Wigan Athletic: The 12th Man

Paul Cook
Paul Cook

Our panel of Latics experts look back on a damaging defeat at Stoke and a precious point at Millwall...before previewing arguably the biggest game of the season so far against Reading...

MARTIN HOLDEN: Let’s not even talk about the Stoke game, just let’s not. I am going straight to the Millwall game and I’m telling you now, that formation, he was forced into it.
Playing 4-4-2 must have internally destroyed Cook on Tuesday night in south east London, having to pick two strikers to play together, oh the poor lad. It sort of worked, although it could have been so much better. We started the game like Real Madrid and ended it like Swinley Labour Club, but that has been the case so many times this year. If you have read my past ramblings and, well done to the three of you that did, then you will see I have been screaming out for a front three (in any formation you want) of Kieffer Moore, Joe Gelhardt and Anthony Pilkington. Well, we got Moore and Garner with Pilkington dipping in and out, and Jamal Lowe doing the same on the other side. I can’t say Lowe put any crosses in at all, but Pilkington did deliver a couple into the box - although you couldn’t call them wingers. However, Pilkington was super effective, great footwork and of course a goal – he was probably the pick of our players. I thought the front two did well, with Joe Garner shading it over the big man. Garner’s control and lay off for the second goal was outstanding and some of his theatrics were equally impressive. Although he hasn’t been prolific, I love watching Garner, and no-one can ever criticise his efforts and attitude. I just wish he had more end product. I think he would work brilliantly with the wonderkid in a front two, assuming, of course, we divert from the Chey Dunkley long-ball strategy.

One combination that doesn’t work for me, though, is Lowe and Moore. They have no interplay at all, and Lowe has no intention of crossing or providing for anyone. To be honest, I am not sure he is up to it in this league. I don’t doubt he has skills and pace, but he is lightweight and just doesn’t seem to fit in. Hopefully, it’s just a case of a longer period of settling in up north and maybe he needs a few nights out on King Street to toughen him up. Sam Morsy was also poor, but he has been great in so many other games I can forgive that. I thought Lewis Macleod was lucky to stay on the field, certainly at least three yellow-card offences I spotted, but he worked well in the middle. Our full-backs look so much better than the start of the year, and Dujon Sterling should start now in front of Nathan Byrne, as he offers more in defence and is growing all the time. Antonee Robinson gets better every match and looks to be a great signing for us, although his goal was probably a cross and the keeper won’t be pleased about it. But those subs! Cedric Kipre for Pilkington and Gavin Massey for Moore have to be the most baffling interchanges in a long list of baffling interchanges.

And I will repeat it again, why oh why won’t he play our best striker in Gelhardt? The kid has just signed a new long-term deal and is the best thing we have as a natural goalscorer, but he just won’t give him the crack. Play him, the lad is ready and he will score goals too! A point away at the Den is okay, but Millwall were absolutely no threat at all and we should have won. We just didn’t take our chances and backed off when we could have had a real go. We still need a change of direction, the fanbase is turning now, you can see that all over social media. Maybe our new man at the top, Stanley Choi, has some plans when he takes over.

DAVID PERRY: Firstly a massive pat on the back to those brilliant fans who travelled to Millwall. Always a difficult trip midweek, but especially so given our continued poor away form. Shame it could not have been all three points, but we would have taken the draw beforehand. The point, welcome as it is leaves us in a perilous position. Despite our brush with the drop last year, I can’t recall us being in the bottom three last – unless you count the shifting permutations during a match. Now back to last Saturday at Stoke. It took a while to get the Brentford debacle out of my system, but somehow I did. I bought a ticket on Friday and drove to Stoke with some renewed and restored optimism. Not sure why, how or what inspired such positivity. It was significant I drove to Stoke alone. There were no takers for a free trip to a relatively short distance away game. In the chain pub adjacent to the stadium, I met up with three friends who had also made the trip. Our regular band of hardy loyals is now down to four from its previous average of 12. The absent eight fans are not disloyal because results aren’t going well. They range from true blues from the Springfield Park era close to pension age, to the younger element who look forward to the pre-match pub banter as much as the football. Something is missing, and it is not just the absent travelling friends.

The pre-match score predictions used to vary wildly from the sublime to the ridiculous, the pragmatic to the eternal optimist. Our assembled foursome were unanimous in our prediction that we would lose. No great shakes considering our away form since promotion but, between us, we actually wrote the match report BEFORE the game. One wise sage amongst us actually predicted Stoke would win with a stoppage-time winner. This prediction was not regarded as spooky, but acknowledged with a shoulder shrugging inevitably. A defeat post-mortem usually centres around tactics, formation, personnel, referees, the manager, etc. This has been replaced with a gallows humour about how poor we are. Away days now resemble a Victor Meldrew appreciation society, with a few pessimists making up the paltry numbers. Any rational summary of the game has now gone along with any hope. We lose when we play well. We lose when we play badly. We have two types of luck. No luck and bad luck.

I am usually loathe to call for the manager’s head, or single out players for savage criticism. I have never accused the players of not trying. The reason for our plight must be much more simple. We are just not good enough to get results at this level. Some good individuals, yes, but not a very good team. Watching Latics should carry a health warning. The way I feel right now is that away games are to be avoided. If there was a game in my back garden, I would draw the curtains – it’s that bad. I have always tried to keep my criticism constructive and honest and to wait until I have cooled down. This current squad appears to lack bottle in the last few minutes of every game, to an extent that it’s embarrassing. Even when we are winning, defeat looks inevitable. Heads go down all too easily, we lose our shape when the opposition scores, and there is a total absence of leadership and backbone. This is the most feeble Wigan Athletic team – in terms of away games – that I have witnessed in years. We huff and puff, concede and collapse, and start to just hoof it. I know we have players who will run through a brick wall for the cause, but we just can’t see out a game. Basic errors all over the pitch have become the norm. It’s time to come out fighting before it’s too late. Sadly I think it already is.

CRAIG WIGAN: Two games, two okay performances, one point. Another mediocre week in the life of a Wigan Athletic fan. But many think it’s much worse than that, and I’m not convinced it is. It is frustrating, as I think many small margins swinging in our favour this season would leave us very happy with our performance this year. But that is football. Before the last week, we’ve been largely excellent in the last couple of months and I don’t worry too much about the Brentford-type games, where nothing goes right for you. It’s only our third game like this all season (Preston and QPR away the others) where we haven’t been competitive for a large majority of the game, by our own poor performance. I agree with Paul Cook that the team are allowed a few of those a season, and the best thing to do is brush them under the carpet and move on. Paul is clearly trying different things, but is it too late?

I think the 4-4-2 long ball approach with two big men up top was a good tactic at Millwall for that game, but overall I think our long-ball tactics have heeded more negative results than positive, and it doesn’t lend to the development of young players, nor their enjoyment in playing for Wigan Athletic that way. Just because Kieffer Moore is there, doesn’t mean we have to use that ball. We should instead be playing through three centre midfielders who are all good on the ball. Wales don’t play to Kieffer’s head from long, only his feet and then find his head from lofted high crosses in the box. He’s scored two goals for his country from that approach, and none from open play for us. So I hope the 4-4-2 approach isn’t a final throw of the dice for a manager who thinks his time is done, because I think he’s better than that – as is our squad. What I really do worry about, though, is mentality – mentality in a young squad, many who’ve either been passed around teams on loan, or been rescued from unsuccessful teams previously, including a lot of our own League One squad who’ve tasted more defeats than victories in recent years in the Championship. This is where we need winners and leaders to step up and get us past the mini-humps in games. Hold onto leads for more than 10 minutes, score that goal when we’re on top, finish that chance to give us a two-goal cushion and not concede in the last 10 minutes. That is all I actually feel we’re missing from this team at the moment from being a successful outfit by our own standards.

So where does that mentality come from? It shouldn’t all be down to the manager, but he plays a big part in it. I personally love Cook. He’s the personality the Latics folk can resonate with, he’s generally kept a positive atmosphere within the squad, and more often than not his set up for a game is correct. So how can he change the mentality? I think subs are a big thing, he needs to stop the regular Kal Naismith 75th-minute sub to hold onto the ball. More often than not we were on top in the game and ahead, and this sub changes the mentality and then we concede late. More due to the mentality of the team post that sub than anything Kal does in particular, but still. Another is accepting mediocrity. Within the starting 11, we have a better squad this year and we aren’t using it. Jamal Lowe starts every week and has returned one goal and no or minimal assists, lacking quality in a final ball. Gavin Massey has been of the same ilk. Millwall was one of the few exceptions where he started Anthony Pilkington, and his first goal was real quality. I don’t think Pilks is better than either of the other two, but we need to push them to be more clinical and lads should need to be playing well to keep their place. I think Lowe and Massey are better at winning the ball back up top and better defensively but, with three defensive midfielders behind them and four defenders beyond that, we need the top three to score and assist, which they haven’t been great at – which is why we’re the second lowest scorers in the league. So mentality comes into play when they’re retained and Josh Windass, Pilks and Joe Gelhardt aren’t given substantial minutes. It suggests we’re more worried about losing than focused on winning. Another is the post-match reaction and occasional set-up mid-game. We go to Millwall and are happy with a point. He should be furious we haven’t got all three, along with the other 12 points we’ve dropped from winning positions. Barnsley are slowly being cut adrift at the bottom of the league, yet we cautiously played out a 0-0 draw at home. We should be setting up a team to win these games, before and during the game. Even last season he was more worried about not losing to those around us.

I think about the Alex Ferguson approach of ‘go for the throat’ when his teams are winning, and the almost scared reaction teams had when they did go ahead against his team, and they turn to defending and invite in pressure. We as a team are the deer in the headlights. We feel like we don’t deserve it when we do go ahead, step back, try to waste time and defend – rather than focus on the good play that got us in the lead in the first place. So for me, an avid Cook supporter, it comes down to the next two games – Reading at home and then Luton away. Our mentality before, during and after these games will define our season and near-term future I believe. If we go out to just ‘not lose‘ those two games, then I think it’s time for a change – in manager, mentality and results. This ongoing attitude will only lead to Championship relegation battles, boomeranging between League One, our best players leaving or not performing and owners wanting to jump ship in no time at all. But if Cook can develop himself in understanding how important mentality is, and how to manage that effectively – remembering this is only his second season in the Championship – I’m sure he can become as successful at this level as he has been in lower divisions. I’m hoping and expecting six points, won in the right way, without constant long ball football and by finishing teams off, rather than sitting back inviting pressure. Now THAT will get me fully in the Christmas spirit.

CHRISTOPHER MAY: As Wigan fans re-live the saga of leading in a game, giving away an equaliser and losing within the last kick of the game, people search for explanations.
I live across the ocean and haven’t seen a live game in ages, but I can offer some perspective based on logic. There are three plausible reasons and each is probably a combination of those.
* Mental Toughness. A family member played for Wigan RLFC and told me about a training session with the army in the Scottish Highlands a few winters back. After an exhausting day, they were woken at 3:30am and dressed in socks, boots and underwear (there may be some exaggeration but I am assured otherwise) the players were driven aprox 20 miles away and left with a map and compass (they had learned to map read in the days prior) and told to get back to camp at point zero. Some of the toughest men on the planet got back stifling sobs, frozen to the bone. I said that it seemed a ridiculous exercise for team bonding and he shot back “Many times a game is poised at 12-12 at 50 minutes; and one team finishes winning 32-16. Both teams hurt and are tired, but it comes down to who wants it most.” After two years, the team were left with those players who were mentally toughest. In the NFL, every collegiate player entering the professional ranks almost always comes from a winning program. Starting their professional career with a perennial loser is a major wake up call and many become disheartened and are soon gone. Changing a losing mindset requires a special thought process and energy that is rare. The longer it goes on, at a subconscious level, the more difficult it is to change.
* Tactics. In many of the games, Wigan’s possession has been far below the opposition’s. It is a fact that less possession means more chasing and brings on mental tiredness. With a few notable exceptions (Cup v Man City and Leeds away last season) having possession below 45% translates into tired legs and flagging spirits as the game edges towards the twilight zone.
Playing long A1 balls gives away possession too easily and leads to lob-sided possession statistics. Wigan must play the ball out and tire our opponents – it leads to more confidence and is far more entertaining to watch than the up and under.
3) Physical fitness. Many times, Paul Kendrick says a player ‘ran their blood to water’ – they gave it their all! We never hear that of the big teams – they make the game look easy. And they have the skilled players and budgets to compete. So, if we do not change tactics, physical and mental fitness comes to the fore. At this level of football, a one per cent difference on a player by player fitness level accumulates at over 13 per cent (compound interest GCSE students) for the team – that is an enormous difference. Do Wigan train harder than their opponents? Smarter than their opponents? We don’t know. Can we raise the fitness level? Always.

SEAN LIVESEY: A point gained, two lost? It’s a well-worn path travelled by this Wigan Athletic side this season. If our problem last season was scoring goals it’s moved on to hanging on to leads this season. Twice in the past week we’ve been ahead and unable to capitalise on our leads, in the case of Stoke what could have been a decent point turned in to the least surprising defeat of the season. The only surprise was that a certain Nick Powell didn’t get the winner against his old side. Tuesday was a different prospect and at least offered some tangible progress and a bit of food for thought, Anthony Pilkington’s cracker of a goal early in the match set Latics on their way before poor defending allowed Millwall back in to it. Despite this Paul Cook’s side still did all the running – it was a very different proposition from what we’ve seen in recent weeks but Latics could and should have been two or three goals ahead before half-time. As it was that second goal came early in the second half as the ever impressive Antonee Robinson created an opening to tuck away his first goal for Wigan Athletic.
Instead of going on and getting a third goal Latics once again shut off from a corner to allow Millwall to draw level. In the end a point was probably a fair result and if we weren’t coming off the back of a run of three straight defeats which had propelled us close to the relegation zone it would have been a decent point.

Unfortunately our form over the last month and for most of the season means that points simply aren’t enough. We once again failed to win away from home in two crucial matches and we once again failed to hold on when we were ahead in two matches. So to Paul Cook and his future, a fair proportion of our supporter base would have expected the gaffer to have been shown the door after the Stoke match but that is ignoring the fact that the owners and board have consistently backed their man and that doesn’t seem like changing any time soon. I sit across both camps – I can understand those who want to see a change, but question just who exactly would come in who would be better placed than Cook to get more out of this set of players. I also recognise that the players are seemingly still playing for their manager, and that is a huge thing. Once players down tools it’s easy to spot. Cook seems a man under pressure, whether that be from above or self-inflicted, but a decent run of results is needed from somewhere. The next two matches against Reading and Luton need a minimum of six points ahead of the home match with West Brom otherwise we could well be spending the festive period rooted to the bottom three of the division. There were glimpses, both against Stoke and Millwall of something better. The key is making sure those bits of progress actually result in, well, results.