The wingers need to deliver if Latics are to avoid relegation

Les Campbell front extreme left, Harry Lyon centre, Allan Brown second right, Walter Stanley front extreme right

In the mid 1960’s Allan Brown’s Wigan Athletic team played a really entertaining brand of football. The excellent wingers, Les Campbell and Walter Stanley, would put over a stream of tantalizing crosses for the twin strikers to feed on. No wonder that Latics scored 121 goals in the 1964-65 season, when they won the Cheshire County League. Centre forward Harry Lyon led the scoring with 67 goals in all competitions.

How would a player like Lyon do these days in the era of the inverted winger? Lyon was a superb header of the ball, who could shoot with both feet. Sometimes one seemed to know that a goal was coming as soon as a cross was launched from the wing.

Playing on the widest position on the pitch, wingers must have near perfect ball control and the ability to make plays in tight spaces without playing the ball out of play. The winger spends much of his time running down balls played ahead of him, racing by fullbacks with the ball at his feet and tracking back down the wing to defend.

A good winger will also have a consistent and threatening cross. After passing a fullback, the winger needs a quick and accurate trigger foot to feed the strikers. Many of the great wingers have been great dribblers, but there are effective wingers who are not necessarily world class dribblers but have lightning speed. Others are somehow able to squeeze out crosses in the tightest of spaces without beating their man.

Given  the above it appears logical to play a winger on his ‘natural foot’.  Having the strong foot closest to the sideline provides more control and enables the delivery of dangerous outswinging crosses. Strikers with a physical presence, who are strong in the air and know where to position themselves for crosses are best served by natural wingers.

The role of the winger has changed in recent years, and gone are the days when all the winger had to do was make runs up and down the lines as they try to outmanoeuvre the full-back and cross into the penalty area.

An inverted winger (inside-out winger) shows more diagonal movement than a natural winger. A left-footed player will occupy a position on the right flank and a right-footer will play off the left. The tactic that has become commonplace in football over the past decade or so.

With the centres of defences so heavily policed, players Gareth Bale and Arjen Robben on the right and Eden Hazard and Alexis Sanchez on the left have been so effective. The frequent attack pattern of an inverted winger is cutting inside from the wing, which can be completed by shooting with the strong foot or an accurate through ball played at an angle of ninety degrees. Scrappy, poaching strikers content to drop back and pick up loose balls in the box can thrive playing alongside inverted wingers.

hold back and pick up loose balls in the box can thrive playing alongside inverted wingers.

In Paul Cook’s first season as manager at Wigan wingers played key roles in both attack and defence. With natural wingers Gavin Massey or Ryan Colclough on the right and inverted winger Michael Jacobs on the left Latics had a real cutting edge. Jacobs went on to score 13 goals, Colclough and Massey each notching 5 in that 2017-18 season in League 1.

Colclough left at the summer of 2018 and Jacobs and Massey both had injury problems in the course of the 2018-19 season. But Jacobs went on to score 4 goals in 22 appearances in the Championship, Massey notching 5 from 17.

It has been sad to see the wingers struggle this season. Massey was injured when the season started and found his place occupied by new signing Jamal Lowe. Since his return he has not been able to reach the levels he attained previously. Being played so often on the left wing, where he looks like a fish out of water, has hardly helped.

Jacobs has once again been bugged by injuries and has looked a pale shadow of what we have seen before. His critics will say that he is a League 1 player who is not up to it at Championship level. However, under Gary Caldwell and Warren Joyce in the Championship in 2016-17 he was one of the first names on the team sheet, going on to make 46 appearances.

Lowe has certainly enjoyed the backing of the manager. Despite his indifferent form he has made 33 appearances up to this point. Lowe arrived with some hype, having scored 15 goals for Portsmouth last season. His critics consider him too lightweight in possession and he has not yet made the transition to the second tier.

Anthony Pilkington has proved himself in the Premier League and his quality is there for all to see. But fitness is a major issue for the player. Pilkington was signed after making just one start in the 2017-18 Championship season for Cardiff.  He has made only 13 starts in the Championship since joining Latics in the summer of 2018. Pilkington is rare among modern wingers in that he is genuinely two footed and can look as effective on the left as the right.

Kal Naismith originally joined Latics as a left winger but his versatility has seen him being used as a left back and centre back. It is in the latter position that he has impressed most and was becoming one of the most consistent performers until the Preston game when things did not go well for him, among others. With the inclusion of Leon Balogun at Cardiff and the impending return of Chey Dunkley from suspension it appears that Naismith’s chances of resuming his blossoming partnership in the centre of defence with Cedric Kipre are numbered. Will Cook return him to his original left wing role?

Kieffer Moore’s signing last summer was met with general approval by Latics fans last summer, although there some who questioned whether the manager’s intention was to sign a player who would further enable him to continue with his long ball tactics. Moore has had a torrid time with the lack of service from the wings hardly helping. Moore is the kind of old-fashioned centre forward who would have thrived in the era of natural wingers. But his tally of one headed goal in 23 appearances indicates the quality of crosses he has received. With the wingers frequently moving diagonally it has often been the full backs who have made the crosses into the box.Moreover too much of Moore’s effort has been wasted in chasing long balls some thirty yards from the opposition goal with his back to it.

The wingers should be playing key roles in not only creating chances but scoring too.

Last season wingers scored 13 league goals for Latics, at an average of one every 3.5 games. So far this season wingers have scored 5 league goals in 33 games, an average of one every 6.6 games.

Cook needs wingers who are fully fit, played in their best positions and in-form. Given the indifferent form of so many of them there is a case for giving Bournemouth loan player Alex Dobre an opportunity.

Can Latics stay up under Cook?

Paul Cook’s approval rating must be around an all-time low with Wigan Athletic fans.  Latics are bottom of the Championship and so much of the football we have witnessed over the past twelve months has been comparable with that of the worst days of Warren Joyce and Malky Mackay. At times the manager’s tactics, team selections and substitutions have looked clueless. Cook can count himself fortunate to still be in the job, but Darren Royle and the IEC have stuck with him, much to the frustrations of fans who cannot wait to see him go.

But despite the frustrations of that last-minute substitution yesterday there has been a welcome shift in the style of football in the past four games. Has Cook seen the light on the road to Damascus? Will it continue? We can only surmise what would have happened if the manager had vigorously discouraged his players employing the “hoof” earlier in the season.

Despite their lowly league position Latics have looked a decent team in those past four games. The quality of their football has shown a big improvement and retaining possession more effectively has meant that legs have not become leaden in the closing minutes. Sadly the performances did not produce a win, although neither did they lose. Significantly three of those draws were at the DW so Latics now have consecutive away games at Nottingham and Birmingham coming up. Given their woeful away record there are few Wigan fans who would predict a win for their team in either of those games. But then again, the performance at Blackburn showed that Latics can perform away from home without giving away freebies to the opposition in the closing minutes.

The unlikely partnership of Cedric Kipre and Kal Naismith in the centre of defence has been a revelation. Both have resisted the hoof, showing their capabilities of building up moves from the back. Moreover they have blended together to form a solid defensive partnership. Too often defenders have put the ball out of play at the merest sniff of danger, inviting more pressure from opposition throw-ins. Moreover unnecessary free kicks have been so often been conceded, turning up that pressure even more. Defensive discipline on a par with that of other Championship clubs is required, rather than the scrapping, falsely “safety first” mentality we have seen that is more akin to lower league football.

Chey Dunkley has been a notable performer for Latics since his arrival from Oxford United in the summer of 2017. He was pivotal in the League 1 title winning team and without the five goals he has scored this season his team would be in much more parlous position. But Dunkley remains a work in progress. His distribution leaves much to be desired. Building moves up from the back is not his forte. It is something the coaches can surely help him with.

Latics have conceded three goals from their last four games, with one clean sheet. But more than anything else it has been a lack of cutting edge in attack that has led to draws rather than victories. Cook has bravely stuck to a more mobile, but less physical strike-force. With Josh Windass at centre forward, rather than orthodox target men Joe Garner and Kieffer Moore, there has been much less of aimless long ball.  Long passes have been more measured, looking to capitalize on the pace of the likes of Windass, Jamal Lowe and Gavin Massey to run beyond the defenders.

Windass remains a frustrating player to watch, capable of moments of inspiration, but also those of lack of concentration. At his best his pace and movement is a threat to any defence, but too often he has been caught offside or his final pass has been ill-judged. Although a valid alternative at centre forward he is best employed in the number 10 position behind a target man.

Lowe has struggled to make the transition from League 1, with just one goal in 20 starts and 4 substitute appearances. Although not lacking in effort he has yet to show that he can be a force at Championship level. One wonders if the player would have progressed better through a more gradual introduction to second tier English football, being brought off the bench in earlier games, giving him the time to adjust to the higher level he was being introduced to? Cook continues to play Lowe at number 10, but surely has better options for that position. Windass and Joe Gelhardt are two of those. Cook also has the option of playing a midfield trio of Evans-Morsy-Williams. Replacing Nick Powell was always going to be difficult, but at this stage Lowe does not look the answer.

Having missed the pre-season through injury Massey has looked a shadow of his former self this season. Rather being heavily involved in build-up play along the right as before he has been largely anonymous. Cook has received a lot of criticism from the fans over his loyalty to Massey and Michael Jacobs who were key wide men in the League 1 title-winning team. Despite their lack of form they have made a total of 37 appearances this season. However, Jacobs had his best game for some time yesterday.

Despite the recent improved performances Paul Cook’s position at the club remains precarious. Royle and the owners have an important decision to make with the transfer window opening on Wednesday coming. Are they willing to back the manager in another transfer market with the club in bottom position despite spending  8m over summer?

Many question Cook’s summer spending, with Jamal Lowe and Kieffer Moore not yet having shown that they have adjusted to a higher level of football. However, in Moore’s case they will point to his fine performances for Wales, which show he can perform at a higher level surrounded by players of the quality of Gareth Bale and Daniel James. For Wigan his main function has been in chasing speculative long balls, some 35 yards from the opposition goal, with his back facing towards it. When the big man is fit again Cook will face the dilemma of whether to start him, with the likelihood that his defenders will once again the easy way out by launching those awful long-balls. So many fans will advocate getting the big man into the box to latch on to crosses from the wings.

Cook also signed Antonee Robinson and Joe Williams over the summer. Robinson continues to improve in his defensive role, although he can be woefully lacking in vision and composure when making his final pass in attack. But Robinson is still only 22 and surely has a bright future ahead. Williams has certainly impressed with his dynamic approach and range of tackling and passing skills. Another very good signing at only 23 years of age.

If Cook is to continue one can only hope that he will persist with the recent style of play we have seen. It has been a breath of fresh air after so many hours of tedious, poor football, particularly away from home. It is very much a matter of sticking with the blend we have seen in the past four games. Incorporating players like Dunkley and Moore into the blend will be tricky, for different reasons. What has been missing from the recent blend has been incisive finishing. Playing in-form players in their natural positions is crucial.

Can Latics stay up if Cook continues?

It is by no means impossible.