Five talking points following a toothless display against Birmingham

Wigan Athletic 0 Birmingham City 3

 

It was a flattering scoreline for a well organised Birmingham side, who capitalized on their chances whereas Wigan squandered theirs. Despite having 63% of the possession Latics made mistakes in defence and in the opposition box.

Following the game Paul Cook commented: “We’re so disappointed at the minute, nothing is falling for us at both ends of the pitch. We had good chances in the game. Birmingham had three attempts on goal and scored all three of them, that’s football. At the minute it’s not going our way.”

Let’s take a look at some points arising:

Cook sticks with the same formula

Following a dire performance at Ipswich one hoped for a new approach, catalysed by the introduction of fresh blood. But it was not to be, the manager bringing back Kal Naismith at left back following suspension, James Vaughan coming in for Will Grigg. Cook stuck with the 4-4-2 formation despite a previous lack of success using that formula.

Cook’s 4-4-2 differs from that employed by Paul Jewell in yesteryear. Jewell’s team were not afraid to make long passes, but the quality of the balls then was so much better than the speculative stuff we have seen in recent weeks. Early in the current season Latics were building moves up from the back rather than relying on the “hoof” from defence.

I watched the game on iFollow, muting the sound regularly, mainly because I find it hard to listen to a radio commentary which lags behind the visual that appears on the screen. But when I did put it on there were a couple of comments in the first half that stick in the memory. One was to the effect that Cook was shouting at Christian Walton to play it long as a move was being played out at the back. The other was a comment that Latics were dominating the play, but Birmingham’s first goal followed within seconds.

But there were flashes of good football from Wigan, amidst a morass of “fightball”.

The formula of sticking with that same group of players and tactics once again failed to produce the desired result.

The goals are not coming

For the third successive match Latics failed to score. In the continued absence of Nick Powell there is a glaring lack of creativity in the midfield and a lack of sharpness from the forwards. But despite the shortage of creative midfield play there have been chances in recent weeks that the strikers could have put away. When early in the game Josh Windass used his pace and aggression to leave a defender behind him his finish was woeful. The same player also had a fine chance with a header but fluffed it.

Cook continues to have faith in Windass, although many fans would question it. The player has scored two goals in 18 starts and 3 substitute appearances, though it should be noted that he was initially played in wide positions.

In the last couple of months Windass has been Cook’s main choice as a starting striker. Of the rest, Will Grigg has 4 goals, three of which were penalties, in 10 starts and 4 appearances off the bench. Joe Garner has one goal from 4 starts (9 as sub), James Vaughan two from  5 starts (11 as sub). Given those stats it is hardly surprising that Cook is looking for new strikers in January.

However, goalscoring is not the sole province of the strikers. Midfielders have chipped in with goals here and there, but what is noticeable is the lack of goals scored by defenders. Cedric Kipre went close in the second half with a header bouncing over off the wood work. There have been so many occasions that Kipre, Dan Burn and Chey Dunkley might have scored from set pieces but just could not get it right.

The January window beckons

Latics have nine players in the squad whose contracts expire next summer. Five of those played yesterday. Although we are approaching the end of December no announcements have been made about extensions for any of those players.

The implication is that several will be leaving in January. If their contracts are not extended over the next eight days we can expect the likes of Nick Powell, Sam Morsy, Gavin Massey, Callum McManaman, James Vaughan and Nathan Byrne to be leaving in January if the right offers come in. Shaun MacDonald has been frozen out by the manager, despite being one of Wigan’s better performers in the division a couple of years ago. He can be expected to leave, most likely on a free.

The lack of progress in the extension of player contracts was initially put down to the transition in ownership, but since the IEG takeover the matter has continued to fester, at the expense of squad morale. Given the uncertainty about their futures those players deserve commendation for their commitment up to this point, although one wonders if they would have performed better if new contracts had been awarded.

The question is whether the lack of decisiveness of ownership is governed by financial reasons or is management looking at moving players on so that fresh blood can be brought in? Rumour has already linked Latics with forwards Jermain Defoe of Bournemouth and Gary Madine of Cardiff City, together with left back/central defender Tyler Blackett of Reading.

Given the awful run of results suffered over the last couple of months Latics might well be pondering some major changes over January, including possible exits for players on more long term contracts. They could well be looking at cutting their losses on players that have not fulfilled expectations, either by cashing in on their transfer values or sending them on loan to cut operating costs.

A return soon for Chey Dunkley?

Dunkley has been one of Wigan’s most consistent players this season and his presence in the centre of defence has been missed in his absence through injury. In his absence the experienced Dan Burn formed the central defensive partnership with Cedric Kipre. Burn has not been at his best, but neither has he been Latics’ worst performer over the past two months. Nevertheless the centre of defence has looked increasingly vulnerable.

Early in the season Dunkley did a fine job in marshaling a rookie defence. He is a leader on the field of play and his partnership with Kipre is one which was continuing to develop. Dunkley is still only 26 and his partnership with the 21-year-old Kipre holds great promise for the future.

With Burn due to leave for Brighton on January 1st the Dunkley-Kipre partnership will shortly resume.

A need for a change of personnel and tactics for the trip to the Hawthorns

Cook has been particularly patient with a group of players who have not shown the kind of form that was needed. Too many have under-performed and confidence is at a low ebb.

It is time for the manager to make changes not only in personnel but also in his tactical approach. Having faith in players is to be commended, but others have been marginalized, not given opportunities. Moreover the style of football has nosedived.

When Cook was appointed, we on this site were delighted to see a manager appointed who had a reputation for his sides playing good football. Last season, in League 1 it was usually, if not always, the case.

Whilst 4-4-2 remains a valid tactic in modern day football, a return to a 4-2-3-1 formation would be welcome. Sadly 4-4-2 in the Cook era has tended to resort to an ugly long ball scenario. 4-2-3-1 is the formation which Cook has used for the best football Latics have played during his tenancy. With Powell still injured, Roberts would be the obvious choice in the number 10 role.

Another alternative is to play 4-1-2-3 with a holding midfielder in front of the back four, the role that MacDonald played effectively in the Warren Joyce era. That would allow such as Evans and Morsy to play further forward.

There is a lot of pressure on Cook at the moment. We do not agree with those who advocate his sacking. This is the manager’s first season at Championship level and it is a learning experience for him.

Nevertheless, there is a need for a change in approach with both team selection and tactics.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

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Five talking points following a narrow home defeat to Leeds

Wigan Athletic 1 Leeds United 2

 

It was always going to be an uphill task playing against a team vying for automatic promotion. Added to that was the unavailability of Paul Cook’s first choice front four, together with a lack of confidence following poor recent results. In the end the visitors got the result they deserved, but their two goals should have been avoided.

Cook’s starting line-up gave an indication of what to expect. Darron Gibson was brought in for Lee Evans, Cedric Kipre in for a not-fully-fit Chey Dunkley who was nevertheless on the bench. In the absence of Nick Powell, Josh Windass was drafted into the number 10 position, with Joe Garner at centre forward and Kal Naismith on the left wing. Flair players Leonardo Da Silva Lopes and Callum McManaman were confined to the bench.

Reece James has come close to scoring from free kicks before, but this time he found the back of the net after 6 minutes with a superb strike. The early goal must have lifted Wigan’s spirits, but just three minutes later Pablo Hernandez levelled it for the visitors after the midfield had failed to track Mateusz Klich’s run. The Pole had acres of space to run into before squaring the ball for the Spaniard to score. The goal knocked the stuffing out of Latics and they became unable to offer any attacking threat other than launching long balls to Garner and Windass.

Leeds’s style football has been transformed by Marcelo Bielsa. Granted, they still have the kind of rugged defenders as we have come to expect from them over the years, but now they attack with the kind of movement and vision that is rarely seen in the Championship. For the neutral it would have been a joy to watch, but for Latics fans it was painful seeing their team starved of possession and unable to string passes together when they did have the ball.

Cook would have been delighted that his team went in level at half time, given the visitors’ dominance. But any delight he might have had soon disappeared as a mix-up between Christian Walton and Kipre gifted Kemar Roofe a tap in goal after just one minute. With their backs to the wall Latics managed to prevent further goals from the visitors but offered little attacking threat. McManaman had been brought on after 63 minutes but could make little impact with the awful service the front players were receiving. Da Silva Lopes came on for an anonymous Naismith after 70 minutes, but he too struggled to make an impact. But one wonders if even Leo Messi could have done much given the muted service from an overrun midfield and a pressured defence. In fact the two substitutes combined well after 85 minutes Da Silva Lopes slipping the ball to McManaman in the left of the penalty box. Macca cut inside his defender to curve the ball narrowly wide of the far post.

Following the game Cook commented: “We’re just massively disappointed, especially with the start we had and then to concede so quickly and the way they scored their second goal just after half-time. You have to be fair and say Leeds carried a threat all game and they were excellent at times, especially with the pace and movement of their forward players, but we managed that, and we were controlling that, as well as looking like a threat going forward.”

Let’s take a look at some points arising:

A Sea of White Shirts

In the 52nd minute Latics mounted a sharp counterattack with Gibson put Windass through from his own half with one Leeds defender in front of him and the goal. Within just 6 seconds the Latics player found himself hopelessly outnumbered by no less than 7 Leeds players, with not a teammate supporting him. You can see the clip on this Twitter link.

The “Sea of White Shirts” was hugely impressive and can be seen as an indicator of the commitment that Bielsa has instilled into his team. That Latics players did not support Windass should be seen in the context of a team “under the cosh”, reluctant to push forward in case of conceding more goals.

In February 2017 Pep Guardiola commented “My admiration for Marcelo Bielsa is huge because he makes the players much, much better. Still, I didn’t meet one guy, a former player from Marcelo Biesla who speaks no good about him. They are grateful about his influence on their careers in football. He helped me a lot with his advice. Whenever I speak with him I always feel like he wants to help me.”

Paul Cook too has instilled commitment into his players. Despite indifferent recent results he has done a wonderful job so far at Wigan. Cook is new to the Championship and will surely get even better. He has a wonderful career record in the lower leagues and was a very successful player in England’s second tier. If he continues to learn and develop at this level Latics will surely have difficulties in warding off approaches from other clubs.

Breaking up the Dunkley-Kipre partnership

Dan Burn’s return to fitness has posed selection problems for Cook. Burn was outstanding in League 1 last year and the previous season in the Championship was Latics’ “Player of the Season”. He is due to join Premier League Brighton in January.

However, Burn has not looked impressive since returning. Yesterday he looked far from a player who could be a success in the Premier League. Was Cook right to break up the Dunkley-Kipre partnership to bring in Burn? Is there a clause in Burn’s loan agreement that requires him to get regular games?

When he was last in the Championship Burn had lots of protection in a Warren Joyce team that played with a massed defence. He is at his best when the ball is in the air. Yesterday he had to face the touch play and movement of Bielsa’s Leeds.

But Burn cannot be written off. With more game time he will get better and better. In fact, he could be invaluable at Middlesbrough on Saturday given the mode of attack that typifies Tony Pulis’ approach.

The option remains for Cook to amend his approach and play a Burn-Dunkley-Kipre trio. Given his belief in 4-2-3-1 it is unlikely.

Fitting in the flair players

It was a surprise when Latics signed Callum McManaman, given Cook’s preferred style of football. One suspects the manager does not trust him defensively and he doesn’t have the vision to be a 10 but also does not put enough balls in the box to be a winger under Cook. In essence his position is “inverted winger”. Cook has found it hard to find a suitable role for the player within his system.

Cook has bided his time in bringing in Da Silva Lopes. He is a raw and exciting talent but is hardly “green” with over 100 appearances for Peterborough although still only 19. During his career he has played in various positions and Cook will have to decide which is his best.

We can only hope that Cook will find ways of incorporating the two “flair players” into the team on a more regular basis.

Another flair player was absent yesterday too. On the face of things Lee Evans is a solid, hardworking central midfielder. But he is also the player who has created the most chances this season, not only from his set pieces but also from his superb crossing in open play. His creative influence was very much missed.

Powell sorely missed

Nick Powell was sorely missed yesterday. When he is not present the standard of Latics’ football so often deteriorates.

The rumours have started to resurface that Powell will leave in January. It is indeed a possibility. Everton’s Kieran Dowell is already being touted for a loan in January. Dowell is an England under-21 international who played 38 games for Nottingham Forest last season.

Whether Powell signs a new contract or leaves will give us a glimpse into the new ownership of the club and its mode of operation.

The takeover finally happens

The media has been awash with the news of the takeover and the end of the Whelan dynasty. It has been an emotional time for Latics supporters, given the departure of the man whose drive, vision and financial support put Wigan Athletic on the world football map.

However, we now face a new reality. The IEC will be the new owners and the club’s future is less certain. Pleasantries have been passed between the Whelans and IEC, but nobody has let us know why the takeover has been so protracted.

But we must face reality. No one can rightly criticise DW for deciding not to pump more funds into the club after 23 years of ownership/sponsorship. The question is whether IEC is right for the club. Were there other meaningful offers? What does a business such as IEC have to gain from the takeover?

In the meantime, we must try to be positive about the takeover. Much will be revealed over the next three months, with the January transfer window likely to give us indications of IEC’s intentions.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com