Reflections on an excellent display against Liverpool

 

On the face of it a Wigan Athletic shorn of so many players through injury or “unavailability” could not have been expected to draw a friendly match against Liverpool. But they did it in the kind of style that we have not seen at the DW Stadium for a long time.

Can it be that Paul Cook has already changed the mindset of his squad, despite being in charge for such a limited amount of time? More than anything else it was the sheer composure of the players that impressed, whether they were experienced pros or academy graduates in there for the biggest game of their lives.

Latics had played with composure, determination and energy as their more experienced players managed to take the lead against the Merseyside giants, holding it until shortly before half time. There had been the type of cohesion between the players that had been notably lacking last season, even if that final pass remains an area to work upon.

Cook had put out a balanced line up in his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. Nathan Byrne was played at right back, which is hardly his favourite position, but he equipped himself well. Perhaps the absence of an orthodox left winger in the Liverpool side helped, but nevertheless a player who was out of favour and shunted out on loan in January, was back in contention. Cook had started all his more experienced pros, apart from David Perkins and new signing, Gavin Massey, who were to appear immediately after the half time break. But none of them were likely to last beyond the hour mark and Cook would surely have to put in a handful of academy players sooner rather than later in the second period.

Cook’s hand had been forced to a large degree by the absence of so many other senior pros. We knew that Donervon Daniels, Andy Kellett and Shaun MacDonald were long-term absentees and that new signing Chey Dunkley too was injured. Moreover, the absence of Will Grigg was no surprise as he too is presumably still recovering from injury. Given his constant problems with fitness it was no surprise either to see Nick Powell not available. Sam Morsy was apparently rested following his time with Egypt over the summer so far.

But there were senior squad players who were not mentioned by the local press who were noticeably absent on Friday evening. Jack Byrne is one who could have a major impact in League 1, but he too has suffered fitness issues. Mikael Mandron too was absent, as Kaiyne Woolery and Callum Lang made the team in his place. Added to those are the players whose futures at the club are in doubt, having been sent out on loan last season. They are Dan Lavercombe, Sanmi Odelusi and Danny Whitehead.

In the event, the lack of available senior pros forced Cook’s hand and he had no choice but to bring on half a dozen youngsters who have come up through the Latics academy. Of those academy graduates Luke Burke was the one with prior first team experience having made an impact early last season before drifting out of favour. But his tenacious performance will have surely given Cook the message that he is a valid option at right back.

Neither the “home grown” youngsters, nor the imported young players Josh Laurent, Terell Thomas and Kaiyne Woolery, were overawed by the occasion and Latics continued to hold their own as the second half progressed. The 18-year-old Sam Stubbs looked calm and composed in the centre of defence, as did the 20-year-old Owen Evans who had come on for the excellent Christian Walton after 61 minutes. The 18-year-old Luke Burgess came on in the 63rd minute for Michael Jacobs and looked an accomplished player. Callum Lang linked up well with Woolery. Chris Merrie was lively.

It remains to be seen how much faith Cook will have in the young players in the coming season and how many loan players will be brought in. Moreover he will surely lose some of the senior pros over the coming weeks as David Sharpe and Jonathan Jackson chop down the wage bill. But what does look clear is that the manager will stamp his style of football on the players at his disposal.

The realist might say that this was only a pre-season friendly match and that conclusions cannot be drawn at this stage. However, it has been a long time since we have seen a Latics side play with such a degree of organisation and composure.

Let’s hope it continues at Southport on Tuesday.

Being candid – a look at Cardiff (H)

 

 “I think, if I’m honest, they thought they were already down. That’s how I looked at the game. It was almost a case of frustration for them, this. This game’s not the one that’s got them relegated, is it? And I thought the crowd accepted it as well.”

Neil Warnock’s post-match remarks were not appreciated by some. The blunt Yorkshireman had gained an away point, after putting out a weakened lineup. He really did not have to say such things. But was there any truth in his assertions that both the players and the crowd thought Latics were already down?

I had gone to the match feeling that Latics had the slimmist of outside chances of staying up. If it was going to happen then a win over Cardiff was paramount. But Graham Barrow doused any fire that we might have had by naming yet another lineup packed with four central midfielders. The tactic was similar to that at Brighton five days earlier: keep things on hold until the final quarter when Nick Powell could come on to save the game.

Latics had 61% of the possession in the first half, but their lack of conviction had led one fan to suggest that they would not score if they played until next Christmas. Barrow had pushed Michael Jacobs further forward than he did at Brighton, but despite his energy, the final pass always seemed to be lacking. Not surprisingly the central midfield trio of Hanson, MacDonald and Perkins lacked creativity. Even a conservative manager might have played two of the three, leaving a space for a creative midfield player. If it were politics Barrow’s lineup could have been described as far right.

At half time a fan close to me said that he thought Latics were simply going through the motions and that both teams maybe thought they were on the training ground. Moreover the crowd had been so muted, not surprising given that they had already suffered thirteen home games when their team had not scored. It was a familiar pattern, Latics looking solid, but uninspired, as they have in so many games this season. Indeed Latics have so often played at least as well as their opponents but been let down by giving away a soft goal. It had almost happened again just before half time as Perkins somehow miscued the ball straight to Craig Noone in a good position. Luckily for Latics his shot hit the crossbar.

Sadly for Barrow, the introduction of Nick Powell in the second half did not produce the  desired effect, the Cardiff defence having appeared prepared for his arrival. In desperation Barrow brought on Alex Bruce for his debut, pushing Dan Burn up front, but apart from a prolonged bout of head tennis Latics still did not look like scoring. They didn’t and neither did Cardiff.

Once again the rumours were flying after the game. The latest one suggested that second half substitutes, Ryan Colclough and Sam Morsy, did not start the game because of appearance money clauses in their contracts. Following the Haugaard issue and the recent lack of game time for Morsy in particular one wonders as to the veracity of the rumours. Loan conditions and players’ contracts can be complicated matters these days. There were three loan players in the starting lineup on Saturday, including two in midfield. Were any of them there because of loan stipulations?

Barrow’s tactics and team selections over recent weeks have been reminiscent of his predecessor, Warren Joyce. Joyce never seemed to believe his players were capable of winning by putting out a balanced lineup. His emphasis was on massed defence and stopping the other team scoring. His ultra-defensive, fightball approach rarely worked. In contrast, under  Barrow, Latics have at least tried to serve up a decent level of football, even if they have been found wanting.

Near the end of the game a fan gave his view that, over the course of the season, Latics signed players who had not been making the starting lineups at their previous clubs. Moreover so many key players from last season’s League 1 title winning side have struggled in the higher division. Added to that were long-term injuries that forced the club to bring in more loan players than they might have done.

Given the stringent budget cuts the club will be making to cope with vastly decreased revenues in League 1 next season, we can expect that most of the players who graced the pitch on Saturday will be gone over the summer. It will be interesting to see how many of those who were previously successful in League 1 will remain.

There was news from the club yesterday that seven development squad players have been released. James Barrigan and Owen Evans were offered new contracts for another year, Josh Gregory and Luke Burke had already signed theirs. Those released include Sam Cosgrove, together with players who were instrumental in the record-breaking youth team of 2015-16. The cynics will say that once again the club is penny-pinching and ask why almost all of the young players coming through the youth ranks just do not make the grade.

The final two matches of the season offer the chance to give some of the club’s home-grown talent a first team opportunity.

Let’s hope that loan stipulations involving young players from other clubs do not impede this happening.

 
Like us on Facebook, or follow us on twitter here.