Wigan Athletic: The 12th Man
Our panel of Wigan Athletic experts have their say on defeats against Aston Villa and Rotherham...and this weekend's mouth-watering visit of Nottingham Forest...
For many years, I played in the Soccerdome leagues.
We bulldozed through the divisions with attacking verve, and a solid rearguard where every player knew their role.
We had a blinder of a ‘keeper, a man mountain who simply stopped everything.
Then as we got to the top division, we (he) started leaking a lot more goals.
He wasn’t getting down as quick, plus the opposition forwards were hitting the ball harder and finding the corners.
We replaced the fella with great regret, in fact we replaced the entire team, until eventually we still had the best team in the league, but I often found myself brooding on the sidelines.
That’s football. And that anecdote wasn’t completely pointless, and has every relevance to the situation at Latics at present.
I wouldn’t say so much that Christian Walton’s frailties are being exposed, but there’s definitely a giant Dan Burn-sized hole in the middle of our defence.
Plus three out of the other back four are completely new and Chey Dunkley is something of a rookie at this level.
Add to this the second part of the equation, namely we are coming up against better forwards, who need less time to take chances and bury them with more accuracy, and have more skilful, expensive midfielders behind them to create more chances.
Well, yes it’s an easy summary to conclude Latics are encountering a few growing pains right now.
There are positives, though, because we are scoring goals at the other end.
As the defence gets more settled and starts to get the feel of each other, hopefully the goals against column will grind to a halt.
If we keep scoring 2.5 goals a game, that should be enough to win most contests.
Secondly, there are lots of options to play with all across the park for Paul Cook following a great transfer window.
We all want Will Grigg to succeed at this level, but I’m sure he’ll know that if he goes half a dozen games without scoring, it’ll be time to give Josh Windass, Joe Garner or even James Vaughan a run.
Out wide there are options with Jamie Walker and Callum McManaman and Michael Jacobs and Gavin Massey all set to interchange.
Lee Evans will be itching for a start in the middle, Darron Gibson looked outstanding in the opening game and if Shaun McDonald can regain his past form, he would be a real asset too.
On the left we have Leonardo Da Silva Lopes, and on the right Nathan Byrne is yet to return, which leaves us with the centre half conundrum.
I think we can all agree Cedric is a bit raw, but let’s have patience and let the coaches do their job and coach him.
Burn will hopefully be fit again soon but, when he leaves in January, we will need another centre half.
In the meantime, from what I’ve seen Alex Bruce looks more than capable as well, and is quite unlucky not to have had more game time.
So there we are, a measured assessment to contradict some of the more rabid comments, who fail to understand we are in a new, higher division and adjusting takes time.
If this trend of winning one and losing one continues til the end of the season, it would be a fascinating one.
Paul Cook has stated his intent to take the game to the opposition, which is in stark contrast to the Warren Joyce training manual.
Sometimes playing an attacking game means you do end up on the wrong side of a 3-2.
But when you are on the right side of one, it is usually fun.
So, come on let’s have that fun, recognise our limitations and remember football isn’t a computer game, and these lads are learning their trade and trying to prove themselves against much higher paid, more experienced counterparts – and need our support.
Well if the first game of the season against the Owls was an absolute hoot, the game last Saturday against Villa was not exactly a holiday.
In fact it was a great disappointment. A crushing disappointment even. Losing in such circumstances does affect people like that.
Yet I am not sure that the outpouring of grief and anger on social media following that last-minute winning goal was justified.
Most Latics fans would have settled for a point against a good Villa side who will likely be up towards the top of the table come the end of the season.
The reaction to the defeat was similar to the reaction following the loss to Bradford last season.
That was out of proportion as well.
It is likely there will be more inconsistencies in our results like this during the season.
This is a very tough league to do well in.
There is lots of money sloshing around, and while we know that that doesn’t guarantee anything in terms of success, there are also many good established players and some good experienced managers plying their trade here.
While the season is yet young, it seems teams are coming to play openly against us.
This, coupled with the fact we’re trying to play good, attacking football against them, has created some good open entertaining games.
This again suggests there will be a fair amount of wins and losses in our results during the campaign.
So far we’ve come out on both sides of five-goal thrillers.
Our last two seasons in the Championship have seen us put in some very consistent results.
That wasn’t a good thing as they were consistently bad.
Unless this year is unexpectedly successful, the next best thing we can hope for is for it to be inconsistent.
Some wins and some defeats.
If it is like that, we should celebrate it and use it as a platform to build on for the future.
The Rotherham result was disappointing.
I understand everyone accepts the League Cup is a long way down our priority list, and that is quite right.
But even if the result didn’t matter, there didn’t seem to be any players who came into the side and were ready to stake a claim for the first team.
Over the years we have had great success in blooding younger players in the cups and making them into established first-teamers.
This system brought through James McCarthy, James McArthur, Callum McManaman, Fraser Fyvie (OK, not him), but several players have gone on from the ‘cup team’ and made their mark here.
I wasn’t at the game, but nowhere have I seen names mentioned in the context of stand-out performances or taking their chance.
And with that defeat, and the disappointment of last Saturday which, judging by the reaction of some, has prematurely ended our league season, we can now concentrate on the FA Cup.
So far it’s been an up-and-down fortnight for the Latics.
A great win at home followed by two away defeats, albeit one of them in a competition Paul Cook clearly has no interest in being a part of.
Despite the idiocy of those already calling for Cook’s head, things will get better.
The performances against Wednesday and Villa show we have a lot to be optimistic about.
There’s a little work to do in defence, but I’m sure the manager will sort out that particular problem.
Last time we were in this league, it started well enough and went downhill incredibly quickly.
I can’t see that happening this year, as Cook seems more than capable enough of setting teams up to win against a variety of teams and playing styles.
That was obvious when we beat Manchester City last year in the FA Cup.
Okay, to do it over 46 games will be a lot tougher, but we’ll be okay.
Which makes it all the more puzzling when trying to figure out what exactly the “COOK OUT!” brigade actually want.
If last season didn’t give them hope for this season, I really don’t know what would.
If the way we played against Sheffield Wednesday, with all the shots on goal we had, doesn’t give them hope for this season, I really don’t know what would.
Finally, if just being a Tics fan doesn’t give them hope for this season, I really don’t know what would.
Being a football fan is all about ups and downs.
It’s a classic “hope for the best, prepare for the worst” situation.
Fans of 80 of the 92 clubs in the four divisions start every August predicting mid-table and hoping for the play-offs.
By Christmas, they’re still thinking they’re better than the teams around them.
By March, they’re just hoping to stay up.
That’s how being a football fan works.
Very few clubs are entitled to think they should absolutely be in the top three or four of any division, and we’re not one of them.
We have a budget which shouldn’t be competitive in the Championship, yet Cook has made us competitive.
If you, or people you know can’t see that, there’s nothing I can say to convince you.
The common belief is that we can’t afford to lose fans.
Personally, there are some I’d be happy never to hear from again.
If we’re bottom at Christmas, playing awful football, then have your say. You’ll be entitled to it.
For now, though, sit down and shut up.
We’ve only been back in action for 10 days but, as always, following Latics is never dull.
The excellent opening-day win over Sheffield Wednesday was followed up by an action-packed deadline day that looked to have brought in real quality to the squad.
That was followed up by two swift defeats and a worrying number of goals conceded.
So where do Latics and indeed Paul Cook go from here? Let’s look at Villa first.
As the clock ticked to 94 minutes at Villa Park, I imagine myself and most Latics fans were happy with an excellent point away from home, that could even have been three if we had put our second-half chances away.
There’s no other way to describe the feeling after that last-gasp Villa winner than absolutely gut wrenching.
But the consensus was if we can stamp out the defensive mistakes we’ll be in for a good season.
As with the opening game of the season we look like we can score with every attack.
I’m sure the addition of Joe Garner, Josh Windass, Callum Connolly and Lee Evans will only add to that potency in the attacking third.
There were more worrying defensive signs against Rotherham in the League Cup on Tuesday.
Three goals conceded made it eight in total since the start of the season, a record I’m sure Cook’s not happy with.
There are, of course, underlying reasons behind this record.
Last season’s defensive stability was built on a solid back four that played the vast majority of the season together.
This back four was led magnificently by Dan Burn and we’re clearly missing his strength and influence at the back.
Equally it’s unfair to put too much criticisim at the door of Cedric Kipre, a young defender with a lot of potential who has been thrown in to the first team much earlier than Cook would have wanted.
The longer this makeshift defence play together, the better the understanding. There’s no need to press the panic button yet, once we eradicate those defensive errors we’ll be much stronger. The fact we are scoring goals and creating chances is half the battle.
So it’s Nottingham Forest on Saturday, the tough games are coming thick and fast and this is another difficult prospect.
But if we can wipe out those defensive frailties, we’ll have another good chance.
Forest are a side in transition but have spent a lot of money this summer.
They’ll be looking to start making an impression on the league table, and we need to make sure it doesn’t happen this week.
It’s been an exciting opening to the Championship season with Latics involved in two five-goal thrillers.
An opening day 3-2 victory against Sheffield Wednesday has been followed up by a 3-2 defeat against Aston Villa.
Then on Tuesday night it was disappointing to lose 3-1 in the Carabao Cup at Rotherham but this competition is not a priority for Latics.
And Paul Cook will have learned much about which of his squad players are ready for the Championship.
It was also great to see 16-year-olds Joe Geldhardt and Jensen Weir get a run-out at the New York Stadium.
Cook’s entertaining style of play has been the main feature of the opening games, but Latics’ vulnerability to crosses is proving to be a concern.
Because of injuries to Nathan Byrne and Dan Burn, Cook has had to experiment with different defensive combinations, and this has inevitably led to some teething problems.
Cedric Kipre’s transition from Scottish football will obviously take time, and any team would miss Burn’s commanding presence in the centre of defence.
Latics have also lost Gavin Massey and Darron Gibson to injury and new signing Joe Garner is still not match fit after signing from Ipswich in the transfer window.
It was only understandable Cook rested players in midweek as fine margins have decided the results in the last two Championship games, and the manager will be aware he will need his best players fully ready for the difficult upcoming games against promotion candidates Nottingham Forest and Stoke City.
Forest made 11 changes to their starting line-up in the Carabao Cup in midweek, and survived a sending off and a penalty shoot-out against Bury to progress into the second round.
Forest started their Championship campaign with draws against Bristol City and West Brom before a 1-0 home win against Reading.
Forest manager Aitor Karanka has spent heavily in pre-season and added 13 new players, including £13m midfielder Joao Carvalho, striker Lewis Grabban £6m, striker Hillal Soudani £3m and central defender Tobias Figueiredo £3m.
Next Tuesday’s opponents Stoke have also spent significantly in the transfer window splashing the cash on striker Benik Afobe £12m, winger Tom Ince £10m, midfielder Oghenekaro Etebo £6.5m, midfielder Sam Clucas £6m and of course our own former Latics winger James McClean £5m.
These high levels of expenditure demonstrate the magnitude of the challenge Latics are now facing in the Championship this season.
They will have to come up against many former Premier League giants, who are desperate to return to the top table and have spent massively to try to achieve their aim.
Just as in the Premier League days, it may seem an impossible task at times.
But Latics will have to accept the disparity in resources and embrace the big challenges ahead.