Five Talking points arising from the performance at Shrewsbury

Will Cook find the best way to employ Grigg’s talents?

The euphoria of recent weeks subsided yesterday when an inspired Shrewsbury Town side overcame Wigan Athletic by a single goal. The Shrews top the League 1 table with a W5 D1 L0 record. Latics now occupy 8th place with a W3 D1 L1 tally, although they have a game in hand on the teams above them.

With the excellent start to the season that Paul Cook’s Wigan side had made, hopes were high for the visit to the New Meadow. But Shrewsbury were an in-form team too, with an impressive record, playing at home. They were always going to be difficult opponents to play.

So it was to be. Latics had started brightly and could well have scored in the first quarter of the game. But the Shrews manager, Paul Hurst, had clearly done his homework and his team were to stifle Wigan’s midfield, with a well organised defence capably coping with the high balls that were coming at them. Their pressing, strong physical approach and possibly systematic tactical fouling had gone on to disrupt Wigan’s game.  Sam Morsy and Lee Evans were to be under siege in central midfield and Nick Powell had to retreat back to get the ball, leaving the lone centre forward isolated. The end result was Latics resorting to long ball tactics reminiscent of last season.

On paper Shrewsbury’s squad does not look particularly impressive, packed with players who have spent their careers in modest clubs. Whether they can maintain such form is questionable, but at the moment they are punching above their weight, inspired by Hurst who had previously done a fine job at Grimsby.

Latics go on to face Charlton Athletic on Tuesday. Their previous record at the Valley has been miserable and the Addicks are now in second place in the division and clearly promotion rivals.

Max Power travelled with the squad yesterday, although he did not make the bench. Power had a difficult time in the Championship last season and his desire for a move back to that division hardly endeared him to the fans. However, Power played a pivotal role in Gary Caldwell’s League 1 title winning side. He has shown himself to be a fine player in the third tier of English football. It would not be a surprise to see him back at Charlton.

But Cook will hope that his players have learned from yesterday’s loss and will regain their momentum. Nevertheless it will be a tall order.

Let’s take a look at some main points arising from yesterday’s game.

Does Paul Cook have a plan B?

In the second half yesterday the game plan certainly was not functioning in the way that the manager would have liked. Would a change in tactical formation have been the catalyst to remove the shackles that the home team had imposed on Latics?

Portsmouth fans will tell you that the lack of tactical flexibility was one of the frustrations in Cook’s tenure there. In this case Cook chose to stick to his 4-2-3-1 system, hoping the players brought on off the bench could provide the missing spark. It did not work and the introduction of Ryan Colclough, Will Grigg and Gary Roberts for Gavin Massey, Ivan Toney and Nick Powell did not produce the desired effect.

Will Grigg is not best employed chasing high balls.

Unless Toney had an injury, his substitution by Grigg on 62 minutes was puzzling. Some had hoped that Grigg would have been brought on alongside Toney to pose a different kind of threat to the Shrews defence. That was not to be. At that time of the match Latics had resorted to more frequent use of the long ball, as their passing movements in midfield were being disrupted. But Grigg is a striker who thrives on movement, who is not as strong in the air as Toney. With time Cook must learn how to use him most effectively.

Lee Evans is an important player for Wigan.

Up to yesterday Evans had not only provided defensive stability, but his concise passing had been a feature of Latics’ build-up play. However, Shrewsbury clearly realized that and disrupted the Welshman’s game with methods sometimes fair, sometimes foul. The end result was less quality passing for the forwards.

Given the inability of Morsy and Evans to dominate a packed midfield, would the introduction of a third central midfielder, such as David Perkins, have helped to restore the equilibrium?

Did postponing the Northampton match have any impact on this one?

The postponement of the home match against the bottom team last weekend did not go down well with supporters.  Granted, Cook would have been without Evans and Morsy on international duty, but wouldn’t a midfield of Perkins and Power been sufficient against a team in such poor form?

The end result was a loss of momentum that might have had an effect on yesterday’s performance.

Red cards are a cause for concern.

Ryan Colclough’s red card at the closing of the match was the third shown to a Wigan Athletic player in just five league games so far. Although the dismissal of Callum Elder at MK Dons could be deemed unfortunate, the dismissals of both Chey Dunkley against Portsmouth and Colclough yesterday do not fall into that category.

It remains to be seen whether Cook will be taking any disciplinary action against Colclough for what happened yesterday. But what is clear is that the current tally of red cards is a cause for concern and needs to be addressed by the manager.

 

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Will Grigg go?

The rumours of departures from Wigan continue to rear their ugly heads. With the summer transfer window due to close on August 31st Wigan Athletic fans will be desperately hoping the club does not shed its best players in the craziness that will abound over the coming week. How many of the likes of Will Grigg, Dan Burn and Nick Powell will still be with us come September?

Paul Cook is currently basking in the luxury of having a strike force that is the envy of other clubs in the League 1. Grigg is now fit after relatively long-term injury to compete with Ivan Toney for the centre forward position. Nick Powell has been playing just behind the central striker up to this point, but is equally adept in that number 9 role.

However, the departure of Powell is seemingly inevitable, given that his salary is reputed to be around £16,000 per week. Put simply it would be hard for a club which needs to reduce its budget from around £18 m to somewhere close to £6 m to hold on to a player on that kind of salary. Moreover, given the player’s past injury record it would appear even more of a risk in keeping him on the books. The romantics among us will continue to hope that David Sharpe will stick his neck out and keep the player at the club, knowing that a fully fit Powell could be pivotal to promotion.

So the likelihood is that Powell will be gone within a week, but what about Grigg? Both he and Michael Jacobs have one year left on their contracts. Will they be offered new contracts or will the club cash in its assets by selling them in the coming week?

Some three weeks ago Cook was quoted as saying “Certainly we know who is in the last year of their contracts, and the big effort is nurturing the squad into the start of the season. Once we start the season, with the squad we want in place, we can start to look at lengths of contracts. And I’m sure once we get into August, September, October, you’ll start to see some movement on that score.

The rumours of Charlton offering in excess of £1m for Grigg are certainly credible, knowing that the player has exceeded the 20 goals per season mark three times previously in League 1. So many Latics fans see Grigg’s continuity at the club as crucial to the promotion push. But if the bid has been made and Latics have rejected it, is it a sign that they intend to keep the player and will not allow him to go to another club from the same division competing for promotion? Or are they expecting a higher fee for the player?

Jacobs too would be an important player in the promotion push. Although his form last season in the Championship was disappointing the player has been electric in the opening games. Jacobs is a quality player at League 1 level and Cook would be loath to see him go.

Cook’s words regarding extended contracts do not give anything away. However, the manager recognises that Latics are a “selling club” and if the right offer comes up a player is likely to be released.

Given his importance to the defence, Latics fans will be hoping that such an offer does not come in for Dan Burn. The loss of Craig Morgan for several months due to a hip injury is a blow to Cook. It appears that Latics are actively looking for another central defender. The immediate assumption is that it would be someone to replace Morgan, but some would argue that Cook has Donervon Daniels fit again and ready to step in and it is a sign that Burn might be leaving.

In the meantime it appears that Jack Byrne has now left the club. Cook has suggested that more departures are on their way, although it is not clear if they would be mainline or fringe players. We can also expect some new ones coming in.

Having a transfer window still open when the season has started can cause serious disruption to football clubs. It is something that might well be rectified a year from now. The immediate danger for Wigan Athletic is of key players leaving the club over the next week, unbalancing a squad that looks strong enough to challenge for automatic promotion.

But at this stage, the underlying reasons for selling players or moving them on are largely economic. The burden lies on the shoulders of David Sharpe and owner Dave Whelan. It is they who will ultimately decide whether players like Grigg, Burn and Powell will be Wigan players come September.

In the meantime, Paul Cook will surely be making contingency plans to cover all possible scenarios.

 

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Five talking points arising from an uplifting win at MK Dons

Milton Keynes celebrated its 50th birthday this year. It is a city of 260,000 inhabitants, unlike any other of its size in the UK with its wide open spaces and network of roads and shopping malls giving it an almost American feel. It is not everyone’s cup of tea as a place to live, but the city continues to grow as foreign investment continues to come in.

A prior review of the MK Stadium had forewarned us that, from the outside, it looked more like a hotel than a football ground and that it was far too big for a club in League 1. But maybe it was planned in the same way as the city itself, with attendances expected to grow in parallel with the surrounding population. It is a fabulous stadium, better than many in the Championship and even some in the Premier League. The presence of some 1,100 Latics fans yesterday swelled the attendance to over 9,000.

The visit to Milton Keynes proved to be enjoyable, not least due to an uplifting display from Paul Cook’s Wigan Athletic team. The referee almost spoiled it with a first half red card decision against Latics, but he even things up in the second period when he sent off a home player.

In the end Latics thoroughly deserved their 1-0 victory. They were much the better team, with a solid defence protected by a strong and creative midfield. Cook’s starting lineup had looked ambitious, with so many new players drafted in. But despite that there was a look of cohesion, with every player seemingly knowing his role and willing to put in the required amount of sweat and toil for his team. It was instantly noticeable how much movement there was compared with last season, with Latics able to break out of defence with strength and purpose.

The display certainly gave us lots to talk about:

1. Dan Burn must stay. Burn was formidable yesterday, his head seemingly a magnet for the ball. The Dons are by no means a long-ball team. They try to play good football, but whenever the ball did go into the air in the box it was soon snaffled up by Burn or Chey Dunkley. But Burn looked assured in all aspects of his play yesterday and must rank among the best central defenders in the division. He will prove invaluable against teams who prefer the aerial approach above all.

However, despite the departures of Jake Buxton, Matt Gilks, Jack Hendry, Mikael Mandron, Billy McKay and Sanmi Odelusi and with Kaiyne Woolery close to a move back to Forest Green Rovers the clear-out continues. Jack Byrne, Omar Bogle and Max Power are being pushed out and not allowed to train with the senior squad. Nick Powell’s goal yesterday helped to put him back into the shop window, with a loan move to a Championship side a likely outcome.

Burn has become one of Wigan’s major assets. Were he to be sold off by the end of August it would be a massive blow to Cook’s plans.

2. Recruitment up to this point is looking pretty good. The starting lineup yesterday included six new players, four of whom are on loan. Christian Walton continues to exude authority in his box, Chey Dunkley was excellent in the centre of defence. Callum Elder looked lively at left back until his premature departure. Lee Evans is a very important signing: a rock in front of the defence, but with the ability to spray passes around from the back. He and Sam Morsy looked a formidable partnership, willing to scrap it out when necessary, but both capable of launching attacks. Gavin Massey showed flashes of skill, together with a willingness to work hard for the team. Ivan Toney was lively up front, willing to drop back into midfield, his movement causing the home defence some headaches. Terell Thomas came on at left back following Elder’s dismissal, very solid despite being a naturally right-sided central defender playing out of position.

Noel Hunt was on the bench, as he was 19 times last season at Portsmouth. In fact, Hunt only made 3 starts last season and can hardly bear expected to challenge for a regular starting place in Cook’s  starting line-up.

3. Michael Jacobs has been rejuvenated. His display yesterday was a revelation following his disappointing season in the Championship. Jacobs worked tirelessly, showing no mean amount of flair, his performance marred only by his finishing on occcasions. He is an essential component in Cook’s tactic of rapid counterattack. With one year remaining on his contract will he be offered an extension?

4. Will Grigg is back. After so many months out because of injury he looked lively when coming on as a second half substitute. With Bogle seemingly on his way out, will Grigg be offered a contract extension? Or will he be sold off this month? The option of Grigg or Toney, or even both, is something Cook will want to retain. But is David Sharpe going to support his manager by retaining key players, despite Cook’s admission that his squad is still too big and that Latics are a “selling club”?

5. Cook will be hoping his long-term injured players will soon be match fit.  Alex Gilbey and Will Grigg are back in contention, but none of Donervon Daniels, Reece James or Andy Kellett were in the squad.

Nathan Byrne is trying hard at right full back despite it not being a position he enjoys. He steadily improved yesterday after looking a little uncomfortable early on. But is Cook going to bring a specialist right back from outside or is he going to rely on Byrne, Daniels or Luke Burke to cover the position?

With Callum Elder due to be suspended, Cook will need to assess the fitness of James. After 18 months out through injury, James needs to be brought in cautiously, but the team’s needs could push things along. Kellett too can play at left back, but is more productively employed in midfield.

 

 

The turnover continues: will Latics have a 20-goal striker this season?

It was not Alan Nixon this time, but another journalist putting the cat among the pigeons on Twitter. Wilson Whitefield’s tweets certainly caught the imaginations of both Wigan Athletic and Queens Park Rangers fans.

Twitter comments can certainly be controversial. Sometimes their statements never come to fruition, but sometimes they can prove to be accurate. We await confirmation from the club regarding the veracity of Whitefield’s comments.

A couple of years ago Gary Caldwell signed a 20 goal per season striker in Will Grigg. Grigg had done it at both Walsall and MK Dons and he was to do it again at Wigan in 2015-16, spearheading Latics’ League 1 title triumph. Omar Bogle exceeded the 20-goal mark last season. He scored 22 goals in 44 league appearances for Grimsby Town and Latics.

The more optimistic of Wigan Athletic fans have been relishing the prospect of both Bogle and Grigg being at the club this season, together with the hugely talented Nick Powell who can play either at centre forward or in midfield. The presence of the three would surely provide the momentum to push Latics back into the Championship

But economic factors cannot be ignored and the realists will say that at least two, or possibly all three of them, will be gone over the coming weeks. Put simply, despite the PR and propaganda that emanates from the club and local press, the huge drop in revenue due to relegation and loss of parachute payments will cause continued turnover at the club.

Both Grigg and Michael Jacobs are in the final years of their contracts. Latics could conceivably offer them contract extensions, but that could prove tricky not knowing which division the club will be in a year from now. An alternative is to cash in on their value in the transfer market this summer or in the January transfer window. Another option is to allow them to run their contracts down and decide on whether to offer them extensions later in the season. Being a proven goal scoring centre forward Grigg will continue to attract a considerable transfer fee, despite his disappointing season at Championship level. The likelihood is that he will be leaving in the coming weeks.

Powell is reputably the highest paid of the current squad and that added to his injury record would prove a very expensive luxury for a club looking to cut its budget by 60-70%. His inspiring cameo appearances at the end of last season certainly whetted our appetites, but his departure seems almost inevitable, providing he is fit.

So, given a scenario where Bogle, Grigg and Powell all leave, can we expect a centre forward of such qualities to come in and propel the promotion push?

The media rumours continue to link manager Cook to ex-players of his at Portsmouth. It seems that the signing of 34-year-old free agent Noel Hunt appears imminent. Hunt has scored 8 goals in 70 appearances over the past four years for Portsmouth, Ipswich and Leeds United. The names of Eion Doyle, Gary Roberts and Michael Smith have also been mentioned, together with Whitefield’s tweet about Chaplin.

In the meantime the turnover appears to be continuing with not only the speculation on Bogle, but the message below from Max Power that was tweeted in the last hour.

Despite the utterings of keeping the nucleus of the squad together on Paul Cook’s arrival it appears that this will hardly be the case.

Is it too early for alarm bells to be ringing?

Alan Nixon is not everyone’s cup of tea, but he so often gets inside information on what is going on at Wigan Athletic. In January he had kept us informed on Twitter about Latics’ pursuit of Omar Bogle, raising our spirits in that an exciting young centre forward might be on his way in. But this time around his tip-off serves more to dampen our spirits.

There have already been rumblings about the transfers that have already happened. The highly experienced Jake Buxton, Matt Gilks and Stephen Warnock have departed the club. The feeling among many fans is of being underwhelmed by the new signings brought in so far. The prospect of selling off the 24-year-old Bogle (who has 35 goals in 80 appearances over the past three seasons) to bring in the 29-year-old Doyle (15 goals in 66 appearances in the same time period) is daunting to say the least.

Reports also suggest that Latics are close to signing Gavin Massey (24) from Leyton Orient and Jimmy Ryan (28) from Fleetwood. Like the two players signed already – Chey Dunkley (24) and Terell Thomas (21) – Ryan is also a free agent. The Liverpool born midfielder played under Paul Cook’s management at Chesterfield, together with Doyle, who later played under the manager at Portsmouth. Rumours have also linked Cook with the 33-year-old Gary Roberts of Portsmouth who also played at Chesterfield with Cook.

The more positive supporters will say that these are early days and there is no need for the alarm bells to be ringing. They will cite the arrival of David Perkins from Blackpool, as Gary Caldwell’s first signing in the summer of 2015. Perkins was seen as a 33-year-old journeyman, a free transfer signing to bolster the squad. But he went on to have an outstanding season, winning the Player of the Year award. Thomas is yet to make an appearance in the EFL and at 19 he is one for the future, although one can only hope that he will get the kinds of chances not afforded to other young players at Wigan in recent years. But Dunkley played over 50 games for Oxford United in League 1 last season and will surely be in contention for a first team place.

Reports from Leyton Orient suggest that, should Latics concrete his signing, Massey could certainly add something to the attack. Although only 24 years of age, he has made over 200 appearances in the EFL. With Orient dropping out of the EFL Latics could well get a bargain in signing Massey.

The departures of Buxton, Gilks and Warnock indicate the massive cost-cutting exercise that the club will undergo over the summer. With revenues dropping from some £20 m last season to probably no more than £4 m in League 1 there will surely be lots more departures over the coming weeks. David Sharpe will need to look at a player salary budget of at least £6m if he is seriously looking at getting back to the Championship next season. Any shortfall between outgoings and revenues will be subsidised by player sales and any surplus from last season that has not been used to play off long-term debt.

Last Friday an article appeared in Wigan Today quoting Paul Cook as saying “I think the squad strength is there for all to see, and I certainly wouldn’t envisage there being many changes. I’m not envisaging ripping it up and starting again – there’ll be none of that.”

Is he seriously suggesting that Wigan Athletic will not be making many changes in the squad over the summer? He is used to dealing with tight budgets, but his comments appear unrealistic in terms of the financial implications of keeping the strength of the squad in place. The departure of either Omar Bogle or Will Grigg was always on the cards, in terms of raising funds. No information has been forthcoming from the club about Grigg’s recuperation from injury. With just a year remaining on his contract we would expect the club to be looking for offers for him over the summer. But is injury set to rule out a move for Grigg, hence the need to sell Bogle instead?

Cook also mentioned in that same article that the squad was too big and needed reducing. Some will be offered free transfers, others sent on loan. The high earners will be the priority and most of those on Championship level salaries can be expected to move on. Moreover, there are a host of players in the first team squad who have been brought in from other clubs as “up and coming” players, but the reality being that none of them has yet made a handful of appearances for the Latics first team. They include Jack Byrne, Jack Hendry, Josh Laurent, Dan Lavercombe, Mikael Mandron, Sanmi Odelusi, Danny Whitehead and Kaiyne Woolery. It remains to be seen how many of them will be retained as members of the senior squad and how many will be dispatched elsewhere.

Is it too early to be sounding the alarm bells? It certainly is.

However, despite the statements of manager and chairman it would be surprising if we did not see a considerable number of departures over the coming weeks. The hope is that the club can cut its coat according to its cloth, but also find suitable replacements for the higher earners who will surely be on their way.

A couple of years ago we saw a remarkable clear out of playing staff over the summer to balance the books. But the club was still buoyed with parachute payments. This time around, with far lower anticipated revenues, the situation appears more severe, with the playing staff budget due to be reduced to around a third of what it was last season.

Paul Cook has had lots of experience in working within tight budgets. It will take all his know-how and expertise to make Latics serious challengers for promotion, given the financial hand with which he will be dealt.

But perhaps this is what made him Sharpe’s top choice for the job of manager of Wigan Athletic for the foreseeable future?