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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A Portsmouth fan view of Tom Naylor

Wigan Athletic recently announced the signing of 29-year-old Tom Naylor on a three-year contract. The 6ft 2in Naylor was a free agent following the completion of his contract at Portsmouth. He has signed a three-year contract.

Naylor normally plays in central midfield but can also play in the centre of defence. As Portsmouth captain he played in all 46 League 1 games last season. Although primarily a holding midfielder who protects the defence, he scored 8 goals over the course of the season. He has made almost 400 appearances in his career.

Upon signing for Latics he said: “When Wigan came calling, I spoke to the manager, and he sold the club to me. He told me the players he’d be bringing in, and the fact the aim is promotion. That’s all I want to do as well, the aim every season has to be promotion and I’ve come here to do that next season.”

Tom Naylor was born in Kirkby-in-Ashfield, near Mansfield. He was given his first professional contract with Mansfield Town is 2009. In the 2009-10 season he was loaned to Belper Town where he made 32 appearances, scoring 3 goals. Naylor joined Derby County on loan in November 2011, the move becoming permanent in January 2012. There followed further loan periods at Bradford City, Grimsby Town, Newport County, Cambridge United and Burton Albion. Naylor signed a contract at Burton in June 2015, and he was to become a key player for the Brewers in their promotion to the Championship and during their two seasons there.

Naylor signed for Portsmouth in July 2018 and went on to make 124 appearances for them in League 1 over his three seasons at Fratton Park.

To learn more about Naylor’s time at Portsmouth we contacted Jim Bonner (@FrattonFaithful) of the Fratton Faithful fan site.  

Here’s over to Jim:

Last season, Tom was clearly Pompey’s outstanding player in the first half of the campaign. He brought his usual bite to the centre of midfield and got around the pitch but added long range strikes to his game and even improved his much-maligned passing.

However, after the turn of the year he drastically declined and downed tools, making him one of the prime targets for Pompey fans to direct their anger at, especially as he was the captain. 

Why did this happen? He knew he wasn’t going to get an improved deal at Fratton Park and was also carrying an injury that nullified his tackling and mobility – two key components of his game.

Like Whatmough, signing Naylor on such a long deal is a gamble for Wigan but if he can regain the form that made him such a favourite for most of two-and-a-half seasons at Pompey then it’s another shrewd signing by Leam Richardson. However, most Pompey fans lament how far he’d fallen, bemoan his lack of leadership and believe we should be aiming to bring in a higher calibre of player if we’re to make a promotion push again next season.

A Portsmouth fan view of Jack Whatmough

Last week Wigan Athletic announced the signing of 24 year-old central defender Jack Whatmough on a free transfer from Portsmouth.

Whatmough made 136 appearances for Pompey and is among the most talented defenders in League 1. If he can stay clear of injuries, he could prove a great signing for Latics. Leam Richardson knew him from his time with Paul Cook at Portsmouth in 2015-17. After Whatmough signed for Latics he commented:

Jack has very good attributes. He is a centre half who has a good mix of the old-fashioned centre half who likes to defend, but also the modern defender where he can handle the ball. One of the most important factors is how much of a good person he is. He is fantastic in the dressing room and he brings maturity to the football club. He is a leader. I think he will show that with his performances and with how he is in the dressing room. He is a brilliant addition to Wigan Athletic.”

Jack Whatmough was born in Gosport on the western side of Portsmouth harbour, opposite Portsmouth. Up until the age of 13 he played at south coast rivals Southampton. After joining the Portsmouth Academy, he signed a two-year scholarship contract in July 2012. Just over a month later he was on the bench for the senior team in an away game at Plymouth.

In August 2013 Whatmough signed a three-year professional contract, making his debut as a 17-year-old in a home game in November 2013 in a League 2 home game against Southend United. He went on to make 12 appearances in the 2013-14 season, also playing for England U18 against Croatia in March 2014.  Whatmough made 24 appearances in the 2014-15 season before suffering a serious knee injury in March 2015. In January 2016 he made his return when playing on loan at Havant and Waterlooville.

After suffering three serious knee injuries he was excellent last season, making 38 appearances for Pompey and would have surely exceeded the 40 mark if it were not for suspensions at the end of the season. Due to financial losses caused by the coronavirus  last season Portsmouth offered reduced terms to Whatmough and three other players whose contracts were expiring. Whatmough was quoted in the Portsmouth News as saying:

“Some have said I left for the money – and it’s a load of rubbish. It was nothing to do with wages at any point. It was always to do with the length of the deal. Always.

I know I can rest easy having not left Pompey for the wrong reason. It was just the length of the deal. I wanted to do it, Danny wanted to do it – the club didn’t.

That was Pompey’s decision and one I fully respect. I will never hold anything against the club, they have done so much for me. Not a bad word will come out of my mouth about what has happened.”

To learn more about Whatmough’s time at Portsmouth we contacted Jim Bonner (@FrattonFaithful) of the Fratton Faithful fan site.

Here’s over to Jim:

Jack was Pompey’s best defender based on ability. He’s good in the air and with the ball at his feet playing out from the back and was one of the few players many fans believed could have made the step up to the Championship.

However, his positional sense is lacking, he has a few own goals to his name and can be rash in the challenge, missing seven games last season due to receiving two straight red cards.

However, what makes this signing such a gamble is Jack’s injury record. Although he played most of last season following successful surgery, in previous years he hasn’t made many appearances due to a career blighted by injuries and the belief is that one more will finish him.

If he can stay fit, he knows Leam Richardson well from his days at Fratton Park and will be an astute addition to the Wigan backline. Maybe Pompey will regret letting him go rather than offering him the longer deal he wanted?

Have issues relating to the DW Stadium been holding up the Garrido group takeover?

Lisa Nandy put the cat among the pigeons in her interviews with Jay Whittle and the PWU Podcast a couple of days ago. Her suggestion that the exclusivity rights for the Garrido group should not be extended was a bombshell. The prospect of other bidders coming into play at this stage of the proceedings was something that split opinion between fans on the message boards and social media.

“We are pleased to report that substantial progress has been made with the Council regarding the assignment of the lease.  In addition further discussions have taken place between the EFL, the bidder and ourselves and, in our opinion, all information requested of the bidders has been supplied including but not limited to proof of funds for the next two seasons.In the light of this progress, the exclusivity period, which expires today, has been extended.  We now await a final answer from the EFL, and no further comment will be made until that is received.”

The administrators’ communique yesterday put the ball back firmly into the hands of Jose Miguel Garrido and his associates.

But what was surprising was to learn that there had been issues involving the Council. Has the issue of the lease been a sticking point in the drawn-out takeover bid by the Spanish investors?

When Dave Whelan built the DW Stadium in 1999 he made a deal with Wigan Council over the lease of the land it was built upon. The agreement contained a requirement that “two sporting clubs be granted a licence for use of the stadium by the tenant.” Wigan Warriors were given a sub-lease for the use of the stadium until 2025. When Ian Lenagan bought the rugby club in 2007 the lease was extended for another 25 years.

Whelan’s ownership of Latics involved him setting up different companies to control the various operations of his purchase. The company that controls the stadium – Wigan Football Company Limited – is currently under administration. Wigan Council owns 15% of its shares.  If the Garrido group are to purchase the remaining 85% of the shares they need to come to an agreement with the Council over the lease. This necessitates the Spanish group coming to an agreement with Ian Lenagan over stadium rental.

Whelan’s agreement with Lenegan involved the Warriors paying rent according to their attendances. Reports have suggested that they contribute around 10% of their attendance money. Local journalist, Phil Wilkinson, estimates the figure to be around £300,000 per annum, although it can hover above or below that figure depending on attendances.

Mudhutter’s revealing tweet – click here to see his analysis on Twitter – reveals the extent to which the stadium is a white elephant to Wigan Athletic.

The figures Mudhutter has compiled show the stadium company losing some £1.5m for the 2018-19 season. With only £800,000 coming in rent from the Warriors and the separate company that runs the football club the stadium company was struggling to meet its expenses of over £4m.

There has been concern among Latics fans that Ian Lenegan might be intent on buying the stadium for the Warriors. However, the administrators have made it clear that the stadium was part of the overall package, although they did sell off the Euxton training facility separately. Moreover, why would Lenagan want to buy a stadium that cannot break even financially? Better to continue to pay rent, especially if it is pitched at such a modest level.

With spectators not able to attend games at the DW due to the Covid-19 crisis the stadium stands to make even greater losses this season. With no share of gate receipts and no income derived from food and drink sales on matchdays there is minimal income coming in. One wonders if the Warriors are getting off virtually rent-free during this period. Or is there a proviso in the agreement that covers such instances?

The administrators’ statement suggests that the bidders have now provided the EFL with the necessary information requested. In the meantime, the terms of stadium lease by the Warriors will need to be finalised between Garrido and Lenagan so that Wigan Council can give approval.

When Dave Whelan made the agreement with the council more than 20 years ago would he have envisaged that the stadium would become a veritable millstone around the club’s neck?