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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The stats behind Latics’ rise to the top

The table tells no lies. The stats show us that Wigan Athletic not only top League 1, but they have not only scored more goals than the other teams in the division, but they have conceded only 12 in 21 games, a ratio unequalled in the four tiers of English football.

Paul Cook’s strategy as a manager has differed from those of his recent predecessors. Uwe Rosler did a fine job in the 2013-14 season, getting Latics to the Championship playoffs and an FA Cup semi-final. He did it with a rotation policy. It was not universally popular with the fans but his results that season were outstanding. Cook certainly does not adhere to a philosophy of rotation for rotation’s sake, largely preferring to stick with a nucleus of players who play week in, week out in the League 1 competition. He has saved his major rotations for cup games.

The stats show that seven players have made a minimum of 18 starts in the 21 games so far. Nathan Byrne has been ever-present, with Dan Burn and Michael Jacobs missing just one game each. Chey Dunkley missed three games, through suspension. Sam Morsy missed one through suspension and another due to international duty. Nick Powell has already started in 18 games, which is remarkable considering that he had not started a league match for two seasons until rejoining Wigan last season and making just 10 starts. Gavin Massey has also started in 18 matches.

Goalkeeping duties have been shared between Jamie Jones (15 starts) and Christian Walton (6). The left back position too has been shared between Reece James (13 starts) and Callum Elder (8). The most equitable sharing has been for the centre forward position with Will Grigg making 11 starts and Ivan Toney 10. Lee Evans has made 16 appearances in central midfield.

Goalscoring

In Cook’s 4-2-3-1 system the advanced midfield three are expected to play a leading part in not just the creation of chances, but in scoring goals. Nick Powell is Latics’ leading scorer with 9 goals, followed by Michael Jacobs with 8. Gavin Massey has scored 3, as has Ryan Colclough.

Goalscoring has not been easy for the centre forwards, Grigg and Toney notching 4 each. The centre backs have helped out with Chey Dunkley scoring 3 goals and Alex Bruce and Dan Burn 2 each. Of the central midfielders Morsy has scored 2, with Evans, David Perkins and Max Power 1 each.

Assists

Lee Evans’ excellent delivery has him leading the assists with 6. Cook pushes his full backs well forward, expecting them to shower the opposition penalty box with crosses. Nathan Byrne has 3 assists and Reece James 2. Gary Roberts has not featured as much for Latics as he did for his previous clubs, making just 2 starts and 9 substitute appearances, but retains an eye for the killer pass, making 3 assists to date. Jacobs, Massey, Perkins and Toney have 2.

Foul counts

Given his combative approach it is no surprised that Sam Morsy has conceded the most, with a total of 38. However, he has also had 34 committed against him. In contrast Lee Evans has committed 18 fouls, receiving 33.

Given his key role in orchestrating play one would expect Nick Powell to receive a lot of fouls and he leads the field with 38. But Powell is not afraid to “get stuck in” and has committed 23. Michael Jacobs is also a main creative source and he has received 35 fouls, committing 22.

The foul counts for the two mainstay centre backs make interesting reading. Chey Dunkley has committed only 8 fouls in 18 starts (albeit one foul resulting in a red card), receiving 6. But Dan Burn has committed 23 fouls and suffered 16 in his 20 starts.

Card Counts

Latics have received 4 red cards – one each for Colclough, Dunkley, Elder and Evans.

Sam Morsy has accumulated 7 yellow cards, Dan Burn 5, with Nathan Byrne, Nick Powell and Ivan Toney on 4.

Stats courtesy of espnfc.com

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An Amigo View – AFC Wimbledon 0 Wigan Athletic 4 – five talking points

 

In summer Erik Samuelson, Chief Executive of AFC Wimbledon, wrote to fans asking them to donate money to boost the wage bill and help keep their club in League 1. Around the same time Wigan Athletic were courting Chinese investors interested in taking over the club. With an injection of serious cash maybe Latics could even get back to the Premier League.

The match highlighted the difference between the wage bills of the two sides. The Dons, a club owned by supporters, rose six tiers in the English football pyramid to reach League 1 last season. To finish in mid-table was an accomplishment, given their resources. But yesterday’s defeat saw them plummet to 23rd place, with Wigan Athletic continuing to head the table. Understandably there was a big gulf between the standard of football the teams played, the home team’s long ball approach so often finding the heads of Wigan’s tall central defenders.

The first half saw Latics play their usual brand of football, which could be termed “stylish” for League 1. They created chances, but could not put them away, as the home team played with spirit, employing their uncomplicated brand of football. Moreover, on a tight pitch, with the crowd so close to the play, it was by no means easy for the away side.

The beginning of the second half saw an increase in tempo, with three Wimbledon players and Nick Powell being booked within the first ten minutes. It was becoming very competitive, but Latics were to go ahead in the 57th minute through Michael Jacobs. The home team continued to play with spirit but were rocked on 69 minutes when Harry Forrester was sent off after receiving his second yellow card. Latics went on to dominate with Nick Powell and Max Power scoring with blistering drives and Ivan Toney getting another in the closing minutes.

In the end, the 4-0 scoreline flattered Wigan, but they were the better team throughout. Any chance that Wimbledon had of winning the game had disappeared with Forrester’s dismissal.

Let’s take a look at some talking points:

Max’s goal

 

Max Power has never been a prolific scorer. Prior to joining Latics he scored 12 goals in 99 starts and 10 substitute appearances in league football for Tranmere. But in the 2015-16 season he scored 6 for Gary Caldwell’s League 1 title winning side, in addition to coming close to being voted “Player of the Season”. Until yesterday his last goal had been scored at Swindon in March 2016. After a wait of 72 games it was no wonder he celebrated his goal. He has now scored 7 goals in 91 league starts and 10 substitute appearances for Latics.

Power has played in a variety of positions over the past three seasons, but largely as a central midfielder. This season he has not been able to command a regular place in that position due to the form of Lee Evans and Sam Morsy. Evans has a career record of 11 league goals in 109 appearances and 26 appearances off the bench. Morsy has scored 15 goals in the league from 200 starts and 34 substitute appearances.

Massey closer to good form

Although only Gavin Massey is only 25 years old he has a career record of 198 starts in the lower two tiers of the EFL. Last season he made 36 league appearances for Leyton Orient, scoring 8 goals for a club which was to suffer relegation from the EFL. Massey is by no means a dynamic winger, but has genuine pace and a real work ethic on the pitch. Earlier in the season he was an essential cog in Paul Cook’s system of play. Over recent weeks his form had waned, and he lost his place to Ryan Colclough. With Colclough unavailable yesterday, Massey came back into the starting lineup, coming close to a goal in the early stages and setting up the first one for Michael Jacobs.

Massey and Colclough have different attributes. Colclough has a superior career record as a goalscorer, but has lacked consistency and has never commanded a regular place at Wigan since Caldwell signed him from Crewe in January 2016. He remains a work in progress, but he is still only 22.

There is a tendency among a minority of Latics supporters to jeer their own players. Gavin Massey does not deserve such treatment. He is a committed professional, a team player and has been an integral part of Wigan’s fine start to the season. Moreover, with more experience in a team that is high flying at the top of the division, he can continue to develop his game.

In Massey and Colclough, Cook has good options for the right wing position. It would not be a surprise if he were to seek someone in the transfer window to challenge Michael Jacobs for his place on the other wing.

The outstanding Burn

Yesterday’s game was meat and drink for Dan Burn and he must have loved it. I lost count of the number of long balls that he headed away. Given the tendency of players in League 1 to launch long balls a player with Burn’s aerial ability is of paramount importance to Wigan’s promotion push. But Burn has been much more than just a heading machine. His positional play and tackling has been excellent. Burn keeps it simple: when under pressure he clears his lines, with no ceremony.

When Burn first arrived at the club he struggled to cope with Caldwell’s insistence of playing out from the back. Moreover, his more uncomfortable moments this season have been when he has been challenged by smaller, speedy forwards. But Burn showed last year that he is good enough to be a successful central defender in the Championship division, but could he eventually make the transition to the Premier League?

For the moment, Dan Burn is probably the key player in Cook’s lineup. Is there another central defender in the division who can match him?

The chasing pack

There are those who argue that League 1 is weaker this season than it was a couple of seasons ago when Latics were there. Such an argument is purely academic and is hard to substantiate. What we can see at this stage is that, despite their outstanding record in the season so far, Latics are being pursued by a pack of teams. A comparison with the table around this time of year two years ago shows that the pack of this season is overperforming:

However, in 2015-16 three of the top six were to fall out of contention for promotion by time the playoffs started in May 2016.

Will the same happen this season?

AFC Wimbledon’s future

Although the football played by clubs bearing the name of Wimbledon has not always been aesthetically pleasing, one can only admire the huge achievements of the current club. Formed in 2002 their ascent to League 1 has been stunning, particularly given their lack of financial clout. Their projected move to Plough Lane, near the home of their previous encarnation, is something special. In the era of “Moneyball Football” it is refreshing to see a club that is community run show such a sense of ambition. One can only wish them well in their efforts.

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An Amigo View – Wigan Athletic 3 Doncaster Rovers 0 – five talking points

Last night we saw a Wigan Athletic team keen to put Saturday’s reverse against Bradford behind them. They went at Doncaster from the get-go and were rewarded with a flattering scoreline in their favour. There were several people on the pitch last night seemingly wanting to stand out. Among them were Ryan Colclough and referee Carl Boyeson.

Colclough’s two goals and his rapid departure to the hospital after 60 minutes of the game will be a tale told by Latics fans over future generations. It was such a good story it even made giant American newspapers, USA Today and the Washington Post. From where I was sitting in the Boston Stand it was hard to figure out why the player had left the field of play so early. Indeed some fans were clearly irritated to see him being pulled out of the action when he had just scored his second goal and was up for a hat trick. But it turned out to be a happy ending for both player and club.

Paul Cook had made four changes, bringing in Colclough, Lee Evans, Reece James and Will Grigg.  In the absence of Nick Powell, Max Power started in the number 10 position, but as the match progressed the lines became blurred regarding the positions of players in advanced midfield.

Just before the referee blew his whistle to start the game a spectator sitting close to us offered his view on why Latics had lost to Bradford. His view was that, like other teams Wigan have recently faced, Bradford had figured out the way Latics play and had learned how to deal with it. There may be some credence in that, but I put Saturday’s defeat down to a “soft” goal in the 92nd minute.

Wigan’s plan to compensate for the absence of orchestrator Powell seemed to be working to some degree as they showed urgency and threatened the Doncaster goal. But they looked edgy and gaps were opening up in the home defence that we were not seeing earlier in the season. In the event Latics had Doncaster centre forward john Marquis to thank for missing a sitter with the home defence all at sea. Wigan were to go into the dressing room at half time ahead thanks to a crisp strike from Michael Jacobs which took a deflection on its way home, with another deflection helping Colclough to notch a second.

Perhaps the most noticeable figure on the pitch in that first half was referee Boyeson.  From the start he had drawn our attention through an over-officious approach, allied with some poorly judged decisions. At the beginning of the second half both teams had been lined up for the kickoff for several minutes before the refereeing team made its entrance on the pitch, accompanied by jeers from the crowd. Boyeson continued to annoy the paying spectators for the remainder of the match.

A brave header by Colclough made it three, the win putting Latics within one point of leaders Shrewsbury who lost 1-0 at bottom club Bury.

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

Will Cook’s centre forwards ever score many goals?

Will Grigg looked a forlorn figure last night, his body language hardly suggesting he was going to score. So often he was having to deal with high balls launched in his general direction, with corpulent opposition defenders seemingly being given carte blanche to use their arms to keep   him shackled. Despite Grigg’s frequent appeals the referee continued to allow it to continue. But, opposition fouling withstanding, is Grigg the kind of centre forward to thrive on Cook’s style of play?

Cook employs the flanks to great effect, full backs and wingers being expected to combine and produce crosses into the box. It happened again last night, some crosses being wayward, others posing danger to the opposition goal. But Grigg was mostly a lonely figure trying to latch on to them. Heading is not the player’s strength anyhow.  Grigg feeds on incisive low passes, his movement making him a real threat to opposing defences. He got few of those last night.

Ivan Toney might not so often make the intelligent movements of Grigg, but he can certainly head the ball. But he too has looked out of touch, shackled by rugged central defenders. One of the main criticisms of Toney is that he goes to ground too easily. There is an element of truth there but so often, like Grigg, he has been outwrestled by big centre halves. Not only Boyeson, but League 1 referees in general, permit excessive use of the arms by defenders. Both Toney and Grigg have been on a hiding to nothing, making them look worse players than they are.

Up to this point Grigg and Toney have scored 7 goals between them in 18 league matches. The chance of either reaching the 20 mark by the end of the season seems remote at this stage.

Reece James should be offered a new contract

James came back last night in his first league appearance since late September. He once again showed what a good player he is. James has been kept out of the team by the fine form of Callum Elder, on loan from Leicester City. With the diminutive Nathan Byrne at right back, the 6 ft tall Elder has added height to the defence as well as being an excellent attacking full back at League 1 level. However, of the two James is arguably stronger defensively and his crossing is at least as good as Elder’s, if not better. Cook will count himself fortunate to have such talent at hand for the left back position.

James was recruited from Manchester United by Gary Caldwell in the summer of 2015, on a three year contract. Like Elder he has had his ups and downs with injuries. But assuming that James is now fully recovered from a long term foot injury, Latics would do well to tie him into a new contract.

Can Colclough become a regular starter?

Ryan Colclough had his first league start yesterday under Paul Cook. The 22 year old only made two starts for Latics last season. He made 7 starts in the 2015-16 season after being signed by Gary Caldwell in January 2016.

In fact Colclough has a career record of 58 starts and 49 appearances off the bench for Wigan, MK Dons and Crewe Alexandra.  Will he ever become a regular starter under Cook?

Colclough’s goals came at the time of the arrival of his second child, not an easy time to focus upon claiming a regular place in the team. But he is a talented player, having already scored 5 goals in all competitions, despite limited game time.

Can Cook get the best out of him?

Is there room for Evans, Morsy and Power?

Lee Evans was excellent last night, strong in defence and distribution. He has been a key player in a successful season so far.

Evans was signed on loan from Wolves in summer when it looked like Max Power was leaving. The Welshman’s suspension for a red card at Scunthorpe gave Power the chance to get back into the starting lineup, which he did successfully. With Sam Morsy seemingly being an automatic choice, Cook made the decision to include all three last night.

Should Powell be fit to play on Saturday, Cook will face a difficult decision to make.

Jack Byrne to be back?

Byrne is a gifted footballer, naturally suited to that number 10 role behind the centre forward. The 21 year old was signed by Warren Joyce from Manchester City in January 2017 on a three year contract. However, Byrne received scant favour from the manager, making just two substitute appearances over four months. Rumours suggested that there were issues with both temperament and fitness. Byrne was to receive no favours from Cook either, the new manager sending to train with the youth team before dispatching him off to Oldham Athletic on loan until January.

However, the 21 year old Dubliner has enjoyed a highly successful loan stint at Boundary Park up to this point. He has been an inspiration behind a team that was struggling in the relegation zone, but has now climbed up to 16th place. Byrne has made 17 starts, scoring 5 goals with 3 assists. In terms of fitness, Byrne has completed the full 90-minutes-plus in the majority of games he has played and when he has been substituted it has typically been in the closing minutes.

Cook has already hinted that there will be some additions to the Latics squad in January. Assuming Byrne continues to impress at Oldham a recall looks probable. Byrne is certainly a young talent, potentially capable of not only impressing in League 1, but in higher divisions.

 

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