An Amigo View – Wigan Athletic 0 Blackburn Rovers 0 – five talking points

 

Games against Blackburn Rovers have never been easy. Neither was this one. This Rovers team was well organised and strong physically, but they also possessed enough flair to cause some worries for the Wigan defence. Their manager, Tony Mowbray, clearly did his homework beforehand, his team’s tactics diminishing Wigan’s creative threats, leading to a scrappy game in conditions that were far from perfect. A goalless draw resulted.

In the season prior to this match Blackburn had committed an average of around 11 fouls per game, with 10 committed against them. Wigan’s average was 11 committed, 13 against. The figures for yesterday’s game reveal that Rovers gave away 21 fouls, Latics 13.

So, Rovers committed almost twice as many fouls than their average. Many of them were conceded in the midfield, Sam Morsy and Nick Powell being particular targets.  The net result was to dampen Wigan’s creative play, preventing moves developing, disrupting the game, making fluent passing movements unlikely.

Despite a controversial red card for Elliott Bennett after 58 minutes, Latics just could not find a way past Rovers’ resolute defence. Paul Cook summed it up after the game by saying; “Although we had a lot of the ball, we never really opened Blackburn up like we wanted to.”

Let’s look at some points arising from the game.

The quality of refereeing

Following the expulsion of Bennett with his second yellow card of the game, Rovers fans chanted “You don’t know what you’re doing”. The Wigan contingent might well have echoed their views, particularly in the first half, as the referee seemingly permitted Rovers to systematically foul Wigan’s key players.

In the referee’s defence it could be said that a derby like this is never going to be an easy game to handle. Moreover, referees in League 1 tend to give players the benefit of the doubt in challenges that would be often be penalised in the Championship division.

However, they have an obligation to stop systematic fouling, which Wigan have suffered not only in this game, but in others prior to it this season. Nick Powell perhaps sometimes makes a meal out of the challenges he receives, but too often this season he has not been able to show his full range of skills because of persistently negative physical challenges against him.

Blackburn are promotion rivals

Following relegation from the Championship, Blackburn had a clear-out of players. However, Mowbray has pieced together a useful squad that will surely challenge for a promotion spot this season. As the new players continue to gel with their teammates we can expect them to get stronger and stronger.

Jacobs is a key player

Michael Jacobs can add dynamism to Wigan’s game by his willingness to run at defenders at full throttle. His running creates room for his teammates. But it was an off-day for the player and Latics suffered as a result. So often he seemed content to make a short pass to Callum Elder to cross the ball into the box. The element of surprise was lost.

But perhaps our expectations for Jacobs are too high. Can we really expect the player to provide that degree of high energy running and commitment on a match-by-match basis?

Morsy avoided provocation

Like Nick Powell, Sam Morsy was also subject to particular attention by the opposition. Were Blackburn trying to muffle his creative talents from deep midfield or hoping to provoke him into retaliation for the treatment he was receiving? Despite his lack of control in prior matches, leading to a string of yellow cards, Morsy showed patience and resilience by not retaliating and trying to get on with his game.

Shrewsbury lose at last

The Shrews 1-0 defeat at Peterborough leaves Latics just one point off first place after 16 games played. It has been a wonderful start to the season by Shrewsbury – but can they keep it up in the same way that another unfancied team, Burton Albion, did a couple of years ago?

Over the course of a season the quality of the squad tends to be the most important factor. Wigan certainly have a strong squad, which is well balanced except for cover for the right back position. It remains a priority for the January transfer window. It remains to be seen whether Shrewsbury have the depth of squad to match over the course of the season.

Are Blackburn Rovers more likely to be a threat? They gained a draw at the New Meadow in late September through a late Bradley Dack equaliser. An interesting statistic is that, unlike the encounter on Saturday, that game produced a total of only 15 fouls from the two teams, with the Shrews conceding 8.

 

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Five talking points arising from the home win against Bristol Rovers

 

What could, or should, the score have been? It could be said that Latics had been profligate in front of goal, but who can complain about a 3-0 scoreline in this period where games are coming in thick and fast?

It had looked like Wigan Athletic could have scored a panful of goals against Bristol Rovers well before Ryan Sweeney’s sending off on 30 minutes. The home side were head and shoulders above the visitors, but that initial impetus was to gradually dissipate in a second half where perhaps Latics had their minds on the next game against Northampton. The 10-man Rovers were not content to go down with a whimper and if it were not for a penalty save by Jamie Jones late in the game, Wigan could have had some anxious moments in the closing minutes. In the event we were to see the goal of the game in time-added-on as Gavin Massey slalomed through the Rovers’ defence, coolly slotting  the ball home after a give-and-go with Gary Roberts.

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

Should some players have been rested?

In December 2013 Uwe Rosler took over a Wigan Athletic side that had fallen below mid-table in the Championship under Owen Coyle. By the end of the season he had guided them to 5th place, taking Arsenal to penalties in the FA Cup semi-final and narrowly losing to QPR in the playoffs. Rosler was a firm adherent to a rotation policy which allowed him to rest key players in the hectic times of the season when the games were coming in thick and fast. It was not a policy that was universally popular with fans, but at the time it really brought results.

Paul Cook has a different approach. He prefers to stick to a settled line-up, allowing the players to build up kind of mutual understanding of each other’s game that can provide the team with increased cohesion. It is an approach that goes down well with most fans.

However, there are complications that can arise from an approach like Cook’s. Having a settled team certainly has its benefits, but it can marginalise the players who stand outside it. Moreover, by the admission of assistant manager, Leam Richardson, players were looking “leggy” on Saturday.

Cook has already hinted that Chey Dunkley might take the place of Alex Bruce either against Northampton or Peterborough. He had waited until the 70th and 82nd minutes to make his last two substitutions on Saturday. Will he make them earlier tonight against Northampton, with a difficult game at Peterborough looming on Saturday?

Will Grigg is not yet on fire

By his own admission, Grigg could have scored multiple goals on Saturday. He is not yet firing on all cylinders and his 49th minute goal on Saturday was his first for a year. It was an important goal for a player who has previously shown himself to be a master goal scorer at league 1 level. Grigg has exceeded the 20 goal per season mark three times previously. Should he steer clear of injuries we can expect a similar tally over the course of the current season.

Max Power is back

When Power came on for Sam Morsy after 82 minutes there were boos from sections of the home crowd. Paul Cook has since addressed the issue saying that:

“I am a great believer that supporters pay their money, and they can do whatever they want. But at the same time, you’ve got to remember this is our club, and these are our players. Being disappointed in Max’s actions…yes, I get that. But carrying out the disappointment like that…it’s a no from me. I’m certainly not having a go at the supporters who did boo, because it’s up to them.”

The reality is that Power is back in contention for a first team place. He is a player with much to offer at League 1 level who has always showed commitment on the field of play for Latics. Jeering him will not help the player produce his best.

Jamie Jones has made his mark

When Jones was signed, basically as cover for Christian Walton, it hardly impressed the majority of fans. The 28-year-old had played for six clubs, the last one being Stevenage. However, Jones has made an impressive start to his Wigan Athletic career, not only in his fine penalty save on Saturday. He has looked comfortable under pressure and his distribution has been better than that of many goalkeepers we have seen over recent years at Wigan.

Is Nick Powell essential?

Cook’s team bubbles with initiative and invention. Powell fits perfectly into that style of play. But Powell is not the sole source of creativity on the field. He is surrounded by teammates who seem to be enjoying their football, playing with style.

Powell sets the example in terms of his creativity on the pitch. He simply oozes class, particularly at League 1 level. He can so often be the catalyst for the kinds of flowing moves that we have been seeing.

Cook will be hoping that Powell will be able to last the course of the season, even if it means he plays for a limited amount of time in each game.

 

 

 

 

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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Overloading the midfield

Preferred position - central midfield.

Preferred position – central midfield.

Owen Coyle had left it late, but he finally got his man on the last day of the summer transfer window in 2013. Nick Powell was 19 years old and still in Alex Ferguson’s plans. Manchester United had paid Crewe £6 million for his services in July 2012. Powell had made his debut for United just a couple of months later, scoring against Latics after coming on as a 71st minute substitute for Ryan Giggs.

“We see him as a central midfield player. Crewe played him as a forward in behind the striker, but I asked a question of [Alex director of football] Dario Gradi as to whether he thought central midfield was his position. That’s what he thinks, and Nick thinks that’s his position too, so we’re all in accord on that.”

Ferguson’s comment seemed to fall on deaf ears with Coyle, who was faced with injuries to his two main central strikers, Marc Antoine Fortune and Grant Holt. Powell was to be played as a centre forward, a position he had played earlier in his career. Over the next couple of months he was to establish himself as the club’s best striker, scoring three goals in Latics’ inaugural appearance in the Europa League. The disastrous Coyle reign ended in early December, but new manager Uwe Rosler continued to play him in the starting lineup. But niggling injuries started to take effect and Powell lost form. By the end of the season he looked a shadow of what we had seen in the short-lived Coyle era.

When Powell returned to Wigan a couple of weeks back many of us looked at his arrival as a boost for an attack so dependent on Will Grigg. Powell could step in as a centre forward, or play just behind the central striker. But in Powell’s first two matches against Blackburn Rovers and Birmingham City he was played as a central midfielder.

Although it was not a position he played in during his earlier days at Wigan, Powell has already looked the part playing there. It is his preferred position, although Gary Caldwell has acknowledged that Powell offers him flexibility through being able to play in different positions. However, if Powell is to be a regular starter in central midfield, who will be giving way for him?

Last season’s central midfield lynchpins were David Perkins and Max Power. They were joined in January by Sam Morsy, who had some highly impressive displays in the “Busquets role” in front of the back four. However, the ex-Chesterfield man also had some disappointing performances. However, many of us saw the 24 year old Morsy as a player for the future, someone who could add steel to the midfield, but who was also able to spray out pinpoint passes.

It was therefore a surprise to hear rumours that Latics were trying to sell Morsy. Both Chesterfield and Sheffield United have apparently matched Wigan’s asking price of around £400,000, but Morsy remains at Wigan, for the time being at least. Morsy will surely be loath to step back down to League 1, after reaching the Championship. He is within his rights to put his foot down and refuse to move on, having two years remaining on his contract at Wigan.

But over the past couple of years we have seen what a powerful machine there is at the club in “helping”, or maybe cajoling, players into moving on. The likelihood is that Morsy will be gone soon, with Latics recently signing a replacement in Shaun MacDonald.

The main contenders for a central midfield role are now MacDonald, Perkins, Powell and Power, with Tim Chow as back up. Alex Gilbey has so far been played a more advanced role, but could also challenge for a holding role.

The term “midfielder “ these days can include wing backs and other wide players. Yanic Wildschut is what might have been described in the old days as a “winger”, nowadays labelled as a midfielder, although he can also play a twin striker role. Michael Jacobs can also be classed as a winger, although his best position is probably in the hole between the midfield and the central striker. Ryan Colclough is usually played wide, but is another who might be more effective in an advanced central midfield role. However, Latics have now signed Jordi Gomez who can operate effectively in that role. Jordan Flores is a bright young talent, also an attacking midfielder. It could be a make or break season for Flores who has struggled with the physical demands of the game, despite his excellent technique and footballing vision. Andy Kellett will provide another option when he regains fitness after surgery.

Caldwell has such a wealth of midfield talent at his disposal that some would say it is an overload. Others would say that there are 46 games to play in a Championship season and you need to rotate your midfielders to keep them fresh. However, Morsy is not likely to be alone in leaving.

Caldwell continues to search for another centre forward of the quality of Grigg. Such players cost big money and he will be looking at raising funds to pay for it. It would not be a surprise to see other players from last season’s League 1 team following Morsy out of the door. In the meantime there could be loan moves for the some of the younger midfielders on the fringes of selection.

For the moment Latics have midfielders who have proven goalscoring records. Gomez and Powell both scored goals in their previous spells at the club and last season Colclough scored 9, Wildschut 7, Jacobs 8, Power 6 and Gilbey got 5. However, Caldwell will also look at protecting his defence and it would be no surprise to see MacDonald in the “Busquets role” if Morsy departs.

The transfer window is nearing its close. Having expected Caldwell to stick with the backbone last year’s team it was notable that the starting lineup in the first league game at Bristol City included five new faces.

Even more change is on its way.

Have the loan players let Latics down?

 

 

Last night’s bore draw against Queens Park Rangers leaves Latics with a mountain to climb in the return game on Monday. After 61 matches this season can Uwe Rosler motivate his players to find sufficient energy and motivation to give it a real go at Loftus Road?

Significantly there were no loan players in the starting eleven to face QPR. Nick Powell and Josh McEachran were not even named in the squad. Jack Collison and Nicky Maynard were on the bench and the latter was called into play with less than 20 minutes to go.

The situation last night was calling for someone to come off the bench and do something special, as the game drifted towards a goalless draw. Maybe Powell could have chipped in with one his spectacular goals and McEachran’s passing might have unlocked QPR’s dogged defence? It was not to be.

When Uwe Rosler took over in December he inherited a squad with an average age of around 28. There were ten players who had been signed over summer by Owen Coyle, together with those brought in during the Martinez era. Two of Coyle’s initial signings had been loan players, Nick Powell and Ryan Shotton. Both made favourable impressions during Coyle’s tenure. The Scot also brought in Marc Albrighton and Will Keane on short term loans. The former looked useful, but the latter could not establish him. Ironically Keane is now on loan at QPR.

Once the January transfer window opened, Rosler too, was busy in the loan market.

His first acquisition was young defender Tyias Browning from Everton on a one month loan. Browning had a good debut after coming on after half time in a 3-0 home win over Bournemouth. However, he gave away a penalty in the 3-0 defeat at Doncaster and never appeared again.

Nicky Maynard, aged 26, was signed on-loan from Cardiff in mid-January. The striker had been dogged by injury and was in need of playing time. He made his debut in the 3-0 home win against Doncaster. Since then Maynard has started in 13 games, coming on as substitute 5 times. He has scored 4 goals and made one assist. Maynard has struggled with the physical demands of the lone centre forward role and is probably better suited to a twin striker system.

The 21 year old Josh McEachran was then signed from Chelsea, on loan until the end of the season. He made a fine start coming on in the 57th minute against Charlton. His exquisite pass in the 88th minute led to Marc-Antoine Fortune getting an equalizer, which was later converted into a victory through a Jordi Gomez free kick. McEachran had successful prior experience in the Championship division, having played 38 games on loan at Middlesbrough last season. At the time he looked a very good loan signing. Since then he has made 8 starts for Latics, with four appearances off the bench. In 6 of his 8 starts he was substituted on or before the 68th minute.

The 24 year old Martyn Waghorn made an immediate impact on joining on loan from Leicester City. He made his debut in the 1-0 defeat at Huddersfield on February 8th. Waghorn was soon to become a key player in Rosler’s set up with his versatility and his ability to take set pieces. Waghorn has made 15 starts, with just one appearance off the bench in last night’s match. He has scored 5 goals and has 5 assists. He has now been given a long term contract.

Ryan Tunnicliffe, aged 22, was signed on loan from Fulham at the end of February. He had a successful loan spell at Ipswich in the first half of the season. He made his debut as a substitute in the 4-1 win at Nottingham Forest on March 1st. He made his last appearance against Bolton at the end of March. Tunnicliffe struggled to adapt to Rosler’s system. He started in three games and came off the bench in two.

The 26 year old Jack Collison was signed in mid-March on loan from West Ham. His debut was off the bench after 61 minutes in the 2-1 home win over Watford. Collison came with a lot of Premier League experience with the Londoners. After initially looking like he could slot into Rosler’s style of play, his performances have been disappointing. He has made 5 starts, with 6 appearances off the bench.

In the 61 matches that Wigan Athletic have played this season they have used 35 players, out of which 10 were signed on loan. Only Powell has been on a season long loan, the remainder being half season or less.

The most successful of the loan players have been Powell, Shotton and Waghorn. But it would be fair to say that Albrighton impressed in his brief stay.

Uwe Rosler had a successful track record in using loan players at Brentford. In fact they had four players in the squad that recently won promotion to the Championship, who the German signed on loan. Forward Marcello Trotta, on loan from Fulham, made 37 league appearances for them this season. George Saville, midfielder from Chelsea, made 40 appearances. Blackburn’s Alan Judge made 22.

When Rosler first started bringing in loan players at Wigan it added an extra dimension to the squad, let alone lowering its average age. However, as the season progressed and games came in thick and fast, so many of the loan players disappointed. That led to Rosler having to be over-reliant on his key players, who have struggled to maintain their high performance standards after being overloaded with playing time.

That was evident yesterday as a starting lineup without loan players looked jaded and unable to raise their tempo.

There has been criticism of Latics’ current crop of loan players from fans who say they do not have their hearts in the club and think they are above it. They cite the perceived lack of effort from talented individuals like Powell and McEachran who will go back to their elite clubs, Manchester United and Chelsea. However, Collison is unlikely to survive the end of contract cull at West Ham and Maynard faces another season in the Championship with relegated Cardiff.

Why those loan players have not played up to potential is hard to determine. Maybe some of the criticism is valid, but injuries and physical fitness might also be factors. The bottom line is that, Waghorn excepted, they have not performed up to expectations.

Ideally Powell and McEachran in particular will come back on Monday and show us all what they are capable of. They are both talented individuals who could make a difference in the pressure cauldron of Loftus Road on Monday.

The likelihood is that they have played their last games for Wigan.

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