Wigan Athletic: an assessment after 9 games in the Championship

Courtesy of bbc.co.uk

It has been a pretty solid start to the season, with 13 points from 9 games. The home record of W0D3L2 strongly contrasts with that of W3D1L0 away from home. Leam Richardson has kept faith in players who were part of last season’s squad, new signings being used sparingly up to this point.

On their return to the Championship in 2018-19 under the Cook/Richardson management team Latics took 16 points from their first 9 games. But their fine early form dissipated as they gathered only 10 points from the next 16 games until the end of December. Their record was W2D4L10.

The current team still has a winning mentality and togetherness from winning L1 but that can soon dissipate after a run of losses as happened four years previously. With fixture congestion in October before the World Cup, Leam Richardson will have to rotate more than he is comfortable doing, or their competitive edge of fitness and work rate will count for nothing as they tire. 

My main concern is the style of play and the lack of invention. The long ball will always be part of this manager’s tactics, but it offers an easy way out for defenders under pressure, rather than short passing their way out of trouble. When the opposition play a high press Latics defenders look ill-equipped to cope with it. It so often leads to a loss of possession. There have been recent signs that Latics are trying to play the ball out of defence and midfield rather than simply launching it long. The presence of Graeme Shinnie in midfield is paramount to keeping the ball on the ground. Up to this point the play through midfield from the back has been slow and repetitive, but it is to be hoped that Richardson will persevere. Wigan must resist those hopeful long balls to an isolated centre forward which rarely achieve anything constructive.

The lack of invention is something that must be dealt with, especially in home games where the opposition sits back in defence. Richardson has players in his squad who are capable of unlocking defences, but he must get the balance right in his team selections. Nowhere is the lack of invention so apparent than from throw-ins. So often they result in either giving the ball back to the opposition or sending it backwards sometimes even ending up in the hands of the goalkeeper.

Of the new signings, Nathan Broadhead has the look of a player who can make a mark this season. Richardson might give him a chance on the wing in place of Thelo Aasgard, who is immensely talented and should get a start every few matches but is still making naive mistakes. Using him as an impact sub for another half a season seems prudent with a view to earning his place in the second half of the season. Having said that, Richardson should be rotating them more often in the coming weeks which creates the opportunity to rest Will Keane every 3-4 matches and play Aasgaard centrally. 

Charlie Wyke has been used sparingly: appropriately after coming back from a life-threatening event. We are surely rooting for him, so to speak, but it would be good to see more of Ashley Fletcher and his mobility. Fletcher has a much higher ceiling than Wyke or Magennis if he can find form and fitness and click with Latics. That’s a big if, of course. 

It is not surprising that Latics better away from home because they lack guile in the attacking third. Lang needs to sharpen his finishing which has been wasteful, but also promising, in the last few games. Magennis won’t score much. Keane was unlucky with header in his last outing but has struggled to make a major impact, although he remains Wigan’s most likely goalscorer. Aasgard will score some crackers but Broadhead may be a more reliable source over a season. What’s been missing is set piece goals! There is better defending on set-pieces in this division; but Latics are due one.

Ryan Nyambe has already shown his quality and will push Tendayi Darikwa for his place. Nyambe is physically strong, capable of rock-solid defence and surging runs forward, although he needs to work on his crossing. Darikwa is naturally attacking full back, well suited to a wing back role.

The situation on the other flank of defence appears uncertain. James McClean has lots of experience for Latics and Ireland in the left wing-back position, but there are question marks over his ability to play as a left full back. Both Joe Bennett and Tom Pearce have disappeared off the radar. Bennett has not played since being sent off at Birmingham, which is strange since his suspension was rescinded by the EFL. Pearce’s only league appearance was as s substitute in the first game against Preston.

There are rumours linking Latics to players available as free agents. Danny Rose has been touted as a possible signing. Should this happen McClean will compete with Anthony Scully and Gwion Edwards for the left wing position. McClean and Scully are very different types of player, Scully being an inverted winger who will cut in and shoot. He scored 25 goals in 61 starts and 25 substitute appearances for Lincoln. Edwards too will cut inside on his right foot, but his strike record is not as impressive as that of Scully.

Another free agent who might be interesting Richardson is Dale Stephens. The midfielder now 33, born in Bolton, was released by Burnley. With the fitness of Jordan Cousins remaining uncertain and the announcement of Scott Smith being released on loan to Torquay, a new arrival may be imminent.

On paper there is an easier run of fixtures coming up. We can only hope that Richardson rotates prudently enough to sustain that positive momentum and winning mentality!

Wigan Athletic 1 Bristol City 1 – five talking points

August 13, 2022: Wigan Athletic 1 Bristol City 1

It was a “game of two halves” but much credit is due to Wigan Athletic for the way they clawed themselves back into the game following an early reverse.

 With Curtis Tilt injured, Jack Whatmough returned to his usual position as right centre back, Jason Kerr being moved to the left, a less familiar position for him.

The Robins had scored in the 6th minute, a big gap being open on the left -hand side of Wigan’s defence, after Latics had lost the ball up field. Tommy Conway’s cross found Andreas Weimann at the far post, who notched his fourth goal of the season. Wigan’s main mode of attack was to launch hopeful long balls towards an isolated Josh Magennis up front. It was a largely ineffective ploy, but when the big striker got into the penalty box, he had three chances to score, although none of them were easy. Latics went into the half time interval a goal behind.

There was a surprise at the beginning of the second half with Thelo Aasgaard replacing Joe Bennett, who had had an off-day being fortunate not having received a red card following a scuffle with Joe Williams. Aasgaard moved to the left wing with James McClean taking over at left back. Aasgaard’s arrival coincided with a change in approach from Wigan, with controlled football gradually replacing the long ball.

An injury to Ben Amos caused him to be replaced by Jamie Jones after 54 minutes. Wigan were playing much better. Will Keane equalised in the 62nd minute after a goalmouth melee. Mark Sykes, a bargain signing from Oxford United, had been a thorn in the side for Latics on the right wing. Soon after Keane’s goal he launched a superb long cross to the six-yard box, but Conway somehow headed wide of a gaping net. Latics continued to press and looked dangerous, but the visitors also threatened with their rapid counterattacks.

In the end a draw was a fair result, Wigan’s third in the first three games.

Kerr stakes a claim

Jason Kerr, signed from St Johnstone in January, has had to bide his time to stake a claim as a frequent starter. Last season he was played on the right of a block of three central defenders, a position in which he had excelled when helping the Perth club to win both the Scottish Cup and the Scottish League Cup.

Kerr had come on to replace Jack Whatmough in a flat back four in the Preston game, growing more self-assured as the game went on. He continued in that right centre half position at Norwich where he was arguably Latics’ Man of the Match. This was the first time we have seen him on the left side of defence. Once again, he got better and better as the game progressed and was excellent in the second half.

Lang can make it in the Championship

It is Callum Lang’s first season in the Championship and the early stages have been testing for him. Faced against left sided defenders of superior quality to League 1, Lang has not been able to find the same amount of space and freedom as last season. Yesterday he was heavily policed by big defender Robert Atkinson, giving him no turning space, particularly in the first half. But as the game progressed, he began to find space and managed to threaten the opposition defence and goalkeeper.

Lang has been a key player for Latics, his goals being vital in their fight to avoid relegation, then to win the division. He is still only 23 and his best is ahead of him. At times he falls rather too easily, and he has done himself no favours with referees with his frequent arguing over decisions. But he has been a superb finisher at League 1 level, and this will surely translate into goals in the Championship. Lang ‘s willingness to run at the defence can unsettle them and create opportunities for teammates.

It is still early to make any judgements as to how effective Lang will be in this division. Much will depend on the help he receives from the coaches and his willingness to embrace it.

Magennis shows his commitment

The DW Stadium crowd have always liked a trier: a player willing to give his all for the team. Josh Magennis certainly did that yesterday and deserved the applause he got when he left the field after 76 minutes for Nathan Broadhead.

Magennis was signed in January as a direct replacement for Charlie Wyke at the time. Although 32 years old he was given a two and a half-year contract, an indication of the club’s keenness to sign him. He made a slow start to his Latics’ career but his game improved as he approached genuine match-fitness. As Wyke’s replacement it was a hard act to follow. Yesterday he showed that same sort of willingness that Wyke had shown to play the target man role, a physically demanding task against big central defenders.

After just 12 minutes of the live feed yesterday Tommy Gore remarked that Magennis had won 70-80% of his headers but there had been no teammates close by to take advantage. Magennis is not the first Latics centre forward to lack support. Indeed, I recall an old article of mine on this site where I brought up a commentary by ex-number 9, Gary Birtles, during the Martinez era where he lamented the lack of support for Connor Sammon. His most cutting comment was that “He (Sammon) was chasing his own flick-ons at times. When a system is just not working: change it!!”

Leam Richardson changed it in the second half yesterday and Latics looked a better team for it.

Last season Magennis scored three goals and made one assist in 17 games for Latics. His goals were all headed. He has a career record of 0.18 goals per game, compared with Nathan Broadhead (0.29), Ashely Fletcher (0.16) Stephen Humphrys (0.22), Callum Lang (0.30) and Charlie Wyke (0.33). It should be noted that almost half of Humphry’s career appearances have been made coming in off the bench.

Magennis is by no means an instinctive goalscorer. His strong points are his aerial threat in the penalty area and his commitment to the cause.

Big refereeing decisions going Wigan’s way

Joe Bennett was fortunate not to receive a red card after lashing out at Joe Williams who had fouled him and stamped on him. In such circumstances it tends to be the victim rather than the initial aggressor who is disciplined. Justice is not often served. However, the likelihood is that most referees would have sent Bennett off yesterday. In the event he received a yellow.

Latics also got the benefit of the decisions at Norwich, who had five penalty appeals turned down. The validity of each appeal may be up to debate, but it takes a strong and confident referee to stand up to the baying of the crowd in such circumstances.

Timewasting rears its ugly head

Modern football abounds with gamesmanship: blatant diving seeks rewards in free kicks, penalties, cards for opponents; teams mob referees to pressurise them into decisions in their favour; systematic professional fouling neutralises opposition attacks.

Time-wasting is rife. Players take their time with throw-ins, goal kicks, in walking their way off the pitch when being substituted. But one that particularly denigrates the game for the spectator is the feigning of injury. In football-talk it comes under the banner of “managing the game”. It is a ploy that is used by practically all teams to varying degrees. In the closing periods of the game, with the opposition gathering momentum a player goes down “injured”. Sometimes those injuries can be genuine, sometimes they can be cramp induced as players tire, but they can also be fake. A stoppage of say, three minutes, can be enough to dampen the momentum the opposition had built up. Repeated stoppages make it very difficult for the attacking side.

I am unaware of any stats that detail the amount of time consumed by teams when their players go down in the final 20 minutes of a game. If they were to be available on a cumulative team by team basis it would make fascinating reading.

One wonders where Nigel Pearson’s Bristol City would appear in such a table of such stats.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

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