Five talking points following a tight encounter with Brentford

Wigan Athletic 0 Brentford 0

Wigan Athletic rarely do well after an international break. But this was by no means a bad performance. Whether it was a point gained or two points lost is the current debate among Latics fans.

It was a tight game between two teams of contrasting styles with few clear-cut chances created by either side. Brentford played the better football, but Wigan came closest to scoring.  With 7 games to play Latics are 4 points ahead of the relegation zone but have some difficult games coming up. Some fans are suggesting that their fate could be decided in that final match of the season when Latics host Millwall.

Paul Cook made one change to his starting line-up, preferring the experience of Danny Fox to the youth of Cedric Kipre at centre back. Anthony Pilkington returned to the squad following injury and was brought on after 43 minutes when Michael Jacobs had to go off because of a hamstring injury. Pilkington’s return to action had coincided with Josh Windass being a noticeable omission from the match-day squad.

Following the game Cook commented: “We need to respect the point, it’s a point more towards where we want to be and with seven games to go, we just need to keep believing. It was a case of staying disciplined with our shape and then hitting them on the counter-attack and creating chances. Credit to Brentford, they’re an excellent football side and are one of the best teams we faced here in terms of managing and handling the ball, they take the ball in all areas of the pitch and continually caused our shape problems. We had a couple of good chances, Gavin Massey’s was the most clear-cut chance in the game just after half-time, but we’ve now taken four points from Bolton and Brentford and we move on.”

Let’s look at some points arising from the game:

Were Wigan over-physical or were Brentford play-acting?

We learned what excellent possession football Brentford can play in the 2-0 defeat at Griffin Park in mid-September. The Bees were riding high at that time and if it had not been for a good display by Christian Walton they would have won by a much greater margin. We saw that smooth possession football in action again yesterday, their three-man backline calm under pressure, the midfield players making themselves constantly available to enable a seamless transition from defence to attack. Brentford are second to Leeds with average possession stats of 57% over the course of the season. They enjoyed 65% of the possession yesterday. Moreover, their pass accuracy was 82% compared with Wigan’s 63%.

Following the game, the Bees Danish manager, Thomas Frank, commented: “Wigan are very physical…and I don’t think it’s any secret that they try to use that physicality, because they thought that maybe an advantage for them. They used that well, and then it’s up to the referee to protect the players.”

A fierce tackle by Danny Fox in the opening minutes on Brentford’s leading goalscorer Neal Maupay was a signal of things to come. The foul count ended up being 19 against Wigan and 14 against Brentford. Wigan’s average foul count is 13 per game. Latics were certainly physical against a team with technically superior players, but although they committed more fouls than usual, they accumulated only one yellow card compared with Brentford’s two.

In the encounter at Griffin Park there was criticism by Latics fans of what they considered the home side’s “play-acting” and pressuring the referee. Sam Morsy was sent off in the 60th minute, but his suspension was rescinded by the FA. The Bees’ manager at that time was Dean Smith. When his current side, Aston Villa, visited Wigan in mid-January we saw a similar pattern.

Wigan were physical yesterday, but Brentford’s reaction was so often over the top. Is the same behaviour the players learned under Smith being allowed to continue under Frank?

The second half sag

So often this season Latics have sagged in the second half. The high pressing has dissipated, and Wigan have dropped back in defence, unable to string passes together. The same happened yesterday. What are the reasons? Are the players lacking in fitness?  Or are they following the manager’s instructions?

Brendan Rogers once said: “If you can dominate the game with the ball, you have a 79% chance of winning”. Where he got his figures from is up to debate but, put simply, the more the ball is passed around the field, the more the opposition is forced to burn energy.  In the first half yesterday, Brentford were certainly stretching Latics with their possession. In Cook’s words “they take the ball in all areas of the pitch and continually caused our shape problems.”

The likelihood is therefore that by half time Latics had expended more energy than their opponents. Given such a scenario it would have been no surprise for Cook to instruct Latics to sit back and look at hitting the visitors on the counterattack.

Defence holds firm

Chey Dunkley returned to form yesterday, forming a combative central defence with Danny Fox. Dunkley’s form off set pieces has been so disappointing this season and he still has not scored a goal. But he came close his header drawing a fine save from the opposition keeper and he later had another effort bounce off the crossbar. That goal must surely come. At times it has been a difficult learning experience for the big central defender in his first season in the second tier, but nevertheless he has figured among Latics’ most consistent performers over the course of the season.

Fox’s last appearance for Latics had been in the 2-1 defeat at Derby on March 5 when he went off injured after 33 minutes. He had suffered a previous injury after 25 minutes at Rotherham on February 9 that had kept him out for two weeks. Since signing for Latics at the end of the January transfer window he has made just five appearances, including two curtailed by injury. He was excellent yesterday, his reading of the game and positional sense shining through. He is by no means a sophisticated central defender, but his determination and his passing ability make him a player to be reckoned with at Championship level.

Powell completes the full game

Nick Powell was not at his best, but soon after half time he won the ball close to his own penalty box and ran some forty yards to lay off a beautiful pass for Gavin Massey who had intelligently moved into space. Unfortunately, the winger’s effort was well saved by the goalkeeper. Powell is such an important player for Latics that it takes a lot of nervous energy out of us as fans when he looks frail and injury-prone. In this game he misplaced some of his passes, but he was certainly committed and for once Cook did not take him off before the full-time whistle blew.

So often have Latics relied on Powell’s creativity to provide some kind of spark in tight encounters. It is a heavy burden he shoulders. With Michael Jacobs once again struck down by a hamstring injury there will be even more pressure on Powell. Pilkington had been brought on for Jacobs, one creative player for another. But the ex-Cardiff player needs more games under his belt before he is going to play at his best. Since joining Latics in early January he has made just six starts with two appearances off the bench. Pilkington has a good pedigree for the second tier and could prove a key asset in the bid to avoid relegation. If Jacobs is to be out for some time Cook will need Pilkington to stay fit and show the kinds of skills that we know he is capable of.

Commitment with discipline

Sam Morsy talked in the week about the need for him to cut out the unnecessary yellow cards. After being booked four times in five outings he has now gone four games without a yellow. Morsy is a key player in Wigan’s midfield and Cook will not want to lose him through suspension again.

Although Morsy is the leader in yellow cards at the club he is not the only player who has run into problems with referees. Latics average 13 fouls committed per game, with 14 per game being awarded in their favour.  They occupy 17th place in the fouls committed table, with seven teams having a higher foul count. However, in terms of yellow and red cards only Nottingham Forest have a worse record. Latics have 82 yellows and 3 reds in 39 games.

Antonee Robinson deservedly received a yellow card yesterday for a desperation tackle but his teammates managed to avoid one. Last week against Bolton nobody on Wigan’s team received a card.

It appears that Cook and his coaches have been working with the players on improving their discipline. Discipline tends to be associated with the gap between fouls committed and cards received, but it can have a wider meaning. With a young defence Latics have too often given away free kicks near their penalty box that have caused them problems. Throw-ins have been another problem area with too many routinely given away when the ball could have been kept in play. Doing so has invited further pressure from the opposition. “Safety-first” defending – putting the ball out of play at the slightest hint of danger – was not so often punished in League 1 as it has been in the Championship. In the first half against Bolton we saw the visiting side pepper the home defence with crosses and throw-ins, too often given away by the indiscipline of Wigan’s defence. Fortunately, those same defenders, aided by Bolton’s lack of finishing, managed to keep the visitors out until after half time.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

 

 

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Five talking points following an impressive display against Bolton

Wigan Athletic 5 Bolton Wanderers 2

It was throwback to the Wigan Athletic we had seen at the start of the season. Latics were full of energy and invention and their attacking approach simply blew away their near neighbours. This emphatic win puts them 10 points ahead of a Bolton side seemingly doomed for relegation.

After the game Cook commented: “I would have taken anything today as long as we won, I thought the result against Reading was an absolute disgrace, we were very flat again against Blackburn Rovers on Tuesday night, but we’ve bounced back today and I’m sure our fans will be delighted. We’ve set out a great chance of achieving what we wanted to at the start of the season with that performance today…..Tonight everyone will feel a little bit happier, but until the final ball is kicked on the final day no one can relax, we certainly won’t rest on our laurels as we play a very strong Brentford side here next.”

Let’s take a look at some points arising:

Garner’s early goal was crucial

Joe Garner’s header in the fourth minute gave Latics a big psychological boost. They had started with attacking intent, Michael Jacobs causing problems for Jason Lowe, the Bolton right back being given a yellow card after just three minutes. The early intervention by the referee helped set the tone in a game that could boil over at any time. In the event it was certainly a physical encounter, but Lowe’s card was the only one the referee deemed worthy to give in the remaining 92 minutes. Garner’s header had come from Reece James’ free kick following Lowe’s booking.

Garner once again showed that he is worthy of his starting place at centre forward. Yesterday he linked up intelligently with the creative trio of Jacobs, Massey and Powell and gave the corpulent Bolton defenders a hard time. His goal came at a crucial time for a Latics side who desperately needed a boost after an awful display at Blackburn.

Getting the best out of Jacobs and Massey

Cook took Gavin Massey off after 45 minutes in the previous game at Blackburn; Michael Jacobs went off after 61 minutes, with Rovers already two goals up. Was Cook saving them for the Bolton game?

Both Jacobs and Massey have had long spells out through injury this season and the cutting edge they provide was badly missed when they were absent. They both had excellent games, each scoring a well-taken goal, Jacobs also getting the assist for Nick Powell’s goal. Massey was substituted after 82 minutes but Jacobs completed the whole 90 plus. Their interplay with Powell has always been a joy to watch, as it was once more yesterday.

Last season both Jacobs and Massey made 50 appearances. They were key players in the League 1 title winning team.

When Latics were last in the Championship in 2016-17 Jacobs was a regular starter and made 46 appearances, scoring 3 goals. However, he did not totally convince that he was a Championship-level player. This season he has made 21 appearances, scoring 4 goals. Yesterday he certainly looked up to the task and showed the kind of energy and creativity that Latics had been lacking when he was put injured. At 27 he is at his peak.

Massey scored 6 goals last season, but only one of those was bagged at the DW.  Massey is now 26 years old and nearing his peak. After a career in the lower divisions he looks very much at home in the Championship.

A defender almost scores

Late in the proceedings Nathan Byrne hit the post with a rocket shot from 25 yards. If it had gone in it would have been only the second goal scored by a defender for Latics this season and Byrne’s first in 89 appearances. A few minutes earlier Byrne had put in a beautiful long cross for Leon Clarke to head home Wigan’s fifth.

Walton back for Jones

Jamie Jones took over the starting goalkeeping position from Christian Walton in early January. It had been a long wait for the Brighton loan player to get his place back.

Walton looked more assertive than he had looked in December and could not be faulted for either of the Bolton goals. Both goalkeepers have their strengths and will continue to compete for a place in the starting lineup. One of Jones’ real strengths is his distribution, and this is something Walton needs to continue to work on.

Danny Fox will be back

With an international break coming up there is time for Danny Fox to recover from his knee injury. Fox’s experience and organisational skills would have been helpful yesterday when Latics defence let in two soft goals that could have allowed Bolton back into the game if it had not been for Wigan’s ability to strike back in attack.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Five talking points as pressure mounts on Cook after Reading defeat

Reading 3 Wigan Athletic 2

For the first 78 minutes it looked like the Wigan Athletic we took pride in watching in late summer. That positive attacking approach had returned with Nick Powell orchestrating from midfield and the home defence being stretched by Wigan’s nimble wide men. With Latics 2-1 ahead Reading goalkeeper Martinez made an outstanding point blank save from Nick Powell when a goal had looked certain. But Latics took off the tiring Massey and Powell after 73 and 78 minutes and the game swung back in Reading’s favour.

Following the last minute defeat the social media and message boards were awash with fans voicing their frustration with the manager’s substitutions and his tactical nous.

For his part Paul Cook commented: “I wanted a reaction from the players, I wanted us to find the identity which we had last year and at the start of this season and, to be fair, I thought the lads were excellent today – probably as good as we have played for a long, long time…It was a big game; I wanted to make sure we turned up and did we turn up? Yes, I thought we did. Our big players, did they play well? I thought they were excellent all over the pitch. Tactics, formations, that hasn’t influenced the game today – we were excellent but unfortunately we haven’t managed to get the result”

Let’s take a look at some points arising:

Cook chooses an attacking starting lineup

So often this season the starting lineup has given us a pretty good idea of what to expect. It was certainly the case in this match with the manager reuniting the trio of Michael Jacobs, Gavin Massey and Nick Powell who had been behind so much of the good football that has surfaced during the manager’s tenure. Moreover, he had benched the ineffective Leon Clarke for Joe Garner and, at last, brought in his specialist left back Antonee Robinson. He also brought experience into the centre of defence in a potentially tense encounter by bringing in Jonas Olsson for Cedric Kipre.

The starting lineup gave us promise that we could expect good football, far apart from the hoofball/scrapball approach we have seen so often in away games. To be fair to the manager it was the first time since August that Jacobs, Massey and Powell had all been fit enough to be included as a trio in the starting lineup. If they had not suffered from those long-term injuries Latics would surely not have been locked in a relegation battle at this point of the season.

Fitness issues were always going to weigh heavy

Cook certainly got his starting lineup right but there was going to come a time in the game when he would have to take off some of his key players. The question was who would it be and how many would he have to substitute?

Olsson had not played competitive football since December. Robinson’s last game was on November 10, but he had been back in contention for a matter of weeks and it had been a surprise that Cook had not given him any game time before this match. Given previous injuries to his attacking trio Cook would need to be careful not to risk more problems by overextending the members that attacking trio.

Cook’s substitutions handed the initiative to Reading

The manager knew beforehand that he would have to make substitutions at some stage and had the time to draw up contingency plans. His challenge was to be how he could make the substitutions yet maintain the positive momentum built up by his starting lineup.

In the event Cook replaced Massey with Kal Naismith and Powell with Leon Clarke. His substitutions wrecked the 4-2-3-1 shape that had been working so well and destroyed that momentum. Naismith was like a duck out of water on the right wing. Clarke was simply ineffective and his presence invited long balls from defenders with possession being squandered.

Cook shot himself in the foot with the comment  that “Tactics, formations, that hasn’t influenced the game today” after seeing how his substitutions saw a change from flowing football to the fightball approach that has reared its ugly head far too often.

Another game decided by fine margins

Despite the manager’s ineffective substitutions Latics could still have come away with points had “luck” favoured them a little more. If Powell’s shot had not been somehow blocked by Martinez Wigan would have had a two goal cushion and Reading’s morale would have taken a severe hit.

Reading’s second goal was certainly controversial with the home team on the edge of unsporting behaviour after the referee had dropped the ball to Sam Morsy. The result was a lack of midfield cover with Reece James off the pitch and Morsy marooned on the half way line. Barrow ran through unmarked to hit the type of  long-range shot that can beat Jamie Jones. The winning goal in the 97th minute was scored after Olsson had been jostled to the ground in the penalty box as the set piece was launched. Reading had been putting constant pressure on the referee, as do so many teams in this division.

A manager under pressure

The calls for Cook to be replaced have intensified. Although we on this site have previously advocated that he be given more time the worry is that the manager just does not seem to be learning from his mistakes with his team selections, substitutions and tactical approach.

Darren Royle and IEC have been supportive up to this point but are they willing to continue to back a manager and backroom staff that could take the club back to League 1?

If Cook were to go would the highly experienced Peter Reid or Joe Royle take temporary control? Or would a snap appointment be brought in from the outside?

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

Five talking points after an opportunity missed at Derby

Derby County 2 Wigan Athletic 1

It had been one of Wigan’s better away performances: a goal up after 25 minutes following a superb counterattack, the home team not looking like they were going to score. Then after 62 minutes Derby substitute Mason Bennett scored a truly spectacular goal that radically changed the game. Wigan’s fragile confidence was severely dented to such an extent that it was no great surprise that the home team scored again 16 minutes later with the Wigan defence all at sea.

Following the game Paul Cook commented: “At one stage, the whole picture looked great for us but unfortunately the picture changed completely. For long periods in the second-half, I thought we were going to score again – I thought we were getting in the right areas but the disappointing thing was Massey and Jacobs tired badly – as to be expected – and we are having to make substitutions. There are no excuses, though, we are at a good level of football and you have got to have something about you to see games out and unfortunately we haven’t been able to do that.”

Let’s look at some points arising:

An opportunity missed

On paper Derby had a stronger lineup than Wigan. Even without players of the quality of Tom Lawrence and Mason Mount they had enough talent to ask questions about a suspect Latics defence. Nevertheless, Derby came into this game after three consecutive league defeats and their play had been fraught with errors. With the home team so nervy and with Latics a goal up going into the interval it was an opportunity for a rare Wigan away win.

Wigan had been unfortunate to be deprived of the experienced and influential Danny Fox through injury after 33 minutes. Would the defence be able to withstand the Derby pressure in his absence? Mason Bennett is by no means a prolific scorer with a record of 6 goals in 90 league appearances. Latics can certainly count themselves unfortunate to have conceded a goal to Bennett that some might label a touch of genius; others might say it was a fluke. Wigan had their chances to win the game, but did not convert them, Leon Clarke being the principal offender in that respect.

In his post-match comments Cook told us he had expected Jacobs and Massey to tire.  Their pace and movement had reminded us of the tempo with which Latics had played early in the season. Both had been sadly missed but their presence could still prove crucial to Latics avoiding relegation. But knowing that both were going to be unable to complete the 90 minutes the manager did not have another winger on the bench to replace them. Kal Naismith had come on at full back for Fox and neither Callum McManaman nor Anthony Pilkington were on the bench.

With the squad that Cook has at his disposal Latics are always going to be hard pressed to get a result against a team in the promotion race or one that is at the top of their form. But this is not the first occasion that they have been unable to beat teams that have been nervy and short of confidence following a bad run of results. It started in early October when they lost 4-0 to a Preston side which had been at low ebb. They just have not been able to capitalize on the opportunities presented to them since then.

Tactics and team selection

Having had some success with a back five in the previous outing it was a surprise that Cook ditched it, although it could be argued that his game-plan was working with Latics a goal up. Despite having one of his better displays against Middlesbrough Naismith was taken off after 60 minutes and found himself on the bench at Pride Park.  It can scarcely have helped the player’s confidence and he was not at his best in this match.

Having decided on a flat back four this time around, Cook retained his midfield trio of Reece James, Lee Evans and Sam Morsy. James did well but Evans and Morsy were distinctly below par. Evans in particular looked lost in his role in right midfield.

With a prior background in the lower leagues Cook has struggled with the tactical side of the game in the Championship. It scarcely helps that his assistant manager and first team coach come from similar backgrounds.  With a relatively low budget squad he has to get the best out of the players at his disposal if the team is to compete and avoid relegation. He also needs to adjust his tactical approach according to the opposition he faces.

Last season’s success was based on a 4-2-3-1 system, with a long-ball approach to 4-4-2 being the Plan B. Latics started this season successfully with 4-2-3-1, but injuries to Jacobs and Massey cut its effectiveness. Cook received some criticism for his tactics against Middlesbrough, packing the central midfield and using a backline of three central defenders, but a point was gained against a top team. Given the goals given away by a shaky defence over recent months it was a surprise that the manager had not employed such a shape in his previous starting lineups, particularly away from home.

Set pieces

Latics’ set piece plays have been so disappointing this season. Lee Evans used to be the main taker of corners and free kicks but Reece James has since taken over most of those duties. The centre backs still have not scored a goal, despite the number of opportunities they have had. Nick Powell’s enforced absence from injury has surely had an effect since he is probably the best header of a ball in set-piece situations.

A goal from a set piece is long overdue. Will it come at Reading on Saturday?

Rays of hope

Although the result did not go Wigan’s way there were some rays of hope emanating from the performance. The sight of Jacobs and Massey running at defences at pace from wide positions was most welcome, as was another short appearance for Nick Powell.

Cook now has to decide how to approach the game at Reading. Will he continue with the ineffective Clarke at centre forward or will he opt for Joe Garner or even Powell in that position? One can only hope he will start with Jacobs, Massey and Powell and that Latics will go in with a positive approach. Should they get an early lead there remains the possibility of reverting to a back three/five later in the game, as the trio tires, with Jonas Olsson coming in off the bench.

Looking forward to next season

Should Latics manage to avoid relegation – which is far from certain at this moment – will Cook and his backroom team be in charge next season? The manager has been fortunate to have kept his job given the indifferent performances and results over these months. Should relegation occur then Cook’s experience in the lower divisions would prove useful. Should Latics stay up will Darren Royle continue to back Cook in the hope that he has learned from his mistakes this season?

Latics started the season with a considerable number of players who had not played at championship level before. They too will have benefited from the experience, tough though it might have been.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

The Windass conundrum – can he fit into Paul Cook’s style of play?

 

“Josh wants to be a number nine every game for Rangers and I couldn’t guarantee that. I could guarantee him football matches but maybe in different positions and formations.  Maybe Wigan boss Paul Cook said he could be number nine every week and that may have triggered his decision.”

The words of Rangers manager Steven Gerrard after Josh Windass joined Wigan Athletic on the summer transfer deadline day. The fee was reported to be £2m. That same day Latics paid Ipswich some £1.25m for centre forward Joe Garner. Why did Paul Cook sign both when he already had Will Grigg and James Vaughan competing for the centre forward position?

Cook clearly has a high regard for the 24-year-old Windass, but what were his intentions? Was he signing the Hull-born player as a central striker or one who would poach goals from wide positions?

At the end of last season Cook had three central strikers in the senior squad. Over the summer he opted to send Devante Cole on loan to Burton Albion, leaving Grigg and Vaughan to fight for the position. Cook’s preferred formation involves one central striker, although he will sometimes throw on another in the second half if needs’ be. Garner is a capable and experienced Championship-level central striker and he will compete with Grigg and Vaughan, but where does that leave Windass?

Not surprisingly, given the competition he is facing, Josh Windass has not yet started a game for Latics as a centre forward. He has been confined to the right or left wing. He has made 8 starts, Latics winning 3, drawing 1, losing 4 of those games. He has scored one goal, well taken against Hull City.

Cook’s team last season was characterised by fast and decisive play from the flanks with pacey wingers and full backs pushed far forward. At its best it was exhilarating to watch. Gavin Massey was a key player on the right wing, his pace causing problems for opposing full backs, but his ability to perform the high press and to get back to support his full back underlined his contribution. The loss of Massey through a severe hamstring injury was a bitter pill for Cook to swallow. He had a potential replacement in Callum McManaman, but he too has had injury issues and not been at his best. In the meantime, Cook has used Windass and Michael Jacobs in wide positions, interchanging between right and left.

Windass is not a natural winger. Too often he has looked like a central striker playing wide. But that position is by no means new to him. Rangers had used him there often. Was Gerrard being upfront about Windass’ decision to leave Rangers? The whole thing does not add up.

What we have seen so far of Cook’s preferred style of play has been refreshing. Long-standing Latics fans would have said something similar about Paul Jewell’s football. PJ pulled a masterstroke by converting a centre forward with a low strike record into a left midfielder who was key not only in promotion to the Premier League, but staying there. Big Lee McCulloch was rarely going to beat a defender in his left wing position, but he worked hard in midfield and was a real threat at the far post with his heading ability. Jewell made a pragmatic decision to sacrifice speed on the left wing, for the greater good, McCulloch’s attacking threat in the air adding another dimension. Moreover, in Leighton Baines and Steve McMillan, he had attacking left backs with the ability to cross the ball with their “stronger”  feet.

Cook stuck his neck out with the signing of Josh Windass. His dilemma revolves around how to use the player most effectively for the combined benefit of the team.

Would Windass be effective in that McCulloch role? He is certainly not a right winger but playing on the left provides him with opportunities to cut in for right foot shots. But that is a big part of Michael Jacobs’ game. Jacobs has been a key player for Cook.

Cook surprised us at Preston by replacing an injured Nick Powell with Dan Burn, reverting to a back three. For a manager so passionate about 4-2-3-1 it was a paradigm shift. If he were to persist with such a system, there would be possibilities for twin strikers. Windass and Grigg would provide an interesting pairing. But one senses that Cook’s motivation was to bring Burn back into the fold than anything else. Given the hard times that Antonee Robinson has recently had it would not be a surprise to see Burn appear at left back.

Cook has lots of thinking to do. Does he bring McManaman in to provide pace and balance on the wing or does he keep faith in Windass? Or is he willing to sacrifice 4-2-3-1 to accommodate him as a striker?

Another, if less likely, scenario is at least one central striker leaving in the January transfer window.

The team selection for the game against high flying West Bromwich Albion next weekend will make interesting reading.

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