Evans on his way out – what kind of legacy will the Whelan family leave behind?

Lee Evans’ departure will be a blow for Paul Cook.
Photo courtesy of Wigan Athletic.

Things had been going so well for Wigan Athletic. Promotion back to the Championship had been looking a near certainty, following the club’s best-ever start to a league season. But will the impending departure of Lee Evans prove to be an indicator that the promotion will not be as inevitable as it might have seemed?

Evans will certainly be missed. He and Sam Morsy have been the most successful central midfield pairing since the halcyon days of the “Jimmy Macs”, McArthur and McCarthy. That Latics have conceded only 12 goals in 25 league matches is not only due to having a solid defence. lt should rightly be attributed as a whole team effort, but the protection provided by Evans and Morsy in front of the back four has been exceptional. However, Evans is much more than a midfield enforcer, his range of passing adding an extra dimension to Latics’ play, particularly in his delivery from set pieces. It is no coincidence that he leads the team in assists.

According to media reports, Wolves will sell Evans to Sheffield United for a fee of around £750,000. The player will join a club with aspirations of promotion to the Premier League. A couple of seasons ago Wigan paid more than that to sign Will Grigg, to help them get out of League 1. They also paid around £600,000 to secure the services of Yanic Wildschut, whose permanent signing proved to catalyse that League 1 title win. By paying out that kind of money Latics had shown ambition, albeit buoyed by the parachute payments the club was receiving at the time.

Sadly the ambition showed in 2015-16 was not to be replicated the following season, when pre-season spending of around £3 m was modest compared with the norms of the Championship. Gary Caldwell had reportedly wanted Hearts right back Callum Paterson and Barnsley midfielder Conor Hourihane, but it did not happen. The right back position was to prove problematic and the quality  of delivery that Hourihane can provide could have made a big difference to Caldwell. In the January 2017 transfer window, Sharpe found Norwich’s generous offer for Wildschut too good to refuse. The end-result was the club getting relegated, but nevertheless making a profit.

Reports suggest that the K8 consortium is poised to take over Wigan Athletic, but is awaiting EFL approval. The Whelan dynasty at Wigan therefore appears to be reaching its end.

The club had overachieved for so long, winning the FA Cup, reaching the League Cup final, with eight years in the Premier League, including luscious wins over the elite clubs that dominate the English game. Dave Whelan’s drive, vision and financial backing underpinned those successes.

However, in recent years some bad decisions have been made and, despite having received well in excess of £100m in parachute payments, the club finds itself in the third tier. The appointments of Owen Coyle, Malky Mackay and Warren Joyce were disasters waiting to happen and their lack of success was no surprise to the more discerning of fans.

The appointment of Paul Cook in summer had appeared to set Latics back on the right track. But now with the club in limbo, waiting for the change of ownership to be confirmed, what can we expect to happen over the January transfer window? Will other key players in Cook’s squad be departing over the next three weeks?

We can only surmise on what would have happened in the transfer window if the takeover had already taken place. Would the K8 consortium have given Cook the financial backing to keep Evans and to hold on to the club’s most prized assets? Would Cook have been given a treasure chest to buy players for an anticipated return to the Championship next season?

Given the reality of the situation, with an ownership change still in process, what can we expect from Sharpe and his grandfather over the window period?

We do not know whether Sharpe made a bid to Wolves to sign Evans on a permanent contract. But even if he had, would he have been willing to get into a bidding war with Sheffield United? The probability is that with Max Power and Shaun MacDonald ready to step into Evans’ shoes, the club was unwilling to seriously compete for the player’s services. Latics no longer have parachute payments and are unlikely to shell out big money over the window. Given that Sharpe appears likely to continue to hold the reins for some weeks at least, are we likely to see more player exits?

Cook and the recruitment team spent no money on transfer fees over summer. Players were picked up as free agents or on loan. However, the media reports that the £300,000 transfer of Jamie Walker from Hearts is currently going through, despite the fact that the player has a knee injury and will not be available for some time. The 24 -year-old Walker may well prove to be a good signing in the long run, but what does it tell us about Sharpe’s intentions? Will Sharpe expect funds to be coming in to compensate?

The media has been telling us that Steve Bruce wants to take Nick Powell to Aston Villa, although the player was under Bruce’s charge at Hull in the second half of the 2015-16 , but could not command a place in the starting lineup.Now the Sun complicates the situation by telling us that Powell will stay at Wigan if the Asian consortium takes over.

Cook is in an unenviable position as this transfer window unravels. He is depending on Sharpe, who is in a sitting duck position, waiting for the takeover to happen. Will Sharpe, or ultimately his grandfather, allow clubs to come in and pick off key players, with the club in limbo? In addition to Evans and possibly, Powell, is there a danger of such as Dan Burn and Sam Morsy leaving too? Has there been any discussion between Whelan/Sharpe and K8 about how the transfer window will be handled?

Whelan generally has the backing of the Wigan Athletic support, although there are critics who tell us that he is at heart a businessman. Would he sanction the selling-off of players prior to the takeover, damaging Cook’s attempts to get Latics back into the Championship?

All will be revealed in the coming weeks.

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An Amigo View – Wigan Athletic 0 Charlton Athletic 0 – five talking points

 

On paper it looked like a home banker, but a low-energy Latics struggled to find their way around Karl Robinson’s parked bus. With his squad ravaged by injury the normally more positive Charlton manager decided to make it as difficult as possible for Wigan to score.

After the game Paul Cook opined that:

“We have to respect that when teams come to the DW now, they are going to come with different ways to frustrate us. Tonight was no different to Plymouth and Northampton, but in those games we managed to get a goal, unfortunately tonight we didn’t and that can be football. If we would have won tonight and it would have been 1-0 we’d have all been euphoric and we would have been delighted.”

Sam Morsy had almost given Latics that crucial goal in stoppage time, but his deflected shot hit the post. It just was not to be Wigan’s night.

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

A need for some degree of rotation

Cook decided to rest Reece James, bringing in Callum Elder. But despite playing their third game in a space of six days, there were no other rotations.

So many players looked jaded and the high-energy approach that has produced Wigan’s best performances of the season was sadly absent. In its place was a ponderously slow build up, interspersed with hopeful long crosses.

Uwe Rosler might have been nicknamed “Tinkerman” for his constant squad rotations, but Cook goes to the other extreme. Not only did he fail to freshen up his starting lineup, but he introduced his second and third substitutes five minutes before the end.

Home entertainment

Given the way so many visiting teams this season have “parked the bus”, the entertainment value for home fans at the DW Stadium has not been the best. An early goal for Latics can open up the game, but that does not always happen. A flying start is crucial and it is important that Wigan employ the high press from the start, putting the visiting defence under intense pressure. But high pressing requires a physical demand that the players were not up to yesterday.

Away games have generally been more entertaining this season. Latics have scored 28 goals on the road and 21 at home, although they have played two more games at the DW than away from home.

The other night I was watching Newcastle parking the bus in a home game against Manchester City. I felt sorry for the home crowd. Heaven help us if League 1 sides consistently do that when hosting Latics.

Too many games

As Paul Cook would say, League 1 is an endurance, a marathon. Each team plays 46 games, which means that they always have their eyes on the next one coming up. A team that is two goals up in a game will so often look to consolidate its lead, rather than extend it. Moreover, key players might be removed from the field of play before the 90 minutes are up.

The Christmas/New Year period highlights the issue. In a space of eight days, between Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, Latics will have played four games. Historically the holiday season has been the one in which attendances soar, but with so many fixtures condensed in a short period few teams will be able to excel in all the matches.

Wigan have won one and drawn two since Boxing Day. A win at Northampton would be welcome in maintaining the momentum at the top of the table.

Two strikers

Cook is no fan of a twin striker formation, but he brought Ivan Toney on for a jaded Gavin Massey after 59 minutes, putting him up front with Will Grigg. It allowed the option of launching long balls to the two. It was a gambit worth trying and they did get heads on to some of the long balls, but with no end result. Despite Grigg’s uplifting hat trick against Oxford, he has not delivered in the last couple of games.

So many Latics fans remember the days of Ellington and Roberts with affection. Since then the game has changed, although some teams still play 4-4-2. But would you give a duo of Toney and Grigg  preference over the 4-2-3-1 system that has served Latics so well under Cook?

Parking the bus

Playing with ten or eleven men in massed defence is, unfortunately, a far too common sight in the modern game. Professional football is basically an entertainment sport, but such tactics detract from the game. Roberto Martinez’ men showed in the 2013 FA Cup Final that a team of underdogs can beat the most expensively assembled squad in the world by sticking to their principles and trying to play good football. But how many managers have the bravery and belief of Martinez?

Paul Cook deserves to be commended for his comments on “parking the bus”:

“With the greatest respect, Christian hasn’t made a save again, but the emphasis…and we’re seeing it a lot in the modern game…and we’ll never do it, I don’t care who we play, we’ll never park the bus. While I’m manager of this club, I don’t care who we play, at home or away, we won’t do it.”

If only there were more like PC and RM…….

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An Amigo View – Wigan Athletic 0 Shrewsbury Town 0 – five talking points

“It was a tough game but we knew it was going to be just that because they’re a good side. They’re very well set up, very strong and have got some good players…..It was two teams today who were having a real good go at each other. After our win on Saturday I knew people would be expecting more goals, but neither side don’t concede many so chances were always going to be at a premium. When our chances did come today we couldn’t take them but that’s football and I’ve got no problem with that.”

Paul Cook was his usual generous self in praising Shrewsbury’s performance yesterday. Shrews manager, Paul Hurst, was also magnanimous in praising Latics:

“We’re defying the odds and coming to places like Wigan, who were keen to give us some hiding. I say that because we’re one of a few teams to have beaten them, and they wanted to score four or five against us and really send us home packing, so I’m delighted that didn’t happen. I keep saying it and nothing will change my mind…we’ve seen the team that’ll be the champions at the end of the season. They’ve got some very good players, but I thought we had spells in the game as well”

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

The high pressing was not so evident from Latics

Given the above comments from Hurst, one can understand him adopting a cautious approach. But Cook too was cautious in his game plan.

A major feature in Wigan’s best performances has been pressing high in the opposition half. The opposing defence has been disrupted, with them less able to build up moves from the back. Moreover, it has directly led to Wigan goals.

However, Cook was being cautious yesterday in holding his men back, fearful of a Shrewsbury counterattack.

The foul count

The actual foul count gave a strange reflection on the game. It showed Latics committing 11 fouls and Shrewsbury 10.

But Shrewsbury certainly came to shut down the creativity from Wigan’s midfield and will be delighted at coming away with a point. Their low-level fouling was constant throughout the game, with Nick Powell, receiving  a heavy dose of it, especially in the first half.  The referee was either unable or unwilling to stop the constant niggling by the away side.

Can Shrewsbury keep it going?

It has been remarkable how Paul Hurst has built a highly competitive side, largely from journeymen and players who have plied their trade in the lower divisions and non-league. Other than their excellent 20 year old goalkeeper, Dean Henderson, on loan from Manchester United there is no one who stands out. But they play the calm, defensive type of game that typified Burton Albion’s promotion-winning team of a couple of years ago.

With reference to Shrewsbury, Cook commented after the match that: “I don’t see them fading away, they’ll go all the way to the wire.”

Like Cook at Wigan, Hurst has a group of players who he relies upon week in, week out. In fact, both clubs have 7 players who have played in at least 20 of the 23 league games this season.

However, injuries could well rear their ugly heads over the next couple of weeks for both teams, with so many games packed into a short period. It is then that the overall strength of the squads would become more of a factor.

Wigan’s squad surely has more strength in depth than that of the Shrews. Whether Shrewsbury can keep challenging at the top of the table will most likely revolve around issues of injuries and depth of squad.

The best home attendance of the season

Yesterday’s attendance of 11,211 was the best of the season at the DW Stadium. It brought Wigan’s average attendance up to 9,106. It is the sixth highest average in League 1.

When Latics won League 1 in 2015-16 their average attendance was 9,467 but was swelled by the figure of 18,730 who attended the last game of the season against Barnsley.

Expect changes for Charlton

With a third game in six days coming up for Latics on Friday night, plus another one the following Monday, we can expect some changes for the Charlton encounter. Callum Elder, Max Power and Ryan Colclough will certainly be pressing for a place, although the latter was notably absent from yesterday’s squad.

 

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The stats behind Latics’ rise to the top

The table tells no lies. The stats show us that Wigan Athletic not only top League 1, but they have not only scored more goals than the other teams in the division, but they have conceded only 12 in 21 games, a ratio unequalled in the four tiers of English football.

Paul Cook’s strategy as a manager has differed from those of his recent predecessors. Uwe Rosler did a fine job in the 2013-14 season, getting Latics to the Championship playoffs and an FA Cup semi-final. He did it with a rotation policy. It was not universally popular with the fans but his results that season were outstanding. Cook certainly does not adhere to a philosophy of rotation for rotation’s sake, largely preferring to stick with a nucleus of players who play week in, week out in the League 1 competition. He has saved his major rotations for cup games.

The stats show that seven players have made a minimum of 18 starts in the 21 games so far. Nathan Byrne has been ever-present, with Dan Burn and Michael Jacobs missing just one game each. Chey Dunkley missed three games, through suspension. Sam Morsy missed one through suspension and another due to international duty. Nick Powell has already started in 18 games, which is remarkable considering that he had not started a league match for two seasons until rejoining Wigan last season and making just 10 starts. Gavin Massey has also started in 18 matches.

Goalkeeping duties have been shared between Jamie Jones (15 starts) and Christian Walton (6). The left back position too has been shared between Reece James (13 starts) and Callum Elder (8). The most equitable sharing has been for the centre forward position with Will Grigg making 11 starts and Ivan Toney 10. Lee Evans has made 16 appearances in central midfield.

Goalscoring

In Cook’s 4-2-3-1 system the advanced midfield three are expected to play a leading part in not just the creation of chances, but in scoring goals. Nick Powell is Latics’ leading scorer with 9 goals, followed by Michael Jacobs with 8. Gavin Massey has scored 3, as has Ryan Colclough.

Goalscoring has not been easy for the centre forwards, Grigg and Toney notching 4 each. The centre backs have helped out with Chey Dunkley scoring 3 goals and Alex Bruce and Dan Burn 2 each. Of the central midfielders Morsy has scored 2, with Evans, David Perkins and Max Power 1 each.

Assists

Lee Evans’ excellent delivery has him leading the assists with 6. Cook pushes his full backs well forward, expecting them to shower the opposition penalty box with crosses. Nathan Byrne has 3 assists and Reece James 2. Gary Roberts has not featured as much for Latics as he did for his previous clubs, making just 2 starts and 9 substitute appearances, but retains an eye for the killer pass, making 3 assists to date. Jacobs, Massey, Perkins and Toney have 2.

Foul counts

Given his combative approach it is no surprised that Sam Morsy has conceded the most, with a total of 38. However, he has also had 34 committed against him. In contrast Lee Evans has committed 18 fouls, receiving 33.

Given his key role in orchestrating play one would expect Nick Powell to receive a lot of fouls and he leads the field with 38. But Powell is not afraid to “get stuck in” and has committed 23. Michael Jacobs is also a main creative source and he has received 35 fouls, committing 22.

The foul counts for the two mainstay centre backs make interesting reading. Chey Dunkley has committed only 8 fouls in 18 starts (albeit one foul resulting in a red card), receiving 6. But Dan Burn has committed 23 fouls and suffered 16 in his 20 starts.

Card Counts

Latics have received 4 red cards – one each for Colclough, Dunkley, Elder and Evans.

Sam Morsy has accumulated 7 yellow cards, Dan Burn 5, with Nathan Byrne, Nick Powell and Ivan Toney on 4.

Stats courtesy of espnfc.com

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Paul Cook’s Christmas Shopping List

A year ago, Paul Cook was manager of a Portsmouth side in fourth place in League 2, seven points shy of an automatic promotion position. Over the January transfer window he picked up four new players, with three leaving. Of the new players midfielder Jamal Lowe went on to make 17 appearances and striker Eion Doyle 12.

Wigan Athletic are currently top of League 1, four points ahead of Shrewsbury Town and five ahead of Blackburn Rovers. Given the circumstances, can we expect much activity from Cook over the January 2018 transfer window?

Over the summer Cook did an excellent job in ensuring that he had a minimum of two players competing for each position, except for the right back berth.  Up to the transfer window 12 players were brought in and a greater number moved out as Cook reduced the size of his squad. Wigan Athletic did not pay any transfer fees in the summer recruitment.

Nathan Byrne has not only occupied the right back position for all the 21 league games up to this point, but has not missed a single minute. Although it could be viewed as an indication of Byrne’s excellent form and fitness, it could also be said that Cook had no real alternative.

In summer Cook released his other specialist right back, Luke Burke, for a loan period at AFC Fylde. At the time it appeared a strange decision, but there remained the possibility of Max Power or one of the centre backs moving across to the right, if needed. Moreover, Burke had not looked the player he had been a year earlier when he was to enjoy a brief spell in Gary Caldwell’s Championship division side. Up to this point Burke has been a regular starter at Fylde, his confidence returning as a result. Burke is still only 19 and signed a long-term contract for Latics last year. His loan at Fylde expires in January. The question is whether Cook will bring him back or allow him to continue to bolster his confidence by prolonging the loan. Should Burke not return in January, Cook will surely scour the market for a specialist right back to challenge Byrne for his place. Ironically it could well be a loan signing.

The other loan decision Cook will need to make is that of Jack Byrne at Oldham. The young Irishman’s loan deal also finishes in January. Despite rumours of him lacking fitness, Byrne has been a revelation for the other Latics. He is the obvious candidate to compete with Nick Powell for the number 10 spot. The question is whether Cook will want him back with things going so well.

Cook will need to be cautious in terms of changing the chemistry of a squad that has high morale. Providing there are no surprise departures he will keep changes to a minimum. Last January the departure of Yanic Wildschut to Norwich helped to seal relegation. Latics fans will be praying that they will not lose a key player again this year.

However, Sun journalist Alan Nixon continues to tweet about a takeover:

Should this takeover be finalised prior to the January transfer window, what would be the implications for the remainder of the season? Would an incoming new ownership want to splash money in January by recruiting players who could be an asset in the Championship? Or would they want to keep the status quo until next season?

It promises to be an interesting time coming up at Wigan Athletic.

 

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