An Amigo View – Blackpool 1 Wigan Athletic 3 – five talking points

 

There is something special about Blackpool to many Wiganers, especially those of my generation. For me as a kid it was my favourite place to visit and I recall summer fortnights spent there dodging the rain and the wind, relishing those moments when the sun would prevail.

Over two thousand Wiganers travelled to Bloomfield Road yesterday, huddled together under the cover of the Stan Mortensen Stand to shield themselves from the driving wind and rain that prevailed. There was an odd feel: a football ground being attacked by the elements of climate, with the larger East Stand left vacant and an attendance of less than 6,000 for a north-west derby. The disconnect between the Oystons and the fans continues to fester, but despite their sparse support the Seasiders had a home record of W5 D1 L0 going into this match.

The early minutes were to be a nightmare for Latics, the conditions not allowing them to play their typical brand of football, Chey Dunkley’s header over Jamie Jones gifting an 8th minute goal for the hosts. It will not go down in the history books as an own goal, Blackpool winger Vassell getting a touch on the ball before it went in, but the header back was certainly ill-advised in such conditions.

The conditions were so bad that one wondered if the referee would suspend play, with neither side able to pass the ball with any degree of accuracy. Fortunately, the Bloomfield Road pitch has good drainage and did not churn up as many would have done. But gradually Latics started to build up some momentum as they adapted to the conditions. Dunkley partly redeemed himself in stoppage time at the end of the first half lashing the ball home from close range.

The weather was to improve in the second half, not surprisingly Wigan Athletic’s football too. In the improved conditions they were too good for Blackpool, with another goal from Dunkley and a rare one from David Perkins giving them a 3-1 victory.

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

Exceeding the 100 points mark

A couple of years ago, prior to the start of the season, David Sharpe made his remark about smashing League 1 with 100 points. He has not made such comments this time around.

Latics currently have 35 points from 15 games. Were they to be able to maintain their current momentum over the course of the season, the total would be around 107 points. The highest total in recent years was the 103 points gained by Wolves in 2013-14. Gary Caldwell’s Latics won the title with 87 points.

Is this squad good enough to exceed the 100-point mark over the course of the season? On paper certainly, but injuries and potential changes of ownership could well have an important say.

Preparing for rougher weather

Until yesterday Latics had been able to play their football on decent surfaces without extreme weather coming into play. However, as autumn turns to winter the conditions are going to get tougher, sometimes making it difficult to play flowing football.

Latics had their backs against the wall in the first half yesterday, but still showed the grit to compete physically. In reality the weather prevented both teams playing the kind of football they would have liked, although the home team might have wished the deluge had not abated in the second half.

It is a long, hard season, a marathon and not a sprint. Endurance and determination will be the key to holding a promotion position.

Perkins goal causes celebrations

The celebrations at the Wigan end after David Perkins scored in the 82nd minute showed how much he is appreciated by Latics supporters. Perkins was Player of the Season in the League 1 title-winning side of 2015-16. He was inspirational in the centre of midfield with Max Power. But after a disappointing season in the Championship it was by no means certain that he would be offered a new contract at 35 years of age. In the event he signed on for another season.

Perkins’ last goal had been scored for Barnsley in October 2012 against Crystal Palace. Six months earlier he had scored for the Tykes in a 1-1 draw away to Blackpool.

Perks has started in just one league game this season, that being at Peterborough. Yesterday was his third appearance off the bench. Given Cook’s seeming preference for younger players over the senior pros Perkins’ role will largely be that of a squad player. But although his days of being an automatic choice may be behind him he still has so much to offer.

Will Evans get his place back?

Lee Evans’ indiscipline at Scunthorpe resulting in a red card opened the door to a return to contention for Max Power. After an indifferent season in the Championship we have seen the old Max Power in the last three matches.

Up to the point of his red card, Evans had been excellent in his role as both a midfield anchor and providing the link between defence and attack. Cook is indeed fortunate to have players of the quality of Evans, Power and Perkins competing with captain Sam Morsy for a place in central midfield.

We can expect Evans to return for the Checkatrade Trophy game against Middlesbrough on Tuesday, but it will be interesting to see who gets the nod in right central midfield on Saturday against Blackburn.

Player of the Season

We are only around one third of the way through, but if you were to name a Player of the Season who would it be?

My vote up to this point would be for Nathan Byrne, who was outstanding once again at Blackpool yesterday.

Like us on Facebook, or follow us on twitter here.

Advertisements

Five talking points arising from the victory over Southend

Courtesy of bbc.co.uk

Result: Wigan Athletic 3 Southend United 0

It was not the most exciting of games, but a three-goal win over a team that was lying in mid-table is not to be sneezed at. Moreover, the three points gained propelled Latics to the top of the table.

A sending-off in the 59th minute certainly helped Wigan cruise to a win, but in reality they were already in control before that. Southend had just never looked like scoring and it seemed that perhaps Latics had an eye towards Tuesday’s trip to Gillingham. Two goals in the last ten minutes proved to be the icing on the cake as Wigan had stepped back to allow the visitors to come forward and leave spaces at the back.

After the match Wigan coach Anthony Barry commented that: “We never really got into top gear and never found our rhythm. It’s day like this where we have to grind out a win and it’s important. It was a competitive game, and Southend came with a good game-plan. While we were never in danger of losing the game, we were never at our best.”

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

Gary Roberts is making his mark

Since his arrival from Portsmouth, Roberts has found it hard to get a place in the starting line-up.  He had been a regular starter over the past four years with Portsmouth and Chesterfield. Roberts is, first and foremost, a creative player although he has already shown his willingness to put in a shift for the team.

His two assists yesterday showed what the player is capable of. His perfectly timed through ball allowed Nick Powell to run from the halfway line to score the second goal. Then a perfectly weighted low cross from the left gave Ivan Toney an easy task to slot the ball home.

Roberts can play in any position in the advanced midfield three. He is best in the centre, but although he lacks pace to play wide his delivery can be accurate and cause difficulty for opposition defences. Roberts scored 19 goals in 58 league starts and 16 substitute appearances for Portsmouth. We can surely expect some from him over the coming months.

Are expectations too high?

Shrewsbury remain unbeaten after 13 league matches, but Latics have overtaken them in the best start the club has had since joining the Football League in 1978. Although not looking on top form yesterday they were streets ahead of Southend. One sensed that if they had reached full throttle they would have put half a dozen in the Shrimpers’ net. But are expectations already too high?

In early April last season Doncaster Rovers had already achieved promotion from League 2 and were 6 points ahead of second placed Plymouth and 10 points ahead of third placed Portsmouth, with just 5 games remaining. Doncaster went on to draw their next match, then lose their final four. They finally finished third.

Anthony Barry remarked after yesterday’s game that “It’s nice to be top of the league but we just need to keep on going. We need to carry on with our habits and discipline in training every day and our standards must stay the same too.”

It is that kind of level-headedness that will serve Latics in their quest for promotion. The dangers of complacency and over-confidence will need to be addressed as the season progresses.

Cook is building for the future

The average age of Wigan’s starting line-up yesterday was 25 years.  The eldest is Jamie Jones, at 28. The youngest are Callum Elder, 22, and Nick Powell, 23.

The squad does have more senior players. David Perkins is 35, Noel Hunt is 34, Alex Bruce and Gary Roberts are 33 and Craig Morgan is 32. Morgan has a two-year contract, the others being signed for a year.

The starting line-ups so far, this season, have been dominated by younger players. Should Latics get promoted they will have a backbone of players in their mid-twenties. It remains to be seen whether Reece James (23) will be offered a new contract or whether Cook will seek to sign loan players, Elder and Lee Evans (23), on permanent contracts. At this stage Christian Walton (21) looks certain to return to Brighton at the end of the season.

Michael Jacobs must surely be set to sign a new contract

Jacobs is, almost certainly, playing the best football of his career this season. He made a welcome return to action yesterday after absence through injury. His pace and creative talent make him a key element in Cook’s team. He is surely thriving under the new management; his confidence being lifted after a frustrating season in the Championship.

Given the importance of the player to the team it would be no surprise to hear that Jacobs has signed a contract extension over the next few days.

Another deflected goal, another sending off

There was an element of good fortune in Jacobs’ first half strike, the ball hitting a defender to deceive the goalkeeper. But given the willingness of players in Cook’s team to shoot it is likely that we will see even more deflected goals over the coming months. Last season confidence was low and players were reluctant to try their luck from outside the box, as Jacobs did yesterday. Not so now.

Much has been said about the four red cards picked up by Latics players so far. The first might have been unlucky, but the other three should have been avoided. On the other side of the coin the opposition have also received a total of four red cards, all for aggressive play rather than retaliation.

Given the attacking style of play that is Cook’s expectation, we are likely to see many more opposition red cards and penalties this season than we saw under the dour regime of Warren Joyce last year.

Nathan Byrne – man of the match

Byrne was outstanding yesterday, the best man on the pitch. He has come so far since being jettisoned off to Charlton in January by the hapless Joyce.

Interestingly the Wigan Athletic club web site lists Byrne as a midfield player. But he has certainly shown us that he can cope admirably with the physical demands of constantly pacing up and down the wings as Cook pushes his full backs forward.

Byrne is certainly not an archetypal full back, but he fits the role that the manager requires. He has played an important role in Latics’ fine start to the season.

 

Like us on Facebook, or follow us on twitter here.

Five talking points arising from the home win against Plymouth

 

Result: Wigan Athletic 1 Plymouth Argyle 0

Wigan Athletic did not play badly, but found a massed Plymouth defence difficult to penetrate. Despite having 23 attempts on goal it took a penalty to break the deadlock and give Latics a single goal victory.

The three points gained from the match enabled Wigan to move up to second place, still four points behind a Shrewsbury side which continues to play out of its skin. The Shrews record of W8 D2 L0 is highly impressive. But do they have the quality in the squad to keep it going?

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

Was Nick Powell kept on too long?

Nick Powell had not completed 90 minutes in a competitive match for so long. He did yesterday and it could be seen as an indicator that he is on the way to overcoming those fitness issues that have beset his career. But the player was clearly in discomfort as he was helped off the field in the 90th minute to be substituted by Noel Hunt. Up to that point Paul Cook had been judicious in the amount of time he was giving Powell in each game. But was 90 minutes too long?

Cook had kept Powell on the field much longer than usual, presumably because he needed the kind of spark that the ex-Man U player could provide to break down a stubborn Plymouth defence. But after Powell had put away the 82nd minute penalty one expected Cook to withdraw him.

It could prove a costly mistake.

The centre forwards need to score goals

Wigan Athletic have scored 18 league goals up to this point. The two centre forwards have scored a combined total of three of those.

But Grigg just has not got back to his best since his injury. Grigg’s key strength is his movement. We have seen that, but the end-result has not been forthcoming. One goal in six starts and four appearances off the bench is unimpressive from a striker who has passed the 20 goal per season mark three times previously.

Toney has more physical presence than Grigg and is more likely to score headed goals. But his two goals so far have been a perhaps fortunate deflection and a tap-in. He has come close so many times but has not been able to put the ball in the net with enough regularity.

Grigg is the first to admit that he is not yet up to peak fitness. He speaks with confidence about his ability to get another 20 goal haul this season. Toney has looked lively in his approach play and fits well into the style of play. Toney has a career record of 0.23 goals per league game, having scored 26 goals from 70 starts and 43 appearances off the bench. Grigg’s average is 0.31 goals per game, with 82 goals from 173 starts and 87 appearances off the bench.

Most League 1 managers will envy Cook for having both Grigg and Toney at his disposal. Both are good players at this level. It appears to be a matter of time until one or the other starts firing on all cylinders. Cook is fortunate that his advanced midfield trio of Michael Jacobs, Gavin Massey and Nick Powell have already notched a combined total of 12 goals in 10 matches up to this point.

Goal threat from corner kicks

Latics had 15 corners yesterday. With Dan Burn and Chey Dunkley coming forward into the box and with good headers of the ball like Powell and Toney also there, could we not expect more of a threat from corner kicks? Lee Evans usually takes them, from the right and left. His delivery is by no means bad, but could more variety be introduced? Using left footers Reece James or Callum Elder could be a possibility.

Is it something that Cook and his coaches will be working on during training?

The full backs are important in Cook’s system

Nathan Byrne’s form has been a revelation this season. His attacking down the right hand side has been a pleasure to watch and he has worked hard on the defensive side of his game. The problem is that Cook has no back-up right back if Byrne gets injured.

On the left-hand side Reece James has been impressive since his long lay-off from injury. Callum Elder looked lively yesterday when he came on for James. He is a naturally attacking left back with a sweet left foot.

Cook expects a lot physically from his full backs, being expected not only to be solid in defence, but to race forward almost like wingers. They have been a key part of the good football we have been seeing so far this season.

Expect more parking of buses

In 2004 Jose Mourinho coined the term “parking the bus” following a match between his Chelsea team and Tottenham. It has come to convey a team using all of its players defensively when they want to draw a game or defend a narrow margin. Wigan Athletic’s Warren Joyce tried it several times last season.

Both Northampton Town and Plymouth Argyle came to Wigan to park their buses. Their tactics were ruined by a spectacular goal (by Michael Jacobs) and giving away a “soft” penalty.

With Latics being the favourites to win the League 1 title we are likely to see lots more teams come to the DW to park their buses. In the last two home games Latics have certainly had to show patience against massed defences.

The key to such games lies in Wigan getting an early goal, forcing the visiting team to change its tactics. It remains to be seen if Walsall will try to park the bus on Saturday. From an entertainment point of view one hopes not, but an early Wigan goal could be the signal for more to follow later.

 

 

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?

Like us on Facebook, or follow us on twitter here.

Regaining the feel-good factor

Relegation can dampen the spirits of even the keenest football supporter. But three such occurrences in just five years, combined with a profligate waste of some £74 million of parachute payments is a real downer.

Morale had not been particularly high for Wigan Athletic fans over these recent weeks. But then came the announcement  that local lad Jordan Flores had signed a new two year contract. It came as a bit of a surprise as there had been no news about the player for weeks.

Always good to reward one of our own” were David Sharpe’s words as he announced the new contract on Twitter. In one instant it brought visions of a future where Wigan Athletic would at last have faith in home-grown talent, rather than incessantly bringing in loan players. It raised the feel-good factor, at least for a while.

But the warm feeling started to wither somewhat as the tweet above appeared on Twitter. The article went on to quote the chairman as saying:

“There’s going to be a couple of changes before the start of the season. There’ll be a couple of players hopefully coming in, and maybe a couple of players leaving.”

Those words of Sharpe caused the alarm bells to ring. Did he really mean just two of the likes of Dan Burn, Will Grigg, Sam Morsy, Max Power or Nick Powell will be going and the others staying?

A couple of years ago Latics had been relegated to League 1, but the chairman’s optimism over the summer of 2015 was uplifting. The famous quote about “smashing League 1 with 100 points” was a trifle overexuberant, but it set the tone over a summer of huge changes in the playing staff. Most of the high earners were sold off, paid off or loaned out, but the chairman played his trump card in paying up to £1 m for Will Grigg.

The end result was that the budget had been massively cut, but with the parachute money the club was still able to offer above-average salaries to attract players more than good enough for the third tier. Sharpe’s positivity continued into the season and at the midway point he paid somewhere approaching £1 m to sign Yanic Wildschut on a permanent contract. The Dutchman and Grigg proved to be crucial signings as Caldwell’s team won the division title.

Sharpe made efforts to keep the bouyant feeling obtained by winning League 1 by offering season tickets at levels well below the market rate. In the meantime Gary Caldwell started to bring in many more new players than he had previously predicted. The manager clearly did not believe the squad was good enough to survive in the Championship after all. There was no £1 m signing this time around, but ex-players Jordi Gomez and Nick Powell were brought in as marquee players on relatively high salaries.

Caldwell’s team had a poor pre-season and his tactics in the early league games were conservative. The manager had reportedly wanted Callum Patterson from Hearts to solve the problematic right back position, but Wigan’s bids had fallen far short of the Scottish club’s valuation. Midfield player Conor Hourihane of Barnsley was also apparently on Caldwell’s wanted list but nothing resulted. The woeful decision by Sharpe to replace Caldwell with Warren Joyce was to ultimately lead a demoralised squad to relegation. The possession football we had seen under Caldwell evolved into “fightball” under the ultra-defensive Joyce.

According to the Premier League website Wigan Athletic received £16,298,146 in parachute payments last season. Transfer fees paid out in summer 2016 were relatively modest. In January they jettisoned two of the highest wage earners in Jordi Gomez and Adam Le Fondre. Speedy winger Nathan Byrne was sent on loan to Charlton. The sale of Yanic Wildschut to Norwich was reputed to be in excess of £7 m including add-ons. It was rumoured that the wage bill at the start of the season was around £17 m. Joyce himself remarked on how he had reduced that wage bill by the January comings and goings. But the end-result on the field of play was the loss of a proven goal scoring centre forward, a creative midfielder who had previously proved himself to be a top Championship player and two wide players with searing pace. Some fans at the time had remarked that it looked like Latics were planning for relegation even in January.

After his disastrous appointment of Joyce, Sharpe wisely took his time in searching for the right man for the coming season. Paul Cook has a fine managerial record and his teams play the kind of good football that went out of the window under Joyce. However, after the initial hype of Cook’s appointment, including the angry reactions of Portsmouth fans, it has been surprising that we have not seen much of the new manager in the media since then. When Cook was appointed, Sharpe had said that “The squad is in very good shape; it doesn’t need major surgery but he may want to do a few bits if a couple of players leave but the core of it is very good and that was a big attraction to him.”

Since Cook’s appointment a couple of players have already left. Matt Gilks went to Scunthorpe who were able to offer him the kind of contract that Latics were unable or unwilling to provide. Jake Buxton was a rock in defence last season, but has already left the club by mutual consent.

The departures of Gilks and Buxton can be seen as indications of the club lowering its budget, which it clearly needs to do, given its huge potential loss in revenues. Despite what the chairman is saying it would be a surprise if only two more of the present squad leave before the season starts on August 5th.

The question is how Sharpe is going to use the remainder of the substantial revenues that came in last season? Will they be used to service the club’s debt? Or is he really planning to keep all of last season’s squad that remain, bar two?

At this stage there is not the level of optimism among the fans that one would expect with  a new manager coming in who has an impressive track record. The loss of parachute payments weighs heavily in our minds. Will Cook receive the level of financial and personal support from the chairman that is needed to get Latics back to the Championship?

Sharpe’s gesture in offering an extended contract to Jordan Flores is certainly good PR and we can only hope that it is a sign that home-grown talent will be given a better chance to succeed than we have seen in recent years. However, the chairman needs to enunciate his broader strategy.

What is his vision of what he wants for the current season and how he will achieve it? If he were to say that it was to be a period of austerity for the club, with any profits from last season used to pay off debts, few could argue with him if he is looking at the club’s long-term sustainability. If he were to say that he will have to make major cuts in the squad since the club needs to cut its cloth according to projected revenues, then once more it would be hard to argue against.

David Sharpe has a difficult task ahead of him. Like all of us he has made some good decisions and some bad ones. Perhaps his most redeeming quality as Wigan Athletic chairman is that he considers himself a fan, first and foremost. Moreover he is eloquent and very comfortable with the media.

The coming season will be the acid test for the young chairman. Should he take a gamble and back the new manager with a war chest to get the club back to the Championship? Or should he look at financial consolidation and future sustainability?

Without the parachute payments the feel-good factor has dropped alarmingly. How will the chairman deal with it?

 

Like us on Facebook, or follow us on twitter here.