Leam Richardson: a much-loved but frustrating figure at Wigan Athletic

“In Leam we trust”

Few football managers are referred to by their first name by their fan base, yet at Wigan Athletic, the above phrase has become something of a mantra to be rolled out on social channels at any hint of critique of the current manager’s ability to keep the Latics on course.

Indeed, Leam Richardson is among the most-loved in the long line of Wigan Athletic managers since the club’s origins in 1932. When so many others fled a sinking ship, he stayed on and not only kept things afloat but did so with admirable dignity and positivity. He cut a determined figure through those gloomy times — the glue that held it all together motivating a hodge-podge of experienced journeymen and youth players week in and week out as the club literally faced an existential crisis. On the pitch, through wise recruitment in January 2021 and excellent man-management in the subsequent months, he managed to steer the club away from an immediate drop to League 2. He then oversaw a massive recruitment drive in the summer of 2021 and took the club back to the Championship. Somewhere in the middle of all of that he saved his centre forward’s life. Which to any neutrals may sound like hyperbole, but is exactly what happened, just as Simon Kjaer heroically did for Cristian Eriksen the summer prior.

Furthermore, Richardson is a terrific club ambassador – a genial presence characterised by rare decency and humility, with an unwillingness to criticise opposition or match officials. He’s the kind of manager who shakes every last player’s hand after a match, be it his own players or the opposition.  To say there is an emotional bond between Wigan Athletic and Richardson is an understatement; and the club has made appropriately meaningful gestures of gratitude in response, renaming the South Stand at the DW Stadium the Leam Richardson Stand, and extending his contract a further three years.  

Football moves fast, however. While the decision to renew Richardson’s contract was likely taken some weeks ago, in recent weeks Latics have plummeted down the league table, losing five on the bounce and mired in the relegation places. Poor form and results has a cruel way of exposing weaknesses that have been there all along but compensated for in other ways. What we’ve witnessed in recent Latics performances is reminiscent of the darkest days of Warren Joyce-led Latics in a similar Championship position several years ago – but shouldn’t come as a total surprise.

For all of Richardson’s incredible talents in man-management, his success in League 1, and his inspirational character traits as a human being and leader, his tactical approach has never been sophisticated. Even in League 1, where Latics could overpower most opposition, there were struggles against ball-playing sides who played with flair and the ball on the ground. Effort, physicality, strength from set pieces defined his team in League 1, and define his team in the Championship.

The problem of course, is that there is a large gulf in quality between League 1 and the Championship, and you either have to level up the playing talent, the tactical approach, or both – but neither has happened as yet. Whereas Latics could steamroll teams in League 1—a division in which James McClean could breeze past his fullback in the 80th minute—they get steamrolled in the Championship, with speedy ex-Premier League wingers breezing past the Irishman. Concerns over a shortage of skilful football last season were largely assuaged by positive results, but the pattern was clear. When Latics struggled, they’d hoof and hope.

An EFL season of 46 games is a long and physically draining marathon. Latics struggled near the end as the games came in thick and fast, the players looking jaded, but they eventually limped through to the title with a 3-0 win at Shrewsbury in the final encounter. Richardson had once again showed himself to be a motivational manager with the players consistently giving their all despite the fatigue and niggling injuries that made things more difficult for them. However, the manager’s reluctance to rotate the squad meant that so many players were struggling to reach their previous levels because of fatigue.

The  long ball had always been a feature of Richardson’s football, but so often it lapsed into hopeful punts upfield, resulting in loss of possession and increased pressure on the defence by the opposition. Richardson’s squad was far superior to most in the division enabling them to grind out wins even when not playing well. However, they struggled playing against teams who played skilful, possession-based football. Both Sheffield Wednesday and Sunderland did the double over Latics. Milton Keynes Dons might have had a smaller budget, but their silky football made them a real challenge for Richardson’s team.

Recruitment in summer 2021 was more focused on getting Latics out of League 1, rather than building a side that could hold its own in the Championship. Most of the contracts offered were for two years, running out next summer. According to transfermarkt.co.uk Wigan have 16 players whose contracts run out at the end of this season, 3 of whom are on loan from other clubs. There are 6 whose have contracts until June 2024 and those of Callum Lang and Anthony Scully expire in June 2025.

Having so many player contracts due to expire at the end of the season makes it by no means easy for the manager. Being uncertain as to his near future at the club is unsettling to a player. Moreover, the current squad has 16 players who are aged 28 years or over. Whether Latics manage to avoid relegation or not there will be a significant amount of recruitment to be done in summer.

Throughout his time at Wigan the manager has relied heavily on his senior professionals and those who have previously commanded a regular place in the team. Riding on the confidence afforded by their League 1 title win those players got Latics off to a good start to the season, with their form away from home being impressive. However, their displays at the DW Stadium were distinctly muted. As the games came in thick and fast the energy within that core of players diminished, with the manager stubbornly sticking to those he felt he could trust, the new signings being used sparingly.

The trio of Will Keane, James McClean, Max Power have started in all of the 18 games played so far. Jack Whatmough missed just one through injury. Stats provided by soccerway.com show that Power has spent 1620 minutes on the field, not having been substituted in any game so far. Of the new signings Nathan Broadhead has played 706 minutes, compared with Josh Magennis 794. Ryan Nyambe has played 567 minutes, Ashley Fletcher 34, Anthony Scully 16 and Ramani Edmonds-Green 16 minute

Although Richardson remains well loved by so many fans for what he has done for the club the current situation is giving them much cause for concern. Many are asking why the manager was given a new three year contract with the standard of football played by his team being so poor. On Wednesday Latics were facing a Stoke team that had lost its previous three matches and was only just above the relegation zone. Playing with three centre backs and three holding midfielders was never likely to provide entertainment value for the home fans. When the team sheet was announced before the game the inference was that Richardson was playing not to lose, hoping for a goal from a set piece or bringing on his big target men in the latter stages with the scores tied.

Following a Stoke goal that was gifted to them by an inept Wigan rear guard the manager introduced both Charlie Wyke and Josh Magennis for the last 20 minutes. The football produced during that time ranked among the worst I have seen from Latics over decades of following them. It was totally depressing.

The praise that Richardson has received from Latics fans in the past has been very much merited. He is still held in high regard on a personal level, but there have always been flaws in his tactical approach. Having a squad that was superior to most in League 1 meant that the cracks were papered over. However, they are fully exposed in a Championship division against superior players and managers with more tactical nous.

The frustration among the fans is very much influenced by a run of poor results, but it is the manager’s stubborn resistance to changing the way he sets up his team that can truly aggravate  people. Richardson must adapt his tactical approach and install a modern footballing philosophy to replace an archaic approach that is simply not going to work in the second tier.


Wigan Athletic: ready to bounce back against West Bromwich

Following a promising start to the season Wigan Athletic’s 5-1 defeat to Burnley provided them with a real wake-up call. Although the visitors lost key players over the summer they recruited well and looked a fine side on the day. The 5-1 scoreline was flattering to the visitors, the stats showing that Wigan had 18 shots (with 4 on target) compared with Burnley’s 8 (4 on target).

Leam Richardson chose to pack the midfield in a 3-5-2 formation, without a central target man. The tactic backfired and a clinical Burnley side proved too much to handle.

Will the manager persist with that 3-5-2 tomorrow when West Bromwich Albion are the visitors? Or will it be the more attacking 3-4-3 that has been the norm on previous occasions when playing with three central defenders? Another alternative is the 4-2-3-1 formation that is Richardson’s most favoured.

West Bromwich have had a disappointing start to the season by their standards. They have 7 points from 6 matches with a record not dissimilar to that of Latics:  W1D4L1. Last season they finished in 10th position.

A remarkable trait of Richardson’s team last season was in being able to bounce back after an adverse result. They lost eight league games in total but won seven and drew once in the games immediately following those reverses. The most traumatic of defeats was a 3-0 home drubbing by Sunderland, but Latics went the next nine games undefeated.

There was a train of thought that Wigan showed too much respect to Burnley on the field of play. Moreover, they left three central strikers and two attacking midfielders on the bench. Richardson will most likely approach this match in a different fashion, bringing back a target man, most likely Josh Magennis, and pushing Will Keane back to his best position behind the central striker. The manager has consistently showed loyalty to the players who have been his mainstays in the past. He will be forced to bring in a right back to replace the injured Tendayi Darikwa. The defensively solid, but less attack-minded, Ryan Nyambe would be an obvious choice in a 4-2-3-1. Should it be 3-4-3 he might employ Max Power as an attacking full back.

Steve Bruce’s teams are typically physically strong and well organised and Latics will have to work hard to beat them. It promises to be a tough encounter.

The transfer window closes at 11 pm on Thursday, September 1. We can expect activity from Latics, particularly in the acquisition of loan players. To make room for new players we can expect some departures from the current squad.

Leam Richardson was quoted today as saying:

“I always say as a manager of a football club, if you get enough transfer windows right, to make those steps you want to make, to mould what you want to mould, you’ll do all right. I still think we’re two or three of them off, partly because of where we’ve come from, and having to work a hundred miles an hour last year, to make that happen. We’re still very much a progress.

The transfer window closes at 11 pm on Thursday, September 1. We can expect particular activity from Latics in the acquisition of loan players. To make room for new players there may be some departures from the current squad.

Tom Pearce signed a new contract over summer but has made only one league appearance this season, as an 89th minute substitute against Preston. Stephen Humphrys was used as a late substitute in the first two league games but has not appeared since. There have been rumours about Graeme Shinnie leaving the club, possibly back to Scotland. But with Jordan Cousins out with a long-term injury the club are unlikely to release Shinnie unless they can find a couple of new holding midfielders.

There has been lots of speculation about Latics signing players from Egypt, with a bid for goalkeeper Mahmoud Gad having been made. If Gad were to be signed, he would initially be sent out on loan to another country to get the experience needed for a working visa in the UK. Ahmed Sayed, commonly known as “Zizo”, of Zamalek, is the leading scorer in the Egyptian league this season, although a winger. Were Latics to be serious about signing him they could expect to pay a fee of around £3m. With 23 appearances under his belt for Egypt a working visa would not be a problem.

Thinking of Steve Bruce coming to Wigan tomorrow and the possibility of an Egyptian joining Latics brings memories of Amr Zaki. Most of us had never heard of him when Latics signed him on loan from Zamalek in 2008 for a fee of £1.5m. He made a sensational start, scoring 5 goals in his first six games, before falling foul of Bruce in January. Sadly Zaki could never live up to his early promise and returned to Egypt at the end of the season.

Wigan Athletic 1 Burnley 5: Amigo and Social Media reaction

Wigan Athletic once again showed their fighting qualities, pulling back Burnley’s two goal lead with a Will Keane penalty after 42 minutes. The visitors had been far superior in the opening half hour, their silky football contrasting with repititious long balls launched from defence by Latics.

Early in the second half Keane squandered a golden opportunity. Soon after the visitors made it 3-1 with a goal that had offside written all over it. It was a hammer blow from which Latics were never going to recover and Burnley’s superiority was emphasized with two more goals in the final minutes.

Leam Richardson chose a cautious starting line-up, opting for three at the back but with a 3-5-2 formation, rather than the usual 3-4-3. With three holding midfielders was he trying to nullify the effect of Brownhill, Cork and Cullen in Burnley’s engine room? In the event Brownhill had an excellent game, finding the freedom to score two well-taken goals. Callum Lang and Will Keane received poor service, mainly spending their energy chasing hopeful long balls or aimless punts up field.

Burnley lost many of their best players over the summer following their relegation from the Premier League. However, both Brownhill and defender Charlie Taylor were regulars in their top tier side last season and played yesterday. Burnley have spent some £13 on new acquisitions over the summer. New manager Vincent Kompany has imposed a possession-based style of play. However, their record prior to this game was W1D3L1.

Following a valiant performance at Norwich, Latics were found wanting in this encounter against another team coming down from the top tier. The gulf in class between the two teams in this game looked huge, not only in Burnley’s clinical finishing, but in the flowing football they played.

But Richardson’s teams show resilience and a good performance against West Bromwich Albion on Tuesday would not be a surprise. Wigan’s primary goal this season is to avoid relegation. Providing the manager can continue to keep up his squad’s morale they can probably accomplish that goal.

However, the long-ball style of play that helped Latics get out of League 1 is not the best approach for consolidation at this level. At some point flair players need to be nurtured and a more sophisticated style of play developed. Wigan defenders, facing an opposition press, launch “hopeful” long balls. Most teams in this division better handle the high press.

Our thanks go to the Vital Wigan – Latics Speyk Forum and Twitter for providing the media for the posts below to happen. Thanks go to all whose contributions are included:

FormbyLatic opined:

I think Leam got the starting formation completely wrong. Far too defensive and too much respect shown to the opposition. THREE strikers and TWO excellent attacking midfielders on the bench.

When he made the changes, albeit far too late, we looked a much better team. We need a big reaction on Tuesday. Today was probably the worst performance for over two years and was very, very hard to watch, not least the repeated missing of clear cut chances……

HudwiganFan commented:

To write it off as ‘Premier League vs League One’ is a bit demeaning and selling us massively short to be honest. Burnley had only won one of their first five, and that was only 1-0 against a Huddersfield team who’ve had an awful start. They’ve failed to win any of their last four and shipped 3 at home against Blackpool last week. Nowhere near good enough and I’m sure Leam and the staff will be communicating that to the players behind closed doors.

I’d rather Leam make changes than be a manager who’s too stubborn but today was a tinker too far. Five at the back and no target-man was just bizarre. We setup and started playing like we were already 4-0 down and it showed in the first 30 minutes of the game.

Leam’s loyalty to Lang and Keane is admirable – and I can see why he’d want to reward them for their contributions last season – but how many more largely anonymous performances can they put in before some others get a go? Likes of Broadhead, Wyke, Aasgaard, Fletcher (who wasn’t even in the squad again) and even Humphrys must be sat there wondering what they have to do to get a start. Zero room for sentiment at this level if we’re serious about stopping up and Lang in particular needs to be told “you’ve got to get going otherwise you won’t get a look-in.”

I’d drop them both on Tuesday, start one of Magennis or Wyke with Broadhead in there and Fletcher as an option off the bench (if fit). Need to go back to the flat back-four with Bennett back at LB because McClean is a much better attacker than defender at this level and Whatmough-Kerr-Tilt was simply took many cooks in the kitchen today. They were getting in each other’s way and you can tell they’re not used to playing all at once.

Everything that could’ve gone wrong did go wrong today. It will be fascinating to see how they respond against another ‘promotion candidate off to a slow start’ on Tuesday. Can’t just dismiss it as ‘well they’ve got lots of money and a really good squad’ or we’ll get smashed again. The type of negative mindset that Jewell used to trot out in the press before we played top 4 sides in the first couple of Prem seasons and it felt like we’d already been beaten before the games had even started.

True Believer wrote:

TBH I am not overly worried about today’s loss as it is still very early in the season and it was against one of the teams that I would imagine will not be in the bottom half of the division and therefore not a direct opponent.

I think we have to be realistic about this season and be looking to win the games against teams with a similar target as ourselves (avoiding relegation). Any points we pick up against any of the top teams should be viewed as a bonus and losses put down to experienc

JockLatic stated:

Definitely going to be knee jerk comments here. Clearly different class in attacking areas at the moment. They scored all 5 out of 6 on target. Our finishing was terrible.

At 85 minutes we had 3 times as many shots as Burnley. Aside from the 3 goals they struggled to create anything. The first goal was clearly a foul and the 3rd was miles offside and then we are chasing a 2 goal deficit wrongly.

Liam made a mistake going from 3 centre backs to 2 for the last 15 minutes as it left us wide open to the counter as we overcommitted men forward to desperately tried to get a goal back. 2 goals when we were exposed defensively numbers wise and their pace and our sloppy play allowed the scoreline to be something the game didn’t reflect. Would imagine if it was level with 15 minutes to go, Liam doesn’t make those subs and have more players back in defence.

Frustrating as people will just look at the scoreline and think we got battered for 90 minutes, which absolutely wasn’t the case.

C_McNamara added:

Always going to be days like this, even if we signed 11 new players in summer, all who are championship standard, your going to have a bad game or two at some point in a season.

I found Burnley impressive to be honest, liked the rotation in possession, Cullen moving into left back allowing Vitinho and Tella to essentially go 1v1 against Kerr and Darikwa then Gudmundsson staying wide on the other side. Roberts and Brownhill’s positioning themselves in the inside channel as well just dragged us over isolating Tilt. I don’t we will see many teams coming to us this year with this sort of setup. Shades of a City setup with arguably two different sorts of attack going on.

I did feel from our point of view, looking to turn their centre halves was a good idea. Neither were dominating however we just didn’t manage to execute it well enough bar probably the last 10/15 of the first half. Keane not taking that chance early in the 2nd half turned out to be massive in hindsight.

5 down 41 to go I suppose, review it and narrow the focus on what we didn’t do or perhaps something Burnley did well which we could evolve/adapt our system or approach

Disappointed about today however looking forward to Tuesday night now.

Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

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.