latics appearances, he did not look like scoring. Moore was as committed as ever and posed a physical challenge to the Forest defenders, not so isolated up front with Massey providing support.

Gelhardt’s role

Joe Gelhardt captained England’s under 18 side last week and once again showed what a good player he is on the international stage. He would have been full of confidence coming into this game. Surely, he would be brought on at some stage. But no. He remained on the bench once more.

Cook has continued to laud the 17-year-old’s ability and temperament, insisting that he is up to the rigours of Championship football, but the stats show that Gelhardt’s opportunities have been severely limited. He has been on the field for a total of just 73 minutes of the 12 league games played.

Rumour suggests that Gelhardt will be in the centre of a bidding war between elite Premier League clubs in the January transfer window. The more experience he gets at Championship level the higher his potential transfer fee is likely to rise.

There are critics who suggest that Cook is largely paying lip service to treating Gelhardt as a fully- fledged member of the first team squad and that his main role will continue to be as the “home- grown” player that the EFL insists must be included in every match-day squad. They cite the example of Callum McManaman who last season was on the pitch for a total of 439 minutes, which included just one start. He was on the bench 34 times.

Given the lack of creativity in Latics’ and their lack of goals from open play it has been disappointing to see a player of Gelhardt’s flair left so often on the bench. Should he leave in January Cook will have to look for someone else to fulfil the home-grown requirement.

 

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Five talking points following a well-deserved victory against Charlton

Wigan Athletic 2 Charlton Athletic 0

Two well-taken goals by Chey Dunkley were enough to see off a Charlton side that had been flying high in the table. There was much more composure in Latics’ play than we have seen for some time. Their victory was well deserved.

After the game Paul Cook commented:

“That’s the second home game in a row now with a clean sheet, albeit great defending by Chey Dunkley and a great save by David Marshall at the end. He had to make a big save, it was a great save from Marshy. It was a really pleasing performance and we were excellent in the first half. We were unfortunate to come in only one goal up and when it’s one there always a chance, but great credit to the players because they’re worked ever so hard on the training ground. We looked a lot more like our old selves today and that’s really pleasing for me.”

Let’s look at some points arising:

Dunkley praises Barry

Chey Dunkley had probably his best game at Championship level, not only scoring a brace of goals but playing a strong role in defence.

After not scoring for some 42 matches he has now scored three in two games.

In an interview on LaticsTV he gave credit to coach Anthony Barry: “We have been talking about Charlie Mulgrew being a set-piece specialist and Crackers [Michael Jacobs] also put some good balls in today. We have been working on it and the staff have said to me that I am getting so many first contacts, we need to start converting them into goals. I have to give a special mention to Anthony Barry [first team coach] because he has been working a lot with me and long may that continue. If I can chip in with goals here and there and I can help the team then that’s a good thing. Anthony has given me lots of stats, he works hard and does his research and comes to me and tells me areas where I am most likely to get my first contacts and even second balls as well.”

But the big central defender admitted that last year he didn’t work on (attacking set pieces) too much.

Last season both Dunkley and Cedric Kipre would so often get into good positions in the opposition box but neither could score. Between them they now have three goals in eight games.

A more solid defence

It was reassuring to see Nathan Byrne regaining some form after a sticky patch. The back four looked more solid than of late. Goalkeeper David Marshall did not have a lot to do until the closing minutes when he made a couple of good saves.

In front of them Sam Morsy and Joe Williams were terriers in the centre of midfield, providing a level of protection that the back four had not enjoyed for some time. Williams looks a fine signing: solid in defence and fluid in his passing.

Dangerous on set-pieces

The arrival of Charlie Mulgrew into the team has added an extra dimension to Wigan’s play. His ability to precision-launch a free kick or corner into danger areas has made Latics look a threat from set-pieces.

In fact, in this game Latics looked more dangerous on set-pieces than in open play.

Robinson is so exciting

The money spent in summer on securing Antonee Robinson on a permanent contract could prove to be one of the best investments Latics have made in recent years. He was at his exciting best in this game, solid in defence and electric in attack, making a series of memorable runs.

Robinson is only 22 and is still a work in progress. Defensively he needs to be more robust and aware, although he has made improvements in these areas since arriving on loan in the summer of 2018. Going forward Robinson is a menace to any defence. He has blistering pace and a great left foot. What he is currently lacking is composure. So often he can get into great positions but either the final pass is lacking, or he has not chosen the best option for his pass. Running at such a pace makes it more difficult to make that killer pass or shot on goal.

In his early career Mo Salah was somewhat similar before he developed the composure to finish with precision. Let’s hope Anthony Barry can coach Robinson into improvements in these areas.

Aim for mid-table

Darren Royle and IEC have been busy investing in the club since the takeover. Their aim is for Latics to get back into the Premier League with a thriving academy to supply potential first team players. They have already spent money on facilities for the stadium and the academy. Moreover, they spent around £10m on summer transfers.

Wigan’s start has certainly been disappointing, but Royle/IEC have continued to back the manager and his staff. The win against Charlton takes Latics out of the bottom three, which makes a difference psychologically, but avoiding relegation is not enough this season. The ownership are expecting an incremental rise up the second tier over the coming seasons.

Latics have a well-balanced squad with lots of competition for places. It is at least capable of getting them a place in mid-table. But to do this the management has to instil the belief in the players that they belong in the division and can beat any other team on their day. This means an end to the “unforgiving league” comments that have so frequently been quoted by the manager. Granted, there are clubs with budgets so much higher than Wigan, but so often those clubs are lumbered with players who have the security of long contracts with high salaries. They do not always perform as one could expect on paper.

Cook has had a learning experience in the second tier. We have to hope that he has learned from it and can set the bar higher for his players.

Stsats courtesy of WhoScored.com

A Bolton fan’s view of Joe Williams and news of Latics’ academy

 

Yesterday we published a Barnsley fan’s view of Joe Williams. Williams played at Barnsley in the 2017-18 season, then at Bolton in 2018-19.

In order to learn more about Williams’ time at Bolton we contacted Chris Mann of the Burnden Aces fan site http://www.burndenaces.co.uk (@BurndenAces ).

Here’s over to Chris:

Joe Williams recently joined Wigan Athletic from Everton, signing a three-year contract at the DW Stadium. The time was right for him to move away from Goodison Park. Having spent the past two seasons out on loan at Barnsley and Bolton, respectively, it was clear to see he was a long way from Premier League quality.Wigan fans will no doubt have seen clips on YouTube of a stunning goal he scored whilst with the Tykes, but don’t get too carried away as it is the only one he has managed in more than 60 Championship appearances. There are some strong qualities to Williams’ game. He isn’t scared of a tackle, has a good engine and likes to get the ball on the floor, but a lack of consistency and potential disciplinary issues need to be ironed out.It’s difficult to truly judge any Wanderers player based on last season alone. The general consensus is that he has more in his locker than was shown at the University of Bolton Stadium, but with two relegations from his two years in the second-tier, he and you must be hoping it is a case of third-time lucky.
Well done, Jack, on putting this great news on Twitter. We await confirmation  from the club, but the transition from Category 3 to Category 2 is really going to help in the development of young talent.

Courtesy of FlashScores.co.uk

A Barnsley fan’s view of Joe Williams

Last week Wigan Athletic announced the signing of 22-year-old Joe Williams from Everton for an undisclosed fee. The midfielder signed a three-year contract.

Born in Liverpool, Williams joined the Everton Academy at the age of 7, becoming a first-year scholar in June 2013. In the 2013-14 season he broke into the U-21 squad. In 2016 he won two caps for the England U-20 team.

Williams spent the 2017-18 season on loan to Barnsley, where he made 38 appearances, scoring one goal. Last season he was on loan at Bolton Wanderers where he made 29 appearances.

Williams is a tenacious midfield player, very strong in the tackle.

In order to learn about Williams’ time at Barnsley we contacted CraigIsRed (@CraigIsRed) through Twitter. He commented:

Joe is remembered fondly at Oakwell. He enjoyed a successful loan spell with Barnsley in 2017 which was unfortunately cut short due to injury. He played really well in that anchor-man role between defence and midfield.

 Joe’s a player that’s not afraid to get stuck in and his timing with tackles is great for the most part. He was the glue that stuck that team of ours together a couple of seasons ago, winning back the ball, scooping up loose balls, and transitioning defence to attack. I have full confidence that he’s only improved more and more since then.

 Overall, Joe’s a really good Championship midfielder. He’s still young as well so I can see him pushing even higher in the future.