Five talking points following a stunning win at Stoke

Stoke City 0 Wigan Athletic 3

 

“It was the perfect performance from us, everything has gone our way on the night. I thought Stoke started the game excellent, they put us under pressure and may feel like they could have scored a goal in their spell of pressure. We always felt we would have moments in the game and obviously tonight the key moments have gone our way.

The goals were scored at a good time for us and it ends up being one of those performances where you say ‘yeah it looks good on paper, but I feel we won in a fortunate way. Stoke not scoring early in the game was massive. We’ve conceded two very late goals and people have questioned our defending, but today we could deal with Stoke well.”

Paul Cook can be so refreshingly honest in his post-match comments. Latics had withstood constant pressure from the home side in the first quarter of the game with backs to the wall defending. But Will Grigg’s opportunist goal after 27 minutes signalled the major shift that followed, with Latics playing exciting, attacking football that Stoke found so hard to cope with.

The body language, on-pitch understanding, commitment and teamwork –– those things that make a set of individuals a team – could not have been in starker contrast. Stoke looked a team on the way down, Latics a team on the up.

A firm defence provided the foundation

Cook will have been delighted with a clean sheet for a defence that had conceded seven goals in their first three league games. Stoke played some quality football in the first 25 minutes, looking dangerous, but Latics held firm. In their fourth outing together the back four of James, Dunkley, Kipre and Robinson has grown as a cohesive unit. Behind them, Christian Walton is gaining in confidence, not only adjusting to the higher division but also in being much more pressured by opposition attackers than he was in League 1.

Moreover, the holding midfielders played a major part. Lee Evans and Sam Morsy were excellent throughout, resolute in defence, resourceful in attack.

Cook embracing the back 3/5 with the Connolly substitution was a great move

It was effective “game management”. Callum Connolly, though young, is relatively experienced. His versatility, confidence, and calm is a real plus.

Cook will surely stick to his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation from the start of games, but the change in shape in moving to a back 3/5 is something that will give the opposition something new to think about.

Cook also broke with his usual approach by pushing Nick Powell to centre forward when Will Grigg went off. It was a welcome change to the more frequent tack of bringing on James Vaughan to fight for long balls. This is not a criticism of Vaughan, who plays with his heart on his sleeve, but of the “more direct” tactic.

Nick Powell is enjoying the Championship and being fitter

Powell was excellent again last night. He seems to be relishing the chance to play in the second tier again, where he has more freedom and more protection from referees. League 1 teams would not only double mark him, but sometimes even more so, too often resorting to dubious tackles. Admittedly, it created space for other Latics players, but it must have been hard for him at times. Powell started in 38 league games last season, the highest in his career.

Paul Cook and his staff have done a wonderful job in helping Powell regain his fitness levels after some time in the wilderness. Moreover Cook has shown faith in a player who he knows has real quality.

Last night Powell was still chasing down balls almost 80 minutes in. He looks in such good shape. On current form he must surely rate as one of the players of the division.

Gavin Massey looked a class act

One always felt Massey could step up a level because he doesn’t suffer from a lack of pace, bad/inexperienced decision-making, or skill – but his success (and that of Michael Jacobs) in the opening games is a testament to Cook’s motivating and man-management. He always says belief is so important – they are that personified so far!

 Can Latics perform at QPR?

Cook’s policy of not changing a winning team has paid him high dividends in his stay so far. But what kind of line up can we expect at QPR on Saturday?

QPR are, on paper at least, the weakest team Latics will have faced. They have no points from four matches. However, the game could be a potential “banana skin”.

Much will depend on the energy levels that Latics have in their third game in a week.

Reece James was excellent last night. He has so much maturity for an 18-year-old and looks destined to become a top player. However, it would not be a surprise to see Cook bring back Nathan Byrne and rest the Chelsea loan player.

Moreover, Michael Jacobs appeared to have an injury. If unavailable he could well be replaced by Josh Windass.

 

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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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Callum, Jordi and Maloney ready for QPR

 

Some football managers are predictable. Their teams are built around a nucleus of players who play week in, week out. Their tactical plan is the same every match, but it is well defined and players know their roles within it. Given information on injuries and suspensions an astute fan can practically name the manager’s lineup for the next game.

Over these past six months we have learned that Uwe Rosler does not fit that model. One would need to be a clairvoyant to predict his team selection and its shape. Added to that is the unpredictability of the way he uses his substitutes.

Rosler is an advocate of a rotation policy, frequently citing the example of Alex Ferguson who he says never picked the same team twice. Given the sheer volume of games Wigan Athletic have had to play over these months the rotation has been a necessity, which the German has handled with skill.

However, some players have rarely been rotated out and have remained almost permanent fixtures. James Perch and Emmerson Boyce have played with a lot of different partners in defence, but their almost constant presence has provided stability. The same can be said of James McArthur, who has had a myriad of partners playing with him in central midfield.

At times Rosler has had to rotate in too many players producing a lack of cohesion. The end product has been occasional poor performances and results. But now with only two or three games left he can rotate his squad as he wishes, not as a matter of necessity.

Rosler has varied the team’s shape at will, switching for instance from a 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-3. However, there has been a common theme to Latics’ play – that of high pressing.

When Rosler first arrived his players really struggled to adapt to his demands for the high pressing. However, as physical fitness levels improved so did his team’s ability to disrupt the opposition’s game through energetic pressing. Results moved in an upward spiral. But as the games kept coming in thick and fast, key players started to look jaded and the pressing was not so effective.

Substitutions have been paramount to Rosler’s game plans. Playing with such intensity takes a lot out of players, both physically and mentally. The message to the players is clear – start to flag and you will be replaced. Moreover the German is not afraid to take off a player who has not played at all badly, if he feels a need to change the team’s shape.

Sometimes his hand has been forced. Having to think of the next match coming up just a few days later he has had to take off players who were performing close to their best. Rosler has tended to make his substitutions much earlier than what we were accustomed to during the Martinez era. More often than not his substitutions have made a difference, those fresh legs helping to raise a flagging tempo.

Earlier in the season it looked like QPR were going to get automatic promotion through finishing in the top two. On paper their squad is far superior to those of Leicester and Burnley who succeeded in securing the top two spots. Harry Redknapp’s team have learned to their cost that there are teams in the Championship division who are willing to scrap it out to get a result and are no respecters of the Premier League quality players that QPR possess.

Rosler’s approach to the QPR games will surely be to put in a solid defensive line, relying on the individual brilliance of his flair players. Jordi Gomez has been a revelation over these past months complementing a very high work rate with a great temperament and goals at crucial times. Callum McManaman is approaching the form he had near the end of last season and is a real danger to the Londoner’s defence. Rosler has carefully nurtured Shaun Maloney following his return from long term injury and the Scot is a potential match winner.

With high pressing and a solid and well organized defensive line QPR’s more talented players can be neutralised. It will then be a matter of Latics’ flair players breaching the London team’s defence.

Paramount to Latics’ chances will be the ability of the players on the pitch to press for the full 90 minutes. So often we have seen them struggle in the closing minutes as tiredness sets in. Rosler is going to ask for one final push from players who have played so many games already, often defying niggling injuries.

Wigan Athletic have had an awful record in playoffs over the years. So often they have fought to get there, but let themselves down.

However, they have had an amazing amount of success in difficult cup ties over the past two years. The cup runs have given them the kind of experience and belief that is going to be needed to get through the Championship playoffs.

The players at Rosler’s disposal have the ability to go on and beat not only QPR, but go all the way back to the Premier League. Things are going to be tight and a moment of brilliance or a controversial refereeing decision could tip the balance.

But the crucial question is whether his key players will have the energy levels at the end of this marathon season to consistently produce the high tempo football the manager seeks.

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Latics face QPR next Friday

Table

Wigan Athletic went down 4-3 to Blackburn Rovers in an entertaining game at Ewood Park this afternoon. However, Reading’s failure to beat Burnley left Latics in fifth place.

This means that they will play fourth placed QPR at the DW Stadium next Friday, May 9th.  The return game in west London is scheduled for Monday, May 12th. Both games will start at 7:45 pm.

Leonardo Ulloa’s header after two minutes of added time was enough to help Brighton win 2-1 at Nottingham Forest. The three points helped them to leapfrog over Reading into the playoffs at sixth place. Brighton entertain the in-form third placed Derby County on Thursday, May 8th with the return match on Sunday, May 11th at 5:15 pm.

Uwe Rosler will be pleased with the spirit shown by his team in the second half, but there will be questions asked as to his tactical approach which left a three man defence far too exposed.

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After 59 games, Latics’ season is now starting

Rosler4

“It’s a strange scenario that, after 59 games, our season really starts now.”

So said Uwe Rosler in the Alan Brazil Breakfast Show yesterday.

Dave Whelan might well agree. Getting back to the Premier League is clearly his number one priority. Preferably this season, rather than next.

A month or two back ago Rosler was quoted as saying that he wanted to be the first German manager in the Premier League. We saw it as a statement of ambition – to get Latics back to the top flight of English football, as well as a personal goal for someone who had started his football career in communist East Germany. However, the personal goal was to dissolve when Felix Magath took over at Fulham.

When Rosler was appointed in December few could have hoped for more than the German steadying a rocking boat and preparing Wigan Athletic for promotion the following season. Latics had drifted under Owen Coyle and there seemed to be little sense of direction. Rosler was seen as someone with a more clearly defined philosophy, who could put the club back on the rails.

Rosler has done so much more than that. His first match in charge saw Latics’ European dream sadly ended, largely due to a dubious refereeing decision that saw Chris McCann sent off in Slovenia. But rather than have a long run in the Europa League, it was to be in the FA Cup, reaching semi-final and being unlucky to lose on penalties. Moreover Rosler has secured a playoff place that looked practically out of reach when he was appointed.

Rosler manipulated the transfer window shrewdly, offloading high wage earner and under-performer Grant Holt to Aston Villa, whilst bringing in a swath of loan signings to strengthen his squad. When he signed Martyn Waghorn on loan from Leicester, the cynics questioned his move. Since then the Geordie has become a key component of his set-up, not only excellent in the high pressing that Rosler demands from his forwards, but scoring 5 goals and providing 6 assists to date. Waghorn has a good technique, a good temperament and is a team player. He epitomises the profile of the kind of player Rosler wants at Wigan. Rosler has rewarded him with a long term contract.

Latics’ rise into the playoffs has come at a physical cost to key players. Emmerson Boyce has played 54 games so far, James McArthur 50, Leon Barnett 49, and James Perch 48. Not surprisingly they have not been at their best in recent games. The question is whether they can get a second wind for the playoffs.

Playing such a large number of games in a short amount of time over these past months is one thing, but the high pressing puts heavy physical demands on the players too. At their best, Latics defend from the front in a manner that even the master of that technique, Pep Guardiola, would approve. At the worst, the pressing is uneven and Latics are pushed back into their own half as the opposition retains possession.

Wigan Athletic’s chances of getting back to the Premier League are going to depend largely on their ability to high press their opponents and disrupt their style of play. That high energy approach was easier to implement a couple of months ago when the players had not accumulated so many games.

The final league game at Blackburn tomorrow is the 60th this season. Perhaps Rosler was slightly off the mark by saying that the season was starting after 59 games. Unless he views tomorrow’s confrontation as more important than most of us think. Is he keen to get a result at Blackburn so Latics can face QPR next week, rather than the more in-form Derby, who have won their last five matches?

However, previous form can mean nothing in the pressurised climate of the playoffs. Last year’s winners Crystal Palace only had one win in their final ten league games but got the results when it really counted, defeating both 4th placed Brighton and 3rd placed Watford.

Rosler faces the challenge of rousing a tired group of players for a final push. However, he does have Gary Caldwell, Roger Espinoza and Shaun Maloney back from long term injuries.

They might well have a crucial role to play.

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