Five talking points after Latics settle for a point against Reading

Wigan Athletic 0 Reading 0

 

After four consecutive defeats, with ten goals conceded, a clean sheet and a draw was a step forward. But with more clinical finishing Latics could have won by a wide margin. Although not playing well Wigan still managed to create a hatful of opportunities against a mediocre Reading team.

Paul Cook made two changes to his starting line-up, with Sam Morsy coming back from suspension to replace Lee Evans with Kal Naismith coming in for the injured Antonee Robinson. He persisted with the 4-4-1-1 system, with Josh Windass playing behind Nick Powell.

After the game Cook commented: “After suffering four defeats in this league, it’s always nice to stop the rot. It’s not a win, but it’s a rot stopped in a very difficult division. Our fans were begging for players to go forwards in the last few minutes, but when you’re on a bad run, confidence is key, and we had to stop that rot today.”

Let’s take a look at some points arising:

Naismith shows his skills

The injury to Antonee Robinson was a tough one for Cook with no other specialist left back in the squad to replace the Liverpudlian. The manager could have switched Nathan Byrne or Reece James to the left or brought in Callum Connolly who has experience playing in that position with the Everton development squad. But Cook clearly prefers a left footer in that position and continues to show belief in the ability of Kal Naismith to make it at Championship level. But given Naismith’s apparent unease in previous games in playing on the left of defence it appeared to be a risky proposition.

However, Naismith did well and came close to Reece James as Latics’ best performer on the day. He played particularly well in the first half, showing excellent movement, vision and change of pace. His crossing was impressive. His excellent block of substitute Danny Loader’s volley in the closing minutes helped save a point for Latics.

Whether Naismith will retain the left back position in the upcoming games against Blackburn and Bolton remains to be seen. He had Sone Aluko, a left footed midfielder more likely to cut inside rather than race down the touchline. If Bolton were to play Yanic Wildschut on the right wing on Saturday, Naismith could be severely stretched defensively.

After the game Cook commented that: “Kal Naismith was excellent for us at left back today, he’s not a left back…..”

Settling for a draw

The sight of Christian Walton seemingly wasting time on a goal kick in the dying minutes of the game did not go down well with the home fans. After all, Latics were drawing with a team in the relegation zone.

Cook recognised the fans’ frustration in his team’s tactics in commenting that: “Our fans were begging for players to go forwards in the last few minutes, but when you’re on a bad run, confidence is key, and we had to stop that rot today.”

Holes in the midfield

Under Jaap Stam, Reading played patient possession football, finishing in third place, being narrowly defeated in the Championship playoff final by Huddersfield Town. Since then they have slipped down the table but continue to play in the same vein under Paul Clement.

Not surprisingly Reading had 57% possession compared with Wigan’s 43%, but it was the ease with which they were able to bypass the Latics middle line that gave cause for concern. Fortunately for Wigan the final pass by Reading was rarely incisive and the home team’s back four held up well. But those gaps in the central midfield were noticeable.

With Morsy’s return Cook had to choose between Darron Gibson and Lee Evans for the second position in holding midfield. Gibson was his preference. But what was surprising was that when Gibson was withdrawn after 84 minutes it was Callum Connolly who was brought on.

Despite his indifferent performances of late, Cook gave Gibson a vote of confidence yesterday by putting him in the starting line-up. But the manager will surely be considering bringing back the Welshman for the Blackburn game on Wednesday. Evans is not only a solid holding midfielder, but a creative force going forward. His creativity was sorely missed. Moreover, Evans and Morsy work particularly well as a partnership in the centre of the pitch.

McManaman will have his part to play

 “I know people will think that’s negative, it’s not, our time to win games will be in the near future and Callum McManaman will have his part to play.”

Cook was reacting to the fans’ disappointment that Callum Connolly, not Callum McManaman, was the third and final substitute for Latics with six minutes left on the clock.

Cook’s unwillingness to use McManaman, a potential match winner in such situations, was certainly frustrating, even if the manager was basically saying that he was happy to settle for a draw.  But it is not so much Cook’s decision in this game, but his treatment of the unpredictable McManaman over the course of the season so far, that has been hard to fathom.

McManaman has played a total of 210 minutes in the Championship this season, an average of 12 minutes per match. He is on a one-year contract.

But Cook insists that the player will have a part to play.

Being brave under adversity

In August Latics were attacking with abandon, scoring 11 goals in the five league games played. They were exciting to watch, if somewhat naïve. Since then they have scored just 8 goals in the last 13 games. Their tactics have changed from a high pressing game based on high tempo attack to a more defensive approach with the long ball prevalent. The approach in the second half yesterday was symptomatic of what we have seen too often in recent weeks.

But there are mitigating factors. Injuries to key players have proved a hammer-blow. Moreover, the fixture list saw Latics having to play against so many high-flying teams in recent weeks.

At the start of the season Cook had a squad high on confidence after winning League 1. Now he has the opposite, with a need to build up confidence lost by a series of bad results. Cook must first rebuild his team’s morale, before returning to a more attractive tactical approach.

Given the circumstances no manager in Cook’s place would attack with abandon against Blackburn. But a little more attacking flair in the line-up would not be amiss. McManaman or Leo Da Silva Lopes in one of the wide positions might help.

In the long run, with confidence restored, we can expect Cook to return to a more attractive brand of football than we have seen of late.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

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Five talking points following three points lost at Millwall

Millwall 2 Wigan Athletic 1

Justice was done and the better side won, but a smash and grab could have given Latics the three points.

Despite being outplayed in the first half Wigan had gone ahead courtesy of an own goal. Then in the 49th minute James Vaughan was clean through, but his heavy touch let him down. On the hour mark Latics were awarded a soft penalty as Vaughan had gone down in the box, only for the spot kick to be spooned way over the bar by Josh Windass.

Windass’ miss breathed life into the home side and they equalised a minute later after another soft penalty was awarded. Given the balance of play it was no surprise when Steve Morison netted the winning goal on 82 minutes.

Following the game Paul Cook commented: “We put ourselves in a position to win the game tonight and we didn’t see it through, that’s disappointing. The penalty miss galvanised them. You can’t give teams legs up in this division and we managed to do that. Some of our play was very naive in terms of the areas on the pitch that we tried to play in. If you go 2-0 up at the Den you can imagine how the atmosphere changes, but credit to Millwall, whether they deserved to win the game I’ll have to watch back and see, but they certainly didn’t deserve to lose the game, that’s for sure.”

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

Cook’s starting lineup raises eyebrows

The announcement of Paul Cook’s starting lineup an hour before kick-off raised eyebrows for some of us. Nick Powell on the bench, Callum Connolly in for Nathan Byrne and Kal Naismith for Gary Roberts. James Vaughan back in at centre forward.

Once more Cook decided to play without a right winger, Connolly being brought in to presumably stiffen up the midfield. Naismith was making his first start for the club.

The formation that resulted was somewhere between 4-3-3 and 4-4-2, with Vaughan and Windass operating as twin strikers and Naismith on the left.

It was a far cry from the balanced 4-2-3-1 formation the manager usually employs.

The long ball rears its head

Wigan’s play was not a pretty sight. Latics’ best football this season has come as a result of the central midfielders dropping back to receive the ball, acting as the link between defence and attack. But last night the norm was to be long balls and hoofs.

Nick Powell is Wigan’s most creative player and he has dovetailed so well with Lee Evans and Sam Morsy in midfield. But Powell was on the bench and Evans and Morsy were not at their best. Moreover, there was a lack of width with no winger on the right and Dan Burn and Kal Naismith struggling on the left. The long ball therefore became the main form of attack.

This is not to say that long ball cannot be a valid style of play. But those long balls need to be measured passes rather than speculative punts forward. What we saw last night was more akin to “hoofing” rather than a methodical “long ball” approach.

Were Millwall there for the taking?

In his pre-match build-up Cook had stressed what a difficult trip it would be to the New Den, where Latics have a poor record.

Millwall were playing a 4-4-2 system that sometimes looked like 4-2-4 as they threw players forward into attack. They repeatedly carved open the Wigan defence in the first half and their football was a cut above that of the visitors.

However, in putting so many players forward there were going to be gaps left behind that could be exploited. But a Latics team lacking in pace, width and creativity was largely unable to capitalise on the gaps.

Vaughan should not be a scapegoat

Paul Cook has four centre forwards in his squad, who all need regular game time. With Will Grigg being injured he selected Vaughan and Windass, leaving Garner on the bench.

This was James Vaughan’s second league start of the season. Garner has made three league starts, Grigg eight and Windass one in the centre forward position.

On his arrival from Sunderland in January, Vaughan had to play second fiddle to Grigg, largely being used as a substitute. The signings of Garner and Windass in the summer have made it even more difficult for the player to get a regular game.

If Vaughan had been sharper, he would have scored in the 49th minute. But given his lack of game time he was not going to be at his sharpest.

Vaughan had one of his better games for Latics last night, feeding off the few scraps that came his way. His work rate was as excellent as always.

A left back to be signed in January?

Dan Burn was again drafted into the left back position for the rested Antonee Robinson. Burn was given a torrid time by Millwall right winger Jed Wallace. It was a relief for Burn when he was moved into a back three in the second half.

However, as things got more comfortable for one player they got less so for another. In the tactical reshuffle Kal Naismith was moved to left wing back. In the pre-season Naismith had a torrid time playing at left back, a position which did not suit him. Naismith does not have the tackling skills to be an effective full back/wing back. However, he does have a good left foot and a decent career strike record from wide midfield positions.

Robinson is excellent going forward, but his defending can be suspect. If anything, his best position is left wing back, allowing him more scope to attack. Will Cook continue with his back line of three at Sheffield United on Saturday? Burn, Dunkley and Kipre make a formidable trio. With James and Robinson as wing backs Latics would have the width that they were lacking at Millwall.

Another left back is a priority for Cook in the January transfer window.

Five talking points arising from a hard-fought win against Hull

Wigan Athletic 2 Hull City 1

 

It was by no means a classic, but the three points gained have put Wigan Athletic in the top half of the Championship table. Hull City had given the Latics defence some early problems, but well taken goals from Sam Morsy and Josh Windass put Wigan two goals up before Jarod Bowen scored for the visitors in the 42nd minute. The second half saw Latics mount a largely rear-guard action, although they still managed to threaten the visitors’ goal in spells.

Although it is early in the campaign Paul Cook’s Latics have already shown that they have the confidence and ability to hold their own in the second tier of English football. After the first 8 games their record is W4 D1 L3. At this stage a couple of seasons ago Gary Caldwell’s team were sitting in 22nd place, with a record of the W1 D2 L5.

Let’s take a look at some points arising from last night’s match:

Nouha Dicko causes problems for Wigan’s defence

Dicko was signed from Strasbourg by Roberto Martinez as a 19-year-old in 2011. After three loan spells for Blackpool, Rotherham and Wolves he signed for Wolves in January 2014. His appearances at Wigan had been confined to cup games. He has now made 172 league appearances, scoring 50 goals.

Dicko’s pace and aggression caused problems for the centre of Wigan’s defence and with a little more poise he might have scored. He remains a force at Championship level. Fortunately for Dunkley and Kipre he was taken off after 61 minutes, his team resorting to long crosses with which the two big centre backs looked much more comfortable.

Cook gets it right

Paul Cook had come under criticism for his team selection at Brentford, having left Will Grigg on the bench and played without a recognised right winger. He later reacted to the criticism, stating “There were key decisions made in terms of selection on Saturday that were always being made with Tuesday and Friday in mind, and I’m excited at the calibre of players we have waiting to come in.”

In the event the calibre players coming in were to be Grigg and Michael Jacobs. Although closely marked Grigg worked hard and it was his unselfish play that led up to Morsy’s goal. Jacobs’ enterprise and flair had been sorely absent at Griffin Park, but it was certainly evident last night. The line-up certainly had a more balanced look.

Following the Brentford game Cook had intimated that Latics might appeal Morsy’s red card. He will be glad he did so because the captain was back on form last night, not only scoring a cracking goal, but showing the kind of industry in midfield that we have come to expect from him.

Cook’s substitutions proved to be effective last night. He took Grigg off after 65 minutes, pushing Nick Powell forward, with Darron Gibson coming on to strengthen the central midfield. Kal Naismith was brought on to replace Windass after 82 minutes and he put Jacobs through on goal five minutes later with a fine run and pass. Powell proved a handful for the Hull defence at centre forward until he went off in the 89th minute.

Gibson’s calm makes a difference

Hull had stepped up the pressure in the second half and Latics had been pushed back into defence. The midfield was being overrun and Wigan just could not seem to hold on to the ball. The introduction of Gibson certainly helped.

Gibson has an aura of calm about his play that can influence those around him. He is resolute in defence and rarely wastes the ball.

Providing Gibson can steer clear of further injury he has the class to be a major player for Latics.

A role for Josh Windass

Josh Windass made his goal in the 37th minute look easy, but how many of his teammates would have taken the opportunity like he did? It was reminiscent of one he almost scored in his debut at Villa Park. A cross into space at the far post from Lee Evans. First time around Windass got his head to the ball, but it went narrowly wide. But guessing what Evans was going to do last night, Windass got into space and firmly headed into an empty net. At first glance it looked like it might have been offside, but the timing of his run was just right.

Windass is not a winger in the orthodox sense. He does not have the dribbling skills of Michael Jacobs, not the searing pace of Gavin Massey, yet Cook plays him in a nominally wide position. In times gone by Windass might have been employed as a twin striker in a 4-4-2 system. However, most managers these days prefer a lone central striker with support from the flanks and central midfield.

The goal will boost the player’s confidence, as he continues to adjust to the style of play that Cook espouses. In his post-match interview Latics’ coach Anthony Barry stated: “Josh’s goal has been coming; we know what a player and what a talent Josh is and his numbers up in Scotland suggest he will score goals. We have seen him in training and he is taking chances on a regular basis, so we are relaxed about Josh and the goals he will score for us.”

In Latics’ Premier League days Roberto Martinez experimented by putting centre forward Hugo Rodallega on the left wing. It did not work for Rodallega, nor Mauro Boselli who was starved of service in the centre.

However, in this new era wingers are more than ever expected to cut in and shoot. Windass is used to playing wide and with Garner, Grigg and Vaughan competing for the centre forward spot Cook clearly signed Windass to play a wide role.

Latics have so often this season put teasing crosses into the box with no end result. Windass could play a key role in converting them into goals, ghosting inside from a wide position.

James and Robinson to the fore

Once again one wondered if Cook would give the young full backs, Reece James and Antonee Robinson, a rest. But the manager resisted those options, and both were excellent last night. Robinson was back to his more energetic self in supporting attacks down the left, putting in a solid defensive shift. James is such an accomplished player at just 18 years of age that it would seem a matter of when, rather than if, he will make a full international debut for England. He was outstanding last night, judicious in defence and inventive in attack.

What a pity that neither player belongs to Latics!

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

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Change is in the air at Latics

The Liverpool Echo article, published on June 18, told us that the IEG would appoint Joe Royle as Director of Football at Wigan Athletic were a takeover to take place. The 69-year-old would use his experience and contacts to recruit new players for the club.

But six weeks have since passed, the takeover has not yet happened and the EFL transfer window closes on August 9. Paul Cook remains tight-lipped in his comments about the takeover, although Alan Nixon’s tweet gives us an inkling as to the climate in which the manager is currently working.

Nixon remains the main source of titbits about the current situation at Wigan Athletic. He is particularly active on Twitter, where his accessibility gives fans the chance to ask him for information on their clubs.

If Nixon is correct about the takeover being likely to happen in mid-August, what does it mean for recruitment up to August 9?

Up to this point Cook has signed three players on permanent contracts over the summer. Kal Naismith was recruited as a free agent from Portsmouth. Callum McManaman took a pay cut to come back to Wigan from Sunderland. Although the fee is “undisclosed” it could well be minimal, as the north east club look towards slashing their costs following relegation to the third tier. However, Cook was allowed to splash cash in acquiring Leonardo da Silva Lopes for some £750,000-plus from Peterborough. But given the uncertainty regarding the ownership of the club, will funds be made available for him to compete on an even keel in the transfer market?

Given the norms over recent seasons at the club and the continued tenure of David Sharpe as chairman the likelihood is that Cook will have to recoup funds from transfer fees before spending further. Both Ryan Colclough and Devante Cole are likely to be leaving soon, whether on permanent transfers or loans. James McClean has moved from West Bromwich to Stoke for some £5m, with Latics reportedly due to receive a sell-on fee amounting to somewhere between 15% to 20%.

Rumours have suggested that Cook has been interested in signing Bradford City centre forward Charlie Wyke, with the Bantams asking for £750,000. However, the player has a knee injury which may deter current interest.

In early May reports told us that Everton were interested in signing the 19-year-old Callum Lang, whose contract is due to expire next summer. There has since been no news from Wigan about an extended contract for the player who was not in the squads for the pre-season games at Tranmere, Chesterfield and Rangers. Should a reasonable offer come in for Lang in the next 10 days it will be interesting to see if Latics are willing to let go a young player of significant potential.

But Lang is not the only player in the last year of his contract. The list includes last season’s regulars Dan Burn, Nathan Byrne, Gavin Massey, Sam Morsy, Nick Powell and Max Power, together with Jordan Flores, Shaun MacDonald and James Vaughan. No news has been forthcoming from the club about new contracts being signed and the transfer deadline approaches. The Whelan family policy in the past has typically been that players can leave if Latics are offered what they consider the right price. It is in the club’s interests to tie down contracts to those that Cook wants to keep, rather than have them leave as free agents next summer. The worst-case scenario is key players leaving close to the transfer deadline, with no replacements in hand.

The EFL brought forward the closing date of the summer transfer window from September 1 to August 9 for the 2018-19 season. However, the deadline for signing loan players and free agents is August 31. The Sun newspaper suggested on Sunday that should the Wigan takeover happen in time then Callum Connolly, Kieran Dowell and Antonee Robinson might be loan targets. Connolly is known from his previous spell at the DW where he was used as a right back. Dowell is an attacking midfield player and Robinson a left back, both with successful experience on loan in the Championship. Of the three it is Robinson who would most likely to the main target for Cook, given his problems with the left back position. However, a return for Callum Elder from Leicester cannot be ruled out, whether on another loan or a permanent transfer.

Matthew Pennington is a 23-year-old central defender for whom Leeds United paid a reported £500,000 loan fee to make 24 appearances for them last season.

Meanwhile we await a decision on 30-year-old midfielder Darron Gibson’s future at Wigan. Cook already has McDonald, Morsy and Power vying for holding midfield positions, but Gibson’s experience could be useful. The other trialists, James Perch and Ross Wallace, are reported to have left the club. Perch is an old fan favourite at Wigan and many were hoping he would be signed. His versatility in being able to play anywhere in the defence or in holding midfield must have been a plus. Some fans suggested Cook might have had him in mind for the left back position but given the way the manager employed his full backs last season it was unlikely. Moreover, the player had injury problems last season and made only 6 league starts for QPR.

Change is certainly in the air at Wigan Athletic, with ownership issues clouding recruitment policy. The interaction between the Whelan family and IEG is not known to the public. Rumours have been circulated that Joe Royle has attended recent games and together with Nixon’s tweets about Everton loan players it appears that there have been efforts to provide a smooth transition in the control of the club. Moreover, the implications are that it is IEG who have been providing financial support over the summer rather than the Whelans.

Ownership issues apart, we have learned that activity increases as the transfer deadline approaches. Latics fans will be hoping that Cook can keep hold of the players who formed the backbone of the successes of last season. Many will say that Gary Caldwell lost momentum by not keeping faith in the players that were in his League 1 winning squad. Cook has already made it clear that he believes in loyalty and we can expect most of those players to make the starting line-up against Sheffield Wednesday. He has also made it clear that he needs more new players.

Following the defeat at Ibrox we have seen some gloomy comments on the social media and message boards. However, Rangers were always going to be a difficult proposition, playing in front of a large home crowd and being ahead in their physical preparation having already played three matches in the Europa League qualifiers. One of the key features of last season was the solidity of the defence, aided by having a consistent back four. Following Dan Burn’s departure at half time, Latics had only Chey Dunkley present from the back four that finished the season. The defence will surely tighten up when Cook finds a competent specialist left back to play with Burn, Dunkley and Nathan Byrne.

In the meantime, we need to prepare ourselves for the rollercoaster ride that comes as the transfer deadline approaches. That deadline has been brought significantly forward, but did the EFL have to agree on the same dates as the Premier League, whose season starts a week later? The result is that managers at EFL clubs continue to be vulnerable to losing key players when the season has already started.

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A Portsmouth fan’s view of Kal Naismith

 

Wigan Athletic have announced that Kal Naismith will be signing a three year contract, commencing July 1. The 6 ft 1 in Naismith had decided to leave Portsmouth at the end of a three year deal. Although usually employed as a winger he can also play in the number 10 role or at centre forward.

The 26-year-old Kallum Naismith was born in Glasgow and is a product of the Rangers youth system, representing Scotland at U-16 and U-17 levels. In September 2010, at the age of 18, he and fellow ‘Gers player Kyle Hutton were abducted and robbed in Edinburgh, but fortunately suffered no injuries.

Naismith was sent to Cowdenbeath for the first half of the 2011-12 season and made his debut in senior football in early September 2011 in a 3-2 home win over East Fife. A couple of weeks later he scored both goals in a 2-1 home win against Albion Rovers. Naismith left Cowdenbeath in January 2012 after making 9 appearances, moving up a level  to Scottish Division 1 on loan at Partick Thistle. He made 4 starts and 4 appearances off the bench for the Jags by the end of the season.

Following that season away on loan, Naismith returned to Rangers who were then in Scottish Division 3. He made his senior debut in July 2012 in a League Cup victory over Brechin City. Naismith went on to make 4 starts with 13 substitute appearances in the 2012-13 season, scoring one goal.

After leaving Rangers in the summer of 2013 by mutual consent, Naismith went on trial at League 2 Accrington Stanley, subsequently signing for them. In mid-October 2104 he suffered the tragic loss of his childhood sweetheart who died of a long-term illness. He went on to make 54 league starts, with 19 appearances off the bench, scoring 14 goals in two seasons at the Crown Ground.

In May 2015 Naismith joined previous manager, Paul Cook, at Portsmouth for an undisclosed fee. On signing he commented that “It’s brilliant to be here. I was at a massive club before in Rangers and this place has a similar feel to it. Just walking around gives me a buzz and I can’t wait to move down here properly and get started. I knew that the gaffer liked me, so I always had the move at the back of my mind when he took charge.”

On September 1, 2015, Naismith made his Pompey debut as a substitute in a Football League Trophy defeat at Exeter. During a three year stay at Fratton Park he made 51 league starts, with 31 substitute appearances, scoring 18 goals.

To learn more about Naismith’s time at Portsmouth we contacted Jim Bonner (@FrattonFaithful) of the Fratton Faithful fan site.

Here’s over to Jim:

Whilst it was no surprise Naismith joined Wigan, most Portsmouth fans believe it’s a step too far for him as he was Pompey’s most disappointing player last season.

 Kal is capable of taking a quality set-piece and can deliver some excellent crosses into the box when he is on form. However, despite being given plenty of opportunities to prove himself last season, he scored a paltry two league goals (one against your team and the other an absolute gift from Plymouth) and doesn’t have the pace to beat players on the wing. Championship defenders should also be too clever to be fooled by his tricks and should be able to predict what he is going to do. 

Pompey fans will always thank Kal for the huge role he played in the League Two title winning season and if Wigan fans want to see this as a positive signing, then Paul Cook may be able to get the best out of him as he did in the second half of the 2016/2017 season when he ended up as Pompey’s top scorer. 

 But he struggled to make any sort of impact whatsoever in the third tier and there’s simply no evidence to suggest he will cut it in the second, especially if he plays as a centre forward which clearly isn’t his best position as he is most likely to do some damage on the wings.

 Kal’s greatest contribution to our season was his stint in goal against Doncaster. He produced a superb instinctive save at the end of that game to ensure we didn’t lose.

Naismith may have the potential to get better but it’s unlikely and my prediction is that he will be sent on loan to Accrington Stanley or Coventry come January.

 

 

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