Paul Cook’s approval rating must be around an all-time low with Wigan Athletic fans. Latics are bottom of the Championship and so much of the football we have witnessed over the past twelve months has been comparable with that of the worst days of Warren Joyce and Malky Mackay. At times the manager’s tactics, team selections and substitutions have looked clueless. Cook can count himself fortunate to still be in the job, but Darren Royle and the IEC have stuck with him, much to the frustrations of fans who cannot wait to see him go.
But despite the frustrations of that last-minute substitution yesterday there has been a welcome shift in the style of football in the past four games. Has Cook seen the light on the road to Damascus? Will it continue? We can only surmise what would have happened if the manager had vigorously discouraged his players employing the “hoof” earlier in the season.
Despite their lowly league position Latics have looked a decent team in those past four games. The quality of their football has shown a big improvement and retaining possession more effectively has meant that legs have not become leaden in the closing minutes. Sadly the performances did not produce a win, although neither did they lose. Significantly three of those draws were at the DW so Latics now have consecutive away games at Nottingham and Birmingham coming up. Given their woeful away record there are few Wigan fans who would predict a win for their team in either of those games. But then again, the performance at Blackburn showed that Latics can perform away from home without giving away freebies to the opposition in the closing minutes.
The unlikely partnership of Cedric Kipre and Kal Naismith in the centre of defence has been a revelation. Both have resisted the hoof, showing their capabilities of building up moves from the back. Moreover they have blended together to form a solid defensive partnership. Too often defenders have put the ball out of play at the merest sniff of danger, inviting more pressure from opposition throw-ins. Moreover unnecessary free kicks have been so often been conceded, turning up that pressure even more. Defensive discipline on a par with that of other Championship clubs is required, rather than the scrapping, falsely “safety first” mentality we have seen that is more akin to lower league football.
Chey Dunkley has been a notable performer for Latics since his arrival from Oxford United in the summer of 2017. He was pivotal in the League 1 title winning team and without the five goals he has scored this season his team would be in much more parlous position. But Dunkley remains a work in progress. His distribution leaves much to be desired. Building moves up from the back is not his forte. It is something the coaches can surely help him with.
Latics have conceded three goals from their last four games, with one clean sheet. But more than anything else it has been a lack of cutting edge in attack that has led to draws rather than victories. Cook has bravely stuck to a more mobile, but less physical strike-force. With Josh Windass at centre forward, rather than orthodox target men Joe Garner and Kieffer Moore, there has been much less of aimless long ball. Long passes have been more measured, looking to capitalize on the pace of the likes of Windass, Jamal Lowe and Gavin Massey to run beyond the defenders.
Windass remains a frustrating player to watch, capable of moments of inspiration, but also those of lack of concentration. At his best his pace and movement is a threat to any defence, but too often he has been caught offside or his final pass has been ill-judged. Although a valid alternative at centre forward he is best employed in the number 10 position behind a target man.
Lowe has struggled to make the transition from League 1, with just one goal in 20 starts and 4 substitute appearances. Although not lacking in effort he has yet to show that he can be a force at Championship level. One wonders if the player would have progressed better through a more gradual introduction to second tier English football, being brought off the bench in earlier games, giving him the time to adjust to the higher level he was being introduced to? Cook continues to play Lowe at number 10, but surely has better options for that position. Windass and Joe Gelhardt are two of those. Cook also has the option of playing a midfield trio of Evans-Morsy-Williams. Replacing Nick Powell was always going to be difficult, but at this stage Lowe does not look the answer.
Having missed the pre-season through injury Massey has looked a shadow of his former self this season. Rather being heavily involved in build-up play along the right as before he has been largely anonymous. Cook has received a lot of criticism from the fans over his loyalty to Massey and Michael Jacobs who were key wide men in the League 1 title-winning team. Despite their lack of form they have made a total of 37 appearances this season. However, Jacobs had his best game for some time yesterday.
Despite the recent improved performances Paul Cook’s position at the club remains precarious. Royle and the owners have an important decision to make with the transfer window opening on Wednesday coming. Are they willing to back the manager in another transfer market with the club in bottom position despite spending 8m over summer?
Many question Cook’s summer spending, with Jamal Lowe and Kieffer Moore not yet having shown that they have adjusted to a higher level of football. However, in Moore’s case they will point to his fine performances for Wales, which show he can perform at a higher level surrounded by players of the quality of Gareth Bale and Daniel James. For Wigan his main function has been in chasing speculative long balls, some 35 yards from the opposition goal, with his back facing towards it. When the big man is fit again Cook will face the dilemma of whether to start him, with the likelihood that his defenders will once again the easy way out by launching those awful long-balls. So many fans will advocate getting the big man into the box to latch on to crosses from the wings.
Cook also signed Antonee Robinson and Joe Williams over the summer. Robinson continues to improve in his defensive role, although he can be woefully lacking in vision and composure when making his final pass in attack. But Robinson is still only 22 and surely has a bright future ahead. Williams has certainly impressed with his dynamic approach and range of tackling and passing skills. Another very good signing at only 23 years of age.
If Cook is to continue one can only hope that he will persist with the recent style of play we have seen. It has been a breath of fresh air after so many hours of tedious, poor football, particularly away from home. It is very much a matter of sticking with the blend we have seen in the past four games. Incorporating players like Dunkley and Moore into the blend will be tricky, for different reasons. What has been missing from the recent blend has been incisive finishing. Playing in-form players in their natural positions is crucial.
Can Latics stay up if Cook continues?
It is by no means impossible.