An Amigo View – Gillingham 1 Wigan Athletic 1 – Five talking points

 

On the face of it, a point against an outfit second from bottom is a trifle disappointing for a team riding at the top of the table. Shrewsbury’s 4-0 win over Bristol Rovers put them back to first place, as they impressively stretched their unbeaten league record to 14 games. But another 32 matches remain and the point gained at Priestfield might well prove crucial in the long run.

Latics had started well and had opportunities in the first half hour that would have materialised into goals with more clinical finishing. But the home team grew into the game and started to punch above their weight, with bouts of skilful football mixed with a determination not to be overwhelmed by their more highly-rated rivals.

When Chey Dunkley allowed 6 ft 5 in centre forward Eaves to head home in the 55th minute it was clear that Latics had an uphill task ahead of them. Just as at Shrewsbury they were rattled by the energy and hunger of the home team. It took a beautifully struck goal by Sam Morsy after 82 minutes to get Latics back in the game.

The scenes at the end of the game were reminiscent of those at the recent encounter at Peterborough with the Gills players waiting around on the pitch to receive a standing ovation from the crowd. Unlike some other teams Latics have played this season Gillingham did make an effort to attack and play constructive football. The ovation was well deserved.

Let’s take a look at some talking points arising from the game and the recent news of the club.

The centre forwards are still not getting enough goals

Ivan Toney had a disappointing evening and was taken off after 72 minutes, to be replaced by Will Grigg who too struggled to make an impact. Grigg went off injured after 88 minutes to be replaced by Noel Hunt. Cook will be hoping Grigg’s injury is not serious with matches against Blackburn and Bradford coming up.

Should Grigg be out for some time, Cook might well call on Nick Powell to play as a central striker with Gary Roberts operating behind him in the number 10 role.

However, for the moment, we can only surmise on how many more goals Latics would have scored this season if their central strikers had been sharper. Grigg typically gets the bulk of his goals in the second half of the season. Will he do so again this season?

Nick Powell played the full 93 minutes

Cook and his staff have done a wonderful job up to this point in nurturing Powell back to fitness. To go until the final whistle without being substituted is a milestone for the player after being dogged by injury for so long.

Powell is essentially a Premier League player operating in League 1. Although he has still not hit top form he is almost indispensable to Cook, being at the heart of the creativity, also the top scorer. Should he stay fit we can expect him to hit the 20-goal mark before the end of the season.

Chey Dunkley is a work in progress

As the cross was coming in for the Gills goal, Dunkley was calling to Nathan Byrne to come across to mark a player who was coming into the box. The cross somehow eluded Dan Burn and Dunkley’s lack of concentration allowed Eaves to score. Up to that point he and Burn had headed away countless crosses, looking comfortable in doing so.

Dunkley remains a work in progress. His red card against Portsmouth was a hard pill to swallow, but following his suspension he got back in the team in place of the capable and experienced Alex Bruce. Cook clearly has faith in the 25-year old. Other than the matter of the goal conceded, Dunkley did not have a bad game and he made an outstanding tackle in the first half as Eaves looked like he was going to score.  Dunkley is usually excellent in the air and forms a strong partnership with Burn. Moreover he shows sound  positional sense and is vocal on the pitch.

Sam Morsy is an inspirational captain

Morsy’s indiscipline on the field has been a talking point this season and he picked up another yellow card just a couple of minutes after scoring that vital goal. It was sadly no surprise.

However, Morsy had hit a screamer earlier on that fizzed wide when it looked like it might be going in. He was not happy for his team to be behind and he continued to push himself and his team forward. It is the sheer determination that the player shows that makes him a captain to be reckoned with. But not only is he fierce in the tackle and tireless in his efforts, but he has a fine technique and vision.

With Morsy as captain the team is never going to lie down. Despite his disciplinary lapses he is an inspirational captain.

Paul Cook must not be sacrificed in any takeover

Cook has made a wonderful start to his new job at Wigan. He has transformed a team that was too scared to open-up and play into one that clearly relishes it. It is years since we have seen such a positive, attacking brand of football at Wigan. Moreover he is showing faith in a core of players in the early to mid-twenties who could hold their own in the Championship were Latics to be promoted.

Much is clearly happening behind the scenes at the club, with the incredibly successful 22-year reign of the Whelan family seemingly nearing its end. Put simply, without Dave Whelan’s vision, determination and sheer hard work Latics could never have dreamed to have had the successes they have enjoyed over a span of decades.

Should the takeover happen by the end of the year, as the media seems to suggest, it would be sad if Cook’s position were destabilised. Put simply, he is the best thing that has happened to Latics in a long time.

 

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Five talking points arising from the win against Northampton

 

He has only been at the club for some two weeks but Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink has already stamped his mark upon Northampton Town. Well organised, tight in defence, looking for a breakaway goal they were the spitting image of his Burton Albion side a couple of years ago.

Gary Caldwell’s team lost at home to Burton in November 2015, after they could not find a way through the visitors’ defence and conceded a 74th minute goal through counterattack. But against Northampton, Latics were to win, courtesy of a stunning 55th minute goal from Michael Jacobs and resolute defence, which included a brilliant reaction save from Jamie Jones from Leon Barnett’s effort in the 75th minute.

Latics had not played well, but the three points gained from the 1-0 victory propelled them up to second place in the league table.

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

The orchestrator was sorely missed

Gary Roberts was on a hiding to nothing when making his first Wigan Athletic start in the absence of Nick Powell. When Roberts signed from Portsmouth to join his old teammate, Noel Hunt, there was talk of cronyism on the part of Paul Cook. But although Hunt’s role this season is likely to be largely peripheral, Roberts is likely to feature on a regular basis. Roberts had been criticised at Pompey for being over the hill, no longer having the legs to make an impact on a game. But he proved his doubters wrong in this match, putting in a solid shift for 84 minutes, despite having so little time on the field in recent weeks.

But Powell was sorely missed. He is the orchestrator of Wigan’s best football, his intelligent passing and movement being the catalyst for bringing out the creativity of his teammates.

Thank goodness that Dan Burn stayed

There were rumours over the summer that Burn might be going to a Championship club. But if any one player is crucial to Wigan’s promotion hopes it is he. Burn does not only provide an aerial presence, but his anticipation and timing make him a formidable player in League 1. Cook is not a manager to applaud individual player’s performances, but even he had to comment that the player was “absolutely outstanding” against Northampton.

7,777 turned up for the match

It was the lowest league attendance so far this season, the best having been 9,685 against Portsmouth. Prior to the season starting there had been grumbles about ticket prices, some suggesting that attendances would plummet as a result.

However, after four home games up to this point the average attendance is 8,828. After four home games in the 2015-16 season the average was 8,464.

3 goals conceded in 8 games

Cook’s approach is the most attacking that we have seen since the halcyon days of Paul Jewell. However, a measly 3 goals conceded from 8 games shows that they can certainly defend too.

Sam Morsy is suspended

Morsy is the first player in the four tiers of English football to be suspended this season for an accumulation of five yellow cards. Moreover there have been times when it has looked like the player would receive a second yellow in the same game.

Cook clearly believes that Morsy is being targeted by opposing teams. However, he also concedes that “if you take that competitive edge away from Sammy, he wouldn’t be the same player.”

The result is that the captain will not be available for the difficult trip to Peterborough on Saturday. Max Power is the most likely to take his place.

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.

 

 

Seeking a balance in midfield

A more balanced midfield with Paul Cook in charge?

“So close to a famous win, absolutely devastated. Atmosphere was incredible.

So tweeted James McArthur after Harry Kane’s late equaliser had robbed them of victory in a game they did not really deserve to win.

He had come on as a substitute at the beginning of the second half in the cauldron that Hampden Park so often can be. In the eyes of an admittedly biased Wigan Athletic fan he should have been on from the start, but James Morrison and Scott Brown were chosen instead.

But seeing McArthur brought back memories of his partnership with James McCarthy. Both were signed from a modest club in Hamilton Academical, seemingly “players for the future”. But what a future it proved to be for them at Wigan as the pair became the engine room of the club’s greatest ever successes. Pitched up against the likes of Gerrard, Lampard and Scholes they held their own, famous victories over England’s richest and most powerful clubs resulting.

Roberto Martinez had developed what was loosely called a 3-4-3 system. McArthur and McCarthy supplied the energy and vision from the centre of midfield, with the excellent wing backs Emmerson Boyce and Jean Beausejour providing the width. One of the front three, Shaun Maloney or Jordi Gomez, would drop back to reinforce midfield and add to the creativity. The end result was a balanced midfield, capable of challenging the best in the land.

It is more than three years now since McArthur left Wigan, McCarthy having gone a year earlier. Since then Latics have had a plethora of midfield players pass through the club. The Macs had played together for three years, developing a mutual understanding, covering for each other when it was needed.

But last season that kind of understanding was sadly lacking, players too often being unable to find their teammates with their passes. Midfield players who had been key in winning League 1 the previous season had clearly found the step up to the Championship a tough one. Perhaps Gary Caldwell had realised that the midfielders of the title winning team might struggle in the higher division. He brought in reinforcements in Shaun MacDonald, Alex Gilbey and Nick Powell, but the latter two were to be stricken by injury. MacDonald had been a box to box midfielder at Bournemouth, but Caldwell was to use him in a “Busquets role” in front of the back four. He had used Sam Morsy in that role in the previous season, but the player had been dispatched off to Barnsley on loan.

MacDonald went on to become a rock in front of the defence, also being favoured by Warren Joyce when he arrived in November. Although he would rarely show the range of passing that we had seen from Morsy, MacDonald was equally firm in the tackle and his reading of the game. Moreover he was strong in the air. Sadly his horrendous injury at Reading is likely to rule him out for the large part of the coming season.

As part of his return from Barnsley, Morsy had been offered an improved contract with Joyce being keen to get him back. With MacDonald anchoring at the back, Morsy was pushed forward into a more creative role where he initially seemed to thrive. However, Joyce’s obsession with 4-5-1 was to mean that any midfielder’s role was to be primarily defensive. Like the other midfielders, Morsy just did not look as effective as he had earlier. The midfield was to shoulder the bulk of the frustration of fans wanting to see them push further forward to support the lone centre forward. The lack of creativity was to be exacerbated as Joyce was to play four central midfielders in his starting line-up, a tactic that was also to be followed by Graham Barrow when he took over as caretaker manager.

Latics fans will be hoping for a more positive approach from new manager Paul Cook. Cook’s preferred formation appears to be 4-2-3-1, so it is unlikely he will use someone in the anchor role occupied by MacDonald. David Perkins has been given a new short term contract, although he is now 35. However, Perkins was the Player of the Year in League 1 in 2015-16 and his infectious enthusiasm was a key element in the team’s success. Max Power was the subject of an offer by Birmingham City in January. Although he had a disappointing season he remains a young player with good technique who might well benefit from a move. Morsy has already proved himself in League 1 and would surely be in contention for a place, but his increased salary might prove too much for Latics to swallow, given their much decreasing revenues. It would be no surprise if both Power and Morsy were sold over the summer.

Cook already has players who can form the trio behind the centre forward. He has those who can play wide in Michael Jacobs and Nathan Byrne, plus “number 10s” in Jack Byrne, Alex Gilbey, Josh Laurent and Nick Powell. Nathan Byrne has genuine pace, making Joyce’s decision to send him on loan to Charlton difficult to understand. With both Wildschut and Byrne leaving his side was distinctly short of pace. Rumour suggests that Byrne had a falling out with the manager and was dispatched as a result. It could be that the player has already burnt his bridges at Wigan and will be gone over summer, but he has a fine record in League 1 and could be an important player, if he were to stay. Salary could also be an issue.

For the moment Latics are short on holding midfielders and Cook will be looking at bringing in at least a couple more. He will also look for more wide players. Jordan Flores can play wide on the left of midfield, but there is still no news of him signing a new contract.

Finding the right balance in midfield will be of paramount importance to Paul Cook if he is to build a squad good enough to get the club back to the Championship division. Continuity is something that has been so lacking at Wigan over the past three seasons. Ideally Cook will put together a midfield not only to get the club out of League 1, but also one which can serve the club more long-term as did the “Macs” in the Martinez era.

 

 

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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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