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?

Regaining the feel-good factor

Relegation can dampen the spirits of even the keenest football supporter. But three such occurrences in just five years, combined with a profligate waste of some £74 million of parachute payments is a real downer.

Morale had not been particularly high for Wigan Athletic fans over these recent weeks. But then came the announcement  that local lad Jordan Flores had signed a new two year contract. It came as a bit of a surprise as there had been no news about the player for weeks.

Always good to reward one of our own” were David Sharpe’s words as he announced the new contract on Twitter. In one instant it brought visions of a future where Wigan Athletic would at last have faith in home-grown talent, rather than incessantly bringing in loan players. It raised the feel-good factor, at least for a while.

But the warm feeling started to wither somewhat as the tweet above appeared on Twitter. The article went on to quote the chairman as saying:

“There’s going to be a couple of changes before the start of the season. There’ll be a couple of players hopefully coming in, and maybe a couple of players leaving.”

Those words of Sharpe caused the alarm bells to ring. Did he really mean just two of the likes of Dan Burn, Will Grigg, Sam Morsy, Max Power or Nick Powell will be going and the others staying?

A couple of years ago Latics had been relegated to League 1, but the chairman’s optimism over the summer of 2015 was uplifting. The famous quote about “smashing League 1 with 100 points” was a trifle overexuberant, but it set the tone over a summer of huge changes in the playing staff. Most of the high earners were sold off, paid off or loaned out, but the chairman played his trump card in paying up to £1 m for Will Grigg.

The end result was that the budget had been massively cut, but with the parachute money the club was still able to offer above-average salaries to attract players more than good enough for the third tier. Sharpe’s positivity continued into the season and at the midway point he paid somewhere approaching £1 m to sign Yanic Wildschut on a permanent contract. The Dutchman and Grigg proved to be crucial signings as Caldwell’s team won the division title.

Sharpe made efforts to keep the bouyant feeling obtained by winning League 1 by offering season tickets at levels well below the market rate. In the meantime Gary Caldwell started to bring in many more new players than he had previously predicted. The manager clearly did not believe the squad was good enough to survive in the Championship after all. There was no £1 m signing this time around, but ex-players Jordi Gomez and Nick Powell were brought in as marquee players on relatively high salaries.

Caldwell’s team had a poor pre-season and his tactics in the early league games were conservative. The manager had reportedly wanted Callum Patterson from Hearts to solve the problematic right back position, but Wigan’s bids had fallen far short of the Scottish club’s valuation. Midfield player Conor Hourihane of Barnsley was also apparently on Caldwell’s wanted list but nothing resulted. The woeful decision by Sharpe to replace Caldwell with Warren Joyce was to ultimately lead a demoralised squad to relegation. The possession football we had seen under Caldwell evolved into “fightball” under the ultra-defensive Joyce.

According to the Premier League website Wigan Athletic received £16,298,146 in parachute payments last season. Transfer fees paid out in summer 2016 were relatively modest. In January they jettisoned two of the highest wage earners in Jordi Gomez and Adam Le Fondre. Speedy winger Nathan Byrne was sent on loan to Charlton. The sale of Yanic Wildschut to Norwich was reputed to be in excess of £7 m including add-ons. It was rumoured that the wage bill at the start of the season was around £17 m. Joyce himself remarked on how he had reduced that wage bill by the January comings and goings. But the end-result on the field of play was the loss of a proven goal scoring centre forward, a creative midfielder who had previously proved himself to be a top Championship player and two wide players with searing pace. Some fans at the time had remarked that it looked like Latics were planning for relegation even in January.

After his disastrous appointment of Joyce, Sharpe wisely took his time in searching for the right man for the coming season. Paul Cook has a fine managerial record and his teams play the kind of good football that went out of the window under Joyce. However, after the initial hype of Cook’s appointment, including the angry reactions of Portsmouth fans, it has been surprising that we have not seen much of the new manager in the media since then. When Cook was appointed, Sharpe had said that “The squad is in very good shape; it doesn’t need major surgery but he may want to do a few bits if a couple of players leave but the core of it is very good and that was a big attraction to him.”

Since Cook’s appointment a couple of players have already left. Matt Gilks went to Scunthorpe who were able to offer him the kind of contract that Latics were unable or unwilling to provide. Jake Buxton was a rock in defence last season, but has already left the club by mutual consent.

The departures of Gilks and Buxton can be seen as indications of the club lowering its budget, which it clearly needs to do, given its huge potential loss in revenues. Despite what the chairman is saying it would be a surprise if only two more of the present squad leave before the season starts on August 5th.

The question is how Sharpe is going to use the remainder of the substantial revenues that came in last season? Will they be used to service the club’s debt? Or is he really planning to keep all of last season’s squad that remain, bar two?

At this stage there is not the level of optimism among the fans that one would expect with  a new manager coming in who has an impressive track record. The loss of parachute payments weighs heavily in our minds. Will Cook receive the level of financial and personal support from the chairman that is needed to get Latics back to the Championship?

Sharpe’s gesture in offering an extended contract to Jordan Flores is certainly good PR and we can only hope that it is a sign that home-grown talent will be given a better chance to succeed than we have seen in recent years. However, the chairman needs to enunciate his broader strategy.

What is his vision of what he wants for the current season and how he will achieve it? If he were to say that it was to be a period of austerity for the club, with any profits from last season used to pay off debts, few could argue with him if he is looking at the club’s long-term sustainability. If he were to say that he will have to make major cuts in the squad since the club needs to cut its cloth according to projected revenues, then once more it would be hard to argue against.

David Sharpe has a difficult task ahead of him. Like all of us he has made some good decisions and some bad ones. Perhaps his most redeeming quality as Wigan Athletic chairman is that he considers himself a fan, first and foremost. Moreover he is eloquent and very comfortable with the media.

The coming season will be the acid test for the young chairman. Should he take a gamble and back the new manager with a war chest to get the club back to the Championship? Or should he look at financial consolidation and future sustainability?

Without the parachute payments the feel-good factor has dropped alarmingly. How will the chairman deal with it?

 

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How many more loan players for Latics?

Maguire on loan at Wigan.

Hull City’s Harry Maguire signs for Leicester City on five-year deal” ran the headline.

The fee associated with the move is reported to be some £12 m rising up to £17 m.

I must admit: it took me by surprise. Granted Leicester could probably use another powerhouse centre half in the ilk of Huth and Morgan. But has Maguire’s game improved that much since his spell at Wigan a couple of years ago? Is the price inflated?

Harry Maguire was signed on a short term loan from Hull City in February 2015. He was without doubt Malky Mackay’s best loan signing, forming a rugged central defensive partnership with Jason Pearce. He was excellent in the air, powerful in the tackle, but does he have the passing skills to make it as a top Premier League defender? Only time will tell.

Over the past three seasons Wigan Athletic have brought in no less than 30 players on loan. They have often been young players from higher placed clubs, being sent out for experience. Only 3 of those 30 went on to permanent contracts at Wigan: Emyr Huws, Stephen Warnock and Yanic Wildschut.

A statistical analysis shows that the average age of the loanees has been around 24, the odd 30-pluses such as Alex Bruce, Alex Revell and Liam Ridgewell being balanced out by teenagers such as Marcus Browne, Callum Connolly, Jonjoe Kenny and Sheyi Ojo.

The influx of loan players, particularly over the past couple of seasons, has been subject to much debate by Latics supporters. The clubs sending their players to Wigan on loan can make stipulations about first team opportunities for their players, with financial implications if they are not met. The situation with goalkeepers near the end of last season was perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as many fans were concerned. Moreover it has been felt that the presence of too many loanees has deprived the club’s own young talent of opportunities.

However, a new manager has come in. Will we see any change in the use of loan players under Paul Cook?

Last summer Cook made two summer loan signings for Portsmouth. The 36 year old goalkeeper David Forde was acquired for a season-long loan from Millwall, going on to make 47 appearances. Dominic Hyam, 20, was loaned from Reading, but made no appearances. Interestingly the January loan window saw Cook pick up Eion Doyle, 28, from Preston, who was to make 12 appearances. But the 19 year old Aaron Simpson, from Wolves, suffered the same fate as Hyam, making no appearances.

Among the theories put forward by Portsmouth supporters regarding the manager’s surprise exit was that the new ownership would appoint a director of football. It was an idea mooted at Wigan too, but did not come into fruition. However, as manager at Wigan he will need to take a look at the link between the recruiting department and the coaching staff. Not only have experienced players been signed who have not made their mark, but those who could be loosely labeled “players for the future” have been given minimal opportunities on the field of play.

The present squad includes players like Jack Byrne, Josh Laurent, Dan Lavercombe, Mikael Mandron, Sanmi Odelusi and Kaiyne Woolery. All were seemingly signed for the future but have made hardly a handful of appearances between them. They are in their early twenties and were bargain signings from other clubs. Danny Whitehead also falls into that category, although he no longer appears in the first team squad on the club website. Yesterday’s new signing Terell Thomas, 19, will hope that he will receive more opportunity than his predecessors have had.

The current first team squad also contains six players who have come through the academy and the development squad – Luke Burgess, Callum Lang, Owen Evans, Josh Gregory and Christopher Merrie and Sam Stubbs. Last season Luke Burke made the transition to the first team, making an immediate impact at the start of the season. Sadly he was underutilized as the season progressed.

The futures of the “players for the future”, both homegrown talent and those brought in from other clubs, will depend on them being given opportunity to develop. Some will be sent off on loan to other clubs to get more experience, but far too often in recent years such players have not come back to have an impact on the first team. So often loan players from other clubs have been given opportunities in their stead.

An article from the Portsmouth News entitled “Pompey deny Wigan to retain coaches” has informed us that Robbie Blake nor John Keeley will be leaving Portsmouth, although physios Nick Meace and Andy Proctor may be on their way to Wigan. It says they are confident that head of player recruitment, Nick Howarth, will be staying.

Cook is gradually putting together his coaching and backroom team at Wigan. With the pre-season looming he will be keen to get that sorted as soon as he can. We can only hope that there is a better connection between recruitment and coaching than we have seen at Wigan in recent years. Moreover that there will be a planned strategy towards the recruitment of loan players from other clubs, bearing in mind the presence of the club’s own young talent.

The departure of Matt Gilks to Scunthorpe this week is indicative of the club being unwilling to offer him a contract as good as that put forward by the Irons. It appears that Gilks had a get-out clause in his contract in case relegation occurred. Having spent much of his career in the higher divisions he would have been accustomed to the kinds of salaries offered at those levels. Given such a scenario it is unlikely that Paul Cook will either be handed a large war chest for potential transfers, nor be able to offer salaries that give him a competitive advantage over other contenders in the division.

Yet again it is a time of change at Wigan, this time involving wholesale changes in coaching and backroom personnel. Moreover we can expect considerable player turnover over the coming weeks, with an exodus of the higher earners.

Of all 30 loan players at Wigan in the past three years it can be argued that Stephen Warnock and Yanic Wildschut made the greatest impact at the club. But Harry Maguire did a solid job and it remains to be seen whether he will ultimately be the most successful of those loan players in his career that follows.

Will Cook’s loan signings play an important role this season? Or will he prefer to utilize players he already has at the club?

Or will it be a healthy balance between the two?

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Seeking a balance in midfield

A more balanced midfield with Paul Cook in charge?

“So close to a famous win, absolutely devastated. Atmosphere was incredible.

So tweeted James McArthur after Harry Kane’s late equaliser had robbed them of victory in a game they did not really deserve to win.

He had come on as a substitute at the beginning of the second half in the cauldron that Hampden Park so often can be. In the eyes of an admittedly biased Wigan Athletic fan he should have been on from the start, but James Morrison and Scott Brown were chosen instead.

But seeing McArthur brought back memories of his partnership with James McCarthy. Both were signed from a modest club in Hamilton Academical, seemingly “players for the future”. But what a future it proved to be for them at Wigan as the pair became the engine room of the club’s greatest ever successes. Pitched up against the likes of Gerrard, Lampard and Scholes they held their own, famous victories over England’s richest and most powerful clubs resulting.

Roberto Martinez had developed what was loosely called a 3-4-3 system. McArthur and McCarthy supplied the energy and vision from the centre of midfield, with the excellent wing backs Emmerson Boyce and Jean Beausejour providing the width. One of the front three, Shaun Maloney or Jordi Gomez, would drop back to reinforce midfield and add to the creativity. The end result was a balanced midfield, capable of challenging the best in the land.

It is more than three years now since McArthur left Wigan, McCarthy having gone a year earlier. Since then Latics have had a plethora of midfield players pass through the club. The Macs had played together for three years, developing a mutual understanding, covering for each other when it was needed.

But last season that kind of understanding was sadly lacking, players too often being unable to find their teammates with their passes. Midfield players who had been key in winning League 1 the previous season had clearly found the step up to the Championship a tough one. Perhaps Gary Caldwell had realised that the midfielders of the title winning team might struggle in the higher division. He brought in reinforcements in Shaun MacDonald, Alex Gilbey and Nick Powell, but the latter two were to be stricken by injury. MacDonald had been a box to box midfielder at Bournemouth, but Caldwell was to use him in a “Busquets role” in front of the back four. He had used Sam Morsy in that role in the previous season, but the player had been dispatched off to Barnsley on loan.

MacDonald went on to become a rock in front of the defence, also being favoured by Warren Joyce when he arrived in November. Although he would rarely show the range of passing that we had seen from Morsy, MacDonald was equally firm in the tackle and his reading of the game. Moreover he was strong in the air. Sadly his horrendous injury at Reading is likely to rule him out for the large part of the coming season.

As part of his return from Barnsley, Morsy had been offered an improved contract with Joyce being keen to get him back. With MacDonald anchoring at the back, Morsy was pushed forward into a more creative role where he initially seemed to thrive. However, Joyce’s obsession with 4-5-1 was to mean that any midfielder’s role was to be primarily defensive. Like the other midfielders, Morsy just did not look as effective as he had earlier. The midfield was to shoulder the bulk of the frustration of fans wanting to see them push further forward to support the lone centre forward. The lack of creativity was to be exacerbated as Joyce was to play four central midfielders in his starting line-up, a tactic that was also to be followed by Graham Barrow when he took over as caretaker manager.

Latics fans will be hoping for a more positive approach from new manager Paul Cook. Cook’s preferred formation appears to be 4-2-3-1, so it is unlikely he will use someone in the anchor role occupied by MacDonald. David Perkins has been given a new short term contract, although he is now 35. However, Perkins was the Player of the Year in League 1 in 2015-16 and his infectious enthusiasm was a key element in the team’s success. Max Power was the subject of an offer by Birmingham City in January. Although he had a disappointing season he remains a young player with good technique who might well benefit from a move. Morsy has already proved himself in League 1 and would surely be in contention for a place, but his increased salary might prove too much for Latics to swallow, given their much decreasing revenues. It would be no surprise if both Power and Morsy were sold over the summer.

Cook already has players who can form the trio behind the centre forward. He has those who can play wide in Michael Jacobs and Nathan Byrne, plus “number 10s” in Jack Byrne, Alex Gilbey, Josh Laurent and Nick Powell. Nathan Byrne has genuine pace, making Joyce’s decision to send him on loan to Charlton difficult to understand. With both Wildschut and Byrne leaving his side was distinctly short of pace. Rumour suggests that Byrne had a falling out with the manager and was dispatched as a result. It could be that the player has already burnt his bridges at Wigan and will be gone over summer, but he has a fine record in League 1 and could be an important player, if he were to stay. Salary could also be an issue.

For the moment Latics are short on holding midfielders and Cook will be looking at bringing in at least a couple more. He will also look for more wide players. Jordan Flores can play wide on the left of midfield, but there is still no news of him signing a new contract.

Finding the right balance in midfield will be of paramount importance to Paul Cook if he is to build a squad good enough to get the club back to the Championship division. Continuity is something that has been so lacking at Wigan over the past three seasons. Ideally Cook will put together a midfield not only to get the club out of League 1, but also one which can serve the club more long-term as did the “Macs” in the Martinez era.

 

 

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