Unlocking the Jacobs enigma

Photo courtesy of Wigan Athletic FC.

It is the 11th minute of Saturday’s home encounter against the Milton Keynes Dons. Under pressure Nick Powell launches a long ball from his own half. It looks ambitious, speculative. But Wigan’s number 17 gets his head there to nod it on, accelerating past two defenders. It seems like he has run up a blind alley as he finds himself at the by-line, but he squeezes out a left foot cross that allows Will Grigg the formality of putting the ball away.

Michael Jacobs was involved in another assist in that 5-1 win, sprinting at full throttle from his own half to the edge of opposition penalty box to lay on a superb pass for Grigg to claim his hat trick. In the defeat at Fratton Park five days earlier, we saw a different Michael Jacobs, being peripheral, seemingly lacking in energy. More often than not, when Jacobs has been at his most dynamic, it has been reflected in a good team performance.

Stats suggest that scoring first in a football game is so important. That piece of magic from Michael Jacobs produced the opening goal in a game that Latics went on to win. A study based on the Premier League published by smarkets.com shows that the team scoring the first goal from 2014-2017 won 70% of the matches, losing only 12%.

Jacobs showed his drive and creativity against the Dons, but his ability to get crucial goals has had a major effect on Wigan’s promotion push. Indeed, of the 10 he has scored, no less than 8 were opening goals that led to victory for his team. Three of those victories were by 1-0 margins, one of those being in the 90th minute in a crucial game at Bradford. Jacobs was in the right place at the right time as he coolly dispatched a sublime flick from Will Grigg. His 30-yard screamer was the only goal in the home game against Northampton in September, his superb left footed finish from just outside the box gave a weakened Latics a similar result at the DW against Rochdale in February.

Jacobs was a key player in Gary Caldwell’s League 1 title winning side in 2015-16. He scored 10 league goals in 38 appearances. The sceptics said that he would not be able to perform at the same level in the Championship, where he struggled to with both Derby County and Wolves. His return to the second tier of English football could hardly be called an unqualified success, with just 3 goals under Caldwell and Warren Joyce. However, Jacobs was playing for a struggling side and under Joyce he found himself laden with more defensive duties than previously.

Even at League 1 level Michael Jacobs can be enigmatic. So often he can get himself into great positions but cannot show the composure needed to finish a move. His critics would say that he has trouble staying on his feet, going to ground too easily, that his left foot is poor. But Jacobs remains popular among Latics fans for his willingness to put run himself into the ground for his team, together with his moments of brilliance. Some will say that the player would not be at Wigan if he were able to consistently perform to his maximum potential but would be playing in a higher tier of football. But Jacobs is still only 26 and has time to continue to progress as a footballer.

Given the level of commitment that Jacobs shows on the field of play and the physical demands of his role, it is no surprise that the player cannot “turn it on” game-in, game-out. With a hectic schedule where games come in thick and fast it is difficult for any player of his type to consistently perform at a high level. Moreover, Paul Cook is not a manager who favours squad rotation and Jacobs has almost invariably been the first name on the team sheet for one of the wing positions. He has started in 42 games this season, league and FA Cup.

In October 2017 Jacobs signed a new contract that will keep him at Wigan until the summer of 2020. At the time Paul Cook remarked that:

Michael is such a talented footballer who is really thriving off the way we are playing at the moment. I know he is a really popular player amongst the fans, not just for his ability but being such a great lad as well and I am sure this is news that goes down well with everyone associated with the club.”

Jacobs has been a key player for Latics over the course of the season. Cook will be hoping he will be at his scintillating best for the seven matches that remain. The acid test for Jacobs will be a return to the Championship, providing Wigan get promoted. With the backing of Cook and his coaching staff, could the player gain that extra little bit of composure that would make him a force to be reckoned with in the second tier?

 

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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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A Hearts fan’s view of Jamie Walker

Reports suggest that the 24 year old midfielder Jamie Walker will sign for Wigan Athletic today for a fee of £300,000. The 5 ft 9 in tall Walker was in the final year of his contract.

Robbie Neilson, MK Dons manager, was in charge at Hearts from 2014-16. In a recent interview with The Scotsman newspaper he commented on Walker’s imminent move to Wigan:

“I’d expect him to score a few goals there and play some games, and hopefully make that step up to the Championship. The team he’s going to dominate a lot of the games so I think that will definitely help him in the way they play. They’ve got guys who are similar to Jamie and that’s the way they play, so it would be a good one for him.

I thought he was excellent when I had him as a player. When I came in I spoke to him about his work rate and I think he’s done that, he’s looked after himself fitness-wise. He’s earned himself a move and I’m sure he’ll kick on because there is no doubting his technical ability, that’s for sure.”

Jamie Walker grew up in Edinburgh and came up through the youth ranks at Hearts.  At the age of 18 he was sent to Raith Rovers on loan to get first team experience. He went on to make 23 appearances, scoring 3 goals in the 2011-12 season. He made his first team debut for Hearts as a substitute in November 2012 against Inverness Caledonian Thistle at Tynecastle. By the end of the season he had made 24 appearances for Hearts in the SPL, scoring 2 goals, being voted the club’s “Young Player of the Year”.

Last summer Walker was the subject of two bids from Rangers, who were eventually unwilling to meet the Edinburgh club’s asking price of £1m. The club reported that Walker had asked for the move, although the player himself denied it, causing a rift between him and Hearts fans. In October The Daily Record reported on the abuse that not just the player, but also his immediate family, suffered as a result.

Walker can play on either flank, or behind the centre forward. In his five years of first team football at Hearts he has made 125 league starts and 29 appearances as a substitute, scoring 37 goals. He has represented Scotland at U15, U16, U17, U19 and U21 levels.

In order to learn more about Walker’s time at Hearts we contacted the Jambos Kickback (http://www.hmfckickback.co.uk) fan forum. The responses we got were multituidinous, but below you will find a selection of them:

Debut4 commented:

Fresh start for him. I don’t think the Cathro period helped him and became frustrated. Its been clear recently that under a proper manager (Levein for the OPs info) he’s found a little bit of his previous self again.

 A lot of Hearts supporters don’t like him because he was angling for a move to Rangers. No matter how he played he was dismissed as having lost it or not committed to Hearts latterly.

 You are getting a decent player, good brain, dangerous around the box when it falls to him but injury has plagued him which should concern you.

Davidkeye said

Overall as above really, plenty natural talent but certainly a bit inconsistent. Overall disappointed to lose him but it was inevitable and a fair chunk of Hearts fans think the same (have a read of the long thread as mentioned above on this forum).

 Will he do ok at Wigan? Who knows, he will need to get a little stronger for English football i’d say and there is also the issues of him and his family settling off the park (think he has a little kid etc now) and although its only a few hours down the road moving away from where you’ve been brought up with friends and family etc is never easy).

It has certainly ended slightly on a sour note but he has had success overall with Hearts and been here pretty much his entire playing career, he leaves us with a half decent fee as he said he would. it could have been a lot more if he was a bit more consistent imo. Good luck to him, hope he does well for you.

BigHenry added:

The boy’s got bags of ability. Likes to run with the ball. Takes players on and gets fouled regularly due to his quick feet. His finishing is decent but still needs improvement. A difficult player to fit into your team because he likes to play in behind the strikers, sniffing out openings. I don’t think he can play wide as he’s not got real pace ,although quick over the first few yards.  He’s went off the boil recently due to the nonsense surrounding the transfer saga. If you get keep him fit and fit him  into your system then you could have a bargain on your hands. A right good player at our level anyway.  

Hughsie27 said

He has been a promising prospect since he was about 15/16. Comes from a Hearts family background. He joined the first team quite young and impressed for the first couple of years in the team but suffered from a lot of injuries which seems to have hampered his development somewhat. 

On his day he is brilliant. He hasn’t really been on his day for about 18 months though. Still young enough where a fresh start might help him but I’d be willing to bet you lot will have him back up here at Rangers (on loan or otherwise) by this time next year.

Sadj commented:

Fantastic football brain , makes good choices , cracking player when his heads in it. Has had a tough 18months with injuries needs a change to move forward as has stagnated at Hearts recently. 

The Apprentice opined:

A fit and ‘at it’ Jamie Walker would no doubt be an asset for Wigan but has others have said his last couple of injuries seem to have robbed him of any pace he’s had before. Widly inconsistent, drifts in and out of games but if he plays to his full potential then he’s a match-winner on his day. IMO I reckon a change of scenery could do him the world of good. 

Jambos_1874 said

I would say the majority of comments on here are overly critical. Jamie has plenty of natural ability and early on his Hearts career that wasn’t matched with workrate and effort. However, in recent years (when injury free) this definitely improved and there is no doubt he can score goals when given the chance but that depends on the type of football Wigan play and whether he’ll suit their style. For me his lack of pace is his main negative and I think that will definitely count against him in England. Jamie was a fans favourite but this season a lot of fans appear to have tirned against him. 

 To those fans who criticise his derby peformances, I agree to an extent. But there were several recent derbies, particularly under Cathro, where I think he really was trying but there was zero effort from the players around him.

 

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Will Grigg go?

The rumours of departures from Wigan continue to rear their ugly heads. With the summer transfer window due to close on August 31st Wigan Athletic fans will be desperately hoping the club does not shed its best players in the craziness that will abound over the coming week. How many of the likes of Will Grigg, Dan Burn and Nick Powell will still be with us come September?

Paul Cook is currently basking in the luxury of having a strike force that is the envy of other clubs in the League 1. Grigg is now fit after relatively long-term injury to compete with Ivan Toney for the centre forward position. Nick Powell has been playing just behind the central striker up to this point, but is equally adept in that number 9 role.

However, the departure of Powell is seemingly inevitable, given that his salary is reputed to be around £16,000 per week. Put simply it would be hard for a club which needs to reduce its budget from around £18 m to somewhere close to £6 m to hold on to a player on that kind of salary. Moreover, given the player’s past injury record it would appear even more of a risk in keeping him on the books. The romantics among us will continue to hope that David Sharpe will stick his neck out and keep the player at the club, knowing that a fully fit Powell could be pivotal to promotion.

So the likelihood is that Powell will be gone within a week, but what about Grigg? Both he and Michael Jacobs have one year left on their contracts. Will they be offered new contracts or will the club cash in its assets by selling them in the coming week?

Some three weeks ago Cook was quoted as saying “Certainly we know who is in the last year of their contracts, and the big effort is nurturing the squad into the start of the season. Once we start the season, with the squad we want in place, we can start to look at lengths of contracts. And I’m sure once we get into August, September, October, you’ll start to see some movement on that score.

The rumours of Charlton offering in excess of £1m for Grigg are certainly credible, knowing that the player has exceeded the 20 goals per season mark three times previously in League 1. So many Latics fans see Grigg’s continuity at the club as crucial to the promotion push. But if the bid has been made and Latics have rejected it, is it a sign that they intend to keep the player and will not allow him to go to another club from the same division competing for promotion? Or are they expecting a higher fee for the player?

Jacobs too would be an important player in the promotion push. Although his form last season in the Championship was disappointing the player has been electric in the opening games. Jacobs is a quality player at League 1 level and Cook would be loath to see him go.

Cook’s words regarding extended contracts do not give anything away. However, the manager recognises that Latics are a “selling club” and if the right offer comes up a player is likely to be released.

Given his importance to the defence, Latics fans will be hoping that such an offer does not come in for Dan Burn. The loss of Craig Morgan for several months due to a hip injury is a blow to Cook. It appears that Latics are actively looking for another central defender. The immediate assumption is that it would be someone to replace Morgan, but some would argue that Cook has Donervon Daniels fit again and ready to step in and it is a sign that Burn might be leaving.

In the meantime it appears that Jack Byrne has now left the club. Cook has suggested that more departures are on their way, although it is not clear if they would be mainline or fringe players. We can also expect some new ones coming in.

Having a transfer window still open when the season has started can cause serious disruption to football clubs. It is something that might well be rectified a year from now. The immediate danger for Wigan Athletic is of key players leaving the club over the next week, unbalancing a squad that looks strong enough to challenge for automatic promotion.

But at this stage, the underlying reasons for selling players or moving them on are largely economic. The burden lies on the shoulders of David Sharpe and owner Dave Whelan. It is they who will ultimately decide whether players like Grigg, Burn and Powell will be Wigan players come September.

In the meantime, Paul Cook will surely be making contingency plans to cover all possible scenarios.

 

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The season ahead for Jordan Flores

He didn’t think he had played particularly well, but he had scored the opening goal at a very opportune moment, in the 45th minute. It was a superbly hit strike from outside the box, revealing the kind of technique that could make him a top player.

But Jordan Flores was right: he did not have a good game against Blackpool on Tuesday evening. His goal and a beautifully weighted pass to release Will Grigg were the highlights, but his passing was too often errant and it was clear that he still needs to work on his defensive skills.

But for those who have closely followed Flores’ career the biggest plus of the night was that he played the full 90 minutes plus of the match. It was the first time he had done so in  a competitive match for Wigan after having made his debut at Brentford in the final game of the 2014-15 season.

Jordan Flores is 21 years old, a local lad from Aspull. He played with the Latics juniors, later to re-join the club as a 15-year-old. He was to work his way up through the youth team and the development squad to make that first team debut in May 2015. The club had once prided itself on developing home-grown talent, but had somehow lost its way in recent years. Flores had come on to the field at Brentford to replace Tim Chow, another local lad who had come up through the ranks. Together they represented “homegrown youth” when Latics had for too long preferred to bring in young loan players from other clubs.

Flores is without doubt a talented player. He has the kind of technique that would enable him to feel at home among the talent at La Masia. He is blessed with a sweet left foot, excellent close control and a powerful shot. His best position is probably on the left side of a midfield trio, the kind of role that Chris McCann would often play in the era of Uwe Rosler. Flores is left sided, but not a winger. But in Paul Cook’s preferred 4-2-3-1 system where could Flores fit?

Prior to the Blackpool match the manager had commented: “In Jordan’s case, what’s Jordan’s best position in our line-up? We’re going to have a look at him on Tuesday night in a different position, in the front three behind the striker. Jordan’s a very naturally talented boy, and I think he’s going to be a great player for Wigan Athletic.”

It is not unusual for young footballers with genuine talent to be lacking in the physical side of the game. Flores has clearly been working on his stamina and having to sometimes play at full back or wing back will surely have helped him appreciate more the defensive part of the game. The challenge ahead is for him to be able to display his fine skills, but at the same time complement them with the physical attributes necessary for a successful footballer in the modern era.

When Warren Joyce sent him on loan to Blackpool in January it was by no means certain that Flores would be coming back this season. He was in the final 6 months of his contract with his future at the club seemingly in the balance. However, although he was not able to establish himself as a regular starter he went on to make 14 starts, with 7 appearances off the bench, scoring 3 goals. His total of 1,300 minutes playing time with the seaside club was to dwarf the combined total of 194 minutes he had previously spent on the pitch for Latics.

The relative success of his loan period at Blackpool surely influenced Latics to offer Flores a new two-year contract. It was a surprise at the time that the club were offering new contracts – Craig Morgan and David Perkins also received theirs – when the new manager had not been decided at that stage. Flores was clearly delighted commenting that: “I’m buzzing; I am going into what is my sixth season now and every year I feel like I have made progress. Last season that meant going out on loan and getting game time but this season I will hopefully break into the team. I support this club, I love this club and I have always wanted to play here.”

Cook clearly has faith in Flores’ abilities. However, he also commented about the player that: “But again these lads need to play regular, because you don’t learn much by not playing. These are the challenges ahead, not just for me but for Jordan and players like him. And we’ve got to stick together no matter what the plan is.”

The manager has already let us know that his squad is currently too big and that more players will be leaving. Is he hinting that Flores will be sent off on loan again?

The decision Cook will need to make before the end of August is whether Flores is ready to make an impact in his 4-2-3-1 system, and if he is, in what position? But another loan spell is a distinct possibility.

Jordan Flores remains a bright young talent with his best years ahead of him. With the right amount of nurturing he could become a very fine player.