A revitalised midfield for Latics

A competitive midfield trio of Macleod, Morsy and Williams can move Latics ahead.

On paper, one point from two consecutive away games is hardly impressive, but performances and results don’t always correlate. The quality of football we saw last week at Derby and Bristol City was light years ahead of the aimless long-ball approach we have so often witnessed in away days over the past twelve months.

“I’m really positive about the performances we’ve put in this week. We’ve arrived at Derby County and Bristol City and been positive, we’re not setting up to be negative, which is one of the things I said to supporters at the fans’ forum.”

Paul Cook’s comments after the Bristol game made interesting reading. Debates over his statements made in the fans’ forum will continue, but the bottom line is that Latics really were positive at Derby and Bristol, pushing men forward, pressing the home side defences. It was so refreshing to see after month after month of tactically inept away performances.

The signings of Lewis Macleod and Joe Williams over the summer were hardly greeted with universal acclaim by Wigan Athletic fans. Although highly rated as a young player at Rangers, Macleod’s career had been in the doldrums after making just 43 appearances over a four year stay at Brentford. Williams had spent the previous two seasons on loan at Barnsley and Bolton, before Everton sold him to Wigan. His reputation was of a hard-tackling midfielder who could do a job at Wigan.

In the excellent home win over Nottingham Forest Cook  brought in Macleod for the suspended Sam Morsy. The Scot had started in the first two games of the season, Morsy again being suspended, but it had taken six weeks before he appeared again. Macleod had a fine game against Forest, linking up well with Williams.

The underlying reasons for Latics’ woeful away form over the past year have been up for debate for so long. The manager himself has been at a loss to explain it, suggesting that he has employed the same tactics on the road as at home. But the overall impression has been of a lack of creativity, posing little threat on the opponents’ goal and a porous defence capable of giving away “soft” goals, especially in the closing minutes. A common theme has been the inability of the midfield to provide adequate protection for the defence and not providing the link between defence and attack, resulting in defenders launching long balls.

At Bristol Macleod was particularly effective in sitting in front of the back four, available to receive the ball and make accurate passes to teammates. Morsy and Williams played on either side of him, forming a combative, but creative, trio.

Williams has been a revelation, not only strong in his defensive work but showing flair and vision in his play. Still only 22-years old he looks a complete central midfielder. Macleod is now 25 and after so many injury-plagued seasons he is looking fit and sharp, as evidenced by the fact that he has played the full 90-plus in each of the last three games.

Despite conceding late goals at Derby and Bristol the defence has also shown improvement over recent weeks. With an improved defence and a more functional midfield Latics will surely compete better away from the DW Stadium. However, it will need more sharpness and poise from the forwards for them to become truly competitive on the road.

Some thoughts: Nottingham Forest (H) 1-0

Wigan Athletic confounded the media with a well-deserved victory over an over-hyped Forest side. The television commentary had given us a vision of a resurgent Forest, unbeaten in 10 games, heading for a return to the top tier of English football where they surely belonged. But in the end, they had to acknowledge that Latics were worthy victors and that their record at the DW Stadium over the calendar year was impressive.

Paul Cook had surprised us by leaving Josh Windass on the bench, playing Gavin Massey in the number 10 position. It was Massey’s fine link-up play with Jamal Lowe that produced the winning goal after 35 minutes.

Following the game Paul Cook commented: “I thought we were good in the game, I enjoyed watching us play. It’s another very strong home performance, and you’d struggle to name our best player because we had so many good performers. We looked a threat against a very strong Forest side. And at the other end, we defended very, very well. They’re not so much big wins, they’re just wins because every game is so tough.”

Let’s look at some points arising:

Lowe gets his breakthrough

Jamal Lowe’s protracted arrival from Portsmouth in summer was well received by Latics fans. Lowe scored 17 goals for the south coast club in League 1 last season although he played mainly on the right flank. The question was whether he could bridge the transition to Championship football.

Until yesterday Lowe had struggled, looking a shadow of the confident, skilful player he had been at Portsmouth. At Wigan he had largely been employed on the left flank, sometimes in the middle of the advanced midfield three.

But at last Lowe was given the chance to play in his more “natural” position on the right wing. Gavin Massey had been pushed across to a more central role where he had been effective around the end of last season, linking up with the big man up front. The result was that the big centre forward in this game, Kieffer Moore, received more support than he has been accustomed to.

In scoring his goal Lowe had taken a blow to the knee and it clearly affected his mobility. But the goal had given him renewed confidence and he began to show the kinds of skills that had been muted in previous appearances. Lowe left the field after 65 minutes to the applause of the home crowd. He had made his breakthrough.

Williams thrives in Morsy’s absence

Sam Morsy’s absence through suspension gave a fresh opportunity to Lewis Macleod, who had appeared in the opening two games, but not since. Macleod is a fine footballer whose career has been thwarted by constant injury problems. However, he looked fit enough in this game, defending with vigour, showing his ability moving forward. That he went the whole 90 minutes-plus is a testament to how his rehabilitation is succeeding.

Joe Williams is a tenacious tackler who has a range of passing skills. He was Wigan’s outstanding performer in this game. Williams is still only 22 years old and looks an excellent signing for Latics.

Both Williams and Morsy can play the role of midfield destroyer. They had been playing together in holding midfield, providing solid protection for the defence. However, the introduction of Macleod for Morsy gave the centre of midfield a more fluid look. There will be times when Latics will need the steel provided by a Morsy-Williams duo, but the option of including a fluid passer of the ball like Macleod is one that Cook will surely consider.

A more measured long ball approach

The “hoof” has been an ugly and ineffective aspect of Latics play since their return to the Championship. All too often defenders have launched hopeful long balls, usually in the general direction of an outnumbered and isolated central striker, sometimes simply to clear the lines. The net result has typically been to concede the ball to the opposition, inviting them to build up moves from the back and pressurise Wigan’s defence further.

The long ball is not going away as long as Paul Cook is in charge at Wigan. It was frequently applied yesterday, interspersed with spells of keeping the ball on the ground. However, in this game most of the long balls were at least “measured” with Kieffer Moore able to receive and shield the ball on some occasions.

A mixed day for Kieffer

Kieffer Moore came into this game on the back of two fine performances for Wales, for whom he looked a much better player than we had seen playing for Latics. Would the big centre forward be able to get his first goal for Wigan after he had notched his first at international level in Slovakia?

Sadly, it was not to be and, as in so many of his previous Latics appearances, he did not look like scoring. Moore was as committed as ever and posed a physical challenge to the Forest defenders, not so isolated up front with Massey providing support.

Gelhardt’s role

Joe Gelhardt captained England’s under 18 side last week and once again showed what a good player he is on the international stage. He would have been full of confidence coming into this game. Surely, he would be brought on at some stage. But no. He remained on the bench once more.

Cook has continued to laud the 17-year-old’s ability and temperament, insisting that he is up to the rigours of Championship football, but the stats show that Gelhardt’s opportunities have been severely limited. He has been on the field for a total of just 73 minutes of the 12 league games played.

Rumour suggests that Gelhardt will be in the centre of a bidding war between elite Premier League clubs in the January transfer window. The more experience he gets at Championship level the higher his potential transfer fee is likely to rise.

There are critics who suggest that Cook is largely paying lip service to treating Gelhardt as a fully- fledged member of the first team squad and that his main role will continue to be as the “home- grown” player that the EFL insists must be included in every match-day squad. They cite the example of Callum McManaman who last season was on the pitch for a total of 439 minutes, which included just one start. He was on the bench 34 times.

Given the lack of creativity in Latics’ and their lack of goals from open play it has been disappointing to see a player of Gelhardt’s flair left so often on the bench. Should he leave in January Cook will have to look for someone else to fulfil the home-grown requirement.

 

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Five talking points following a rousing win over Cardiff

Wigan Athletic 3 Cardiff City 2

A rousing second half performance, capped by three well taken goals saw Wigan Athletic take the three points against a combative Cardiff City side. It was a well-deserved win against a team loaded with players who had played in the Premier League last season.

Paul Cook stuck with his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, largely keeping faith with players who kept the club in the Championship division last season. David Marshall in goal and Lewis Macleod in central midfield for the unavailable Sam Morsy were the new faces in the starting line-up.

Latics started brightly, despite their play being disrupted by the visitors’ physical approach and their ability to counterattack at speed. Wigan looked so much better when they played the ball on the ground, their high crosses being gobbled up by Cardiff’s big central defenders, the 6ft 6in tall Aden Flint and the 6ft 4in Sean Morrison. Although both teams had threatened it was the visitors who scored first, after 20 minutes, Marshall fumbling the ball with midfielder Joe Ralls hitting it home amid a chaotic Wigan defence. Ralls had been lucky not to receive a red card after an awful challenge on Lee Evans. Cardiff went into the interval one goal ahead having conceded 11 fouls to Wigan’s 4, with 3 yellow cards compared with none for the home team.

Wigan came out in the second half with spirit and intensity, building up with skill, challenging Cardiff’s giant defenders on the ground where they were less comfortable. Josh Windass had already been a thorn in the visitors’ side and soon after the interval he outpaced Morrison who nudged him to concede a penalty. It was a surprise to see Windass step up to take the spot-kick, Joe Garner being the normal penalty taker. Unfortunately, Windass could not convert it, the ball striking the post. But in the 59th minute the same player’s deflected free kick fell into the path of Michael Jacobs who slotted it home. Four minutes later Windass gave Wigan the lead, beating Morrison, before finishing with aplomb.

Cardiff continued to pose a threat and Wigan’s defence was exposed when Omar Bogle scored an equaliser after 70 minutes. But within five minutes Wigan were ahead again after Evans had cut in from the left and unleashed a superb right foot curler into the top right-hand corner of the Cardiff goal. Cook then brought on Cedric Kipre for Macleod, changing to a back three. It took brave defence to hold off waves of Cardiff pressure in the closing minutes.

Paul Cook had been awarded a yellow card in the first half, protesting Cardiff’s over-robust approach. He felt that Ralls “shouldn’t be on the pitch. My initial reaction was it wasn’t a hard decision to give a red. We spoke at half-time not to let anyone, including myself, lose their discipline.”

Let’s take a look at some points arising:

Windass in the number 10 role

Nick Powell’s departure for Stoke was a blow for Cook. The burning question has been who he would place in that key number 10 role behind the central striker. Reports have linked Latics to Preston’s creative midfielder Daniel Johnson, who played under the manager at Chesterfield. It was Josh Windass who was chosen to play in that role yesterday.

Windass has played the role before, with limited success. But in this game, he really stepped up to the plate, his mobility and pace causing all kinds of problems for the opposition defence. Windass cannot match Powell in terms of creativity and passing ability: he is a different type of player with different attributes.

Windass can be a frustrating player, seemingly losing concentration at times, misplacing passes, not being aware of those around him. But at his best he can be a real asset, his directness unsettling the opposition.

Macleod could be a key player

Lewis Macleod is a talented midfield player whose career has been dogged by injury. He played for 75 minutes yesterday before making way to Cedric Kipre. Macleod is gradually adjusting to Cook’s style of play, which is quite different than what he was used to at Brentford.

Should he manage to steer clear of injury he could be a key player this season.

Evans back to his best

Lee Evans had a disappointing time last season but has all the attributes to become a top-class midfielder at Championship level. He has good positional sense, is strong in the tackle and has a good technique. He had a fine game in a holding midfield role yesterday, capping it off with a superb goal that was to prove to be the match winner.

During the course of last season Reece James took over Evans’ regular duties of taking free kicks and corners. Yesterday Josh Windass took most of the set pieces. However, Evans is very capable in that area and in crossing the ball into space in open play.

One wonders if Evans lacks the self-belief that he should really have given his footballing abilities. He is such a capable player.

The challenge for Paul Cook is in how to get the best out of the Welshman.

Using a back three

Cook’s continues to prefer a 4-2-3-1 system that has served him so well in the past. He pushes his full backs forward, relying on holding midfielders dropping back to support an exposed defence. At times yesterday the centre of defence looked vulnerable with Cardiff breaking out with pace. Had they taken more of the chances they created they might well have come away with the three points.

Given the way that Cardiff play the manager might well have considered using three centre backs in his starting line-up. Instead he waited until the final quarter. It was certainly the right thing to do to counter the visitors’ aerial threat.

Cook deserves credit for his willingness to try other formations. However, so often when Latics have changed to a back three to close down a game they have dropped too deep in defence, giving the ball back to the opposition so cheaply. Keeping the ball is key to defending under pressure but Latics tend to launch long balls far too freely when a counterattack is on with the opposition pushed so far forward. It is something that the manager and his coaches need to work on with their players.

Looking for a big target man

Joe Garner is 5 ft 10 in tall. Given the height of the central defenders he had to compete with he did remarkably well to challenge for high balls. Garner is a capable centre forward to gives his all for the team, but he plays at his best when the ball is played to his feet.

Following failed attempts to sign big target men in Sam Gallagher and Jordan Hugill it is no surprise to hear that Cook is now trying to sign the 6ft 5in Kieffer Moore from Barnsley. Moore does not have a lot of experience at Championship level but has a better scoring rate than Gallagher or Hugill.

Signing a big centre forward who poses a big aerial threat would add an extra option for Cook. But Latics have enough creativity in midfield not to rely on the long ball which we saw too much of last season.

Let’s hope that the arrival of a tall centre forward is employed to give Latics extra options, rather than a signal to by-pass a capable midfield with long balls.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

 

A Brentford fan’s view of Lewis Macleod

 

Wigan Athletic yesterday announced the signing of Lewis Macleod from Brentford on a one-year contract. The 5ft 10 in tall Macleod was a free agent.

Lewis Macleod was born in Wishaw, Lanarkshire. He joined Rangers as a 10-year-old, progressed through their academy and made his first team debut at 18 years of age in a Scottish Challenge Cup tie against Brechin in July 2012. He went on to make 26 appearances in the 2012-13 season when Rangers were in the Scottish League Division 3. A knee injury in January 2013 had kept him out for most of the second half of the season.

Macleod was a regular starter the 2013-14 season until a viral infection affected the muscles around his heart in January 2014. He recovered in time for the 2014-15 season and was a regular starter with Rangers now in the Scottish League 1. However, his season was once again curtailed after receiving a serious hamstring injury in a game against Alloa in December 2014. It proved to be Macleod’s last game for Rangers after making a total of 74 appearances, scoring 16 goals.

Macleod signed for Brentford on a three-and-a-half-year contract in January 2015 for a fee of around £1m. However, the hamstring went again in training keeping him out until May 2015 when he was an unused substitute in a Championship playoff game against Middlesbrough. Further hamstring problems plagued Macleod, until he made his debut as a substitute against Brighton in February 2016. However, in late February he suffered a medial ligament injury in training and did not appear in the first team squad for the remainder of the season.

Macleod returned to fitness for the start of the 2016-17 season, making 13 appearances before receiving a serious knee injury in a game at QPR at the end of October. In December 2016 he signed a one-year contract extension which would keep him with the Bees until the summer of 2019. Following the knee injury and further hamstring problems Macleod had to wait until December 2017 for his next appearance, coming on as a substitute against Fulham. He finished the 2017-18 season with 11 appearances. He was a regular starter in the 2018-19 season until suffering a hamstring injury in December 2018  during a game against West Bromwich Albion. He made only one more appearance, as a late substitute in Brentford’s 0-0 draw at the DW Stadium.

In order to find out more about Macleod’s time at Brentford  we once again reached out to Billy Grant (@billythebee99) who writes and makes podcasts for the Beesotted fan site (beesotted.com)

Here’s over to Billy:

Lewis Macleod joined Brentford in the Warburton era. For £1m reputedly which was a lot of money for us back then (still is). He was a highly reputed wonder-kid. Rangers fans were devastated he left but they were skint at the time. He was their young player of the year the season they won the Div 3 title.

 Macleod was signed injured. He didn’t play all season due to injury although he was on the bench for the playoff semi v Boro in May but never made it on.  Every time he was due to come back, he got injured again. Once he tripped on a twig in training and was out for a long time. Them he fell down a hole in training. Out for a while again.

 There were rumours about Warburton signing him back for Rangers, but these were unfounded. 

 He started the 2016 season and was looking decent – playing 12 matches before being injured at QPR. A bad knee injury. 

 The club backed him. They gave him a one-year extension on his contract and sent him to Philadelphia to get treated by a specialist. He had a couple of false returns but made a full league return 18 months later – scoring his first goal of the club against Boro. He finished the season intact which was a good sign.

 Summer 2018 was his first proper pre-season training with us. He came out fit. We had a great side – having kept hold of the bulk of our players with Ryan Woods the only player not to have been replaced. This gave an opportunity for midfielders Josh McEachran and Lewis McLeod to make their marks on the side.

 Brentford started the season magnificently beating Rotherham 5-1. We looked proper world beaters. We played Wigan a month later and played you guys off the park – winning 2-0.

 Then in October it started to go horribly wrong. Opposition teams got the handle of us. Pressed us hard and started to over-run our midfield. Macleod was showing flashes of real brilliance, but we were struggling when the going got tough.

 He scored his final goal for Brentford in the final minutes of an undeserved away point at West Brom. He got injured after that goal. Decided not to renew his contract. And that was it.

 He’s one of a handful of players Brentford signed since entering the Championship that we’ve lost money on. 

 What type of player was he? Potentially skilful. Tricky. But I’m going to be honest: I don’t really know. He played so few games in his four and a half years at Brentford it’s hard to piece together a pattern.

 His best period was August and September 2019 where he was very much part of our fluid football passing game.

 Maybe he needed a much tougher central midfielder to play alongside. Unfortunately, Josh McEachran isn’t your man when the going gets tough.

 There’s no doubt he’s an intelligent, skilful footballer who has had a lot of bad luck.

 Maybe a change of scenery in Wigan is exactly what he needs now. 

 

In need of a transfer policy

In: David Marshall (Hull City, free)

Out: Devante Cole (Motherwell, loan), Shaun MacDonald (Rotherham, free), Callum McManaman (Luton, free), Nick Powell (Stoke City, free), Jamie Walker (Hearts, free)

The deadline for Championship clubs for all incoming permanent and loan registrations is due to close at 5pm on Thursday August 8, 2019. It leaves Wigan Athletic just under four weeks to complete their recruitment for the first half of the season. It appears that enough time remains, but nevertheless the fans are getting nervous. Five players out and just one man in up to this point. What is happening?

The concerns of fans are reflected in the social media and message boards. They see that other clubs in the division are streets ahead of Latics in their recruitment at this stage. The Bristol Post yesterday published a list of comings and goings among Championship clubs. It makes interesting reading. Latics rank among the highest in players leaving, among the lowest in players coming in.

At this time last year Latics had signed Leo Da Silva Lopes and Kal Naismith on permanent contracts and Reece James and Christian Walton on loan. Why is it taking longer this year? Some fans say that players will not be keen on joining a club that could once again be battling against relegation. Others say that Latics simply cannot or will not compete with other Championship clubs who are splashing money around like water. Reports suggest that Wigan were prepared to offer the 34-year-old free agent Alan Hutton a two-year contract but were unable to agree terms with him.

The fee Southampton want for Gallagher is rumoured to be around £5m. It was a surprise to many of us that Wigan Athletic were actively pursuing a player from a Premier League club, given inflated transfer fees and salaries in that division. The interest in Portsmouth’s Jamal Lowe was more predictable, although the £3m tag put on him by the south coast club seems excessive for a League 1 player who has never played above that level. The summer transfer activity will surely provide a litmus test for the IEC’s willingness to invest in player recruitment.

Chairman Darren Royle is hardly a David Sharpe in terms of communicating with the fans. But he is certainly addressing issues within the club. The DW Stadium needs an overhaul, the club needs to bring in more commercial revenue, the Academy needs upgrading to at least a category 2 level.  Royle may be less comfortable with the media than his predecessor but is tidying up things that had been left on hold.

IEC made it clear on buying the club that they were willing to invest but would do so judiciously. Investing in infrastructure is already underway. It is the club’s recruitment policy that is unknown. During Paul Cook’s reign the players coming in have typically come from the British Isles. The club’s homegrown players have been largely ignored with young loan players from big clubs brought in. The manager typically brings in veteran players who he believes will add to the dressing room climate and positively influence the younger players. Last season Cook splashed money on signing Josh Windass (around £1.8m), Cedric Kipre (around £1m), Leo Da Silva Lopes (around £800,000). Windass and Kipre impressed at times, but generally struggled to adjust to second tier English football. Da Silva Lopes was sent out on loan to Gillingham. Windass is now 25 years old, Kipre is 22 and Da Silva Lopes is 20.

Royle and the IEC are keen to develop the academy as a potential source of first team players. Latics have some fine prospects on their hands at the moment and it is to be hoped that the likes of Joe Gelhardt and Jensen Weir will not fall by the wayside as so many young players have at Wigan over the years.

 

Callum Lang is now 20 but has made 72 senior appearances in the past two seasons on loan at Morecambe and Oldham, scoring 23 goals. The loans have given him valuable experience. Now the time has come for the player to be given a chance in the Championship. Last season an under-pressure Cook was loath to bring in home grown talent.

Wigan Athletic’s recruitment policy has hardly been coherent in recent seasons. It contrasts with that of Brentford, whose data-driven approach helps them scout talent not only in the British Isles, but all over Europe. No matter that managers have come and gone they have stuck with a formula that has brought in significant funds from transfers, helping them stay solvent. They have shown that a small club can compete with the heavyweights of the Championship, finishing in the top ten in each of the past four years.

The 25 year-old Macleod is a free agent after letting his contract run down at Brentford. He has made 41 appearances for the Bees since signing from Rangers in December 2014. Macleod is a very capable player whose career has been riddled with injury problems, hamstring issues in particular. If he does sign for Latics will Cook and his medical team be able to get the best out of him and resurrect his career as they did with Nick Powell?

The next four weeks will certainly give us an indication of the recruitment policy to be supported by the new owners. Will the club continue to bring in young loan players from big clubs at the expense of home-grown talent?