Wigan Athletic: The 12th Man

Our panel of Wigan Athletic experts run the rule over a home draw with Ipswich - a point gained, or two dropped? - and preview this weekend’s visit of Middlesbrough as well as the relegation run-in...

Friday, 1st March 2019, 6:37 pm
Updated Friday, 1st March 2019, 7:42 pm
Reece James - what a player!

MARTIN TARBUCK: Is it possible to be just whelmed? At Saturday’s game, I was mostly underwhelmed, never overwhelmed, but by the end I just felt distinctly whelmed. Even the most dour of games can sometimes be injected into life with a thrilling finish, yet even that fell short somewhat. Quite why we played so poorly against the most hopeless team in the division is beyond me. The fact we had the three points gift wrapped for us early on after Leon Clarke was pulled down when clean through is all the more galling.

I’m no expert on footballing matters (despite Mr K’s continual attempts to declare us as such) however, the first rule when the opposing team gets a man sent off must surely be to keep your nose clean for 20 minutes or so. As opposed to, perhaps, giving away a soft penalty and suddenly galvanising the other team, who are already incensed with the throes of burning injustice. Ipswich looked good value despite their lowly position, but dropping points at home to a team who are all-but-relegated is a cardinal sin.

I tend to think the blame, if we are going go down that route – and why not – perhaps falls equally between the players and the manager, as there was nothing inspiring happening on the pitch at all. As per last week, the performance came straight from the ‘play like terrified rabbits stuck in headlights’ Warren Joyce coaching manual. The only saving grace is that both the team and Paul Cook (through his substitutions) redeemed themselves when Joe Garner popped up with a late equaliser, just at the stage where it looked like we were going to get absolutely nowt.

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For those last few minutes, the stadium came to life, as the scent of a winner briefly wafted through the air, but before long the foul stench of the River Douglas came back to overpower it, as the ref blew the final whistle. Let’s be honest, even a one-eyed ultra-biased fool like myself would struggle to find a reason to discredit Ipswich and say they weren’t deserving of all three points, let alone one.

So I’ll take my whelmedness and calmly walk away and get myself a brew and a Hob Nob and look forward to reading Mr Angry’s – I mean Mr Middleton’s – take on matters (below). I suppose the main positive for me is that being at the back end of the table means teams around us are equally as poor, so somehow, as long as we can win a few games between now and the end of the season, we will undoubtedly be safe. We sure don’t like making it easy for ourselves, though.

Speaking of which, one manager whose teams definitely don’t like making it easy for their opponents is Tony Pulis and his comedy baseball cap. All the hallmarks are there again this season – lowest goals conceded in the division, yet only just over a goal a game scored and sitting in fifth, having lost the lowest number of games in the division – six, along with high-flying Norwich. Given that brief, depressing statistical analysis, if we’re struggling to stick the ball in the net against 10-man Ipswich, I wouldn’t expect to hear that daft goal music much against a defence which is tighter than Chey Dunkley’s shorts. The Tics do sometimes have the habit of surprising us though (maybe even surprising themselves?) so we will have to wait and see.

PAUL MIDDLETON: My contribution to this column, a couple of weeks ago, caused quite a stir. Many objected to my criticisms of Paul Cook, and his inability to set a team up to try and win a game. We’d just tamely drawn two games against teams in the bottom seven, after clearly setting out to do so. This seemed to please many people, who appear to be satisfied with how things are.

First, let me clarify something: I said at the beginning of the season I would be happy with Latics just staying up – and that hasn’t changed. However, what I can’t accept is a game-plan based around running the clock down from the first minute, and scraping a draw against poor opponents. Cook claimed, after each game, we did well to get a point. I’m not sure who he thought we were playing, mind you. And so it was that Ipswich rolled into town.

They are a team so far adrift at the bottom that they are drawing faces on practice balls, just so they have someone to talk to. A team who have only won three games all season, and who have conceded more goals than any other team. If we can’t beat them, we’re in trouble, right? Not according to Cook. In a game where Ipswich were down to 10 men after 25 minutes, we still only managed six shots on target despite having 67 per cent of the ball. This tells me either we don’t know how to attack, or we don’t have the players to do it effectively. It’s probably a bit of both.

After the game, Cook said he was ‘pleased with a point’. At home, against the worst team in the division. If I’m expected to accept that and move on, people are going to be disappointed again. Cook claims on-field partnerships are still trying to gel. These are supposed to be professional footballers. If they can’t figure out their job within two days of arriving and training, then you have to wonder whether they’re actually good enough to make a living as footballers.

Before the pile-on starts, I must stress I don’t want Cook sacked. I want him to realise he needs to find a different way to do things. I know it was a league lower, last year, and adjustments were always going to be necessary. But it was all so different, and it’s like we’ve given up as a team. We’re relying on teams below us being worse, rather than actually trying to be better. I really don’t think we’re any better now than we were under Coyle and Mackay. We’re just fortunate there are three worse teams.

MARTIN HOLDEN: Our point against Ipswich proved a couple of things to me. Firstly as I said the other week, we have a team of scrappers, a collection of players willing to fight to the end and to get something out of a game. We didn’t have that the last time we were in this league, but this time we have it. It was there for all to see, and that point could prove crucial at the end of the season.

The second thing, if it needed proving, was just what an incredible talent Reece James is and what a great player he will ultimately become. For sure he has had better games this season. During times in the first half he was pretty unimpressive, a couple of poor touches early on and a little shaky as Ipswich attacked that side. But his second-half performance was quite incredible. Once Chey Dunkley had been replaced, he constantly demanded the ball and went forward – for one so young, it was really impressive. He won us that point in the end with his tenacity and sheer quality.

The manager has to take some credit as well. By switching Sam Morsy to centre-back, it allowed us to play out from the back with much more assurance, and that then allowed our full-backs to get forward more. We were still a little side-to-side for lots of the game. As frustrating as the final result was, let’s not forget the glorious chances Leon Clarke had and the header he took away from Josh Windass, who was already in virtual celebration mode as the cross came in. Let’s also not forget the stonewall penalty with the handball either. Then again, we got away with exactly the same type of defensive challenge against QPR, so fair do’s.

Before the game I was really optimistic, after 10 minutes I was really worried as Ipswich were running the show, I was reassured after the sending off, then it was a question of working out how to break them down. We deserved the equaliser and, with the other results on the day, it was actually like a win in the end. A vital point really. The fans are far to quick to criticise, and those that boo should stay at home and watch the darts or snooker. Of course, they are entitled to boo, as is the next man, but what does it achieve? I’ve never been one for that kind of stuff, encouragement is the only way to get the best out of a team, or a player. The players never go out to play poorly or to give penalties away, or to deliver bad crosses, they are all part and parcel of the game. Anyone wearing that tree and crown on their shirt gets my support. Full stop.

And so on to Middlesbrough this weekend, a tough game for us in all honesty, and if we get anything it will be a great result. I remain optimistic about our chances of survival and, if we have Reece James firing again, we have every chance. As I said, the kid’s a bit special.

MATT JONES: I was absolutely disgusted at the Ipswich game at the amount of booing and moaning at our players. They find themselves 1-0 down; the last thing they need is to be booed off the field at half-time.

The good atmospheres against Aston Villa and QPR and so on has lead to good results and I just can’t get my head round why all of a sudden it’s became so toxic. We currently sit five points (technically six with goal difference) above the drop zone with a game in hand.

Surely at this final stretch of the season the lads need encouragement?

SEAN LIVESEY: After last week’s disappointing draw with rock bottom Ipswich it feels like the visit of Middlesbrough has taken on a whole new level of importance. After a warm-weather training trip to Dubai and a morale boosting win over Chinese Super League champions Shanghai SIPG many were expecting a win over Ipswich to be a foregone conclusion. To say things didn’t really go to plan is an understatement.

Despite Ipswich having a man sent off midway through the first half, Latics found themselves a goal behind. After that it was always going to be difficult, Ipswich put their remaining 10 men behind the ball as if say ‘come on then – break us down’. The starting line-up itself was quite conservative, two defensive midfielders in Lee Evans and Sam Morsy while a lot of the side’s attacking talent in Nick Powell, Callum McManaman and Gavin Massey were once again left on the bench. It’s debateable whether a more ‘attacking’ line-up would have seen a different result. Sometimes teams just have one of those days and it felt like that for Latics.

Ipswich were certainly a lot better than their league position suggests, indeed if Jamie Jones hadn’t impressed once again between the sticks they could have gone further ahead. Although it was another match where Latics would have targeted three points before kick-off the relief to get one at full-time was clear for all to see. But sadly points aren’t enough at this stage of the season, and just a couple of wins in recent weeks – say against Rotherham and Ipswich – would have seen us on 39 points, in the same position in the table but crucially only two points away from Stoke in 18th place. Luckily results have gone our way in recent weeks, but we need to start winning games again soon, as we can’t simply rely on results from the sides below us going in our favour to ensure we stay up.

We need to put our own run of results together, and we’ve done that to some extent with the draw with Ipswich. That’s now four matches unbeaten and, although three of those were draws, we are picking points up.

Middlesbrough is going to be a tough match. Tony Pulis’ side are in a decent position in the table and, although it looks like the play-offs for them rather than automatic promotion, they’ll be wanting to keep the pressure up on those sides around them. They’re in a decent run of form too, their only recent defeats coming against Sheffield United and Newport in the FA Cup.

Nick Powell made an impression off the bench during the second half on Saturday, and I would expect him to go back in to a re-jigged forward line against Boro. Callum McManaman also impressed as a sub and, with Gavin Massey once again fit, there are more choices for Cook than there has been for a long time. The key is finding a line-up that can keep that defensive solidity alongside being able to break down a Middlesbrough side that don’t concede many goals. We seem to perform better against those sides higher in the table – at home at least. If we can somehow pick up a positive result, it will leave us in a decent position going in to March and a crucial run of fixtures.

ORRELL TIC: Saturday was another disappointment to add to the collection we have had this season. Just as things started to appear to be on the up...a full-strength squad, an easy home game, free tickets...we go and draw against bottom-of-the-league Ipswich who, for 70 minutes, had 10 men and have an even worse away record than us. Paul Cook has banged on about how no team in this league could survive with a player of Nick Powell’s quality being injured.

However, this is the third game in a row he has named him on the bench, despite being fit. Cook also spoke about the fact our only left-back had been injured for months. However, Antonee Robinson has now been fit for a month and still not even featured, with a left winger continuing to play at left-back. I have been a big fan of Cook and have always stuck up for him despite heavy critics from some of our fanbase. However, his recent decisions have been questionable.

There’s also the fact Leon Clarke stayed on the pitch for 90 minutes, with Powell only coming on as a deep lying midfielder...and I could go on. I understand the task has always been to just stay up, but this squad of players are far better than just staying up. We need to play Josh Windass and Powell as a front two. Clarke offers us no movement at all, and I am still struggling to see why we brought him back.

Now we have everyone fit, we should try and get as close to the team we started the season with and go back to the football we played in the first four or five games. Let’s have a go at teams instead of hoping we nick a point here and there. Saturday’s game against Middlesbrough is massive, as the three following are all away. Hopefully Cook lets the team play and doesn’t just play for a point, as I feel he has been doing recently.

The remaining 13 games will set the tone for next season. If we finish the season well, playing good football, the new owners may spend some money in the summer and give us a chance of competing for a top-half place next year. If we finish the season scrapping draws and playing negative football, the owners could question whether Cook is the man they want to spend their money, as we all know they are not going to throw millions at it.

The owners need to be 100 per cent certain the man in charge is correct. I, for one, hope Cook reverts back to the tactics that got us promoted and had us third at the end of September. With everyone now fit he has no excuses left.

DAN FOX: Saturday’s draw against Ipswich was a tough one to take. When Jonas Knudsen was given his marching orders for yanking Leon Clarke back, the Latics fans were licking their lips at the prospective of sticking a few past bottom-placed Town and picking up a rare ‘easy’ three points in this division. Unfortunately, the roar from the red card being flashed was about as good as it got on the day, with Joe Garner’s last-gasp equaliser bringing limited joy in what is widely viewed as a missed opportunity and two points dropped.

The most significant observation I took from the game, and indeed throughout this season, is that for every good quality each of our players have, they have a flaw that holds them back. Players who are great at beating a man, usually fail with their end product. For those who are great going forwards, they tend to get caught out at the back. Those players that are great at tackling, usually get caught out of position. Our best player is a game changer and massive asset, but he struggles to stay fit. The list goes on and the mistakes are punished mercilessly at this level.

The open question I would ask Latics fans is… Has it ever been any different? For our club or for football in general? Even when we had our best players at the club, they always had their flaws. The message I would encourage Latics fans to take from this is that none of our players is perfect, but the good qualities they have can be used effectively. Let’s stop getting on the backs of players like Kal Naismith and Josh Windass for their flaws, and let’s encourage them to keep doing what they do best.

Naismith is comfortably our best crosser, and Windass is best at taking a man on. The gaffer has set the system up for those players to use their strengths, and I believe in time the results will pick up. We’re still a newly-formed team, progress takes time and perspective is paramount. Up the Tics and fingers crossed for three points on Saturday.

KIERAN MAKIN: Thank the Lord for Joe Garner! Saturday’s 1-1 draw at home to Ipswich was disappointing and frustrating to say the very least. Despite having quite a comfortable points cushion between ourselves and the drop zone, this fixture was very much ‘must win’ in my eyes – especially being at home, where we have been excellent for the majority of games, and having lost 1-0 at Portman Road just before Christmas.

Don’t get me wrong, there was both delight and relief when Garner prodded home another superb Reece James cross – one point is better than none after all. The reason I felt this fixture was ‘must win’ is because of the fixtures we play in March and April – when we face six of the current top eight. Having said all that, the positives spell out like this.

Firstly, results keep going for us. They won’t forever and we can’t rely on them, but who are we to argue while they continue to do so? Secondly, within the aforementioned fixtures we do actually face Reading (a), Bolton (h), Brentford (h) and Millwall (h). And let’s not forget we do have a game in hand. Yes it’s against seventh-placed Derby, but they haven’t won in their last three league games.

If there was a ever a time to buck up our ideas, it’s now.