An Amigo View – Wigan Athletic 3 Doncaster Rovers 0 – five talking points

Last night we saw a Wigan Athletic team keen to put Saturday’s reverse against Bradford behind them. They went at Doncaster from the get-go and were rewarded with a flattering scoreline in their favour. There were several people on the pitch last night seemingly wanting to stand out. Among them were Ryan Colclough and referee Carl Boyeson.

Colclough’s two goals and his rapid departure to the hospital after 60 minutes of the game will be a tale told by Latics fans over future generations. It was such a good story it even made giant American newspapers, USA Today and the Washington Post. From where I was sitting in the Boston Stand it was hard to figure out why the player had left the field of play so early. Indeed some fans were clearly irritated to see him being pulled out of the action when he had just scored his second goal and was up for a hat trick. But it turned out to be a happy ending for both player and club.

Paul Cook had made four changes, bringing in Colclough, Lee Evans, Reece James and Will Grigg.  In the absence of Nick Powell, Max Power started in the number 10 position, but as the match progressed the lines became blurred regarding the positions of players in advanced midfield.

Just before the referee blew his whistle to start the game a spectator sitting close to us offered his view on why Latics had lost to Bradford. His view was that, like other teams Wigan have recently faced, Bradford had figured out the way Latics play and had learned how to deal with it. There may be some credence in that, but I put Saturday’s defeat down to a “soft” goal in the 92nd minute.

Wigan’s plan to compensate for the absence of orchestrator Powell seemed to be working to some degree as they showed urgency and threatened the Doncaster goal. But they looked edgy and gaps were opening up in the home defence that we were not seeing earlier in the season. In the event Latics had Doncaster centre forward john Marquis to thank for missing a sitter with the home defence all at sea. Wigan were to go into the dressing room at half time ahead thanks to a crisp strike from Michael Jacobs which took a deflection on its way home, with another deflection helping Colclough to notch a second.

Perhaps the most noticeable figure on the pitch in that first half was referee Boyeson.  From the start he had drawn our attention through an over-officious approach, allied with some poorly judged decisions. At the beginning of the second half both teams had been lined up for the kickoff for several minutes before the refereeing team made its entrance on the pitch, accompanied by jeers from the crowd. Boyeson continued to annoy the paying spectators for the remainder of the match.

A brave header by Colclough made it three, the win putting Latics within one point of leaders Shrewsbury who lost 1-0 at bottom club Bury.

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

Will Cook’s centre forwards ever score many goals?

Will Grigg looked a forlorn figure last night, his body language hardly suggesting he was going to score. So often he was having to deal with high balls launched in his general direction, with corpulent opposition defenders seemingly being given carte blanche to use their arms to keep   him shackled. Despite Grigg’s frequent appeals the referee continued to allow it to continue. But, opposition fouling withstanding, is Grigg the kind of centre forward to thrive on Cook’s style of play?

Cook employs the flanks to great effect, full backs and wingers being expected to combine and produce crosses into the box. It happened again last night, some crosses being wayward, others posing danger to the opposition goal. But Grigg was mostly a lonely figure trying to latch on to them. Heading is not the player’s strength anyhow.  Grigg feeds on incisive low passes, his movement making him a real threat to opposing defences. He got few of those last night.

Ivan Toney might not so often make the intelligent movements of Grigg, but he can certainly head the ball. But he too has looked out of touch, shackled by rugged central defenders. One of the main criticisms of Toney is that he goes to ground too easily. There is an element of truth there but so often, like Grigg, he has been outwrestled by big centre halves. Not only Boyeson, but League 1 referees in general, permit excessive use of the arms by defenders. Both Toney and Grigg have been on a hiding to nothing, making them look worse players than they are.

Up to this point Grigg and Toney have scored 7 goals between them in 18 league matches. The chance of either reaching the 20 mark by the end of the season seems remote at this stage.

Reece James should be offered a new contract

James came back last night in his first league appearance since late September. He once again showed what a good player he is. James has been kept out of the team by the fine form of Callum Elder, on loan from Leicester City. With the diminutive Nathan Byrne at right back, the 6 ft tall Elder has added height to the defence as well as being an excellent attacking full back at League 1 level. However, of the two James is arguably stronger defensively and his crossing is at least as good as Elder’s, if not better. Cook will count himself fortunate to have such talent at hand for the left back position.

James was recruited from Manchester United by Gary Caldwell in the summer of 2015, on a three year contract. Like Elder he has had his ups and downs with injuries. But assuming that James is now fully recovered from a long term foot injury, Latics would do well to tie him into a new contract.

Can Colclough become a regular starter?

Ryan Colclough had his first league start yesterday under Paul Cook. The 22 year old only made two starts for Latics last season. He made 7 starts in the 2015-16 season after being signed by Gary Caldwell in January 2016.

In fact Colclough has a career record of 58 starts and 49 appearances off the bench for Wigan, MK Dons and Crewe Alexandra.  Will he ever become a regular starter under Cook?

Colclough’s goals came at the time of the arrival of his second child, not an easy time to focus upon claiming a regular place in the team. But he is a talented player, having already scored 5 goals in all competitions, despite limited game time.

Can Cook get the best out of him?

Is there room for Evans, Morsy and Power?

Lee Evans was excellent last night, strong in defence and distribution. He has been a key player in a successful season so far.

Evans was signed on loan from Wolves in summer when it looked like Max Power was leaving. The Welshman’s suspension for a red card at Scunthorpe gave Power the chance to get back into the starting lineup, which he did successfully. With Sam Morsy seemingly being an automatic choice, Cook made the decision to include all three last night.

Should Powell be fit to play on Saturday, Cook will face a difficult decision to make.

Jack Byrne to be back?

Byrne is a gifted footballer, naturally suited to that number 10 role behind the centre forward. The 21 year old was signed by Warren Joyce from Manchester City in January 2017 on a three year contract. However, Byrne received scant favour from the manager, making just two substitute appearances over four months. Rumours suggested that there were issues with both temperament and fitness. Byrne was to receive no favours from Cook either, the new manager sending to train with the youth team before dispatching him off to Oldham Athletic on loan until January.

However, the 21 year old Dubliner has enjoyed a highly successful loan stint at Boundary Park up to this point. He has been an inspiration behind a team that was struggling in the relegation zone, but has now climbed up to 16th place. Byrne has made 17 starts, scoring 5 goals with 3 assists. In terms of fitness, Byrne has completed the full 90-minutes-plus in the majority of games he has played and when he has been substituted it has typically been in the closing minutes.

Cook has already hinted that there will be some additions to the Latics squad in January. Assuming Byrne continues to impress at Oldham a recall looks probable. Byrne is certainly a young talent, potentially capable of not only impressing in League 1, but in higher divisions.

 

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Five talking points arising from the home win against Plymouth

 

Result: Wigan Athletic 1 Plymouth Argyle 0

Wigan Athletic did not play badly, but found a massed Plymouth defence difficult to penetrate. Despite having 23 attempts on goal it took a penalty to break the deadlock and give Latics a single goal victory.

The three points gained from the match enabled Wigan to move up to second place, still four points behind a Shrewsbury side which continues to play out of its skin. The Shrews record of W8 D2 L0 is highly impressive. But do they have the quality in the squad to keep it going?

Let’s take a look at some points from yesterday’s game.

Was Nick Powell kept on too long?

Nick Powell had not completed 90 minutes in a competitive match for so long. He did yesterday and it could be seen as an indicator that he is on the way to overcoming those fitness issues that have beset his career. But the player was clearly in discomfort as he was helped off the field in the 90th minute to be substituted by Noel Hunt. Up to that point Paul Cook had been judicious in the amount of time he was giving Powell in each game. But was 90 minutes too long?

Cook had kept Powell on the field much longer than usual, presumably because he needed the kind of spark that the ex-Man U player could provide to break down a stubborn Plymouth defence. But after Powell had put away the 82nd minute penalty one expected Cook to withdraw him.

It could prove a costly mistake.

The centre forwards need to score goals

Wigan Athletic have scored 18 league goals up to this point. The two centre forwards have scored a combined total of three of those.

But Grigg just has not got back to his best since his injury. Grigg’s key strength is his movement. We have seen that, but the end-result has not been forthcoming. One goal in six starts and four appearances off the bench is unimpressive from a striker who has passed the 20 goal per season mark three times previously.

Toney has more physical presence than Grigg and is more likely to score headed goals. But his two goals so far have been a perhaps fortunate deflection and a tap-in. He has come close so many times but has not been able to put the ball in the net with enough regularity.

Grigg is the first to admit that he is not yet up to peak fitness. He speaks with confidence about his ability to get another 20 goal haul this season. Toney has looked lively in his approach play and fits well into the style of play. Toney has a career record of 0.23 goals per league game, having scored 26 goals from 70 starts and 43 appearances off the bench. Grigg’s average is 0.31 goals per game, with 82 goals from 173 starts and 87 appearances off the bench.

Most League 1 managers will envy Cook for having both Grigg and Toney at his disposal. Both are good players at this level. It appears to be a matter of time until one or the other starts firing on all cylinders. Cook is fortunate that his advanced midfield trio of Michael Jacobs, Gavin Massey and Nick Powell have already notched a combined total of 12 goals in 10 matches up to this point.

Goal threat from corner kicks

Latics had 15 corners yesterday. With Dan Burn and Chey Dunkley coming forward into the box and with good headers of the ball like Powell and Toney also there, could we not expect more of a threat from corner kicks? Lee Evans usually takes them, from the right and left. His delivery is by no means bad, but could more variety be introduced? Using left footers Reece James or Callum Elder could be a possibility.

Is it something that Cook and his coaches will be working on during training?

The full backs are important in Cook’s system

Nathan Byrne’s form has been a revelation this season. His attacking down the right hand side has been a pleasure to watch and he has worked hard on the defensive side of his game. The problem is that Cook has no back-up right back if Byrne gets injured.

On the left-hand side Reece James has been impressive since his long lay-off from injury. Callum Elder looked lively yesterday when he came on for James. He is a naturally attacking left back with a sweet left foot.

Cook expects a lot physically from his full backs, being expected not only to be solid in defence, but to race forward almost like wingers. They have been a key part of the good football we have been seeing so far this season.

Expect more parking of buses

In 2004 Jose Mourinho coined the term “parking the bus” following a match between his Chelsea team and Tottenham. It has come to convey a team using all of its players defensively when they want to draw a game or defend a narrow margin. Wigan Athletic’s Warren Joyce tried it several times last season.

Both Northampton Town and Plymouth Argyle came to Wigan to park their buses. Their tactics were ruined by a spectacular goal (by Michael Jacobs) and giving away a “soft” penalty.

With Latics being the favourites to win the League 1 title we are likely to see lots more teams come to the DW to park their buses. In the last two home games Latics have certainly had to show patience against massed defences.

The key to such games lies in Wigan getting an early goal, forcing the visiting team to change its tactics. It remains to be seen if Walsall will try to park the bus on Saturday. From an entertainment point of view one hopes not, but an early Wigan goal could be the signal for more to follow later.

 

 

Five talking points arising from a landmark win at Charlton

 

The Valley had not been a happy hunting ground for Wigan Athletic, but it was last night. Latics simply blew a decent Charlton side away with a scintillating display of football.

Gavin Massey has been growing in stature as the season has progressed, gradually making the adjustment to a higher division. His brace of goals will do his confidence a world of good.

Latics have now moved up to 6th place, 2 points behind Charlton in 3rd. Their next games are at home to Bristol Rovers (currently in 12th place) and Northampton Town (17th).

Let’s take a look at some talking points arising from yesterday’s match:

Paul Cook’s side plays a “fearless” brand of football

Latics were traveling to play a side who were second in the table, with an impressive home record over several months. Moreover they had gained just one point from their previous two matches. But they attacked Charlton from the get-go, with Gavin Massey almost scoring in the first minute from Michael Jacobs’ superb cross.

Cook has revolutionised the style of play. No longer does the team make a slow, cautious start, more concerned about the danger posed by the opposition. Last night the Charlton defence was under fire, as Latics employed a high press and poured men into the box. Massey’s first goal was scored from the kind of position a centre forward would take up and central midfielder Sam Morsy had moved forward into the box to notch the third.

There will be games where Cook’s side cannot quite get their act together, as we saw on Saturday at Shrewsbury. But their intent is going to be attacking, come what may.

Sam Morsy needs to keep a cool head

Morsy is a complete midfield player, rugged in defence, but so capable going forward. Given the way Cook throws men forward in attack the protection Morsy provides his back four is crucial. His passion for the game is what makes him a fine choice as captain, leading by example, totally committed to the cause. However, there can be times when he looks close to receiving a red card. Last night he was clearly incensed by a bad tackle on Nick Powell, his teammates having to drag him away. Opposition players also know he has a short fuse and last night a Charlton player followed him after he had been dragged away from the scene of the foul.

Morsy will continue to be baited by the opposition as the season continues. His challenge is to retain his passion, but to keep a cool head at crucial moments.

Reece James was a revelation last night

There were certainly doubts whether James would get back to his previous fitness levels following a season and a half out through injury. Indeed Cook brought in Callum Elder for cover.  However, James has been excellent since his return.

Cook expects his full backs to push forward into attack. Nathan Byrne clearly relishes that role on the right. Under Gary Caldwell, James was often played as a wing back, although he tended to be conservative in his play. However, in this brief spell under Cook there has been a transformation that has seen the player attack with gusto and no mean level of skill. It was from his crosses that the first and third goals came last night.

James is still only 23 years of age and his contract expires at the end of the season. Providing he stays clear of injury can we expect him to be offered an extended contract?

The centre of defence is solid

The loss of Chey Dunkley through suspension looked like it would unsettle the defence, but Alex Bruce has made a seamless transition into the side. Dan Burn remains a tower of strength and either Bruce or Dunkley can step in at his side.

There will be much more to come from a Grigg-Powell partnership

Will Grigg is still finding his feet after a long injury lay-off. Nick Powell continues his rehabilitation, his time on the pitch being carefully monitored by Cook. Should they both reach full fitness and match sharpness, League 1 defences had better beware. They are both intelligent players who know how to get into good positions. What a partnership it could become.

 

 

The financial side of keeping a nucleus for League 1

“Que sera sera…..whatever will be will be….we’re going to Shrewsbury….que sera sera

So sang a group of Wigan Athletic supporters. It certainly took the wind out of the sails of the “going down” taunts of home fans at the Madejski Stadium last Saturday.

Shrewsbury is certainly a pleasant place to visit. Its football team has competed in each of the three EFL divisions. Their New Meadow stadium holds 9,375. Shrewsbury Town met Manchester United in the FA Cup in February 2016. They lost 3-0, which is not surprising given the fact that the Shrews had a wage bill of £2.5 m compared with £210 m of United.

In fact the Shrewsbury wage bill is typical of many clubs in League 1. According to an interesting article on the Daily Mail site, the average salary of a League 1 footballer in 2014-15 was £69,500. It compared with £324,200 in the Championship. The ratio of the average salaries is 1 to 4.7.

There are strong arguments to suggest that the league positions of clubs in the Championship division correlate to their wage bills. In their first season back in the Championship Wigan Athletic finished in a playoff place. The wage bill was around £30 m. Clubs in mid-table would typically have wage bills averaging £20 m.

Latics’ reputed wage bill for the current season is around £17 m. Assuming they were to trim next year’s wage bill according to, say, that previous ratio of average salaries between the two divisions, it would give a figure of around £3.6 m. In 2015-16, still buoyed by parachute payments, Latics had a wage bill of around £6 m in League 1, reportedly second highest after that of Sheffield United.

So at what level will David Sharpe pitch the wage bill for the coming season? As in the Championship there is some degree of correlation between wage bills and success on the playing field in League 1. If the club is to break even financially next season what kind of wage bill would be realistic? Moreover will the club be able to slash its wage bill as successfully as it did in the summer of 2015, when faced with a drop down to the third tier?

In 2015-16 Latics finished top of League 1 with an average attendance of 9,467. Shrewsbury Town finished in 14th place with an average of 5,407. The average attendance for the division was 7,163. Wigan’s cheapest adult season ticket cost  £250 while Shrewsbury’s was £285.

David Sharpe took a bold step in reducing season ticket prices for the club’s return to the Championship. Renewals were pitched at £179, with a price of £199 for new purchasers. The levels were uneconomic compared with those of competitor clubs, but Sharpe was clearly hoping to not only hold on to the core support, but to attract others. With just one match to go in the Championship season Wigan’s average home attendance is 11,560 up by more than 2,000 from the previous season in League 1. However, the bigger clubs in the Championship have brought sizeably larger away support than had those in League 1.

Rumour suggests that the club will maintain the levels of season tickets prices for the coming season. If this is so the £179 price would be almost 40% less than the figure of £295 to be offered by Shrewsbury Town for the coming  season. Moreover should Latics not be as successful as they were last time in League 1 attendances will surely fall. The match day revenue differentials between Wigan and Shrewsbury could merge closer.

Put simply potential match revenues for Wigan Athletic will in no way suffice to give them a competitive advantage over most of their rivals. Some would say that under Gary Caldwell Latics had bought their way out of League 1, having a wage bill twice that of most of their rivals. That was made possible by the parachute payments they were receiving at the time. However, now that the parachute era has come to an end, how can Latics get a financial advantage over most of their competitors in League 1?

One solution is to sell off assets. The second is for the ownership to provide the necessary funding.

The saleable assets Latics have are their players. The club’s main asset, Yanic Wildschut, was sold in January for a hefty premium. Early in the season Will Grigg would have been another major asset: he was scoring goals and looking comfortable in the higher division. It was sad to see how the player later found himself either warming the bench, playing as a lone centre forward with a derisory lack of support, or being played out of position. A player who could have probably drawn a transfer fee in excess of £5 m is now not such an attraction on the transfer market. Better to keep Grigg who has a superb record of goalscoring in League 1.

Nick Powell will surely be on his way. After months out through injury he roared back with spectacular performances as a super sub. In doing so, Powell put himself in the shop window. Dan Burn is another player who has caught the eye and will surely be of interest to Championship clubs. Burn was already an experienced Championship level player when arriving on a free transfer from Fulham. He has since developed a level of self-confidence  previously lacking. Between the two, Latics could possibly raise around £5 m on the market.

Omar Bogle was the most exciting of the January signings. Having scored a lot of goals for Grimsby he arrived brimming with confidence and style. But after a promising start Bogle was to wilt under  a horrible burden put on him by Joyce: that of being the lone striker in a 4-5-1 formation. Injury too was to hold him back. Like Grigg, his potential transfer value has plummeted. But the likelihood is that either Grigg or Bogle will be sold, albeit at a discounted price.

Max Power was almost sold to Birmingham City in January. Although he did not have the season he would have liked, Power remains one of the more saleable assets. Sam Morsy too is a player who could be sought by Championship clubs.

Last weekend Jonathan Jackson stated that “There will be some changes in the squad, but we want to keep the core there.”

Goalkeeper Matt Gilks and ex-captain Craig Morgan will be two of those core members who continue. Gilks was only signed in January on an 18 month contract and Morgan recently signed a two year extension to his contract. The long-term injured players – Donervon Daniels, Reece James, Andy Kellett and Shaun MacDonald – will also be staying. Alex Gilbey is another who has not been able to play in recent games after coming back from long-term injury. Latics will be hoping at least some of those players will be available for the beginning of next season.

It is difficult to predict who else will stay to provide a core for the coming season. The club is going to have to slash its wage bill some 60-70% to be financially viable. Put simply more than half of the players currently under contract are likely to depart over summer, many on free transfers. Others will be sent off on loan.

The players currently under contract for the coming season are:

Goalkeepers: Matt Gilks, Dan Lavercombe

Full Backs – Luke Burke, Reece James.

Centre backs: Dan Burn, Jake Buxton, Donervon Daniels, Jack Hendry, Craig Morgan.

Midfielders: Jack Byrne, Alex Gilbey, Andy Kellett, Josh Laurent, Shaun MacDonald, Sam Morsy, Max Power, Danny Whitehead.

Forwards: Nathan Byrne, Omar Bogle, Ryan Colclough, Will Grigg, Michael Jacobs, Mikael Mandron, Sanmi Odelusi, Nick Powell, Kaiyne Woolery.

The amount of turnover at the end of the 2015 season was remarkable, with 31 incomings and 44 outgoings, including loan players.

Latics currently have seven whose contracts are due to expire – Jordan Flores, Jussi Jaaskelainen, Billy Mckay, Gabriel Obertan, David Perkins, Andrew Taylor and Stephen Warnock. There are another eight players whose loans are coming to an end.

In 2015 Gary Caldwell had already been installed as manager to oversee the massive turnover that took place over the summer.

At this stage we do not know who the next manager is going to be and there have been mutterings about taking the time to choose the right man for the job.

But given a mountain of a task ahead we might well see an appointment made sooner rather than later.
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Can Latics hold their nerve for automatic promotion?

In March 2014 Uwe Rosler’s Wigan Athletic team were challenging for a playoff place in the Championship division. During that month they went on to amass 14 points from their 7 games, losing only one by a 1-0 margin at QPR. They looked odds-on to reach that playoff place, which they did finally achieve, but not without a stutter as they picked up just 11 points from their last 9 matches.

Rosler’s team had peaked too early and just could not maintain their form over the final six weeks of the season. They put up spirited displays in the semi-final of the playoffs against QPR, but just could not show the kind of intensity they had shown a couple of months earlier.

Gary Caldwell’s team too has been peaking, going on a 14 game unbeaten run. Their last defeat was against Blackpool on December 12th. Have they peaked too early? Can they hold their nerve and get an automatic promotion place?

Burton Albion’s defeat at Bradford on Tuesday evening could well prove to be a turning point for what remains of the season. They still stand four points ahead of Wigan Athletic, but significantly they no longer have games in hand. After being so consistent for so long is there a chink in Burton’s armour? They have now only won one out of their last five matches.

The most optimistic of Wigan Athletic fans are now seriously talking about their team winning the division. Burton have some tricky fixtures coming up in the final 11 games of the season. Four of those are against teams currently in the top six promotion zone – Millwall (A), Latics (H), Barnsley (H) and Gillingham (H).

Other than having to play at Burton, Latics have to play just one other team from the current top six – Barnsley (H) on the last day of the season.

This current Wigan Athletic team is capable of beating any other team in team in League 1, Burton included. They are have the capability to go the remainder of the season unbeaten. But they are also capable of producing poor results against teams they would be expected to beat. In recent home games they have failed to beat struggling Oldham and Peterborough and a 1-1 draw at Crewe in late January was disappointing.  But it was the shock 1-0 home defeat to Blackpool in mid-December that sparked the surging run they are on at the moment.

In their last 6 league games Latics have won 3 and drawn 3, an average of 2 points per game. Of the other teams in the top six only Barnsley have done better with 13 points, followed by Millwall on 11 points, Burton on 8, Gillingham on 5 and Walsall on 3.

Looking at stats for games played up to this point  it looks like the teams gaining automatic promotion this season will need less points than has been the norm over the past decade. It has been the kind of season where teams are closer in level, where they can quickly climb up or abruptly slide down the table within half a dozen games. However, for Latics to gain automatic promotion they are likely to need at least 86 points. That would require an average of 2 points in each of the remaining eleven matches.

Tomorrow’s game at Colchester is another of those potential banana skins upon which Latics have slipped several times this season. In their last six games Colchester’s record is LDLDWL. They lie in bottom place ten points from safety and have won just three home games this season.

All teams tend to have injury problems at this time of year and Wigan Athletic are no exception. Michael Jacobs and Reece James have been out long term and are still recuperating. Jussi Jaaskelainen is likely to return following concussion received against Peterborough, but both Conor McAleny and Jason Pearce are doubtful for tomorrow.

Caldwell commented this week that  “Whilst it’s a big disappointment to have players out, it’s an opportunity for other players to come in and show what they can do. It’s up to those players who haven’t been playing but have been asking to play and wanting to play to be ready for the opportunities.”

One of those players the manager could be referring to is Kevin McNaughton, who completed a full 90 minutes for the development squad on Tuesday. The Scot may not start at Colchester but could come on later in the game. Haris Vuckic is also due to reappear at some stage.

In addition to potential injuries Caldwell is likely to lose Will Grigg to the Northern Ireland squad for their friendly matches on March 24 and 28. Craig Davies is the obvious replacement, although he has not completed a full game for a long time.

Now is the time for Latics to hold their nerve and let the other teams cut each other’s throats. A late season dip in form like that which happened to Rosler’s team is what they must guard against.