Five talking points arising from the draw with Portsmouth

The stats don’t always reflect the balance of football games.  On Saturday Wigan Athletic had 18 shots, with 9 on target, while Portsmouth had 5 shots with 2 on target. In this case the stats do actually reflect Wigan’s dominance of the game as they made Pompey look a very ordinary side. The visitors were insipid for most of the proceedings, until Chey Dunkley’s foolishness perked them up. The red card changed the nature of the game and Portsmouth were to get a 76th minute equaliser as Dan Burn left Conor Chaplin unmarked to head the equaliser.

On the day Latics did not capitalise on the wealth of chances on goal that materialised. On another day they could have won by a margin of at least two.

If you finish above Wigan this season, you are probably going to be automatically promoted,’ said Portsmouth manager, Kenny Jackett after the game, as he recognised the quality of Wigan’s current squad. In the meantime we need to hold our breath. Four days remain in the transfer window, during which Latics fans will hope that key players are not sold off.

1. If Michael Jacobs could improve his finishing he could still make it at the highest level. Once again, the admirable Jacobs was full of energy and invention, his electrifying running causing constant headaches for the Pompey defence. Jacobs stands out in League 1, but has never really convinced in his four seasons in the Championship. But the player is still only 25. He gets himself in great positions for scoring or making goals. With a little more self-belief could he possess the poise to make that final touch more effective?

2. A new centre half could be arriving this week. Up until Saturday the Burn-Dunkley partnership had functioned well. But Chey Dunkley’s red card means a three-match ban. Terell Thomas looks a fine young prospect and plays in a style somewhat reminiscent of John Stones, but he lacks EFL experience. Donervon Daniels is fit again, but is not making the first team squad. Reports suggest Latics are interested in the 21-year-old central defender Lloyd Jones from Liverpool. In the meantime we can only keep our fingers crossed that Dan Burn will not be sold off if a new player comes in.

3. Nathan Byrne is becoming an important player in Cook’s team. It has been a surprise to see Byrne establish himself in the problematic right back position. He has made it clear in the past that he did not see himself as a right back and doubts remain about his defensive abilities. But Cook encourages his full backs to attack and Byrne is so well suited to such a role. Moreover he has clearly been working hard on the defensive side of his game.

4. This is the most entertaining side we have had for years. On being appointed Paul Cook had said “I want to attack, pass the ball well, go forwards quickly and excite our own fans.” What a pleasure it is watching a Wigan Athletic side so willing to commit players forward. The transformation from the sterility of last season’s football to what we are seeing now is remarkable, especially given the short amount of time Cook has been in charge.

5. This is a better balanced and stronger squad than Gary Caldwell had a couple of years ago. It was only in the second half of the season that Caldwell’s team really started to gel, but they went on to win the division. Man for man, the current squad appears stronger overall. Yanic Wildschut was crucial to Caldwell’s side, a player who could unbalance the opposition defence. Nick Powell can do likewise, although from a different position. But will he be staying?

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Five talking points arising from an uplifting win at MK Dons

Milton Keynes celebrated its 50th birthday this year. It is a city of 260,000 inhabitants, unlike any other of its size in the UK with its wide open spaces and network of roads and shopping malls giving it an almost American feel. It is not everyone’s cup of tea as a place to live, but the city continues to grow as foreign investment continues to come in.

A prior review of the MK Stadium had forewarned us that, from the outside, it looked more like a hotel than a football ground and that it was far too big for a club in League 1. But maybe it was planned in the same way as the city itself, with attendances expected to grow in parallel with the surrounding population. It is a fabulous stadium, better than many in the Championship and even some in the Premier League. The presence of some 1,100 Latics fans yesterday swelled the attendance to over 9,000.

The visit to Milton Keynes proved to be enjoyable, not least due to an uplifting display from Paul Cook’s Wigan Athletic team. The referee almost spoiled it with a first half red card decision against Latics, but he even things up in the second period when he sent off a home player.

In the end Latics thoroughly deserved their 1-0 victory. They were much the better team, with a solid defence protected by a strong and creative midfield. Cook’s starting lineup had looked ambitious, with so many new players drafted in. But despite that there was a look of cohesion, with every player seemingly knowing his role and willing to put in the required amount of sweat and toil for his team. It was instantly noticeable how much movement there was compared with last season, with Latics able to break out of defence with strength and purpose.

The display certainly gave us lots to talk about:

1. Dan Burn must stay. Burn was formidable yesterday, his head seemingly a magnet for the ball. The Dons are by no means a long-ball team. They try to play good football, but whenever the ball did go into the air in the box it was soon snaffled up by Burn or Chey Dunkley. But Burn looked assured in all aspects of his play yesterday and must rank among the best central defenders in the division. He will prove invaluable against teams who prefer the aerial approach above all.

However, despite the departures of Jake Buxton, Matt Gilks, Jack Hendry, Mikael Mandron, Billy McKay and Sanmi Odelusi and with Kaiyne Woolery close to a move back to Forest Green Rovers the clear-out continues. Jack Byrne, Omar Bogle and Max Power are being pushed out and not allowed to train with the senior squad. Nick Powell’s goal yesterday helped to put him back into the shop window, with a loan move to a Championship side a likely outcome.

Burn has become one of Wigan’s major assets. Were he to be sold off by the end of August it would be a massive blow to Cook’s plans.

2. Recruitment up to this point is looking pretty good. The starting lineup yesterday included six new players, four of whom are on loan. Christian Walton continues to exude authority in his box, Chey Dunkley was excellent in the centre of defence. Callum Elder looked lively at left back until his premature departure. Lee Evans is a very important signing: a rock in front of the defence, but with the ability to spray passes around from the back. He and Sam Morsy looked a formidable partnership, willing to scrap it out when necessary, but both capable of launching attacks. Gavin Massey showed flashes of skill, together with a willingness to work hard for the team. Ivan Toney was lively up front, willing to drop back into midfield, his movement causing the home defence some headaches. Terell Thomas came on at left back following Elder’s dismissal, very solid despite being a naturally right-sided central defender playing out of position.

Noel Hunt was on the bench, as he was 19 times last season at Portsmouth. In fact, Hunt only made 3 starts last season and can hardly bear expected to challenge for a regular starting place in Cook’s  starting line-up.

3. Michael Jacobs has been rejuvenated. His display yesterday was a revelation following his disappointing season in the Championship. Jacobs worked tirelessly, showing no mean amount of flair, his performance marred only by his finishing on occcasions. He is an essential component in Cook’s tactic of rapid counterattack. With one year remaining on his contract will he be offered an extension?

4. Will Grigg is back. After so many months out because of injury he looked lively when coming on as a second half substitute. With Bogle seemingly on his way out, will Grigg be offered a contract extension? Or will he be sold off this month? The option of Grigg or Toney, or even both, is something Cook will want to retain. But is David Sharpe going to support his manager by retaining key players, despite Cook’s admission that his squad is still too big and that Latics are a “selling club”?

5. Cook will be hoping his long-term injured players will soon be match fit.  Alex Gilbey and Will Grigg are back in contention, but none of Donervon Daniels, Reece James or Andy Kellett were in the squad.

Nathan Byrne is trying hard at right full back despite it not being a position he enjoys. He steadily improved yesterday after looking a little uncomfortable early on. But is Cook going to bring a specialist right back from outside or is he going to rely on Byrne, Daniels or Luke Burke to cover the position?

With Callum Elder due to be suspended, Cook will need to assess the fitness of James. After 18 months out through injury, James needs to be brought in cautiously, but the team’s needs could push things along. Kellett too can play at left back, but is more productively employed in midfield.

 

 

5 talking points arising from the win over Notts County

What a pleasant day it was in Nottingham when Wigan Athletic stepped on to a pristine pitch in a stadium that must rank among the best in League 2. After dealing with a less than perfect surface at Southport, Latics would have no excuse for the quality of their football at Meadow Lane.

They had lined up with Paul Cook’s favoured 4-2-3-1 configuration, making a brisk start, immediately imposing their passing game upon County. The home team just could not get the ball as Wigan dominated possession. But possession in itself is not enough to win  football matches and shot-shy Latics hardly troubled the home keeper. It was to be a grim reminder of last season when County broke away and Lewis Alessandra got the better of Nathan Byrne to hammer home a cross from Wigan’s left flank. When the half time whistle went we were left pondering on the lack of cutting edge in Latics’ attacks.

It continued into the second half until around the two thirds mark when Cook made multiple substitutions. The youth of the bench had been supplemented with the experience of the 34-year-old Noel Hunt, who was played as a striker, together with the promising Callum Lang. Lang’s pace took him past the home defence and his cross that was heading for Michael Jacobs was deflected into his own goal by home captain Richard Duffy. Another quick counterattack by Latics was to see Lang put away a close range chance from Hunt’s cross.

In the end Latics managed to cling on to a lead that had hardly seemed likely at half time. But what conclusions can be drawn from the performance?

1. Too many Latics players are still in the hangover phase of last season’s happenings. Cook acknowledged this after the game saying that  “I just didn’t feel our lads felt they were going to win.” The lack of self-belief among the attacking players was plain to see. So often the moves broke down as Latics reached the opposition penalty box, with a sideways pass being the preferred option to a direct shot on goal.

2. Latics need specialist full backs. In the absence of alternative choices Nathan Byrne and Jordan Flores occupied those roles. Byrne himself has made it apparent that he does not want to be regarded as a right back, preferring to be employed as a wing back or winger. Flores has played in the position before and never convinced. He is a midfield player by nature.

Cook was upbeat about the returns of Donervon Daniels, Will Grigg, Andy Kellett and Nick Powell in a friendly game against Llandudno. Daniels would indeed be a contender for the right back position if he were to regain full fitness after a long absence. Luke Burke was absent from the proceedings yesterday and one wonders what chances he will be given under Cook. County’s Matt Tootle was arguably the best man on the pitch yesterday at right back and his display might have sparked interest from Wigan manager Cook.

The left back position will surely be occupied by Reece James, if fit. But he remains in the  recuperation phase from a long absence through injury. Kellett too could offer options at left back, although he is more effectively employed in midfield. But he too has been dogged by injury. David Perkins played the midfield holding role yesterday, but might well be pressed into service on the left of defence during the course of the season.

3. The turnover of goalkeepers looks to have stopped. Christian Walton is an excellent signing for League 1 and he is already providing reassurance for his defenders. Walton once again looked composed and confident, making some fine saves yesterday. Owen Evans too has impressed in pre-season. The question remains whether Cook will settle for him as back-up to Walton or if he will look for an experienced keeper as second choice.

4. The centre forward position is up for grabs. Omar Bogle looks low on confidence and so often is left isolated by his teammates. Will Cook stick with Bogle, who still has the potential to score lots of goals at League 1 level? Will Grigg is still recovering from injury, but is in the final year of his contract and there has already been speculation that he will be sold over summer. Nick Powell would surely be an excellent option, if fit, but the likelihood is that he will be allowed to leave for financial reasons.

Callum Lang has already shown that he is a viable option, although young and inexperienced. How he would cope against robust League 1 central defenders remains to be seen, but he is an exciting addition to the squad.

5. The current crop of youngsters must be given opportunities at the expense of loan players. The introduction of a handful of youngsters in the second half energised Latics’ play. But not only are these players energetic but they have good technical qualities and fit comfortably into the possession football that Cook practices. The impressive Sam Stubbs and Owen Evans were absent yesterday but Luke Burgess, Callum Lang, Chris  Merrie and Terrell Thomas impressed. So often in the past loan players have been brought in at the expense of younger players already at the club. The time has come for a change in that policy or practice.