Wigan Athletic: an assessment after 9 games in the Championship

Courtesy of bbc.co.uk

It has been a pretty solid start to the season, with 13 points from 9 games. The home record of W0D3L2 strongly contrasts with that of W3D1L0 away from home. Leam Richardson has kept faith in players who were part of last season’s squad, new signings being used sparingly up to this point.

On their return to the Championship in 2018-19 under the Cook/Richardson management team Latics took 16 points from their first 9 games. But their fine early form dissipated as they gathered only 10 points from the next 16 games until the end of December. Their record was W2D4L10.

The current team still has a winning mentality and togetherness from winning L1 but that can soon dissipate after a run of losses as happened four years previously. With fixture congestion in October before the World Cup, Leam Richardson will have to rotate more than he is comfortable doing, or their competitive edge of fitness and work rate will count for nothing as they tire. 

My main concern is the style of play and the lack of invention. The long ball will always be part of this manager’s tactics, but it offers an easy way out for defenders under pressure, rather than short passing their way out of trouble. When the opposition play a high press Latics defenders look ill-equipped to cope with it. It so often leads to a loss of possession. There have been recent signs that Latics are trying to play the ball out of defence and midfield rather than simply launching it long. The presence of Graeme Shinnie in midfield is paramount to keeping the ball on the ground. Up to this point the play through midfield from the back has been slow and repetitive, but it is to be hoped that Richardson will persevere. Wigan must resist those hopeful long balls to an isolated centre forward which rarely achieve anything constructive.

The lack of invention is something that must be dealt with, especially in home games where the opposition sits back in defence. Richardson has players in his squad who are capable of unlocking defences, but he must get the balance right in his team selections. Nowhere is the lack of invention so apparent than from throw-ins. So often they result in either giving the ball back to the opposition or sending it backwards sometimes even ending up in the hands of the goalkeeper.

Of the new signings, Nathan Broadhead has the look of a player who can make a mark this season. Richardson might give him a chance on the wing in place of Thelo Aasgard, who is immensely talented and should get a start every few matches but is still making naive mistakes. Using him as an impact sub for another half a season seems prudent with a view to earning his place in the second half of the season. Having said that, Richardson should be rotating them more often in the coming weeks which creates the opportunity to rest Will Keane every 3-4 matches and play Aasgaard centrally. 

Charlie Wyke has been used sparingly: appropriately after coming back from a life-threatening event. We are surely rooting for him, so to speak, but it would be good to see more of Ashley Fletcher and his mobility. Fletcher has a much higher ceiling than Wyke or Magennis if he can find form and fitness and click with Latics. That’s a big if, of course. 

It is not surprising that Latics better away from home because they lack guile in the attacking third. Lang needs to sharpen his finishing which has been wasteful, but also promising, in the last few games. Magennis won’t score much. Keane was unlucky with header in his last outing but has struggled to make a major impact, although he remains Wigan’s most likely goalscorer. Aasgard will score some crackers but Broadhead may be a more reliable source over a season. What’s been missing is set piece goals! There is better defending on set-pieces in this division; but Latics are due one.

Ryan Nyambe has already shown his quality and will push Tendayi Darikwa for his place. Nyambe is physically strong, capable of rock-solid defence and surging runs forward, although he needs to work on his crossing. Darikwa is naturally attacking full back, well suited to a wing back role.

The situation on the other flank of defence appears uncertain. James McClean has lots of experience for Latics and Ireland in the left wing-back position, but there are question marks over his ability to play as a left full back. Both Joe Bennett and Tom Pearce have disappeared off the radar. Bennett has not played since being sent off at Birmingham, which is strange since his suspension was rescinded by the EFL. Pearce’s only league appearance was as s substitute in the first game against Preston.

There are rumours linking Latics to players available as free agents. Danny Rose has been touted as a possible signing. Should this happen McClean will compete with Anthony Scully and Gwion Edwards for the left wing position. McClean and Scully are very different types of player, Scully being an inverted winger who will cut in and shoot. He scored 25 goals in 61 starts and 25 substitute appearances for Lincoln. Edwards too will cut inside on his right foot, but his strike record is not as impressive as that of Scully.

Another free agent who might be interesting Richardson is Dale Stephens. The midfielder now 33, born in Bolton, was released by Burnley. With the fitness of Jordan Cousins remaining uncertain and the announcement of Scott Smith being released on loan to Torquay, a new arrival may be imminent.

On paper there is an easier run of fixtures coming up. We can only hope that Richardson rotates prudently enough to sustain that positive momentum and winning mentality!

Luton Town 1 Wigan Athletic 2: a triumph for plan B

When Paul Cook arrived at Wigan in summer 2017, we were told by Portsmouth fans that he was a successful manager but one who rigidly stuck with his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, struggled against teams that “park the bus” on home turf, that he was a good motivator and it was rare for Pompey to lose consecutive games, that he did not have a Plan B.

So much of what we were told about Cook rang true during his time at Latics. However, we did witness a Plan B. It involved pumping long balls towards the centre forward’s head.

Following the arrival of the 6ft 5in tall Kieffer Moore in August 2019 that same Plan B became the main style of play. Moore looked a lonely and forlorn figure up front, spending his energy chasing hopeful punts from the defence. It took months for Latics to change that approach, but when they did it worked. Not only did results improve, but Moore was able to show the kinds of skills that big strikers of his ilk rarely possess. Put simply, Latics started to build up moves through the midfield to attack, keeping the ball on the ground, basically using their skills to play football rather than hoofball.

Paul Cook and Leam Richardson appeared to be joined at the hip. They had successful records as a managerial duo. Some would say they were a modern day, lower division, equivalent of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor. When Cook left Wigan and later joined Ipswich many expected Richardson to follow his old partner. Fortunately for Latics he did not, instead keeping the club afloat during the dire era of administration. He kept Wigan in League 1 in 2020-21 then won the title in 2021-22.

During Richardson’s time as Wigan Athletic’s manager we have seen a similar mix of football to what we saw when he worked with his previous partner. Indeed, many of the positive and negative profiles of the prior regime have continued to be evident.

But Richardson has shown himself to be more flexible in his tactics. Cook occasionally veered away from 4-2-3-1 towards playing a line of three central defenders, whilst Richardson has shown he can switch between the two. Another trait of the Cook/Richardson era was to be cautious in the use of substitutes, often leaving it late in the game to make changes. With the advent of being able to use five substitutes this season Richardson has already shown that he can be more proactive than before.

I found the first hour of play at Luton depressing. It was reminiscent of the early days of the Moore era. “Hopeful” long balls launched from the goalkeeper and his defence towards an isolated Josh Magennis. Luton are by no means an attractive footballing side, their main approach being to launch crosses from the flanks to two burly central strikers. However, it was still more constructive than Wigan’s approach and they would have added to their one goal lead if it had not been for the excellence of Ben Amos and resilience in defence.

Richardson’s three substitutions after 62 minutes changed the whole pattern of the game. Graeme Shinnie transformed the midfield by not only his tenacity, but by his ability to pass the ball on the ground to initiate attacks. Nathan Broadhead’s movement and Thelo Aasgaard’s sheer class and calm on the ball shone through. Callum Lang was having a torrid afternoon, but his stubbed shot was deflected into the net by a Luton defender in the 80th minute. Aasgaard’s stunning winner in the 88th minute came from an incisive pass along the ground by Lang, after Ashley Fletcher had drawn defenders away to provide the space.

The LaticsTV commentary remarked on the manager’s genius at making those bold substitutions, but the majority of fans on the social media asked why he had not put out a line-up like that from the start.

The pessimists are already suggesting that Richardson will revert to type for the upcoming Blackburn game, keeping faith in the senior professionals who helped win promotion last season, launching long balls to a big target man. It was Plan A in the Luton game, Plan B being playing constructive football with the ball on the ground.

What will Plan A be against Blackburn?

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com