Sunderland (H) Match Preview

Its Latics’ final home game of 2022 tonight as we welcome Sunderland to the DW Stadium. Despite only just passing the halfway point of the season I don’t think its wide of the mark to suggest we’re approaching ‘must win’ territory with these next few games, and despite some promising signs Kolo Touré will be itching to secure his first victory as Latics boss.

Our Boxing Day trip to Middlesbrough didn’t go to plan and we’ll be hoping for a better result against tonight’s North East opponents. The 4-1 score line still feels slightly harsh to me as I feel like we played well in parts, but any team that defends as poorly as we did at times on Monday can expect to take some beatings from opponents at this level.

Opponents Sunderland are playing really well at the moment and are slowly climbing up the table. They have a really strong forward line that’s been bolstered by Ross Stewart’s return from injury. Given our awful record against them in recent years a lot of Latics fans will be dreading this game, particularly given the strange and rather unnecessary rivalry between the two fanbases that seems to have cropped up on social media!

Latics Team News

Its fair to say Kolo isn’t afraid of making big decisions when it comes to team selection. He’s only three games into his reign and we’ve already seen the Captain dropped, players that were regulars under the previous manager dropped completely and a professional debut being handed out to a 19 year old! Not bad for 270 minutes of football…

The Boxing Day game was the first time we saw what I believe to be Kolo’s preferred type of team. Bennett, Darikwa and Naylor all dropped out and were replaced by Aasgaard, Nyambe and Cousins, players you’d say suit a more possession centric style of play. Tilt remained in the side but I’d suggest that’s only because there was no alternative given the fact REG reportedly came down with an illness pre game.

Charlie Hughes had a debut to remember despite the score line. He looked well at home at Centre Back and looked far more suited to the style than his experienced partner Curtis Tilt. Its promising that we’ve got a player like him coming through our youth ranks and I believe he needs a real run in the side. Hopefully, Jack Whatmough returns soon and the pair can create a partnership.

James McClean struggled defensively at Full Back as did Ryan Nyambe. Boro’s wide players were superb but we’re coming up against a Sunderland side with arguably the best wingers in the league so improvement is absolutely necessary. Going forward they did look decent at times and there’s certainly more freedom for them to do so, its just about doing both jobs well.

Max Power has remained in midfield and finally registered his first assist of the season with a nice cross to the back post for Thelo’s goal. However, that aside, it was another unconvincing performance from the stand in captain who despite his undoubted drive wasn’t able to set the tone for Latics’ press. He found himself out of shape at times, as did Cousins, and left us horrendously exposed at the back.

The front 4 was actually quite exciting again and I’ve thought that in every game we’ve played so far. Keane did go missing at times and never really got to the pace of the game, but still had his moments of brightness. The wingers were aggressive with the ball but looked very poor off the ball, and the same can probably be said for Nathan Broadhead.

Anthony Scully made an exciting contribution from the bench and I’m hoping we get to see more of him tonight. Its been refreshing to see us mix our build up play up and the absence of Josh Magennis from the last two squads, despite the fact he’s fit, suggests Kolo is very much moving away from that sort of forward. Thankfully.

Jason Kerr, Jack Whatmough, Tom Pearce and Charlie Wyke all remain on the injury list, and the return date of the last 3 remains unknown. It’ll be a shame to miss them for this game as you could make a strong argument for all of them making our best XI when everyone is fit.

An Opposition View

To give an insight into where our opponents are at leading into tonight’s fixture I’ve called in the help of some folks far more knowledgeable on Sunderland than myself!

1) It’s fair to say Sunderland are a different beast from the side that beat Latics at the Stadium of Light two and a half months ago. Tell us about your thoughts from that game and what has happened since.

“Without arrogance setting in, Wigan at home was one of very few games this season I said we had to win and anything less would be a poor result and the performance matched the expectations. Since then however, our side has continued to grow and we are more than capable of beating almost any team in the division. With both strikers back fit and scoring and players like Amad putting on a show week in week out, optimism continues to grow.” [@SpeakSAFC]

“It was a tough test, especially in the first half with so many former players coming back wanting to prove a point. When Wyke scored we all thought it’s one of those days especially with Roberts having one disallowed in the first half. Second half we were resilient and we took more risks in the final third and it paid off. Cirkin’s winner from Pritchard’s excellent cross was something very special. Defo one of our stand out home performances this season.” [@JacobKirkbride]

2) Tony Mowbray has settled in really well and it looks like he’s won over the majority of your fan base. Are you happy with him at the helm or are there still question marks in your mind about him?

“Certainly more than happy. Whilst I don’t think the table means much at this stage considering a win on Thursday could send us 4th and a defeat could send us 16th, to be where we are all things considered is excellent and Mowbray deserves great credit for that. There has been times that his decisions have cost us a few points here and there but that’s football.” [@SpeakSAFC]

“So far considering the injuries we’ve had to have us in the position we are in with key players starting to return it’s a very good job he’s done. However, a big test for any Sunderland boss is the first transfer window you undertake. With the experience at this level he has under his belt many fans like myself are confident he can recruit smartly in January.” [@JacobKirkbride]

3) Ross Stewart and Ellis Simms returning from injury is a frightening prospect considering you beat Latics last time without needing either of them! What do they bring to your side and has your style of play changed since their return?

“Stewart especially brings a whole new dimension. His work rate is outstanding, his hold up play is fantastic and his 107 minutes per goal ratio just underlines how clinical he is in front of goal. I firmly believe he is one of the top two strikers in the division. Simms offers something a bit different. He’s a handful for defenders and very composed in the opposition box. With both in the team, defenders can very rarely contain them.” [@SpeakSAFC]

“The biggest thing that has changed is confidence. The rest of the squad has been lifted with better performances since their return. Stewart’s goal scoring will be crucial if we can keep him till the end of the season. And Ellis Simms added to that will be a big threat. The pair were a big presence in the build up to the winner against Blackburn and with a battle and scrap expected at Wigan them two on the pitch at the same time could be where the game is won or lost.” [@JacobKirkbride]

4) Finally, have their been any stand out performers in recent games that you’re hoping will take Latics by storm at the DW?

“Amad. Without a doubt. I say Stewart is one of the best strikers in the league, but Amad may well be the best player in the league. Possibly to be expected given his big move to Man UTD a few years ago. On the ball he is outstanding. One of the best I’ve seen at Sunderland for many many years dating even back to premier league days. On their day, Roberts and Clarke can also cause so many problems for opposition and having them 3 likely to be starting together should allow us to create plenty of opportunities.” [@SpeakSAFC]

“Amad Diallo recently has been terrific from start to finish but we need to do more to get him on the ball as he can run a defence all over the shop on his day. And Luke O’Nien at centre half against Blackburn was solid as ever which will be needed at Wigan, particularly in moments where we might be on the back foot.” [@JacobKirkbride]

Tactical Talk

“The best moment to win the ball is immediately after your team just lost it.” These are the words of Jurgen Klopp, perhaps the first name most people think of when it comes to pressing in football. He’s also one of several elite managers that have influenced Kolo Touré during the Ivorian’s playing days, and you can see there are parts of Klopp’s famed ‘Gegenpress’ that our manager wants to implement.

The problem for Kolo, amongst other things of course, is that he simply doesn’t have the personnel for this kind of thing just yet. And with him only being in the job for a month or so he hasn’t had the time to coach his ideas into the players. Its worth remembering none, or maybe only Charlie Hughes, are ‘his’ players. These are players recruited by Leam Richardson for a very different style to the one we’re now looking to play. Teething problems were inevitable.

However whilst those newly in charge deserve to be cut some slack its only right to acknowledge the obvious issues currently afoot. We’re caught between the natural desire to not leave ourselves vulnerable at the back and the desire to get bodies forward into dangerous areas to give us the best chance of scoring goals. But like Laurel and Hardy, Chips and Gravy or Roberts and Ellington, you can’t have one without the other.

The reality is, and Kolo has said as much in every post match interview he’s done, we simply haven’t been brave enough. The defence have either been too deep when the forwards initiate the press, or the defence have been too high when the attack choose to sit off and invite our opponents to play more directly. Very rarely have we got the balance exactly right.

3/4 of our front four and both CMs trigger the press when the ball is at the feet of the GK. However, because Lang (not in picture) isn’t part of the press they outnumber us and use the extra man well.
The pressure on the receiver wasn’t sufficient and he was allowed to turn very easily. Cousins hasn’t cut the passing lane out wide well enough and Thelo switches off leaving the RB acres of space to run into.

Now, in a well drilled and effective pressing system, beating the initial press isn’t the end of the world. You should then have a back line pushing high up the pitch, cramping space between the lines and limiting the speed at which the opposition can break forward. Too often in Kolo’s games so far this hasn’t been the case.

There are basically 4 Boro players in this box, what you’d call ‘between the lines’. The defence, rather than stepping up and being proactive and aggressive, immediately retreat and make the space between them and the midfield greater. This makes us extremely vulnerable as it’s essentially 5v4.

Like I said before, teething problems are to be expected. 2 months, or 4 games, ago we were a team that would set up in a low block, press very sparingly and often fall back into a defensive structure rather than step up into one. Now we’re trying to be the opposite and clearly many players in this squad aren’t suited to that.

Against Sunderland we’re going to have to be so careful with our press because they have the ability to cut sides apart with nice passing play. They’ve probably already won the goal of the season award with a sweeping team effort against Reading, and I’m fully expecting them to try the same against Latics.

Their front 3 or 4 depending on who plays are all capable of intricate passing and receiving passes on the half turn. We need to make sure our distances between defence and midfield are smaller, be that the defence stepping higher or the attack pressing less high, and that everyone is absolutely clear what the trigger is. Otherwise, it’ll be DEpressing, not pressing…

Final Thoughts

Results, preferably wins, need to come thick and fast for us now. 3 tough games has been quite the baptism of fire for our new boss but ultimately in the Championship you can’t afford a run of results like we’ve had and we’re very lucky that we aren’t cut adrift already. However, that could change soon if we aren’t careful.

Tonight things don’t get any easier against a side we can’t seem to win against. The best chance to end the curse (if you want to call it that!) was at their place in October where we squandered a lead against a depleted Sunderland side. Now they’re close to, if not actually, at the top of their game.

The crowd need something to get behind and the atmosphere will be decent tonight, particularly with the packed out away end Sunderland are bringing. We want to see goals, proactive play and a bit of excitement to get us off our seats. Results will follow if we do those things, I’m sure of it.

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