Five talking points arising from the Sheffield Wednesday game

Wigan Athletic 3 Sheffield Wednesday 2

Wigan Athletic rarely start the season with a victory, but this one was an exception. Not only did Latics pick up the three points, but they did it in style.

There were concerns about the back four, with three debutants starting alongside Chey Dunkley. Other than that Paul Cook had kept faith in the players who had performed with success last season, with the exception of Darron Gibson who was preferred to Max Power.

Entertainment returns to the DW Stadium

After last season when so many teams tried to “park the bus” at the DW this was refreshing. Wednesday had come to play an attacking game and Wigan more than matched them.

Latics had been 3-1 up when the Argentinian, Fernando Forestieri, finished off a slick move in the 67th minute. But rather than close the game down by packing their defence Latics continued to attack. There were some nervy moments for the Wigan defence with the 6 ft 3 in Wednesday substitute Lucas Joao causing problems after he joined the combative 6 ft 5 in Kosovan battering-ram Atdhe Nuhui up front. But at the other end Latics’ enterprising football caused constant problems for the Sheffield defence.

As the clock counted down one wondered whether we would see Cook’s team hold the ball in the corners, time-waste and keep possession in the manner that is so prevalent in the modern game. But to the manager’s great credit they did not do that, but continued to hone in on the Wednesday goal at every opportunity.

How many managers are there in the modern game who would do that?

Gibson silences his critics

Darron Gibson has had a frustrating career after starting at a young age for Manchester United. Niggling injuries and off the field issues have led to him not being able to realize his full potential. He had his critics among Latics fans even before he signed a short term contract with the club. But yesterday he surely silenced his critics.

The 30 year old played a key role in holding midfield, his vision and the precision of his passing adding an extra dimension to Latics’ play.

Jacobs and Massey excel

Michael Jacobs scored two opportunist goals, hit the woodwork with a cracking shot and played a key role in the third goal. Moreover he worked hard on the defensive side of his game, tireless in his harrying of the opposition.

There have been questions about the player’s ability to truly succeed in the second tier.  He was not an automatic choice at Derby or Wolves.  Although he was one of the first names on the team sheet under Gary Caldwell and Warren Joyce he struggled to dominate Championship defences in the 2016-17 season. But so often under Joyce he was chained to defensive duties at the expense of his attacking forte.

Yesterday he played at probably his highest level since he has been at Wigan. His intelligent movement and ability to find space made him a constant threat to the visiting defence. When he came on after the interval he received a great ovation from the crowd in the east stand following a sparkling first half. He looked like a player on a mission to show us that he can be a force in the Championship division. He went a long way towards proving that yesterday.

Gavin Massey too has had his doubters, but yesterday he looked a class act, showing blistering pace and a fine touch on the ball. Perhaps the second tier will be more to his liking, away from the up and tumble of League 1?

Two Dunkleys in defence?

The signing of Cedric Kipre from Motherwell was a surprise to most of us who had never heard of him before. On first sight some wag in the crowd suggested we have two Chey Dunkleys playing, likening the two players not only in their physique, but in their rugged defending. Another likened him to Arouna Kone who sported a similar hair style.

When Dunkley was signed from Oxford United he had only played one full season in league football. Dunkley proved himself to be a very capable player at League 1 level, although there were questions as to how he would cope in a higher division. He had a fine game yesterday dealing with Nuhui who has been a thorn in the side for previous Latics teams.

Kipre too has only had one season of league football, that being in the SPL.  But he looked a force to be reckoned with yesterday, with not only an imposing physique, but pace to match.

Is Dan Burn leaving?

The signing of Kipre raised concerns among fans that Dan Burn might be leaving. This was backed up today by reports suggesting that Brighton have offered £3m for him.

Once again it may be mere speculation but Latics fans will be hoping there is no truth in it. Burn is a prize asset with a wealth of experience in the Championship, a key player in Cook’s team.

However, Burn is not the only one who could be gone in the coming week, with the club still having not tied down contracts with so many of its top players.

The uplifting start to the season could soon fall flat if Burn or other such pivotal players depart. But we have become accustomed to the wheeler-dealing that happens as the transfer deadline approaches. If one of more of those players does leave we can surely expect more new arrivals.

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Unlocking the Jacobs enigma

Photo courtesy of Wigan Athletic FC.

It is the 11th minute of Saturday’s home encounter against the Milton Keynes Dons. Under pressure Nick Powell launches a long ball from his own half. It looks ambitious, speculative. But Wigan’s number 17 gets his head there to nod it on, accelerating past two defenders. It seems like he has run up a blind alley as he finds himself at the by-line, but he squeezes out a left foot cross that allows Will Grigg the formality of putting the ball away.

Michael Jacobs was involved in another assist in that 5-1 win, sprinting at full throttle from his own half to the edge of opposition penalty box to lay on a superb pass for Grigg to claim his hat trick. In the defeat at Fratton Park five days earlier, we saw a different Michael Jacobs, being peripheral, seemingly lacking in energy. More often than not, when Jacobs has been at his most dynamic, it has been reflected in a good team performance.

Stats suggest that scoring first in a football game is so important. That piece of magic from Michael Jacobs produced the opening goal in a game that Latics went on to win. A study based on the Premier League published by smarkets.com shows that the team scoring the first goal from 2014-2017 won 70% of the matches, losing only 12%.

Jacobs showed his drive and creativity against the Dons, but his ability to get crucial goals has had a major effect on Wigan’s promotion push. Indeed, of the 10 he has scored, no less than 8 were opening goals that led to victory for his team. Three of those victories were by 1-0 margins, one of those being in the 90th minute in a crucial game at Bradford. Jacobs was in the right place at the right time as he coolly dispatched a sublime flick from Will Grigg. His 30-yard screamer was the only goal in the home game against Northampton in September, his superb left footed finish from just outside the box gave a weakened Latics a similar result at the DW against Rochdale in February.

Jacobs was a key player in Gary Caldwell’s League 1 title winning side in 2015-16. He scored 10 league goals in 38 appearances. The sceptics said that he would not be able to perform at the same level in the Championship, where he struggled to with both Derby County and Wolves. His return to the second tier of English football could hardly be called an unqualified success, with just 3 goals under Caldwell and Warren Joyce. However, Jacobs was playing for a struggling side and under Joyce he found himself laden with more defensive duties than previously.

Even at League 1 level Michael Jacobs can be enigmatic. So often he can get himself into great positions but cannot show the composure needed to finish a move. His critics would say that he has trouble staying on his feet, going to ground too easily, that his left foot is poor. But Jacobs remains popular among Latics fans for his willingness to put run himself into the ground for his team, together with his moments of brilliance. Some will say that the player would not be at Wigan if he were able to consistently perform to his maximum potential but would be playing in a higher tier of football. But Jacobs is still only 26 and has time to continue to progress as a footballer.

Given the level of commitment that Jacobs shows on the field of play and the physical demands of his role, it is no surprise that the player cannot “turn it on” game-in, game-out. With a hectic schedule where games come in thick and fast it is difficult for any player of his type to consistently perform at a high level. Moreover, Paul Cook is not a manager who favours squad rotation and Jacobs has almost invariably been the first name on the team sheet for one of the wing positions. He has started in 42 games this season, league and FA Cup.

In October 2017 Jacobs signed a new contract that will keep him at Wigan until the summer of 2020. At the time Paul Cook remarked that:

Michael is such a talented footballer who is really thriving off the way we are playing at the moment. I know he is a really popular player amongst the fans, not just for his ability but being such a great lad as well and I am sure this is news that goes down well with everyone associated with the club.”

Jacobs has been a key player for Latics over the course of the season. Cook will be hoping he will be at his scintillating best for the seven matches that remain. The acid test for Jacobs will be a return to the Championship, providing Wigan get promoted. With the backing of Cook and his coaching staff, could the player gain that extra little bit of composure that would make him a force to be reckoned with in the second tier?

 

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Points more important than entertainment – Walsall 0 Wigan Athletic 3

 

“The game was a bit bitty and the pitches are what they are at this stage of the season so it is difficult to play a certain type of game. We have been adapting a little bit more with Vaughany up top and going a bit longer, quicker, in our pursuit of trying to get points on the board.”

Paul Cook once again summed it up well. It was the dullest of games with two teams playing the long ball, on a surface that was cutting up quickly. If football were purely a form of entertainment some 4,000 or so spectators would have been within their rights to claim a refund for their admission last night.

But for Wigan Athletic supporters at this stage of the season, winning was more important than entertainment. The win puts Latics within a point of Shrewsbury and two of Blackburn, with two games in hand.

To be fair there were a few memorable moments, before the game came to resemble a training match for Latics. Nick Powell looked by far and away the most cultured player on the pitch, even before his sublime pass with the outside of his right foot was excellently converted by Michael Jacobs after 31 minutes. It was reminiscent of the memorable pass Powell made at Plymouth, but this time from the left, rather than the right.

To all intents and purposes the game was all over within the next ten minutes. Jay Fulton justified his first league start with a beautifully struck shot from the edge of the box following a goalmouth melee from Max Power’s free kick. Chey Dunkley added a third from close range after the home goalkeeper had come out to intercept a corner kick but fluffed it.

Modern football has become more about winning more than anything else. Whereas in a bygone era a team that was three goals up by half time would go out to try to add to its tally, the modern team has its eye on the next match and looks to conserve its energy.

Following on the Southampton game on Sunday we had wondered if Cook’s team would have the stomach to fight a team close to the relegation zone on a difficult pitch. But Wigan came in with a determination to get a good result, albeit sacrificing the quality of their football to get it. Strangely enough Latics had not played well in the first half, despite going into the half time break with a three-goal cushion.

The second half seemed more like a training game for Wigan, sadly lacking in entertainment. The mystery was why Cook chose not to bring on his substitutes earlier. He switched James Vaughan for Will Grigg after 70 minutes but left it until 81 minutes to introduce Gary Roberts for Fulton. He brought on Devante Cole after 89 minutes, begging the question why it had not happened when Vaughan went off.

Paul Cook has shown us before that he can be a pragmatist. Although he clearly prefers his team to play attractive, expansive football he is realistic enough to know how hard it can be on a pitch like that at the Bescot Stadium. The long-ball approach led to an important win.

Despite their new manager, Walsall could not produce the goods. They lacked not only technique, but also aggression. It was  the easiest game of the season to referee a Wigan league encounter. Nick Powell was able to stroll through the game largely unscathed, not something to which he has been accustomed over these months. The foul count read 12 fouls by Walsall, 8 by Wigan. There was just one yellow card, that being received by Max Power.

It is unlikely that Bury will respond like Walsall when Latics visit Gigg Lane on Saturday. Although the Shakers are in bottom place, with a relegation practically a certainty, we can certainly expect some fireworks from them. Some will say that it is better to face a mid-table team with little to play for at this time of the season, rather than a team in the relegation dog-fight, even if Bury look dead and buried.

Cook’s team will surely be prepared for a scrap on Saturday. They would have expected it last night, but hardly got it.

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A rapturous ending – Bradford City 0 Wigan Athletic 1

Photo courtesy of the Telegraph and Argus.

 

The rapturous scenes of celebration witnessed last night at Valley Parade will stick in the collective Latics memory for years to come. It was certainly a good goal, Michael Jacobs slotting home from Will Grigg’s sublimely weighted pass. But it was more than that. It was a reaffirmation that Wigan Athletic are serious contenders for automatic promotion from League 1.

It had been a scrappy game against a Bantams team that was barely recognisable from the one that played such good football in winning at the DW Stadium in November. Stuart McCall was sacked in early February after six consecutive defeats. With him went the stylish football we had seen, to be replaced by a long ball approach under Simon Grayson. Dan Burn and Chey Dunkley gobbled up those high balls and, as a result, Bradford City posed a minimal threat on the Wigan goal. They have now gone nine games without a win.

On paper an away win would have appeared a good bet to make, but despite Wigan’s dominance and coming close to scoring several times, it looked like the game was to remain goalless. But this Latics team is certainly resilient and they kept plugging away until that moment of magic in the 91st minute.

The type of football we saw from Latics last night was nowhere near that silkier brand we had seen so often in the latter months of 2017. This was based on sheer effort, with lots of long balls and crosses flung into the penalty box seemingly willy-nilly. But, nevertheless there was a rekindling of the kind of tackling and movement that had been so prominent in Wigan’s play in brighter times. Players who had looked jaded and sluggish against Scunthorpe on Saturday had somehow been beamed back to their previously high-energy states.

Ever since the arrival of Owen Coyle, Latics had just never looked as fit as many of the teams they had played. But Paul Cook and his staff have transformed fitness levels in such a way that one wonders why previous regimes had not been able to do so. For it to be successful Cook’s style of play needs players with energy and enthusiasm in abundance. If either is lacking it can flounder as we have seen in recent weeks.

After the game Cook had talked about “going back to basics” and that is what we saw last night. The tackling was keen, the movement was there. What was in short supply was poise, until that memorable moment in time added-on. But that will surely return if those energy levels can be maintained.

Beating a team that had already lost 8 home games and in such awful run form might seem unremarkable, but it could prove to be the psychological turning point in Wigan’s season.

Those rapturous celebrations showed us just how important that win was to the Wigan players. Blackburn and Shrewsbury will surely have taken note that Latics are back on track and are once more serious contenders for those automatic promotion slots.

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An Amigo View – Northampton Town 0 Wigan Athletic 1 – five talking points

It was not the most inspiring display of the season, but a fifth minute goal from Nick Powell, combined with resolute defence, was enough to collect three points at Sixfields. Paul Cook had once again resisted rotating his squad, making just one change to his starting lineup, despite it being Latics’ fourth game in eight days. Reece James had returned to the left back position, where he once again performed well. It is a mystery why the 24-year-old has still not been signed on an expended contract.

After a pretty bright first half, Latics did what is colloquially known as” a professional job” in the second, restricting the home team. It looked like their tired legs were just not up to keeping up the degree of intensity of the first 45 minutes.

Despite their humble league position, the Cobblers proved to be worthy opponents. They had some bright spells in the first half, then came out in the second determined to get back into the game. That they did not is a reflection on both Wigan’s capable defending and a lack of conviction in their finishing.

Let’s look at some talking points:

Another clean sheet

Wigan Athletic have conceded just 12 goals in 25 league matches, with 16 clean sheets. Yesterday saw their sixth consecutive game shutting out the opposition from scoring.

Those last six matches coincide with the return of Christian Walton between the posts, following injury. Yesterday he was excellent, not only in his confident handling but in his role as “sweeper” behind the defence, racing out of his box to clear danger from through balls.

Dunkley excels

Dan Burn is usually the one who wins the plaudits for his defensive work, but Chey Dunkley too has proved himself to be an excellent acquisition. Like Burn, he was signed as a free agent, having run his contract down at Oxford.

Dunkley was Man of the Match for me yesterday. He was as powerful as always in the air, resolute in the tackle, showing excellent positional sense. Although a physical type of player he has conceded only 9 fouls in 22 league starts, a commendable statistic for a big central defender. His sending off against Portsmouth in August distorts an otherwise excellent disciplinary record, with just one yellow card to his name this season.

The need for another winger

The rumours of Latics trying to sign winger Jamie Walker from Hearts are no surprise. Walker is on the final year of his contract and Wigan could get a bargain price on the player.

Ryan Colclough was once again conspicuously absent from the team sheet yesterday and when Gavin Massey went off after 70 minutes it was central midfielder, Max Power, who came on to replace him.

Massey had started with some promise but faded out as the game progressed. But it was a surprise that Michael Jacobs was not taken off. There had been media coverage of the player’s return to his home town club, but it turned out to be another indifferent performance from Jacobs.

It really needed wingers with fresh legs out there yesterday, but both Massey and Jacobs looked jaded. Massey is a hard-working team player who relies on rapid acceleration to get past defenders. That is what happened in the 5th minute, when he latched on to Sam Morsy’s excellent crossfield pass, before putting in a measured cross for Powell’s opportunist goal.

Jacobs is a different type of player, a right footed left winger encouraged to cut inside to shoot. He has already scored 7 goals in the league this season in addition to being a major creative force in the team when on-song. However, the player’s all-action style means he burns up so much energy. Jacobs has looked far from energised in recent games, which is no negative reflection on him, but on the lack of alternatives available to Cook.

In the meantime, we will await news from the club on Colclough and Walker.

The importance of Powell

Nick Powell’s languid style sometimes gives people the impression he is not giving his all for the team. Moreover, there are fans who berate him, suggesting he thinks he is too good to play at Wigan. Others will say the team has played better as a unit when he has not been available. However, Powell’s performances speak for themselves. He not only orchestrates the midfield, but is the leading goalscorer with 11 from 22 starts. Moreover, his manager has emphasised that Powell does have the right attitude, despite his critics.

Rumours of an impending departure to Aston Villa are worrisome. Powell is an essential cog in a very effective team unit, his creativity catalysing Wigan’s best football. Put simply, although he has to play within himself due to hamstring problems, he is a class above any other player at the club.

A time of uncertainty

The projected takeover of the club by the K8 consortium was due to happen before Christmas, if one can believe media reports. Recent theories suggest it has not happened yet because no agreement has been made regarding the continuation of David Sharpe, and possibly Jonathan Jackson, at the club.

In the meantime, Paul Cook and his players will continue to focus upon getting Latics back in the Championship division. Having such a degree of uncertainty revolving around the ownership of the club is hardly conducive to Cook’s efforts.

The transfer window

The rumours regarding Jamie Walker fit in with what we have come to expect over recent years at Wigan. Latics have made a number of important signings of players whose contracts have been running down.

Neither is it a surprise to hear that Jack Byrne might be going to the Edinburgh club. The talented young Irishman seemed to be doing well at Oldham, but their manager, Riche Wellens, unleashed a stinging attack on the player, saying:

“I’ve given Jack Byrne a free role for a number of games but I’ve been disappointed with Jack. He looks good on the ball but his end product is no assists. He got two goals against Northampton and a goal at Crewe, but that’s a long time since he’s scored a goal. For the position and the amount of freedom I give him in a game, I would expect more. That deal is down to whether we want to do it or not, so we’ll make a decision. Jack is speaking to a couple of other clubs anyway, which is his right to do.”

Byrne is certainly a talented player, but Cook appears reluctant to bring him back, even with the possible departure of Nick Powell. There have been rumours about the young Irishman being difficult to manage, but the more likely factor is an unwillingness on Cook’s behalf to give any player a free role.

An exchange plus cash deal might be in the pipeline.

However, the shadow of a possibly imminent takeover of the club looms above the transfer window. Some cynics even go so far as suggesting Sharpe will sell off prized assets to make a quick buck for the Whelan family prior to a takeover. But the more positive among us will say that the pursuit of Walker is a sign that Sharpe continues to run the club in his familiar style.

The sale of Yanic Wildschut in the last January window severely weakened the Latics’ attack. We can only hope that something similar does not happen this time around.

 

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