In need of a transfer policy

In: David Marshall (Hull City, free)

Out: Devante Cole (Motherwell, loan), Shaun MacDonald (Rotherham, free), Callum McManaman (Luton, free), Nick Powell (Stoke City, free), Jamie Walker (Hearts, free)

The deadline for Championship clubs for all incoming permanent and loan registrations is due to close at 5pm on Thursday August 8, 2019. It leaves Wigan Athletic just under four weeks to complete their recruitment for the first half of the season. It appears that enough time remains, but nevertheless the fans are getting nervous. Five players out and just one man in up to this point. What is happening?

The concerns of fans are reflected in the social media and message boards. They see that other clubs in the division are streets ahead of Latics in their recruitment at this stage. The Bristol Post yesterday published a list of comings and goings among Championship clubs. It makes interesting reading. Latics rank among the highest in players leaving, among the lowest in players coming in.

At this time last year Latics had signed Leo Da Silva Lopes and Kal Naismith on permanent contracts and Reece James and Christian Walton on loan. Why is it taking longer this year? Some fans say that players will not be keen on joining a club that could once again be battling against relegation. Others say that Latics simply cannot or will not compete with other Championship clubs who are splashing money around like water. Reports suggest that Wigan were prepared to offer the 34-year-old free agent Alan Hutton a two-year contract but were unable to agree terms with him.

The fee Southampton want for Gallagher is rumoured to be around £5m. It was a surprise to many of us that Wigan Athletic were actively pursuing a player from a Premier League club, given inflated transfer fees and salaries in that division. The interest in Portsmouth’s Jamal Lowe was more predictable, although the £3m tag put on him by the south coast club seems excessive for a League 1 player who has never played above that level. The summer transfer activity will surely provide a litmus test for the IEC’s willingness to invest in player recruitment.

Chairman Darren Royle is hardly a David Sharpe in terms of communicating with the fans. But he is certainly addressing issues within the club. The DW Stadium needs an overhaul, the club needs to bring in more commercial revenue, the Academy needs upgrading to at least a category 2 level.  Royle may be less comfortable with the media than his predecessor but is tidying up things that had been left on hold.

IEC made it clear on buying the club that they were willing to invest but would do so judiciously. Investing in infrastructure is already underway. It is the club’s recruitment policy that is unknown. During Paul Cook’s reign the players coming in have typically come from the British Isles. The club’s homegrown players have been largely ignored with young loan players from big clubs brought in. The manager typically brings in veteran players who he believes will add to the dressing room climate and positively influence the younger players. Last season Cook splashed money on signing Josh Windass (around £1.8m), Cedric Kipre (around £1m), Leo Da Silva Lopes (around £800,000). Windass and Kipre impressed at times, but generally struggled to adjust to second tier English football. Da Silva Lopes was sent out on loan to Gillingham. Windass is now 25 years old, Kipre is 22 and Da Silva Lopes is 20.

Royle and the IEC are keen to develop the academy as a potential source of first team players. Latics have some fine prospects on their hands at the moment and it is to be hoped that the likes of Joe Gelhardt and Jensen Weir will not fall by the wayside as so many young players have at Wigan over the years.

 

Callum Lang is now 20 but has made 72 senior appearances in the past two seasons on loan at Morecambe and Oldham, scoring 23 goals. The loans have given him valuable experience. Now the time has come for the player to be given a chance in the Championship. Last season an under-pressure Cook was loath to bring in home grown talent.

Wigan Athletic’s recruitment policy has hardly been coherent in recent seasons. It contrasts with that of Brentford, whose data-driven approach helps them scout talent not only in the British Isles, but all over Europe. No matter that managers have come and gone they have stuck with a formula that has brought in significant funds from transfers, helping them stay solvent. They have shown that a small club can compete with the heavyweights of the Championship, finishing in the top ten in each of the past four years.

The 25 year-old Macleod is a free agent after letting his contract run down at Brentford. He has made 41 appearances for the Bees since signing from Rangers in December 2014. Macleod is a very capable player whose career has been riddled with injury problems, hamstring issues in particular. If he does sign for Latics will Cook and his medical team be able to get the best out of him and resurrect his career as they did with Nick Powell?

The next four weeks will certainly give us an indication of the recruitment policy to be supported by the new owners. Will the club continue to bring in young loan players from big clubs at the expense of home-grown talent?

Getting the right balance in an unforgiving league

It’s an unforgiving league” is a phrase that Paul Cook has frequently used over the course of the 2018-19 EFL Championship season. It is one which Wigan Athletic fans will hope he will not be using after this week’s encounters with neighbours, Blackburn and Bolton.

Compared with League 1 the Championship is more unforgiving. Mistakes are more likely to be punished playing against teams with higher quality players and managers who are more tactically aware.

Last season Latics had a wage budget in excess of £12 m compared with a League 1 average closer to £3 m. Rival team managers would have been so often justified if they had called last season’s Wigan team “unforgiving”.  Put simply, Latics had higher quality players on higher salaries than any other team in the division bar Blackburn Rovers. Even when not playing particularly well they had a solid defence and the kinds of players in midfield and up front who could produce something special when things were not going so well.

The boot this season has been on the other foot. Wigan’s wage budget is modest for a division in which the clubs with the lower budgets typically occupy the lower parts of the table. That Latics are competing with clubs with similarly modest budgets like Bolton, Ipswich, Millwall and Rotherham to avoid relegation comes as no surprise.

But clubs can punch above their weight as Latics proved in the most emphatic way during their time in the Premier League. Despite a modest budget by Premier League standards they stayed in the division for eight years, reaching the League Cup Final and winning the FA Cup. During those eight years they recorded victories over those giant elite clubs that dominate that division.

Wigan Athletic were punching above their weight in the early stages of the current season. Although rather suspect in defence they were playing a brand of “no fear” attacking football, built upon the momentum of winning the League 1 title. Cook had continued to use the 4-2-3-1 formation that had brought success in League 1.

However, Gavin Massey’s injury at QPR at the end of August was a blow to Cook’s style of play. Moreover an injury to Michael Jacobs meant that both first choice wingers were unavailable for the next game at home to Rotherham.  Callum Connolly was drafted in on the right for Massey and Josh Windass for Jacobs. It was a dour game with Rotherham “parking the bus”. Both Nick Powell and Will Grigg were taken off after 60 minutes and a skillful passing approach gave way to a speculative long-ball scenario.

Jacobs returned in place of Connolly for the next game, a 1-0 win over Rotherham and played a part in victories over Hull and Bristol City. But an injury sustained in a 4-0 defeat at Preston in early October saw him out of action until mid-January.

In the absence of specialist wingers Massey and Jacobs for periods of months Cook could have been expected to use the speed and trickery of Callum McManaman, but his initial preference was to play such as Windass and Connolly out of position. He later employed the 34 year old Gary Roberts in wide positions. McManaman continued to be snubbed. The result was a lack of pace and cutting edge from the flanks. The manager’s problems were further exacerbated by the absence of the midfield playmaker Nick Powell through injury from the end of November to the middle of February. In the absence of Jacobs, Massey and Powell the quality of football plummeted, especially in away games with the “hoof” being far too prominent.

Cook now has the trio back at his disposal, but must be careful not to overuse them and risk injury. On Saturday at Reading the quality of football once again plummeted when Massey and Powell left the field, Wigan unable to retain possession, conceding late goals.  With Anthony Pilkington not on the bench Cook brought on Kal Naismith to replace Massey. Leon Clarke replaced Powell.

Cook’s substitutions on Saturday were ill-thought and allowed Reading back into the game. Rather than allow Reading to come forward and have speedy players ready to launch counterattacks he chose to put on a big centre forward and play a version of 4-4-2. The more obvious replacement for Powell was Josh Windass who has been used in the number 10 role before and has pace. Naismith was the obvious substitute for Massey, but rather than play him in his natural role on the left and switching Jacobs across the right the manager chose to play the Scot in a position where he looked out of his depth.

Cook will surely name the trio of Jacobs, Massey and Powell in his starting lineup at Blackburn tomorrow, providing they are fit. However, one can only hope that he can make better contingency plans for substitutions as they tire. Putting Clarke and Garner up front late in the game might be a valid tactic if Latics are behind, but it is not the way to protect a one goal lead. If Latics do get ahead against Blackburn he should either stick to a successful formula – usually 4-2-3-1 – and avoid that 4-4-2 long ball approach like the plague. An alternative on Saturday would have been to bring Cedric Kipre off the bench to play in a back three, with Nathan Byrne and Antonee Robinson moving to wing back roles. It could have provided extra defensive cover whilst bolstering the midfield.

That trio of Jacobs, Massey and Powell are crucial for Wigan’s survival in the Championship. An injury to either one would be a hammer-blow. Cook will have to be careful of not pushing them too hard given their recoveries from injury. That means that he will need to be proactive, rather than reactive, in keeping the team balanced if one or more of them is not on the pitch. Above all that hoofball approach that cedes possession to the opposition needs to be avoided.

We can only hope that the manager has learned from the mistakes he has made this season and will open his kind to more insightful approaches. Might he even consider McManaman as a possible stand-in for Jacobs or Massey?

Five talking points after football is the loser at Rotherham

Rotherham United 1 Wigan Athletic 1

It was a truly awful game of football, but the result was one which helped Latics maintain a six-point lead over the Millers in the relegation dog fight.

Paul Cook opted to bring back Chey Dunkley in the centre of defence for Cedric Kipre. In the absence of Sam Morsy through suspension and Lee Evans through illness he brought in the on-loan Beni Baningime.

Rotherham started aggressively and Latics were under constant pressure. A head injury to Danny Fox after 25 minutes caused him to be replaced by Kipre. Rotherham were playing in a style akin to the Stoke City sides of the Pulis era, a constant stream of crosses being poured into Wigan’s box, aided by the long throw-ins of midfielder Will Vaulks.  It was no surprise when big centre half Craig Robertson headed the Millers in front after 28 minutes with Baningwe and Kipre ball watching. But it was a surprise four minutes later when Josh Windass took his chance with aplomb to level the scores. After being outplayed Latics were fortunate to go to the interval on level terms. They had been overwhelmed in midfield and the hoof dominated their play.

The second half was scarcely any better, although there were a few isolated moments when Latics did put some football together, making Rotherham’s defence look less self-assured.

We have seen some horrible football from Latics away from home this season, but this ranks among the ugliest. Are the defenders playing under orders to hoof the ball away at the smallest hint of danger or is the manager unable to get his players to follow his instructions?

After the game Cook commented: “First of all, I think Rotherham were not far off unplayable in the first-half; they were that good, they were that strong, they put the ball in all of the correct areas. We lost Danny Fox, Lee Evans pulled out ill this morning and we lost a bit of physicality with Lee going out and Beni [Baningime] going in. We knew we were going to have to defend. When Rotherham scored the goal, like most people I wondered if we would buckle under the pressure.”

Let’s take a look at some points arising:

Were Rotherham close to being unplayable in the first half?

Cook’s comment will surely haunt him for time to come. Rotherham have one of the lowest budgets in the division and their squad lacks quality.

Cook is to be commended for openness and honesty in his post-match comments, which so often contrasts to the one-sided, mindless stuff that founts from too many opposition managers.

But he shot himself in the foot with this one.

Rotherham had a game plan: did Wigan?

Rotherham’s game plan was simple, relying on crosses aimed towards the 6 ft 3 in Michael Smith, with the big central defenders coming up for set pieces. On a short and narrow pitch Vaulks’ long throws were akin to corner kicks.

Latics in comparison did not seem to have a plan. So often they played into Rotherham’s hands by kicking the ball out of play in their own half, giving Vaulks a pan-full of opportunities to launch his long throws. Moreover, they gave away too many unnecessary free kicks giving Rotherham the opportunity to bring forward their big guns.

That Latics came away with a point can be seen as a reflection of a willingness to fight, to dig in when under adversity. Effort has rarely been lacking in away games this season, but a genuine game plan has been seemingly absent. The bottom-line yesterday was that Rotherham did not have the quality to make their pressure count.

Latics had a good record against Pulis’ Stoke in the Martinez era. They did not lose any of the eight Premier League games against them. Martinez’ teams always had a plan and the players knew exactly what was expected of them. Aware of the rocket throw-ins of Rory Delap they were careful in possession in their own half, disciplined in their tackling.

Even the best of game plans can come unstuck as the game progresses. But it is disturbing to see Latics going into these away games without any obvious game plan other than gritty defence and hoofing upfield or out of play at the slightest danger.

Another Everton loanee makes his debut

Beni Baningime is 20-years-old and has had one Premier League start and seven substitute appearances for Everton. His first game in the Championship was a baptism of fire.

Baningime looked lost for most of the game, unable to stamp his mark on the play. It was only in the final quarter that he showed the confidence to seek out the ball.

His prior experience did not prepare him for this rough-and-tumble occasion. Only time will tell if Baningime will succeed in his half season at Wigan and make a better impression than previous loan players from Everton have made in recent years.

Cook was unfortunate to lose the experienced and physically more imposing Lee Evans prior to the game. Moreover, he did not have a central midfielder on the bench to replace Baningime if he had wanted to. Neither Shaun MacDonald nor Darron Gibson were in the squad. The latter has been off form of late, but why Cook did not opt for MacDonald’s experience in a tough fixture like that is hard to fathom.

When will Olsson be ready?

It was a surprise to see Jonas Olsson on the bench since the last time he played was for Djuurgardens on November 11. Was some thought given by Cook in bringing on the 6 ft 5 in Swede to counter the aerial threat of Michael Smith? Olsson will be 36 on March 10, but John Terry was playing for Aston Villa last season at 37.

In the event Cook chose to bring on Cedric Kipre who looked solid in defence with Chey Dunkley. However, Fox’s early departure surely had an effect on the football Wigan played. Fox has the skill and confidence to start moves from the back and he adds calm to the defence. Earlier in the season Kipre showed decent passing skills for a big centre half, but yesterday like Dunkley he so often chose to hoof the ball away. Again, the two had opportunities from set pieces which they could not convert. Last season Dunkley scored 7 goals for Latics and Kipre one for Motherwell. One wonders what position Latics would be in now if either had put away some of the chances they have had over these past months.

Kal Naismith had a hard time with Rotherham’s Jon Taylor yesterday and Cook surely needs to take another look at the left back position. Will Antonee Robinson be played there against Stoke on Wednesday? Or will Olsson be brought in to central defence with Fox moving to left back?

Playing to strengths

Creative and skilful players like Michael Jacobs, Gavin Massey and Anthony Pilkington can stretch any Championship defence. They played at Rotherham but were largely wasted with the ball by-passing them so often.

However, with the prospect of Nick Powell returning on Wednesday will we see a change in approach from the manager? Cook has good players at his disposal but to get the best out of them he needs to insist on keeping the ball on the ground much more. Latics are ill-suited to a long ball approach yet they have continued with it despite the poor results.

Can Cook get his team’s head straight to strike a reasonable balance between possession football and a more direct approach?

The jury remains out on this one.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored,com

 

Five talking points following a momentous win over West Brom

Wigan Athletic 1 West Bromwich Albion 0

 

What an uplifting performance and result! Latics fans had been so down in the dumps following a dismal performance at Preston, but this rousing display has once again lifted spirits.

The augurs did not look good for Paul Cook’s side, with Will Grigg and Michael Jacobs joining Gavin Massey on the “major hamstring injury list”. There was a certain amount of doom and gloom prior to the game and Cook’s team selection looked uninspiring. It was no surprise to see Dan Burn come in for Antonee Robinson, but the selection of Nathan Byrne and Gary Roberts on the flanks, at the expense of Callum McManaman did not impress. But the end result was that Cook’s team selection and tactics worked in securing a win over a team whose wage bill dwarfs that of Wigan.

It took a moment of opportunism from Josh Windass after 74 minutes to bring home the three points, outpacing a central defender following Nick Powell’s flick-on header. His finish was resolute. West Bromwich had dominated the early possession and looked the more threatening, but as the game unfolded Latics looked the more dominant attacking threat.

Following the game West Brom manager Darren Moore commented: “Those type of games are there lying and waiting in the Championship. I’ve no complaints. It was a game where both teams were battling, not much goalmouth action. Whatever goalmouth action there was it was off target. From a neutral it looked like it was going to be a nil nil. The chance fell to them, the boy took it really well and you suffer a defeat.”

Moore was largely accurate in his appraisal of the game, although most neutrals present would have most likely said that on the balance on things, Latics deserved their win.

Let’s look at some talking points arising:

A change in tactical approach

When Wigan lined up it looked like the regular 4-2-3-1 formation that has been the norm in Cook’s tenure. However, the two central defenders were switched with Kipre put on the right side and Dunkley on the left. West Brom’s front two of Dwight Gayle and Jay Rodriguez had already scored 15 goals between them, one goal more than Latics entire team had mustered up to that point. But following a tough time at Preston, Wigan’s centre backs rose to the occasion and kept Gayle and Rodriguez on a short leash. Kipre had what must be one of his best performances for Latics and Dunkley once again showed his mettle.

It looked like Cook had given Windass the opportunity to play in the lone striker role, but as the game progressed we would see he and Powell exchanging positions. It proved to be a masterstroke as the opposition defence found their movement hard to deal with. Moreover, the synergy between the two gave us a glimpse of a fine partnership developing.

We get a glimpse of why Windass was signed

Josh Windass had looked like a duck out of water playing wide. Given the opportunity to play a more central role he looked a fine player, industrious, intelligent in the timing of his runs, a headache for the visiting defence. Windass had 6 shots, with 3 of them on target. Given Latics’ shot-shy record in recent games it was refreshing.

Cook had had so many of us fans rubbing their heads as to why he would pay £2m for a player who prefers to play as a central striker when he already had three others fighting for a place in that position. But much was revealed after yesterday’s game when the manager said:

“Today, we had natural balance with Gary Roberts – who was absolutely magnificent – and Nathan Byrne the same. That allowed Josh to play in a position that we have brought him into the club to do and you saw the energy he has got, whilst he also can finish – his goal was top class.”

 Seeing the way Windass linked up with Powell one could get a glimpse of Cook’s belief in the player.

But Cook still has Garner, Grigg and Vaughan fighting for a striker position, which will be a dilemma for the manager.

Another line of thought is that Windass was signed as a back up for Powell, should he leave in January.

Powell’s continued tenure at Wigan will depend on the stance of the new IEG owners, when the takeover happens, assumedly in November. Where would this current team be without Powell’s superb build-up play and his ability to score and assist in making goals?

Gary Roberts deserves commendation

Roberts has prior experience at Championship level and he looked a class act. Although 34 years old and with just 7 minutes of second tier match play behind him this season he worked hard for 89 minutes, putting in finely weighted passes and crosses.

He has not been the most popular of players with Wigan fans, the cynics regarding him as an old pal of Cook’s from Chesterfield and Portsmouth. Indeed, questions were asked as to why someone at this stage of his career would be offered an extended contract.

Roberts has never been particularly fast. If he had been he would have played in the top tier. But last season’s stats reportedly suggest that when he was involved he covered more ground than most of his teammates, with a sweet left foot to match.

He got a merited ovation as he left the DW pitch yesterday.

Reece James to Brighton?

Reece James was once again excellent yesterday. Although only 18 he is the complete full back, strong in defence, skilful in attack, but more than anything else he has a great football mind. Barring serious injury or calamity he looks destined to be the regular right back for England.

Media reports tell us that Brighton will make a £10m bid for him.

But would Chelsea seriously consider such an offer for a player of his level? Admittedly the Chelsea academy produces so many fine players whose chances of first team selection are minimal, but James is something special.

Should Brighton get him at that price it would be a bargain.

Looking forward to Millwall

Millwall lie in 22nd position, with just two wins so far, but at home they have beaten Derby County and Aston Villa and drawn with Leeds United and Middlesbrough.

A trip to the New Den has never been easy for Latics and their away form has been unimpressive of late. Moreover, Latics have an inferior record in games against Millwall.

Barring injuries, Cook is likely to name an unchanged line-up. What Latics can expect is a fight on their hands. Do the players who played most of the game against West Brom have the energy and determination to fend off a side that has had difficult home fixtures so far, but has an intimidating support?

It might not be pretty, but Cook’s men must be ready to slug it out with the home team. The complacency we saw at Preston could lead to calamity.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

The Windass conundrum – can he fit into Paul Cook’s style of play?

 

“Josh wants to be a number nine every game for Rangers and I couldn’t guarantee that. I could guarantee him football matches but maybe in different positions and formations.  Maybe Wigan boss Paul Cook said he could be number nine every week and that may have triggered his decision.”

The words of Rangers manager Steven Gerrard after Josh Windass joined Wigan Athletic on the summer transfer deadline day. The fee was reported to be £2m. That same day Latics paid Ipswich some £1.25m for centre forward Joe Garner. Why did Paul Cook sign both when he already had Will Grigg and James Vaughan competing for the centre forward position?

Cook clearly has a high regard for the 24-year-old Windass, but what were his intentions? Was he signing the Hull-born player as a central striker or one who would poach goals from wide positions?

At the end of last season Cook had three central strikers in the senior squad. Over the summer he opted to send Devante Cole on loan to Burton Albion, leaving Grigg and Vaughan to fight for the position. Cook’s preferred formation involves one central striker, although he will sometimes throw on another in the second half if needs’ be. Garner is a capable and experienced Championship-level central striker and he will compete with Grigg and Vaughan, but where does that leave Windass?

Not surprisingly, given the competition he is facing, Josh Windass has not yet started a game for Latics as a centre forward. He has been confined to the right or left wing. He has made 8 starts, Latics winning 3, drawing 1, losing 4 of those games. He has scored one goal, well taken against Hull City.

Cook’s team last season was characterised by fast and decisive play from the flanks with pacey wingers and full backs pushed far forward. At its best it was exhilarating to watch. Gavin Massey was a key player on the right wing, his pace causing problems for opposing full backs, but his ability to perform the high press and to get back to support his full back underlined his contribution. The loss of Massey through a severe hamstring injury was a bitter pill for Cook to swallow. He had a potential replacement in Callum McManaman, but he too has had injury issues and not been at his best. In the meantime, Cook has used Windass and Michael Jacobs in wide positions, interchanging between right and left.

Windass is not a natural winger. Too often he has looked like a central striker playing wide. But that position is by no means new to him. Rangers had used him there often. Was Gerrard being upfront about Windass’ decision to leave Rangers? The whole thing does not add up.

What we have seen so far of Cook’s preferred style of play has been refreshing. Long-standing Latics fans would have said something similar about Paul Jewell’s football. PJ pulled a masterstroke by converting a centre forward with a low strike record into a left midfielder who was key not only in promotion to the Premier League, but staying there. Big Lee McCulloch was rarely going to beat a defender in his left wing position, but he worked hard in midfield and was a real threat at the far post with his heading ability. Jewell made a pragmatic decision to sacrifice speed on the left wing, for the greater good, McCulloch’s attacking threat in the air adding another dimension. Moreover, in Leighton Baines and Steve McMillan, he had attacking left backs with the ability to cross the ball with their “stronger”  feet.

Cook stuck his neck out with the signing of Josh Windass. His dilemma revolves around how to use the player most effectively for the combined benefit of the team.

Would Windass be effective in that McCulloch role? He is certainly not a right winger but playing on the left provides him with opportunities to cut in for right foot shots. But that is a big part of Michael Jacobs’ game. Jacobs has been a key player for Cook.

Cook surprised us at Preston by replacing an injured Nick Powell with Dan Burn, reverting to a back three. For a manager so passionate about 4-2-3-1 it was a paradigm shift. If he were to persist with such a system, there would be possibilities for twin strikers. Windass and Grigg would provide an interesting pairing. But one senses that Cook’s motivation was to bring Burn back into the fold than anything else. Given the hard times that Antonee Robinson has recently had it would not be a surprise to see Burn appear at left back.

Cook has lots of thinking to do. Does he bring McManaman in to provide pace and balance on the wing or does he keep faith in Windass? Or is he willing to sacrifice 4-2-3-1 to accommodate him as a striker?

Another, if less likely, scenario is at least one central striker leaving in the January transfer window.

The team selection for the game against high flying West Bromwich Albion next weekend will make interesting reading.

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