Five talking points arising from the home draw with Swansea

Wigan Athletic 0 Swansea 0

It was another learning experience for Wigan Athletic’s young team. After being starved of the ball in the first half, and perhaps fortunate to be on level terms, they improved in the second. As the game progressed the Swans started to tire and Latics started to get a foothold. Despite Swansea’s superiority in possession and shots on goal Will Grigg could have won it for Wigan, but he failed to convert two gilt-edged chances.

After the game Leam Richardson was quoted on saying:

“It was a very good 0-0 and we are really proud of the point.”

Did Richardson’s comment reflect upon Wigan’s approach to the game?

Let’s take a look at some key points.

It was one of the better goalless draws

Richardson was right. Goalless draws are hardly conducive to drawing people to watch football matches, but this one was better than most.

Swansea’s football was akin to that of Roberto Martinez’ best at Wigan. Based on possession with intelligent movement. But that is no surprise since the Swans have been playing in that way since Martinez instilled it in them between 2007 and 2009. Since then many managers have come and gone, but the style of football has remained possession-based. It was a pleasure to watch last night.

Unlike Swansea Wigan’s style has fluctuated wildly over those years, from the approach of Martinez to the dire long ball stuff we saw in the eras of Owen Coyle and Malky Mackay, to the sterile defensive approach from Warren Joyce.

Swansea’s approach work and skill in passing the ball out from the back, despite Wigan’s pressing, was admirable. Their problem is that they don’t possess the quality strikers to put the ball into the back of the net.

Sam Morsy gets a well-deserved rest

Cook wisely rested Sam Morsy, who will benefit from the break after being with Egypt in the summer when his teammates were resting.

Darren Gibson did a reasonable job of replacing him, not afraid to get stuck into the tackle and putting in lots of effort.

But Latics need to get Morsy refreshed and back to his best. Swansea had too much time and space last night and it is players of the physicality of Morsy who can combat that.

Competition for places and giving players game time

Apart from left full back Cook has multiple players competing for places in the other positions. None more so than at centre forward. Will Grigg is Cook’s main choice, but he has to provide Joe Garner and James Vaughan with game time if they are to play a part. Grigg maybe could have done better with the two chances he had, but he was in the right place at the right time to get the opportunities.

Cook has also used Nick Powell at centre forward later in games. Were he to concentrate on being a number 9 Powell would certainly give Grigg, Garner and Vaughan a run for their money.

How good are Swansea?

When Latics got relegated in 2013 they sold and released lots of players to cut costs. They would have been faced with too many players on Premier League wages with much decreased revenue in the second tier. Even allowing for parachute payments they would have faced financial problems. But Premier League regulars such as Ali Al-Habsi, Emmerson Boyce, James McArthur, Shaun Maloney and Ivan Ramis stayed, along with the likes of Jordi Gomez and Ben Watson.

After the dire time under Owen Coyle, Uwe Rosler did a great job in turning the team round and getting them into not only the FA Cup semi-final, but the Championship playoffs. He used a spine of experienced top-flight players together with others brought in during the transfer windows.

Swansea have not done that. Only Kyle Naughton in last night’s side was a regular last season. Over the summer they raked in some £45 m in a fire sale of players, together with sending other big earners off on loan.

New manager Graham Potter has done well up to this point, putting a hotchpotch group of players together to play skilful possession football.

But despite what some confused pundits in the broadcasting and social media might have suggested, this was not a Swansea team laden with ex-Premier League players.

Given the circumstances did Cook and his staff pay the Swans too much respect?

Attacking and defending as a unit

The early games in the season were exhilarating as Latics attacked and defended as a unit. Since then it has gradually become more fragmented. That lack of cohesion allowed Swansea the time and space to look the better side.

Much of this may be down to the physical demands of the Championship with so many games being played in a condensed period. The players were fresh earlier in the season, but that verve has now dissipated as the reality of the fixture congestion has kicked in.

On the bright side it was another clean sheet for Latics and Christian Walton, who was once again excellent between the sticks. The prime goal for Latics this season is consolidation. A tight defence would go a long way towards achieving that.

Latics have conceded just two goals in the last four matches.

Will defensive consolidation be the order of the day to consolidate? Or will we again see that high energy, refreshingly naive, attacking approach that we saw in August?

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Five talking points following an insipid performance at Brentford

Brentford 2 Wigan Athletic 0

 

For Latics this season there have been times when the result has not reflected the performance. It was certainly the case at Griffin Park yesterday, although on this occasion the parameters were reversed. Brentford’s two goals hardly reflected their mastery of the game. They could have won by a margin of five or six.

It was a day that Latics might want to forget and instead focus on the next match against Hull City on Tuesday. But it can be argued that there are lessons to be learned from the defeat.

Let’s take a look at some points arising from the game:

Sam Morsy will be getting a rest after all

Whether the captain’s challenge on Yoann Barbet in the 60th minute was a true red card offence is debatable. But given the attention he had received from the referee prior to the incident it was unwise of Morsy to launch himself into such a challenge.

Morsy had not been at his best yesterday, although the same could be said about so many others around him. He had been unable to join the Egypt squad over the international break due to injury. One wondered if he was still suffering the effects of that injury yesterday as his play was distinctly off-key.

Following his stint in the Russia World Cup Morsy came back and was thrust straight into the Wigan team. But given the commitment we have come to expect from the captain it would have been a surprise for him to have been eased back into the team despite his lack of a summer break.

The red card is a bitter pill for Morsy to swallow, but it will nevertheless give him a break that might even prove beneficial over the course of the season.

Another poor performance after an international break

All clubs in the top two tiers must cope with the complications that arise through international breaks. But some seem to cope with it better than others. For Wigan Athletic it has often proved more problematic.

Paul Cook addressed the situation prior to the trip to Griffin Park saying:

“It was great for us to have so many players going across the world, it’s great for me as a manager to see my lads getting recognition in international football. It does give me the worry of if some of them will be in the right place to be picked again for the next match because of the travelling. Do I pick them tomorrow when we’ve got another game on Tuesday? It offers a different challenge, but like our supporters know, we’re going to do our best to meet them head on.”

 Will Grigg and Antonee Robinson were the first team regulars involved in international duty this time around.

Grigg scored an opportunist goal for Northern Ireland in the 92nd minute against Bosnia Herzegovina after coming off the bench after 69 minutes. That was sufficient for him to be named as a starter in the next game against Israel, where he was substituted after 65 minutes with his team already two goals ahead. Both games were played in Belfast.

Robinson was thrust into the USA starting line-up against Brazil at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. By all accounts it was a learning experience for the 20-year-old against such an experienced and capable Brazil side. He came on in the 56th minute in the next game against Mexico in Nashville, being involved in his team’s winning goal after 71 minutes.

Cook decided to rest Grigg yesterday, with James Vaughan in his place. He started Robinson who had played more game time than Grigg over the break and had travelled so many more miles together with having to deal with jet lag.

However, Cook has a wealth of options for the centre forward spot, with Joe Garner and Josh Windass also available. He does not have such choices at left back, with Robinson being the only specialist available for the position. Given the physical demands the Everton loanee has faced over the past weeks it was no surprise that he was far from his best yesterday.

With two more games coming up before Saturday, Cook will surely have to give Robinson a rest in at least one of them. His most likely replacement in that position is the right-footed Callum Connolly.

Sticking with a successful formula

Two aspects that have typified Paul Cook’s successful formula at Wigan have been sticking by a winning team and attacking with pace and gusto from wide positions.

Cook largely stuck by the team that beat Rotherham by making one change, Grigg being rested. But there was a distinct lack of pace and directness from the flanks. Losing Gavin Massey for several months is a big blow for Cook. The player not only has blistering pace, but also makes a major defensive contribution. Faced with options of playing the pacey Michael Jacobs, Leo Da Silva Lopes, Callum McManaman or Nathan Byrne on the right he once more chose the more pedestrian option in Connolly. On the left we saw muted displays by Windass and Robinson.

The good news for Cook is that Jacobs is available again after injury. Can we expect him to be on the right wing against Hull?

Kipre continues to develop

Cedric Kipre has had a baptism of fire in English football playing in a new back four. In the early games he had periods of excellence interspersed with moments of seemingly switching off and looking vulnerable. It was a lot to ask for a 21-year-old with just one full season of first team football behind him to step in for a player of the capabilities of Dan Burn.

But Kipre has already shown that he can make a major impact at Wigan. After being ‘Man of the Match’ against Rotherham, he was arguably Latics’ best defender yesterday, other than the outstanding Christian Walton. Kipre was not only looking solid in defence but moving forward to make interventions in midfield.

Worryingly for Cook, Kipre appeared to be carrying an injury in the closing stages. With Burn still unavailable it could be Alex Bruce who lines up against Hull.

Burn’s eventual return to action will give Cook more options in defence, not only providing cover at centre half, but also at left back.

Following the Brentford formula?

Brentford have now moved up to second place and look like genuine promotion contenders. Their football yesterday was a delight to watch, full of movement, pace and invention. They looked light years ahead of Wigan from the get-go.

Despite a staffing budget of around £10 m they are challenging clubs who are spending three times as much. Brentford’s formula is straight forward. They nurture young players and sell them off at a good profit to keep the club afloat. Some of the young players are produced in their academy, but the majority are signed from other clubs. Yesterday’s starting line-up included two centre backs with a combined age of 40 and a front three totalling 65 years of age. One of those players, Chris Mepham, came through their academy but the others came at a combined cost of around £6.5 m from clubs in England and France. The eventual sale of just one of those five could eventually enable the club to cover the initial outlay.

Paul Cook too is trying to build a young team at Wigan. But out of the starting line-up at Griffin Park four of the youngest five were loan players, Cedric Kipre being the exception. Brentford had no loanees in their starting line-up.

The use of loan players at Wigan has been a source of much discussion by fans over recent years. But once more the club is giving young players belonging to other clubs the upper hand over their own loan talent.

The signings of Kipre (21) and Da Silva Lopes (19) are indications that Latics might well move towards a Brentford-style model if they can consolidate themselves in the Championship. Such a model requires infrastructure in having the kind of scouting network that can identify young talent.

Moreover, Brentford are looking not only in England, but in Europe, for their talent.

Cook has built a squad of largely British Isles based players, with Kipre and Da Silva Lopes the exceptions. It contrasts widely to the approach of Roberto Martinez, who was able to bring in players from outside the country and meld them into a working unit. Five of the starting line-up for the FA Cup Final were from overseas.

It will be interesting to see how the new ownership will approach recruitment policy at Wigan Athletic. Will they come in with their cheque books in hand or will they look toward adopting a more systematic long-term plan akin to that of Brentford?

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Five talking points arising from the win against Rotherham

Wigan Athletic 1 Rotherham 0

It was akin to a throwback to the days in League 1. The visiting team had come to “park the bus” and rely on long balls and set pieces as their outlet for threatening the Wigan goal. The previous home games against Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest had been so entertaining. This one was much less so.

Rotherham manager Paul Warne commented after the game that: “We were pleased to get them in at 0-0 at half-time. I thought Wigan were the better side without making our ‘keeper make too many saves. At half-time, we made our defenders play a lot higher up the pitch and our midfielders play higher to give some support to Smithy. I thought we were the better side in the second half. We were pushing for the goal and we had plenty of set-pieces. There was a block here and a block there and it just didn’t drop for us today against an excellent Wigan side, who played Stoke off the park last week.”

Warne summed up the first half well and the Millers certainly threatened in the closing stages with their aerial bombardment, but the Latics defence held firm. Wigan fans might debate Warne’s assertion that Rotherham were the better of the two sides in the second half, using their “direct” approach. It was not pretty to watch but caused some worrying moments for the home crowd.

Let’s take a look at some points arising from the game:

Cook chooses Connolly on the right

A refreshing aspect of Paul Cook’s tenure as Latics manager has been in the balanced starting line-ups he has selected. It has been like a breath of fresh air for Latics fans who had to endure the Warren Joyce playing four holding midfielders across the middle of the park. Cook has placed an emphasis on playing the ball wide, with the full backs bombing forward to link up with speedy wingers.

However, yesterday Cook chose to play without an orthodox right winger although he had both Nathan Byrne and Callum McManaman available. Perhaps he felt that Callum Connolly deserved another run-out and the Everton player certainly reinforced the midfield. But there was not the same degree of pace on the right-hand side as a result.

On the left Josh Windass is in the process of adapting to the role that Michael Jacobs has played over the past year. Windass did not play at all badly and provided the pass to McManaman that led to Wigan’s goal. He also showed his ability on set pieces with a fizzler of a free kick in the first half which sent narrowly wide. Cook will be expecting that Windass’ shooting ability will add an extra dimension to Wigan’s play. However, yesterday Wigan lacked the kind of creativity on the left that Jacobs can provide.

The football took a nose-dive when Grigg and Powell went off

Will Grigg and Nick Powell were taken off after 60 minutes, with James Vaughan and Callum McManaman replacing them. The result was a deterioration in the level of Wigan’s football, with hopeful punts gradually becoming the norm rather than the controlled passing game we had seen up to that point.

Powell is the pivot in midfield through which so much of Latics’ best football flows. As the second half progressed Latics just could not hold on to the ball, putting undue pressure on the defence. Vaughan’s arrival once more coincided with more long balls. One wonders if the players are playing under orders to launch them towards Vaughan, or whether it is the player’s willingness to chase seemingly lost causes that affects the style of play. Or is it simply that in the final third of the game the players tire and just cannot keep that passing game going?

Walton – the most composed player

Christian Walton continues to grow in confidence, after looking nervy in the opening games. Yesterday he looked the most composed player on the pitch, excellent in his anticipation of opposition breakaways, reliable in his box.

Unnecessary free kicks

So many Championship teams are dangerous from set pieces. League 1 teams certainly had tall players who could threaten in the air, but in the second tier the delivery is superior. Following Wigan’s goal, the Millers brought on Kyle Vassell (6 ft) and Jamie Proctor (6 ft 2 in) to join the 6 ft 4 in centre forward Michael Smith.

The Wigan defence looked distinctly wobbly in the past quarter facing an aerial bombardment. It was not helped by the concession of unnecessary fouls giving the visitors the opportunity to launch dangerous crosses.

Powell stays

It was a relief for Wigan Athletic supporters for the loan transfer deadline to pass without the departure of Nick Powell. The next step is for the club to negotiate a new contract for a player whose market will soar if he continues to stay fit.

Reports suggest that the prospective new owners were present at the DW Stadium yesterday. Will the takeover actually happen soon?

Nathan Byrne, Gavin Massey, Shaun MacDonald, Sam Morsy and James Vaughan are in the same position as Powell, with their current contracts expiring in summer. It will be interesting to see how many of them are offered contract extensions.

 

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Five talking points following a stunning win at Stoke

Stoke City 0 Wigan Athletic 3

 

“It was the perfect performance from us, everything has gone our way on the night. I thought Stoke started the game excellent, they put us under pressure and may feel like they could have scored a goal in their spell of pressure. We always felt we would have moments in the game and obviously tonight the key moments have gone our way.

The goals were scored at a good time for us and it ends up being one of those performances where you say ‘yeah it looks good on paper, but I feel we won in a fortunate way. Stoke not scoring early in the game was massive. We’ve conceded two very late goals and people have questioned our defending, but today we could deal with Stoke well.”

Paul Cook can be so refreshingly honest in his post-match comments. Latics had withstood constant pressure from the home side in the first quarter of the game with backs to the wall defending. But Will Grigg’s opportunist goal after 27 minutes signalled the major shift that followed, with Latics playing exciting, attacking football that Stoke found so hard to cope with.

The body language, on-pitch understanding, commitment and teamwork –– those things that make a set of individuals a team – could not have been in starker contrast. Stoke looked a team on the way down, Latics a team on the up.

A firm defence provided the foundation

Cook will have been delighted with a clean sheet for a defence that had conceded seven goals in their first three league games. Stoke played some quality football in the first 25 minutes, looking dangerous, but Latics held firm. In their fourth outing together the back four of James, Dunkley, Kipre and Robinson has grown as a cohesive unit. Behind them, Christian Walton is gaining in confidence, not only adjusting to the higher division but also in being much more pressured by opposition attackers than he was in League 1.

Moreover, the holding midfielders played a major part. Lee Evans and Sam Morsy were excellent throughout, resolute in defence, resourceful in attack.

Cook embracing the back 3/5 with the Connolly substitution was a great move

It was effective “game management”. Callum Connolly, though young, is relatively experienced. His versatility, confidence, and calm is a real plus.

Cook will surely stick to his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation from the start of games, but the change in shape in moving to a back 3/5 is something that will give the opposition something new to think about.

Cook also broke with his usual approach by pushing Nick Powell to centre forward when Will Grigg went off. It was a welcome change to the more frequent tack of bringing on James Vaughan to fight for long balls. This is not a criticism of Vaughan, who plays with his heart on his sleeve, but of the “more direct” tactic.

Nick Powell is enjoying the Championship and being fitter

Powell was excellent again last night. He seems to be relishing the chance to play in the second tier again, where he has more freedom and more protection from referees. League 1 teams would not only double mark him, but sometimes even more so, too often resorting to dubious tackles. Admittedly, it created space for other Latics players, but it must have been hard for him at times. Powell started in 38 league games last season, the highest in his career.

Paul Cook and his staff have done a wonderful job in helping Powell regain his fitness levels after some time in the wilderness. Moreover Cook has shown faith in a player who he knows has real quality.

Last night Powell was still chasing down balls almost 80 minutes in. He looks in such good shape. On current form he must surely rate as one of the players of the division.

Gavin Massey looked a class act

One always felt Massey could step up a level because he doesn’t suffer from a lack of pace, bad/inexperienced decision-making, or skill – but his success (and that of Michael Jacobs) in the opening games is a testament to Cook’s motivating and man-management. He always says belief is so important – they are that personified so far!

 Can Latics perform at QPR?

Cook’s policy of not changing a winning team has paid him high dividends in his stay so far. But what kind of line up can we expect at QPR on Saturday?

QPR are, on paper at least, the weakest team Latics will have faced. They have no points from four matches. However, the game could be a potential “banana skin”.

Much will depend on the energy levels that Latics have in their third game in a week.

Reece James was excellent last night. He has so much maturity for an 18-year-old and looks destined to become a top player. However, it would not be a surprise to see Cook bring back Nathan Byrne and rest the Chelsea loan player.

Moreover, Michael Jacobs appeared to have an injury. If unavailable he could well be replaced by Josh Windass.

 

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A rapturous ending – Bradford City 0 Wigan Athletic 1

Photo courtesy of the Telegraph and Argus.

 

The rapturous scenes of celebration witnessed last night at Valley Parade will stick in the collective Latics memory for years to come. It was certainly a good goal, Michael Jacobs slotting home from Will Grigg’s sublimely weighted pass. But it was more than that. It was a reaffirmation that Wigan Athletic are serious contenders for automatic promotion from League 1.

It had been a scrappy game against a Bantams team that was barely recognisable from the one that played such good football in winning at the DW Stadium in November. Stuart McCall was sacked in early February after six consecutive defeats. With him went the stylish football we had seen, to be replaced by a long ball approach under Simon Grayson. Dan Burn and Chey Dunkley gobbled up those high balls and, as a result, Bradford City posed a minimal threat on the Wigan goal. They have now gone nine games without a win.

On paper an away win would have appeared a good bet to make, but despite Wigan’s dominance and coming close to scoring several times, it looked like the game was to remain goalless. But this Latics team is certainly resilient and they kept plugging away until that moment of magic in the 91st minute.

The type of football we saw from Latics last night was nowhere near that silkier brand we had seen so often in the latter months of 2017. This was based on sheer effort, with lots of long balls and crosses flung into the penalty box seemingly willy-nilly. But, nevertheless there was a rekindling of the kind of tackling and movement that had been so prominent in Wigan’s play in brighter times. Players who had looked jaded and sluggish against Scunthorpe on Saturday had somehow been beamed back to their previously high-energy states.

Ever since the arrival of Owen Coyle, Latics had just never looked as fit as many of the teams they had played. But Paul Cook and his staff have transformed fitness levels in such a way that one wonders why previous regimes had not been able to do so. For it to be successful Cook’s style of play needs players with energy and enthusiasm in abundance. If either is lacking it can flounder as we have seen in recent weeks.

After the game Cook had talked about “going back to basics” and that is what we saw last night. The tackling was keen, the movement was there. What was in short supply was poise, until that memorable moment in time added-on. But that will surely return if those energy levels can be maintained.

Beating a team that had already lost 8 home games and in such awful run form might seem unremarkable, but it could prove to be the psychological turning point in Wigan’s season.

Those rapturous celebrations showed us just how important that win was to the Wigan players. Blackburn and Shrewsbury will surely have taken note that Latics are back on track and are once more serious contenders for those automatic promotion slots.

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