Wigan Athletic: is it time for more squad rotation?

Alex Ferguson liked to use squad rotation as a means of freshening his starting line-up fresh and sending a message to his players that none of them had a guaranteed place there. For each game he would typically change one or two players, often central midfielders. From late 2008 until March 2011, he went 165 games without naming an unchanged starting XI.

On Tuesday night Sunderland manager Lee Johnson made five changes to the line-up that had beaten Bolton 1-0 the previous Saturday. They went on to beat Cheltenham 5-0. That same night Leam Richardson typically made no changes to his starting line-up for the encounter with Sheffield Wednesday. It was a line-up that had been producing a series of good results and the Latics manager saw no need to tamper with it.

Wigan Athletic have seven players who have started in all 9 league matches played this season, with two more players who have played in 8. Having such a backbone of regulars in the starting line-up has enabled the team to gel more quickly than might have been expected. Gary Caldwell’s League 1 title winning team of 2015-16 also had a large influx of new players and initially took time to gel with a record of W4 D2 L3, gaining 11 points in their first 9 games. Latics currently have a record of W6 D1 L2, amassing 19 points.

Leam Richardson has done a terrific job since taking over as manager in November 2020. Keeping Latics out of the relegation zone at the end of last season was a great achievement given the challenging conditions he faced.  He also deserves credit for the start his new squad have made this season.

There has been much conjecture on the social media regarding the splitting of the Cook/Richardson partnership. The former has had a hard time at Ipswich since joining them in March, winning only 22% of games played up to this point. It contrasts with his former assistant’s stats of 35% since last September.  

For so many years the names of Cook and Richardson had been synonymous: they were seemingly joined from the hip. But despite their parting the football Latics have continued to play has been pretty much like we saw in the Cook era. Moreover, Richardson has stuck with that familiar 4-2-3-1 system, being conservative with the introduction of substitutes, loyal to his senior professionals.

Among the strengths of the Latics team this season has been in winning “second balls” and in being dangerous from set pieces. They are a physically imposing team and have the height to trouble the opposition from corners and free kicks. They have proven able to grind down the opposition to the extent of becoming stronger in the latter part of the proceedings. The stats show that on first half goals alone their record is W2 D6 L1, opposed to W6 D2 L1 for the second halves.

Richardson has a squad that is the envy of most of the other clubs in the division. However, the challenge for the manager is to keep players happy who are not getting regular game time. He has a wealth of talent and experience in reserve, either on the bench or not even in the match day squad. He has a big squad with three players whose specialist position is left back, three for the left wing and five central defenders.

The manager has been reluctant, up to this point, to rotate his squad in a manner akin to that practiced by Alex Ferguson. Unless an unprecedented wave of injuries hits the squad there are likely to be players who will be starved of opportunities. Lowest in the pecking order is likely to be the young talent: homegrown players Thelo Aasgaard, Adam Long and Luke Robinson. It would be no surprise to see some of them being sent out on loan at some time during the season.

Will Richardson name an unchanged starting line-up for Saturday’s trip to Gillingham? Or will he make some small adjustments?

Can Latics get the best out of Charlie Wyke?

In the summer of 2019 Wigan Athletic signed big centre forward, Kieffer Moore, from Barnsley. Despite having a decent strike record at Barnsley and Rotherham before that, Moore had a lean time in front of goal for months. His first goal came in early November after not being able to find the net in his previous 12 appearances. By Christmas he had only added one more to his total.

Moore was playing in the Championship for the first time, against better defenders. There were serious questions about whether this player with successful experience in the lower divisions could reach the standards required in the second tier of English football.

Moore had become a struggling player in a team unable to consistently maintain a standard of football that would keep them out of the lower reaches of the division. Even though there were flashes of quality their performances were riddled with “soft” goals due to defensive errors and an inability to hold on to a lead. Too often defenders under pressure would apply the hoof to clear their lines. The lone centre forward had to feed on morsels, so often chasing wayward long balls with big defenders closely marshalling him.

Moore eventually went on to score 12 goals that season, several of which were of very high quality. It could be argued that he had got used to playing in the Championship and had looked more self-assured. But more than that it was the improvement in the football played by the team as a unit that enabled Moore to showcase his skills. As the season had progressed the hoofball had lessened. Midfielders were dropping back to receive the ball, even if space was tight. Moves were being built up from the back and the defenders were taking more responsibility in retaining the ball. With better ball retention the opposition were less able to constantly pressurise the Wigan defence. Put simply, Moore began to flourish as the team began to play football that had more of an emphasis on possession.

Since the Phoenix 2021 takeover in March the mood at the club and among its supporters has had a major lift. The positivity of the chairman, Talal Al Hammad, has been a major factor. He is relatively young and is adept with the social media, which he regularly employs to communicate with fans. The escape from relegation was a major achievement for a club that was on its knees during the period of administration. With the backing of new owner Abdulrahman Al-Jasmi and the direction provided by new Chief Executive Malachy Brannigan the club has new direction.

On his arrival Brannigan stated:

“The past 12 months have been extremely unfortunate for everybody. Our role and my job is to make sure this football club becomes a stable Championship club. From a business perspective, the assets that are here and the value we are getting for it. Then there is the medium to long-term vision of how we can rebuild the club, put it back on solid foundations and look to grow thereafter. We are not an ownership group that is going to be in and out”.

Since the end of last season there has been a lot of flux in playing staff. Most of those who helped the club avoid relegation have departed and the club has brought in players of proven ability at League 1 level. Most had been out of contract at their previous clubs, but it was uplifting for the supporters to see Latics enticing players from supposedly bigger clubs like Ipswich, Portsmouth, and Sunderland to Wigan.

The signing of Charlie Wyke in early July went down particularly well with the fans. Here was a centre forward who scored 31 goals in 51 appearances last season deciding to move to Wigan at the end of his contract rather than stay at Sunderland, where had recently been voted “Player of the Year”.

The 28-year-old, 6ft 2in striker was born in Middlesbrough and came through the town’s football club’s academy. After signing a 3-year professional contract as an 18-year-old in May 2011 he was sent off on loan spells at Kettering, Hartlepool, and Wimbledon. He left for Carlisle United in January 2015 without making an appearance for Middlesbrough. Wyke went on to score 32 goals in 64 starts and 13 substitute appearances for Carlisle in League 2. In January 2017 he signed for Bradford City for an undisclosed fee. During a season and a half with the Bantams, Wyke scored 22 goals in League 1 from 54 starts and two appearances off the bench.

Wyke signed for Sunderland for a fee around £400,000 in the summer of 2018. In his first two seasons he struggled, scoring only 9 goals in a total of 51 appearances. However, in the 2020-21 season he notched a total of 31 goals including 5 in 6 games in the EFL Trophy.

Wyke made his league debut for Latics last Saturday, at Sunderland of all places. He did not have a particularly good game, but neither did the rest of his teammates. Wigan had started off the game in style. Despite having only three players who were starters in the last game of the previous season the newly assembled team had appeared to gel remarkably quickly. When Gwion Edwards put Wigan ahead after 17 minutes following a flowing move they looked well in control of the game. But it was not to continue.

Just two minutes later Sunderland had scored through a soft penalty conceded by Tendayi Darikwa. They went on to win the game through another “soft” goal from their centre forward who had risen to head home without sufficient challenge from the Wigan defence. The smooth, fast-flowing football of the first quarter of the game had dissipated, with the long ball rearing its head.

Watching Charlie Wyke in the second half of the game brought back images to the mind of Kieffer Moore struggling in the first part of the 2019-20 season. He was receiving poor service as the midfield was being by-passed with hopeful long balls from defenders.  The pattern of the game provided parallels with what we saw happen too frequently in the first half of the 2019-20 season.

Unlike Moore who was playing in the second tier for the first time Wyke has ample prior experience at the level he is playing at. Given the right service from the wings he will score goals. But, like Moore, he will struggle if the ball is simply “lumped” to him from the back. But who will provide the kinds of crosses he needs?

This season’s team can pose a major threat to opposition defences with crosses from set-pieces. There is a potential threat from the aerial abilities of not only the central defenders and centre forward, but also the likes of Callum Lang, Tom Naylor, and Will Keane. However, much depends on the quality of the delivery from the player taking the free kick or corner.

To provide dangerous crosses from the flanks the full backs and wingers must build up a mutual understanding of each other’s play. If the full back advances deeply into opposition territory, there must be midfield coverage behind them to stifle counterattacks if possession is lost. Richardson has a choice as to which left full back he plays. Tom Pearce excelled in the first part of last season in a struggling side, creating chances through his runs and crosses. Luke Robinson is more conservative in attack, but stronger in defence than Pearce. On the right Tendayi Darikwa has shown that he can provide quality crosses but Latics have not yet signed another player who can challenge him in that position. The modern full back role is physically demanding and expecting Darikwa to play most of the 46 league games is a big ask.

Darikwa is well known to Richardson through their time together at Wigan and Chesterfield. The manager clearly has confidence in him through making him captain.

It was pleasing to note the captain’s post-match comment on Saturday evening: “I think we could have probably got the ball down a bit more today but we will look at it as a squad with the manager and come back next week.”

Wyke has made a quiet start at Wigan up to this point. The squad will take time to truly gel, but when it does will Wyke receive the kind of service he needs to be as successful as he was last season?

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Amigo and Social Media Reaction to a difficult contest at Sunderland

August 7, 2021: Sunderland 2 Wigan Athletic 1

It has been an uplifting summer with Wigan Athletic putting together a squad that might compete with any in the division. That rebuild is not yet complete, with more players due to arrive shortly.

But despite the upbeat mood it was always going to be difficult facing a crowd of more than 30,000 at the Stadium of Light. Moreover Bobby Madley had been assigned the match: a referee hardly known for giving favourable decisions to Latics.

Latics had opened the game in style, pushing players forward, causing headaches to the Sunderland defence. Their football was a revelation and it came as no surprise when Gwion Edwards opened the scoring following a flowing move in the 15th minute. But the clock seemed to be turned back a couple of minutes later when the home team launched a rapid counterattack, with centre forward Ross Stewart going down from a challenge by Tendayi Darikwa. The large crowd bayed and Madley obliged with a penalty decision in their favour. Aidan McGeady scored with ease.

The penalty knocked the stuffing out of an away team that had been buoyant up to that point. Sunderland went from strength to strength and the gangly Stewart scored the winner after 52 minutes, outjumping the Latics defence. Wigan’s football transformed into pumping long balls, a tactic that could raise its ugly head in the Cook/Richardson era when the team was under pressure. A disappointing end to a game that started with so much promise.

Darikwa made reference to the style of play in a post-match interview saying “It’s a new squad, we’re still working on new relationships and building on that. There is a lot more to come from us; I think we could have probably got the ball down a bit more today but we will look at it as a squad with the manager and come back next week.”

Let’s hope the captain and coaching staff can work on that with effect.

Leam Richardson commented:

 “I thought we battled well. I thought we started the game good. I thought we imposed ourselves quite quickly. We were worthy in front and then I think the penalty turns the game. I don’t think really we recovered.

Whether it’s a penalty or not, I’ve been told it’s not but I’ve not seen it, so it’s disappointing again. But it gave them momentum. I thought they built on that momentum so I thought the were worthy winners in the end. It was eight or nine debutants and I think it showed in some parts but you can see they come together quickly.

In other parts as well, they’ve been in a matter of weeks. Everybody knows that we’re a football club we’re building slowly and I think you could see that little bit today.”

Let’s take a look at how fans reacted to the match through the message boards and social media. Our thanks go to the Vital Wigan – Latics Speyk Forum and Twitter for providing the media for the posts below to happen. Thanks go to all whose contributions are identified below:

FrancosLoveChild commented:

Problem with Cook and Leam we always end up playing hoofball to suit the striker. We have always been better actually playing football and we have the players for it.

True Believer opined:

First game of the season for players brought together in the last 6 weeks and people expect them to play like they have been together for a couple of seasons.

Whatever happened to “give them time to gel”.

We have just lost by one goal in three to a side that have played together for the past two seasons and made the play offs in both those seasons. Get real.

Definitely need to see some action in the transfer market though as this is a reality check.

Jocklatic replied:

So no criticism allowed then TB, posters will def be driven off if not allowed to have their say be it against your point of view or a certain moan of a player. Went today & imo for first 10 min we seemed like a side that knew each other & how to go down field….cue the certainly unnecessary penalty by Darikwa n we seem to fall apart not helped through the game with some bizarre refereeing decisions in favour of Sunderland. Think we …well me anyway had expectations of a decent game against Sunderland but we seemed to lose our way after the penalty n made a very mediocre Sunderland side look good, again not helped by dire ref decisions. Coming away from the ground it was easy to hear that Darikwa is already a possible whipping boy….imo shouldn’t be captain as he certainly didn’t seem to command anything on the field today…..upwards and onwards to our first home game.
On a side note didn’t rate Amos, thot Power / Lang were our best players with motm….the ref

Power was the only player that performed.


Victor Moses 🙂 added:

Darikwa cost us the game, might of went that way anyway. But you cannot foul a player that is near the byline going nowhere, at best he gets a shot off at worse a cross. We we’re getting shredded down our right all game.

Wasn’t expecting an optimal performance, but thought we would have had better composure. Lots of players bottled it, Naylor was shocking on the ball. Played great against Preston, but I wouldn’t trust him to take care of the ball after today he was panicking. Cousins looked much calmer.

Edwards did nothing apart from scoring an open goal, doesn’t deserve to start next game. Jones was very wasteful when he came on.

Long ball, after long ball from the back. Too much time and space for them when they had the ball wide.

Lots of work to do, much further away then I was hoping we would be. But we do have an excellent team that will get better game by game.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Leam’s summer shopping list

The dust has finally settled for Wigan Athletic after such a long period of uncertainty and tension.

It seems like an eternity since the club went into administration in early July 2020. But, unlike so many of its rivals the club is now practically debt-free, and it has new ownership that has been so positive and supportive over these difficult weeks. Moreover, Latics have defied the odds by holding on to their place in the third tier of English football.

Phoenix 2021 have set the goal of Latics becoming a stable Championship club, although they have set no timeline. The current priority is to build a stable platform from which the club can flourish and become more self-sustainable. Building that platform will necessarily involve a reengineering of the management and administration structures within the club.

Following a close escape from relegation Latics will be looking at strengthening their coaching and backroom as well as the first team squad. The coaching and backroom staffing was depleted during administration. It remains to be seen how many of those positions will be reinstated. We can assume that the structure and quantity of such staffing will be commensurate with the norms of League 1.

Leam Richardson will hope that an assistant manager and first team coach will be appointed to help lighten his load. The current first team squad has five players who have contracts beyond the end of this season. They are Thelo Aasgaard, Callum Lang, Adam Long, Luke Robinson and Tom Pearce. Given the momentum of the end of season revival Richardson will look at retaining the services of several of the players whose contracts expire in June. Lee Evans, Jamie Jones and Gavin Massey are the most long-serving of those.

There is lots of speculation from fans on the message boards and social media about who should be offered new contracts for the coming season. Is Richardson going to try to keep the bulk of those players who have given their all in the relegation struggle, retaining a core who could provide the backbone of the new squad?

A couple of weeks ago the club announced that Scott Smith and Sam Tickle of the U23 squad have been offered extended contracts. The U23 team had performed creditably in the first half of the season but were depleted by players leaving in the January window. Latics’ U18 continue to excel, winning the Professional Development League North and giving Everton a real scare in the FA Youth Cup. It was no surprise to hear that seven of them have been offered professional teams. They are Baba Adeeko, James Carragher, Tom Costello, Kieran Lloyd, Harry McGee, Harry McHugh and Sean McGurk.

The circumstances faced by management this season led to younger players being brought into the senior squad. However, in January some of those youngsters were shed in order to bring in more senior professionals. The arrival of eight new senior pros plus the return of Curtis Tilt on loan meant that fewer opportunities were afforded to the youngsters who remained. When Latics played Crewe recently they had two “homegrown” players in their starting eleven: Lang and Robinson. Crewe had six.

It took a considerable time for those new players to gel, but in the end Richardson’s move was justified as the team pulled away out of the bottom four. Richardson richly deserves his new three-year contract as manager through his efforts in keeping things together in a most difficult season. However, Phoenix 2021 have made it clear that they see the Academy as a key factor in the future of the club. Crewe have relied on their Academy for so long to constantly provide players for their first team squad. Although Latics have given youth a chance this season what can we expect for the coming one? Ideally the squad will have a backbone of senior pros but will continue to nurture homegrown talent.

Now that Latics know which division they are playing in next season they can begin the work of negotiating contracts with players they wish to retain. High on the list will be the 19-year-old Kyle Joseph who made a big impression before suffering a long-term injury.

Amigo and Social Media reaction to losing to a clinical Portsmouth team

Wigan Athletic 0 Portsmouth 1

Lying fourth in the table, with three consecutive victories behind them, Portsmouth were the favourites to win this match. They did so in a clinical manner through a fine strike by substitute Andy Cannon after 46 minutes. There was no shortage of effort and commitment from Latics but despite their pressure they rarely looked like scoring. Altough they created opportunities Wigan’s final touch was severely lacking. Crosses into the box were eagerly lapped up by a tall and physical Pompey backline. Many of the crosses were speculative but there seemed to be no one in the box for Latics willing to attack the ball as it came in.

Viv Solomon-Otabor was once more played when he looked so short of fitness. Callum Lang, Wigan’s most dangerous goal-threat, was played on the right wing. Jamie Proctor was once again chosen at centre forward. The net result was a lack of penetration and goal-threat from the home team.

Leam Richardson and his staff have done a fantastic job in keeping Latics in with a possibility of avoiding relegation in extremely difficult circumstances. Reports suggest that he has been approached by the new ownership with a view to staying on next season. Richardson has a real strength in motivating players and their commitment was there again today for all to see. But he can be inflexible in his team selections and tactics.

Due to the dire circumstances faced by the club, Richardson has been dealt a poor hand in terms of the quality and depth of the squad. Moreover, he has a number of players who have had major injury problems  over the past couple of seasons. The recurring injuries of several players have been no surprise given their recent history. However, fielding Solomon-Otabor, given his current state of fitness, was unlikely to work out. Putting his best available striker on the right wing was less than ideal. Like Paul Cook, Richardson constantly reverts to a favoured 4-2-3-1 formation. He has flirted with playing three central defenders and wing backs, but has not persevered.

Wingers have played a major role in Latics’ success during the Cook/Richardson era. But today Richardson persisted with his 4-2-3-1 despite the absence of two fit, specialist wingers. In the second half, with Pompey a goal up and Latics not looking like scoring he could have taken off Solomon-Otabor at an earlier stage and put Callum Lang at centre forward with Thelo Aasgaard playing in the space behind him. But he took off the creative Aasgaard after 68 minutes to bring on senior pro Will Keane who has been out of form since January. Solomon-Otabor stayed on until 79 minutes when he brought on another senior pro in Dan Gardner. The changes made things no better.

Richardson had chosen like-for-like replacements, sticking to the same shape. He had the option of bringing on Adam Long as a third centre back and to thrust his full backs further forward as wing backs. Jamie Proctor’s main role in the Richardson system is as a target man. However, Proctor has a career goalscoring record akin to that of Marc Antonio Fortune. He is by no means a goal-machine. Switching to three at the back the manager could have employed Proctor as a twin striker with Lang close-by to latch on to his flicks and any deflections.

Despite the result Latics are by no means dead and buried. They can still avoid relegation. However, to do so will depend not only on the commitment of the players but also getting the best out of what is available. The defence has become more solid and that is a welcome sign. But blind faith in 4-2-3-1 and senior pros is unlikely to get Latics over the hurdles to come. The lack of creativity and the sterile passing across the pitch and back to the goalkeeper has become too repetitive. Richardson will need to open his mind to alternative approaches as needs arise.

After the game Richardson said:

“In the first half, in my opinion, we possibly let a game go. We got into some great areas, could have gone in one or two goals up but we didn’t work them enough and our quality has to be better. 

We’re playing against an in-form Portsmouth side and our lads matched the fight and we took the game to them. Unfortunately, we dropped on the wrong side of the result. We are in a routine where people are saying ‘unlucky’ & ‘you’re the best team’, but we’ve fallen on the wrong side of the result and we need results. 

At the minute, we’re getting the performance but not the results, but we will. I’ve got to give credit to the lads with the effort levels. They don’t leave a breath out there; they may be misguided in certain areas but they’re giving everything and that’s all we can ask.”

Let’s take a look at how fans reacted to the match through the message boards and social media. Our thanks go to the Vital Wigan – Latics Speyk Forum and Twitter for providing the media for the posts below to happen. Thanks go to all whose contributions are identified below:

FrancosLoveChild commented:

I’ll be honest, I’m thankful for Leam and for all he is done but I really hope he decides to go to Ipswich under cook, fresh start for him and back in a role he is good at.

He is sadly not a manager, we need a great start with a new manager and team who has no bias to any players. And just a different chapter for us.

This frontline is awful, only Lang is decent at this level.

Victor Moses wrote:

12 shots vs 5, with zero on target for us. Can’t fault the effort again today, just wasteful in the final third. Played much of the game in their half, just the players didn’t put the ball in the net.

Need to find better openings in the next game and work on hitting the ball cleanly. So many scuffed crosses and shots.

Zeb2  added:

I’m increasingly of the view that we will go down and I genuinely think it’s better if we start over with a new manager in situ ASAP to effectively recruit a new squad.

That in itself will be a huge challenge, as we’ve just seen Bolton had to endure a ‘write off‘ season to reset …and ….pretty much half of this one as well, before they really started to ’motor’ .

LR has been a hero and we owe him our gratitude for everything he has withstood this season, but as others have said neither he nor we necessarily see the managers job as his role.
The team could still surprise us …but yet another inadequate, pointless and goalless home performance offers little evidence that they will.

There needs to be a definitive future direction set, during this month, whilst that doesn’t have to mean a new appointment, they absolutely do need to map out the criteria and terms of their search and get it underway even if concluding it isn’t possible for a month or so yet.

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Moonay gave his perspective:

I really, really can’t get worked up about today’s loss. Not too long ago, it was more than possible that we were going to be playing as a Phoenix club in the National League … or even NW Counties !!!

For me, the question is “were they trying?”, and the answer (maybe apart from Evans’s “chase” for their goal) was obviously, yes. However, there was no improvement in the quality of the shooting, and that’s what’s p..sing us all off.

In January, Richardson and Rioch had an impossible job – entice players to come to Wigan, on a contract till the summer, with very possibly, no chance of a further one. They did their best, and we got who we got … numbers being just as important as quality, given the rate we were losing people to injury.

On reflection, it may well have been better to stick with more of the kids, though that would have been a massive gamble.

But, as the saying goes, we are where we are, and for me, that’s a far better place than I was hoping for much of February. The new management team don’t sound despondent about the likelihood of League 2, so why should we?

Hindleymonwafc said:

Only difference today was a goal threat…im not going to be too harsh on them because we more than matched a play off certainty. Its the final 3rd that will undue us but let’s not throw um all out because the back 4 are showing some ability bringing the ball out.

True Believer responded:

You are right Hindley, for the first 45 we were comfortable playing the ball out from the back and both Ojo and Evans were influencing the game.

The problems came when they scored !!

Once ahead they switched to five across the middle and stifled our play, so our back four then lost the out ball to midfield and went long, Evans in particular had no influence in the second half and we struggled to break them down.

We are desperately missing a wide right player and, although he is much maligned, we looked a more balanced side with Massey on the wing. Callum Lang is wasted playing out wide and his goals have dried up since he started playing there. He needs to be more central and running the channels turning CB’s and playing to his strengths. I would try Gardner out there for a game or two, I know it’s not his preferred side but I am sure he could do it and that would free Lang up to get back to what he is good at.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com