Wigan Athletic: is it time for more squad rotation?

Alex Ferguson liked to use squad rotation as a means of freshening his starting line-up fresh and sending a message to his players that none of them had a guaranteed place there. For each game he would typically change one or two players, often central midfielders. From late 2008 until March 2011, he went 165 games without naming an unchanged starting XI.

On Tuesday night Sunderland manager Lee Johnson made five changes to the line-up that had beaten Bolton 1-0 the previous Saturday. They went on to beat Cheltenham 5-0. That same night Leam Richardson typically made no changes to his starting line-up for the encounter with Sheffield Wednesday. It was a line-up that had been producing a series of good results and the Latics manager saw no need to tamper with it.

Wigan Athletic have seven players who have started in all 9 league matches played this season, with two more players who have played in 8. Having such a backbone of regulars in the starting line-up has enabled the team to gel more quickly than might have been expected. Gary Caldwell’s League 1 title winning team of 2015-16 also had a large influx of new players and initially took time to gel with a record of W4 D2 L3, gaining 11 points in their first 9 games. Latics currently have a record of W6 D1 L2, amassing 19 points.

Leam Richardson has done a terrific job since taking over as manager in November 2020. Keeping Latics out of the relegation zone at the end of last season was a great achievement given the challenging conditions he faced.  He also deserves credit for the start his new squad have made this season.

There has been much conjecture on the social media regarding the splitting of the Cook/Richardson partnership. The former has had a hard time at Ipswich since joining them in March, winning only 22% of games played up to this point. It contrasts with his former assistant’s stats of 35% since last September.  

For so many years the names of Cook and Richardson had been synonymous: they were seemingly joined from the hip. But despite their parting the football Latics have continued to play has been pretty much like we saw in the Cook era. Moreover, Richardson has stuck with that familiar 4-2-3-1 system, being conservative with the introduction of substitutes, loyal to his senior professionals.

Among the strengths of the Latics team this season has been in winning “second balls” and in being dangerous from set pieces. They are a physically imposing team and have the height to trouble the opposition from corners and free kicks. They have proven able to grind down the opposition to the extent of becoming stronger in the latter part of the proceedings. The stats show that on first half goals alone their record is W2 D6 L1, opposed to W6 D2 L1 for the second halves.

Richardson has a squad that is the envy of most of the other clubs in the division. However, the challenge for the manager is to keep players happy who are not getting regular game time. He has a wealth of talent and experience in reserve, either on the bench or not even in the match day squad. He has a big squad with three players whose specialist position is left back, three for the left wing and five central defenders.

The manager has been reluctant, up to this point, to rotate his squad in a manner akin to that practiced by Alex Ferguson. Unless an unprecedented wave of injuries hits the squad there are likely to be players who will be starved of opportunities. Lowest in the pecking order is likely to be the young talent: homegrown players Thelo Aasgaard, Adam Long and Luke Robinson. It would be no surprise to see some of them being sent out on loan at some time during the season.

Will Richardson name an unchanged starting line-up for Saturday’s trip to Gillingham? Or will he make some small adjustments?

Five talking points following a champagne-popping win over Stoke

Wigan Athletic 3 Stoke City 0

Champagne football returned to Wigan last night as Latics blew away Stoke City with the best display of the Paul Cook era. Gone was the hoofball that characterised the worst displays of the season. In its place was champagne football.

Granted, the first two goals were down to poor defensive play, although the third was something special. But the scoreline could have been much greater had Latics taken more of their chances. They were so superior throughout the game.

After the match Paul Cook commented: “That was an absolute top-class performance from us tonight. The only disappointment possibly was that it was only 1-0 at half-time. We created clear-cut chances, we dominated possession, and our appetite for work when we didn’t have the ball was so impressive.”

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

It’s all in the head

Jonjo is right. It is bonkers!

Wigan’s play last night exuded a confidence based upon an impressive unbeaten run.

In November Latics lost 2-1 at Stoke through a Mame Diouf goal in the 93rd minute.

They have come so far since then. But who can explain it?

Cook’s popularity rating rises

There have been times over the past two seasons when Paul Cook’s popularity rating has hit rock bottom. At times the football has been either awful or too frustrating to watch.  Comments on the social media have been brutal at times.

However, since embarking on this unbeaten run in mid-February his popularity with the fans has been gradually increasing. People want results and they have been coming. Some of the previous performances were abysmal, others quite the opposite even if the results did not always correlate with the performances.

The manager summed things up well following the victory over Blackburn at the weekend:

It’s hard to be a manager at this level, because you get abused for much of the time. But then all of a sudden because your team wins a few games, you’re suddenly a good manager again.

The brutal reality is you’re only as good as your player and my players have never, ever let me down, over anything other than inexperience, naivety. When it comes to passion, desire, determination, attitude, they’ve always given me everything. I’ve never had a problem with any of them this season, never had a dressing-room row when I’ve had to question that side of things.”

I’ve certainly had plenty of rows questioning some of the stuff we’ve done, but that’s football. To see them now playing against such strong sides, and limiting them to not many clear-cut chances, is great credit to them.”

Last night we saw a performance matched by a result. It is when the two coincide that we can begin to see a brighter future ahead.

Butland has an off night

Peter Schmeichel once said: “Every player makes mistakes; every goalkeeper makes mistakes. Every manager does, every broadcaster – every person in life makes mistakes. But for goalkeepers, often when they make a mistake, it leads to a goal.”

Jack Butland’s own goal and assist for Kal Naismith’s first goal certainly helped Latics on their way.

Butland is 27 years old and has 9 caps for England. He is by no means a rookie goalkeeper, but his mistakes were costly for his team last night.

Naismith’s second goal was a stunner

When Kal Naismith came on for an injured Michael Jacobs after 32 minutes he went to the right wing. The Glaswegian has played in so many different positions for Latics and opinion is divided as to which is his best. Many would say he has had his best performances at centre back. But he had hardly shone in the past on the few occasions he had been employed on the right wing.

However, he had a fine game last night, giving veteran full back Stephen Ward a torrid time. Ten minutes after coming on he chested down a high ball and unleashed a tremendous effort from over 30 yards which was somehow pushed wide by the ‘keeper. Naismith’s first goal was a tap-in, but the second was the kind that will stick in the mind for years to come. The sheer power of the strike showed the excellent technique that the player has.

(Naismith’s second goal after 1:56 min)

It was a surprise not to see Naismith take the field in the first two games of the season restart. It will be even more of a surprise if he does not feature more regularly in the six games that remain.

Brentford – the acid test

Can Latics keep up their form for the trip to Brentford on Saturday?

The Bees have won their last four games and are only two points away from an automatic promotion place. However, Wigan have already notched up wins away against the teams above Brentford: Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion.

Keeping up an unbeaten run of nine games against another team in fine form is not going to be easy. The encounter will provide an acid test for Cook’s Latics.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

The Social Media reaction to a frustrating home defeat to Preston

Wigan Athletic 1 Preston NE 2

It was always going to be a difficult match against a Preston side vying for a playoff place. They had outplayed Wigan at Deepdale and would surely be full of confidence coming into this one.

Paul Cook stuck with the same lineup that gained an attritional 1-0 victory at Leeds. That game had been won by superb, last-gasp defending, together with a modicum of luck. Cook tends to stick to a winning formula, but was it the right lineup to play at home against local rivals full of confidence?

The Leeds victory was perhaps a blindfold for preparing for this game. Although the three points were so welcome, one wondered if the fightball/long ball approach applied might be repeated against Preston.

Alas it was. It took us back to the time before Cook appeared to see the light: football rather than fightball/hoofball. Then there was hope at least.

The most successful managers have the ability to adjust their lineup according to the situation. Cook had done that at Leeds but not here. Good managers  rest players who are not at their best.They also make substitutions in a timely and imaginative manner when the opposition are dominating proceedings.

Sadly Cook continues to stick in his rut, making the same mistakes week in, week out. It is going to take a paradigm shift from him if he is to continue at the helm and save Latics from relegation. He has a squad good enough to avoid the drop, but the manager’s rigidity and lack of awareness are dragging them down.

Let’s take a look at how fans reacted to the match through the message boards and social media.

Our thanks go to the Cockney Latic Forum, the Vital Wigan – Latics Speyk Forum and Twitter for providing the media for the posts below to happen. Thanks go to all whose contributions are identified below.

Nuneatonlatic C  on the Cockney Latic Forum said:

Preston had 4 forward minded players and it stuck out like a sore thumb. We could have been dead and buried after 15 mins. Both their goals came from having an extra body in the area something we cannot comprehend. But without a decent ball or cross we may as well play with no strikers let alone 2.

The_Pon on the Latics Speyk Forum commented:

Five defenders. Three defensive midfielders. At home. To a kind of ok ish team.

Fair enough to set up like that away to Leeds or WBA etc, but at home to a team who are no better than us on paper is unforgivable.

Relegation guaranteed. We’re not adrift and with an even remotely competent manager I’d say we were in with a good shout to stay up… But with 🤡 we may as well just resign ourselves to the inevitability of League One next year.

Worst manager in our club’s entire history. By a mile. How he still has a job is beyond me, but he won’t get sacked. Scouse Mafia are seeing to it that our club is dismantled slowly and painfully.

I despair. Nothing else to do.

Super Stuart Barlow on the Cockney LaticForum said:

What is he supposed to do when there are decisions like that being made. That referee was a f…ing joke.

1st half we were crap, 2nd much better but no cutting edge and every ball forward saw Moore get raped by one of their centre backs.

You are my sunshine on the Latics Speyk Forum commented:

That team selection from Cook today was a disgrace IMO. We started the game with 8 defensive minded outfield players at HOME to Preston, who should be respected, but not feared. They have a poor away record this season and had only scored 11 goals before today.

I could understand why he did it last week against top of league, away at Elland Road, but to do it for this game is inexcusable. We had back to back wins which gave everyone a lift, so should of been positive right from the start. But that team selection was a big negative before a ball was kicked and ended up costing us.
It was so obvious after the early exchanges it wasn’t working and mine and many other tics fans fears when we saw the selection were realised. Cook should of changed it at the very latest at HT if not before. But he inexplicably didn’t and they scored early, giving us a mountain to climb.

He then made the changes of bringing on 2 attacking players, we were crying out for from the start. The game then completely changed and for the last 35 mins we battered Preston but why the hell were those extra 1 or 2 attacking players not starting. Unbelievable. Then to compound matters he took Moore off instead of Lowe. Moore was a big threat in the box and having him and Garner on together that last 10 or so mins could of got us a point.
Yes the players were poor 1st half, but I blame Cook massively today, for playing that formation, with all those defensive minded players in it, for a home game, after back to back wins.

LoudmouthBlue on the Latics Speyk Forum commented:

Lowe is the only player that has taken part in every game we have played this season, WHY ?

Studs88 on the Latics Speyk Forum added:

There’s a player in there. But I’m afraid he is not up to Championship standard.

Offers nothing going forward. Consistently one of the worst players on the field. But even more damning is how easily he loses the ball. Directly leading to Preston’s second goal.

That should be the last time he pulls on a shirt for this club. It’s a disgrace he gets a place ahead of Gelhardt, Moore, Garner etc. We may as well be playing with ten men.

Pubey on the Latics Speyk Forum defended the player:

Even when he’s not playing particularly well he still has the ability to make chances and I think he’s massively underrated.

His shot today was a pretty good effort that was well saved
He also put a fantastic cross along the 6 yard box that wasn’t picked up by anyone
His movement and positioning was good but he was rarely passed to
He frequently won free-kicks and throw-ins with his impressive movement

Clearly this season’s scapegoat, sadly.

Super Stuart Barlow on the Cockney Latic Forum said:

What is he supposed to do when there are decisions like that being made. That referee was a f…ing joke.

1st half we were crap, 2nd much better but no cutting edge and every ball forward saw Moore get raped by one of their centre backs.

Mr Brownbill on the Cockney Latic Forum said:

Oh yeah……and Windass nets on debut

 

 

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Stoke 2 Latics 1: Time for a Change

My wife has so often reminded me how much Wigan Athletic results affect my moods. She would tell me how grumpy and depressed I could get when they lose. I cannot argue with her: she is right.

But I grew up in a family in the south of Wigan surrounded by a morass of rugby. My father was a beacon of light for me being one of the few Latics supporters in the area, not afraid to stand up against the rugby hordes of the time and let them know of his love for Latics. He was there for Latics’ first ever game against Port Vale Reserves as a 12 year old in 1932. He passed on his devotion to the football club not just to me but to my son, Ned, who has never lived in the town but simply adores Wigan Athletic.

My son and I started up this site when Latics were in the Premier League. For a couple of years our articles were posted on the site of ESPN, the world’s largest sports media company. There were ups and downs over those years, but we were incredibly proud of our club punching above their weight. Writing for the site was a pleasure.

The years since leaving the Premier League have been topsy-turvy. Awful managerial appointments were made and relegation ensued twice. The names of Owen Coyle, Malky Mackay and Warren Joyce became synonymous with a fightball/long ball approach. The seeds that Roberto Martinez put into place in the Premier League days were firmly embedded until poor ownership decisions brought in managers whose style of play was light years apart from the Spaniard’s football. In comparison Martinez’ legacy at his previous club, Swansea, remains in place. Possession football is not everyone’s cup of tea but for me it is infinitely preferable to the dross we have so often witnessed over the past 15 months.

I watched today’s game with my American son-in-law who quickly pointed out that Latics constantly hoofed the ball forward, only to concede possession. Was that a valid tactic he asked? Giving away possession so easily was surely going to put increasing pressure on their defence as the match proceeded. Even with a one goal lead at half time I told him not to expect Latics to hold it. I told him it has become habitual for Latics to hoof the ball even more in the second half and that a winning goal for the home team would most likely come when the Wigan defence was tired in added time.

I take no pleasure in my predictions becoming reality.  I have become so numbed by the dross I have seen so often since our return to the second tier. I am not grumpy after this performance. It is beyond that.

The football offered by Paul Cook and his coaches belongs to the Stone Age in comparison with that of the likes of Swansea and Brentford. The emphasis is on sweat and toil, rather than on developing footballers’ skills. When Cook was appointed we were supportive as we believed that his teams played good football. But what we have seen is no better than that of Coyle, Mackay or Joyce.

Darren Royle’s problem is exacerbated by the fact that the previous chairman gave an extended contract to a manager with no prior experience in the Championship.

Nevertheless it is time for a change.

Some talking points about Wigan Athletic staying in the Championship

Things were looking grim. A frustratingly predictable defeat at Hull, giving Latics an away record of LLWLLLLLLLDLLDLLLDLLLDL, with games against table-toppers Norwich and Leeds United coming up.

Even at the start of the season some of the more hardened Latics fans were saying that last game against Millwall could be crucial. They could well be right.

Spirits were low in midweek, but the gloom was lifted to some degree by a 1-1 draw with Norwich, even if Rotherham scored a late equaliser at Stoke.

Can Latics stay up? What will it depend on?

Over the past months the cushion provided through a good start to the season, coupled with poor results for teams in the relegation zone, seemed to be enough. But, despite having a solid home record, Wigan’s away performances have put them in severe danger of relegation.

There are now four games left. Latics travel to Leeds and Birmingham and have Preston and Millwall at home.

Is there light at the end of the tunnel?

Let’s take a look at some talking points.

The display against Norwich gives hope

When Paul Cook named his starting line-up to face the division leaders eyebrows were raised. Bringing back Leon Clarke and Kal Naismith hardly seemed like inspired choices, let alone leaving Nick Powell on the bench and playing Lee Evans in the number 10 position.

In the event, the manager’s choices were vindicated, all three putting in excellent performances. Latics were unlucky not to beat the Canaries with a display reminiscent of those fighting performances in the days of “Believe”.

Cook commented after the game: “In the game, we have gone against a very good Norwich side who are excellent at what they do. We’ve took the game to them, we’ve pressed them at the top end of the pitch, I thought we were unlucky not to see the game out and win but we respect the opposition, that’s for sure. While there’s a touch of disappointment around the club and when you’re playing the teams that we do, we’re happy with it. Today we picked a team that was designed to do one thing and one job, which was to press teams high up and have the energy to keep doing it and I thought the lads who I drafted in to do that, implemented it absolutely excellently.”

Wigan’s pressing was key to the display on Saturday. It prevented Norwich getting into a rhythm which could have caused serious problems for the home team’s defence. Cook had his plan and the players supported him in its delivery, something that they have not always been able to do consistently this season.

In need of the Rub of the Green

Cook has so often talked about the fine margins in football. In the era when VAR is not employed in the EFL there will be contentious refereeing decisions that go unchecked. Had VAR been employed would the results at the DW and Bet365 Stadiums have stayed the same on Saturday?

Norwich fans will say Latics were fortunate with the penalty, but the offside decision to annul Clarke’s late “goal” was tight to say the least.

The bottom line is that football is unpredictable. So much can depend on getting “the rub of the green” from refereeing decisions. As in every football season we have seen a considerable number of controversial ones. The theory is that the ones for and against average out over the course of the season, but is there any scientific basis to suggest that it is the case?

Cook gets better

The manager has hardly won the plaudits from the fans for his team selections, substitutions and tactics over the course of a difficult season. But he has impressed recently. His 3-4-2-1 innovation brought a point at promotion-challenging Bristol City and his tactics at Hull were working until they were undone by individual errors.

Cook deserves commendation for his set-up against Norwich. It took courage on his part to choose the starting eleven that did such a fine job.

Cook’s supporters will say he is a manager who has been on a steep learning curve in his first season in the second tier of English football. His detractors will say that he should have been dismissed some months ago and that he is lucky to still have his job.

Cook’s past successes have so often been with clubs with modest budgets punching above their weight. Should Latics suffer relegation and severely-reduce their budget he would as good a bet as any to get them back up. Last time they were relegated to League 1 they had a budget around four times the average in the division, taking a financial hit over the course of the season. Under the IEC it is unlikely they would have such funding.

Should Latics suffer relegation it would not be easy to get out of League 1. Money talks.

In the meantime, we have some hope that Cook has learned from experience and can guide Wigan through this difficult period. Latics’ budget this season places them in the lower levels of the Championship, so it is not a surprise that they face relegation issues.

Should Wigan Athletic avoid relegation would we look back in future years and give Paul Cook due credit? The short-term goal is consolidation, with the club improving its marketing, increasing revenues, investing in facilities to bring its Academy up to Category 2 status. For the moment any final league placing above the bottom three should be regarded as successful consolidation in the Championship division.

But whether Latics are in the Championship or League 1 next season will we see youngsters at the club given opportunities at senior level? Callum Lang is the most likely to be given a chance and will most likely be a regular in the match day squad. The EFL rule that clubs must name at least one homegrown player, a role that was largely taken on by Callum McManaman this season. We can only hope that Lang will be treated better than McManaman was.