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.

 

 

 

 

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Key players stay – five talking points about the transfer window for Latics

Great news that Nick Powell is staying. Can he stay fit and reveal his true potential?

As a Wigan Athletic fan, I have come to dread the last days of the transfer windows. Last night I was anxiously waiting for news, hoping and praying had the chairman would back his manager by letting him keep his key players. Were the likes of Dan Burn, Will Grigg, Michael Jacobs, Sam Morsy, Max Power and Nick Powell going to stay?

The end result was largely a feeling of relief, tempered by the surprise late departure of Alex Gilbey and the absence of a new right back among the signings. But David Sharpe had resisted the urge to cash in on his prized assets, despite the economic pressure weighing heavily on him. It can be seen as a statement of intent that the chairman is willing to provide the broad financial backing needed to get the club back in the Championship division, given the low potential revenues coming in. However, the bitter pill will be somewhat sweetened by some £1.2 m brought in during the summer sales.

How many times in recent years have the dealings made in those transfer windows put the club in a better situation in the longer term? Warren Joyce signed eight last January, only one of whom is with the club now. Uwe Rosler signed nine new players in the summer of 2014, giving him a squad that was too big, making it difficult to handle. Almost half of the new boys were gone by the end of the January window. But worse was to come as Malky Mackay signed twelve in the winter months, only one of whom remained when the 2015-16 season started.

It remains to be seen whether this summer’s transfer activity will leave Latics in a better state that they were in at the end of last season. Harsh economics have come into play, forcing the club to cut its budget in the region of 60%. The reality is that the revenues the club will have coming in League 1 are way below what they had in the Championship, where they were buoyed by parachute payments.

Let’s look at some key points:

The squad remains strong enough to fight for automatic promotion, providing injuries do not prove too troublesome.

The squad is well balanced and has a wealth of quality players for the division they are playing in. When Gary Roberts was brought in it looked like Nick Powell was on his way out, but it turned out to be Alex Gilbey. Like Powell, Roberts has a lot of flair and can both create and score goals. The long-term injury suffered by Craig Morgan meant that another central defender would be brought in. Providing he stays fit Alex Bruce has the know-how and experience to be a top player in League 1.

The right back position remains problematic. It was a surprise not to see a new player drafted in. Nathan Byrne has established himself as the first choice in that position, but both Luke Burke and Donervon Daniels have been sent out on loan. We can only assume that if Byrne is unavailable then one of the central defenders or Max Power will be drafted in there.

Injuries took a major toll last season. Donervon Daniels and Reece James did not play a single league game and Alex Gilbey, Will Grigg, Andy Kellett and Nick Powell were absent for long periods. Gilbey has now been sold. Daniels and Kellett have been sent out on season-long loans with just one year of their contracts remaining. Grigg appears to be approaching full fitness and James has done well since his return. Powell appears to be building up his fitness, but has not yet been able to last the full 90 plus.

However, an injury to the excellent young loan goalkeeper, Christian Walton, is a real blow for Latics. Paul Cook has brought in Matija Sarkic from Aston Villa, but the 20-year-old lacks EFL experience. It appears that Jamie Jones will be first choice until Walton is fit to return.

Paul Cook has made some good moves  in the transfer and loan markets.

Cook’s signings of Noel Hunt and Gary Roberts from Portsmouth have hardly gone down well with most fans. Hunt is 34 and Roberts 33. However, they are on one-year contracts. Based on what happened at Portsmouth, Roberts is more likely to appear more regularly than Hunt who is most likely to be used as a substitute.

But Cook has not paid a penny for any of his 7 permanent signings, all of whom were recruited as free agents. He has raised funds by selling Omar Bogle, Kaiyne Woolery and Alex Gilbey. He has brought in 5 loan players, with Lee Evans, Christian Walton and Ivan Toney being ever-presents in the starting line-ups so far.

Cook has used the pre-season and cup games so far to give youth a chance. The club has some fine prospects coming through its academy, including the 16-year-old Catalan, Victor Maffeo, who made his debut at Blackpool on Tuesday. Cook has sent out four of them on loan to clubs of a suitable level – Luke Burke to AFC Fylde (National League Premier), Callum Lang to Morecambe (League 2), Chris Merrie to Southport (National League North) and Sam Stubbs to Crewe Alexandra (League 2). James Barrigan, Luke Burgess and Josh Gregory remain.

Economics need to be considered.

Dave Whelan has owned Wigan Athletic since 1995. Although his grandson is the club chairman it is Whelan’s financial backing that underpins the club’s future. During the club’s ascent to the Premier League and its eight years in the top-flight Whelan put close to £100 m into the club.

In recent years the club has been closer to making revenues and expenditures match. However, four years of parachute payments have been spent since Latics got relegated from the Premier League and the club is once again in League 1.

It is rumoured that players were asked to take pay cuts when the club was once again relegated. But even if this has been the case and funds have come in through transfers (including that of Yanic Wildschut in January), the imbalance between revenues to be gained and player salary costs is a major issue.

Given the recent history of cutting back on salaries when projected revenues could not support them, it is a surprise that Nick Powell is still at the club. Powell might well have taken a cut on his reputed £16,000 per week, but his salary almost certainly will still dwarf that of other players in League 1.

Has Powell been retained in an ambitious bid for automatic promotion or has his horrendous injury record deterred other clubs from signing him or taking him on loan? Or are the Whelan family taking a gamble on the player regaining full fitness and not only propelling Latics back into the Championship, but also vastly increasing his net worth on the transfer market?

Should this squad secure promotion, how would survival in the Championship look?

The recruitment focus in the early Gary Caldwell era was to bring in “hungry” players in their early to mid-twenties who could provide the backbone of the team for the future. Donervon Daniels, Will Grigg, Michael Jacobs, Reece James, Andy Kellett and Max Power were among those. Ryan Colclough, Alex Gilbey, Sam Morsy and Yanic Wildschut were to follow.

Six of those players remain for Cook to call upon next week. Gilbey and Wildschut have gone and Daniels and Kellett sent on season-long loans in the final years of their contracts. Last season’s squad was good enough to ensure survival in the Championship. It was the inept management of Warren Joyce that took Latics down. However, some £12 m in parachute payments underpinned a wage bill of around £18 m.

Put simply: if Latics were to go up it would need significant investment by the Whelan family to keep them there in the absence of parachute payments.

Will Grigg and Michael Jacobs need to be offered new contracts.

Cook had said that contract extensions would be looked at once the transfer window was closed and he had the squad he wanted. Failure to offer the two players extended contracts will mean they will be free agents at the end of the season. The complication is not knowing what division Latics will be in next season.

Let’s not forget Reece James, who will also be out of contract next summer. James has done well to come back after being out for so long and has looked impressive so far. If he can prove his fitness, surely he too will be offered a contract extension.

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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.

A big step towards automatic promotion – Gillingham (H) match reaction & highlights

 

“This can give us belief, though, and we can kick on from here

So commented Gary Caldwell after Craig Morgan’s 96th minute header had given Wigan Athletic a crucial victory over promotion rivals Gillingham. Despite the victory Latics remain in 5th place, but they are now only 6 points behind the 2nd place Gills, with a game in hand. Automatic promotion is now looking a distinct possibility.

The visit of the high flying Gills was never going to be easy for Latics, who had not beaten any of the teams above them up to that point. For most of the game Gillingham played with the confidence one could expect from a team in their position. They were well organised in defence and purposeful in attack. In contrast Latics looked pale and disjointed. However, after Gillingham went two up on the 53rd minute mark one wondered if that fighting spirit that Caldwell’s new era Latics has shown over the course of recent months would resurface. It certainly did, but it was aided by a couple of defensive errors from the visitors to seal the game for Wigan.

Caldwell decided to return to a formation that could be labelled 3-4-3, but was more precisely 3-4-2-1. He recalled Leon Barnett to play in a backline of three, with Craig Morgan and Jason Pearce. Donervon Daniels and Reece James were the wing backs, with Max Power and David Perkins in holding midfield. Will Grigg was the lone striker with Michael Jacobs and Andy Kellett in “number 10” roles between him and holding midfield.

Latics started cautiously in a scrappy first half that did not reflect well on the standards of League 1 football. Over the past decade or so at Wigan we have got used to watching players of high technical ability on the pitch, but there was not so much evidence of that last night. Gillingham manager, Justin Edinburgh, has done a fine job in building a promotion-challenging squad on a budget of around £2m. The whole has been more than the sum of its parts for the Gills this season, whereas the same could not be said for Caldwell’s Latics with a budget four to five times as big. Too often in the first half Wigan players would misplace their passes. Grigg was left in a truly lone striker role, with Latics rarely throwing enough players in the opposition penalty box. The wing backs were not pushing up and central midfield was too static.

Gillingham playmaker Bradley Dack hit the inside of the post with a superb free kick after 14 minutes as Latics just could not get coherence into their play. But Latics kept plugging away and Pearce should have scored from Perkins’ cross instead of poking a weak shot at the Gills keeper Stuart Nelson from close range. The ball had fallen to Pearce’s weaker right foot.

But it came as no surprise when in the 25th minute Dominick Samuel’s pace took him past Pearce and his shot beat Jussi Jaaskelainen at his near post. Despite still not playing well, Latics continued to plug away. Jacobs had a shot saved by Nelson, then Kellett found himself unmarked at the far post from a corner but put his header woefully wide. Soon after it looked like Jacobs was going to score, latching on to a low cross from Daniels, but he could not make the necessary contact and another chance went begging. Latics went off at half time a goal behind after not playing well, but if they had taken their chances they would have been ahead.

One wondered if Wigan would step up their efforts in the second half, but their performance in the opening minutes was worse than what we had seen in the first half. Gillingham were attacking with purpose and Latics just could not string their passes together. On 53 minutes Rory Donnelly headed home an inswinging cross from the right, too easily evading his marker Daniels. Caldwell immediately responded by bringing on Chris McCann to replace James at left wing back and Jordy Hiwula for Kellett. The shape moved to 3-4-1-2, with Hiwula partnering Grigg upfront.

With the extra forward in place Latics looked more dangerous in attack and within a quarter of an hour Hiwula’s cross from the left was nodded back by Jacobs at the far post for Grigg to force home with his left foot. The goal breathed life into Latics and they started playing with more confidence. Three minutes later a speculative long range shot from Power found the net due to awful handling by the Gills’ goalkeeper Nelson. Latics were back into the match at 2-2 with 23 minutes of normal time remaining. They were getting on top, although Gillingham continued to threaten the Wigan goal at times. Somehow 6 additional minutes were added on. Craig Davies was brought on in the first of those minutes as Latics launched long balls up front. They went on to score in that final minute when Gillingham left Craig Morgan unmarked from a corner which he headed home.

The Good

Once again Latics showed the fighting spirit needed to get back into a game that looked lost. Caldwell’s substitutions were to prove effective. McCann made surging runs through the opposition defence in a way in which James had previously been unable. Hiwula added an extra attacking threat in partnership with Grigg.

The win over Gillingham has not only helped narrow the gap between Latics and the teams above them, but it will boost confidence. It is the “belief” to which Caldwell was referring that is the key to a serious challenge for an automatic promotion place. The next step is to pick up three more points in the home tie against Sheffield United next Tuesday.

The Bad

As in previous games where Latics have come back with a late rally the questions are once again being asked about Caldwell’s tactics. The 3-4-2-1 system that he employed is surely better suited to playing away from home. In the first two thirds of the game Latics looked lightweight up front, with insufficient attacking intent. It was only when Caldwell brought on another forward and switched to 3-4-1-2 that Latics posed a more consistent attacking threat.

Once again we saw a hesitant, nervy start with Latics seeming to treat the Gills with too much respect. Is it a lack of confidence that underlies this trend? Or is it tactical?

In a post-match interview captain Craig Morgan acknowledged that the team’s version of possession football might not go down too well with the fans, but intimated that it pays dividends later in the game as opponents tire after chasing after the ball so long. Gillingham certainly wilted in the closing minutes, possibly paying the price for disrupting Wigan’s game by high pressing. Or was it psychological in that their goalkeeper had let Latics back into a game that they thought they had all but won?

The debates will continue not only as to whether Caldwell should play with twin strikers, but also whether the emphasis needs to be changed from a slow, methodical approach towards a more direct and dynamic style.