Another point for Latics as takeover looms

It was another of those games when Wigan Athletic had their chances, but just could not put the ball into the back of the net. Although not at their best, Wigan played some quality football at times against a Peterborough side keen to get a result. The visitors gave a good account of themselves, looking better than their current 9th position placing in League 1.

A third consecutive goalless draw at the DW Stadium is hardly the kind of thing that will attract the “floating” fan. Saturday’s attendance was 8,602 which included 399 from Peterborough. The average for the season so far is 9,084.

But despite the goalless draws, Latics have collected 21 points over the past 10 matches.  Although they have scored just one goal in their last four league matches, they have not conceded a goal in the last seven. However, they will be keeping a close eye on Blackburn Rovers, undefeated in 15 league matches. Over the last ten they have gathered 24 points to Wigan’s 21. They had an important 3-1 win over Shrewsbury on Saturday, bringing them to within 5 points of Latics, 2 points behind the Shrews.

When Aston Villa won the First Division title in the 1980/81 season they used only 14 players in a 42-game season. In contrast, Chelsea employed 24 to win last season’s Premier League in a season of 38 matches. In modern day the strength of the entire squad has become of increasing importance, not only in the first tier of English football. When Sheffield United won the League 1 title last season they used 28 players. When Gary Caldwell’s Latics won it the previous season they had 36 players involved.

The key to promotion from League 1 has typically been to have a nucleus of players who are regular names on the team sheet, together with quality back-up. Paul Cook’s recruitment over summer provided him with just that. That Wigan Athletic are top of the division at this stage of the season is no surprise, given the ability and experience of the core players and the quality in depth that they have. Only Blackburn Rovers have the kind of squad that can come close to Cook’s in terms of quality. They too are serious challengers for automatic promotion.

Shrewsbury Town have been the surprise team of the season. They do not have a squad with the depth of those of Latics or Blackburn, but continue to challenge for automatic promotion. Their success has largely been based on the successful chemistry between a nucleus of players largely drawn from the lower leagues. In fact, 10 of their squad have played in 23 games or more of the 26 they have played so far.

Back in 1980/81 Aston Villa employed such a small number of players during the season for several reasons. One is that teams were only allowed to use one substitute in that era. But a key factor is that their key players stayed clear of injury and suspensions. Shrewsbury are a physically competitive team, not afraid to disrupt the opposition’s game. However, they are well disciplined and have received just one red card and 33 yellows in 26 league games.  Should they manage to stay clear of injuries they could well sustain their challenge at the top of the table.

Given the impending takeover of the club by a Far East consortium, it has been hard to predict the short-term effects the potential change would have.  Despite the uncertainty of what will happen under new ownership, Cook has seemingly managed to keep the players focused, judging by the points accrued during an 11-game unbeaten run. Given the scenario, policy in the transfer market was going to be difficult to predict. Would it be driven by the current ownership or the future buyers?

Up to this point the recruitment in the January window bears the hallmark of the current ownership. Lee Evans left for Sheffield United, after they paid Wolves £750,000 for his services. Two other loan players, Matija Sarkic and Ivan Toney, have been recalled by their parent clubs, through lack of game time at Wigan. Cook will be hoping he can cling on to his other two loan players, Christian Walton and Callum Elder. The arrivals of Jamie Walker and James Vaughan will strengthen the squad, their bargain price signings being typical of the Sharpe era. But we have come to expect the club to seek incoming funds to compensate for the £500,000 or so that has been spent. It appears that Jack Byrne is going to Oldham on a permanent contract, although it is unclear how much compensation, if any, Latics will receive. Can we expect more departures?

The surprise up to this point is that there have been no rumours linking Latics to a right full back, as back-up for Nathan Byrne. Walker will effectively take Jack Byrne’s place in the squad, with Vaughan replacing Toney. Another winger would certainly strengthen the squad and Latics have been linked to Morton’s Jai Quitongo, who could be picked up at a bargain price since his contract expires in summer. Having already lost three loan players, Cook will surely also be scouring the loan market to add to his squad.

Should Alan Nixon be correct in his estimate of 10 more days, the takeover will happen before the ending of the transfer window. However, by then we can expect most of Cook’s adjustments to the squad to have been finalised. He will continue to focus on promotion back to the Championship. Should that happen, and Cook continue to be in charge, we can expect major transfer activity in summer.

We can only hope that the new ownership will invest more seriously in the squad than the current incumbents did in the summer of 2016. It remains to be seen whether the consortium would be willing to go a stage further by putting up the kind of money needed to challenge for a place back in the Premier League.

 

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An Amigo View – Northampton Town 0 Wigan Athletic 1 – five talking points

It was not the most inspiring display of the season, but a fifth minute goal from Nick Powell, combined with resolute defence, was enough to collect three points at Sixfields. Paul Cook had once again resisted rotating his squad, making just one change to his starting lineup, despite it being Latics’ fourth game in eight days. Reece James had returned to the left back position, where he once again performed well. It is a mystery why the 24-year-old has still not been signed on an expended contract.

After a pretty bright first half, Latics did what is colloquially known as” a professional job” in the second, restricting the home team. It looked like their tired legs were just not up to keeping up the degree of intensity of the first 45 minutes.

Despite their humble league position, the Cobblers proved to be worthy opponents. They had some bright spells in the first half, then came out in the second determined to get back into the game. That they did not is a reflection on both Wigan’s capable defending and a lack of conviction in their finishing.

Let’s look at some talking points:

Another clean sheet

Wigan Athletic have conceded just 12 goals in 25 league matches, with 16 clean sheets. Yesterday saw their sixth consecutive game shutting out the opposition from scoring.

Those last six matches coincide with the return of Christian Walton between the posts, following injury. Yesterday he was excellent, not only in his confident handling but in his role as “sweeper” behind the defence, racing out of his box to clear danger from through balls.

Dunkley excels

Dan Burn is usually the one who wins the plaudits for his defensive work, but Chey Dunkley too has proved himself to be an excellent acquisition. Like Burn, he was signed as a free agent, having run his contract down at Oxford.

Dunkley was Man of the Match for me yesterday. He was as powerful as always in the air, resolute in the tackle, showing excellent positional sense. Although a physical type of player he has conceded only 9 fouls in 22 league starts, a commendable statistic for a big central defender. His sending off against Portsmouth in August distorts an otherwise excellent disciplinary record, with just one yellow card to his name this season.

The need for another winger

The rumours of Latics trying to sign winger Jamie Walker from Hearts are no surprise. Walker is on the final year of his contract and Wigan could get a bargain price on the player.

Ryan Colclough was once again conspicuously absent from the team sheet yesterday and when Gavin Massey went off after 70 minutes it was central midfielder, Max Power, who came on to replace him.

Massey had started with some promise but faded out as the game progressed. But it was a surprise that Michael Jacobs was not taken off. There had been media coverage of the player’s return to his home town club, but it turned out to be another indifferent performance from Jacobs.

It really needed wingers with fresh legs out there yesterday, but both Massey and Jacobs looked jaded. Massey is a hard-working team player who relies on rapid acceleration to get past defenders. That is what happened in the 5th minute, when he latched on to Sam Morsy’s excellent crossfield pass, before putting in a measured cross for Powell’s opportunist goal.

Jacobs is a different type of player, a right footed left winger encouraged to cut inside to shoot. He has already scored 7 goals in the league this season in addition to being a major creative force in the team when on-song. However, the player’s all-action style means he burns up so much energy. Jacobs has looked far from energised in recent games, which is no negative reflection on him, but on the lack of alternatives available to Cook.

In the meantime, we will await news from the club on Colclough and Walker.

The importance of Powell

Nick Powell’s languid style sometimes gives people the impression he is not giving his all for the team. Moreover, there are fans who berate him, suggesting he thinks he is too good to play at Wigan. Others will say the team has played better as a unit when he has not been available. However, Powell’s performances speak for themselves. He not only orchestrates the midfield, but is the leading goalscorer with 11 from 22 starts. Moreover, his manager has emphasised that Powell does have the right attitude, despite his critics.

Rumours of an impending departure to Aston Villa are worrisome. Powell is an essential cog in a very effective team unit, his creativity catalysing Wigan’s best football. Put simply, although he has to play within himself due to hamstring problems, he is a class above any other player at the club.

A time of uncertainty

The projected takeover of the club by the K8 consortium was due to happen before Christmas, if one can believe media reports. Recent theories suggest it has not happened yet because no agreement has been made regarding the continuation of David Sharpe, and possibly Jonathan Jackson, at the club.

In the meantime, Paul Cook and his players will continue to focus upon getting Latics back in the Championship division. Having such a degree of uncertainty revolving around the ownership of the club is hardly conducive to Cook’s efforts.

The transfer window

The rumours regarding Jamie Walker fit in with what we have come to expect over recent years at Wigan. Latics have made a number of important signings of players whose contracts have been running down.

Neither is it a surprise to hear that Jack Byrne might be going to the Edinburgh club. The talented young Irishman seemed to be doing well at Oldham, but their manager, Riche Wellens, unleashed a stinging attack on the player, saying:

“I’ve given Jack Byrne a free role for a number of games but I’ve been disappointed with Jack. He looks good on the ball but his end product is no assists. He got two goals against Northampton and a goal at Crewe, but that’s a long time since he’s scored a goal. For the position and the amount of freedom I give him in a game, I would expect more. That deal is down to whether we want to do it or not, so we’ll make a decision. Jack is speaking to a couple of other clubs anyway, which is his right to do.”

Byrne is certainly a talented player, but Cook appears reluctant to bring him back, even with the possible departure of Nick Powell. There have been rumours about the young Irishman being difficult to manage, but the more likely factor is an unwillingness on Cook’s behalf to give any player a free role.

An exchange plus cash deal might be in the pipeline.

However, the shadow of a possibly imminent takeover of the club looms above the transfer window. Some cynics even go so far as suggesting Sharpe will sell off prized assets to make a quick buck for the Whelan family prior to a takeover. But the more positive among us will say that the pursuit of Walker is a sign that Sharpe continues to run the club in his familiar style.

The sale of Yanic Wildschut in the last January window severely weakened the Latics’ attack. We can only hope that something similar does not happen this time around.

 

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