Will Wigan Athletic’s upsurge in results continue?

Sam Morsy’s well-taken blast into the West Bromwich net has given Wigan Athletic a massive boost. Three wins in the space of a week have propelled them up the Championship table. They now stand in 19th place, two points above the relegation zone. A win against lowly Luton Town on Saturday could see them climb further out of trouble, but there are fans who question whether that will happen despite the recent upturn in performances and results.

Paul Cook must certainly take credit for the upsurge in results. The seeds of the revival were sown following an abject defeat at Kenilworth Road in early December. Following a winless November, it had looked that Latics could get an uplift by picking up three points against a bottom-placed Luton side.

But students of Cook’s Wigan were already citing mediocre results over the previous 16 months against teams in the lower rungs of the table. It was hardly a surprise to them when Luton scored two late goals to secure their win. Once again, we had seen Wigan Athletic players in an away game looking both clueless and legless in the closing minutes. There was only one team trying to play football in this game: it wasn’t Wigan. Fightball/longball once again failed under Cook’s tutelage.

Cook made seven changes for the next game against league leaders West Bromwich Albion. With Chey Dunkley suspended and Charlie Mulgrew injured Cedric Kipre was brought in with Kal Naismith reverting to the centre of defence and Josh Windass was played at centre forward. Naismith’s passing out of defence was a feature of that game, and the long ball approach hardly reared its ugly head in the absence of a combative target man upfront. Kipre  made a succedssful return to the centre of defence.  Latics had to settle for a draw largely due to a goalkeeping error, but they had been the better team throughout.

Although results remained disappointing in the rest of December the performances were much better. Passing the ball out from the back had become more normal, even if the long ball had not disappeared entirely.

Following the memorable victory at the Hawthorns on Saturday captain Sam Morsy commented:

“People will say there has been a change but all season – I know you can’t – but if you take the last five or ten minutes from some of the games, we would be right up the league. It is not a dramatic or drastic change that we have made…. It has been fine margins and we can’t look back, this isn’t drastic change, we have played well for the majority of the season, but if you don’t win games then things get looked at, the reality is that we have done well and not got the points but this week has been a great week.”

What Morsy did not mention was that the transition from longball/hoofball to a more possession-based approach. The long ball remains a feature of Cook’s football philosophy, but it is being counterbalanced by an emphasis on retaining possession. As a result, the players no longer visibly wilt in the closing minutes after constantly having to chase the opposition to regain possession which has been squandered. Moreover, the change in emphasis has given the players more opportunity to express themselves and so many of them look better as a result.

Morsy himself has looked a far better player over the past couple of months. He has not only cut out the unnecessary yellow cards that had been so prevalent but is playing a much more constructive role going forward. His surging runs from deep in midfield have helped open opposition defences and he is showing much more ambition in his passing.

Following a run of games at centre forward Josh Windass left for a loan spell at Sheffield Wednesday in January. With Windass’ departure some of us wondered if it would signal a return to a long ball with Joe Garner and Kieffer Moore on the receiving end. But it was not to be the case, with Moore looking a much better player as a result. With Latics defenders constantly looking to launch long balls in his general direction he was struggling in his first season in the Championship. But over the past couple of months he has received better service, scoring goals, holding the ball up with strength and intelligence.

Cook’s action of putting Naismith and Kipre together in the centre of defence in December was perhaps one of desperation at the time. Naismith had performed admirably in that position in the landmark 2-1 win at Leeds in April 2019, but he had hardly been considered as a centre back since then. Kipre’s performances earlier in the season had been disappointing and the promise he had shown since his arrival from Motherwell in the summer of 2018 seemed to have evaporated. However, playing together the two players really gelled: the passing out of the ball from the centre of defence became much improved and their reading of the game was as good as any we had seen from central defenders all season.

In the last five games loan signing Leon Balogun has played with Kipre in the centre of defence. Despite a patchy career record where he never found himself an automatic starter in the Bundesliga, with Fortuna Dusseldorf and Mainz, the 31-year-old has looked so impressive, with some fans even calling him the Wigan Van Dijk. Kipre has continued to blossom with his new central defensive partner and has been excellent of late.

Since that low point at Luton there has been a gradual improvement in performance, if not always in results. The centre of defence has become increasingly more solid, the midfield more involved in linking up play between defence and attack. The centre forward is getting better service and Latics are pushing more men forward into the opposition penalty box. Moreover, the “rub of the green” has been more in Wigan’s favour, after being against them for so long.

The tide really does seem to have turned and some fans are already talking about a final placing in mid-table. Others question whether the revival will continue under a manager who has struggled at this level. They accept that Cook will be at the club until summer at least, but question whether he has learned from his mistakes. The hoofball may have largely disappeared and the players are showing better game management when holding on to leads, but there are other aspects upon which they remain to be convinced.

Under Cook’s tenure as manager Latics have had poor results against clubs close to them in the standings. The League 1 title winning team of 2018-19 had a less than stellar record against promotion rivals and last season’s team performed poorly against teams near the bottom of the table. The manager’s critics will say that he has gone into such games with too much caution, allowing the opposition too much respect.

This season’s team also has a less than impressive record in that respect. Their record against clubs currently below them in the table reads W1 D2 L3. It is for these reasons that there are fans who are not convinced that an in-form Latics will put Luton to the sword of Saturday.

The Luton game is an acid test and could be a turning point in Cook’s tenure as Latics manager. A win would relieve relegation fears but anything less than that would suggest that the manager had still not addressed the issue of poor results against relegation rivals.

Stats courtesy of Soccerstats.com

Social Media reaction to a hard-earned victory over Sheffield Wednesday

Wigan Athletic 2 Sheffield Wednesday 1

Well-taken goals from Kieffer Moore and Jamal Lowe earned Latics three important points in their battle against relegation. They showed the kind of opportunism that has been so lacking over recent months.

At long last Paul Cook decided to start Joe Gelhardt, leaving Joe Williams on the bench, switching Jamal Lowe to the left wing and Kieran Dowell to the right. Gelhardt looked dangerous at times but struggled to get the ball. The switching of the wide players was ineffective. We have seen Lowe struggle on the left before so it was no surprise to see it again. But when Michael Jacobs was introduced on the left wing after 66 minutes Lowe looked much better when moved across. Dowell looked out of place on the right and it was sad to see him stretchered off midway through the second half.

Sam Morsy played one of his best games for Latics at Championship level. He was controlled in his tackling and creative in his passing. His excellent ball to Moore led to Wigan’s first goal. Significantly it was a ball played along the ground, giving the big centre forward the chance to use his strength to hold the ball and turn.

Wednesday took the lead after 32 minutes when a superb pass from Barry Bannan released Morgan Fox who put in an accurate cross for Jacob Murphy to outjump Antonee Robinson and score. Moore’s equaliser came after 56 minutes and Latics continued to press, being rewarded with Lowe’s goal after 89 minutes. The 6 minutes of time added-on saw Wigan continue to take the initiative rather than drop back and defend. But there was a scare in the last minute when Jordan Rhodes latched on to a ball only to put it straight at David Marshall.

Let’s take a look at how fans reacted to the match through the message boards and social media.

Our thanks go to the Cockney Latic Forum, the Vital Wigan – Latics Speyk Forum and Twitter for providing the media for the posts below to happen. Thanks go to all whose contributions are identified below.

Exiled Tic on the Latics Speyk Forum commented:

First of all a bit of praise for Cook,he got the subs exactly right tonight, Gelhardt seemed lost, Dowell obviously injured and Evans sacrificed for an extra forward! First half was forgettable but the last half hour we showed more guts and commitment than Wednesday and the crowd responded to it!!

Morsy a real captain tonight and Moore put a real good shift in! Robinson seemed distracted by the Milan talk, Lowe very poor aside from a well taken goal, Dowell out of position so cannot really judge him just yet! Naismith good again, especially when bringing the ball out of defence, Kipre looking better all the time, The rest all had good and bad moments but we won and just bloody happy about that!!

Th10 on the Latics Speyk Forum commented:

Morsy mom for me, he really drove the team on and it was a great pass to Moore for the first goal. Lowe was very poor playing on the left. I thought he looked a different player on the right though. He made some good runs in behind and across the defenders and almost set up a couple of goals before scoring the winner. Hopefully Cook will realise he’s a right winger.

Edwards on the Cockney Latic Forum said:

I thought Morsy was superb seemed to be everywhere, Naismith was quality too.

Lowe seemed to grow 2 ft taller after his goal.

The_Pon on the Latics Speyk Forum commented:

Not sure I agree with the poster who said Lowe didn’t know what he was doing… It was a brilliantly taken goal to be fair. Was as much about Garner as Lowe though. Garner should be #1 striker, for absolute sure.

We’ve been playing long balls to Moore all year whenever he’s been on and looked ineffectual doing it. One half trying to play it into his feet and he scores. Good on him. Hopefully may have actually learned something… Though I’ll believe that when I see it happen regularly.

Doesn’t change the fact that he did nothing else of value all game and I stand by the fact he should’ve been subbed off.

Lowey on the Cockney Latic Forum said:

Lowe was absolutely dross for 80 mins then suddenly got involved looked dangerous and scored he winner. How he wasn’t subbed was staggering but cook can stick two fingers up to us all for once. However worth noting first time he’s thrown a second striker on rather than swap like for like and hey presto.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

A revitalised midfield for Latics

A competitive midfield trio of Macleod, Morsy and Williams can move Latics ahead.

On paper, one point from two consecutive away games is hardly impressive, but performances and results don’t always correlate. The quality of football we saw last week at Derby and Bristol City was light years ahead of the aimless long-ball approach we have so often witnessed in away days over the past twelve months.

“I’m really positive about the performances we’ve put in this week. We’ve arrived at Derby County and Bristol City and been positive, we’re not setting up to be negative, which is one of the things I said to supporters at the fans’ forum.”

Paul Cook’s comments after the Bristol game made interesting reading. Debates over his statements made in the fans’ forum will continue, but the bottom line is that Latics really were positive at Derby and Bristol, pushing men forward, pressing the home side defences. It was so refreshing to see after month after month of tactically inept away performances.

The signings of Lewis Macleod and Joe Williams over the summer were hardly greeted with universal acclaim by Wigan Athletic fans. Although highly rated as a young player at Rangers, Macleod’s career had been in the doldrums after making just 43 appearances over a four year stay at Brentford. Williams had spent the previous two seasons on loan at Barnsley and Bolton, before Everton sold him to Wigan. His reputation was of a hard-tackling midfielder who could do a job at Wigan.

In the excellent home win over Nottingham Forest Cook  brought in Macleod for the suspended Sam Morsy. The Scot had started in the first two games of the season, Morsy again being suspended, but it had taken six weeks before he appeared again. Macleod had a fine game against Forest, linking up well with Williams.

The underlying reasons for Latics’ woeful away form over the past year have been up for debate for so long. The manager himself has been at a loss to explain it, suggesting that he has employed the same tactics on the road as at home. But the overall impression has been of a lack of creativity, posing little threat on the opponents’ goal and a porous defence capable of giving away “soft” goals, especially in the closing minutes. A common theme has been the inability of the midfield to provide adequate protection for the defence and not providing the link between defence and attack, resulting in defenders launching long balls.

At Bristol Macleod was particularly effective in sitting in front of the back four, available to receive the ball and make accurate passes to teammates. Morsy and Williams played on either side of him, forming a combative, but creative, trio.

Williams has been a revelation, not only strong in his defensive work but showing flair and vision in his play. Still only 22-years old he looks a complete central midfielder. Macleod is now 25 and after so many injury-plagued seasons he is looking fit and sharp, as evidenced by the fact that he has played the full 90-plus in each of the last three games.

Despite conceding late goals at Derby and Bristol the defence has also shown improvement over recent weeks. With an improved defence and a more functional midfield Latics will surely compete better away from the DW Stadium. However, it will need more sharpness and poise from the forwards for them to become truly competitive on the road.

Some thoughts: Nottingham Forest (H) 1-0

Wigan Athletic confounded the media with a well-deserved victory over an over-hyped Forest side. The television commentary had given us a vision of a resurgent Forest, unbeaten in 10 games, heading for a return to the top tier of English football where they surely belonged. But in the end, they had to acknowledge that Latics were worthy victors and that their record at the DW Stadium over the calendar year was impressive.

Paul Cook had surprised us by leaving Josh Windass on the bench, playing Gavin Massey in the number 10 position. It was Massey’s fine link-up play with Jamal Lowe that produced the winning goal after 35 minutes.

Following the game Paul Cook commented: “I thought we were good in the game, I enjoyed watching us play. It’s another very strong home performance, and you’d struggle to name our best player because we had so many good performers. We looked a threat against a very strong Forest side. And at the other end, we defended very, very well. They’re not so much big wins, they’re just wins because every game is so tough.”

Let’s look at some points arising:

Lowe gets his breakthrough

Jamal Lowe’s protracted arrival from Portsmouth in summer was well received by Latics fans. Lowe scored 17 goals for the south coast club in League 1 last season although he played mainly on the right flank. The question was whether he could bridge the transition to Championship football.

Until yesterday Lowe had struggled, looking a shadow of the confident, skilful player he had been at Portsmouth. At Wigan he had largely been employed on the left flank, sometimes in the middle of the advanced midfield three.

But at last Lowe was given the chance to play in his more “natural” position on the right wing. Gavin Massey had been pushed across to a more central role where he had been effective around the end of last season, linking up with the big man up front. The result was that the big centre forward in this game, Kieffer Moore, received more support than he has been accustomed to.

In scoring his goal Lowe had taken a blow to the knee and it clearly affected his mobility. But the goal had given him renewed confidence and he began to show the kinds of skills that had been muted in previous appearances. Lowe left the field after 65 minutes to the applause of the home crowd. He had made his breakthrough.

Williams thrives in Morsy’s absence

Sam Morsy’s absence through suspension gave a fresh opportunity to Lewis Macleod, who had appeared in the opening two games, but not since. Macleod is a fine footballer whose career has been thwarted by constant injury problems. However, he looked fit enough in this game, defending with vigour, showing his ability moving forward. That he went the whole 90 minutes-plus is a testament to how his rehabilitation is succeeding.

Joe Williams is a tenacious tackler who has a range of passing skills. He was Wigan’s outstanding performer in this game. Williams is still only 22 years old and looks an excellent signing for Latics.

Both Williams and Morsy can play the role of midfield destroyer. They had been playing together in holding midfield, providing solid protection for the defence. However, the introduction of Macleod for Morsy gave the centre of midfield a more fluid look. There will be times when Latics will need the steel provided by a Morsy-Williams duo, but the option of including a fluid passer of the ball like Macleod is one that Cook will surely consider.

A more measured long ball approach

The “hoof” has been an ugly and ineffective aspect of Latics play since their return to the Championship. All too often defenders have launched hopeful long balls, usually in the general direction of an outnumbered and isolated central striker, sometimes simply to clear the lines. The net result has typically been to concede the ball to the opposition, inviting them to build up moves from the back and pressurise Wigan’s defence further.

The long ball is not going away as long as Paul Cook is in charge at Wigan. It was frequently applied yesterday, interspersed with spells of keeping the ball on the ground. However, in this game most of the long balls were at least “measured” with Kieffer Moore able to receive and shield the ball on some occasions.

A mixed day for Kieffer

Kieffer Moore came into this game on the back of two fine performances for Wales, for whom he looked a much better player than we had seen playing for Latics. Would the big centre forward be able to get his first goal for Wigan after he had notched his first at international level in Slovakia?

Sadly, it was not to be and, as in so many of his previous Latics appearances, he did not look like scoring. Moore was as committed as ever and posed a physical challenge to the Forest defenders, not so isolated up front with Massey providing support.

Gelhardt’s role

Joe Gelhardt captained England’s under 18 side last week and once again showed what a good player he is on the international stage. He would have been full of confidence coming into this game. Surely, he would be brought on at some stage. But no. He remained on the bench once more.

Cook has continued to laud the 17-year-old’s ability and temperament, insisting that he is up to the rigours of Championship football, but the stats show that Gelhardt’s opportunities have been severely limited. He has been on the field for a total of just 73 minutes of the 12 league games played.

Rumour suggests that Gelhardt will be in the centre of a bidding war between elite Premier League clubs in the January transfer window. The more experience he gets at Championship level the higher his potential transfer fee is likely to rise.

There are critics who suggest that Cook is largely paying lip service to treating Gelhardt as a fully- fledged member of the first team squad and that his main role will continue to be as the “home- grown” player that the EFL insists must be included in every match-day squad. They cite the example of Callum McManaman who last season was on the pitch for a total of 439 minutes, which included just one start. He was on the bench 34 times.

Given the lack of creativity in Latics’ and their lack of goals from open play it has been disappointing to see a player of Gelhardt’s flair left so often on the bench. Should he leave in January Cook will have to look for someone else to fulfil the home-grown requirement.

 

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

Five talking points following a well-deserved victory against Charlton

Wigan Athletic 2 Charlton Athletic 0

Two well-taken goals by Chey Dunkley were enough to see off a Charlton side that had been flying high in the table. There was much more composure in Latics’ play than we have seen for some time. Their victory was well deserved.

After the game Paul Cook commented:

“That’s the second home game in a row now with a clean sheet, albeit great defending by Chey Dunkley and a great save by David Marshall at the end. He had to make a big save, it was a great save from Marshy. It was a really pleasing performance and we were excellent in the first half. We were unfortunate to come in only one goal up and when it’s one there always a chance, but great credit to the players because they’re worked ever so hard on the training ground. We looked a lot more like our old selves today and that’s really pleasing for me.”

Let’s look at some points arising:

Dunkley praises Barry

Chey Dunkley had probably his best game at Championship level, not only scoring a brace of goals but playing a strong role in defence.

After not scoring for some 42 matches he has now scored three in two games.

In an interview on LaticsTV he gave credit to coach Anthony Barry: “We have been talking about Charlie Mulgrew being a set-piece specialist and Crackers [Michael Jacobs] also put some good balls in today. We have been working on it and the staff have said to me that I am getting so many first contacts, we need to start converting them into goals. I have to give a special mention to Anthony Barry [first team coach] because he has been working a lot with me and long may that continue. If I can chip in with goals here and there and I can help the team then that’s a good thing. Anthony has given me lots of stats, he works hard and does his research and comes to me and tells me areas where I am most likely to get my first contacts and even second balls as well.”

But the big central defender admitted that last year he didn’t work on (attacking set pieces) too much.

Last season both Dunkley and Cedric Kipre would so often get into good positions in the opposition box but neither could score. Between them they now have three goals in eight games.

A more solid defence

It was reassuring to see Nathan Byrne regaining some form after a sticky patch. The back four looked more solid than of late. Goalkeeper David Marshall did not have a lot to do until the closing minutes when he made a couple of good saves.

In front of them Sam Morsy and Joe Williams were terriers in the centre of midfield, providing a level of protection that the back four had not enjoyed for some time. Williams looks a fine signing: solid in defence and fluid in his passing.

Dangerous on set-pieces

The arrival of Charlie Mulgrew into the team has added an extra dimension to Wigan’s play. His ability to precision-launch a free kick or corner into danger areas has made Latics look a threat from set-pieces.

In fact, in this game Latics looked more dangerous on set-pieces than in open play.

Robinson is so exciting

The money spent in summer on securing Antonee Robinson on a permanent contract could prove to be one of the best investments Latics have made in recent years. He was at his exciting best in this game, solid in defence and electric in attack, making a series of memorable runs.

Robinson is only 22 and is still a work in progress. Defensively he needs to be more robust and aware, although he has made improvements in these areas since arriving on loan in the summer of 2018. Going forward Robinson is a menace to any defence. He has blistering pace and a great left foot. What he is currently lacking is composure. So often he can get into great positions but either the final pass is lacking, or he has not chosen the best option for his pass. Running at such a pace makes it more difficult to make that killer pass or shot on goal.

In his early career Mo Salah was somewhat similar before he developed the composure to finish with precision. Let’s hope Anthony Barry can coach Robinson into improvements in these areas.

Aim for mid-table

Darren Royle and IEC have been busy investing in the club since the takeover. Their aim is for Latics to get back into the Premier League with a thriving academy to supply potential first team players. They have already spent money on facilities for the stadium and the academy. Moreover, they spent around £10m on summer transfers.

Wigan’s start has certainly been disappointing, but Royle/IEC have continued to back the manager and his staff. The win against Charlton takes Latics out of the bottom three, which makes a difference psychologically, but avoiding relegation is not enough this season. The ownership are expecting an incremental rise up the second tier over the coming seasons.

Latics have a well-balanced squad with lots of competition for places. It is at least capable of getting them a place in mid-table. But to do this the management has to instil the belief in the players that they belong in the division and can beat any other team on their day. This means an end to the “unforgiving league” comments that have so frequently been quoted by the manager. Granted, there are clubs with budgets so much higher than Wigan, but so often those clubs are lumbered with players who have the security of long contracts with high salaries. They do not always perform as one could expect on paper.

Cook has had a learning experience in the second tier. We have to hope that he has learned from it and can set the bar higher for his players.

Stsats courtesy of WhoScored.com