An Amigo View – Gillingham 1 Wigan Athletic 1 – Five talking points

 

On the face of it, a point against an outfit second from bottom is a trifle disappointing for a team riding at the top of the table. Shrewsbury’s 4-0 win over Bristol Rovers put them back to first place, as they impressively stretched their unbeaten league record to 14 games. But another 32 matches remain and the point gained at Priestfield might well prove crucial in the long run.

Latics had started well and had opportunities in the first half hour that would have materialised into goals with more clinical finishing. But the home team grew into the game and started to punch above their weight, with bouts of skilful football mixed with a determination not to be overwhelmed by their more highly-rated rivals.

When Chey Dunkley allowed 6 ft 5 in centre forward Eaves to head home in the 55th minute it was clear that Latics had an uphill task ahead of them. Just as at Shrewsbury they were rattled by the energy and hunger of the home team. It took a beautifully struck goal by Sam Morsy after 82 minutes to get Latics back in the game.

The scenes at the end of the game were reminiscent of those at the recent encounter at Peterborough with the Gills players waiting around on the pitch to receive a standing ovation from the crowd. Unlike some other teams Latics have played this season Gillingham did make an effort to attack and play constructive football. The ovation was well deserved.

Let’s take a look at some talking points arising from the game and the recent news of the club.

The centre forwards are still not getting enough goals

Ivan Toney had a disappointing evening and was taken off after 72 minutes, to be replaced by Will Grigg who too struggled to make an impact. Grigg went off injured after 88 minutes to be replaced by Noel Hunt. Cook will be hoping Grigg’s injury is not serious with matches against Blackburn and Bradford coming up.

Should Grigg be out for some time, Cook might well call on Nick Powell to play as a central striker with Gary Roberts operating behind him in the number 10 role.

However, for the moment, we can only surmise on how many more goals Latics would have scored this season if their central strikers had been sharper. Grigg typically gets the bulk of his goals in the second half of the season. Will he do so again this season?

Nick Powell played the full 93 minutes

Cook and his staff have done a wonderful job up to this point in nurturing Powell back to fitness. To go until the final whistle without being substituted is a milestone for the player after being dogged by injury for so long.

Powell is essentially a Premier League player operating in League 1. Although he has still not hit top form he is almost indispensable to Cook, being at the heart of the creativity, also the top scorer. Should he stay fit we can expect him to hit the 20-goal mark before the end of the season.

Chey Dunkley is a work in progress

As the cross was coming in for the Gills goal, Dunkley was calling to Nathan Byrne to come across to mark a player who was coming into the box. The cross somehow eluded Dan Burn and Dunkley’s lack of concentration allowed Eaves to score. Up to that point he and Burn had headed away countless crosses, looking comfortable in doing so.

Dunkley remains a work in progress. His red card against Portsmouth was a hard pill to swallow, but following his suspension he got back in the team in place of the capable and experienced Alex Bruce. Cook clearly has faith in the 25-year old. Other than the matter of the goal conceded, Dunkley did not have a bad game and he made an outstanding tackle in the first half as Eaves looked like he was going to score.  Dunkley is usually excellent in the air and forms a strong partnership with Burn. Moreover he shows sound  positional sense and is vocal on the pitch.

Sam Morsy is an inspirational captain

Morsy’s indiscipline on the field has been a talking point this season and he picked up another yellow card just a couple of minutes after scoring that vital goal. It was sadly no surprise.

However, Morsy had hit a screamer earlier on that fizzed wide when it looked like it might be going in. He was not happy for his team to be behind and he continued to push himself and his team forward. It is the sheer determination that the player shows that makes him a captain to be reckoned with. But not only is he fierce in the tackle and tireless in his efforts, but he has a fine technique and vision.

With Morsy as captain the team is never going to lie down. Despite his disciplinary lapses he is an inspirational captain.

Paul Cook must not be sacrificed in any takeover

Cook has made a wonderful start to his new job at Wigan. He has transformed a team that was too scared to open-up and play into one that clearly relishes it. It is years since we have seen such a positive, attacking brand of football at Wigan. Moreover he is showing faith in a core of players in the early to mid-twenties who could hold their own in the Championship were Latics to be promoted.

Much is clearly happening behind the scenes at the club, with the incredibly successful 22-year reign of the Whelan family seemingly nearing its end. Put simply, without Dave Whelan’s vision, determination and sheer hard work Latics could never have dreamed to have had the successes they have enjoyed over a span of decades.

Should the takeover happen by the end of the year, as the media seems to suggest, it would be sad if Cook’s position were destabilised. Put simply, he is the best thing that has happened to Latics in a long time.

 

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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.

 

 

Five talking points arising from the Peterborough game

 

Result: Peterborough United 3 Wigan Athletic 2

It was a classic game of two halves. Latics played some scintillating football in the first half, when they could and should have wrapped the game up. With even half decent finishing they could have had three or four goals. In the event they went into half time just one goal up, that being from a lucky deflection.

Posh manager, Grant McCann, later commented on what had happened in the first half: “I congratulated the players for being only a goal down. And I wasn’t being sarcastic. We hadn’t played well, but we had created two great chances of our own so I knew we were still in the game as our fitness levels are so good. Staying in touch with a very good side was crucial.”

McCann’s mention of fitness levels was certainly relevant as the home side seemed to have so much more energy in the second half than Wigan. Gone was the away team’s swagger of the first half. For the first time this season we saw signs of panic in Latics’ defence as the protection from midfield dissipated. In the end Peterborough’s win came as no great surprise.

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

Wigan are the team the others want to beat

Peterborough’s lap of victory in front of their supporters at the end of the game showed how important the victory was to them. Wigan Athletic are the bookmakers’ favourites to win League 1 and it makes them a team all the others want to beat. Like Shrewsbury previously, the Posh raised their game, punching above their weight in order to beat Latics.

The good news is that we have not played a team that looks like it has the quality needed to challenge Latics for automatic promotion. But we have not played Blackburn, Bradford City or Scunthorpe yet.

Fixture congestion continues to take its toll

Although Latics had played on Tuesday, Peterborough had a week between fixtures. After struggling to beat Northampton it was going to be a struggle to fire on all cylinders for 90 minutes against the Posh.

The return of Nick Powell helped bring more rhythm into Wigan’s play in the first half. But the opposition know that Powell is going to be substituted around the 60-70 minute mark and the player just could not make the same impression in the 18 minutes he played in the second half.

Whether Peterborough’s rousing second half display was inspired by tactical changes instigated by their manager or heavy legs on the part of Wigan players is open to conjecture. But Paul Cook will be anxious to get home wins tomorrow against Plymouth and on Saturday versus Walsall. He might well look at resting some tired legs for the first of those games at least. The good news is that there is a week’s break after the Walsall game until Latics have a difficult away game at Scunthorpe.

Profligacy in front of goal is a concern

The failure to convert clear-cut chances into goals is losing Latics points. In the first half Gavin Massey, Nick Powell and Ivan Toney failed to convert when in good positions. Michael Jacobs’ approach play, movement and dynamism is a joy to behold and the only blemish on his performance was that he missed three clear chances on goal. The player repeatedly gets into great positions, but so often is found wanting in his final touch. His defected goal gives him four for the season, including that superb winner against Northampton in midweek, but it could have at least doubled that tally with more incisive finishing.

David Perkins is back

The past year has been a difficult one for Perkins, who was “Player of the Season” in 2015-16. He had made 45 league starts. Niggling injuries might have played their part, but he made only 27 league starts last season in the Championship. Perkins is now 35 and falls behind Lee Evans and Sam Morsy in the midfield pecking order, also having to compete with Max Power for a place.

It was his first league appearance of the season at Peterborough. Perkins looked bright in the first half, but like so many others, struggled somewhat in the second.

Cook’s change of shape did not work

Cook brought on Power for Powell after 63 minutes, putting him into a midfield anchor role like that occupied by Shaun MacDonald last season, pushing Evans and Perkins further forward. We have to assume the manager was trying to provide more protection for his defence. Sadly it did not work.

Power is a fine passer of the ball and in his previous season in League 1 he scored 6 goals. He can hold his own in the tackle, but is not a ball-winner in the mould of MacDonald or Sam Morsy. Perhaps he should have been played further forward with Perkins playing the anchor role?

 

An excellent, well-balanced report on the match was provided by Alan Swann of the Peterborough Telegraph. Click here if you would like to read it. It is an example of high quality sports journalism for a local newspaper.

Five talking points arising from the win against Northampton

 

He has only been at the club for some two weeks but Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink has already stamped his mark upon Northampton Town. Well organised, tight in defence, looking for a breakaway goal they were the spitting image of his Burton Albion side a couple of years ago.

Gary Caldwell’s team lost at home to Burton in November 2015, after they could not find a way through the visitors’ defence and conceded a 74th minute goal through counterattack. But against Northampton, Latics were to win, courtesy of a stunning 55th minute goal from Michael Jacobs and resolute defence, which included a brilliant reaction save from Jamie Jones from Leon Barnett’s effort in the 75th minute.

Latics had not played well, but the three points gained from the 1-0 victory propelled them up to second place in the league table.

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

The orchestrator was sorely missed

Gary Roberts was on a hiding to nothing when making his first Wigan Athletic start in the absence of Nick Powell. When Roberts signed from Portsmouth to join his old teammate, Noel Hunt, there was talk of cronyism on the part of Paul Cook. But although Hunt’s role this season is likely to be largely peripheral, Roberts is likely to feature on a regular basis. Roberts had been criticised at Pompey for being over the hill, no longer having the legs to make an impact on a game. But he proved his doubters wrong in this match, putting in a solid shift for 84 minutes, despite having so little time on the field in recent weeks.

But Powell was sorely missed. He is the orchestrator of Wigan’s best football, his intelligent passing and movement being the catalyst for bringing out the creativity of his teammates.

Thank goodness that Dan Burn stayed

There were rumours over the summer that Burn might be going to a Championship club. But if any one player is crucial to Wigan’s promotion hopes it is he. Burn does not only provide an aerial presence, but his anticipation and timing make him a formidable player in League 1. Cook is not a manager to applaud individual player’s performances, but even he had to comment that the player was “absolutely outstanding” against Northampton.

7,777 turned up for the match

It was the lowest league attendance so far this season, the best having been 9,685 against Portsmouth. Prior to the season starting there had been grumbles about ticket prices, some suggesting that attendances would plummet as a result.

However, after four home games up to this point the average attendance is 8,828. After four home games in the 2015-16 season the average was 8,464.

3 goals conceded in 8 games

Cook’s approach is the most attacking that we have seen since the halcyon days of Paul Jewell. However, a measly 3 goals conceded from 8 games shows that they can certainly defend too.

Sam Morsy is suspended

Morsy is the first player in the four tiers of English football to be suspended this season for an accumulation of five yellow cards. Moreover there have been times when it has looked like the player would receive a second yellow in the same game.

Cook clearly believes that Morsy is being targeted by opposing teams. However, he also concedes that “if you take that competitive edge away from Sammy, he wouldn’t be the same player.”

The result is that the captain will not be available for the difficult trip to Peterborough on Saturday. Max Power is the most likely to take his place.

Will Grigg go?

The rumours of departures from Wigan continue to rear their ugly heads. With the summer transfer window due to close on August 31st Wigan Athletic fans will be desperately hoping the club does not shed its best players in the craziness that will abound over the coming week. How many of the likes of Will Grigg, Dan Burn and Nick Powell will still be with us come September?

Paul Cook is currently basking in the luxury of having a strike force that is the envy of other clubs in the League 1. Grigg is now fit after relatively long-term injury to compete with Ivan Toney for the centre forward position. Nick Powell has been playing just behind the central striker up to this point, but is equally adept in that number 9 role.

However, the departure of Powell is seemingly inevitable, given that his salary is reputed to be around £16,000 per week. Put simply it would be hard for a club which needs to reduce its budget from around £18 m to somewhere close to £6 m to hold on to a player on that kind of salary. Moreover, given the player’s past injury record it would appear even more of a risk in keeping him on the books. The romantics among us will continue to hope that David Sharpe will stick his neck out and keep the player at the club, knowing that a fully fit Powell could be pivotal to promotion.

So the likelihood is that Powell will be gone within a week, but what about Grigg? Both he and Michael Jacobs have one year left on their contracts. Will they be offered new contracts or will the club cash in its assets by selling them in the coming week?

Some three weeks ago Cook was quoted as saying “Certainly we know who is in the last year of their contracts, and the big effort is nurturing the squad into the start of the season. Once we start the season, with the squad we want in place, we can start to look at lengths of contracts. And I’m sure once we get into August, September, October, you’ll start to see some movement on that score.

The rumours of Charlton offering in excess of £1m for Grigg are certainly credible, knowing that the player has exceeded the 20 goals per season mark three times previously in League 1. So many Latics fans see Grigg’s continuity at the club as crucial to the promotion push. But if the bid has been made and Latics have rejected it, is it a sign that they intend to keep the player and will not allow him to go to another club from the same division competing for promotion? Or are they expecting a higher fee for the player?

Jacobs too would be an important player in the promotion push. Although his form last season in the Championship was disappointing the player has been electric in the opening games. Jacobs is a quality player at League 1 level and Cook would be loath to see him go.

Cook’s words regarding extended contracts do not give anything away. However, the manager recognises that Latics are a “selling club” and if the right offer comes up a player is likely to be released.

Given his importance to the defence, Latics fans will be hoping that such an offer does not come in for Dan Burn. The loss of Craig Morgan for several months due to a hip injury is a blow to Cook. It appears that Latics are actively looking for another central defender. The immediate assumption is that it would be someone to replace Morgan, but some would argue that Cook has Donervon Daniels fit again and ready to step in and it is a sign that Burn might be leaving.

In the meantime it appears that Jack Byrne has now left the club. Cook has suggested that more departures are on their way, although it is not clear if they would be mainline or fringe players. We can also expect some new ones coming in.

Having a transfer window still open when the season has started can cause serious disruption to football clubs. It is something that might well be rectified a year from now. The immediate danger for Wigan Athletic is of key players leaving the club over the next week, unbalancing a squad that looks strong enough to challenge for automatic promotion.

But at this stage, the underlying reasons for selling players or moving them on are largely economic. The burden lies on the shoulders of David Sharpe and owner Dave Whelan. It is they who will ultimately decide whether players like Grigg, Burn and Powell will be Wigan players come September.

In the meantime, Paul Cook will surely be making contingency plans to cover all possible scenarios.

 

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