How good is Will Keane?

In late November 2013 a 20-year-old centre forward signed for Wigan Athletic on a month’s loan from Manchester United, joining another player already borrowed from that same club for a year. Both were to leave Wigan that season to return in later years. Will Keane and Nick Powell would go on to become major figures in Latics’ history.

Keane had played for England at U16, U17, U19 and U21 levels and had made his Premier League debut in December 2011 against Blackburn Rovers. He made his debut for Latics on December 1, 2013, only to be replaced at half time with Wigan 3-0 down to Derby County. He started the next game at Leeds United but was substituted after 55 minutes. After making two more appearances off the bench his stay at Wigan was cut short by a groin injury.

After such a promising start as a young player Will Keane’s career meandered. He went on to loan spells at Queens Park Rangers, Sheffield Wednesday and Preston before signing for Hull City for £1m in August 2016. In November 2016 he suffered a serious knee injury that saw him out of first team action for over a year. After making 22 appearances for the Tigers, scoring one goal, he joined Ipswich Town on loan in January 2019. After being given a free transfer by Hull he signed a one-year contract at Ipswich with the club having an option of a further 12 months. However, with football suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic Ipswich chose not to take up their option and Keane left in May 2021 after scoring 6 goals in 34 league appearances for the Tractor Boys.

Keane ‘s return to Wigan in October 2020 was hardly greeted by a fanfare. He was joining a club that was on its knees under the yoke of administration with a threadbare squad. The club’s future was in the balance and even if new owners were to be found it was going to be an uphill battle to avoid relegation. He had signed a short-term contract until early January. He made his debut in a 3-0 defeat at Crewe, then appeared in losses to Charlton and Peterborough. However, on October 24 he scored the equaliser in a 1-1 draw with Plymouth. By the time his contract was up he had scored 4 goals in 9 League 1 appearances. On January 15 Keane signed another contract for the remainder of the season.

Will Keane proved to be a key player as the season continued, being more often played in a role behind the central striker. After spending his career as a number 9 he began to thrive in his new role, which better allowed him to showcase his broader range of skills. It was certainly a learning experience, but he looked a much better player. By the end of the season, he had scored 11 in 34 appearances, the best goalscoring ratio of his career. Moreover, he had overcome most of the career-long injuries and niggles that had dogged his career. It was the first season he had made more than 30 senior team appearances in a season.

Having witnessed Keane’s football renaissance Latics gave him a new 2-year-contract in June 2021. The player has gone from strength to strength, being one of the first names to be penciled into Leam Richardson’s team selections. Although he has occasionally been employed as a centre forward, he has usually operated in a number 10 or inside forward role.

Courtesy of bbc.co.uk

The other players appearing in the above stats typically play as centre forwards. Keane’s ability to find space coming through from midfield has brought him so many goals.

Keane is at his best when linking up with midfield and initiating attacks. At 6ft 2in height he is a constant threat in the opponents’ penalty box, but he also plays a major shift in helping his own defence deal with set pieces. His ability to ghost his way into the box and get into the right place at the right time has caused problems for so many defences. Despite receiving lots of attention from the opposition trying to close down his threat he maintains his self-discipline, as evidenced by his receiving just two yellow cards this season.

Keane’s fine form brought him to the attention of Republic of Ireland manager, Stephen Kenny. Although he represented England at junior levels he decided to opt for Ireland, his father being Irish, at senior level. He made his debut for Ireland in a world Cup qualifier against Portugal in November.

Will Keane has resurrected his football career. He is an intelligent player with sound technical skills and good vision. Should Latics get promoted this weekend, as they almost certainly will, he will be able to showcase his skills once more in the Championship. This time around he will be at the peak of his career, with the self-confidence and fitness that may have been lacking in his previous spells in the second tier

Players reach their peak at different ages. Keane is now 29 years old and will be out to show the football world what a fine player he is. Will he reach his peak next season?

Evatt’s comments rankle, but are Wigan Athletic an over-physical team?

Ian Evatt defends Dapo Afolayan

“I just think that sometimes he has unfairly of having a reputation for diving, but if you’re fouled, you’re fouled. I thought some of the tackles on him today were poor and mistimed and that’s where you need the referees to ignore noise and so-called reputations and give the right decision on a day and I don’t think we got the right decision with McClean’s second yellow in particular.”

Ian Evatt is rarely short of words. The outspoken Bolton boss was right about James McClean’s second yellow for a foul on Dapo Afolayan. It was a reckless action by a player already on a yellow card and it could have ultimately cost Latics all three points. The referee had earlier booked McClean for a foul on Afolayan, that was debatable. Some would say that the Irishman did not even touch the player, but even if he did it was hardly a bookable offence. The referee was surely influenced by the writhing of Afolayan on the ground after his fall.

Wigan were certainly aware of the threat that the 24-year-old Afolayan brings. He is a talented and skilful player who will invariably be heavily marked by League 1 defences. According to the Bolton Evening News he was the most fouled player in the division after the initial 5 matches this season. Given his capabilities it would be a surprise for him to remain at Horwich next season.

This Wigan Athletic side is certainly physical. Over the course of the season, they have outgunned the opposition with their ability to win the second ball, wearing them down by attrition. The stats reflect it with Latics scoring a total of 28 goals in the first half and 40 in the second. It is the fittest Wigan team for many years. Long balls are a feature in Liam Richardson’s style of play. Stats from WhoScored.com show an average of 18% of their passes classed as “long”, compared with Bolton’s average of 11%.

But are Wigan more physical than other teams in League 1? How does their foul and card count compare?

“Wigan had a game plan to come here and stop us playing and when you’ve got a team as experienced, as physical and as well set-up as they are, it makes things difficult.”

So said MK Dons manager, Liam Manning, following Latics’ draw at the MK Stadium in March. The match starts showed the home team having 59% of possession and committing 11 fouls to Wigan’s 16. A draw was a fair result between two teams with contrasting styles. Leam Richardson opted for a backline of three central defenders, with wing backs, matching the formation of the home team. It worked well, the shape and energy of the Wigan team stifling the MK Dons’ usually smooth-flowing football, forcing them into errors.

The Dons are probably the most aesthetically pleasing footballing side in League 1. On average they have committed 8.5 fouls per game, compared with 13.4 by the opposition. Latics and Rotherham can be considered more physical in their style of play and the stats back up the argument. Latics have committed an average of 12.7 fouls per match (11.9 by the opposition) and Rotherham 12.6 (11.5). Wigan’s foul stats, not surprisingly given the difficult circumstances, make better reading than those in the 2020/21 season of 14.7 to 11.7.

Stats courtesy of FootCharts.co.uk

Although Latics and Rotherham come close on foul stats, an examination of those for yellow card stats paints a different picture.  Wigan average 2.1 yellows per game (1.7 by the opposition), whereas Rotherham’s stats are 1.5 to 1.8.

Stats courtesy of FootCharts.co.uk

More than half of Latics’ yellow cards have been accumulated by 4 players: Tendayi Darikwa 13, Callum Lang 11, Max Power 10 and James McClean 8. On the other hand, Jack Whatmough and Tom Naylor who have made so many key tackles and interceptions this season have received 4 and 6 yellows respectively.

The brand of football played by Richardson’s team is certainly akin to that of the Paul Cook era. The stats in Cook’s final season were 13.5 fouls committed per match (13.1 for the opposition), 2.1 yellows per match (1.8 for the opposition).

Style of play notwithstanding, Leam Richardson has done an outstanding job over the last two seasons since Cook left. He kept Latics in League 1 and they are now in with a very good chance of automatic promotion. Moreover, a half the current squad have prior experience of at least 40 matches in the Championship or the Premier League. Should promotion be achieved there would be a strong base to build upon.

Latics may be one of the most physical teams in the division but they are less cynical than many. The standard of refereeing may be near an all time low in League 1, but the officials’ jobs are made so difficult by the diving, shamming of injury, shameless time wasting and mobbing of referees over borderline decisions. The foul and card stats make interesting reading, but do not necessarily paint a full picture.

Wigan Athletic DO have strength in depth, despite poor EFL trophy performances

Image courtesy of the EFL

“Physically, it’s better than training. The lads got some good minutes in there because they’ve gone weeks without match sharpness.”

So said Leam Richardson following a dull 2-0 defeat at Crewe in an EFL Trophy fixture on Tuesday. Crewe were so much better than Wigan, the scoreline not reflecting the superiority of the home team. A fine display by 19-year-old debutant goalkeeper Sam Tickle had helped keep the score down. Crewe had made 8 changes to their team, Latics making 11. The home team had looked cohesive, Wigan disjointed.

The EFL Trophy is not a priority for most managers these days. Richardson used the fixture to give seven of his first team squad a run-out with players from the U23 squad.

The EFL Trophy was launched as the “Associate Members’ Cup” in the 1983-84 season, when it was won by Bournemouth. The following season Bryan Hamilton’s Wigan Athletic won it (as the Freight Rover Trophy), beating Brentford 3-1 at Wembley in front of a crowd of 39,897.

In 1999 Latics won it again (as the Auto Windscreens Shield), with 55,349 spectators watching Ray Matthias’ side beat Millwall 1-0 at Wembley.

Despite constantly poor attendances in the early rounds the competition’s final has always drawn big crowds, the record being the massive 85,021 for the Portsmouth-Sunderland encounter in 2019.

The introduction of U21 teams to the competition has not gone down well with the fans of clubs in Leagues 1 and 2. Attendances reached an all time low on Tuesday and Latics’ game at Crewe was one of eight matches that night with less than 1,000 paying spectators. Some 185 Latics fans travelled to watch a game in which their team just did not show the kind of commitment that wins games. Wigan still have a chance of qualifying from if they win their last group game at Shrewsbury, but on the evidence of the commitment shown in the games against Wolves U21 and Crewe it would be a surprise.

Richardson’s prime goal this season is to secure promotion. The League Cup and EFL Trophy have been secondary considerations and there are few fans who would argue against that. However, the performances of the second string in the EFL Trophy games and in the Sunderland game in the League Cup have been so below par that some fans are questioning the quality of the first team squad players who were involved. If those games have provided an opportunity for fringe players to stake a claim for a place in the senior team starting line-up, then it has not happened. Wigan’s best player at Crewe was Tickle and Kieran Lloyd, Scott Smith and Chris Sze looked as comfortable as any of the senior players.

However, looking at the first team squad analytically there is lots of depth. There are experienced players who have already been successful at League 1 level or above. However, they may be lacking sharpness due to lack of playing time with the manager keeping faith in a group of players who have got the club off to a fine start to the campaign. In the old days those players would have been sent to get game time in the reserve team. Such entities no longer exist in the modern era, having been replaced by development squads, with the emphasis of grooming young players.

However, first team squad players are sometimes drafted into U23 games from time to time. Both Curtis Tilt and Thelo Aasgaard played against Charlton U23s on September 13. Adam Long and Luke Robinson have played in the last four U23 games. Up this point Richardson has used the cup games, rather than U23 games, to help senior players to keep up their match fitness. The next EFL trophy game is on November 9 at Shrewsbury.

Courtesy of bbc.co.uk

The indifferent performances of senior players in the recent cup games is hard to fathom. There was surely enough ability and experience in those line-ups to put up better performances against the second strings of Sunderland and Crewe and the Wolves U21s. One could not expect those Latics XI’s to gel, but despite the lack of cohesion we might have expected some more memorable individual performances.

But the bottom line is that Wigan do have considerable strength in depth. It can only be truly tested when those fringe players are given the opportunity to play in a first team which has already gelled, making it easy for replacements to slot in.

A Cardiff fan’s view of Joe Bennett

Courtesy of Wales News Service

Wigan Athletic last week announced the signing of 31-year-old Joe Bennett from Cardiff City. The left back has over 300 appearances in the Premier League and Championship and looks an outstanding signing for Latics in League 1.

Bennett had been offered a new contract at Cardiff prior to Mick McCarthy’s arrival in January, the player suffering a serious ACL injury in March. By early August Bennett was still training with Cardiff although no new contract had been offered, prompting McCarthy to comment:

“He is in the building and he is going to train. I am more than happy for him to train, he has been a great servant to the club. I think there was an offer made to him prior to me coming in and it didn’t get signed. That’s just the way it is. Contracts run out. Sadly for him he got injured.

If he hadn’t have been injured he would have left, played for someone else and we wouldn’t be having this discussion. I was quite sad about it because I spoke to Benno when I came in, I knew his contract was running out. I discussed with him about staying, then injury comes and it changed it all.”

On signing for Latics, Bennett commented:

Im delighted to get a chance to come to a massive club like this and get the opportunity to play. Hopefully I can come here, help the team and get promoted and thats why Ive come here – to get promoted and Im sure a lot of the lads and staff want that as well.

For me there was a good feel about the club and we’ve had a good start. We’ve got a good squad and a good team. If I can add my experience and some of my attributes to the team as well, then itll bode well. I think I fit into that, and I want to help the team and help the squad if I get the opportunity to play. Ive come here to get promoted and hopefully thats what we can do.”

Born in Rochdale, Joseph Bennett graduated through the Middlesbrough academy, signing a professional contract as a 19-year-old in the summer of 2008. He went on to make 78 starts and 7 appearances off the bench over four seasons in the Premier League and Championship. Bennett signed for Aston Villa for £2.75m in August 2012. He made 25 appearances in the Premier League in 2012-13. He had injury problems in his second season, limiting him to 7 appearances in all competitions. In 2014-15 Bennett played for Brighton and Hove Albion on loan, making 45 appearances. Following further loan spells at Bournemouth and Sheffield Wednesday he left Aston Villa for Cardiff after amassing 30 league appearances for Villa.

Joining Cardiff City in August 2016 he went on to make 164 league appearances for the Bluebirds over 5 seasons, scoring 5 goals.

In order to learn more about Marshall’s time at Cardiff we reached out to Benjamin James of the View from the Ninian fan site (http://www.viewfromtheninian.com/).

Here’s over to Benjamin:

Joe Bennett has great teeth and is a great left back. He joined Cardiff, unheralded, in 2016 and we no longer needed to worry about the left back position. It was like he was what we had always been looking for.

Solid, good going forward, even better at defending. When we got promoted to the premier league, he was a key player in the promotion run and in the year at the top where he really didn’t look out of place. 

If I’d had my choice, we would have kept him but a difference in opinion on wages and then his injury put paid to that. It feels like a changing of the guard for us. A player who had spent five years with us and was a big part of our successes during that time is moving on.

No offence to Wigan, but I’m surprised he’s dropped down to league one. Maybe he’s not sure his body is up to the rigours of the Championship after an ACL injury but I won’t doubt his ability. He’s a quality, consistent left back and you’ve got a gem. 

A St Johnstone fan view of Jason Kerr

Wigan Athletic yesterday announced the signing of St Johnstone centre half and captain Jason Kerr for a fee of around £600,000. The six-foot tall, 24-year-old was a key player in the Perth club’s historic achievements in winning both the Scottish Cup and the Scottish League Cup last season.

Jason Kerr was born in Edinburgh and joined St Johnstone in 2014. In summer 2015 he was loaned East Fife, then in the Scottish League 2, as an 18-year-old, making 33 appearances to help the Methil club gain promotion to the Championship.  He stayed there in the 2016-17 season, making 43 appearances. Kerr then spent a half season loan period at Queen of the South, making 18 appearances for the Dumfries club in the Scottish Championship, returning in January to Perth to appear 15 times for St Johnstone by the end of the season. Having established himself he went on to become club captain from summer 2019 and to make a further 100 appearances in the next 3 and a bit seasons for The Saints.

Kerr has 6 caps for the Scotland at U23 level.

In order to learn more about Kerr’s time at St Johnstone we contacted Jamie Beatson from the We Are Perth fan site (www.weareperth.co.uk).

Here’s over to Jamie:

First things first – £600k is a bargain. For that you’re getting a 24-year-old who is vastly experienced for his age, has captained a small club to unprecedented success and who has shown up extremely well against very good European teams – Galatasaray and LASK – in the past few weeks. In any just world he’d have multiple Scotland caps by now, but, alas, the SFA have their heads firmly in their ar..s.

See for example Jack Hendry – a recent Celtic flop who just sold for £8m to a Belgian side. As far as I’m concerned Kerr is every bit as good a defender as Hendry – better in many aspects. But Hendry played for Celtic so was rewarded for caps, despite his crap form. Kerr excelled for Saints and got nothing.

At the price quoted I’m amazed a current championship side hasn’t taken him. He could easily play at that level right now – and I guess the hope for you guys is that he will be next season!

You’ll want to know what type of player he is. Very much a modern centre back – comfortable with the ball but, crucially, still a good defender. Strong and good in the air, but also clever with his feet and always picking the right moment to set out of defence. His underlapping runs from RCB last season were a joy to watch and will be missed.

I’d be amazed if a good year or two with you doesn’t see him in the sights of bigger clubs higher up the food chain. He has all the attributes and his best years are well and truly in front of him. He will forever be a St Johnstone legend for leading us to an unprecedented cup double and for that we’ll always be grateful.

Enjoy him, and I hope he leads you to similar success as he had up here!