Latics vs Sunderland: The Fallout

Wigan Athletic put in their worst performance of the season in front of their largest home crowd in the league for 8 years as they fell to a 3-0 drubbing by Sunderland.

Now, a few days on from Saturday’s disappointment, I’m going to take a look at what went wrong for Latics and investigate as to whether it was a brief blip or if it is the eruption of unsolved issues and weaknesses.

I will split my analysis into three basic sections: Defensive third, Midfield third, and Attacking third. Latics struggled all over the pitch and I’m going to try and find out why, and what can be done to change this.

PS – I’m not claiming to be an expert at all!

The Defensive Third

Whenever a team concedes 3 times at home you’d expect a large amount of criticism to be directed towards those who’s primary task is to prevent goals. When you consider that the goals all came from dead ball situations it gives us some peace in knowing we weren’t cut open time after time in open play. That would be really worrying.

However, whilst the goals weren’t from open play it would be naïve to suggest Latics looked solid throughout and only struggled at Set Pieces. Sunderland exploited James McClean and Tendayi Darikwa time after time, using overlaps from their own Full Backs to outnumber and overload wide areas as they do in the majority of their games.

The free kick after 15 seconds was won in a wide position after Sunderland created a 3 v 2 overload on McClean, and the first penalty was won when the overlapping Carl Winchester delivered a ball that resulted in Curtis Tilt fouling Ross Stewart. Although the 2nd penalty was conceded from a freak handball from a corner, that corner was won when Jack Clarke exploited space left by Tendayi Darikwa on the right flank.

Whilst I’m sure he’s the type of player that wouldn’t want to hide from culpability, James McClean isn’t a natural full back and has more than stepped up to the role placed upon him. That being said it is no secret that he has struggled defensively at times this season and this was again highlighted on Saturday. A big positive for Latics will be when Tom Pearce and/or Joe Bennett return to the team as it will not only allow McClean to be played on the wing, it will also hugely sure up the left side of our defence.

Latics’ two Centre Halves saw a lot of the ball against Sunderland, with Ben Amos favouring taking short goal kicks to them in order the pass through midfield rather than over them. However, despite having over 150 touches combined neither managed to progress the ball up field consistently and often resorted to long punts when faced with no options in front of them. This to me is a personnel issue.

Curtis Tilt has shown himself to be a very impressive defender at Latics, but more often than not this has been as part of a back 3. What he possesses in strength and toughness he often lacks in on the ball ability, a weakness that can often be hidden when part of a direct 5 at the back system. When tasked with progressing the ball he doesn’t possess the same attributes as Watmough, and therefore has to resort to simple sideways passes or hopeful long balls which slow momentum and ease pressure on the opponents.

The easy comparison to make is with Kell Watts, who struck up a brilliant partnership with Jack Watmough at the start of the season. Watts’ extra mobility and technique on the ball allows him to move the ball quickly into advanced areas before the space has closed, whereas Tilt often has to take an extra touch and by the time he comes to pass the progressive options have been cut off. Watts is also capable of switching the play quickly or hitting the front men with long balls, although since Charlie Wyke’s absence this has been less successful.

Personally I would like to see Kell Watts reinstated alongside Jack Watmough, especially in games when we are looking to dominate possession. In Watts we have a left footed CB that is capable of progressing the ball and creating faster transitions, although admittedly he may not be as good a defender as Tilt. Tuesday’s opponents Fleetwood Town average just 48% possession this year, so having a defender comfortable on the ball will be very useful.

The Midfield Third

Although the lack of transitional play on Saturday is a criticism of the defensive unit, just as much blame falls on Wigan’s midfield 2.

Max Power and Tom Naylor both put in, by their standards, sub-par performances and failed to impact the game in a positive way with the ball. A large reason for this is an issue many midfielders face known as ‘Shadowing’. In it’s simplest terms this is when a player positions himself in a way that makes them less likely to receive the ball, placing themselves in the ‘shadow’ of an opposition player.

As I’ve touched upon our centre halves had a lot of the ball but failed to progress the ball into midfield areas. This was often due to shadowing, particularly from Tom Naylor who touched the ball just 45 times, compared to Max Power’s 85. Here is an example of the transitional problems Latics faced on Saturday.

As you can see Jack Watmough has been forced to send a hopeful long ball forward because of a lack of options being offered by the players around him. On this occasion it is Max Power that is positioned in a negative position behind two Sunderland players, whilst Tom Naylor is further up field probably in search of picking up any knock downs or second balls.

However, this image from the next phase of the same attack shows Naylor was also responsible.

Similarly to the previous image this shows a Latics midfielder positioned in a negative position in relation to his opposite number. One of the major reasons behind our lack of attacking threat on Saturday is what seems like a lack of bravery in possession in the middle of the pitch, resulting in a complete bypassing of the midfield in the latter stages.

Latics’ midfield options are plentiful, but many of them have the same strengths and weaknesses. Graeme Shinnie, Tom Naylor, Max Power and Glen Rea are all ball winning midfielders who offer excellent defensive solidity but slightly more basic ball progression. Our creativity comes from wide areas, but when that method of attack is not working the onus is on our midfield pair to unlock defences. Preston loanee Tom Bayliss is probably the only fit midfielder we have that has genuine defence splitting passing abilities but he has fallen massively out of favour in recent months.

My solution for this problem is hampered by injuries. Jamie McGrath and Thelo Aasgaard, two players that are creative and possess bundles of flair, are both out injured which is inconvenient to say the least. Will Keane is the go to Number 10 but he often plays more as a second striker than a creative midfielder so unless a change in his role occurs Latics will need the majority of their creativity to come from wide areas and deeper midfield positions. In order for this to happen the midfield two need to be brave in possession and receive the ball from the back 4 more often, progress it forward and create the opposition problems from other areas.

The Attacking Third

It is no secret that Josh Magennis hasn’t had the start to life at Latics that he would’ve wanted. The 31 year old has struggled to make much impact in any of the matches he’s played and has been upstaged by his replacement Stephen Humphrys on numerous occasions. Since the loss of Charlie Wyke Latics have been searching for the best way to work without their talismanic striker, and following the introduction of 6’1 Magennis the plan has been very clear. We play direct into the target man, look to work around him and feed off the flick ons and knockdowns that he provides as we did with Wyke.

The problem has been that Magennis is not providing enough flick ons and knock downs to make this an effective tactic. In his last 3 games he has touched the ball just 43 times, completed just 20 passes and hasn’t taken a shot. In comparison, in his last league game for the club Charlie Wyke had 45 touches, completed 29 passes and took 3 shots against Fleetwood Town. This shows that the Northern Irishman is simply not doing enough in attacking areas to warrant his place in the starting 11.

This isn’t just a witch hunt on Magennis, the majority of the attacking play on Saturday was extremely disappointing. Will Keane was virtually anonymous in his second striker role and Callum Lang and Gwion Edwards got little joy out wide. As I mentioned previously the lack of a creative midfielder was painfully clear, both in the defensive transition and in the final 3rd. There wasn’t an occasion I can remember (I may be wrong) where a player broke the lines and played a pass, won a free kick or had a shot in the game and that is what will disappoint the team the most.

Will Keane has been used as a 2nd striker recently, meaning Latics have a huge gap in the space between Attack and Midfield

The solution in my opinion is to focus less on the direct style of play and make more use of the ball when we have it. We have played our best football this season when we use direct passes as a Plan B, not from minute 1 to minute 90 and I would like to see us return to that plan. We have the players to create chances for Josh Magennis, who we know has scored goals at this level, and Stephen Humprhys and we can do this by playing less direct. I’m also pretty confident that a change of style would go down well with supporters too.

Final Thoughts

The question I tasked myself with answering at the start of this article was whether or not this was a blip, and the answer is we won’t know until after the next game. The issues we faced on Saturday have been there at different points throughout the season but they were all exploited at once against Sunderland.

I’m not suggesting for one second that Tics fans should hit the panic button, but it is healthy to point out these weaknesses. I’m sure work began immediately within the club to rectify the issues and I have every confidence that will happen.

The best thing about our schedule is we have a chance to rectify things immediately on Tuesday, here’s hoping we do so.

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