Five talking points following an important victory over Blackburn

Wigan Athletic 2 Blackburn Rovers 0

“I genuinely felt Blackburn had taken control of the game in the second half, and then we go and score the first goal at a vital time. Great credit to my players, they’ve got this never-say-die attitude at the minute, and they deserve all the credit for digging in. The second goal at the end gives in my opinion a totally false scoreline, it was never a 2-0 comfortable victory for Wigan. But we’re delighted with the result and delighted with the three points.”

Paul Cook’s honesty in his post-match comments continues to put other managers to shame. He was certainly spot-on in what he said.

The first half was even with the teams paying each other maybe too much respect. When the half time whistle blew the game looked like it was heading for a goalless draw. But Blackburn started to dominate in the second half and Latics were forced back into defence. It took an error from Christian Walton in the Blackburn goal for Latics to open the scoring, as he made a mess of Antonee Robinson’s cross, the ball falling to Lee Evans to hammer home. Then in the last minute of added time Joe Williams put through a wonderful long pass for Michael Jacobs to run past Rovers’ diminished defence to score with aplomb.

Let’s look at points arising:

Another clean sheet for Wigan

Latics are now unbeaten in the last eight games. After sharing four goals with both Middlesbrough and Cardiff City in February they have not conceded in their last six matches.

Courtesy of Soccerstats.com

Only Middlesbrough have scored less goals than Wigan, but Latics’ defensive record places them in the top half of the table. It is that defensive solidity that will keep Latics in the Championship for another season, barring any unforeseen calamities.

Game management

When Evans scored in the 80th minute one wondered if Blackburn would pull one back. If it had been earlier on in the season that might well have happened, but a feature of Wigan’s upsurge in form has been in their game management. Rovers certainly pushed men forward in an effort to equalise, but the Wigan defence held firm. Moreover, rather than hoof the ball to safety Williams put that beautifully weighted pass forward for Jacobs to seal the game.

Latics have matured as a team and are making less mistakes collectively, making it harder for other teams to get back into the game.

Cook and substitutions

With Blackburn dominating possession as the second half progressed one wondered if the manager would bring on Joe Gelhardt to provide some much-needed creativity and goal threat. But once more it was not to be, Cook sticking with his senior pros.

However, on this occasion the manager deserves credit. Lee Evans was brought on for Anthony Pilkington after 56 minutes and he went on to score the goal that broke the deadlock. Moreover, Michael Jacobs came on for Kieran Dowell after 73 minutes, going on to score a very well-taken goal in the 94th minute.

A feature of Cook’s strategy in the two games since the season restarted is that he has used less substitutions than the opposition managers. Tony Mowbray used five yesterday whereas Cook used three, with Joe Garner coming on in time-added-on. The upside of Cook’s approach is that it has caused less disruption to the flow of Wigan’s play. The downside is that there is another match coming up on Tuesday and some players, Jamal Lowe and Kieffer Moore in particular, looked very tired in the closing minutes.

The full backs play a key role

Both Nathan Byrne and Antonee Robinson had fine games, solid in defence and supportive in attack.

Watching Robinson yesterday gave us a glimpse of the reasons why he is being coveted by other clubs. He looked a complete player, worthy of a step up into a higher level of football whether it be Serie A or the Premier League.

Nathan Byrne is now 28 years old. Latics signed him from Wolves for an undisclosed fee in August 2016. However, he struggled in the Championship under Gary Caldwell and Warren Joyce dispatched him on loan to League 1 Charlton Athletic in January 2017. However, he came back to Wigan for the 2017-18 League 1 season under Paul Cook making 51 appearances, being voted “Player of the Season”. It looked like Byrne was going to be the first choice right back in the 2018-19 season back in the Championship but Latics signed the impressive Reece James on loan from Chelsea. Later in the season James was moved into the centre of midfield with Byrne returning to his best position at right back.

This season Byrne has established himself as the first choice right back for Latics in the Championship. He has had his ups-and-downs but as the season has progressed, he has looked more composed and established at this level. Byrne’s form has been integral to Wigan’s unbeaten run in the past eight matches.

Looking forward to Stoke

Over the coming weeks all clubs in the Championship are going to find it tough with regular midweek games sandwiched between the weekend fixtures. There are seven matches remaining before the regular season ends on July 22. The managers are going to have to make good use of their squads, given the physical demands on the players.

Stoke City have had a difficult season and are under threat of relegation. Their wage bill far outweighs that of Latics, but they have struggled. The home loss to Middlesbrough yesterday was a tough one for them and they will come to Wigan anxious to pick up points. However, they will come without the services of Nick Powell, who was sent off in the 89th minute.

It remains to be seen how Cook will use his squad over the coming weeks. Once again, he stuck with a winning lineup yesterday and he is likely to do the same on Tuesday, barring injuries. He is not a fan of the kind of squad rotation that some managers employ. However, he must be wary of burnout from his key players.

The Stoke encounter could prove tougher than it looks on paper. Much will depend on the energy levels of Wigan’s key players.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

Five talking points following an away win at Birmingham

Birmingham City 2 Wigan Athletic 3

Wigan Athletic’s first away win since April was another nail-biting affair, but this time they held out to gain an invaluable three points to lift themselves off the bottom of the table. The celebrations of the players at the end showed how important the win was for them.

Paul Cook made just one change in the starting lineup with Michael Jacobs coming in for Gavin Massey. That meant Josh Windass continuing at centre forward with Joe Williams in the number 10 position.

The irony is that Latics won the game without playing as well in recent matches, but still showed enough pace and movement to trouble a suspect Birmingham defence. Once again they let in soft goals, but the home side can also be accused of the same, with all three Wigan goals coming from defensive errors. For once Latics capitalized on their opponents’ errors.

Windass proves his worth

Cook kept faith in the enigmatic Josh Windass, who went on the score the first goal and have a hand in the other two. Playing without a big man up front means puts an onus on defenders and midfielders to be more creative. Windass has genuine pace that allows him to pounce on well-hit long passes. It is so refreshing following the mindless long-ball approach that characterized Wigan’s away performances for so long.

He had his best performance for the club today.

Naismith provides composure in defence

Kal Naismith has been excellent in the centre of defence in the past six matches. He provides the composure that has been so lacking for so long. Given his limited experience playing in the position we could have expected him to have made some major gaffes, but that has not been the case. Naismith has an ability to read the game, not to panic and to make the right tackle at the right moment. His distribution of the ball from defence has been outstanding.

Sadly Naismith had to go off at half time with what has been reported as a thigh injury. When he left the composure dissipated.

It is no coincidence that Cedric Kipre has looked much more comfortable since teaming up with the Scot in the centre of defence. When the combative Chey Dunkley came on after the interval Kipre was moved across to the left to accommodate him.

Nathan Byrne has a tough one

It has not been an easy season so far for Nathan Byrne. He had a torrid time this afternoon against the speedy French winger Jeremie Bela, then later with the likewise pacey Ecuadorian Jefferson Montero.

The 20-year-old Chelsea loanee Dujon Sterling has competed with Byrne for the right back position, making 9 appearances compared with 19 for the latter. Sterling did not make the bench today.

Full back is not an easy role in Cook’s style of play. Full backs are not only expected to perform their full defensive duties but to bomb forward in attack. Byrne certainly put a lot of effort into his runs forward but at times looked exposed when Birmingham attacked.

Latics have enough quality to climb out of the relegation zone

Latics have shown repeatedly that there are few teams in the division for them to fear. Most of their defeats have been of their own making, in squandering chances or giving away goals through defensive errors. Nottingham Forest are now fourth in the table and Wigan made them look distinctly ordinary three days ago, even if the final scoreline did not do them justice.

Despite the rare away win the manager still remains unpopular with a majority of fans. Many still believe they will get relegated if Cook stays. However, at this stage it looks like he will be here at least until the end of the season.

However, although the manager continues to frustrate fans with his loyalty to certain senior pros as far as team selection is concerned, together with his use of substitutions, there have been improvements. The standard of football we have seen in recent away games has been light years ahead of the mindless stuff we saw for so long.

There is some light at the end of the tunnel, but it is not going to be an easy ride.

A trip to Leicester

Few of us have any expectations for the trip to face Leicester City this weekend. The likelihood is that Latics will receive a tonking. But on the other hand Leicester can be expected to put out a weakened lineup and Cook’s Latics have a surprisingly good record against Premier League teams in the FA Cup.

The bottom line is that Wigan will go into the game with nothing to lose, except maybe a little pride.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Some talking points following Joe Gelhardt’s sensational equaliser at Hull

Hull City 2 Wigan Athletic 2

 

A moment of inspiration from the 17-year-old Joe Gelhardt helped Wigan Athletic share the points. It had been a scrappy game between two mediocre teams.

Paul Cook had named an unchanged side from the one that had started in a goalless draw with Barnsley.

Chey Dunkley put Latics ahead after 7 minutes after Hull keeper, George Long, had spilled Kieffer Moore’s header. But that early lead was thrown away within a couple of minutes by inept defending with Jarrod Bowen slotting home. Polish winger Kamil Grosicki had been causing Latics problems on the right side of their defence and it was he who scored a fine goal from a free kick after 20 minutes. Wigan went into the half-time interval trailing by a 2-1 margin.

Grosicki had another excellent free kick hit the post as Hull were getting on top. Wigan’s attacking was far from convincing and the game seemed to be heading towards a home win. But Joe Gelhardt was brought on after 72 minutes, playing in a more central role this time. After 75 minutes he turned past a defender in the penalty box and scored at the near post with Long rooted to the spot.

The point gained takes Latics to 5 points from 7 matches, third from bottom.

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

A goal for Dunkley – at last

Chey Dunkley is in his third season at Wigan. In his first, in League1, he was part of a formidable centre of defence with Dan Burn. Not only was Dunkley defensively solid, but he also scored 7 goals over the course of the season.

The transition to the Championship was difficult for a player who had not played at that level before. Like so many other players last season he certainly had his ups and downs, one minute making a superb last-ditch tackle, the next losing concentration. His goals also dried up. So many times, he seemed likely to score, getting himself in good positions, but he just could not put the ball home.

Dunkley’s goal yesterday will do his confidence the world of good. Now he has broken his duck in the Championship we can expect more goals from the big man.

Can Gelhardt seize the number 10 role?

Replacing Nick Powell was never going to be easy for Paul Cook. Lee Evans and Josh Windass have both stepped in with mixed results. Yesterday Cook played Jamal Lowe in a more central role in the advanced midfield trio. Lowe did not do badly but was not particularly convincing.

Powell usually played a classical number 10 role, receiving the ball in deep midfield, linking up with the forwards and overlapping full backs. But sometimes he would be pushed further forward, playing as a second central striker.

Joe Gelhardt certainly has an eye for goal, and he is not deterred by playing at this level. Not only does he have a great left foot, but he also has an eye for a pass. Will Cook be tempted to put the young player in the starting line-up against Charlton, playing behind the central striker?

Is football returning away from home?

Wigan Athletic’s poor away performances over the past twelve months have been typified by a reliance on the long ball. Moreover, signing a 6ft 5in centre forward has further invited under-pressure defenders and midfielders to lump the ball forward.

However, at Hull we saw signs of football returning, albeit riddled with errors. The possession stats showed Wigan at 58.3% and Hull 41.7%. Moreover 74% of Wigan’s passes were successful compared with 65% for the home team. In the previous game against Barnsley Latics’ successful pass stat stood at 64%.

The long-ball approach away from home has been woefully unsuccessful and we can only hope that the manager will insist that his defenders and midfielders minimise their use of the long ball. Nevertheless, it will take courage from players to play the ball out from the back, who have so often taken the easy way out.

The Byrne-Massey axis

The attacking play of Nathan Byrne and Gavin Massey was crucial to Latics’ winning the League 1 title in 2017. Indeed, Byrne went on to be voted Player of the Year. Last season was a difficult year for each of them, with Byrne losing his place to Reece James and Massey having a lot of time out injured. However, with James later being moved to midfield Byrne was able to reclaim the right back position. Massey’s return to the team saw him renew the link-up with Byrne, the two players knowing each other’s games so well.

The Byrne-Massey partnership has had a difficult start to the current season. Neither player has been at his best up to this point. Much of the opposition threat has come from their side of the pitch and their build-up work has not been at its best.

Recovering from injury Massey missed pre-season and still does not look like he is firing on all cylinders.

None of the wingers in Cook’s squad has shown real consistency this season. Michael Jacobs has blown hot and cold, Jamal Lowe has looked out of place on the left, Anthony Pilkington continues to be bogged by injury and Kal Naismith has been used sparingly.

Given the physical demands on the wingers, being expected to track back to help the full backs but also to go sprinting forward, Cook might be well advised to rotate them on a regular basis. With either Massey or Lowe on the right and Jacobs or Naismith on the left he has good options.

In the meantime, Cook will have to decide whether to stick with a below-par Byrne, in the hope that he will regain form, or bring in the young Chelsea loan player, Dujon Sterling, who has not even been appearing on the bench.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Five talking points following an impressive display against Bolton

Wigan Athletic 5 Bolton Wanderers 2

It was throwback to the Wigan Athletic we had seen at the start of the season. Latics were full of energy and invention and their attacking approach simply blew away their near neighbours. This emphatic win puts them 10 points ahead of a Bolton side seemingly doomed for relegation.

After the game Cook commented: “I would have taken anything today as long as we won, I thought the result against Reading was an absolute disgrace, we were very flat again against Blackburn Rovers on Tuesday night, but we’ve bounced back today and I’m sure our fans will be delighted. We’ve set out a great chance of achieving what we wanted to at the start of the season with that performance today…..Tonight everyone will feel a little bit happier, but until the final ball is kicked on the final day no one can relax, we certainly won’t rest on our laurels as we play a very strong Brentford side here next.”

Let’s take a look at some points arising:

Garner’s early goal was crucial

Joe Garner’s header in the fourth minute gave Latics a big psychological boost. They had started with attacking intent, Michael Jacobs causing problems for Jason Lowe, the Bolton right back being given a yellow card after just three minutes. The early intervention by the referee helped set the tone in a game that could boil over at any time. In the event it was certainly a physical encounter, but Lowe’s card was the only one the referee deemed worthy to give in the remaining 92 minutes. Garner’s header had come from Reece James’ free kick following Lowe’s booking.

Garner once again showed that he is worthy of his starting place at centre forward. Yesterday he linked up intelligently with the creative trio of Jacobs, Massey and Powell and gave the corpulent Bolton defenders a hard time. His goal came at a crucial time for a Latics side who desperately needed a boost after an awful display at Blackburn.

Getting the best out of Jacobs and Massey

Cook took Gavin Massey off after 45 minutes in the previous game at Blackburn; Michael Jacobs went off after 61 minutes, with Rovers already two goals up. Was Cook saving them for the Bolton game?

Both Jacobs and Massey have had long spells out through injury this season and the cutting edge they provide was badly missed when they were absent. They both had excellent games, each scoring a well-taken goal, Jacobs also getting the assist for Nick Powell’s goal. Massey was substituted after 82 minutes but Jacobs completed the whole 90 plus. Their interplay with Powell has always been a joy to watch, as it was once more yesterday.

Last season both Jacobs and Massey made 50 appearances. They were key players in the League 1 title winning team.

When Latics were last in the Championship in 2016-17 Jacobs was a regular starter and made 46 appearances, scoring 3 goals. However, he did not totally convince that he was a Championship-level player. This season he has made 21 appearances, scoring 4 goals. Yesterday he certainly looked up to the task and showed the kind of energy and creativity that Latics had been lacking when he was put injured. At 27 he is at his peak.

Massey scored 6 goals last season, but only one of those was bagged at the DW.  Massey is now 26 years old and nearing his peak. After a career in the lower divisions he looks very much at home in the Championship.

A defender almost scores

Late in the proceedings Nathan Byrne hit the post with a rocket shot from 25 yards. If it had gone in it would have been only the second goal scored by a defender for Latics this season and Byrne’s first in 89 appearances. A few minutes earlier Byrne had put in a beautiful long cross for Leon Clarke to head home Wigan’s fifth.

Walton back for Jones

Jamie Jones took over the starting goalkeeping position from Christian Walton in early January. It had been a long wait for the Brighton loan player to get his place back.

Walton looked more assertive than he had looked in December and could not be faulted for either of the Bolton goals. Both goalkeepers have their strengths and will continue to compete for a place in the starting lineup. One of Jones’ real strengths is his distribution, and this is something Walton needs to continue to work on.

Danny Fox will be back

With an international break coming up there is time for Danny Fox to recover from his knee injury. Fox’s experience and organisational skills would have been helpful yesterday when Latics defence let in two soft goals that could have allowed Bolton back into the game if it had not been for Wigan’s ability to strike back in attack.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Five talking points following a Sharp defeat at Bramall Lane

Sheffield United 4 Wigan Athletic 2

Following a run of insipid away performances, we witnessed a much better one at Bramall Lane. Rather than looking like a team that had come to defend, Wigan Athletic attacked Sheffield United from the start. There was pace, there was balance, there was ambition. The problem was that the home team had Billy Sharp and his hat trick destroyed Latics after Chey Dunkley’s own goal had given the Blades the lead.

Sharp is hardly an Aguero or Kane. He has played just two games in the Premier League, those being for Southampton six seasons ago. But he is a very experienced Championship level striker and scored 13 goals in 34 appearances last season for Sheffield United. He gave Wigan’s centre backs a torrid time yesterday, scoring three opportunist goals.

Paul Cook decided to stick to his usual 4-2-3-1 formation, bringing back Nathan Byrne and Gary Roberts on the wings, replacing Cedric Kipre with Dan Burn, with Callum Connolly moving inside the unavailable Lee Evans.

The manager commented after the match: “We didn’t come under any great pressure in the game, but we conceded four goals and they hit the underside of the bar for five, whilst we have had chances in the game too. The disappointing thing is that at home we can look so sound defensively but I have to stress that when we speak about defending, I mean the team, not just the defenders and the goalkeeper. If we are to have success in the league this year, then we have to iron out the mistakes.”

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

Cook deserves support

There has been a dramatic drop for Latics in the month of October with a record of W1 D1 L3. Over the course of the season so far so many games have been somewhat naively thrown away or lost tactically.

But at the same time, one must give immense credit to Paul Cook for the positives. He had a whopping challenge in losing the Burn/Byrne brothers at beginning of season, having to bed in a new defence, followed by injuries to key attackers Grigg, Jacobs and Massey interrupting form.

Despite recent results Latics are in a respectable 14th place, 8 points clear of relegation. Moreover, the table is so tight that two wins (or losses) can cause a dramatic rise or fall.

Cook was also without Lee Evans yesterday.  Evans is a quality player in every aspect except speed/acceleration. He is tactically aware, quick thinking, has vision and an excellent technique. He was sorely missed, not least in the quality of his kicks from set pieces.

This is a season of consolidation for Latics. The squad is probably not strong enough to get into a playoff spot but is certainly good enough to avoid relegation. Were they to finish the season in this current 14th place it would be regarded as a success.

Following the game Paul Cook talked about aiming for consolidation:

We must remember the criteria for us all is that we are trying to sustain a foothold in the division and along the way we know it is going to be tough. Today was a tough day. We have had a smashing start and we have difficult games coming up that we know could see this run get worse, though the bigger picture for everyone says that we want to sustain our league status this year and people should never forget that.”

Following an awful display at Millwall, where the hoof was the main form of attack, yesterday’s performance was breath of fresh air. The manager selected a balanced lineup and Latics played some very good football at times.

Wigan have had some difficult fixtures of late and injuries have restricted the manager’s team selection.

It is the manager who takes the flak when the players don’t deliver. Cook is never one to blame the players and he rarely gives excuses. He deserves credit for getting Latics into their current position with a third of the season gone.

More additions to the injury list

Gary Roberts’ hamstring pull after 35 minutes signalled the end of the game for him, with Kal Naismith replacing him. He joins Will Grigg, Michael Jacobs and Gavin Massey on the hamstring injury list. It is a worrying trend: fans are asking if it is something associated with the players’ physical preparation. Or is it merely a coincidence?

Nick Powell’s departure with an ankle injury on 66 minutes was particularly worrying. He had to be helped off the field with a man on each side supporting him. If Latics have one player they cannot afford to lose for a long period of time, it is Powell.

Burn and Dunkley have off days

The exclusion of Kipre for Burn was a bold move by Cook, who maybe thought Burn’s experience would be more important on the day. But although Burn and Dunkley played so many games together last season, this was their first pairing as central defenders this season. It showed as they both struggled against the aggression and movement of the home team’s attacks.

But given their lack of game time together this season it was perhaps understandable that they were not the cohesive unit we saw in League 1. Moreover, in his post-match comments Cook alluded to the lack of protection the defence might have received.

Reece James in midfield

Following Callum McManaman’s introduction on 66 minutes for Nick Powell, Cook put Nathan Byrne at right back, pushing Reece James into a midfield holding role. The hapless Callum Connolly had been taken off 8 minutes earlier.

James is a fine all-round footballer and he looked immediately comfortable in that role, making himself available to receive the ball, using it effectively.

Nathan Byrne is back in contention

It has been a difficult season for Byrne, suffering injury problems and not being able to regain the right back position due to the excellent form of Reece James. However, Byrne can still have an important role to play this season.

Byrne made a welcome return against West Bromwich playing on the right wing. He was rested for the Millwall game but brought back to the right wing yesterday. He was arguably Latics outstanding player, linking up well with James and providing the assist for Kal Naismith’s goal.  Later in the game he was moved to his more customary position at right back, with James pushed into midfield.

With Gavin Massey due to be out for a long period of time, Byrne will most likely be the main contender for the right wing spot. Moreover, his presence gives Cook the option of bolstering his midfield in the latter stages of games by switching James’ and Byrne’s positions.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com