“In Leam we trust”
Few football managers are referred to by their first name by their fan base, yet at Wigan Athletic, the above phrase has become something of a mantra to be rolled out on social channels at any hint of critique of the current manager’s ability to keep the Latics on course.
Indeed, Leam Richardson is among the most-loved in the long line of Wigan Athletic managers since the club’s origins in 1932. When so many others fled a sinking ship, he stayed on and not only kept things afloat but did so with admirable dignity and positivity. He cut a determined figure through those gloomy times — the glue that held it all together motivating a hodge-podge of experienced journeymen and youth players week in and week out as the club literally faced an existential crisis. On the pitch, through wise recruitment in January 2021 and excellent man-management in the subsequent months, he managed to steer the club away from an immediate drop to League 2. He then oversaw a massive recruitment drive in the summer of 2021 and took the club back to the Championship. Somewhere in the middle of all of that he saved his centre forward’s life. Which to any neutrals may sound like hyperbole, but is exactly what happened, just as Simon Kjaer heroically did for Cristian Eriksen the summer prior.
Furthermore, Richardson is a terrific club ambassador – a genial presence characterised by rare decency and humility, with an unwillingness to criticise opposition or match officials. He’s the kind of manager who shakes every last player’s hand after a match, be it his own players or the opposition. To say there is an emotional bond between Wigan Athletic and Richardson is an understatement; and the club has made appropriately meaningful gestures of gratitude in response, renaming the South Stand at the DW Stadium the Leam Richardson Stand, and extending his contract a further three years.
Football moves fast, however. While the decision to renew Richardson’s contract was likely taken some weeks ago, in recent weeks Latics have plummeted down the league table, losing five on the bounce and mired in the relegation places. Poor form and results has a cruel way of exposing weaknesses that have been there all along but compensated for in other ways. What we’ve witnessed in recent Latics performances is reminiscent of the darkest days of Warren Joyce-led Latics in a similar Championship position several years ago – but shouldn’t come as a total surprise.
For all of Richardson’s incredible talents in man-management, his success in League 1, and his inspirational character traits as a human being and leader, his tactical approach has never been sophisticated. Even in League 1, where Latics could overpower most opposition, there were struggles against ball-playing sides who played with flair and the ball on the ground. Effort, physicality, strength from set pieces defined his team in League 1, and define his team in the Championship.
The problem of course, is that there is a large gulf in quality between League 1 and the Championship, and you either have to level up the playing talent, the tactical approach, or both – but neither has happened as yet. Whereas Latics could steamroll teams in League 1—a division in which James McClean could breeze past his fullback in the 80th minute—they get steamrolled in the Championship, with speedy ex-Premier League wingers breezing past the Irishman. Concerns over a shortage of skilful football last season were largely assuaged by positive results, but the pattern was clear. When Latics struggled, they’d hoof and hope.
An EFL season of 46 games is a long and physically draining marathon. Latics struggled near the end as the games came in thick and fast, the players looking jaded, but they eventually limped through to the title with a 3-0 win at Shrewsbury in the final encounter. Richardson had once again showed himself to be a motivational manager with the players consistently giving their all despite the fatigue and niggling injuries that made things more difficult for them. However, the manager’s reluctance to rotate the squad meant that so many players were struggling to reach their previous levels because of fatigue.
The long ball had always been a feature of Richardson’s football, but so often it lapsed into hopeful punts upfield, resulting in loss of possession and increased pressure on the defence by the opposition. Richardson’s squad was far superior to most in the division enabling them to grind out wins even when not playing well. However, they struggled playing against teams who played skilful, possession-based football. Both Sheffield Wednesday and Sunderland did the double over Latics. Milton Keynes Dons might have had a smaller budget, but their silky football made them a real challenge for Richardson’s team.
Recruitment in summer 2021 was more focused on getting Latics out of League 1, rather than building a side that could hold its own in the Championship. Most of the contracts offered were for two years, running out next summer. According to transfermarkt.co.uk Wigan have 16 players whose contracts run out at the end of this season, 3 of whom are on loan from other clubs. There are 6 whose have contracts until June 2024 and those of Callum Lang and Anthony Scully expire in June 2025.
Having so many player contracts due to expire at the end of the season makes it by no means easy for the manager. Being uncertain as to his near future at the club is unsettling to a player. Moreover, the current squad has 16 players who are aged 28 years or over. Whether Latics manage to avoid relegation or not there will be a significant amount of recruitment to be done in summer.
Throughout his time at Wigan the manager has relied heavily on his senior professionals and those who have previously commanded a regular place in the team. Riding on the confidence afforded by their League 1 title win those players got Latics off to a good start to the season, with their form away from home being impressive. However, their displays at the DW Stadium were distinctly muted. As the games came in thick and fast the energy within that core of players diminished, with the manager stubbornly sticking to those he felt he could trust, the new signings being used sparingly.
The trio of Will Keane, James McClean, Max Power have started in all of the 18 games played so far. Jack Whatmough missed just one through injury. Stats provided by soccerway.com show that Power has spent 1620 minutes on the field, not having been substituted in any game so far. Of the new signings Nathan Broadhead has played 706 minutes, compared with Josh Magennis 794. Ryan Nyambe has played 567 minutes, Ashley Fletcher 34, Anthony Scully 16 and Ramani Edmonds-Green 16 minute
Although Richardson remains well loved by so many fans for what he has done for the club the current situation is giving them much cause for concern. Many are asking why the manager was given a new three year contract with the standard of football played by his team being so poor. On Wednesday Latics were facing a Stoke team that had lost its previous three matches and was only just above the relegation zone. Playing with three centre backs and three holding midfielders was never likely to provide entertainment value for the home fans. When the team sheet was announced before the game the inference was that Richardson was playing not to lose, hoping for a goal from a set piece or bringing on his big target men in the latter stages with the scores tied.
Following a Stoke goal that was gifted to them by an inept Wigan rear guard the manager introduced both Charlie Wyke and Josh Magennis for the last 20 minutes. The football produced during that time ranked among the worst I have seen from Latics over decades of following them. It was totally depressing.
The praise that Richardson has received from Latics fans in the past has been very much merited. He is still held in high regard on a personal level, but there have always been flaws in his tactical approach. Having a squad that was superior to most in League 1 meant that the cracks were papered over. However, they are fully exposed in a Championship division against superior players and managers with more tactical nous.
The frustration among the fans is very much influenced by a run of poor results, but it is the manager’s stubborn resistance to changing the way he sets up his team that can truly aggravate people. Richardson must adapt his tactical approach and install a modern footballing philosophy to replace an archaic approach that is simply not going to work in the second tier.