Five talking points arising from the Peterborough game

 

Result: Peterborough United 3 Wigan Athletic 2

It was a classic game of two halves. Latics played some scintillating football in the first half, when they could and should have wrapped the game up. With even half decent finishing they could have had three or four goals. In the event they went into half time just one goal up, that being from a lucky deflection.

Posh manager, Grant McCann, later commented on what had happened in the first half: “I congratulated the players for being only a goal down. And I wasn’t being sarcastic. We hadn’t played well, but we had created two great chances of our own so I knew we were still in the game as our fitness levels are so good. Staying in touch with a very good side was crucial.”

McCann’s mention of fitness levels was certainly relevant as the home side seemed to have so much more energy in the second half than Wigan. Gone was the away team’s swagger of the first half. For the first time this season we saw signs of panic in Latics’ defence as the protection from midfield dissipated. In the end Peterborough’s win came as no great surprise.

Let’s take a look at some talking points from the game:

Wigan are the team the others want to beat

Peterborough’s lap of victory in front of their supporters at the end of the game showed how important the victory was to them. Wigan Athletic are the bookmakers’ favourites to win League 1 and it makes them a team all the others want to beat. Like Shrewsbury previously, the Posh raised their game, punching above their weight in order to beat Latics.

The good news is that we have not played a team that looks like it has the quality needed to challenge Latics for automatic promotion. But we have not played Blackburn, Bradford City or Scunthorpe yet.

Fixture congestion continues to take its toll

Although Latics had played on Tuesday, Peterborough had a week between fixtures. After struggling to beat Northampton it was going to be a struggle to fire on all cylinders for 90 minutes against the Posh.

The return of Nick Powell helped bring more rhythm into Wigan’s play in the first half. But the opposition know that Powell is going to be substituted around the 60-70 minute mark and the player just could not make the same impression in the 18 minutes he played in the second half.

Whether Peterborough’s rousing second half display was inspired by tactical changes instigated by their manager or heavy legs on the part of Wigan players is open to conjecture. But Paul Cook will be anxious to get home wins tomorrow against Plymouth and on Saturday versus Walsall. He might well look at resting some tired legs for the first of those games at least. The good news is that there is a week’s break after the Walsall game until Latics have a difficult away game at Scunthorpe.

Profligacy in front of goal is a concern

The failure to convert clear-cut chances into goals is losing Latics points. In the first half Gavin Massey, Nick Powell and Ivan Toney failed to convert when in good positions. Michael Jacobs’ approach play, movement and dynamism is a joy to behold and the only blemish on his performance was that he missed three clear chances on goal. The player repeatedly gets into great positions, but so often is found wanting in his final touch. His defected goal gives him four for the season, including that superb winner against Northampton in midweek, but it could have at least doubled that tally with more incisive finishing.

David Perkins is back

The past year has been a difficult one for Perkins, who was “Player of the Season” in 2015-16. He had made 45 league starts. Niggling injuries might have played their part, but he made only 27 league starts last season in the Championship. Perkins is now 35 and falls behind Lee Evans and Sam Morsy in the midfield pecking order, also having to compete with Max Power for a place.

It was his first league appearance of the season at Peterborough. Perkins looked bright in the first half, but like so many others, struggled somewhat in the second.

Cook’s change of shape did not work

Cook brought on Power for Powell after 63 minutes, putting him into a midfield anchor role like that occupied by Shaun MacDonald last season, pushing Evans and Perkins further forward. We have to assume the manager was trying to provide more protection for his defence. Sadly it did not work.

Power is a fine passer of the ball and in his previous season in League 1 he scored 6 goals. He can hold his own in the tackle, but is not a ball-winner in the mould of MacDonald or Sam Morsy. Perhaps he should have been played further forward with Perkins playing the anchor role?

 

An excellent, well-balanced report on the match was provided by Alan Swann of the Peterborough Telegraph. Click here if you would like to read it. It is an example of high quality sports journalism for a local newspaper.

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Five talking points arising from the win against Northampton

 

He has only been at the club for some two weeks but Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink has already stamped his mark upon Northampton Town. Well organised, tight in defence, looking for a breakaway goal they were the spitting image of his Burton Albion side a couple of years ago.

Gary Caldwell’s team lost at home to Burton in November 2015, after they could not find a way through the visitors’ defence and conceded a 74th minute goal through counterattack. But against Northampton, Latics were to win, courtesy of a stunning 55th minute goal from Michael Jacobs and resolute defence, which included a brilliant reaction save from Jamie Jones from Leon Barnett’s effort in the 75th minute.

Latics had not played well, but the three points gained from the 1-0 victory propelled them up to second place in the league table.

Let’s take a look at some points arising from the game.

The orchestrator was sorely missed

Gary Roberts was on a hiding to nothing when making his first Wigan Athletic start in the absence of Nick Powell. When Roberts signed from Portsmouth to join his old teammate, Noel Hunt, there was talk of cronyism on the part of Paul Cook. But although Hunt’s role this season is likely to be largely peripheral, Roberts is likely to feature on a regular basis. Roberts had been criticised at Pompey for being over the hill, no longer having the legs to make an impact on a game. But he proved his doubters wrong in this match, putting in a solid shift for 84 minutes, despite having so little time on the field in recent weeks.

But Powell was sorely missed. He is the orchestrator of Wigan’s best football, his intelligent passing and movement being the catalyst for bringing out the creativity of his teammates.

Thank goodness that Dan Burn stayed

There were rumours over the summer that Burn might be going to a Championship club. But if any one player is crucial to Wigan’s promotion hopes it is he. Burn does not only provide an aerial presence, but his anticipation and timing make him a formidable player in League 1. Cook is not a manager to applaud individual player’s performances, but even he had to comment that the player was “absolutely outstanding” against Northampton.

7,777 turned up for the match

It was the lowest league attendance so far this season, the best having been 9,685 against Portsmouth. Prior to the season starting there had been grumbles about ticket prices, some suggesting that attendances would plummet as a result.

However, after four home games up to this point the average attendance is 8,828. After four home games in the 2015-16 season the average was 8,464.

3 goals conceded in 8 games

Cook’s approach is the most attacking that we have seen since the halcyon days of Paul Jewell. However, a measly 3 goals conceded from 8 games shows that they can certainly defend too.

Sam Morsy is suspended

Morsy is the first player in the four tiers of English football to be suspended this season for an accumulation of five yellow cards. Moreover there have been times when it has looked like the player would receive a second yellow in the same game.

Cook clearly believes that Morsy is being targeted by opposing teams. However, he also concedes that “if you take that competitive edge away from Sammy, he wouldn’t be the same player.”

The result is that the captain will not be available for the difficult trip to Peterborough on Saturday. Max Power is the most likely to take his place.

Five talking points arising from the draw with Portsmouth

The stats don’t always reflect the balance of football games.  On Saturday Wigan Athletic had 18 shots, with 9 on target, while Portsmouth had 5 shots with 2 on target. In this case the stats do actually reflect Wigan’s dominance of the game as they made Pompey look a very ordinary side. The visitors were insipid for most of the proceedings, until Chey Dunkley’s foolishness perked them up. The red card changed the nature of the game and Portsmouth were to get a 76th minute equaliser as Dan Burn left Conor Chaplin unmarked to head the equaliser.

On the day Latics did not capitalise on the wealth of chances on goal that materialised. On another day they could have won by a margin of at least two.

If you finish above Wigan this season, you are probably going to be automatically promoted,’ said Portsmouth manager, Kenny Jackett after the game, as he recognised the quality of Wigan’s current squad. In the meantime we need to hold our breath. Four days remain in the transfer window, during which Latics fans will hope that key players are not sold off.

1. If Michael Jacobs could improve his finishing he could still make it at the highest level. Once again, the admirable Jacobs was full of energy and invention, his electrifying running causing constant headaches for the Pompey defence. Jacobs stands out in League 1, but has never really convinced in his four seasons in the Championship. But the player is still only 25. He gets himself in great positions for scoring or making goals. With a little more self-belief could he possess the poise to make that final touch more effective?

2. A new centre half could be arriving this week. Up until Saturday the Burn-Dunkley partnership had functioned well. But Chey Dunkley’s red card means a three-match ban. Terell Thomas looks a fine young prospect and plays in a style somewhat reminiscent of John Stones, but he lacks EFL experience. Donervon Daniels is fit again, but is not making the first team squad. Reports suggest Latics are interested in the 21-year-old central defender Lloyd Jones from Liverpool. In the meantime we can only keep our fingers crossed that Dan Burn will not be sold off if a new player comes in.

3. Nathan Byrne is becoming an important player in Cook’s team. It has been a surprise to see Byrne establish himself in the problematic right back position. He has made it clear in the past that he did not see himself as a right back and doubts remain about his defensive abilities. But Cook encourages his full backs to attack and Byrne is so well suited to such a role. Moreover he has clearly been working hard on the defensive side of his game.

4. This is the most entertaining side we have had for years. On being appointed Paul Cook had said “I want to attack, pass the ball well, go forwards quickly and excite our own fans.” What a pleasure it is watching a Wigan Athletic side so willing to commit players forward. The transformation from the sterility of last season’s football to what we are seeing now is remarkable, especially given the short amount of time Cook has been in charge.

5. This is a better balanced and stronger squad than Gary Caldwell had a couple of years ago. It was only in the second half of the season that Caldwell’s team really started to gel, but they went on to win the division. Man for man, the current squad appears stronger overall. Yanic Wildschut was crucial to Caldwell’s side, a player who could unbalance the opposition defence. Nick Powell can do likewise, although from a different position. But will he be staying?

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Will Grigg go?

The rumours of departures from Wigan continue to rear their ugly heads. With the summer transfer window due to close on August 31st Wigan Athletic fans will be desperately hoping the club does not shed its best players in the craziness that will abound over the coming week. How many of the likes of Will Grigg, Dan Burn and Nick Powell will still be with us come September?

Paul Cook is currently basking in the luxury of having a strike force that is the envy of other clubs in the League 1. Grigg is now fit after relatively long-term injury to compete with Ivan Toney for the centre forward position. Nick Powell has been playing just behind the central striker up to this point, but is equally adept in that number 9 role.

However, the departure of Powell is seemingly inevitable, given that his salary is reputed to be around £16,000 per week. Put simply it would be hard for a club which needs to reduce its budget from around £18 m to somewhere close to £6 m to hold on to a player on that kind of salary. Moreover, given the player’s past injury record it would appear even more of a risk in keeping him on the books. The romantics among us will continue to hope that David Sharpe will stick his neck out and keep the player at the club, knowing that a fully fit Powell could be pivotal to promotion.

So the likelihood is that Powell will be gone within a week, but what about Grigg? Both he and Michael Jacobs have one year left on their contracts. Will they be offered new contracts or will the club cash in its assets by selling them in the coming week?

Some three weeks ago Cook was quoted as saying “Certainly we know who is in the last year of their contracts, and the big effort is nurturing the squad into the start of the season. Once we start the season, with the squad we want in place, we can start to look at lengths of contracts. And I’m sure once we get into August, September, October, you’ll start to see some movement on that score.

The rumours of Charlton offering in excess of £1m for Grigg are certainly credible, knowing that the player has exceeded the 20 goals per season mark three times previously in League 1. So many Latics fans see Grigg’s continuity at the club as crucial to the promotion push. But if the bid has been made and Latics have rejected it, is it a sign that they intend to keep the player and will not allow him to go to another club from the same division competing for promotion? Or are they expecting a higher fee for the player?

Jacobs too would be an important player in the promotion push. Although his form last season in the Championship was disappointing the player has been electric in the opening games. Jacobs is a quality player at League 1 level and Cook would be loath to see him go.

Cook’s words regarding extended contracts do not give anything away. However, the manager recognises that Latics are a “selling club” and if the right offer comes up a player is likely to be released.

Given his importance to the defence, Latics fans will be hoping that such an offer does not come in for Dan Burn. The loss of Craig Morgan for several months due to a hip injury is a blow to Cook. It appears that Latics are actively looking for another central defender. The immediate assumption is that it would be someone to replace Morgan, but some would argue that Cook has Donervon Daniels fit again and ready to step in and it is a sign that Burn might be leaving.

In the meantime it appears that Jack Byrne has now left the club. Cook has suggested that more departures are on their way, although it is not clear if they would be mainline or fringe players. We can also expect some new ones coming in.

Having a transfer window still open when the season has started can cause serious disruption to football clubs. It is something that might well be rectified a year from now. The immediate danger for Wigan Athletic is of key players leaving the club over the next week, unbalancing a squad that looks strong enough to challenge for automatic promotion.

But at this stage, the underlying reasons for selling players or moving them on are largely economic. The burden lies on the shoulders of David Sharpe and owner Dave Whelan. It is they who will ultimately decide whether players like Grigg, Burn and Powell will be Wigan players come September.

In the meantime, Paul Cook will surely be making contingency plans to cover all possible scenarios.

 

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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.