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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Paul Cook’s Christmas Shopping List

A year ago, Paul Cook was manager of a Portsmouth side in fourth place in League 2, seven points shy of an automatic promotion position. Over the January transfer window he picked up four new players, with three leaving. Of the new players midfielder Jamal Lowe went on to make 17 appearances and striker Eion Doyle 12.

Wigan Athletic are currently top of League 1, four points ahead of Shrewsbury Town and five ahead of Blackburn Rovers. Given the circumstances, can we expect much activity from Cook over the January 2018 transfer window?

Over the summer Cook did an excellent job in ensuring that he had a minimum of two players competing for each position, except for the right back berth.  Up to the transfer window 12 players were brought in and a greater number moved out as Cook reduced the size of his squad. Wigan Athletic did not pay any transfer fees in the summer recruitment.

Nathan Byrne has not only occupied the right back position for all the 21 league games up to this point, but has not missed a single minute. Although it could be viewed as an indication of Byrne’s excellent form and fitness, it could also be said that Cook had no real alternative.

In summer Cook released his other specialist right back, Luke Burke, for a loan period at AFC Fylde. At the time it appeared a strange decision, but there remained the possibility of Max Power or one of the centre backs moving across to the right, if needed. Moreover, Burke had not looked the player he had been a year earlier when he was to enjoy a brief spell in Gary Caldwell’s Championship division side. Up to this point Burke has been a regular starter at Fylde, his confidence returning as a result. Burke is still only 19 and signed a long-term contract for Latics last year. His loan at Fylde expires in January. The question is whether Cook will bring him back or allow him to continue to bolster his confidence by prolonging the loan. Should Burke not return in January, Cook will surely scour the market for a specialist right back to challenge Byrne for his place. Ironically it could well be a loan signing.

The other loan decision Cook will need to make is that of Jack Byrne at Oldham. The young Irishman’s loan deal also finishes in January. Despite rumours of him lacking fitness, Byrne has been a revelation for the other Latics. He is the obvious candidate to compete with Nick Powell for the number 10 spot. The question is whether Cook will want him back with things going so well.

Cook will need to be cautious in terms of changing the chemistry of a squad that has high morale. Providing there are no surprise departures he will keep changes to a minimum. Last January the departure of Yanic Wildschut to Norwich helped to seal relegation. Latics fans will be praying that they will not lose a key player again this year.

However, Sun journalist Alan Nixon continues to tweet about a takeover:

Should this takeover be finalised prior to the January transfer window, what would be the implications for the remainder of the season? Would an incoming new ownership want to splash money in January by recruiting players who could be an asset in the Championship? Or would they want to keep the status quo until next season?

It promises to be an interesting time coming up at Wigan Athletic.

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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.