Five talking points arising from an uplifting win at MK Dons

Milton Keynes celebrated its 50th birthday this year. It is a city of 260,000 inhabitants, unlike any other of its size in the UK with its wide open spaces and network of roads and shopping malls giving it an almost American feel. It is not everyone’s cup of tea as a place to live, but the city continues to grow as foreign investment continues to come in.

A prior review of the MK Stadium had forewarned us that, from the outside, it looked more like a hotel than a football ground and that it was far too big for a club in League 1. But maybe it was planned in the same way as the city itself, with attendances expected to grow in parallel with the surrounding population. It is a fabulous stadium, better than many in the Championship and even some in the Premier League. The presence of some 1,100 Latics fans yesterday swelled the attendance to over 9,000.

The visit to Milton Keynes proved to be enjoyable, not least due to an uplifting display from Paul Cook’s Wigan Athletic team. The referee almost spoiled it with a first half red card decision against Latics, but he even things up in the second period when he sent off a home player.

In the end Latics thoroughly deserved their 1-0 victory. They were much the better team, with a solid defence protected by a strong and creative midfield. Cook’s starting lineup had looked ambitious, with so many new players drafted in. But despite that there was a look of cohesion, with every player seemingly knowing his role and willing to put in the required amount of sweat and toil for his team. It was instantly noticeable how much movement there was compared with last season, with Latics able to break out of defence with strength and purpose.

The display certainly gave us lots to talk about:

1. Dan Burn must stay. Burn was formidable yesterday, his head seemingly a magnet for the ball. The Dons are by no means a long-ball team. They try to play good football, but whenever the ball did go into the air in the box it was soon snaffled up by Burn or Chey Dunkley. But Burn looked assured in all aspects of his play yesterday and must rank among the best central defenders in the division. He will prove invaluable against teams who prefer the aerial approach above all.

However, despite the departures of Jake Buxton, Matt Gilks, Jack Hendry, Mikael Mandron, Billy McKay and Sanmi Odelusi and with Kaiyne Woolery close to a move back to Forest Green Rovers the clear-out continues. Jack Byrne, Omar Bogle and Max Power are being pushed out and not allowed to train with the senior squad. Nick Powell’s goal yesterday helped to put him back into the shop window, with a loan move to a Championship side a likely outcome.

Burn has become one of Wigan’s major assets. Were he to be sold off by the end of August it would be a massive blow to Cook’s plans.

2. Recruitment up to this point is looking pretty good. The starting lineup yesterday included six new players, four of whom are on loan. Christian Walton continues to exude authority in his box, Chey Dunkley was excellent in the centre of defence. Callum Elder looked lively at left back until his premature departure. Lee Evans is a very important signing: a rock in front of the defence, but with the ability to spray passes around from the back. He and Sam Morsy looked a formidable partnership, willing to scrap it out when necessary, but both capable of launching attacks. Gavin Massey showed flashes of skill, together with a willingness to work hard for the team. Ivan Toney was lively up front, willing to drop back into midfield, his movement causing the home defence some headaches. Terell Thomas came on at left back following Elder’s dismissal, very solid despite being a naturally right-sided central defender playing out of position.

Noel Hunt was on the bench, as he was 19 times last season at Portsmouth. In fact, Hunt only made 3 starts last season and can hardly bear expected to challenge for a regular starting place in Cook’s  starting line-up.

3. Michael Jacobs has been rejuvenated. His display yesterday was a revelation following his disappointing season in the Championship. Jacobs worked tirelessly, showing no mean amount of flair, his performance marred only by his finishing on occcasions. He is an essential component in Cook’s tactic of rapid counterattack. With one year remaining on his contract will he be offered an extension?

4. Will Grigg is back. After so many months out because of injury he looked lively when coming on as a second half substitute. With Bogle seemingly on his way out, will Grigg be offered a contract extension? Or will he be sold off this month? The option of Grigg or Toney, or even both, is something Cook will want to retain. But is David Sharpe going to support his manager by retaining key players, despite Cook’s admission that his squad is still too big and that Latics are a “selling club”?

5. Cook will be hoping his long-term injured players will soon be match fit.  Alex Gilbey and Will Grigg are back in contention, but none of Donervon Daniels, Reece James or Andy Kellett were in the squad.

Nathan Byrne is trying hard at right full back despite it not being a position he enjoys. He steadily improved yesterday after looking a little uncomfortable early on. But is Cook going to bring a specialist right back from outside or is he going to rely on Byrne, Daniels or Luke Burke to cover the position?

With Callum Elder due to be suspended, Cook will need to assess the fitness of James. After 18 months out through injury, James needs to be brought in cautiously, but the team’s needs could push things along. Kellett too can play at left back, but is more productively employed in midfield.

 

 

Seeking a balance in midfield

A more balanced midfield with Paul Cook in charge?

“So close to a famous win, absolutely devastated. Atmosphere was incredible.

So tweeted James McArthur after Harry Kane’s late equaliser had robbed them of victory in a game they did not really deserve to win.

He had come on as a substitute at the beginning of the second half in the cauldron that Hampden Park so often can be. In the eyes of an admittedly biased Wigan Athletic fan he should have been on from the start, but James Morrison and Scott Brown were chosen instead.

But seeing McArthur brought back memories of his partnership with James McCarthy. Both were signed from a modest club in Hamilton Academical, seemingly “players for the future”. But what a future it proved to be for them at Wigan as the pair became the engine room of the club’s greatest ever successes. Pitched up against the likes of Gerrard, Lampard and Scholes they held their own, famous victories over England’s richest and most powerful clubs resulting.

Roberto Martinez had developed what was loosely called a 3-4-3 system. McArthur and McCarthy supplied the energy and vision from the centre of midfield, with the excellent wing backs Emmerson Boyce and Jean Beausejour providing the width. One of the front three, Shaun Maloney or Jordi Gomez, would drop back to reinforce midfield and add to the creativity. The end result was a balanced midfield, capable of challenging the best in the land.

It is more than three years now since McArthur left Wigan, McCarthy having gone a year earlier. Since then Latics have had a plethora of midfield players pass through the club. The Macs had played together for three years, developing a mutual understanding, covering for each other when it was needed.

But last season that kind of understanding was sadly lacking, players too often being unable to find their teammates with their passes. Midfield players who had been key in winning League 1 the previous season had clearly found the step up to the Championship a tough one. Perhaps Gary Caldwell had realised that the midfielders of the title winning team might struggle in the higher division. He brought in reinforcements in Shaun MacDonald, Alex Gilbey and Nick Powell, but the latter two were to be stricken by injury. MacDonald had been a box to box midfielder at Bournemouth, but Caldwell was to use him in a “Busquets role” in front of the back four. He had used Sam Morsy in that role in the previous season, but the player had been dispatched off to Barnsley on loan.

MacDonald went on to become a rock in front of the defence, also being favoured by Warren Joyce when he arrived in November. Although he would rarely show the range of passing that we had seen from Morsy, MacDonald was equally firm in the tackle and his reading of the game. Moreover he was strong in the air. Sadly his horrendous injury at Reading is likely to rule him out for the large part of the coming season.

As part of his return from Barnsley, Morsy had been offered an improved contract with Joyce being keen to get him back. With MacDonald anchoring at the back, Morsy was pushed forward into a more creative role where he initially seemed to thrive. However, Joyce’s obsession with 4-5-1 was to mean that any midfielder’s role was to be primarily defensive. Like the other midfielders, Morsy just did not look as effective as he had earlier. The midfield was to shoulder the bulk of the frustration of fans wanting to see them push further forward to support the lone centre forward. The lack of creativity was to be exacerbated as Joyce was to play four central midfielders in his starting line-up, a tactic that was also to be followed by Graham Barrow when he took over as caretaker manager.

Latics fans will be hoping for a more positive approach from new manager Paul Cook. Cook’s preferred formation appears to be 4-2-3-1, so it is unlikely he will use someone in the anchor role occupied by MacDonald. David Perkins has been given a new short term contract, although he is now 35. However, Perkins was the Player of the Year in League 1 in 2015-16 and his infectious enthusiasm was a key element in the team’s success. Max Power was the subject of an offer by Birmingham City in January. Although he had a disappointing season he remains a young player with good technique who might well benefit from a move. Morsy has already proved himself in League 1 and would surely be in contention for a place, but his increased salary might prove too much for Latics to swallow, given their much decreasing revenues. It would be no surprise if both Power and Morsy were sold over the summer.

Cook already has players who can form the trio behind the centre forward. He has those who can play wide in Michael Jacobs and Nathan Byrne, plus “number 10s” in Jack Byrne, Alex Gilbey, Josh Laurent and Nick Powell. Nathan Byrne has genuine pace, making Joyce’s decision to send him on loan to Charlton difficult to understand. With both Wildschut and Byrne leaving his side was distinctly short of pace. Rumour suggests that Byrne had a falling out with the manager and was dispatched as a result. It could be that the player has already burnt his bridges at Wigan and will be gone over summer, but he has a fine record in League 1 and could be an important player, if he were to stay. Salary could also be an issue.

For the moment Latics are short on holding midfielders and Cook will be looking at bringing in at least a couple more. He will also look for more wide players. Jordan Flores can play wide on the left of midfield, but there is still no news of him signing a new contract.

Finding the right balance in midfield will be of paramount importance to Paul Cook if he is to build a squad good enough to get the club back to the Championship division. Continuity is something that has been so lacking at Wigan over the past three seasons. Ideally Cook will put together a midfield not only to get the club out of League 1, but also one which can serve the club more long-term as did the “Macs” in the Martinez era.

 

 

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A two sided view of Warren Joyce at Latics

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Wigan Athletic lost at Villa Park on Saturday due to a brilliant goal in the 89th minute. Up to that point we had seen them cancel out the attacking efforts of a team loaded with players who played in the Premier League last season.

Looking at the team lineup prior to the kickoff it was clear that Warren Joyce was going to utilize the same tactics as he did at Barnsley and Huddersfield, where Latics picked up a draw and a win. The plan was simple: play a massed defence, relying on the pace of Yanic Wildschut up front. It worked until the closing minutes. Latics went close to getting a hard earned point, although they never truly looked like coming back with three.

After the game Joyce expressed his satisfaction on the effort and commitment of his team, also adding that “That’s where we’re at, we’ve got to make sure we stop the opposition from playing in the best way that we can and limit their opportunities of scoring – which we did today – and then try and come up with ways that we can score goals to win games. We will approach the game no differently on Wednesday night, we will try and win the game in what we believe is the best way that we can go and do that.”

After just five matches in charge the new manager has already polarized the Latics support. Is he playing the right tactics? Is it the right way to get out of the relegation zone?

Any argument has two sides. Let’s take a look at a couple of opposing views:

 

It is far too early to judge Joyce after just five matches in charge, most of which have been against teams either in high positions or on strong runs of form. He inherited problems left behind by Gary Caldwell and it is going to take time to put it right. Joyce has been appointed for the long term, as evidenced by the three and a half year contract he was given. Previous managers were appointed on rolling contracts.

Joyce had a great reputation at Manchester United and has demonstated his ability to develop young players. In the long term this will be necessary for our club which does not have the available resources to compete on an even keel with the bigger clubs in the division. The reality is that David Sharpe’s Latics will be the kind of club that develops players and sells one or two off each year to balance the books. In his interviews with Sharpe prior to taking the job, Joyce surely gave the young chairman a vision of how he could do that. He must have known it would be a difficult task, given this scenario, but nevertheless gave up a relatively comfortable position at Old Trafford to take on the challenge.

Caldwell had made far too many mistakes this season and if he had stayed Latics would have been in a constant struggle against relegation. His summer signings were uninspiring, with the players brought in no better than those who were there already. Moreover he broke up the solid central defensive partnership of Craig Morgan and Jason Pearce, the former being stripped of the captaincy, the latter offloaded to Charlton. The pre-season was a mess and the players have not been fit enough. Joyce has increased the intensity of training and is getting real commitment from his players. It may not be pretty to watch at this stage, but these are early days. Joyce’s teams at Old Trafford had a reputation for playing entertaining football and this will surely come at Wigan, given time.

The first thing to put right in a team struggling against relegation is the defence. Joyce is on his way to making Latics a team that others do not want to play. Nottingham Forest had a team studded with Premier League players, with £20 million worth on the bench, but they did not look like getting past Wigan’s defence until that spectacular goal a minute from the end of normal time.

Joyce’s team selections have been criticised but he oversees training on a daily basis. If a player is not making the effort in training should he leapfrog over others into the starting lineup? Joyce is sending a clear message to his squad that their full commitment is required.

His immediate goal will to be to get towards the January transfer window, picking up enough points here and there to keep Latics within reach of the teams immediately above them in the table. He will keep things tight, not risking heavy defeats that can demoralize his players. He has inherited a weak squad and will need to bring in fresh blood in January. Much will depend on Sharpe’s willingness to back him in the transfer market. If the chairman does not provide the funds then Joyce will have to scour the loan market. His connections with Manchester United will surely help.

With time we can expect to see a team which effectively defends and attacks as a unit, with genuine pace up front and at the back. The days of the painfully slow build ups of Caldwell’s teams are gone and we can expect a more direct and high tempo approach from Joyce.

 

Since Joyce arrived Latics have gone backwards, rather than forwards. He started with a 3-0 home defeat and his only win was a steal at Huddersfield. The football has been horrible to watch. Even that served up by Owen Coyle was better. Players who were able to retain possession by stringing a series of passes together under Caldwell now seem unable to do so. Moreover if the defence or midfield wins the ball there is nobody to hold it up.

Joyce thinks a winger can be a centre forward, as did Malky Mackay with James McClean, which proved sadly misguided. Like McClean, Wildschut does not know how to hold up the ball or to head it. Moreover even as a winger he can be so inconsistent. I cannot recall a previous situation in English football when a manager has played a winger in the middle, with three centre forwards on the bench. Proven strikers are the most likely to win games for you.

On Saturday Joyce started with Luke Garbutt in wide right midfield and Michael Jacobs on the left. Most of their efforts were taken up by defending, with Wildschut looking solitary up front. Joyce’s game plans seem to have been based more on damage limitation rather than actually trying to win the three points.

Latics squad is far from the best in the division, but neither is it the worst. The problem is that he is not getting the best out of the squad at his disposal. With the right tactics and the right team selections there is already enough talent there to get the club out of the relegation zone.

The treatment of Will Grigg is baffling. The excuse that the player needs a rest because of being in the European Championship over summer wears thin. It appears that Joyce wants a central striker with more pace than Grigg (or Davies or Le Fondre), so he puts Wildschut there. Rather than adjust the tactics to suit the squad he has, Joyce chooses to leave out players who can win matches by scoring goals out of the blue. Is he so inflexible that he cannot see this? Common sense needs to prevail.

The right full back position remains problematic. Joyce’s preference has been Reece Burke, a central defender who lacks finesse in attack. His next choice is Garbutt, who is left footed and who had been left out of the team by Caldwell. Despite Joyce’s reputation of developing young players, Luke Burke continues to languish in the development squad, despite promising performances early in the season. Moreover Joyce also has another specialist right back in Kyle Knoyle who has disappeared from view.

When Latics were struggling to maintain their place in the Premier League in 2011-12 “Believe” was the theme. It happened. But at the moment it is hard to believe and it is not surprising that support in recent home games has been muted.

How can people believe in a manager who writes off a defeat at Aston Villa by saying that “Single points add up over the course of a season, but the reality is it’s just one point. It’s not all doom and gloom, it’s one point, in a tough game, against a massive club.” Prior to Saturday Latics had lost in just one of their previous eight visits to Villa Park.

Playing ugly football with just one forward is not the way to pick up points.

 

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How good is Michael Jacobs?

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The statistics place him as the second leading goal scorer and the joint leader in assists for a side that won the divisional title. In this case the stats don’t lie – Michael Jacobs played a key role in the 2015-16 season for Wigan Athletic.

“Crackers” scored 10 league goals and made 8 assists, an impressive record, given that he missed a couple of months of the season through injury. He made 30 league starts, with 5 appearances off the bench.

Michael Jacobs was the main creative force for Latics over the course of the season. He was often employed wide, but looked particularly effective when operating in the hole behind the centre forward. Jacobs has genuine skill, with vision to match. He has the ability to take on defenders and make incisive passes.

Being a skilful player in League 1 can have its drawbacks, with ruthless defenders not being afraid to stick the boot in, aided by refereeing that can be over-tolerant. It is to Jacobs’ credit that he has not retaliated when singled out for rough treatment. A good temperament added to a strong work ethic makes him a key team player.

Jacobs is still only 24 and his best is surely yet to come. However, the  Championship is a very different prospect to League 1. Jacobs has prior experience there with Derby, Wolves and Blackpool, but was unable to make the kind of impression he would have liked. Can he make the transition back to the Championship and be the kind of key player that he was for Gary Caldwell this past season?

Jacobs has the pre-requisites to succeed in the Championship, possibly even in the division above. He has the skill, technique and temperament to become a top player. It is self-belief that will be the key, as it has been for Jamie Vardy at Leicester.

Jacobs is not the only Latics player returning to the Championship. All of them will need to step their play up a gear if they are to be a force in the higher division. Jacobs has as gòod a chance as anyone in doing so.

 

 

 

Can Latics hold their nerve for automatic promotion?

In March 2014 Uwe Rosler’s Wigan Athletic team were challenging for a playoff place in the Championship division. During that month they went on to amass 14 points from their 7 games, losing only one by a 1-0 margin at QPR. They looked odds-on to reach that playoff place, which they did finally achieve, but not without a stutter as they picked up just 11 points from their last 9 matches.

Rosler’s team had peaked too early and just could not maintain their form over the final six weeks of the season. They put up spirited displays in the semi-final of the playoffs against QPR, but just could not show the kind of intensity they had shown a couple of months earlier.

Gary Caldwell’s team too has been peaking, going on a 14 game unbeaten run. Their last defeat was against Blackpool on December 12th. Have they peaked too early? Can they hold their nerve and get an automatic promotion place?

Burton Albion’s defeat at Bradford on Tuesday evening could well prove to be a turning point for what remains of the season. They still stand four points ahead of Wigan Athletic, but significantly they no longer have games in hand. After being so consistent for so long is there a chink in Burton’s armour? They have now only won one out of their last five matches.

The most optimistic of Wigan Athletic fans are now seriously talking about their team winning the division. Burton have some tricky fixtures coming up in the final 11 games of the season. Four of those are against teams currently in the top six promotion zone – Millwall (A), Latics (H), Barnsley (H) and Gillingham (H).

Other than having to play at Burton, Latics have to play just one other team from the current top six – Barnsley (H) on the last day of the season.

This current Wigan Athletic team is capable of beating any other team in team in League 1, Burton included. They are have the capability to go the remainder of the season unbeaten. But they are also capable of producing poor results against teams they would be expected to beat. In recent home games they have failed to beat struggling Oldham and Peterborough and a 1-1 draw at Crewe in late January was disappointing.  But it was the shock 1-0 home defeat to Blackpool in mid-December that sparked the surging run they are on at the moment.

In their last 6 league games Latics have won 3 and drawn 3, an average of 2 points per game. Of the other teams in the top six only Barnsley have done better with 13 points, followed by Millwall on 11 points, Burton on 8, Gillingham on 5 and Walsall on 3.

Looking at stats for games played up to this point  it looks like the teams gaining automatic promotion this season will need less points than has been the norm over the past decade. It has been the kind of season where teams are closer in level, where they can quickly climb up or abruptly slide down the table within half a dozen games. However, for Latics to gain automatic promotion they are likely to need at least 86 points. That would require an average of 2 points in each of the remaining eleven matches.

Tomorrow’s game at Colchester is another of those potential banana skins upon which Latics have slipped several times this season. In their last six games Colchester’s record is LDLDWL. They lie in bottom place ten points from safety and have won just three home games this season.

All teams tend to have injury problems at this time of year and Wigan Athletic are no exception. Michael Jacobs and Reece James have been out long term and are still recuperating. Jussi Jaaskelainen is likely to return following concussion received against Peterborough, but both Conor McAleny and Jason Pearce are doubtful for tomorrow.

Caldwell commented this week that  “Whilst it’s a big disappointment to have players out, it’s an opportunity for other players to come in and show what they can do. It’s up to those players who haven’t been playing but have been asking to play and wanting to play to be ready for the opportunities.”

One of those players the manager could be referring to is Kevin McNaughton, who completed a full 90 minutes for the development squad on Tuesday. The Scot may not start at Colchester but could come on later in the game. Haris Vuckic is also due to reappear at some stage.

In addition to potential injuries Caldwell is likely to lose Will Grigg to the Northern Ireland squad for their friendly matches on March 24 and 28. Craig Davies is the obvious replacement, although he has not completed a full game for a long time.

Now is the time for Latics to hold their nerve and let the other teams cut each other’s throats. A late season dip in form like that which happened to Rosler’s team is what they must guard against.