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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An Amigo View – Wigan Athletic 0 Charlton Athletic 0 – five talking points

 

On paper it looked like a home banker, but a low-energy Latics struggled to find their way around Karl Robinson’s parked bus. With his squad ravaged by injury the normally more positive Charlton manager decided to make it as difficult as possible for Wigan to score.

After the game Paul Cook opined that:

“We have to respect that when teams come to the DW now, they are going to come with different ways to frustrate us. Tonight was no different to Plymouth and Northampton, but in those games we managed to get a goal, unfortunately tonight we didn’t and that can be football. If we would have won tonight and it would have been 1-0 we’d have all been euphoric and we would have been delighted.”

Sam Morsy had almost given Latics that crucial goal in stoppage time, but his deflected shot hit the post. It just was not to be Wigan’s night.

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

A need for some degree of rotation

Cook decided to rest Reece James, bringing in Callum Elder. But despite playing their third game in a space of six days, there were no other rotations.

So many players looked jaded and the high-energy approach that has produced Wigan’s best performances of the season was sadly absent. In its place was a ponderously slow build up, interspersed with hopeful long crosses.

Uwe Rosler might have been nicknamed “Tinkerman” for his constant squad rotations, but Cook goes to the other extreme. Not only did he fail to freshen up his starting lineup, but he introduced his second and third substitutes five minutes before the end.

Home entertainment

Given the way so many visiting teams this season have “parked the bus”, the entertainment value for home fans at the DW Stadium has not been the best. An early goal for Latics can open up the game, but that does not always happen. A flying start is crucial and it is important that Wigan employ the high press from the start, putting the visiting defence under intense pressure. But high pressing requires a physical demand that the players were not up to yesterday.

Away games have generally been more entertaining this season. Latics have scored 28 goals on the road and 21 at home, although they have played two more games at the DW than away from home.

The other night I was watching Newcastle parking the bus in a home game against Manchester City. I felt sorry for the home crowd. Heaven help us if League 1 sides consistently do that when hosting Latics.

Too many games

As Paul Cook would say, League 1 is an endurance, a marathon. Each team plays 46 games, which means that they always have their eyes on the next one coming up. A team that is two goals up in a game will so often look to consolidate its lead, rather than extend it. Moreover, key players might be removed from the field of play before the 90 minutes are up.

The Christmas/New Year period highlights the issue. In a space of eight days, between Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, Latics will have played four games. Historically the holiday season has been the one in which attendances soar, but with so many fixtures condensed in a short period few teams will be able to excel in all the matches.

Wigan have won one and drawn two since Boxing Day. A win at Northampton would be welcome in maintaining the momentum at the top of the table.

Two strikers

Cook is no fan of a twin striker formation, but he brought Ivan Toney on for a jaded Gavin Massey after 59 minutes, putting him up front with Will Grigg. It allowed the option of launching long balls to the two. It was a gambit worth trying and they did get heads on to some of the long balls, but with no end result. Despite Grigg’s uplifting hat trick against Oxford, he has not delivered in the last couple of games.

So many Latics fans remember the days of Ellington and Roberts with affection. Since then the game has changed, although some teams still play 4-4-2. But would you give a duo of Toney and Grigg  preference over the 4-2-3-1 system that has served Latics so well under Cook?

Parking the bus

Playing with ten or eleven men in massed defence is, unfortunately, a far too common sight in the modern game. Professional football is basically an entertainment sport, but such tactics detract from the game. Roberto Martinez’ men showed in the 2013 FA Cup Final that a team of underdogs can beat the most expensively assembled squad in the world by sticking to their principles and trying to play good football. But how many managers have the bravery and belief of Martinez?

Paul Cook deserves to be commended for his comments on “parking the bus”:

“With the greatest respect, Christian hasn’t made a save again, but the emphasis…and we’re seeing it a lot in the modern game…and we’ll never do it, I don’t care who we play, we’ll never park the bus. While I’m manager of this club, I don’t care who we play, at home or away, we won’t do it.”

If only there were more like PC and RM…….

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An Amigo View – Rotherham United 1 Wigan Athletic 3 – five talking points

 

It was my first visit to the New York Stadium and it proved to be an enjoyable one as a high-energy display by Wigan Athletic saw them overcome the home team. The ground was built in New York Island, so called because of a foundry there that used to export iron and steel to “The Big Apple”.  Although it its capacity is only 12,021 it is a pleasant venue for football.

In talking to Latics supporters before the game, Dan Burn’s absence through suspension was high on the agenda. Rotherham had the division’s leading scorer in the 6 ft 5 in centre forward Kieffer Moore. Replacing Burn in the line-up was the 5 ft 11 in Alex Bruce. Moore’s aerial presence was surely going to be a threat, but the general consensus was that Wigan would still win.

So, it turned out to be. Latics had gone into the game with a determined approach and it was no surprise when they were rewarded with goal after 14 minutes. Will Grigg does not score many headers, but he took this one well, evading his marker from Lee Evans’ free kick to glance the ball home. A couple of minutes later Moore rose unchallenged and flicked a header into the path of the skilful David Ball who took his chance with clinical precision. Latics got back ahead in the 28th minute through Alex Bruce’s invention. A clash between Moore and Dunkley saw both leave the field, with the former coming straight back, but Dunkley going off for some time for repairs. Lee Evans filled in at centre back until the big centre back returned. Moore’s physical approach continued to upset Latics, his flailing arms drawing complaints towards the referee. It had become a physical contest, with an element of needle.

Wigan continued in their dynamic, attacking vein as the second half unfurled. Rotherham’s tactics were based on the long ball approach. However, Dunkley’s challenge left Moore writhing in apparent agony, with the home crowd baying for a red card. Dunkley survived it, getting a yellow, but Moore was to prove a diminished force. On the hour mark Rotherham centre back Michael Ihiekwe was dispossessed by Grigg, who looked certain to score, but home keeper Marek Rodak did well to push the ball away, but not so well when Michael Jacobs’ shot passed by him a couple of seconds later.

In the end it was a result well earned by Latics. They had played the better football throughout.

Let’s take a look at some talking points:

A different blend in midfield

Paul Cook continued with his experiment of playing Max Power in place of Nick Powell. It worked well. Power is by no means a direct replacement for Powell, but he linked up really well with Lee Evans and Sam Morsy, the trio dominating the centre of midfield. Since his return to the starting line-up, Power has demonstrated why he was such a key player in Gary Caldwell’s title winning team in 2015-16.

A mixed day for Dunkley

Chey Dunkley remains a rough diamond, needing a little more polish to become a top player. However, he has shown that he can learn from his experiences. He was the obvious choice to keep a close eye on Kieffer Moore. But nobody challenged Moore when he flicked the header that led to David Ball’s goal.

Dunkley is nothing, if not resilient. He reappeared after at least ten minutes off the pitch due to the injury he had picked up in an aerial challenge with Moore. From then on he seemed determined to win his battle with the big man. Moreover, he looked threatening on attack, coming close to scoring.

A weaker referee might have sent Dunkley off for his second half challenge on Moore, but it was not a red card offence. Dunkley had a fine second half.

A positive return for Bruce

Alex Bruce is 33 and is still playing despite an Achilles injury that threatened his career. Although he does not have the pace he used to have, his reading of the game makes him a very useful performer at League 1 level. If Leonel Messi had scored a goal like the one of Bruce it would have made the headlines. Bruce showed great touch and imagination with his goal, not something expected from a centre back. He was also a solid presence in defence.

Despite his extensive experience in higher divisions, Bruce has had to bide his time. He stood in capably when Chey Dunkley was suspended in September, but had not appeared in a league game since.

It is an indication of the strength of Wigan’s squad that players of Bruce’s quality can step in when injuries and suspensions come into play.

Stand up if you love Latics

There is certainly a contrast between the vocal support Latics receive home and away. At the DW the crowd can often be muted, sometimes outshouted by opposition fans. However, away from home the reverse is true.

As a phenomenon it is not peculiar to Wigan Athletic. Other clubs have similar outcomes. But the noise that the visiting support made at the New York Stadium on Saturday surely spurred their team on.

It makes one wonder if the players actually prefer playing away where their support seems so much more vocal than at the DW.

As an away supporter one is confined to one end of a stadium, where it is difficult to follow the play at the other extreme. But it is heartening to be surrounded by like-minded people whose passion for the club is commendable.

What can be frustrating for the more senior supporters is having to stand in an all seater stadium. “Stand up if you love Wigan/Latics” is a rousing chant, but….

Food outside

The New York Stadium is not in a scenic area, but it has a pleasant atmosphere. Before kick-off the club was selling food and drink from within the stadium, but to fans who were still outside. There was not a hint of trouble.

The Amex Stadium in Brighton is another which offers something different. Home supporters can enjoy food and drink after the game in their main stand and people can stay for an hour or two after the game chewing the cud.

Food for thought maybe?

 
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An Amigo View – Wigan Athletic 3 Doncaster Rovers 0 – five talking points

Last night we saw a Wigan Athletic team keen to put Saturday’s reverse against Bradford behind them. They went at Doncaster from the get-go and were rewarded with a flattering scoreline in their favour. There were several people on the pitch last night seemingly wanting to stand out. Among them were Ryan Colclough and referee Carl Boyeson.

Colclough’s two goals and his rapid departure to the hospital after 60 minutes of the game will be a tale told by Latics fans over future generations. It was such a good story it even made giant American newspapers, USA Today and the Washington Post. From where I was sitting in the Boston Stand it was hard to figure out why the player had left the field of play so early. Indeed some fans were clearly irritated to see him being pulled out of the action when he had just scored his second goal and was up for a hat trick. But it turned out to be a happy ending for both player and club.

Paul Cook had made four changes, bringing in Colclough, Lee Evans, Reece James and Will Grigg.  In the absence of Nick Powell, Max Power started in the number 10 position, but as the match progressed the lines became blurred regarding the positions of players in advanced midfield.

Just before the referee blew his whistle to start the game a spectator sitting close to us offered his view on why Latics had lost to Bradford. His view was that, like other teams Wigan have recently faced, Bradford had figured out the way Latics play and had learned how to deal with it. There may be some credence in that, but I put Saturday’s defeat down to a “soft” goal in the 92nd minute.

Wigan’s plan to compensate for the absence of orchestrator Powell seemed to be working to some degree as they showed urgency and threatened the Doncaster goal. But they looked edgy and gaps were opening up in the home defence that we were not seeing earlier in the season. In the event Latics had Doncaster centre forward john Marquis to thank for missing a sitter with the home defence all at sea. Wigan were to go into the dressing room at half time ahead thanks to a crisp strike from Michael Jacobs which took a deflection on its way home, with another deflection helping Colclough to notch a second.

Perhaps the most noticeable figure on the pitch in that first half was referee Boyeson.  From the start he had drawn our attention through an over-officious approach, allied with some poorly judged decisions. At the beginning of the second half both teams had been lined up for the kickoff for several minutes before the refereeing team made its entrance on the pitch, accompanied by jeers from the crowd. Boyeson continued to annoy the paying spectators for the remainder of the match.

A brave header by Colclough made it three, the win putting Latics within one point of leaders Shrewsbury who lost 1-0 at bottom club Bury.

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

Will Cook’s centre forwards ever score many goals?

Will Grigg looked a forlorn figure last night, his body language hardly suggesting he was going to score. So often he was having to deal with high balls launched in his general direction, with corpulent opposition defenders seemingly being given carte blanche to use their arms to keep   him shackled. Despite Grigg’s frequent appeals the referee continued to allow it to continue. But, opposition fouling withstanding, is Grigg the kind of centre forward to thrive on Cook’s style of play?

Cook employs the flanks to great effect, full backs and wingers being expected to combine and produce crosses into the box. It happened again last night, some crosses being wayward, others posing danger to the opposition goal. But Grigg was mostly a lonely figure trying to latch on to them. Heading is not the player’s strength anyhow.  Grigg feeds on incisive low passes, his movement making him a real threat to opposing defences. He got few of those last night.

Ivan Toney might not so often make the intelligent movements of Grigg, but he can certainly head the ball. But he too has looked out of touch, shackled by rugged central defenders. One of the main criticisms of Toney is that he goes to ground too easily. There is an element of truth there but so often, like Grigg, he has been outwrestled by big centre halves. Not only Boyeson, but League 1 referees in general, permit excessive use of the arms by defenders. Both Toney and Grigg have been on a hiding to nothing, making them look worse players than they are.

Up to this point Grigg and Toney have scored 7 goals between them in 18 league matches. The chance of either reaching the 20 mark by the end of the season seems remote at this stage.

Reece James should be offered a new contract

James came back last night in his first league appearance since late September. He once again showed what a good player he is. James has been kept out of the team by the fine form of Callum Elder, on loan from Leicester City. With the diminutive Nathan Byrne at right back, the 6 ft tall Elder has added height to the defence as well as being an excellent attacking full back at League 1 level. However, of the two James is arguably stronger defensively and his crossing is at least as good as Elder’s, if not better. Cook will count himself fortunate to have such talent at hand for the left back position.

James was recruited from Manchester United by Gary Caldwell in the summer of 2015, on a three year contract. Like Elder he has had his ups and downs with injuries. But assuming that James is now fully recovered from a long term foot injury, Latics would do well to tie him into a new contract.

Can Colclough become a regular starter?

Ryan Colclough had his first league start yesterday under Paul Cook. The 22 year old only made two starts for Latics last season. He made 7 starts in the 2015-16 season after being signed by Gary Caldwell in January 2016.

In fact Colclough has a career record of 58 starts and 49 appearances off the bench for Wigan, MK Dons and Crewe Alexandra.  Will he ever become a regular starter under Cook?

Colclough’s goals came at the time of the arrival of his second child, not an easy time to focus upon claiming a regular place in the team. But he is a talented player, having already scored 5 goals in all competitions, despite limited game time.

Can Cook get the best out of him?

Is there room for Evans, Morsy and Power?

Lee Evans was excellent last night, strong in defence and distribution. He has been a key player in a successful season so far.

Evans was signed on loan from Wolves in summer when it looked like Max Power was leaving. The Welshman’s suspension for a red card at Scunthorpe gave Power the chance to get back into the starting lineup, which he did successfully. With Sam Morsy seemingly being an automatic choice, Cook made the decision to include all three last night.

Should Powell be fit to play on Saturday, Cook will face a difficult decision to make.

Jack Byrne to be back?

Byrne is a gifted footballer, naturally suited to that number 10 role behind the centre forward. The 21 year old was signed by Warren Joyce from Manchester City in January 2017 on a three year contract. However, Byrne received scant favour from the manager, making just two substitute appearances over four months. Rumours suggested that there were issues with both temperament and fitness. Byrne was to receive no favours from Cook either, the new manager sending to train with the youth team before dispatching him off to Oldham Athletic on loan until January.

However, the 21 year old Dubliner has enjoyed a highly successful loan stint at Boundary Park up to this point. He has been an inspiration behind a team that was struggling in the relegation zone, but has now climbed up to 16th place. Byrne has made 17 starts, scoring 5 goals with 3 assists. In terms of fitness, Byrne has completed the full 90-minutes-plus in the majority of games he has played and when he has been substituted it has typically been in the closing minutes.

Cook has already hinted that there will be some additions to the Latics squad in January. Assuming Byrne continues to impress at Oldham a recall looks probable. Byrne is certainly a young talent, potentially capable of not only impressing in League 1, but in higher divisions.

 

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An Amigo View – Gillingham 1 Wigan Athletic 1 – Five talking points

 

On the face of it, a point against an outfit second from bottom is a trifle disappointing for a team riding at the top of the table. Shrewsbury’s 4-0 win over Bristol Rovers put them back to first place, as they impressively stretched their unbeaten league record to 14 games. But another 32 matches remain and the point gained at Priestfield might well prove crucial in the long run.

Latics had started well and had opportunities in the first half hour that would have materialised into goals with more clinical finishing. But the home team grew into the game and started to punch above their weight, with bouts of skilful football mixed with a determination not to be overwhelmed by their more highly-rated rivals.

When Chey Dunkley allowed 6 ft 5 in centre forward Eaves to head home in the 55th minute it was clear that Latics had an uphill task ahead of them. Just as at Shrewsbury they were rattled by the energy and hunger of the home team. It took a beautifully struck goal by Sam Morsy after 82 minutes to get Latics back in the game.

The scenes at the end of the game were reminiscent of those at the recent encounter at Peterborough with the Gills players waiting around on the pitch to receive a standing ovation from the crowd. Unlike some other teams Latics have played this season Gillingham did make an effort to attack and play constructive football. The ovation was well deserved.

Let’s take a look at some talking points arising from the game and the recent news of the club.

The centre forwards are still not getting enough goals

Ivan Toney had a disappointing evening and was taken off after 72 minutes, to be replaced by Will Grigg who too struggled to make an impact. Grigg went off injured after 88 minutes to be replaced by Noel Hunt. Cook will be hoping Grigg’s injury is not serious with matches against Blackburn and Bradford coming up.

Should Grigg be out for some time, Cook might well call on Nick Powell to play as a central striker with Gary Roberts operating behind him in the number 10 role.

However, for the moment, we can only surmise on how many more goals Latics would have scored this season if their central strikers had been sharper. Grigg typically gets the bulk of his goals in the second half of the season. Will he do so again this season?

Nick Powell played the full 93 minutes

Cook and his staff have done a wonderful job up to this point in nurturing Powell back to fitness. To go until the final whistle without being substituted is a milestone for the player after being dogged by injury for so long.

Powell is essentially a Premier League player operating in League 1. Although he has still not hit top form he is almost indispensable to Cook, being at the heart of the creativity, also the top scorer. Should he stay fit we can expect him to hit the 20-goal mark before the end of the season.

Chey Dunkley is a work in progress

As the cross was coming in for the Gills goal, Dunkley was calling to Nathan Byrne to come across to mark a player who was coming into the box. The cross somehow eluded Dan Burn and Dunkley’s lack of concentration allowed Eaves to score. Up to that point he and Burn had headed away countless crosses, looking comfortable in doing so.

Dunkley remains a work in progress. His red card against Portsmouth was a hard pill to swallow, but following his suspension he got back in the team in place of the capable and experienced Alex Bruce. Cook clearly has faith in the 25-year old. Other than the matter of the goal conceded, Dunkley did not have a bad game and he made an outstanding tackle in the first half as Eaves looked like he was going to score.  Dunkley is usually excellent in the air and forms a strong partnership with Burn. Moreover he shows sound  positional sense and is vocal on the pitch.

Sam Morsy is an inspirational captain

Morsy’s indiscipline on the field has been a talking point this season and he picked up another yellow card just a couple of minutes after scoring that vital goal. It was sadly no surprise.

However, Morsy had hit a screamer earlier on that fizzed wide when it looked like it might be going in. He was not happy for his team to be behind and he continued to push himself and his team forward. It is the sheer determination that the player shows that makes him a captain to be reckoned with. But not only is he fierce in the tackle and tireless in his efforts, but he has a fine technique and vision.

With Morsy as captain the team is never going to lie down. Despite his disciplinary lapses he is an inspirational captain.

Paul Cook must not be sacrificed in any takeover

Cook has made a wonderful start to his new job at Wigan. He has transformed a team that was too scared to open-up and play into one that clearly relishes it. It is years since we have seen such a positive, attacking brand of football at Wigan. Moreover he is showing faith in a core of players in the early to mid-twenties who could hold their own in the Championship were Latics to be promoted.

Much is clearly happening behind the scenes at the club, with the incredibly successful 22-year reign of the Whelan family seemingly nearing its end. Put simply, without Dave Whelan’s vision, determination and sheer hard work Latics could never have dreamed to have had the successes they have enjoyed over a span of decades.

Should the takeover happen by the end of the year, as the media seems to suggest, it would be sad if Cook’s position were destabilised. Put simply, he is the best thing that has happened to Latics in a long time.

 

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