Paul Cook – the right man for the job

Football took a nose dive at Wigan Athletic last season. What we saw in its place was a kind of “fightball” with players allowed to hoof the ball upfield, the end result being players ultimately unable to pass the ball with any consistent degree of accuracy. The end result was another seemingly inevitable relegation.

It had happened before, in the 2014-15 season, when William Kvist’s long throw-ins into the penalty box had become Malky Mackay’s principal attacking ploy. Who could have guessed that Warren Joyce and Mackay would create such a blot on the landscape of football when they were first appointed?

Owen Coyle’s long ball tactics and lack of tactical expertise had been no surprise to those of us who had seen his teams play prior to his arrival at Wigan. The surprise was more that Dave Whelan had appointed a manager whose style of football was diametrically opposed to that of his predecessor.  The end result in Coyle’s case was a team that should have been challenging for promotion instead languishing in the bottom half of the table. In the cases of Mackay and Joyce the rot was to prove terminal.

Watching Paul Cook’s Chesterfield in the League 1 playoffs a couple of years ago immediately had me reflecting on his days at Wigan. Cook was the kind of player who probably would not have got a place in the teams of managers such as Mackay and Joyce. Harry McNally brought him in as an 18 year old from modest Marine, a club from Crosby who had been regular adversaries for Latics in their days in the Lancashire Combination. But despite his humble footballing origins Cook was a class act, an intelligent footballer with excellent control and a superb left foot. He was a member of Bryan Hamilton’s exciting Latics side of 1985-86, who were desperately unlucky not to be promoted to the second tier, a late run from Derby County pipping them by a single point. Cook continued to be an important player under Ray Mathias, who like Hamilton, encouraged his teams to play good football. But it was no surprise when he was snapped up by Norwich City in 1988, the next step in a career that was to see him go on to amass 642 Football League appearances, scoring 56 goals in the process.

Cook was a cultured player and he expects his teams to play in a similar fashion. He started his managerial career in the lower leagues, spending some six years at Southport, Sligo Rovers and Accrington Stanley before joining Chesterfield in October 2012. His first season saw the Spireites come within two points of the League 2 playoffs, but they were to win the division the following year. They went on to firmly establish themselves in League 1 in 2014-15, reaching 6th place, losing out to Preston North End in the playoffs.

In May 2015 Cook was appointed manager of Portsmouth. Pompey had fallen from the Premier League to 16th place in League 2 within a period of just five years. In 2015-16 Cook lifted them to sixth place and the playoffs, narrowly going down to Plymouth Argyle in the playoffs. They went on to win the division last season under his guidance.

Paul Cook has an impressive 44% win ratio as a manager. Moreover he has done that by insisting that his teams play a version of football akin to that which led Wigan Athletic to the most successful results in their history. Roberto Martinez had led Latics to wins over giants – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United – plus an FA Cup Final victory over Manchester City, by playing possession-based football.

As a young player at Wigan Cook was not universally appreciated by the home crowd. There were those who urged him to “get stuck in” and release the ball quicker. Fortunately in Hamilton and Mathias he had managers who appreciated his style of play and who wanted their teams to play good football.  If there was one thing that Cook lacked it was pace. It meant that he was not to play at the highest levels of English football, despite his technical expertise.

It looks like Paul Cook will be signed up as Wigan Athletic’s manager in the next 24 hours.  Once again he will not be popular with all of the fans. Those who prefer a more direct style of play will be left frustrated. It will signal a reversion to the kind of football most recently employed at Wigan by Gary Caldwell, prematurely dismissed in October. The cynics had said that Caldwell could not get promotion out of League 1 playing possession-based football. They were proven wrong as his team went on to win the division.

On Cook’s seemingly impending arrival at Wigan, his ex-boss Mathias remarked to Wigan Today that:

“He has proved he can do it. I know his upbringing and how he’s lived his life. He can be very strong for Wigan and he can be a strong talker when he has to be.”

 Paul Cook is an experienced manager with an excellent track record in the EPL’s lower divisions. He is the right qualities for the job at Wigan Athletic in this moment of time.

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Is Latics’ squad lacking in quality?

 

Some say that results in pre-season matches are not important. But then again, a 2-1 loss at Rochdale was hard for Wigan Athletic supporters to swallow, let alone a 4-1 drubbing in Dusseldorf yesterday.

Latics’ worst ever pre-season performance will surely be that of five decades ago, when fourth division Southport smashed non-league Wigan 10-2. My father told me at the time that friendly matches can produce strange results and do not really have much bearing on the season to follow. Strangely enough the same two teams met again four days later at Springfield Park and Latics went on to win 3-0. In the event it turned out to be a mediocre season for Latics, who finished in mid-table in the Cheshire League. That 10-2 scoreline proved to be an indicator of defensive weakness as Latics were to concede 82 goals in 42 league matches.

Following the 2-1 win over Besiktas, thanks largely to Ali Al-Habsi’s brilliance, we seemed to be looking forward to a good season ahead. Granted there were concerns over the departures of two of Latics’ most creative players – Jordi Gomez and Jean Beausejour – but Uwe Rosler had been moving shrewdly in the transfer market and was building up a stronger squad. Most fans have now accepted that Dave Whelan is not going to wave his cheque book around in the way he did to get Latics into the Premier League last time. Austerity has not yet set in, but stringent financial management is the order of the day at the club.

Rosler is used to working under tight budgets, through his experience with his previous clubs. He will bring in a mixture of youth and experience. The experienced Andrew Taylor and Don Cowie have played in the Premier League and been part of a Championship division winning team. James Tavernier and AaronTaylor-Sinclair are clearly the kind of youngsters who have the potential to develop into quality players. The 19 year old loanee, Emyr Huws , is an exciting young player who can play in the creative midfield role that Gomez used to enjoy. A good central striker at an affordable price is something that hardly exists in modern day English football, but Rosler has done well to bring in Oriel Riera from Osasuna. Riera scored 13 goals in La Liga last season for a team that was relegated, making an interesting comparison with Arouna Kone who scored 15 for Levante before arriving at Wigan.

In order to sign another central striker Rosler will need to raise funds by selling off one of his assets. Stories of Latics courting another goalkeeper might seem far-fetched, but both Ali Al-Habsi and Scott Carson are likely to be transfer targets for other clubs. A possible scenario is for one of them to be sold, with the exciting, but inexperienced, Lee Nicholls once more sent out on loan.

Rosler’s squad is not yet complete. We can expect more incomings and possibly outgoings over the coming weeks. But when the squad is finally completed will there be sufficient quality there to mount a serious challenge for promotion?

After playing for ten clubs in six countries in over a decade, Jean Beausejour has gone home to Chile. He will play in Santiago for Colo-Colo, the country’s historically most successful club. When Roberto Martinez signed him from Birmingham City in January 2012, Latics were struggling. Moreover fans were disappointed with Martinez’ lack of activity in that January transfer window. However, the arrival of a specialist left wing back blew fresh air into Latics’ play, helping them to produce the best quality of football and the best results in their history over the next three months. He was the missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle that Martinez was putting together. A team player, he was solid in defence. When Latics had the ball he was always available, hugging the touchline, stretching the opposition defence. He rarely lost the ball and had a few tricks up his sleeve with quick footwork. Beausejour is probably the best crosser of a ball who ever played for Latics, although some more senior supporters might also cite Walter Stanley whose sublime crosses helped Harry Lyon become a household name in Wigan.

Last season was not a good one for the Chilean, except for a memorable goal in the World Cup finals. Beausejour was frequently played at left back, rather than his natural wing back position. Like Gomez, he is another player who never got the recognition that he probably deserved from sections of the DW crowd.

During that late season rally in 2011-2012 and the FA Cup run in 2012-13, Latics beat the top teams in the country on merit, through playing quality football. The stats show that in winning the FA Cup final they committed only 5 fouls, compared with their opponents 11. Is it possible that they will ever be able to raise their football to that level ever again?

Since then lots of quality players have left the club. However, Emmerson Boyce, Shaun Maloney and James McArthur still remain. They are the pillars upon which Rosler will build this season’s team. Boyce is getting no younger, but at centre back he still has years ahead of him. The fitness of the two Scots will be of paramount importance and Rosler is nurturing them very carefully through the pre-season physical conditioning programme. Moreover the skilful Ben Watson and Chris McCann are making good progress in their recuperation from major injuries.

On the tactical front Rosler continues to demand the high tempo, high pressing style that he espouses. They did it for half an hour at Dusseldorf, but once again could not keep it going. It remains to be seen whether Rosler will ever enjoy that level of intensity he seeks from the players at his disposal.

In the meantime Rosler will scour the loan market to complete his squad. Maybe even that additional central striker will be a loan player? A return for Nick Powell continues to be touted by the media.

The name of Grant Holt continues to pop up in the social media and fan forums, the comments usually being derogatory. If no other club is willing to take the player off the club’s hands will Rosler be able to turn him into an asset? Would Holt be able to fit into Rosler’s style of play if he could regain full fitness?

Holt has proved in the past that he can deliver the goods by scoring key goals that win matches, but last season was one he will want to forget. During the reign of Owen Coyle he was used in a similar way that Bolton used Kevin Davies for so many years, a human battering ram posing a physical threat to the defence. That probably did Holt no favours and moreover it led to defenders constantly launching long balls in his direction. Given Rosler’s preferred style of play Holt would not be a regular starter, even if fully fit. However, he could have a role to play as an impact substitute.

Providing his ventures in the transfer market go well over the coming weeks, Rosler will have a squad good enough to challenge for promotion. Enough quality players remain, but the moot point is whether they can they stay fit.

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Style, goals, or both?

In August 1963, non-league Wigan Athletic were due to play at Southport, then of the Fourth Division, in a pre-season friendly. My Dad commented at the time that the Seasiders played too much “pretty, pretty football” to be effective. I had visions of Southport’s players almost walking the ball into the net. The end result was not so pretty for Latics. Southport – inspired by ex-Manchester United youth player, David Latham – tore them apart 10-2. Funny enough four days later a return match was played at Springfield Park. Latham was marked out of the game. Southport played some nice possession football but were not incisive. Latics beat them 3-0, inspired by ex-Liverpool youth playmaker Pat Kinsella, Tommy Neill netting a penalty. Southport had played the football, but Wigan took their chances. Maybe my Dad did have a point?

When my son, and regular columnist Ned, was 8 years old we moved to Cali, Colombia. We would regularly go to watch the local teams –- America and Deportivo Cali -– play each week at the Pascual Guerrero Stadium, close to the centre of that vibrant and captivating city. The Colombian league was a joy to watch — the ball was invariably on the ground, technical levels very high, the emphasis on skill. The downside was that, at times, play could go across the field rather than towards goal.

The Colombian national team were the same – full of promise and good football, but short of bite. The captain Carlos Valderrama – he of the frizzy hair and wonderful technique – was the most popular person in the whole country. Valderrama’s outfit was the best national team Colombia had ever had and in 1996 FIFA ranked them fourth best in the world. They were playing that technically pure type of football that probably only Brazil could match in terms of artistry. They still were not scoring many goals, but they had a strong defence and retained possession in such a way that opponents found them hard to play against. In 1994 they had got their most famous result, beating Argentina 5-0 in a World Cup qualifying game in Buenos Aires. Valderrama bossed the match from the centre of midfield and the lightning fast Colombian forwards – Faustino Asprilla and Adolfo Valencia – blew Argentina away. It was a case of pretty, pretty football being finished off by ruthless and clinical finishing. You can watch highlights here.

Colombia have continued to promise — but not deliver — since that era. However,  they currently lie in third place in the 9 team South American World Cup qualifying group, having beaten Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile in recent qualifiers and drawn with Brazil in a New Jersey friendly. The emergence of one of the world’s most sought-after strikers — Radamel Falcao –- has helped them translate their pure technical football into goals.

The message for the current Wigan Athletic team is clear: it is not enough to play good possession football. It is incisive approach play and ruthless, clinical finishing that wins matches. Finding strikers of the kind of quality to kill off the opposition is hard for a club like Latics with limited resources. It is also hard to find creative midfield players who can provide them with the ammunition. Shaun Maloney is doing a fine job in that role, although in recent outings he has often been heavily marked. The opposition have learned that he is the main creative threat.

I had the pleasure of meeting Carlos Valderrama near the end of his career when he was playing in the MLS in the United States. Modest, friendly and warm hearted you would not have guessed what a superstar he was with the 45 million people in his home country, and many more on the South American continent. A model professional with a fantastic attitude. For me the only way he could be faulted was that he never scored enough goals. Maloney, Gomez and company please take note.