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!

Finding the right place for Thelo Aasgaard

Thelo Aasgaard has worked on the physical side of his game to complement his technical skills

The “Rabona” is probably the most difficult technique in football. When the ball is kicked the kicking leg is crossed behind the back of the standing leg. Eric Lamela made national headlines last season when he scored a Rabona for Tottenham against Arsenal. He made it look easy.

In February 2017 Wigan Athletic posted a video clip on YouTube. It showed a 14-year-old scoring a “Rabona” in a U15 game against Blackburn Rovers. It made Lamela’s effort look pale in comparison.

Thelonious Gerard Aasgaard had joined Latics not long before after having been with Liverpool’s youth system. Although born in Liverpool, his father is of Norwegian heritage and his mother of French. Aasgaard represented Norway at U16 level. During the past week he was called up to their U20 squad.

Aasgaard has dubbed by some as the “Wigan Grealish”, a compliment to a young player with a similarly high level of technical ability. Like Grealish his natural position is as a number 10, but he tends to get played in wide positions. Despite possessing sublime skills, it took Aasgaard some time for him to develop the physique to cope with the competitive side of the game.

Thelo Aasgaard made his senior debut for Latics against Peterborough in a League 1 game on October 20, 2020. He went on to make a major contribution in helping a club in administration to hold on to its place in the division in finishing one point above Rochdale in 20th place. Over the course of the season, he made 13 league starts with 20 appearances off the bench, scoring 3 goals.

In most of Aasgaard’s appearances last season he was played in wide positions. However, in recent months Latics signed wingers Gwion Edwards, Jordan Jones and James McClean. Moreover, both Callum Lang and Gavin Massey, who play wide, remain from last season’s squad. With such competition for places in wide positions what are Aasgaard’s chances of getting regular game time this season?

Aasgaard was a starter in the Carabao Cup match at Hull, then came on after 79 minutes in the draw against Wycombe. With Massey, Edwards and McClean chosen as the advanced midfield three for the Carabao Cup encounter with Bolton he once again found himself on the bench, being brought on after 70 minutes.

It has been acknowledged by management that the club being under administration last season gave opportunities for younger players that they would not normally have had. Over the course of the 2020-21 season ten players from the U23 squad went on to make their League 1 debuts. Ollie Crankshaw, Owen Evans, Charlie Jolley. Kyle Joseph, Chris Merrie, Emeka Obi and Alex Perry have since departed.

Aasgaard, Adam Long and Luke Robinson remain. Between the three of them they amassed 72 league appearances last season. However, with the arrival of so many senior pros their opportunities have been much diminished. Long started in the first game at Sunderland but was displaced by the loan signing of Kell Watts. Robinson started against Hull and in the Rotherham game when he was substituted after 56 minutes.

Latics will be looking at offering extended contracts to both Long and Robinson. Aasgaard signed a new contract in January. But other than appearing in the cup competitions are they likely to feature on the first team roster? Only Aasgaard was in the squad to face Portsmouth on Saturday, with Leam Richardson opting to choose an unbalanced bench without a recognised defender.

Like any other manager given expectations of a high position in the table, Richardson will rely on the experienced senior pros in his squad. Last season he had no choice but to include players from the U23 squad. The majority of them have gone, but what are his plans for the three that remain? Will they go back to being regarded as U23 players, being fielded in cup ties or having occasional appearances from the bench for the senior team? Or will they be sent off on loan to eventually return with more experience?

Callum Lang’s return from a loan spell at Motherwell in January was pivotal. His goals, so well-taken, made a massive contribution towards Latics staying in League 1. Prior to that, Lang had looked like the player Paul Cook just did not want. The player had the potential to follow on from his considerable successes with the club’s youth team. But he was still only 19 when he was sent on loan to Morecambe in 2017. He performed well there as he later did in subsequent loans at Oldham, Shrewsbury and Motherwell over those four years.

However, fans of Cook would say that the manager knew exactly what he was doing in sending a talented young player off on loan for that period of time. The club had been careful to make sure the player’s contract had not lapsed during that era. Lang is a key player in the current squad, and it is so good to hear that his new extended contract is about to be announced.

With the reports suggesting Latics will be signing two more central defenders in the next 24 hours it looks likely that Long will once again be sent off on loan. He was at National League Notts County for a short loan term in the latter part of the 2019-20 season. Robinson is likely to stay as back-up to Tom Pearce, but the latter is in the last year of his contract and the club could cash in the final stages of the transfer window. Reports suggest that Latics are looking to sign another full back, but it could be someone accustomed to playing on either flank.

Aasgaard, Long and Robinson are excellent prospects for the future. Of the three it is Aasgaard who stands out. His high technical ability is backed up with a strong work ethic and a real “football brain”.

Thelo could well become a genuine “Wigan Grealish” if his career trajectory is correctly managed. To see him languishing in the U23 side, with occasional cameos from the bench for the senior team, would be a real waste. But is he is to be sent out on loan, let it be to a club where his talents can be properly utilised?

Let’s hope the club can find the right place for their prodigy.

Can Latics get the best out of Charlie Wyke?

In the summer of 2019 Wigan Athletic signed big centre forward, Kieffer Moore, from Barnsley. Despite having a decent strike record at Barnsley and Rotherham before that, Moore had a lean time in front of goal for months. His first goal came in early November after not being able to find the net in his previous 12 appearances. By Christmas he had only added one more to his total.

Moore was playing in the Championship for the first time, against better defenders. There were serious questions about whether this player with successful experience in the lower divisions could reach the standards required in the second tier of English football.

Moore had become a struggling player in a team unable to consistently maintain a standard of football that would keep them out of the lower reaches of the division. Even though there were flashes of quality their performances were riddled with “soft” goals due to defensive errors and an inability to hold on to a lead. Too often defenders under pressure would apply the hoof to clear their lines. The lone centre forward had to feed on morsels, so often chasing wayward long balls with big defenders closely marshalling him.

Moore eventually went on to score 12 goals that season, several of which were of very high quality. It could be argued that he had got used to playing in the Championship and had looked more self-assured. But more than that it was the improvement in the football played by the team as a unit that enabled Moore to showcase his skills. As the season had progressed the hoofball had lessened. Midfielders were dropping back to receive the ball, even if space was tight. Moves were being built up from the back and the defenders were taking more responsibility in retaining the ball. With better ball retention the opposition were less able to constantly pressurise the Wigan defence. Put simply, Moore began to flourish as the team began to play football that had more of an emphasis on possession.

Since the Phoenix 2021 takeover in March the mood at the club and among its supporters has had a major lift. The positivity of the chairman, Talal Al Hammad, has been a major factor. He is relatively young and is adept with the social media, which he regularly employs to communicate with fans. The escape from relegation was a major achievement for a club that was on its knees during the period of administration. With the backing of new owner Abdulrahman Al-Jasmi and the direction provided by new Chief Executive Malachy Brannigan the club has new direction.

On his arrival Brannigan stated:

“The past 12 months have been extremely unfortunate for everybody. Our role and my job is to make sure this football club becomes a stable Championship club. From a business perspective, the assets that are here and the value we are getting for it. Then there is the medium to long-term vision of how we can rebuild the club, put it back on solid foundations and look to grow thereafter. We are not an ownership group that is going to be in and out”.

Since the end of last season there has been a lot of flux in playing staff. Most of those who helped the club avoid relegation have departed and the club has brought in players of proven ability at League 1 level. Most had been out of contract at their previous clubs, but it was uplifting for the supporters to see Latics enticing players from supposedly bigger clubs like Ipswich, Portsmouth, and Sunderland to Wigan.

The signing of Charlie Wyke in early July went down particularly well with the fans. Here was a centre forward who scored 31 goals in 51 appearances last season deciding to move to Wigan at the end of his contract rather than stay at Sunderland, where had recently been voted “Player of the Year”.

The 28-year-old, 6ft 2in striker was born in Middlesbrough and came through the town’s football club’s academy. After signing a 3-year professional contract as an 18-year-old in May 2011 he was sent off on loan spells at Kettering, Hartlepool, and Wimbledon. He left for Carlisle United in January 2015 without making an appearance for Middlesbrough. Wyke went on to score 32 goals in 64 starts and 13 substitute appearances for Carlisle in League 2. In January 2017 he signed for Bradford City for an undisclosed fee. During a season and a half with the Bantams, Wyke scored 22 goals in League 1 from 54 starts and two appearances off the bench.

Wyke signed for Sunderland for a fee around £400,000 in the summer of 2018. In his first two seasons he struggled, scoring only 9 goals in a total of 51 appearances. However, in the 2020-21 season he notched a total of 31 goals including 5 in 6 games in the EFL Trophy.

Wyke made his league debut for Latics last Saturday, at Sunderland of all places. He did not have a particularly good game, but neither did the rest of his teammates. Wigan had started off the game in style. Despite having only three players who were starters in the last game of the previous season the newly assembled team had appeared to gel remarkably quickly. When Gwion Edwards put Wigan ahead after 17 minutes following a flowing move they looked well in control of the game. But it was not to continue.

Just two minutes later Sunderland had scored through a soft penalty conceded by Tendayi Darikwa. They went on to win the game through another “soft” goal from their centre forward who had risen to head home without sufficient challenge from the Wigan defence. The smooth, fast-flowing football of the first quarter of the game had dissipated, with the long ball rearing its head.

Watching Charlie Wyke in the second half of the game brought back images to the mind of Kieffer Moore struggling in the first part of the 2019-20 season. He was receiving poor service as the midfield was being by-passed with hopeful long balls from defenders.  The pattern of the game provided parallels with what we saw happen too frequently in the first half of the 2019-20 season.

Unlike Moore who was playing in the second tier for the first time Wyke has ample prior experience at the level he is playing at. Given the right service from the wings he will score goals. But, like Moore, he will struggle if the ball is simply “lumped” to him from the back. But who will provide the kinds of crosses he needs?

This season’s team can pose a major threat to opposition defences with crosses from set-pieces. There is a potential threat from the aerial abilities of not only the central defenders and centre forward, but also the likes of Callum Lang, Tom Naylor, and Will Keane. However, much depends on the quality of the delivery from the player taking the free kick or corner.

To provide dangerous crosses from the flanks the full backs and wingers must build up a mutual understanding of each other’s play. If the full back advances deeply into opposition territory, there must be midfield coverage behind them to stifle counterattacks if possession is lost. Richardson has a choice as to which left full back he plays. Tom Pearce excelled in the first part of last season in a struggling side, creating chances through his runs and crosses. Luke Robinson is more conservative in attack, but stronger in defence than Pearce. On the right Tendayi Darikwa has shown that he can provide quality crosses but Latics have not yet signed another player who can challenge him in that position. The modern full back role is physically demanding and expecting Darikwa to play most of the 46 league games is a big ask.

Darikwa is well known to Richardson through their time together at Wigan and Chesterfield. The manager clearly has confidence in him through making him captain.

It was pleasing to note the captain’s post-match comment on Saturday evening: “I think we could have probably got the ball down a bit more today but we will look at it as a squad with the manager and come back next week.”

Wyke has made a quiet start at Wigan up to this point. The squad will take time to truly gel, but when it does will Wyke receive the kind of service he needs to be as successful as he was last season?

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