Another away defeat: can Cook stop the hoofball?

Fulham 2 Wigan Athletic 0

“We won’t sit off Fulham in any way, shape or form.”

So said Paul Cook before the match.

The manager’s statement of intent had a degree of credibility in the opening minutes when Latics attacked the home team. But Fulham were soon to take over the running of the game as any initial attempt to play football from Wigan was nullified as they resorted to the hoofball that has been all too typical in away games under Cook’s management. When Latics won the ball they so often gave it back to the home team by launching speculative long balls.

Wigan’s beleaguered defence did well to keep the home team at bay in the first half, despite Fulham’s dominance of possession. The game was goalless at half time, although it had looked like it was going to be a matter of time until Fulham scored. The London team had had twelve shots to Wigan’s one in that first half. Could Cook make some changes for the second half to nullify the home team’s dominance?

The manager did surprise us by making an immediate substitution. Michael Jacobs had once again been ineffective under the regime of hoofball and he was replaced by Kal Naismith.  But within a couple of minutes the seemingly inevitable happened, with Joe Bryan opening the scoring for Fulham.

Needing a goal Latics did at least try to play some football, although they did not convince, with Fulham still looking dangerous. Tom Cairney’s fine goal in the 83rd minute finished it off.

Few of us expected anything other than a defeat at Craven Cottage, given Latics’ miserable record there, facing a Fulham side full of players who played in the Premier League last season. There have been far worse away performances than this over the past twelve months. Neither of the Fulham goals was “soft”; the referee was weak and easily convinced by the home team’s writhing in apparent agony after tackles and he allowed himself to be mobbed by Fulham players pleading their case; the Wigan defence did not crumble and there was no capitulation.

But what is depressing is that Cook, his coaches and his players have still not learned that you cannot play hoofball in the Championship and get away with it for very long. It is “an unforgiving league” in that respect.

There has been a scarcity of discipline in Wigan’s play away from home, together with a lack of tactical awareness on the part of the manager and his coaches. Latics are one of the most physical sides in the division and the home teams are prepared for that. Combative players like Sam Morsy and Joe Williams can expect the referees to be looking out for them. This is not to say that it is right, but it is a reality. Such players need to show self-discipline, or they will soon find their way into the book.

The hoofball that we typically witness away from home is surely not something the manager instructs his players to do. It is more likely down to the lack of a footballing philosophy at the club. It is not only the player who hoofs the ball forward but those who should be helping him when under pressure by getting into positions to receive the ball.

The manager has his tried and tested playing formations and they can work well when the players are showing the kind of discipline required.

How much longer will this continue? We had hoped that the manager and his staff would have addressed these issues by now, but the kind of stuff we saw in the first half at Fulham would have been embarrassing for us when we were a non-league team, pre-1978.

It is simply not good enough for a team in the second tier of English football.

 

 

 

 

 

Getting the right balance in an unforgiving league

It’s an unforgiving league” is a phrase that Paul Cook has frequently used over the course of the 2018-19 EFL Championship season. It is one which Wigan Athletic fans will hope he will not be using after this week’s encounters with neighbours, Blackburn and Bolton.

Compared with League 1 the Championship is more unforgiving. Mistakes are more likely to be punished playing against teams with higher quality players and managers who are more tactically aware.

Last season Latics had a wage budget in excess of £12 m compared with a League 1 average closer to £3 m. Rival team managers would have been so often justified if they had called last season’s Wigan team “unforgiving”.  Put simply, Latics had higher quality players on higher salaries than any other team in the division bar Blackburn Rovers. Even when not playing particularly well they had a solid defence and the kinds of players in midfield and up front who could produce something special when things were not going so well.

The boot this season has been on the other foot. Wigan’s wage budget is modest for a division in which the clubs with the lower budgets typically occupy the lower parts of the table. That Latics are competing with clubs with similarly modest budgets like Bolton, Ipswich, Millwall and Rotherham to avoid relegation comes as no surprise.

But clubs can punch above their weight as Latics proved in the most emphatic way during their time in the Premier League. Despite a modest budget by Premier League standards they stayed in the division for eight years, reaching the League Cup Final and winning the FA Cup. During those eight years they recorded victories over those giant elite clubs that dominate that division.

Wigan Athletic were punching above their weight in the early stages of the current season. Although rather suspect in defence they were playing a brand of “no fear” attacking football, built upon the momentum of winning the League 1 title. Cook had continued to use the 4-2-3-1 formation that had brought success in League 1.

However, Gavin Massey’s injury at QPR at the end of August was a blow to Cook’s style of play. Moreover an injury to Michael Jacobs meant that both first choice wingers were unavailable for the next game at home to Rotherham.  Callum Connolly was drafted in on the right for Massey and Josh Windass for Jacobs. It was a dour game with Rotherham “parking the bus”. Both Nick Powell and Will Grigg were taken off after 60 minutes and a skillful passing approach gave way to a speculative long-ball scenario.

Jacobs returned in place of Connolly for the next game, a 1-0 win over Rotherham and played a part in victories over Hull and Bristol City. But an injury sustained in a 4-0 defeat at Preston in early October saw him out of action until mid-January.

In the absence of specialist wingers Massey and Jacobs for periods of months Cook could have been expected to use the speed and trickery of Callum McManaman, but his initial preference was to play such as Windass and Connolly out of position. He later employed the 34 year old Gary Roberts in wide positions. McManaman continued to be snubbed. The result was a lack of pace and cutting edge from the flanks. The manager’s problems were further exacerbated by the absence of the midfield playmaker Nick Powell through injury from the end of November to the middle of February. In the absence of Jacobs, Massey and Powell the quality of football plummeted, especially in away games with the “hoof” being far too prominent.

Cook now has the trio back at his disposal, but must be careful not to overuse them and risk injury. On Saturday at Reading the quality of football once again plummeted when Massey and Powell left the field, Wigan unable to retain possession, conceding late goals.  With Anthony Pilkington not on the bench Cook brought on Kal Naismith to replace Massey. Leon Clarke replaced Powell.

Cook’s substitutions on Saturday were ill-thought and allowed Reading back into the game. Rather than allow Reading to come forward and have speedy players ready to launch counterattacks he chose to put on a big centre forward and play a version of 4-4-2. The more obvious replacement for Powell was Josh Windass who has been used in the number 10 role before and has pace. Naismith was the obvious substitute for Massey, but rather than play him in his natural role on the left and switching Jacobs across the right the manager chose to play the Scot in a position where he looked out of his depth.

Cook will surely name the trio of Jacobs, Massey and Powell in his starting lineup at Blackburn tomorrow, providing they are fit. However, one can only hope that he can make better contingency plans for substitutions as they tire. Putting Clarke and Garner up front late in the game might be a valid tactic if Latics are behind, but it is not the way to protect a one goal lead. If Latics do get ahead against Blackburn he should either stick to a successful formula – usually 4-2-3-1 – and avoid that 4-4-2 long ball approach like the plague. An alternative on Saturday would have been to bring Cedric Kipre off the bench to play in a back three, with Nathan Byrne and Antonee Robinson moving to wing back roles. It could have provided extra defensive cover whilst bolstering the midfield.

That trio of Jacobs, Massey and Powell are crucial for Wigan’s survival in the Championship. An injury to either one would be a hammer-blow. Cook will have to be careful of not pushing them too hard given their recoveries from injury. That means that he will need to be proactive, rather than reactive, in keeping the team balanced if one or more of them is not on the pitch. Above all that hoofball approach that cedes possession to the opposition needs to be avoided.

We can only hope that the manager has learned from the mistakes he has made this season and will open his kind to more insightful approaches. Might he even consider McManaman as a possible stand-in for Jacobs or Massey?