27 passes towards improvement

There are Wigan Athletic fans who were never fans of Roberto Martinez, despite his massive impact on the club’s history. The tiki-taka drove them crazy and they craved a return to the more direct football of the Paul Jewell era.

Martinez’ teams did their best to keep possession, facing opposition which was so often superior in technical ability. Playing against superior opponents means that your players must do a huge amount of running. So often the elite teams in English football will get crucial goals in the closing stages, when the underdogs’ legs are heavy. For Martinez possession was key to maintaining his team’s collective energy to keep a game under control. It could be frustrating to watch, the ball often being passed sideways and backwards, but Martinez always had a plan and a belief in his players that helped his team punch above its weight.

Paul Cook had a plan when he took over to get the club out of League 1. He was a very successful lower league manager with a reputation as a good motivator, whose teams tried to play good football. He brought in his 4-2-3-1 formation, which worked a treat in the third tier. The football was so often good to watch, and his team not only won the League 1 title but had a brilliant FA Cup run.

Cook also looked good in the opening games of last season. Latics were perhaps defensively naive, but they played entertaining football. Over the next six months the standard of football fell, particularly away from home when it was simply awful at times. We had seen Cook’s plan B on occasions in League 1: lumping the ball forward, looking for headers and deflections. It practically became the norm away from home for most of last season.

Following more dire away performances this season, the hoof too prevalent, the performance at Hull last week was a welcome surprise. The players were not on top form, but there seemed to at least be a philosophy developing on how to approach the game. There was less of the hoof and more effort made to retain possession and build up moves from the back.

If someone had told me before the game that Joe Gelhardt’s equaliser came after Wigan had made 27 consecutive passes, I would not have believed it.

It was not like watching Barcelona in their pomp, but what a welcome change from the mindless lumping the ball forward that had become the norm in Latics’ play away from home. What did Cook (or his coaches) say to the players about eschewing the hoof and trying to play constructive football? Whatever it was it brought a change in their mindset.

The hoof was anathema to Martinez. He was never going to accept that unless it was under severe circumstances. Cook had allowed his players to negate their responsibilities for too long, giving them too much leeway in their use of the ball. It had got to the point where some fans were labelling him a long-ball manager.

We knew Cook (and his coaches) were excellent in the third and fourth tiers of English football and that last season was a tough one in what has been so often quoted by them as “an unforgiving league”.  The Championship is certainly a division that is a gulf apart from that of League 1. But what had been worrying for us is that the manager and his coaches had not seemingly learned from their mistakes.

One swallow doth not a summer make. However, those 27 passes stick in the mind, no matter how mediocre the game was.

Have Cook and his aides have turned the corner and insisted that a “hoofball” approach is not only unacceptable for paying spectators, but not a valid tactic in a more sophisticated level of football?

The 27 passes suggest that Cook and Latics are turning the corner.

One can only hope this is the case.



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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Style, goals, or both?

In August 1963, non-league Wigan Athletic were due to play at Southport, then of the Fourth Division, in a pre-season friendly. My Dad commented at the time that the Seasiders played too much “pretty, pretty football” to be effective. I had visions of Southport’s players almost walking the ball into the net. The end result was not so pretty for Latics. Southport – inspired by ex-Manchester United youth player, David Latham – tore them apart 10-2. Funny enough four days later a return match was played at Springfield Park. Latham was marked out of the game. Southport played some nice possession football but were not incisive. Latics beat them 3-0, inspired by ex-Liverpool youth playmaker Pat Kinsella, Tommy Neill netting a penalty. Southport had played the football, but Wigan took their chances. Maybe my Dad did have a point?

When my son, and regular columnist Ned, was 8 years old we moved to Cali, Colombia. We would regularly go to watch the local teams –- America and Deportivo Cali -– play each week at the Pascual Guerrero Stadium, close to the centre of that vibrant and captivating city. The Colombian league was a joy to watch — the ball was invariably on the ground, technical levels very high, the emphasis on skill. The downside was that, at times, play could go across the field rather than towards goal.

The Colombian national team were the same – full of promise and good football, but short of bite. The captain Carlos Valderrama – he of the frizzy hair and wonderful technique – was the most popular person in the whole country. Valderrama’s outfit was the best national team Colombia had ever had and in 1996 FIFA ranked them fourth best in the world. They were playing that technically pure type of football that probably only Brazil could match in terms of artistry. They still were not scoring many goals, but they had a strong defence and retained possession in such a way that opponents found them hard to play against. In 1994 they had got their most famous result, beating Argentina 5-0 in a World Cup qualifying game in Buenos Aires. Valderrama bossed the match from the centre of midfield and the lightning fast Colombian forwards – Faustino Asprilla and Adolfo Valencia – blew Argentina away. It was a case of pretty, pretty football being finished off by ruthless and clinical finishing. You can watch highlights here.

Colombia have continued to promise — but not deliver — since that era. However,  they currently lie in third place in the 9 team South American World Cup qualifying group, having beaten Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile in recent qualifiers and drawn with Brazil in a New Jersey friendly. The emergence of one of the world’s most sought-after strikers — Radamel Falcao –- has helped them translate their pure technical football into goals.

The message for the current Wigan Athletic team is clear: it is not enough to play good possession football. It is incisive approach play and ruthless, clinical finishing that wins matches. Finding strikers of the kind of quality to kill off the opposition is hard for a club like Latics with limited resources. It is also hard to find creative midfield players who can provide them with the ammunition. Shaun Maloney is doing a fine job in that role, although in recent outings he has often been heavily marked. The opposition have learned that he is the main creative threat.

I had the pleasure of meeting Carlos Valderrama near the end of his career when he was playing in the MLS in the United States. Modest, friendly and warm hearted you would not have guessed what a superstar he was with the 45 million people in his home country, and many more on the South American continent. A model professional with a fantastic attitude. For me the only way he could be faulted was that he never scored enough goals. Maloney, Gomez and company please take note.