Five talking points arising from a landmark win at Charlton

 

The Valley had not been a happy hunting ground for Wigan Athletic, but it was last night. Latics simply blew a decent Charlton side away with a scintillating display of football.

Gavin Massey has been growing in stature as the season has progressed, gradually making the adjustment to a higher division. His brace of goals will do his confidence a world of good.

Latics have now moved up to 6th place, 2 points behind Charlton in 3rd. Their next games are at home to Bristol Rovers (currently in 12th place) and Northampton Town (17th).

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

Paul Cook’s side plays a “fearless” brand of football

Latics were traveling to play a side who were second in the table, with an impressive home record over several months. Moreover they had gained just one point from their previous two matches. But they attacked Charlton from the get-go, with Gavin Massey almost scoring in the first minute from Michael Jacobs’ superb cross.

Cook has revolutionised the style of play. No longer does the team make a slow, cautious start, more concerned about the danger posed by the opposition. Last night the Charlton defence was under fire, as Latics employed a high press and poured men into the box. Massey’s first goal was scored from the kind of position a centre forward would take up and central midfielder Sam Morsy had moved forward into the box to notch the third.

There will be games where Cook’s side cannot quite get their act together, as we saw on Saturday at Shrewsbury. But their intent is going to be attacking, come what may.

Sam Morsy needs to keep a cool head

Morsy is a complete midfield player, rugged in defence, but so capable going forward. Given the way Cook throws men forward in attack the protection Morsy provides his back four is crucial. His passion for the game is what makes him a fine choice as captain, leading by example, totally committed to the cause. However, there can be times when he looks close to receiving a red card. Last night he was clearly incensed by a bad tackle on Nick Powell, his teammates having to drag him away. Opposition players also know he has a short fuse and last night a Charlton player followed him after he had been dragged away from the scene of the foul.

Morsy will continue to be baited by the opposition as the season continues. His challenge is to retain his passion, but to keep a cool head at crucial moments.

Reece James was a revelation last night

There were certainly doubts whether James would get back to his previous fitness levels following a season and a half out through injury. Indeed Cook brought in Callum Elder for cover.  However, James has been excellent since his return.

Cook expects his full backs to push forward into attack. Nathan Byrne clearly relishes that role on the right. Under Gary Caldwell, James was often played as a wing back, although he tended to be conservative in his play. However, in this brief spell under Cook there has been a transformation that has seen the player attack with gusto and no mean level of skill. It was from his crosses that the first and third goals came last night.

James is still only 23 years of age and his contract expires at the end of the season. Providing he stays clear of injury can we expect him to be offered an extended contract?

The centre of defence is solid

The loss of Chey Dunkley through suspension looked like it would unsettle the defence, but Alex Bruce has made a seamless transition into the side. Dan Burn remains a tower of strength and either Bruce or Dunkley can step in at his side.

There will be much more to come from a Grigg-Powell partnership

Will Grigg is still finding his feet after a long injury lay-off. Nick Powell continues his rehabilitation, his time on the pitch being carefully monitored by Cook. Should they both reach full fitness and match sharpness, League 1 defences had better beware. They are both intelligent players who know how to get into good positions. What a partnership it could become.

 

 

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Five Talking points arising from the performance at Shrewsbury

Will Cook find the best way to employ Grigg’s talents?

The euphoria of recent weeks subsided yesterday when an inspired Shrewsbury Town side overcame Wigan Athletic by a single goal. The Shrews top the League 1 table with a W5 D1 L0 record. Latics now occupy 8th place with a W3 D1 L1 tally, although they have a game in hand on the teams above them.

With the excellent start to the season that Paul Cook’s Wigan side had made, hopes were high for the visit to the New Meadow. But Shrewsbury were an in-form team too, with an impressive record, playing at home. They were always going to be difficult opponents to play.

So it was to be. Latics had started brightly and could well have scored in the first quarter of the game. But the Shrews manager, Paul Hurst, had clearly done his homework and his team were to stifle Wigan’s midfield, with a well organised defence capably coping with the high balls that were coming at them. Their pressing, strong physical approach and possibly systematic tactical fouling had gone on to disrupt Wigan’s game.  Sam Morsy and Lee Evans were to be under siege in central midfield and Nick Powell had to retreat back to get the ball, leaving the lone centre forward isolated. The end result was Latics resorting to long ball tactics reminiscent of last season.

On paper Shrewsbury’s squad does not look particularly impressive, packed with players who have spent their careers in modest clubs. Whether they can maintain such form is questionable, but at the moment they are punching above their weight, inspired by Hurst who had previously done a fine job at Grimsby.

Latics go on to face Charlton Athletic on Tuesday. Their previous record at the Valley has been miserable and the Addicks are now in second place in the division and clearly promotion rivals.

Max Power travelled with the squad yesterday, although he did not make the bench. Power had a difficult time in the Championship last season and his desire for a move back to that division hardly endeared him to the fans. However, Power played a pivotal role in Gary Caldwell’s League 1 title winning side. He has shown himself to be a fine player in the third tier of English football. It would not be a surprise to see him back at Charlton.

But Cook will hope that his players have learned from yesterday’s loss and will regain their momentum. Nevertheless it will be a tall order.

Let’s take a look at some main points arising from yesterday’s game.

Does Paul Cook have a plan B?

In the second half yesterday the game plan certainly was not functioning in the way that the manager would have liked. Would a change in tactical formation have been the catalyst to remove the shackles that the home team had imposed on Latics?

Portsmouth fans will tell you that the lack of tactical flexibility was one of the frustrations in Cook’s tenure there. In this case Cook chose to stick to his 4-2-3-1 system, hoping the players brought on off the bench could provide the missing spark. It did not work and the introduction of Ryan Colclough, Will Grigg and Gary Roberts for Gavin Massey, Ivan Toney and Nick Powell did not produce the desired effect.

Will Grigg is not best employed chasing high balls.

Unless Toney had an injury, his substitution by Grigg on 62 minutes was puzzling. Some had hoped that Grigg would have been brought on alongside Toney to pose a different kind of threat to the Shrews defence. That was not to be. At that time of the match Latics had resorted to more frequent use of the long ball, as their passing movements in midfield were being disrupted. But Grigg is a striker who thrives on movement, who is not as strong in the air as Toney. With time Cook must learn how to use him most effectively.

Lee Evans is an important player for Wigan.

Up to yesterday Evans had not only provided defensive stability, but his concise passing had been a feature of Latics’ build-up play. However, Shrewsbury clearly realized that and disrupted the Welshman’s game with methods sometimes fair, sometimes foul. The end result was less quality passing for the forwards.

Given the inability of Morsy and Evans to dominate a packed midfield, would the introduction of a third central midfielder, such as David Perkins, have helped to restore the equilibrium?

Did postponing the Northampton match have any impact on this one?

The postponement of the home match against the bottom team last weekend did not go down well with supporters.  Granted, Cook would have been without Evans and Morsy on international duty, but wouldn’t a midfield of Perkins and Power been sufficient against a team in such poor form?

The end result was a loss of momentum that might have had an effect on yesterday’s performance.

Red cards are a cause for concern.

Ryan Colclough’s red card at the closing of the match was the third shown to a Wigan Athletic player in just five league games so far. Although the dismissal of Callum Elder at MK Dons could be deemed unfortunate, the dismissals of both Chey Dunkley against Portsmouth and Colclough yesterday do not fall into that category.

It remains to be seen whether Cook will be taking any disciplinary action against Colclough for what happened yesterday. But what is clear is that the current tally of red cards is a cause for concern and needs to be addressed by the manager.

 

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Five talking points arising from the win at Oldham

 

They were two goals up after 15 minutes and it looked like Wigan were going to win by a country mile. The Oldham defence looked stunned and more goals could have come in the first half which the away side dominated so much that Oldham could not muster a single shot on goal.

But the second half was a different matter, as the home team came back into the match and Wigan’s fluid passing dissipated. It was not so pretty to watch, but Wigan Latics were to come away with a  clean sheet, their rearguard action being effective in limiting Oldham’s opportunities on goal.

The end result was Wigan moving to the top of the League 1 table on goal difference ahead of Peterborough, Fleetwood and Shrewsbury. In contrast Oldahm Athletic share bottom place with Northampton Town with no points from the opening three games.

The performance gave us lots  to think about:

Paul Cook’s side is not afraid to take the game to the opponents from the start. There was no hesitancy to Wigan’s approach to this game. They pushed forward from the get-go, swamping Oldham in their own half of the pitch. The result was a couple of early goals which were to seal the result. It was an approach that was poles apart from the tepid, sterile stuff we saw under Warren Joyce.

Cook’s football so far has not been what we might have expected. The manager arrived with a reputation of possession-based football, but what we have seen up to this point has not been on a par with what we saw in the Caldwell or Martinez eras. Cook’s team is by no means afraid to launch long balls and  its central defenders will not hesitate to clear their lines when under pressure. It is a more pragmatic approach than we anticipated, but it is attack-minded, with Latics pushing men forward in a way that we have not seen for some time. No longer is the centre forward isolated, plowing a lone furrow. Moreover the wide players are seemingly expected to pump balls into the box with teammates moving forward to be on the receiving end. At times it is reminiscent of the football of the era of Paul Jewell.

This team is not averse to getting its hands dirty. It has a rugged centre of defence, fronted by a combative midfield, all outfield players expected to fight for possession. The choice of Sam Morsy as team captain sets the tone. Morsy and Lee Evans are a force in central midfield, with their ability to slug it out with the opposition and turn defence into attack. Yesterday Wigan committed 16 fouls to Oldham’s 11.

Alex Gilbey’s time will come. Gilbey has had to be satisfied with a place on the bench so far, with Nick Powell occupying his natural position in the centre of the advanced midfield trio. The ex-Colchester man is a talented player who will surely make an impact upon the season. Cook is probably reconciled to losing Powell by the end of August, but knows that he has Gilbey to call upon when needed.

David Sharpe will need to think twice before breaking up this squad. The young chairman will have to make some major decisions over the next two weeks. We continue to hear that Latics are a “selling club” and we know that, without funds coming in from transfer fees, expenditure on wages will far exceed revenue. The latest rumours tell us that a Championship club have made a bid for Nick Powell and that Birmingham City are interested in Dan Burn. Both have been key players in the flying start the team has made this season, but will they be here in September? Moreover Will Grigg and Michael Jacobs are in the final year of their contracts, making them prime targets for interested clubs.

Is Sharpe willing to take the risk of going into the red this season in order to keep intact a squad that is surely good enough to challenge for promotion?

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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.

Is it too early for alarm bells to be ringing?

Alan Nixon is not everyone’s cup of tea, but he so often gets inside information on what is going on at Wigan Athletic. In January he had kept us informed on Twitter about Latics’ pursuit of Omar Bogle, raising our spirits in that an exciting young centre forward might be on his way in. But this time around his tip-off serves more to dampen our spirits.

There have already been rumblings about the transfers that have already happened. The highly experienced Jake Buxton, Matt Gilks and Stephen Warnock have departed the club. The feeling among many fans is of being underwhelmed by the new signings brought in so far. The prospect of selling off the 24-year-old Bogle (who has 35 goals in 80 appearances over the past three seasons) to bring in the 29-year-old Doyle (15 goals in 66 appearances in the same time period) is daunting to say the least.

Reports also suggest that Latics are close to signing Gavin Massey (24) from Leyton Orient and Jimmy Ryan (28) from Fleetwood. Like the two players signed already – Chey Dunkley (24) and Terell Thomas (21) – Ryan is also a free agent. The Liverpool born midfielder played under Paul Cook’s management at Chesterfield, together with Doyle, who later played under the manager at Portsmouth. Rumours have also linked Cook with the 33-year-old Gary Roberts of Portsmouth who also played at Chesterfield with Cook.

The more positive supporters will say that these are early days and there is no need for the alarm bells to be ringing. They will cite the arrival of David Perkins from Blackpool, as Gary Caldwell’s first signing in the summer of 2015. Perkins was seen as a 33-year-old journeyman, a free transfer signing to bolster the squad. But he went on to have an outstanding season, winning the Player of the Year award. Thomas is yet to make an appearance in the EFL and at 19 he is one for the future, although one can only hope that he will get the kinds of chances not afforded to other young players at Wigan in recent years. But Dunkley played over 50 games for Oxford United in League 1 last season and will surely be in contention for a first team place.

Reports from Leyton Orient suggest that, should Latics concrete his signing, Massey could certainly add something to the attack. Although only 24 years of age, he has made over 200 appearances in the EFL. With Orient dropping out of the EFL Latics could well get a bargain in signing Massey.

The departures of Buxton, Gilks and Warnock indicate the massive cost-cutting exercise that the club will undergo over the summer. With revenues dropping from some £20 m last season to probably no more than £4 m in League 1 there will surely be lots more departures over the coming weeks. David Sharpe will need to look at a player salary budget of at least £6m if he is seriously looking at getting back to the Championship next season. Any shortfall between outgoings and revenues will be subsidised by player sales and any surplus from last season that has not been used to play off long-term debt.

Last Friday an article appeared in Wigan Today quoting Paul Cook as saying “I think the squad strength is there for all to see, and I certainly wouldn’t envisage there being many changes. I’m not envisaging ripping it up and starting again – there’ll be none of that.”

Is he seriously suggesting that Wigan Athletic will not be making many changes in the squad over the summer? He is used to dealing with tight budgets, but his comments appear unrealistic in terms of the financial implications of keeping the strength of the squad in place. The departure of either Omar Bogle or Will Grigg was always on the cards, in terms of raising funds. No information has been forthcoming from the club about Grigg’s recuperation from injury. With just a year remaining on his contract we would expect the club to be looking for offers for him over the summer. But is injury set to rule out a move for Grigg, hence the need to sell Bogle instead?

Cook also mentioned in that same article that the squad was too big and needed reducing. Some will be offered free transfers, others sent on loan. The high earners will be the priority and most of those on Championship level salaries can be expected to move on. Moreover, there are a host of players in the first team squad who have been brought in from other clubs as “up and coming” players, but the reality being that none of them has yet made a handful of appearances for the Latics first team. They include Jack Byrne, Jack Hendry, Josh Laurent, Dan Lavercombe, Mikael Mandron, Sanmi Odelusi, Danny Whitehead and Kaiyne Woolery. It remains to be seen how many of them will be retained as members of the senior squad and how many will be dispatched elsewhere.

Is it too early to be sounding the alarm bells? It certainly is.

However, despite the statements of manager and chairman it would be surprising if we did not see a considerable number of departures over the coming weeks. The hope is that the club can cut its coat according to its cloth, but also find suitable replacements for the higher earners who will surely be on their way.

A couple of years ago we saw a remarkable clear out of playing staff over the summer to balance the books. But the club was still buoyed with parachute payments. This time around, with far lower anticipated revenues, the situation appears more severe, with the playing staff budget due to be reduced to around a third of what it was last season.

Paul Cook has had lots of experience in working within tight budgets. It will take all his know-how and expertise to make Latics serious challengers for promotion, given the financial hand with which he will be dealt.

But perhaps this is what made him Sharpe’s top choice for the job of manager of Wigan Athletic for the foreseeable future?