Five talking points following a champagne-popping win over Stoke

Wigan Athletic 3 Stoke City 0

Champagne football returned to Wigan last night as Latics blew away Stoke City with the best display of the Paul Cook era. Gone was the hoofball that characterised the worst displays of the season. In its place was champagne football.

Granted, the first two goals were down to poor defensive play, although the third was something special. But the scoreline could have been much greater had Latics taken more of their chances. They were so superior throughout the game.

After the match Paul Cook commented: “That was an absolute top-class performance from us tonight. The only disappointment possibly was that it was only 1-0 at half-time. We created clear-cut chances, we dominated possession, and our appetite for work when we didn’t have the ball was so impressive.”

Let’s look at some points arising from the game:

It’s all in the head

Jonjo is right. It is bonkers!

Wigan’s play last night exuded a confidence based upon an impressive unbeaten run.

In November Latics lost 2-1 at Stoke through a Mame Diouf goal in the 93rd minute.

They have come so far since then. But who can explain it?

Cook’s popularity rating rises

There have been times over the past two seasons when Paul Cook’s popularity rating has hit rock bottom. At times the football has been either awful or too frustrating to watch.  Comments on the social media have been brutal at times.

However, since embarking on this unbeaten run in mid-February his popularity with the fans has been gradually increasing. People want results and they have been coming. Some of the previous performances were abysmal, others quite the opposite even if the results did not always correlate with the performances.

The manager summed things up well following the victory over Blackburn at the weekend:

It’s hard to be a manager at this level, because you get abused for much of the time. But then all of a sudden because your team wins a few games, you’re suddenly a good manager again.

The brutal reality is you’re only as good as your player and my players have never, ever let me down, over anything other than inexperience, naivety. When it comes to passion, desire, determination, attitude, they’ve always given me everything. I’ve never had a problem with any of them this season, never had a dressing-room row when I’ve had to question that side of things.”

I’ve certainly had plenty of rows questioning some of the stuff we’ve done, but that’s football. To see them now playing against such strong sides, and limiting them to not many clear-cut chances, is great credit to them.”

Last night we saw a performance matched by a result. It is when the two coincide that we can begin to see a brighter future ahead.

Butland has an off night

Peter Schmeichel once said: “Every player makes mistakes; every goalkeeper makes mistakes. Every manager does, every broadcaster – every person in life makes mistakes. But for goalkeepers, often when they make a mistake, it leads to a goal.”

Jack Butland’s own goal and assist for Kal Naismith’s first goal certainly helped Latics on their way.

Butland is 27 years old and has 9 caps for England. He is by no means a rookie goalkeeper, but his mistakes were costly for his team last night.

Naismith’s second goal was a stunner

When Kal Naismith came on for an injured Michael Jacobs after 32 minutes he went to the right wing. The Glaswegian has played in so many different positions for Latics and opinion is divided as to which is his best. Many would say he has had his best performances at centre back. But he had hardly shone in the past on the few occasions he had been employed on the right wing.

However, he had a fine game last night, giving veteran full back Stephen Ward a torrid time. Ten minutes after coming on he chested down a high ball and unleashed a tremendous effort from over 30 yards which was somehow pushed wide by the ‘keeper. Naismith’s first goal was a tap-in, but the second was the kind that will stick in the mind for years to come. The sheer power of the strike showed the excellent technique that the player has.

(Naismith’s second goal after 1:56 min)

It was a surprise not to see Naismith take the field in the first two games of the season restart. It will be even more of a surprise if he does not feature more regularly in the six games that remain.

Brentford – the acid test

Can Latics keep up their form for the trip to Brentford on Saturday?

The Bees have won their last four games and are only two points away from an automatic promotion place. However, Wigan have already notched up wins away against the teams above Brentford: Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion.

Keeping up an unbeaten run of nine games against another team in fine form is not going to be easy. The encounter will provide an acid test for Cook’s Latics.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Naismith gives Latics inspiration and hope

Naismith gives Latics inspiration and hope. Photo courtesy of WiganAthletic.com

Players in teams that are struggling in the relegation mire tend to play safety-first, being afraid to make mistakes or draw derision from the fans for a shot goes miles wide or a pass that seems to go nowhere.

We saw that in the Bristol City game on Saturday, as we have so often since Latics returned to the Championship under Paul Cook. Things are better now than a few weeks ago. At least the central defenders no longer hoof the ball when under the slightest pressure.

When a team is low on confidence, as Latics are, despite the propaganda to the contrary, it takes courage to stick one’s neck out and not take the easy way out, putting the onus on someone else.

The reborn Kal Naismith bucks the trend. When Cook put the Glaswegian at centre back following Cedric Kipre’s red card at Leeds in April 2019, who would have thought that he could do so well? A flash in the pan most of us were probably thinking.

Naismith had been used at left back in the injury-enforced absence of Antonee Robinson and had played with enthusiasm but was looking suspect when genuine right wingers faced him. It was reminiscent of Kevin Kilbane in the Steve Bruce days: a left sided midfielder playing at left back.

But Naismith is clearly a learner.

Since then Naismith has established himself as a first-choice central defender the quality of football played by the team has really improved. The hoof has disappeared and there has been a huge improvement in the play of Cedric Kipre, his central defensive partner. The Frenchman had fallen way down the pecking order of central defenders at Cook’s disposal. His early promise on arrival from Motherwell at the beginning of last season had seemed to evaporate.

But it is not only Naismith’s ability to move forward and play meaningful passes to the midfield and forwards that has impressed. His reading of the game, the timing of his tackles and interceptions have been a revelation. Some said he would have a hard time facing the more physical centre forwards, but that has not been the case.

Naismith has had real lows at Wigan in his 18 month stay. Having followed the manager from Portsmouth some of the crowd frustration at the manager has fallen on him. Nominally a left winger he rarely had a run of games to make his mark, so often being brought off the bench at difficult times or played out of position.

Some fans compare Naismith with Jordi Gomez, who was the whipping boy for too many so-called fans but went on the win “Player of the Year”. It would be no surprise to see Naismith follow in the same way.

This site was set up by my son, Ned, in 2011.

He invited me to write alongside him. I had never written football stuff before. He asked me what nickname I would like to use I suggested “Jakarta Jack”, living in Indonesia at the time. After a quiet start Three Amigos Wigan took off. With Latics in the Premier League the top media companies were interested.

It was a surprise to me when ESPN, the world’s top sports media site, invited us to join them, giving feedback on Roberto Martinez’ Latics. We had to write 3-4 articles per week, published on their site and we also put it on Amigos.

Since those early days Ned has had a change in circumstances, with a young family and a demanding job. I am in regular contact with him and he so often gives me ideas for my articles. I asked him to give me his thoughts on Kal Naismith and here they are:

I think he is fascinating, and I love watching him — particularly now that his transformation is complete from winger to centre back. I didn’t like him as a winger; I did like him as a wingback, and full-back, after his performances in the second half of last season. And now I love him as a centre-back.

Cook has made some appalling tactical decisions over the years, but he actually deserves giant praise for Naismith. The same criticism that has been levelled at his recently for sticking by senior pros out of stubbornness and loyalty, was levelled at him in the early days of Naismith. That was largely because he was being deployed as a left-winger and proving largely ineffective.

You can make an argument that Cook only discovered Naismith’s best position (at this level) by accident. First, Antonee Robinson’s injury last season, forcing him into deploying Naismith as an emergency left wing-back and left-back; and then as a centre-half, to most famous effect in that incredible away with at Leeds. But Cook had seen something in him, to warrant signing him for the Championship despite unimpressive statistical contribution at L2 level. And he has been proven right, eventually. He was a good signing.

In retrospect, I think he clearly lacked pace and dribbling to be a successful winger in the modern game. It’s easy to make comparisons in terms of playing style to David Beckham to justify his existence as a winger, but the game has changed dramatically since Beckham’s days, and there are few players of his kind playing on the wing these days. In fact, many are playing at full-back. It makes David Moyes look quite astute in his deployment of Leighton Baines as a playmaker from that position. Baines too, never had fantastic pace — but sublime technique, poise and intelligence.

So where does he go from here? The sky is the limit, in his new position. He has the athleticism and physique to cope as a centre back. The poise and passing range to play a modern game. And the versatility to prove incredibly useful to managers looking to rotate between a back four and back five, a bit like how Emmerson Boyce gradually became a vital cog in Roberto’s machine. He has the added benefit of being a model pro; content to sit on the side-lines, but performing to a high level when called upon, in a variety of positions.

He’s due a mistake at some point, but his transformation has been dramatic.

Without wanting to write Jamal Lowe off — I do believe think with better man-management and a more gradual introduction he’d be thriving as an impact player off the bench at this stage — Kal is in some ways the anti-Jamal Lowe. He is not blessed with pace or trickery on the ball, or bells and whistles. But he exudes calm and presence of mind. And the impact on those around him is very positive. Instead of rushing or panicking, he is thoughtful and cultured. Those, slightly more intangible skills, should in theory help his further development, should a team higher up the league(s) take note and come calling.

 

 

 

 

Five talking points following an away win at Birmingham

Birmingham City 2 Wigan Athletic 3

Wigan Athletic’s first away win since April was another nail-biting affair, but this time they held out to gain an invaluable three points to lift themselves off the bottom of the table. The celebrations of the players at the end showed how important the win was for them.

Paul Cook made just one change in the starting lineup with Michael Jacobs coming in for Gavin Massey. That meant Josh Windass continuing at centre forward with Joe Williams in the number 10 position.

The irony is that Latics won the game without playing as well in recent matches, but still showed enough pace and movement to trouble a suspect Birmingham defence. Once again they let in soft goals, but the home side can also be accused of the same, with all three Wigan goals coming from defensive errors. For once Latics capitalized on their opponents’ errors.

Windass proves his worth

Cook kept faith in the enigmatic Josh Windass, who went on the score the first goal and have a hand in the other two. Playing without a big man up front means puts an onus on defenders and midfielders to be more creative. Windass has genuine pace that allows him to pounce on well-hit long passes. It is so refreshing following the mindless long-ball approach that characterized Wigan’s away performances for so long.

He had his best performance for the club today.

Naismith provides composure in defence

Kal Naismith has been excellent in the centre of defence in the past six matches. He provides the composure that has been so lacking for so long. Given his limited experience playing in the position we could have expected him to have made some major gaffes, but that has not been the case. Naismith has an ability to read the game, not to panic and to make the right tackle at the right moment. His distribution of the ball from defence has been outstanding.

Sadly Naismith had to go off at half time with what has been reported as a thigh injury. When he left the composure dissipated.

It is no coincidence that Cedric Kipre has looked much more comfortable since teaming up with the Scot in the centre of defence. When the combative Chey Dunkley came on after the interval Kipre was moved across to the left to accommodate him.

Nathan Byrne has a tough one

It has not been an easy season so far for Nathan Byrne. He had a torrid time this afternoon against the speedy French winger Jeremie Bela, then later with the likewise pacey Ecuadorian Jefferson Montero.

The 20-year-old Chelsea loanee Dujon Sterling has competed with Byrne for the right back position, making 9 appearances compared with 19 for the latter. Sterling did not make the bench today.

Full back is not an easy role in Cook’s style of play. Full backs are not only expected to perform their full defensive duties but to bomb forward in attack. Byrne certainly put a lot of effort into his runs forward but at times looked exposed when Birmingham attacked.

Latics have enough quality to climb out of the relegation zone

Latics have shown repeatedly that there are few teams in the division for them to fear. Most of their defeats have been of their own making, in squandering chances or giving away goals through defensive errors. Nottingham Forest are now fourth in the table and Wigan made them look distinctly ordinary three days ago, even if the final scoreline did not do them justice.

Despite the rare away win the manager still remains unpopular with a majority of fans. Many still believe they will get relegated if Cook stays. However, at this stage it looks like he will be here at least until the end of the season.

However, although the manager continues to frustrate fans with his loyalty to certain senior pros as far as team selection is concerned, together with his use of substitutions, there have been improvements. The standard of football we have seen in recent away games has been light years ahead of the mindless stuff we saw for so long.

There is some light at the end of the tunnel, but it is not going to be an easy ride.

A trip to Leicester

Few of us have any expectations for the trip to face Leicester City this weekend. The likelihood is that Latics will receive a tonking. But on the other hand Leicester can be expected to put out a weakened lineup and Cook’s Latics have a surprisingly good record against Premier League teams in the FA Cup.

The bottom line is that Wigan will go into the game with nothing to lose, except maybe a little pride.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Some talking points about Wigan Athletic staying in the Championship

Things were looking grim. A frustratingly predictable defeat at Hull, giving Latics an away record of LLWLLLLLLLDLLDLLLDLLLDL, with games against table-toppers Norwich and Leeds United coming up.

Even at the start of the season some of the more hardened Latics fans were saying that last game against Millwall could be crucial. They could well be right.

Spirits were low in midweek, but the gloom was lifted to some degree by a 1-1 draw with Norwich, even if Rotherham scored a late equaliser at Stoke.

Can Latics stay up? What will it depend on?

Over the past months the cushion provided through a good start to the season, coupled with poor results for teams in the relegation zone, seemed to be enough. But, despite having a solid home record, Wigan’s away performances have put them in severe danger of relegation.

There are now four games left. Latics travel to Leeds and Birmingham and have Preston and Millwall at home.

Is there light at the end of the tunnel?

Let’s take a look at some talking points.

The display against Norwich gives hope

When Paul Cook named his starting line-up to face the division leaders eyebrows were raised. Bringing back Leon Clarke and Kal Naismith hardly seemed like inspired choices, let alone leaving Nick Powell on the bench and playing Lee Evans in the number 10 position.

In the event, the manager’s choices were vindicated, all three putting in excellent performances. Latics were unlucky not to beat the Canaries with a display reminiscent of those fighting performances in the days of “Believe”.

Cook commented after the game: “In the game, we have gone against a very good Norwich side who are excellent at what they do. We’ve took the game to them, we’ve pressed them at the top end of the pitch, I thought we were unlucky not to see the game out and win but we respect the opposition, that’s for sure. While there’s a touch of disappointment around the club and when you’re playing the teams that we do, we’re happy with it. Today we picked a team that was designed to do one thing and one job, which was to press teams high up and have the energy to keep doing it and I thought the lads who I drafted in to do that, implemented it absolutely excellently.”

Wigan’s pressing was key to the display on Saturday. It prevented Norwich getting into a rhythm which could have caused serious problems for the home team’s defence. Cook had his plan and the players supported him in its delivery, something that they have not always been able to do consistently this season.

In need of the Rub of the Green

Cook has so often talked about the fine margins in football. In the era when VAR is not employed in the EFL there will be contentious refereeing decisions that go unchecked. Had VAR been employed would the results at the DW and Bet365 Stadiums have stayed the same on Saturday?

Norwich fans will say Latics were fortunate with the penalty, but the offside decision to annul Clarke’s late “goal” was tight to say the least.

The bottom line is that football is unpredictable. So much can depend on getting “the rub of the green” from refereeing decisions. As in every football season we have seen a considerable number of controversial ones. The theory is that the ones for and against average out over the course of the season, but is there any scientific basis to suggest that it is the case?

Cook gets better

The manager has hardly won the plaudits from the fans for his team selections, substitutions and tactics over the course of a difficult season. But he has impressed recently. His 3-4-2-1 innovation brought a point at promotion-challenging Bristol City and his tactics at Hull were working until they were undone by individual errors.

Cook deserves commendation for his set-up against Norwich. It took courage on his part to choose the starting eleven that did such a fine job.

Cook’s supporters will say he is a manager who has been on a steep learning curve in his first season in the second tier of English football. His detractors will say that he should have been dismissed some months ago and that he is lucky to still have his job.

Cook’s past successes have so often been with clubs with modest budgets punching above their weight. Should Latics suffer relegation and severely-reduce their budget he would as good a bet as any to get them back up. Last time they were relegated to League 1 they had a budget around four times the average in the division, taking a financial hit over the course of the season. Under the IEC it is unlikely they would have such funding.

Should Latics suffer relegation it would not be easy to get out of League 1. Money talks.

In the meantime, we have some hope that Cook has learned from experience and can guide Wigan through this difficult period. Latics’ budget this season places them in the lower levels of the Championship, so it is not a surprise that they face relegation issues.

Should Wigan Athletic avoid relegation would we look back in future years and give Paul Cook due credit? The short-term goal is consolidation, with the club improving its marketing, increasing revenues, investing in facilities to bring its Academy up to Category 2 status. For the moment any final league placing above the bottom three should be regarded as successful consolidation in the Championship division.

But whether Latics are in the Championship or League 1 next season will we see youngsters at the club given opportunities at senior level? Callum Lang is the most likely to be given a chance and will most likely be a regular in the match day squad. The EFL rule that clubs must name at least one homegrown player, a role that was largely taken on by Callum McManaman this season. We can only hope that Lang will be treated better than McManaman was.

 

 

Five talking points after an opportunity missed at Derby

Derby County 2 Wigan Athletic 1

It had been one of Wigan’s better away performances: a goal up after 25 minutes following a superb counterattack, the home team not looking like they were going to score. Then after 62 minutes Derby substitute Mason Bennett scored a truly spectacular goal that radically changed the game. Wigan’s fragile confidence was severely dented to such an extent that it was no great surprise that the home team scored again 16 minutes later with the Wigan defence all at sea.

Following the game Paul Cook commented: “At one stage, the whole picture looked great for us but unfortunately the picture changed completely. For long periods in the second-half, I thought we were going to score again – I thought we were getting in the right areas but the disappointing thing was Massey and Jacobs tired badly – as to be expected – and we are having to make substitutions. There are no excuses, though, we are at a good level of football and you have got to have something about you to see games out and unfortunately we haven’t been able to do that.”

Let’s look at some points arising:

An opportunity missed

On paper Derby had a stronger lineup than Wigan. Even without players of the quality of Tom Lawrence and Mason Mount they had enough talent to ask questions about a suspect Latics defence. Nevertheless, Derby came into this game after three consecutive league defeats and their play had been fraught with errors. With the home team so nervy and with Latics a goal up going into the interval it was an opportunity for a rare Wigan away win.

Wigan had been unfortunate to be deprived of the experienced and influential Danny Fox through injury after 33 minutes. Would the defence be able to withstand the Derby pressure in his absence? Mason Bennett is by no means a prolific scorer with a record of 6 goals in 90 league appearances. Latics can certainly count themselves unfortunate to have conceded a goal to Bennett that some might label a touch of genius; others might say it was a fluke. Wigan had their chances to win the game, but did not convert them, Leon Clarke being the principal offender in that respect.

In his post-match comments Cook told us he had expected Jacobs and Massey to tire.  Their pace and movement had reminded us of the tempo with which Latics had played early in the season. Both had been sadly missed but their presence could still prove crucial to Latics avoiding relegation. But knowing that both were going to be unable to complete the 90 minutes the manager did not have another winger on the bench to replace them. Kal Naismith had come on at full back for Fox and neither Callum McManaman nor Anthony Pilkington were on the bench.

With the squad that Cook has at his disposal Latics are always going to be hard pressed to get a result against a team in the promotion race or one that is at the top of their form. But this is not the first occasion that they have been unable to beat teams that have been nervy and short of confidence following a bad run of results. It started in early October when they lost 4-0 to a Preston side which had been at low ebb. They just have not been able to capitalize on the opportunities presented to them since then.

Tactics and team selection

Having had some success with a back five in the previous outing it was a surprise that Cook ditched it, although it could be argued that his game-plan was working with Latics a goal up. Despite having one of his better displays against Middlesbrough Naismith was taken off after 60 minutes and found himself on the bench at Pride Park.  It can scarcely have helped the player’s confidence and he was not at his best in this match.

Having decided on a flat back four this time around, Cook retained his midfield trio of Reece James, Lee Evans and Sam Morsy. James did well but Evans and Morsy were distinctly below par. Evans in particular looked lost in his role in right midfield.

With a prior background in the lower leagues Cook has struggled with the tactical side of the game in the Championship. It scarcely helps that his assistant manager and first team coach come from similar backgrounds.  With a relatively low budget squad he has to get the best out of the players at his disposal if the team is to compete and avoid relegation. He also needs to adjust his tactical approach according to the opposition he faces.

Last season’s success was based on a 4-2-3-1 system, with a long-ball approach to 4-4-2 being the Plan B. Latics started this season successfully with 4-2-3-1, but injuries to Jacobs and Massey cut its effectiveness. Cook received some criticism for his tactics against Middlesbrough, packing the central midfield and using a backline of three central defenders, but a point was gained against a top team. Given the goals given away by a shaky defence over recent months it was a surprise that the manager had not employed such a shape in his previous starting lineups, particularly away from home.

Set pieces

Latics’ set piece plays have been so disappointing this season. Lee Evans used to be the main taker of corners and free kicks but Reece James has since taken over most of those duties. The centre backs still have not scored a goal, despite the number of opportunities they have had. Nick Powell’s enforced absence from injury has surely had an effect since he is probably the best header of a ball in set-piece situations.

A goal from a set piece is long overdue. Will it come at Reading on Saturday?

Rays of hope

Although the result did not go Wigan’s way there were some rays of hope emanating from the performance. The sight of Jacobs and Massey running at defences at pace from wide positions was most welcome, as was another short appearance for Nick Powell.

Cook now has to decide how to approach the game at Reading. Will he continue with the ineffective Clarke at centre forward or will he opt for Joe Garner or even Powell in that position? One can only hope he will start with Jacobs, Massey and Powell and that Latics will go in with a positive approach. Should they get an early lead there remains the possibility of reverting to a back three/five later in the game, as the trio tires, with Jonas Olsson coming in off the bench.

Looking forward to next season

Should Latics manage to avoid relegation – which is far from certain at this moment – will Cook and his backroom team be in charge next season? The manager has been fortunate to have kept his job given the indifferent performances and results over these months. Should relegation occur then Cook’s experience in the lower divisions would prove useful. Should Latics stay up will Darren Royle continue to back Cook in the hope that he has learned from his mistakes this season?

Latics started the season with a considerable number of players who had not played at championship level before. They too will have benefited from the experience, tough though it might have been.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com