Five talking points arising from the win against Rotherham

Wigan Athletic 1 Rotherham 0

It was akin to a throwback to the days in League 1. The visiting team had come to “park the bus” and rely on long balls and set pieces as their outlet for threatening the Wigan goal. The previous home games against Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest had been so entertaining. This one was much less so.

Rotherham manager Paul Warne commented after the game that: “We were pleased to get them in at 0-0 at half-time. I thought Wigan were the better side without making our ‘keeper make too many saves. At half-time, we made our defenders play a lot higher up the pitch and our midfielders play higher to give some support to Smithy. I thought we were the better side in the second half. We were pushing for the goal and we had plenty of set-pieces. There was a block here and a block there and it just didn’t drop for us today against an excellent Wigan side, who played Stoke off the park last week.”

Warne summed up the first half well and the Millers certainly threatened in the closing stages with their aerial bombardment, but the Latics defence held firm. Wigan fans might debate Warne’s assertion that Rotherham were the better of the two sides in the second half, using their “direct” approach. It was not pretty to watch but caused some worrying moments for the home crowd.

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

Cook chooses Connolly on the right

A refreshing aspect of Paul Cook’s tenure as Latics manager has been in the balanced starting line-ups he has selected. It has been like a breath of fresh air for Latics fans who had to endure the Warren Joyce playing four holding midfielders across the middle of the park. Cook has placed an emphasis on playing the ball wide, with the full backs bombing forward to link up with speedy wingers.

However, yesterday Cook chose to play without an orthodox right winger although he had both Nathan Byrne and Callum McManaman available. Perhaps he felt that Callum Connolly deserved another run-out and the Everton player certainly reinforced the midfield. But there was not the same degree of pace on the right-hand side as a result.

On the left Josh Windass is in the process of adapting to the role that Michael Jacobs has played over the past year. Windass did not play at all badly and provided the pass to McManaman that led to Wigan’s goal. He also showed his ability on set pieces with a fizzler of a free kick in the first half which sent narrowly wide. Cook will be expecting that Windass’ shooting ability will add an extra dimension to Wigan’s play. However, yesterday Wigan lacked the kind of creativity on the left that Jacobs can provide.

The football took a nose-dive when Grigg and Powell went off

Will Grigg and Nick Powell were taken off after 60 minutes, with James Vaughan and Callum McManaman replacing them. The result was a deterioration in the level of Wigan’s football, with hopeful punts gradually becoming the norm rather than the controlled passing game we had seen up to that point.

Powell is the pivot in midfield through which so much of Latics’ best football flows. As the second half progressed Latics just could not hold on to the ball, putting undue pressure on the defence. Vaughan’s arrival once more coincided with more long balls. One wonders if the players are playing under orders to launch them towards Vaughan, or whether it is the player’s willingness to chase seemingly lost causes that affects the style of play. Or is it simply that in the final third of the game the players tire and just cannot keep that passing game going?

Walton – the most composed player

Christian Walton continues to grow in confidence, after looking nervy in the opening games. Yesterday he looked the most composed player on the pitch, excellent in his anticipation of opposition breakaways, reliable in his box.

Unnecessary free kicks

So many Championship teams are dangerous from set pieces. League 1 teams certainly had tall players who could threaten in the air, but in the second tier the delivery is superior. Following Wigan’s goal, the Millers brought on Kyle Vassell (6 ft) and Jamie Proctor (6 ft 2 in) to join the 6 ft 4 in centre forward Michael Smith.

The Wigan defence looked distinctly wobbly in the past quarter facing an aerial bombardment. It was not helped by the concession of unnecessary fouls giving the visitors the opportunity to launch dangerous crosses.

Powell stays

It was a relief for Wigan Athletic supporters for the loan transfer deadline to pass without the departure of Nick Powell. The next step is for the club to negotiate a new contract for a player whose market will soar if he continues to stay fit.

Reports suggest that the prospective new owners were present at the DW Stadium yesterday. Will the takeover actually happen soon?

Nathan Byrne, Gavin Massey, Shaun MacDonald, Sam Morsy and James Vaughan are in the same position as Powell, with their current contracts expiring in summer. It will be interesting to see how many of them are offered contract extensions.

 

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Five talking points following a stunning win at Stoke

Stoke City 0 Wigan Athletic 3

 

“It was the perfect performance from us, everything has gone our way on the night. I thought Stoke started the game excellent, they put us under pressure and may feel like they could have scored a goal in their spell of pressure. We always felt we would have moments in the game and obviously tonight the key moments have gone our way.

The goals were scored at a good time for us and it ends up being one of those performances where you say ‘yeah it looks good on paper, but I feel we won in a fortunate way. Stoke not scoring early in the game was massive. We’ve conceded two very late goals and people have questioned our defending, but today we could deal with Stoke well.”

Paul Cook can be so refreshingly honest in his post-match comments. Latics had withstood constant pressure from the home side in the first quarter of the game with backs to the wall defending. But Will Grigg’s opportunist goal after 27 minutes signalled the major shift that followed, with Latics playing exciting, attacking football that Stoke found so hard to cope with.

The body language, on-pitch understanding, commitment and teamwork –– those things that make a set of individuals a team – could not have been in starker contrast. Stoke looked a team on the way down, Latics a team on the up.

A firm defence provided the foundation

Cook will have been delighted with a clean sheet for a defence that had conceded seven goals in their first three league games. Stoke played some quality football in the first 25 minutes, looking dangerous, but Latics held firm. In their fourth outing together the back four of James, Dunkley, Kipre and Robinson has grown as a cohesive unit. Behind them, Christian Walton is gaining in confidence, not only adjusting to the higher division but also in being much more pressured by opposition attackers than he was in League 1.

Moreover, the holding midfielders played a major part. Lee Evans and Sam Morsy were excellent throughout, resolute in defence, resourceful in attack.

Cook embracing the back 3/5 with the Connolly substitution was a great move

It was effective “game management”. Callum Connolly, though young, is relatively experienced. His versatility, confidence, and calm is a real plus.

Cook will surely stick to his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation from the start of games, but the change in shape in moving to a back 3/5 is something that will give the opposition something new to think about.

Cook also broke with his usual approach by pushing Nick Powell to centre forward when Will Grigg went off. It was a welcome change to the more frequent tack of bringing on James Vaughan to fight for long balls. This is not a criticism of Vaughan, who plays with his heart on his sleeve, but of the “more direct” tactic.

Nick Powell is enjoying the Championship and being fitter

Powell was excellent again last night. He seems to be relishing the chance to play in the second tier again, where he has more freedom and more protection from referees. League 1 teams would not only double mark him, but sometimes even more so, too often resorting to dubious tackles. Admittedly, it created space for other Latics players, but it must have been hard for him at times. Powell started in 38 league games last season, the highest in his career.

Paul Cook and his staff have done a wonderful job in helping Powell regain his fitness levels after some time in the wilderness. Moreover Cook has shown faith in a player who he knows has real quality.

Last night Powell was still chasing down balls almost 80 minutes in. He looks in such good shape. On current form he must surely rate as one of the players of the division.

Gavin Massey looked a class act

One always felt Massey could step up a level because he doesn’t suffer from a lack of pace, bad/inexperienced decision-making, or skill – but his success (and that of Michael Jacobs) in the opening games is a testament to Cook’s motivating and man-management. He always says belief is so important – they are that personified so far!

 Can Latics perform at QPR?

Cook’s policy of not changing a winning team has paid him high dividends in his stay so far. But what kind of line up can we expect at QPR on Saturday?

QPR are, on paper at least, the weakest team Latics will have faced. They have no points from four matches. However, the game could be a potential “banana skin”.

Much will depend on the energy levels that Latics have in their third game in a week.

Reece James was excellent last night. He has so much maturity for an 18-year-old and looks destined to become a top player. However, it would not be a surprise to see Cook bring back Nathan Byrne and rest the Chelsea loan player.

Moreover, Michael Jacobs appeared to have an injury. If unavailable he could well be replaced by Josh Windass.

 

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Lang signs new contract – but who will be the next?

The announcement of a new two-year contract for the 19-year-old Callum Lang came at an opportune time. It left Wigan Athletic time to consolidate their investment in a player who has the potential to play in the upper tiers of English football. Lang is to be sent off on loan until January to Oldham Athletic, who were last season relegated to League 2.

It was in mid-May that the media reported that Everton were interested in signing Lang, who was in the Liverpool academy until he joined Latics at the age of 14. He made his Wigan debut in a League Cup game against Blackpool in August 2017 before being loaned to Morecambe for the season.

The 5 ft 11 in tall Lang had a successful loan with the Shrimps, making 14 starts, 16 substitute appearances and scoring 10 goals. Although regarded as a centre forward at Wigan, Lang would often play behind the central striker at Morecambe.

In modern football the majority of the clubs in the top tiers rarely give their young players an extended run in their senior team. The norm is that they are sent on loan to clubs in lower divisions, giving them first team experience in a competitive environment, thereby maximising their value in the transfer market. It is a minority who go back to their parent clubs and establish themselves as first team regulars. So, what are the chances of Lang becoming a major player for Latics?

Wigan Athletic has sadly been a graveyard for young players over recent years. The most recent success story was Leighton Baines and he left for Everton in 2007. So many youngsters have shown promise at youth level and looked destined for higher things, only to depart to clubs in the lower tiers. Latics managers, under pressure for results, have been reluctant to throw youngsters into the fray. But finding suitable loans for young players has never been easy for Wigan.

Last season saw Latics sending six homegrown youngsters on loan to non-league clubs. Three of those have since left the club. Sam Stubbs went to Crewe Alexandra until January, then to AFC Fylde. He too has departed the club. On the club website Callum Lang is listed with the development squad, but the 16-year-old Joe Gelhardt listed with the senior squad.  Gelhardt is clearly a bright young talent, already on the radar with big Premier League clubs.

Providing Gelhardt is not snapped up can we seriously expect him to contend for a place in the senior team? Admittedly, he came on as a substitute in the League Cup defeat at Rotherham, but would Cook even think of giving him an opportunity in a league game?

Lang clearly benefitted from his time in League 2, playing at a club that was struggling to avoid relegation. At the time it was at a level just one tier below where Latics were. Should he make a success in the first half of the season at Oldham, could he contend for a first team place at Wigan in January?

Latics currently have four centre forwards in their senior squad. Given that one is likely to leave there would remain three who would be above Lang in the pecking order. If Lang were to become a candidate for the number 10 role he would compete with Nick Powell, Gary Roberts and possibly Jamie Walker. The probability is that Lang would be sent off on loan again in January.

Given that Lang has been offered an extended contract, what will happen with the senior squad players whose current deals expire next summer? They include Nathan Byrne, Gavin Massey, Shaun MacDonald, Sam Morsy, Nick Powell and James Vaughan. Having already lost Dan Burn in the last year of his contract, can we expect more departures via the loan-to-buy route? Why are the futures of these players still left hanging?

Some fans will cite the change in the ownership as the main issue involved in the contract renewals, but it could amount to more than that. There is a possibility that at least one of those players will leave in the next couple of weeks, together with loans and loan-to-buy deals for those on longer contracts. Cook’s squad is currently unbalanced with a wealth of midfielders and forwards, but a lack of experienced defenders. He can be expected to rebalance the squad.

On the other hand, Will Grigg and Michael Jacobs were in a similar position this time last year. Both went on to sign contracts to bind them to the club until summer 2020, Grigg’s deal being announced in early September and Jacobs’ in mid-October 2017.

Offering Callum Lang, a new contract was a good move by the club. We can only hope they can be equally judicious in their dealings with those key senior squad players whose contracts are winding down.

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Latics fans react to recent events on the social media

The social media and message boards have been particularly busy recently following a trio of signings the day before the first game of the season, each doing well in a wonderfully entertaining win over Sheffield Wednesday. But a lot more could happen before the transfer window closes on Thursday, with speculation abounding in the media. Moreover there has also been a rumour that the takeover will be announced on Thursday too.

Once again we trawled the social media following Saturday’s game. Our thanks go to the Cockney Latic Forum, the Vital Wigan – Latics Speyk Forum, The Boulevard of Broken Dreams on Facebook,  and also Twitter for providing the media for the posts below to happen. Thanks go to all whose contributions are identified below.

Will Jones picked up Alan Nixon’s tweet about who was sitting behind Dave Whelan in the directors’ box on Saturday:

Studds40 on Latics Speyk commented:

If that’s not Cheng it’s his spitting image.

If it is him, and his family still own a minority stake in IEC, it can only be a positive to see him taking in a Latics game. Better still by all accounts he enjoyed it. Whether it’s direct involvement, or a passing interest, these things can lead to other business associations such as sponsorships and what have you.

It was also good to see all of the current owners and board members sat with the prospective owners. At the very least it suggest a cordial working relationship. Same goes with seeing Royal and his son in the directors box. Better to have a smooth transition.

Hampton on Latics Speyk stated:

It was Cheng (straight fm the owners suite horses mouth) he is not fronting up the transaction but is underwriting it hence some of the corporate validation delays. How much he will lump on tics is of course open to question.

Pemblue1932 on the Cockney Latic Forum commented:

Been in wigan all week, and at the training ground, already paid for the new pitch (6 million), moved the worriers out of the offices and into Robin Park, initially investigating 80 million to get us in the prem, was behind Cook signing new contract.

Horc responded to Pemblue:

Nobody will shoot the messenger pemblue, I just hope you are right on the third part.
BTW, I heard it will be announced before the deadline and there could be further additions to the squad.

Trent_Wigan on the Cockney Latic Forum commented on player performances on Saturday:

Gibson was MoM for me today. His 1st touch passes were excellent. Always made himself available for the ball.

Robinson gave him a run for MoM. If he carries on like that he will be the best left back we have had since Baines. Not only can he cross a ball he can do it with both feet.

HudWiganFan on Latics Speyk commended the players:

Excellent performance – its great to see players like Jacobs and Massey proving their critics wrong and showcasing their skills to great effect.

A fast-paced, enthralling attacking performance that produced countless chances against sturdy championship opposition and easily warranted more goals than the three scored.

Not bad for a team filled with ‘League One players’ that allegedly lack the quality to play at the level above!!

Bigroy on the Cockney Latic Forum commented:

Lots of reasons to be optimistic. For his first professional game Reece James was fearless and settled well despite the odd mishit pass, Kipre was a revelation and like a rock at the back, Robinson looked quick on the break, set up the first goal and has bags of potential whilst Gibson controlled the midfield, played some great balls, broke up play and made a terrific goal saving block in the second half. Jacobs was MOTM, scored two good goals, hit the bar with a cracking effort and got an assist for the third and you couldn’t say any of the players didn’t play well. All round a great game and thought the scoreline flattered the opposition given the chances we created. If we keep that level this season should be a cracker.

GazLatic on Latics Speyk opined:

Kipre is only 21, a million is a snip of he develops. It’s a good example of the business plan buying young players to look at selling on for a profit.

Studds40 on Latics Speyk expects further turnover:

I imagine 4 or 5 will be on the way out to streamline the squad and make room on the wage bill. Even if we are flush with cash you don’t want established players never in with a chance of making the bench. Cole, Colclough, Walker, MacDonald, plus Flores & Lang, maybe on the market.

Apparently we’ve left the No.10 squad number free. So that could be for an outright striker or someone to sit just behind. At this time all clubs are open to in’s and out’s. Quality players may become available we weren’t in for that we take an interest in.

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WafcHarvey on Latics Speyk revealed:

I was chatting with Walkers family in Glasgow. They was saying that Jamie wasn’t happy with his involvement and had asked his agent to speak with the club. He was told that he was too small and weak when he arrived which he has been working on. I can only imagine Cook has been miffed by his agents involvement and decided to freeze him out. His Instagram showed him at the training ground Saturday and he has removed Wigan Athletic from his Instagram and changed his picture to him in a Hearts top. Shame as I thought he would do well this season, but I also said Gilbey would be one of our best players last season and he left on deadline day so what do I know!

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Points more important than entertainment – Walsall 0 Wigan Athletic 3

 

“The game was a bit bitty and the pitches are what they are at this stage of the season so it is difficult to play a certain type of game. We have been adapting a little bit more with Vaughany up top and going a bit longer, quicker, in our pursuit of trying to get points on the board.”

Paul Cook once again summed it up well. It was the dullest of games with two teams playing the long ball, on a surface that was cutting up quickly. If football were purely a form of entertainment some 4,000 or so spectators would have been within their rights to claim a refund for their admission last night.

But for Wigan Athletic supporters at this stage of the season, winning was more important than entertainment. The win puts Latics within a point of Shrewsbury and two of Blackburn, with two games in hand.

To be fair there were a few memorable moments, before the game came to resemble a training match for Latics. Nick Powell looked by far and away the most cultured player on the pitch, even before his sublime pass with the outside of his right foot was excellently converted by Michael Jacobs after 31 minutes. It was reminiscent of the memorable pass Powell made at Plymouth, but this time from the left, rather than the right.

To all intents and purposes the game was all over within the next ten minutes. Jay Fulton justified his first league start with a beautifully struck shot from the edge of the box following a goalmouth melee from Max Power’s free kick. Chey Dunkley added a third from close range after the home goalkeeper had come out to intercept a corner kick but fluffed it.

Modern football has become more about winning more than anything else. Whereas in a bygone era a team that was three goals up by half time would go out to try to add to its tally, the modern team has its eye on the next match and looks to conserve its energy.

Following on the Southampton game on Sunday we had wondered if Cook’s team would have the stomach to fight a team close to the relegation zone on a difficult pitch. But Wigan came in with a determination to get a good result, albeit sacrificing the quality of their football to get it. Strangely enough Latics had not played well in the first half, despite going into the half time break with a three-goal cushion.

The second half seemed more like a training game for Wigan, sadly lacking in entertainment. The mystery was why Cook chose not to bring on his substitutes earlier. He switched James Vaughan for Will Grigg after 70 minutes but left it until 81 minutes to introduce Gary Roberts for Fulton. He brought on Devante Cole after 89 minutes, begging the question why it had not happened when Vaughan went off.

Paul Cook has shown us before that he can be a pragmatist. Although he clearly prefers his team to play attractive, expansive football he is realistic enough to know how hard it can be on a pitch like that at the Bescot Stadium. The long-ball approach led to an important win.

Despite their new manager, Walsall could not produce the goods. They lacked not only technique, but also aggression. It was  the easiest game of the season to referee a Wigan league encounter. Nick Powell was able to stroll through the game largely unscathed, not something to which he has been accustomed over these months. The foul count read 12 fouls by Walsall, 8 by Wigan. There was just one yellow card, that being received by Max Power.

It is unlikely that Bury will respond like Walsall when Latics visit Gigg Lane on Saturday. Although the Shakers are in bottom place, with a relegation practically a certainty, we can certainly expect some fireworks from them. Some will say that it is better to face a mid-table team with little to play for at this time of the season, rather than a team in the relegation dog-fight, even if Bury look dead and buried.

Cook’s team will surely be prepared for a scrap on Saturday. They would have expected it last night, but hardly got it.

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