Do we show these teams too much respect?

 

“Rotherham were a tough test for us ahead of the last five games, so it was important for us not to get beat.”

The words of Dan Burn after a disappointing performance.

Prior to this goalless draw at the DW Stadium, Rotherham United had lost their previous three away games, conceding eight goals in the process. But they deserved not to lose yesterday. They packed the midfield, pressing Latics into making mistakes and their big lone striker proved a physical handful for the Wigan defence.

Latics looked pedestrian, plodding along, not the dynamic outfit who had scored nine goals in the previous two games. Passes were misplaced, and the build-up was painfully slow. Although it was their third game in the space of eight days, once again Paul Cook resisted the opportunity to freshen up his pack and stuck with the same starting eleven.

Thanks to a Bristol Rovers goal in the fourth minute of stoppage time, Latics remain on top of League 1, ahead of Blackburn on goal difference. They are in pole position, with a game in hand to Blackburn and five-point buffer ahead of Shrewsbury. Latics have five games left: two at home and three away.

Dan Burn emphasised the importance of not having lost to Rotherham, who remain in fourth place. His comment begs the question as to whether Latics were  focused on not losing more than actually winning.

It was the kind of performance that we have seen before in home games against teams from the top ten. In so many of them Latics have seemed unwilling to fully commit men forward, in fear of counterattack. At the DW they have beaten only one team currently in the top ten and that was a tight 1-0 win over Plymouth, who were bottom of the table at the time. On the other side of the coin, they have only lost one, that being against Blackpool prior to the Manchester City epic. They shared the points in the others, five of those being goalless draws.

The counter-argument is that Latics are the prize scalp in the division and that visiting teams come looking for a draw, doing all they can to dull Wigan’s attacking threat. Most of Latics’ best performances this season have been away from home, where the opposition has had to show more attacking intent. The stats show that Wigan have picked up 44 points from 20 games on the road, compared with 43 points from 21 games at home. Against the top ten teams away from home they have a record of W4 D2 L3, whereas at home it is W1 D7 L1.

Cook’s record last season at Portsmouth against the other teams who finished in the top ten makes interesting reading. Like Wigan their results against their closer rivals were not impressive. Pompey’s home record read W4 D2 L3, whereas on the road it was W4 D1 L4. They  failed to score in two of those home games against top ten opposition.

Yesterday Cook resisted the chance to bring on James Vaughan after half time for the injured Nick Powell, instead introducing Gary Roberts. Vaughan had teamed up with great effect with Will Grigg after coming on at Rochdale but Cook chose the more conservative option by making a like-for-like replacement. Cook was clearly concerned about losing further control in the midfield.

After the game the manager commented that:

“We can’t win every game and steam roll every team, football is not like that. It’s a difficult game and every point towards the end of the season is golden.”

Cook was obviously keen to pick up one point if he could not pick up the three.

Wigan’s performance yesterday and in previous home games against top ten opponents begs the question whether too much respect has been shown to such opposition. But for the moment Latics are in a great position to consolidate their promotion to the Championship division. Cook deserves commendation for helping his team get to such a point with only three weeks of the season remaining.

 

Thanks to Jordan for his revealing analysis on Twitter.

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An excellent performance – Wigan Athletic 0 Southampton 2

 

“At half-time, it was a case of whether we could keep it going, whether we could keep up the intensity. The fitness levels to play like that have to be very good to press them high up the pitch.”

So said Paul Cook after the game.

Wigan’s high press and their enterprising attacking play had made Southampton look distinctly ordinary in the first half. The pity was that they could not convert the half chances they had created into goals. They had certainly put pressure on the away team defence, with a 10-0 corner count in their favour. But football is about goals and Wigan had not been able to convert their outstanding first half performance into a lead.

Whether Southampton came back to dominate the second half might well have been due to a dressing rule rollicking from manager, Mark Hughes. They certainly came out with more purpose they had shown before, but the tiring Wigan legs surely must have influenced the eventual outcome. In the event, the Saints scored a scrappy goal from a corner after 62 minutes. A goal behind, Latics had to try to push forward and the defence became more exposed. It led to Dan Burn giving away a penalty after 73 minutes, with Christian Walton going on to make a fantastic save. Cook had rolled his dice and brought on Noel Hunt in the 80th minute, withdrawing the excellent, but seemingly exhausted, Nathan Byrne. The Irishman had a half chance, but could not put it away, then Southampton sealed their result through the speed of right back Cedric Soares attacking through the left channel.

So, while Southampton look ahead to a semi final against Chelsea, Liverpool or Manchester United, Wigan must now immediately focus upon a trip to Walsall on Wednesday.

The previous time I had seen Latics play at home in a sixth round FA Cup tie was in mid- March 1987. Latics were then in the third tier and were to go down 2-0 to second tier Leeds United in front of a crowd of 12,471. The game had been made all-ticket because of the FA’s fears of problems with the away fans at Springfield Park. The game was broadcast live at the Town Hall and the Queens Hall in a bid to deal with ticketless fans. Conditions were very difficult, with a rock-hard pitch and fierce winds. Latics had been unbeaten at home up to that point and they were the better team in the first half but could not put away the chances they had made. The visitors had the wind behind them in the second half and went on to take advantage of it with two long range goals in the second half. Bobby Campbell and Paul Jewell were playing up front for Wigan, with a 20-year-old Paul Cook on the bench.

Ray Mathias’ team went on to finish fourth in the Third Division that season, losing out to Swindon in the playoffs. The season became remembered largely through the cup run when Latics had beaten Hull City and Norwich City on the way to the sixth round. Promotion to the second tier was to take another 16 years, when Jewell’s side won the division title.

Whether Paul Cook’s side can emulate that of Ray Mathias by achieving promotion from the third tier, in addition to reaching the last eight of the FA Cup, remains to be seen.

The critics have already been suggesting that, should Latics win promotion, a lot of new players will have to be brought in to keep them afloat in the Championship. However, so many of the players have already shown that they can compete at higher levels through their terrific performances in the cup.

Latics certainly have a group of players that are well above the quality of League 1. The question now is whether they have the grit and determination to fight their way through a fixture backlog largely created by this famous FA Cup run.

Cook gets it wrong – Wigan Athletic 3 Scunthorpe 3

“Great credit to the players because we never looked like getting a point and we dug one out.”

Paul Cook was once again displaying that refreshing type of honesty that has characterised his interactions with the media.  But with just one win in their last five league games, Wigan’s promotion challenge is faltering.

We have certainly learned that Cook does not favour squad rotation, preferring to stick with a settled lineup. But with the fixture pileup Latics were facing we could have expected a little more flexibility from the manager. In the event he opted for just two changes from the starting lineup at Blackburn.

The introduction of Reece James for Callum Elder was no surprise. Neither was the insertion of David Perkins for his first league start in six months in place of wide player Gavin Massey. Before the game started it looked like a conservative change. Massey’s recent form had been indifferent, but Cook had resisted the chance to put in either Ryan Colclough, Gary Roberts or Jamie Walker as a like-for-like replacement. It seemed like Perkins would play a wide midfield role.

In the event, Perkins lined up in the centre-left midfield role, with Sam Morsy centre right and Max Power pushed towards the right flank. It changed the chemistry of Wigan’s football. With Nick Powell often dropping back to receive the ball, the midfield looked crowded, somewhat akin to what we saw in the era of Warren Joyce. With more men in midfield we could have expected Latics to nullify much of the threat from the opposition, but far too often Scunthorpe were able to find gaps which they could exploit. The midfield just was not able to provide the cover for the back four that has typified Cook’s teams this season. Moreover, with only one natural wide player, Michael Jacobs on the left, the play lacked the balance we have come to expect.

Scunthorpe had come into the game with a positive approach, with a willingness to push men forward. In Ivan Toney and Will Hopper up front they posed a constant aerial threat that was to prove the undoing of Wigan’s central defence. Dan Burn and Chey Dunkley have proven close to invincible in the air this season, but yesterday they were caught out, with all three Scunthorpe goals deriving from lofted balls into the area. Burn had been the stand-out player for Latics this season, but in recent games he has looked lethargic and not at his best. Dunkley was at fault for the second goal, not seeming to know where Hopper was as he headed home from beyond the far post.

Although they lacked fluency yesterday, Latics did show their fighting qualities. Dunkley had put them ahead after Scunthorpe keeper Matt Gilks had not reached Max Power’s corner. The second and third goals were deflected. Cook is not renowned for his tactical flexibility but chose another option yesterday when he brought on Alex Bruce to play in the centre of a back three. Given the recent porosity of the centre of defence it might be an option that he will continue to experiment with at Bradford on Tuesday. Bruce may lack the pace he had before injury intervened but could be part of a formidable trio with Burn and Dunkley.

The FA Cup is once more approaching. Prior to the Manchester City game, Latics were poor in losing to both Southend and Blackpool. At the time we surmised that the players had the big cup match in their heads and just could not apply themselves as normal. Or maybe an imminent takeover of the club was about to happen, unsettling the playing staff.

That takeover still has not happened and we can but ponder on what might happen if the Whelan family continues to hold the reins. In the meantime, it leaves Cook and his staff in a vacuum, not knowing if the necessary funding would be available to consolidate in the Championship were promotion to be achieved.

With the FA Cup continuing to cast a shadow on Wigan’s league performances and severe dropping off in the form of key players, Cook will surely bring in some fresh blood at Bradford. To make wholesale changes would be a mistake, but some adjustments will need to be made. The manager will also have to decide whether to revert to that 4-2-3-1 system that had served him so well before.

Following the victory over Manchester City, Cook’s popularity rating was at a high. However, he faces serious challenges in the coming weeks. Yesterday’s performance was gritty, rather than fluent. His challenge will be in helping his key players get back to their best form. Too many looked jaded yesterday and Cook will need to take a more serious look at squad rotation if the situation is to be rectified.

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Another Cup or League dilemma?

Can Paul Cook emulate Gary Caldwell by winning League 1? Or will the FA Cup get in the way?
Photo courtesy of the Daily Mail.

 

Wigan Athletic have a habit of giving the media something to feed upon. Dave Whelan certainly gave them plenty of ammunition when he appointed Malky Mackay and consequently made politically incorrect comments that the press lapped up. But he also appointed Roberto Martinez, who brought home the biggest prize in the club’s history amid worldwide media acclaim.

That FA Cup win will remain in our collective memories for years to come. Moreover it created a story that the media found irresistible. As a result Wigan Athletic became known on the world stage and it is no surprise that they are now about to be taken over by a Far East consortium.

Prior to that fateful day in May 2013 there were debates among Latics fans about what was more important – the league or the cup. There were two extremely difficult games coming up within the space of a few days: Manchester City at Wembley and Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium. The bookmakers did not think Wigan Athletic could win either game.  In the event Roberto Martinez managed to fashion a team out of an injury-ravaged squad which went on to win the FA Cup on merit. It was a dream come true, especially for those of us who had seen the club rise from its humble origins over the years. That old debate is now settled – who would want to put the clock back and swap a cup win for a longer stay in the Premier League?

Almost five years later and a parallel debate is opening up following Monday’s remarkable win against the same club. Some in the media are saying Manchester City are the best team in the world. It remains to be seen whether they can win the Champions League, then the World Club Cup to justify that label. But they have certainly been outstanding up to this point in all competitions bar the FA Cup. That a club from the third tier could knock them out beggars belief, even if they played half of the game with ten men.

It was the third FA Cup giant-killing act by Wigan Athletic against Manchester City in five years. In that 2013 Cup Final, Wigan had 48% possession, equaling City in shots with 11 and committing 5 fouls to their opponents’ 11. A year later Uwe Rosler’s team won 2-1 at the Etihad in the quarter finals, the stats perhaps being reflective of Wigan’s status as a Championship division team, having 32% possession, 5 shots to City’s 12, each team committing 10 fouls. The stats from Monday’s game reflect what a remarkable performance it was from a side currently in League 1. City had 82% possession and 29 shots to Wigan’s 4 , but could not get a goal. Wigan conceded 11 fouls, although a number of those decisions were debatable, City committing 6.

The application, effort and discipline required to hold off the continuous waves of City attacks was remarkable and reflects on the mentality Paul Cook has instilled into his players. It was another unforgettable day for Latics fans.

So, Wigan Athletic have reached the last 8 of the FA Cup for the third time in the last half decade. A sixth-round home tie with Southampton beckons. What chance do Latics have of beating the Saints?

“Believe” remains the Wigan Athletic theme. Lots of fans will say that Latics have already beaten three Premier League sides, including the champions-elect, so why not Southampton too?

The realists will point out that Bournemouth, West Ham and Manchester City fielded weakened teams. If Southampton play their strongest lineup then they are likely to overcome third tier Wigan.

But will the victory over Manchester City, followed by another tie with Southampton in mid-March have an impact on Wigan’s quest to get back to the Championship division? Is the FA Cup a distraction that could cost Latics promotion?

The defeats at Southend and at home to Blackpool were an unwelcome surprise for a team that had seemed to be cruising towards the League 1 title. Some suggested that the impending takeover might have something to do with what was happening on the pitch. Others pointed to the upcoming game against Manchester City being a major distraction for the players. Or was it simply a matter of time until that good run would come to such a resounding halt?

Moreover, Monday’s heroic performance could carry a heavy toll. The sheer exertion of running for 90+ minutes with just 18% possession is something that should not be dismissed. In addition to the next FA Cup encounter, Latics have played three games less than their promotion rivals, leaving them 15 league games to play in a 10 week period. Fans will recall the long run-in that Uwe Rosler’s side faced in 2013-14, which left them jaded for the Championship play-offs. However, that season not only included a run to an FA Cup Semi Final but also six games in the Europa League.

Paul Cook’s team will be on a psychological high after that amazing performance. The question is whether they will have the stamina to cope with the bread-and-butter events of League 1. Cook is not a man who likes to rotate his squad, but he will surely have to do so over the coming weeks if Latics are to keep up their momentum for promotion.

Cook’s main challenge is to keep his players firmly focused on League 1. A win against Southampton would put Latics in the FA Cup semi-final once more, but a return to the Championship is surely the club’s main focus.

In the meantime, reports suggest that both Cook and David Sharpe travelled to Spain this week. Not surprisingly it is being linked to the change in ownership, which appears due to be completed by the end of this month. But perhaps it was to celebrate Cook’s birthday (February 22)?

Following the cup tie Cook’s popularity ratings have reached an all-time high at Wigan. He has done a wonderful job up to this point but there remain considerable hurdles to cross  over the next couple of months.

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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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