Five talking points following an important victory over Blackburn

Wigan Athletic 2 Blackburn Rovers 0

“I genuinely felt Blackburn had taken control of the game in the second half, and then we go and score the first goal at a vital time. Great credit to my players, they’ve got this never-say-die attitude at the minute, and they deserve all the credit for digging in. The second goal at the end gives in my opinion a totally false scoreline, it was never a 2-0 comfortable victory for Wigan. But we’re delighted with the result and delighted with the three points.”

Paul Cook’s honesty in his post-match comments continues to put other managers to shame. He was certainly spot-on in what he said.

The first half was even with the teams paying each other maybe too much respect. When the half time whistle blew the game looked like it was heading for a goalless draw. But Blackburn started to dominate in the second half and Latics were forced back into defence. It took an error from Christian Walton in the Blackburn goal for Latics to open the scoring, as he made a mess of Antonee Robinson’s cross, the ball falling to Lee Evans to hammer home. Then in the last minute of added time Joe Williams put through a wonderful long pass for Michael Jacobs to run past Rovers’ diminished defence to score with aplomb.

Let’s look at points arising:

Another clean sheet for Wigan

Latics are now unbeaten in the last eight games. After sharing four goals with both Middlesbrough and Cardiff City in February they have not conceded in their last six matches.

Courtesy of Soccerstats.com

Only Middlesbrough have scored less goals than Wigan, but Latics’ defensive record places them in the top half of the table. It is that defensive solidity that will keep Latics in the Championship for another season, barring any unforeseen calamities.

Game management

When Evans scored in the 80th minute one wondered if Blackburn would pull one back. If it had been earlier on in the season that might well have happened, but a feature of Wigan’s upsurge in form has been in their game management. Rovers certainly pushed men forward in an effort to equalise, but the Wigan defence held firm. Moreover, rather than hoof the ball to safety Williams put that beautifully weighted pass forward for Jacobs to seal the game.

Latics have matured as a team and are making less mistakes collectively, making it harder for other teams to get back into the game.

Cook and substitutions

With Blackburn dominating possession as the second half progressed one wondered if the manager would bring on Joe Gelhardt to provide some much-needed creativity and goal threat. But once more it was not to be, Cook sticking with his senior pros.

However, on this occasion the manager deserves credit. Lee Evans was brought on for Anthony Pilkington after 56 minutes and he went on to score the goal that broke the deadlock. Moreover, Michael Jacobs came on for Kieran Dowell after 73 minutes, going on to score a very well-taken goal in the 94th minute.

A feature of Cook’s strategy in the two games since the season restarted is that he has used less substitutions than the opposition managers. Tony Mowbray used five yesterday whereas Cook used three, with Joe Garner coming on in time-added-on. The upside of Cook’s approach is that it has caused less disruption to the flow of Wigan’s play. The downside is that there is another match coming up on Tuesday and some players, Jamal Lowe and Kieffer Moore in particular, looked very tired in the closing minutes.

The full backs play a key role

Both Nathan Byrne and Antonee Robinson had fine games, solid in defence and supportive in attack.

Watching Robinson yesterday gave us a glimpse of the reasons why he is being coveted by other clubs. He looked a complete player, worthy of a step up into a higher level of football whether it be Serie A or the Premier League.

Nathan Byrne is now 28 years old. Latics signed him from Wolves for an undisclosed fee in August 2016. However, he struggled in the Championship under Gary Caldwell and Warren Joyce dispatched him on loan to League 1 Charlton Athletic in January 2017. However, he came back to Wigan for the 2017-18 League 1 season under Paul Cook making 51 appearances, being voted “Player of the Season”. It looked like Byrne was going to be the first choice right back in the 2018-19 season back in the Championship but Latics signed the impressive Reece James on loan from Chelsea. Later in the season James was moved into the centre of midfield with Byrne returning to his best position at right back.

This season Byrne has established himself as the first choice right back for Latics in the Championship. He has had his ups-and-downs but as the season has progressed, he has looked more composed and established at this level. Byrne’s form has been integral to Wigan’s unbeaten run in the past eight matches.

Looking forward to Stoke

Over the coming weeks all clubs in the Championship are going to find it tough with regular midweek games sandwiched between the weekend fixtures. There are seven matches remaining before the regular season ends on July 22. The managers are going to have to make good use of their squads, given the physical demands on the players.

Stoke City have had a difficult season and are under threat of relegation. Their wage bill far outweighs that of Latics, but they have struggled. The home loss to Middlesbrough yesterday was a tough one for them and they will come to Wigan anxious to pick up points. However, they will come without the services of Nick Powell, who was sent off in the 89th minute.

It remains to be seen how Cook will use his squad over the coming weeks. Once again, he stuck with a winning lineup yesterday and he is likely to do the same on Tuesday, barring injuries. He is not a fan of the kind of squad rotation that some managers employ. However, he must be wary of burnout from his key players.

The Stoke encounter could prove tougher than it looks on paper. Much will depend on the energy levels of Wigan’s key players.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

Five talking points following a home draw with Barnsley

Wigan Athletic 0 Barnsley 0

Following a spineless display in the defeat at QPR last we saw a spirited Wigan Athletic side fight for a point against Barnsley. The energy was there, but sadly the football was not. It was poor entertainment for the crowd of around 10,000.

After the game Paul Cook commented: “It was a fair result. Both teams were nervous, there was a little bit of nervous energy and tension around the stadium and you can understand that. We’ve had our first clean sheet of the season and it’s so important for me as manager that you give these lads the belief and confidence to go and play. We showed at times today the really good sides and today we had a real appetite to not get beat and that pleased me.”

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

Another disappointing result in a six-pointer

Barnsley came into this match a point above Wigan. Like Latics they had won only one game on the opening day of the season. The Tykes will do well to avoid relegation. A win for Latics would have seen them leapfrog over the Tykes out of the relegation zone.

The more optimistic of Latics fans were expecting their team to pick up three points against a Barnsley team that was struggling. However, for others it was not a surprise to see Wigan once again disappoint in a “six-pointer”. During Cook’s reign Latics have so often disappointed when playing against teams close to them in the league table.

Cook keeps faith with Marshall

David Marshall has been in poor form in recent weeks and fans were clamouring for him to be replaced by Jamie Jones. However, without his fine performance Barnsley would surely have walked away with three points. Cook was justified in keeping faith with the goalkeeper.

Mulgrew can add an extra dimension

Charlie Mulgrew was a surprise signing. Yesterday was his first league start for Latics.

Mulgrew may be 33 years old and lacking the pace he had when younger but could prove to be a very useful signing by Cook. Yesterday he looked solid in the centre of defence and we got a glimpse of what he can do from set-pieces. Last season he scored 11 goals for Blackburn.

The Glaswegian can also play in the centre of midfield, which gives Cook another option. He can do a solid job defensively but having someone who can threaten from set-pieces is a bonus.

Are the new players settling in?

In midweek Cook talked about the settling in of new players: “The international break will be big for us because we get to train for two more weeks. That is something we did not get in pre-season. Our squad was put together very late. That is not a criticism. It is just how it is, to the point now where lads are still making their debuts and formations are coming up with players playing together for the first time.”

The starting line-up for the opening game against Cardiff City contained two new signings: David Marshall and Lewis Macleod. Yesterday there were four: Marshall, Charlie Mulgrew, Jamal Lowe and Joe Williams.

There is much debate on the message boards and social media about the quality of Latics’ players. Is this current squad better than the one that struggled in avoiding relegation last season?

The departures of Reece James and Nick Powell over the summer have hit Latics hard. James was way ahead of any other player in terms of talent, consistency and commitment. Powell had an injury-plagued season, but when he was fit and on-form he made a big difference to the team. Cook was always unlikely to get a like-for-like replacement for Powell, given the high price such a player would cost. He has experimented with other players in that role, but Powell’s creativity has been sorely missed. But the player continues to be plagued by injury and has only played one game for Stoke City in their opening game against QPR.

The results so far this season have been disappointing. It is last season’s players who have been largely involved. Will those new players make the difference over the coming week and help pull Latics out of the relegation zone?

Getting the best out of the more skilful players

The manager reverted to his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation yesterday after experimenting with a backline of three central defenders. The creative trio behind the central striker consisted of Gavin Massey, Jamal Lowe and Michael Jacobs.

On paper Cook had chosen a well-balanced line-up with Sam Morsy and Joe Williams protecting the back four and genuine pace and creativity further forward. However, the reality was something different. In a game where there was more “fightball” than football there was little chance for the creative trio to shine.

The manager would have been pleased with the commitment of his players yesterday. Following that insipid display at QPR he got the team to put in lots of sweat and toil this time around. But football was the loser in this game, and it was not the scenario for the creative trio to show their skills.

A chance for Gelhardt

It was a pleasant surprise to see the 17-year-old Joe Gelhardt come off the bench after 63 minutes. He and Jensen Weir were called up for the England U18 squad this week.

Cook deserves credit for giving youth a chance in a  fiercely competitive match. But what a pity that Gelhardt was played on the right wing, rather than in the number 10 position behind the central striker.

 

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

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

 

 

 

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