Five talking points following an abject display against Sunderland

February 26, 2022: Wigan Athletic 0 Sunderland 3

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

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

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

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

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

Latics rely on having high energy levels

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

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

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

Getting the best out of the flair players

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

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

Lumping it long to the centre forward

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

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

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

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

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

Adapting tactics according to the opponent’s style of play

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

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

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

Promotion is still on the cards

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

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

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Amigo and Social Media reaction to an exciting comeback at Wycombe

February 22, 2022: Wycombe Wanderers 1 Wigan Athletic 3

“The first half wasn’t like us. We didn’t get enough second balls or hold the ball well enough. But as soon as we got the first goal, we knew we could get three which we did, and I thought the second half was a great performance. We got it wide which is always dangerous when you have pace. Gwion [Edwards] and Humps [Stephen Humphrys] coming on changed the game really as they are direct players.”

Tom Naylor’s comment summed up what happened at Wycombe. It was a classic “game of two halves”, with Latics making an exciting comeback after being a goal behind at half time.

Leam Richardson reverted to his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation with James McClean at left back and Gavin Massey on the left wing. Josh Magennis was once again in the starting lineup with Stephen Humphrys left on the bench.

Once again Latics constantly used the long ball to poor effect in the first half. But in the second period Wycombe could not cope with the football that Wigan played. There is constant debate among fans as to why Latics too often use that long ball/hoofball tactic, given the quality of the players in their squad. Not only is their football better to watch when they desist from the “hoof” but it produces better results.

Richardson brought on Humphrys and Edwards after 62 minutes, in place of the ineffective Magennis and Massey. Magennis continues to struggle in the role of target man: is it the best way to utilise him? It was a pity to see Massey pushed out on the left where he is so much less effective than on the right. Many will say that those two substitutes should have been on from the start.

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

King_dezeeuw06 wrote:

Useless long ball as usual to start the game just giving the ball away constantly playing in a way Ainsworth would’ve picked for us to give them the easiest possible time. After plan A gets in trouble again we switch to plan B start to try and play football we absolutely batter them and turn it around magnificently. If you took out the part of the game before we switched style that was possibly the best performance of the season – we were untouchable.

After the switch was flipped and we started to pass the ball rather than hoofing it to no one we were unlucky to not be in the lead at half time. Wycombe went from bullying us to their only touches of the ball was a clearance or a tackle. They were chasing shadows and it was a matter of time before we scored. Totally blew them away after we stopped playing into their hands and played our game that we seem bizarrely reluctant to accept we are so good at. The lads were diabolical going long and utterly immense playing football – can we stop pretending Warren Joyce like 70 yards pumps to the strikers head is remotely justifiable when we are capable of playing like that.

It wasn’t tika taka and it’s not like we were afraid to mix it up and go long on occasion – but we weren’t hoofing and hoping and were looking to try and play whenever possible. That is what loads of fans have been saying all season – it’s not reinventing the wheel or trying to learn a new style – we don’t need time or new signing, we already know how to do it and it suits the players we have – it’s just a case of starting games with those tactics.

When you stop being 1 trick and predictable the opposition can’t set up to deal with your long balls the same so ironically playing more passing football makes the long balls work better too.

But why do we only start trying to playing football after it’s gone wrong, why do we keep insisting on going long when we are woeful at it. We’ve been through this pattern so often – use plan B to try and recover from the mess made by plan A. Why can’t we just start with plan B as we are a really good at it.

The penny surely has to drop now – scrap trying to be sh.t Tony Pulis era Stoke tribute act and be the best team we can be. Let’s stop grinding out wins playing to our weaknesses and start blowing teams away playing to our strengths. When we pass the ball we are hands down the best team in the league by miles.

Richardson has built a superb team, their fitness, spirit, battle and quality are unmatched at this level but he hides it by keeping going back to long ball. He needs to show off the absolute beast he’s created by switching patently to the passing game and we’ll start smashing teams.

Hampton commented:

First half hoofball – terrible
Second half football – terrific

Got to start with the finishing 11 and associated tactics Saturday – haven’t we ?

Tree and Crown added:

We wouldn’t have won that game tonight if Magennis and Massey had stayed on!

Humphrys and Edwards offered much more, must be due a start Saturday the pair of em.

Roy Race opined:

Awesome performance that. Reminded me of earlier in the season. Apart from the first 20 mins we were by far the better team.

Should have gone in at half time in the lead and second half stepped it up a couple of gears.

Mixed it up well, went long when needed and played some neat stuff as the game was stretched.

It was the change in tempo that did it plus the fact that Humphrys won more aerial challenges in his first 5 mins than Magennis did all night.

Special mention to Edwards, was a live wire when he came on. Seems to do well as an impact sub but struggles when starting.

Up the long ball Tics!

Hindleymon summarised:

When we play football on the deck nobody gets near us.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Latics rally as the DW crowd gets behind them – Wigan Athletic 2 Charlton Athletic 1

February 12, 2022: Wigan Athletic 2 Charlton Athletic 1

“The character and response were fantastic. I felt the fans gave us a real big lift during the game today and we’ll need them more than ever going into the midweeks and the fixture list coming. We need this place bouncing and rocking because the lads need all of the energy they can get.”

Leam Richardson and the club in general constantly remind us of the importance of vocal fan support to the morale of the team. The loud, fanatical away support, buoyed by a strong element of younger fans, has proven a key factor in Latics’ success on the road. But that kind of raucous support has rarely been the norm in home games.

Much has been said in the past about a lack of atmosphere at the DW Stadium, particularly from fans of visiting teams. Theories abound as to the reason why, ranging from the fickleness of Wiganers to the stadium being too big, rarely being half filled. Supporters preferring the East and South Stands shun the West Stand, perhaps the bastion of the more fickle.

But the home crowd really got behind their team yesterday, as Latics rallied after a very poor start.

Portents were looking ominous in the opening quarter with a weakened Charlton side looking a cut above Latics. The warning signs were there, with those awful hoofballs coming from the defence and a lack of cohesion among the team in general. Elliot Lee’s 7th minute opening goal from Adam Mathews’ cross looked so easy, both players given so much space by the home side. They almost scored a second eight minutes later when Jack Whatmough blocked a low drive from Lee, with Alex Gilbey hitting the crossbar from the rebound.

But with the crowd behind them Latics started to claw their way back into the game. The home team and its fans were equally incensed when Josh Magennis was clattered to the ground. The initial contact was on the edge of the penalty area. Some referees might have awarded a spot kick, others a free kick, but this official simply offered neither. However, the referee was more decisive minutes later when he gave Latics a “soft” penalty after Callum Lang had gone down in the box. Will Keane converted with aplomb.

As the game had progressed Wigan had cut back on the hoofball, playing the ball more through midfield. Jack Whatmough has been an ever-present in the league 1 lineup this season and his solidity in defence has been key to his team’s success. Whatmough has the ability to play at a higher level and it was a masterstroke from Wigan’s recruiting team to get him on a free from Portsmouth. However, if Latics were to step up into the Championship next season he would need to improve his distribution.

Whatmough may have been playing under orders but he has pumped forward so many of those “hopeful” long balls which have made life easier for opposition defences. He did it again in the opening minutes yesterday until we later saw a most welcome change in approach. Instead of taking the easy option Whatmough stepped forward with the ball, using his pace to approach the half-way line where he was able to find a teammate close at hand. Whatmough also poses a threat on set pieces and his header back to Stephen Humphrys created Wigan’s winner after 74 minutes.

This was an important win for Wigan who have edged closer to Rotherham who have a difficult game today at Sheffield Wednesday. It was a spirited comeback backed by a vocal home crowd. It was the opener to a tough week for Latics who are at home to Crewe on Tuesday, with a trip to Rotherham on Friday.

For this game Richardson utilised a back three and resisted the temptation to resort to the habitual 4-2-3-1 in the second half. By doing so he was able to put out possibly his strongest lineup, although many would say that Humphrys should have been the central striker, rather than Magennis, at the start.

Magennis has had a difficult start at Wigan, looking ineffective in the target man role and lacking the sharpness needed to convert chances into goals. His career record reveals a strike rate of around 0.2 goals per game, his best season being in 2020-21 when he scored 19 goals for Hull City in League 1 from 29 starts and 11 appearances off the bench. However, Magennis was recovering from injury when Latics signed him from Hull and may need more game time to regain his sharpness. Moreover, he could have had two penalties yesterday, with a more blatant one near the end when the giant central defender Inniss pushed him as he was about to score.

It will be interesting to see how Richardson shuffles his pack for the Crewe game with that tough trip to Rotherham to follow. Given his history it is unlikely that the manager will make many changes for Crewe, but if he does not make at least a few how fresh are his players going to be at the New York Stadium?

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Amigo and Social Media reaction to a “long ball” draw at Cheltenham

January 29, 2022: Cheltenham Town 0 Wigan Athletic 0

“Any point away from home in this league is a good point. “

Leam Richardson post-match comment was fair in the context of accumulating points over a long season of 46 league games.

The draw means that Latics have now gone 19 matches without defeat in all competitions. This was their fourth consecutive game against a team in the lower reaches of the League 1 table. Three wins and a draw against Doncaster, Morecambe, Gillingham and Cheltenham have helped raise Wigan into the top two, with games in hand against all of their promotion rivals.

“It was either going to be a piece of magic or a set play, but we will certainly shake hands on the draw, take our point, and look forward to Tuesday.”

Latics’ display was lacking that magic yesterday, although they did look dangerous in set plays, with their big men up there. Good football was in short supply, with Latics content to constantly launch hopeful long balls gratefully received by the home side’s corpulent central defence. A draw was a fair result in the end.

Richardson sprung a surprise in his starting lineup, leaving out Steven Humphrys, who had not only scored in consecutive games, but had led the line with some style. He was replaced by new signing Josh Magennis, a battering-ram type of centre forward who had a thankless task in chasing those awful long balls against Cheltenham’s back line of three big central defenders.

Richardson’s style of play invariably includes a strong element of long ball. It is not an aesthetically appealing way to play, but it has produced results up to this point. His team is physically strong and tends to wear down the opposition by attrition, with late goals winning so many matches as the other team tires. However, it was not the case at Cheltenham, who held their own to the end. Tom Naylor and Graeme Shinnie in the centre of midfield are very experienced and accomplished players at this level. Both are capable of receiving the ball under pressure and playing accurate passes along the ground to the players further forward. Their talents were wasted in this game, the ball so often launched over their heads.

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

Dudestalker commented:

Horrible football, no width. He may just get us promoted playing this style, but we would get destroyed in the championship. Before anyone kicks off, I’m fully aware we were top at 3pm but it’s terrible football to endure.

Zakky stated:

Everyone loves Leam but his tactics stink. I’ve said all season I hate the way we play, and we are awful to watch, and today’s display highlighted everything that’s wrong with his tactics it’s obvious we are struggling at present, but he changes nothing.

Megennis was just as isolated as Wyke was, and the result was the same, we had no idea how to break them down today and if anyone was going to win it was going to be Cheltenham. It might sound very harsh given our position, but we will have to massively improve if we are going to come out of February unscathed.

FrancosLoveChild wrote:

Think it’s a result we should not be surprised over considering we have not actually been performing well in games, especially the last few weeks. To be honest it’s been coming.

I can’t say much as I was not there, but I do think Leam got it very wrong leaving Humps out altogether and not going to a back 5 quicker.

WalgarthJohn added:

It was always going to happen. One game without scoring. Feel for Humphreys. As the lad was just starting to show some form. See what happens now before the window shuts. Missed max in the middle of the park. Keep playing him at full back and we will get more of these results.

Jeffs right summarised:

This is how we play. Its the same every week. We are the best side in the league but far from the most attractive to watch. However in Leam we trust and he will turn this around.

Hindleymon commented:

We aren’t capable of playing through them…haven’t been all season. What we are doing is getting results by hoof ball so until the wheels come off, he won’t change it.

King_deZueew06 provided an eloquent overview:

Only real positive out of today was we didn’t lose and Sunderland and Wycombe losing. But make no mistake MK are now in the mix and very dangerous as they play the best football out of everyone. Team selection, subs and tactics were quite counter intuitive today for me.

I don’t think we played that different today than we have done in many games this season but the difference was normally one of our players pulls out a moment of individual quality to find a goal to grind out a win while today it never arrived. If one of our set pieces goes in we excuse the rest of the performance as it’s a results business but I think if you keep playing well results will follow and i fear if you rarely play well results are going to become harder and harder to come by.

We’ve been talking about the same issue all season – we are rubbish at long ball. Our long ball style of play is playing to our weakness and against our strengths, it gives the opposition possession back constantly, nullifies our quality by making every game into battles for 50-50 balls and it’s not seeing us hit anything like our potential. There’s been a direct correlation with our best performances being the ones we’ve played less long ball and our worst performances being the ones we’ve played the most. It makes no sense why we keep persisting with this less effective style when we’ve seen us play teams off the park in patches playing it on the deck. I have no issue going long if we were any good at it but we aren’t and we aren’t talking tikka-taka we are talking just doing what we’ve shown we can do if we don’t always try and bypass midfield.

It’s not the players aren’t good enough, it’s not the formation, it’s not a lack of fight, effort or spirit – we have all of those attributes in abundance and those characteristics are the reason we are where we are. While we are where we are despite our style of play making it harder.

Last week in the first half against Gillingham we tried to play football and it was the best we’d looked in so long. While Gills were poor in their own right there was a concerted effort to avoid going long and it made us look so much better than normal – it was the first sign of progress or improvement in our game we’ve seen in months. But today it seemed like all of that went out of the window and it was a massive step backwards. Granted the pitch might not have been perfect for playing nice football but we made zero attempt to play football despite it being apparent long ball wasn’t working after about 20 mins.

I don’t think anyone played very well – to be fair the way we played made it near impossible for anyone to look good as we never strung enough passes together. But Magennis hasn’t played in nearly a month and didn’t look at all fit. Starting him at the expense of Humphrys who was fit, in form and full of confidence was a really poor decision and you didn’t need hindsight to see that. If Magennis so obviously needs to build up his fitness why wasnt he starting against Arsenal u21s in the PJT that would’ve been the perfect opportunity to ease him back in rather than in at the deep end. Im sorry to say Humphrys has been very poorly man managed for me – the lad was not given a proper chance and his confidence had clearly taken a big hit. But he finally gets a break – takes his chance, gets his confidence back and scores 2 in 2 and you drop him for an unfit player and bring on a centre back and an under performing winger ahead of him – it’s going to be a unnecessary hit to his confidence. I think writing off Magennis on today is really unfair, he was a 1 in 2 striker at this level last season and besides not looking fit, he was given absolutely nothing to work with. I know he’s a target man but he was on his own against 3 massive centre halves and none of the long balls were played into him with any precision or control they were just blasted as hard as they could in his general direction. Obviously you want your target man to challenge for everything and try and make the most of anything played towards him but he was fighting an up hill battle to make much out of some of those balls. Even if he did win the ball there weren’t many men running off him or ready for the knock downs.

I’m not worried because we didn’t win 1 game, I’m worried because the style of play is something we’ve seen so little evolution or improvement over the months and we don’t seem to learn or adapt from our mistakes. We’ve been playing teams that are low on confidence, in poor form and vastly weaker quality of players and we’ve been scraping by. When we’ve played teams that play more passing football we’ve come unstuck previously and we’ve got a lot of those coming up.

We are in a fabulous position, we have so much going for us – work rate, fight, fitness, spirit and often vastly superior players – but this style of play levels the playing field for the opposition and gives everyone a chance against us. It’s like us going into a boxing match with one hand tied behind our backs.

This run of fixtures coming up really worries me as I fear we’ve been getting away with so many lack lustre performances and giving away soft goals before turning it on for 30 mins at the end to save ourselves. B against teams who are going to be much more competitive we wont be able to play poorly for most of the game or give away leads without being punished.

No one is saying we need to sack anyone or buy a new team or throw the baby out with the bath water. There is a great deal we do very well as proof by our league position but we certainly need to improve our style of play if we want to keep on track for promotion and look beyond that. We are far better and more capable than hoofing it all the time, it’s just getting a much lower return out of the great amount of quality we have. If we could just play more pass and move football than long then we’d be unstoppable.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com