Scenes of jubilation and feelings of despair at Brighton

Jubilant Albion fans swarm on the pitch to celebrate promotion.

Eight pm at Brighton Station on a Saturday, the place buzzing with blue and white, the boisterous chanting and cheering of the thousands milling around the pubs outside. Another train pulls in, loaded with more of them. They come out jubilant, singing, celebrating. After all 34 years is a long time.

The American Express Stadium is a superb football venue, its design not only providing unobstructed views from any seat, but its acoustics heightening the crowd noise. The sound rose to a crescendo as the teams marched on to the pitch, but we Latics fans were sadly muted. We had seen the line up and knew what to expect. The 4-5-1 formation was to be a throwback to the days when Warren Joyce would play with four holding midfielders. Graham Barrow went even further by playing a fifth one, Jamie Hanson, at right back.

Occasional chants of “I’m a Believer” from a group of younger supporters behind us served to remind us of a previous era. It is five years since Latics beat both Manchester United and Arsenal in the space of five days. It is almost unimaginable now. Gabriel Obertan was a lone centre forward in the true sense of the word, devoid of any support, chasing hopeless causes. We inferred from the formation that Barrow wanted to stifle the home side until later in the game when he could bring on his heavier artillery.

Sadly his plan did not work. Although offering almost no attacking threat to the home goal they had defended resolutely for most of the first half, despite inverted right winger Anthony Knockaert looking a class above the others on the pitch. He seemed to have the freedom of the park with no Latics player giving him a dose of “physical presence”. Despite having such protection in midfield Wigan’s full backs were unadventurous, seemingly reluctant to push up further and provide the width that was desperately lacking. Jakob Haugaard looked uneasy, fluffing a Knockaert cross on the quarter of an hour mark, being fortunate not to concede from the loose ball.

Latics looked like a strange hybrid of the Caldwell and Joyce regimes. They were building up from the back in the Caldwell style, but there was no outlet, the midfielders static, reluctant to push forward, preferring to play the ball sideways or back to the defence. But when you play with four holding midfielders that is what you are going to get. It seemed a matter of time until Albion scored. They did so after 37 minutes when Dan Burn lost the flight of a long ball, with Tomer Hamed setting up fellow twin striker Glen Murray for a shot from outside the box which beat Haugaard.

The second half began and the Haugaard  continued to look distinctly shaky, a huge worry for the defenders in front of him. The young Dane may one day become a fine keeper: he has the physical attributes. But at this moment in time his confidence was shot and he looked a liability. Haugaard’s inclusion at the expense of Matt Gilks remained a talking point among the fans. During the week a thread had appeared on the Latics Speyk forum, entitled “Do Sharpe and Jackson Believe?” The writer, Studz, had suggested that Latics would have to pay Stoke a considerable amount if Haugaard did not play. The implication was that the two at the top did not want to shell out more money as they had already accepted relegation.

The allegations may be true or completely unfounded, but the bottom line was that Latics went into a crucial relegation game with a shaky goalkeeper, leaving a more solid one on the bench. Some would say that Haugaard should have saved Murray’s shot, although it might have taken a deflection. He should certainly have stopped Solly March’s 65th minute shot which went straight through him.

Being 2-0 down Barrow had to bring on Nick Powell a little earlier than he had possibly planned. He came on for Obertan after 60 minutes, with the hapless Ryan Tunnicliffe being replaced by Ryan Colclough. Powell’s arrival did provide more spark for Latics as he strived to take on the home defence almost single-handedly. He scored with an opportunist header in the 84th minute from a superb cross from Jamie Hanson, who for once had pushed forward into a more attacking position.

Powell continued to do his best to unsettle the home defence, but it was to no avail as his teammates found it hard to keep the ball in the closing minutes. The stadium erupted on the final whistle, thousands of spectators swarming on to the pitch. For me it provided an opportunity for a quick getaway. The Falmer train station is usually swamped just after a match has finished. It was not bad at all yesterday as so many home fans stayed and celebrated. Albion keep their stadium bars open after the game, so it had been no big surprise to see the trainloads boisterously arriving at Brighton station some three hours after the game finished.

The last time I went to the Amex was in November 2014 when I saw Uwe Rosler’s team lose 1-0 to a very poor Albion team in the relegation zone at the time. It was a memorably insipid performance, as was the one yesterday. A month later Albion appointed Chris Hughton who has since built them into a solid, organised team who very much rely on the flair of Knockaert, who might well be poached by big clubs before Albion set foot in the Premier League. He and Powell looked, head and shoulders, the classiest players on the park yesterday.

Albion and Wigan are heading in opposite directions. Albion fans told me before the game had told me that owner Tony Bloom has invested around £250m into the club, including the construction of a £93m stadium. It highlights the situation that Latics will be up against if they are to eventually maintain a status in the Championship division. It is now 4 years since Wigan were in the Premier League, which appears small compared with the 34 years Albion have had to wait to get back into the top tier. Without an owner willing to invest as Bloom has done for Albion, it seems inconceivable that Latics will ever get back to the first tier.

Sheffield United have now secured promotion back to the Championship after six seasons in League 1. This is despite having invested considerably over those years compared with other clubs in the division. Should the seemingly inevitable occur and Latics are relegated it could be very difficult to get back out of it. Without a significant in player salaries by the Whelan family they too could be stuck in League 1 for years.

Given the goalkeeper situation it appears that cash is not freely flowing at Wigan Athletic. The club will surely sell off its main player assets in summer, plus giving others the chance to leave on free transfers to drastically reduce the wage bill. Nick Powell’s recent performances have helped put him in the shop window, providing he can avoid injury until the season ends. We can expect Omar Bogle or Will Grigg to go, hopefully not both. Max Power was a shadow of his old self yesterday, but still has enough potential to interest a Championship club. Playing in a side struggling against relegation can drag a player down, as happened with Gaitan Bong under Malky Mackay. Seeing Bong looking so comfortable playing for a promotion-winning side served to highlight the situation.

It would be no surprise to see Latics appoint a new manager within the next fortnight. He will be in charge of overseeing a summer fire sale, then trying to build up a successful new team from the ashes.A tall order indeed, although much will be dependent on how much money comes in from transfers over the summer and what happens to it.

As the Albion fans continued their jubilant celebrations at Brighton Station last night my own feeling as a life-long Latics fan was closer to one of despair. But nevertheless Wigan Athletic have bounced back from adversity in the past, so hope remains.

The appointment of the “right” manager and some level of investment from the Whelan family of the funds due to come in could provide some light at the end of a gloomy tunnel.

 

 

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Echoes of Malky, but a point gained – Barnsley 0 Latics 0 – match reaction

 

They say that results are all important in football. So it could be said that Wigan Athletic supporters should be happy with the point at mid-table Barnsley. Latics played with the kind of passion and spirit that typified their rise up into the higher echelons of English football in latter years. After losing his first game 3-0, Warren Joyce had clearly instilled a backs-to-the wall mentality in his players. It was not pretty, but it got another valuable away point.

Joyce is no shrinking violet. He had the courage to leave his three front line centre forwards on the bench, with Dan Burn and Jordi Gomez totally absent. He brought back the experienced Craig Morgan, who had been marginalised by previous manager Gary Caldwell. Morgan went on to form a solid partnership with fellow veteran, Jake Buxton, as they held their own in repelling the Barnsley attacks. Morgan may not be fast, but his positioning remains as good as ever. He and Buxton were like peas from the same pod. Playing Nick Powell at centre forward and leaving out the likes of Davies, Grigg and Le Fondre certainly made a statement to us all.

But Powell went off after only 31 minutes, reportedly unwell. When Joyce replaced him with Luke Garbutt many of us wondered why would the manager replace a centre forward with a full back? Did he have any attacking intentions? Garbutt too had fallen out of favour with the previous manager. Was Joyce making a statement to say that the slate has been wiped clean and everyone starts from scratch with him? In fact, Garbutt was put into a left midfield position and was to go on to do no better or worse than most of his teammates. The reshuffle saw Yanic Wildschut move to the lone centre forward position. He was particularly lonely, although at times he could take on 3 or 4 defenders to try to salvage something.

I had surprisingly managed to get a live feed for the game, after preparing myself to listen to the audio commentary. Adam Bogdan went off injured after 58 minutes. When Jussi Jasskelainen came on the commentator told us he was a player/coach, which was a surprise to me. Has the big Finn replaced Mike Pollitt as goalkeeping coach?

When Caldwell was manager he would have close contact with Graham Barrow and the coaches during a game. But in this one Joyce seemed solitary, with the coaches in the background. The cynics might say he is waiting for them to leave. Or maybe it is just the manager’s preferred style? All will presumably be revealed in the coming weeks.

It could be said that in this case, the end justified the means. But that in itself would be a worry. The commentator had told us that Joyce had summonsed the players in for regular double training sessions. They certainly looked fit enough and did not cave in the closing minutes as has too often been the case this season. But what was worrying was the football, or lack of it.

Indeed the football was reminiscent of the days of Malky Mackay. It was more fightball than football. Moreover once again seeing a winger playing at centre forward was to further highlight those most painful of memories.

Barnsley manager Paul Heckinbottom summed up Latics’ approach by saying: “Their set-up and line-up, playing without a striker, a centre-midfielder at right midfield and the first sub is a left-back, so that shows that they came here paying us the utmost respect, trying to nullify us, which they did.

Warren Joyce has a reputation as a top coach whose teams have played skilful, entertaining football. But today it seemed like he had told his players to rip up the coaching book they had learned under Gary Caldwell and go back to basics. The possession football that the Scot had instilled in the players was barely evident today. Perhaps the manager had told his players to minimise potential errors at the back by playing the ball long when under pressure? But even that would not explain the lack of creativity and attacking intent from midfield.

Let’s hope that this is a one-off and that hoofball has not returned to Wigan.

Unlocking the Powell enigma

Can Caldwell unlock the enigma who is Nick Powell?

Can Caldwell unlock the enigma who is Nick Powell?

In the 66th minute of a deadlocked game on Saturday, Stephen Warnock launched a superb cross into the Burton penalty box. Wigan’s number 25 made a run from midfield, ahead of a defender, dived in and headed it with power. Sadly for Latics the ball was to flash narrowly wide of the post. It had looked a certain goal.

Nick Powell had got himself into a great position and almost delivered the goods. It was not the worst miss we will see this season, but it was to open up a debate as to which Powell we are seeing right now. Would the dynamic young player who thrived under Owen Coyle have put the ball in the net? Or were we seeing the one who floundered under Uwe Rosler?

Three years ago to this month Powell starred in a Europa League victory over Maribor. His first goal had come after 22 minutes: a simple header into an empty net after the Slovenian goalkeeper had made a hash of a punch. Ben Watson added another 12 minutes later, but Maribor clawed their way back into the game as Latics went flat, scoring after 61 minutes. Powell’s deciding goal came in the 91st minute when he somehow found the energy that most of his teammates did not have to slalom through the visitor’s defence and score with style.

Powell’s stock was high. His name was being touted around the media as the one who could go back to Old Trafford and lift his parent club out of their lethargy. He had become a key player in Coyle’s squad. Given the number of games Latics were facing the manager was operating a rotation policy but Powell seemed to be the one Latics forward who could go the full 90 minutes on a regular basis. It prompted fans to wonder about the fitness levels of his team mates.

Following Coyle’s departure, Powell started in both of Graham Barrow’s games in charge, but was substituted early in the second half. He was pulled off after 65 minutes in Uwe Rosler’s first game, a 2-1 defeat at Maribor. However, in the next match he came back to play the full ninety against Bolton, scoring with a spectacular bicycle kick in Latics’ 3-2 win.He went on to score in the 2-1 win at Reading in the next match, but was taken off at half time.

Around that time in late December media speculation over Powell’s future was going haywire. Whether it was due to the media hype or to a series of niggling injuries, Powell could not recapture his early season form. What was visible to the fans was a Powell not showing the same kind of physical commitment that they had seen earlier in the season. Moreover the swagger that the young player was showing in his body language earlier in the season that had been seen as a sign of self-belief, was now being interpreted by some as a “couldn’t care less” attitude.

Powell went back to Manchester United when his loan expired in the summer of 2014. He started in the United team that lost 4-0 to the MK Dons in the League Cup, being taken off after 57 minutes. Within a week he had joined Leicester City on loan, but had to be content with just three appearances off the bench. His loan spell was cut short at the end of December with Leicester citing a lack of commitment to training. On his return to Old Trafford he was to be out for nine months with a hamstring injury.

In December 2015 he came on as a 69th minute substitute for United in a Champions League defeat at Wolfsburg. A week later he came off the bench after 74 minutes in a 2-1 reverse at Bournemouth. In early February 2016 Powell joined Hull City on loan, making his debut in a goalless draw with Arsenal in the FA Cup, being withdrawn after 78 minutes. He was to go on to make three Premier League appearances off the bench before completing a full 90 minutes in a 4-0 FA Cup defeat by Arsenal.

In the two years between leaving Wigan and returning, Nick Powell made a starting lineup 4 times, completing the full 90 minutes-plus just once. He made 8 appearances off the bench. Can he put this nightmare time behind him?

Gary Caldwell stuck his neck out in summer by signing Powell, given his form over the past two and a half seasons. Moreover the 22 year old is surely going to be on a salary above most of his teammates. Why did Caldwell take such a gamble? Can Powell get back to full fitness and the kind of form he showed three years ago?

Powell’s best times at Wigan were when he was playing as a central striker. However, Caldwell has been playing the Crewe-born player in his preferred role in midfield. Up to this point he has started 5 times with 5 appearances off the bench. His best performance up to this point was in his first appearance against Blackburn Rovers, where he scored from a free kick and had a good all-round game.

Although he has not been able to keep up his form of the Blackburn match, he has completed the full 90 minutes in three games. Given the player’s injury problems over the past couple of years it is a step in the right direction. Caldwell clearly has faith in this talented player who had lost his way. Can the Scot nurture Powell back to the match sharpness that will make him the threat to opposition defences that we saw under Owen Coyle?

In recent matches Powell has alternated with Jordi Gomez for the “number 10 role” behind the centre forward. Gomez too has been some way short of full match fitness after so little involvement in Sunderland’s pre-season. Both have the capability of controlling the flow of midfield play, together with potent goalscoring prowess.

Should both Powell and Gomez reach peak fitness, Caldwell will surely have a selection problem on his hands. There is a strong argument to suggest that there is not room in the midfield for the two of them. Each needs a good share of the ball to function. However, Powell can also play as a central striker, although Latics now have three others in Craig Davies, Will Grigg and Adam Le Fondre.

However, the reality at this moment in time is that Nick Powell has just started back on the road towards recuperating his football career. Should he manage to shake off those injury problems that have bugged him for too long he will also have to recover the kind of self-belief that he had as a 19 year old in the Coyle era.

Powell is certainly a high profile player at Wigan, but a real enigma. Can Caldwell unlock the enigma in a way that no manager has done over the last couple of years?

Like all players Powell has his supporters and his critics. In this same month three years ago the former surely outnumbered the latter. But since then a downturn in form has turned around fan opinion of him.

There is a long road ahead for Nick Powell in his bid to regenerate himself as a footballer. Let’s hope that in the months ahead that we will see his swagger as a manifestation of the levels of self-belief that he showed as a 19 year old.

A History Lesson

history

“Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.”
Winston Churchill

Uwe Rosler was the toast of Wigan in the summer of 2014. But within three months he was gone – his prior achievements counting for nothing. Dave Whelan had sacked him, in the hope that a strong Latics squad could still get promotion back to the Premier League. Little did we know what a disaster the German’s dismissal would turn out to be.

Had Rosler not been dismissed, would Wigan Athletic have been relegated? Granted, they were not playing well and Rosler’s new signings were taking a long time to gel with their teammates. Whelan had backed his manager in the transfer market. Hopes were high when he made the signings. Despite losing three of his best in Jean Beausejour, Jordi Gomez and James McArthur, Rosler had apparently strengthened his squad, bringing in a host of players who had good reviews. Not least of those were two exciting strikers from Europe.

Andy Delort and Oriol Riera were never bad players. The former has recently joined Universidad de Nuevo Leon, known as Los Tigres (the Tigers) for a fee over £6m, of which Latics received a portion, having put a sell-on clause in his contract when he was returning to Caen. Riera returned to La Liga and continues to enjoy the top division in Spain with Pamplona side, Osasuna, after time with Deportivo La Coruna. Neither player was given an extended run at Wigan, nor were they played as twin strikers. Marc Antoine Fortune had thought his first team chances were limited when the two arrived, but he was to see them off in January. MAF went on to score just 2 league goals in 37 appearances under Rosler and his successor, Malky Mackay.

We can only speculate about the futures of other Rosler signings. Midfielder Adam Forshaw is now playing in the Premier League after a slow start at Middlesbrough. James Tavernier and Martyn Waghorn have had a wonderful time at Rangers, albeit in the lowly standards of the Scottish Championship division. Emyr Huws has gone to Cardiff, his undoubted talent overshadowed by a consistent ankle problem and questions over his commitment to the club. Aaron Taylor-Sinclair’s time at Wigan was marred by injury: he remains at League 1 Doncaster. Don Cowie and Andrew Taylor, both signed from Cardiff, were to become the scapegoats of a relegation season. They had been successful in Wales but it was not to be in Wigan. Free agent signing William Kvist was captain of his national side, but could not reckon on a place in the starting lineup, Kvist went back to Denmark, where he continues to play for FC Copenhagen.

Like Rosler, Gary Caldwell also felt the need to bring in a swathe of new players to meet the demands of the Championship this season. Most are struggling to adjust to their new club and their manager’s preferred style of play.  Caldwell had brought in even more last season, when it took months for the sum of the parts to approximate to the whole. But in the end the quality of the players he could bring in gave him the divisional title.

Latics currently have 5 points from 8 league games. At the same stage two years ago Rosler’s team had 8 points. However, expectations differ greatly. Rosler was looking at promotion, whereas Caldwell will surely be looking at consolidation. But is Caldwell under the kind of pressure that prevailed upon Rosler at this time a couple of years ago?

Both managers had excellent records in their previous seasons. Caldwell’s achievement of winning League 1 is more than matched by Rosler’s success in revitalising his squad into reaching the playoffs and the FA Cup semi-final. But, given Rosler’s precipitous fall from grace, could Caldwell suffer a similar fate?

Looking back on the 2014-15 season one can only reflect in what might have happened. When Rosler was dismissed we continued to think about promotion. Perhaps we were being overoptimistic, but the woeful appointment of Malky Mackay put paid to that. He oversaw a January fire sale, including elements who had undermined his predecessor, leaving the squad threadbare. Relegation was the consequence.

Much has been said about Rosler being dictatorial with his players, that he brought in too many new faces, leading to discontent. But he was faced with an old guard from the eras of both Martinez and Owen Coyle. Modern football managers recruit players who will be loyal to them, rather than those whose fealty lies with predecessors. If Rosler made a key mistake, it was that of bringing in too many of his own men, bruising the egos of the status quo. Moreover his squad got so large that he had too many discontented players starved of first team football. Is Caldwell heading the same way?

There is a viewpoint that Caldwell should have stayed loyal with the players who helped him win the League 1 title. The departures of Sam Morsy and Jason Pearce were certainly controversial, the loaning out of Ryan Colclough was a surprise, and the stripping of the captaincy from Craig Morgan, following an abortive move to Sheffield United, suggests he will struggle to claim a place in the starting lineup. Moreover goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen, another key element last season, is now playing second fiddle to Adam Bogdan. It had been the introduction of the big Finn, in place of Richard O’Donnell who was struggling to meet Caldwell’s demands of a goalkeeper, that coincided with an upturn in performances. Jaaskelainen provided an aura of confidence to his defence and his ability to distribute the ball became an important cog in Caldwell’s possession football.

However, although Pearce has gone to Charlton on a permanent transfer, Morsy and Colclough have been sent out on season-long loans. Caldwell has inferred that Colclough remains in his plans although his lips have been sealed regarding Morsy. Colclough has already made three league starts for MK Dons, whereas ex-Latics goalkeeper Lee Nicholls and Jack Hendry, on loan until January, have not made any. One of the criticisms of Colclough’s loan was that it meant he was going back to League 1, whereas Morsy was going to a Championship club in Barnsley. In fact Morsy has made just one appearance so far with the Tykes, as a 65th minute substitute.

Long term injuries have robbed Caldwell of Donervon Daniels, Reece James and Andy Kellett from last season’s squad.  Moreover both Craig Morgan and David Perkins have recently been unavailable through niggles.

As it was during the second season under Rosler, new players brought in have been under the spotlight. None more so than Dan Burn and Shaun MacDonald, seen by some as replacements for Pearce and Morsy. Burn’s fateful error at Bristol saw him warming the bench for a couple of matches, but he has performed well in the last two games since his return to the starting lineup. Moreover MacDonald, who has played little first team football over the past two seasons, inevitably started slowly, but showed his worth on Saturday with a good display against Fulham.

It was bad news for Caldwell to see Alex Gilbey stretchered off the field on Saturday, after being an ever-present in league games up to that point. The ex-Colchester player has already made the transition from League 1 to the Championship, his fine technique providing him with a solid foundation. Jordi Gomez, back after a two year stint at Sunderland, has already showed what class he can bring to the team in three appearances to date.

Jake Buxton’s sending off in the League Cup led to a three match suspension and he has made just three appearances in the league so far. However, by naming him vice-captain Caldwell clearly expects Buxton to be a mainstay in the centre of defence. Reece Burke, arriving with the highest of recommendations following last season’s loan at Bradford, will most likely compete with Burn for a central defensive position, although he was employed in the troublesome right back position at Norwich. Nathan Byrne has looked lively in his two appearances off the bench so far, although there are questions about his defending skills as an orthodox right back. Byrne will best employed as a wing back in 3-5-2 or a winger in 4-3-3.

Nick Powell’s signing was a gamble by Caldwell, following a couple of seasons bereft of first team football and niggling injuries. Powell showed his exciting capabilities as a midfielder in the 3-0 defeat of Blackburn, but fitness concerns continue to dog him. At his best, Powell is a top player in this division, but he clearly has a long way to go in terms of achieving match fitness.

Adam Bogdan was an excellent goalkeeper at Bolton, but his difficult experiences at Liverpool will surely have damaged his confidence. At times this season he has looked dominant in his box and has made fine saves that kept his team in the game. However, his fatal error at Norwich shows that he is still coming to terms with Caldwell’s requirement for a goalkeeper to use his feet to build up moves from defence.

Luke Garbutt has not shown his best form yet. He had an indifferent loan spell at Fulham last season, not being helped by an injury early on. Garbutt’s loan is up to January, when he will most likely return to Everton where expectations were that he would be the successor to Leighton Baines. Caldwell will be hoping Reece James will regain fitness by the time that Garbutt’s loan is due to end.

On Saturday, Caldwell withdrew Will Grigg after 71 minutes, bringing on Adam Le Fondre. The manager’s dilemma will be in giving Le Fondre sufficient game time to keep him sharp. His preference for a lone central striker means that he is unlikely to play the two together, except near the end of games where his team needs to pull a goal back. Craig Davies already knows what it is like to be the backup striker, having had to be content with late appearances off the bench.

Caldwell’s starting lineup against Fulham contained six players signed over the summer. Moreover three more made appearances off the bench. Caldwell is familiar with the challenges of bringing in new players and weaning them into playing his style of football. He did it successfully in the past, but at this stage last season his team had 13 points, having won half the league games they had played. Caldwell’s current team has a solitary victory so far.

It is to be hoped that David Sharpe will heed Winston Churchill’s warning. His grandfather’s decision to dispense of Uwe Rosler’s services in November 2014 was compounded by the jettisoning of so many newly recruited players a couple of months later. The result was horrendous.

As with Rosler’s new recruits, Caldwell’s latest signings need time to adjust and to gel with their teammates. Caldwell himself will need time to get his squad up to speed. Sharpe needs to back the manager, who in turn needs to back his players. New players need time to adjust and to buy into Caldwell’s style of play.

There are testing times ahead. Latics are currently in the relegation zone, but as the new players gel results will surely improve. The question is when this will happen.

It could be later, rather than sooner.

 

Champagne football returns to the DW –Latics 3 Blackburn Rovers 0 – with match highlights

It was probably Nick Powell's best display in a Wigan shirt.

It was probably Nick Powell’s best display in a Wigan shirt.

It brought back memories of the champagne football of yesteryear. Admittedly Rovers looked a poor side, but the quality of Wigan’s play in the first half was reminiscent of that of those glorious times of the tail end of the 2012-13 season. In those days Shaun Maloney had been at the heart of it: yesterday it was Nick Powell.

Gary Caldwell stuck with the 3-5-2 formation. With Jake Buxton suspended, Stephen Warnock moved to left centre back, with Dan Burn in the middle and Craig Morgan on the right. David Perkins was played as a left wing back, with Nick Powell taking his place in midfield.

Wigan soon settled into a positive rhythm, building up from the back, but not averse to launching calculated long balls. The wing backs were lively, the midfield fluid and classy, the two forwards constantly searching for space. Latics’ high pressing caused Blackburn problems from the start and Alex Gilbey might have scored as early as the third minute after Yanic Wildschut had dispossessed centre back Shaun Duffy and rolled the ball into his path. Gilbey fired narrowly wide.

Given Wigan’s dominance it came as no surprise when they scored after 14 minutes. A glorious long diagonal pass from Morgan to Wildschut initiated a move that saw Max Power teed up for a shot from outside the box. Power’s shot was wayward, but Will Grigg instinctively got his head to the ball and it flashed into the net. The champagne football continued, with Powell orchestrating the play, together with his midfield partners, Gilbey and Power. Latics almost went two up after 25 minutes with Wildschut hitting the crossbar but another goal was surely coming. It happened in the 33rd minute when Powell curled in a free kick from the left side of the penalty area, goalkeeper Steele getting hands to it, but unable to keep it out.

Latics went into half time with a two goal lead after playing scintillating football. But one wondered if they could keep it going or whether they would go into their shells as they did at Bristol a week before. Could they keep up that same intensity?

It turned out that they couldn’t. However, although they were to take their foot off the gas they remained in control. As the second half wore on, Powell’s influence was to diminish, as was the high pressing that had characterized their first half display. Powell was to go off after 62 minutes, being replaced by Michael Jacobs.

The visitors had started to come back into the game, but a minute later an own goal by the unfortunate Duffy from a superb cross by Jacobs was to knock them back on their heels. Tim Chow replaced the excellent Luke Burke after 75 minutes, with Craig Davies coming on for an equally excellent Will Grigg after 81 minutes. The game was to peter away with Latics seemingly having Tuesday’s game against Birmingham City uppermost in their minds.

The Good

The signing of Nick Powell a couple of weeks ago was a gamble. Lacking first team football over the past two years and being beset by injuries, Caldwell was nevertheless hoping the player could regain that spark that he showed in Owen Coyle’s days at Wigan. But Powell’s midfield play was a revelation in this match, probably his best display in Latics colours. He looked a complete player in midfield, his technical abilities being allied with a keen workrate. Gary Caldwell later remarked that:

That’s what Nick can do when he has got his mind on it and he’s right. He’s been first class since he came in, worked really hard with the fitness coaches – credit to them for getting him fit – and I’d probably say he’s working at a fitness level of about 60% at the moment and yet you saw today what he could produce.

Alex Gilbey also had a fine game. He is another player with a great technique, but he was to ally that with excellent movement off the ball and a willingness to fight for possession. Although in some ways a similar type of player to Max Power there seems to be room in the Wigan midfield for the two.

Luke Burke continues to impress. He is the complete wing back, intelligent in his distribution, strong in the tackle, with a level of composure that belies his 18 years of age. One wonders how he will fare when used as an orthodox right back when the manager opts for a conventional back four. On the evidence of what we have seen so far he should slot in seamlessly.

David Perkins was also impressive at wing back, constantly supporting attacks, solid in defence. The back three were strong, Craig Morgan being his usual calm influence, with his fine distribution. Dan Burn looked much more comfortable in the centre of the back three, where he was able to use his height to greater effect, winning headers, but he was also effective on the ground. Stephen Warnock was excellent throughout, tenacious in the tackle, thoughtful in his positioning, showing better judgement with his passing.

There have been questions as to whether Will Grigg can perform above League 1 level. On the basis of this performance there is no doubt that he can. Although faced with two uncompromising central defenders he led them a merry dance, his intelligent movement creating space. Yanic Wildschut was also impressive in a role where he has freedom to roam, rather being tied to a wide position which makes it easier for the opposition to nullify his efforts. Moreover the Dutchman is showing an increasing awareness of the positioning of his colleagues, more effective in his passing.

The Bad

Once again the second half performance was a disappointment after the first. Is there something in the players’ mindsets, is it a fitness issue, is it the manager’s desire to drop back on defence and hit on the counterattack? Or is it associated with the natural ebb and flow of a football game?

Whatever it is it needs to be addressed. Not only is it unfair on the fans, who go to a match hoping for entertainment, but it also lets teams off the hook who could have been dead and buried if the intensity had been kept up.

Uwe Rosler used the high pressing tactic to great effect during his better days at the club, although his players were unable to sustain it beyond the first half. Yesterday it was enough to unbalance the Blackburn defence in the early stages, but it dissipated as the game progressed.

It would be refreshing to see a Latics team, in the lead at the interval, come out and attack the opposition as soon as the second half starts. One can understand a team taking its foot off the gas in the final quarter, given another encounter being just three days away. But the second half slump is something that needs to be addressed.

Player Ratings

Adam Bogdan: 7 – had a fairly quiet time.

Luke Burke: 8 – excellent.

Craig Morgan: 8 – an understated, consistent performer and a calming influence on the defence.

Dan Burn: 8 – his best game so far.

Stephen Warnock: 8.5 – seems to relish that left centre back position. Influential.

David Perkins: 8 – as selfless as ever, but showing no mean level of skill too.

Max Power: 8 – getting back to his old form. Will he claim an assist for Grigg’s goal?

Alex Gilbey: 8.5 – looks a class player.

Nick Powell: 9 – a terrific display.

Will Grigg: 8.5 – a fine performance. His goal bore the stamp of a true poacher.

Yanic Wildschut: 8 – very good.

Substitutes:

Michael Jacobs: – came on after 63 minutes. Worked hard.

Tim Chow: – on for Burke after 75 minutes.

Craig Davies: – it was good to see the big man come on in the last 10 minutes for a tired Grigg. There have been rumours that he is on his way out of the club, but his physical presence gives Caldwell more options.