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

Five talking points following a depressing performance at Hillsborough

Sheffield Wednesday 1 Wigan Athletic 0

 

Following the uplifting display against Aston Villa we witnessed another depressing performance at Hillsborough. Two poor teams offered little by the way of entertainment, although the conditions did not make things easy for either side. The game was decided by an excellent strike by Wednesday centre forward Steven Fletcher, aided by a lack of challenge from the Wigan midfield. But the home side were deserved winners, having eight shots on target compared with one from a toothless Latics outfit.

Paul Cook had named an unchanged side. Latics started positively but they were reluctant to push men forward to support the lone striker, Joe Garner. The high tempo, high pressing game that we saw against Villa was not evident. It was the home side who posed the greater goal threat and Jamie Jones was much the busier keeper. Wednesday could well have scored had it not been for superb last-ditch tackles from Chey Dunkley and Cedric Kipre and good goalkeeping by Jones.

But Latics managed to keep it at 0-0 when the teams marched off to the half time interval. The second half revealed that depressing type of play that has been so often the norm in recent months. The “hoof” was very much prevalent, and Wigan struggled to do anything constructive with the ball. After Fletcher’s goal in the 62nd minute one hoped for a riposte from Wigan, but nothing resulted. If another goal was to come in the game, it would most likely be the home team that scored it.

Following the match Paul Cook commented: “At half-time I was thinking there was something there for us but in the second-half Sheffield Wednesday totally dominated the game and fully deserved the victory. We got ourselves into a position to possibly get something from the game but, unfortunately, we fell away in the second-half and Sheffield Wednesday were full value for the win. We never got a foothold in the game or got into positions to hurt them and that is great credit to them.”

Jones once again impresses

But for an excellent display by Jamie Jones the scoreline would have been quite different. Although it is the keeper’s first season in the Championship at the age of 29, he looks far from overawed. In fact, he seems to be relishing it. Again, he was assertive in his box, making some fine saves. Moreover, as soon as he catches a ball, he is quick to step forward, looking for a quick throw to a player in space. Sadly, yesterday there were too few of his teammates moving to make themselves available to receive the ball. Far too often the keeper had to kick long, typically resulting in lost possession.

A product of the Everton youth system Jones joined Leyton Orient as a 19-year-old, spending 6 seasons there, making 161 league appearances. After letting his contract run down at the O’s he joined Preston as a free agent in July 2014. During his two years at Preston he made 14 league appearances, with another 34 on loan at Colchester, Coventry and Rochdale. Jones joined Stevenage in January 2016 and went on to make 53 appearances for them in League 2 before joining Latics as a free agent in August 2017.

An unbalanced midfield

Rather than play side by side in central midfield Lee Evans and Sam Morsy were given different roles. Evans was put in front of the back four with Morsy pushed further forward. Then midway through the first half Gary Roberts was moved from the left wing to play an inside left position. Josh Windass was moved to the wing.

The net result was Evans being swamped by the heavily populated home midfield, with Morsy and Roberts able to create few openings going forward. Windass had played one of his better games against Villa in a mobile number 10 role, but the switch saw him consigned to the wing where he rarely plays his best.

The lack of midfield cover was plain to see in Fletcher’s goal.

What on earth was Cook trying to achieve? Wednesday playmaker Barry Bannan had the freedom of the park.

What happens at half time?

Despite not playing particularly well in the first period Latics went in to the interval on level terms. For many teams playing away such a situation could be seen as a springboard to getting a positive result. But in Latics’ case this season it has rarely happened.

Based on goals scored in the first half of league games this season Latics would be placed in 16th position with 35 points. However, based on goals scored in the second half they would be 22nd with 26 points. Moreover, in away games Latics’ second half goals place them in 23rd position. Tables provided by Soccerstats.com can be viewed here.

Latics were 2-0 up at Swansea after dominating the game in the first half through high tempo, high pressing football. In the second half the intensity just was not there, and the home team came back to level the scores. Like yesterday in the second half Wigan had started employing the hoof.

Are the reasons for the disappointing second half performances due to physical reasons? Or are they psychological? Or the result of tactics discussions during the interval? After a fine performance against Aston Villa, where the intensity did not diminish in the second half, we were hoping for something similar yesterday.

Injuries hit hard again

After making an excellent debut last week Anthony Pilkington had to leave the field of play at half time after turning his ankle over. Cedric Kipre continued to play despite an ankle niggle. But it was Will Grigg’s injury that looked the more serious.

Cook is having no luck on the injury front and he remarked after the game that: “That’s what the league is, you get injuries, we were in a bit of fog but getting towards clear light and now it looks like we are heading back into that fog – that’s the way it is, though.”

Grigg to Sunderland off

The constant media barrage of “Grigg to Sunderland” has been wearing thin with Wigan Athletic supporters. But if Grigg’s injury is as serious as it appeared, he surely will not be leaving this month.

Will Grigg remains a favourite of so many Latics fans, though there are those who do not consider him to be a Championship level striker. His season has been riddled with injury, but even when fit he has often been left out of the starting lineup.

In the meantime, Devante Cole has returned from his loan spell at Burton Albion after making 6 starts and 7 substitute appearances, scoring 2 goals. If Grigg is out long-term will Cook look for a replacement in the transfer window or will he give Cole the genuine opportunity he was denied in the second half of last season?

 

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

 

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Five talking points following a Jekyll and Hyde display at Swansea

Swansea City 2 Wigan Athletic 2

 

To coin a much-used cliché: it was a game of two halves.

Latics totally dominated the first half, going into the interval with a two-goal lead that could have easily been more. Their play was a revelation compared with what we have seen over recent months. High tempo attacking football was the order of the day. But the second half was awful, sadly reminiscent of what we have been seeing far to often. The defensive hoof ball approach once again reared its ugly head, the Swans getting back in the game with soft goals from set pieces.

When the team sheet became available prior to the match there were groans from Latics fans on the social media. How could Callum McManaman not be included following his excellent performance at West Bromwich? Why was Will Grigg not starting?

But Paul Cook’s lineup and tactics worked extremely well in that first half. He had brought Darron Gibson in to sit in front of the back four, with Lee Evans and Sam Morsy pushed further forward. But Latics looked sadly short of any constructive kind of tactical approach in the second half as the home team dominated proceedings. Swansea manager, Darren Potter, had brought on Kyle Naughton and Jefferson Montero at half time, changing his team’s formation. Latics just could not seem to master the new Swansea approach.

Following the game Cook once again mentioned that the Championship was “unforgiving”, but also remarked: “We were in complete control in the first-half and Swansea then changed things tactically in the second-half. We tried our best to adapt to things in the second-half but within adapting to it we have gone deeper than we would have wanted but to concede two goals from set-pieces is hugely disappointing because we changed our formation so Swansea didn’t score in open play and they go and get two from set-pieces.”

Let’s look at some points arising:

Why were Latics so Jekyll and Hyde?

Cook deserves praise for his brave approach at the start of the game. Evans and Morsy were pushed well forward, as were wingers Gavin Massey and Kal Naismith. Swansea are a side who like to play the ball out from the back, not keen on going long. With the four midfielders and Joe Garner putting constant pressure on defenders who had the ball in their own half the home team’s game fell apart. For once Latics had a piece of fortune after just 10 minutes when Wayne Routledge, a winger playing as a wing back, made a clumsy challenge on Naismith with Garner sending Mulder the wrong way from the penalty. Garner’s second goal from a corner after 33 minutes was well deserved and no surprise given Wigan’s dominance.

But that successful approach disappeared when the second half began. Latics fell back on dire defence and could not keep hold of the ball. Cook’s decision to move Dan Burn into a back line of three central defenders was perhaps not a bad idea in theory, but in practice it resulted in a back five. With three holding midfielders in front of them there was little attacking threat.

As always, the manager carries the can when things do not turn out as hoped. But Cook’s supporters will say that he was urging his players to move forward in the second half, but to no avail. Playing a high pressing game can be tiring. Was tiredness a factor? Or was it due to the brittle confidence of players reluctant to push forward or to make short passes that might result in losing possession?

Joe Garner’s best performance so far

The high pressing tactics certainly suited Garner. In the first half he had support and service, rather than being left alone to fight giant central defenders for long balls launched from defence. As a result, Garner looked a much better player and his two goals were both well deserved and well taken.

Garner is by no means an elegant centre forward: he is not the most skilful, but he is an experienced player with a proven goal scoring record. Although not particularly tall, at 5 ft 10 in, he can leap high and challenge much taller players. He scored 10 goals in 29 starts and 3 substitute appearances for Ipswich last season.

With Will Grigg, James Vaughan and Josh Windass challenging him for a place he has had to be satisfied with just 6 starts at Wigan to date.

There are fans who continue to question the signing of Garner, for a fee reported to be around £1.2 m. But he is a combative type of centre forward who can unsettle opposition defences, given decent service.

Kal Naismith continues to hold his own

It is the 26-year-old Naismith’s first season in the Championship, having spent most of his career in League 2, although he made 20 appearances for Portsmouth last season in League 1.  The player had a difficult pre-season with Latics, struggling after being played out of position at left back. But like other players who have played under the manager at previous clubs, Cook clearly believes Naismith can make it in the second tier of English football.

Naismith is not the kind of winger who uses pace to get past his full back. But he is industrious, has a good left foot and has a good strike record for a wide player. At the Liberty Stadium, with Latics 2-0 up he had the chance to virtually seal the game for his side, but his shot went narrowly wide.  But despite the missed chance he was once again one of the consistent performers on the day, playing in his more natural position in left midfield.

After a difficult start to his career at Wigan, playing at a level above he has played before, Naismith continues to develop.

Walton back on track?

Christian Walton, like so many of his teammates, has struggled to maintain the form he showed earlier in the season. But at Swansea he was more dominant in his box and got well behind low shots coming in.

Although he has 100 appearances in league football it is Walton’s first season in the Championship. At 23 he can still develop into a top-class goalkeeper.

Morsy’s contract came through

The news of Sam Morsy’s new contract came through on Christmas Day: odd timing. But it was good news, if rather belated. Morsy is not the most technically gifted player, but his selfless approach and sheer industry, make him a key player in Cook’s team.

But what is of concern is that there have been no announcements of other contract extensions.

What on earth is happening?

 

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com