Bristol City 2 Wigan Athletic 2
Bristol is always worth a visit. In 2017 it was named by the Sunday Times as the best place to live in Britain: “a small city that feels like a big city”, it was praised for being “handily placed for seaside and scenery” but “hardly cut off”. A little less than a year ago I went to the north of the city to see Latics get a 1-1 draw against Bristol Rovers in primitive conditions, sitting under a canopy with the rain lashing in at the rustic Memorial Ground.
The impressive Ashton Gate stadium is some three miles south of the city centre, not far from the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge. Bristol City were in fourth place, following fine wins at Sheffield United and Middlesbrough, facing a Wigan team low on confidence and in a relegation dogfight. Gary Caldwell’s promoted side played there in the opening game of the season in August 2016, going into half time with a 1-0 lead, only to go down in the 90th minute after Lee Johnson’s substitutions had changed the game.
This Bristol City side has a high proportion of tall players, posing a serious aerial threat. Knowing that Paul Cook had changed his team’s shape, reverting to a 3-4-2-1 system, with Cedric Kipre brought back as the third centre half. Gavin Massey was left on the bench for Josh Windass to join Nick Powell behind centre forward Joe Garner.
Latics started off well, not being afraid to take the game to the home team. They went into the interval a goal ahead following a prodigious strike from distance by Reece James. The Wigan fans in the John Atyeo Stand were delighted at the half time lead, if somewhat wary of what might follow. Were Latics going to suffer that all-too-familiar second half slump that had let them down in so many away games?
But Latics went into the second half in a similar vein, cancelling out the home team’s efforts and carving out opportunities of their own. But Johnson once again changed the pattern of the game, through making three substitutions after just 58 minutes. A sloppy Wigan backline allowed goals by Matty Taylor after 65 minutes and substitute Kasey Palmer three minutes later. But Wigan had not caved in and continued to create opportunities. On the 81st minute Cook made three substitutions, taking off Kipre, Windass and Joe Garner to bring on Massey, Anthony Pilkington and Leon Clarke. With just a minute remaining of the five added-on Clarke steamrollered his way through the home defence, his shot being blocked by a defender on the line, only for Pilkington to slot home the loose ball.
The away support went into raptures. In the end it was a point well deserved against a good Bristol City side.
Following the game Paul Cook said: “I think, even for our fans, it’s very much a fair indication of probably where we’re at, at the level. Going forward we’ve genuinely tried to carry a threat and create chances which we’ve done. Unfortunately, defensively, we have the ability just to give teams soft goals and that was no different today. Whilst it’s important we stick together and stay strong, you know there must be a level of improvement in certain departments of the pitch and none more so highlighted than the five minutes today that have seen us go from a comfortable lead to going behind 2-1.The character of the team is good. The subs came on and effected it really well, we carried a threat the whole game. I thought Powell and Windass looked good behind Joe Garner who was excellent, but unfortunately the goals change the game and from there we’re making substitutions we probably didn’t want to make, albeit they had a positive effect.”
Let’s take a look at some points arising:
Clarke shows his worth
When Leon Clarke was brought on with some 10 minutes to go it did not go down particularly well with the away following. The big man has had a difficult return to a club where he had previously failed to impress. Joe Garner has established himself as the first choice centre forward and he had had another good game against City’s three towering central defenders. But Clarke’s physical strength and opportunism helped save the day for Latics.
Whether the 34-year-old will be at Wigan next season remains to be seen, but Cook will be hoping to see more of his opportunism in the six matches that remain.
Cook gets his shape right
Faced with such an aerial threat Cook wisely selected three central defenders, allowing Nathan Byrne and Antonee Robinson more freedom to move forward as wing backs. The lineup was well balanced and helped Latics compete on an even keel with a side vying for promotion.
Cook’s plans were sadly undone by poor defending, Kipre allowing Taylor to out jump him for the first goal, Chey Dunkley’s slip leading to the second.
But the 3-4-2-1 system the manager used in this match could prove to be his preferred formation until the end of the season. Not only does it potentially stiffen the defence but it provides pace up the wings. After being left on the bench presumably because of the formation, Gavin Massey looked to be hobbling along in the closing minutes. Should it prove to be a major injury the manager will be short of his three fastest wingers, since Michael Jacobs and Callum McManaman have already been ruled out.
Over the course of the season, faced with injuries to Jacobs and Massey, Cook persisted with players on the wings who were so much less pacy and incisive than that duo. One can only hope that the manager sees the benefit of persisting with a 3-4-2-1 which allows his best available players to take the field in positions to which they are suited.
Cook gets his substitutions right
When the second City goal went in there were some away fans asking for Cook to make substitutions. But, despite the defensive errors Latics were playing well against strong opposition. He wisely waited until the 81st minute, changing the shape to his favourite 4-2-3-1.
The manager’s substitutions over recent months have often received criticism. He certainly got it right this time.
Dunkley and Kipre for the future
The Championship season is long and relentless, a constant challenge to players who have come up from lower divisions. Chey Dunkley had a mixed game, his slip leading to a goal, fluffing two headers on goal which last season he would probably have put away. But he nevertheless made important tackles and interventions.
The 27-year-old Dunkley had just two seasons in league football prior to this season, both in League 1. The ascent to the Championship was always going to pose a challenge. With a young defence around him so often Dunkley has had to shoulder the burden. His heading ability has been so important for the team, as have the superb last-gasp tackles he has so often produced. At times he has been caught out and made errors that have proved costly and his distribution has been far from the level expected from a central defender in the second tier. But at Bristol he rarely launched those hoof-balls that have too often characterized his distribution.
Cedric Kipre is only 22-years -old, with a single season behind him in league football, albeit for Motherwell in the SPL. He has a superb physique for a central defender, has pace and passing ability. In recent games he has looked short of confidence, not the player he was earlier in the season. Despite his height and powerful build he is too often beaten in the air, as happened again in this game. Rather than aggressively attacking the ball he can tend to hold back. Earlier in the season Kipre was unafraid to venture forward towards the half way line to make tackles, but playing in a struggling team must have had its effect. Kipre is young and has the potential to become a fine central defender at Championship level. With the right coaching maybe he could go even further?
It has been a steep learning curve for both Dunkley and Kipre. Should Latics manage to avoid relegation the knowledge the two have gained from playing at this level will surely hold them in good stead for the future.
Looking forward to Hull
Hull City sit in 11th place. Their home record is W10 D5 L5, amassing 35 points, just one more than Latics at the DW Stadium.
Although Bristol City were flying high prior to playing Latics their home record had not been impressive. In that respect the trip to Hull could pose more of a challenge.
However, buoyed by the point gained at Bristol, can Latics come away with a good result in east Yorkshire?