Blackburn Rovers (A) Preview

It’s a new era at Wigan Athletic. It’s the third era of the season which probably isn’t ideal but fingers crossed we’re past the problems and the team can kick on in these last 18 games of the season. The Kolo Touré experiment has been completed and the results were pretty conclusive, lets hope Shaun Maloney can steer us in the right direction.

Latics’ exit from the FA Cup meant we’ve had a couple of weeks off and it’s been nice and refreshing for supporters, as well as hopefully the players. Maloney’s been appointed, transfers have been made and over a week of training has been done under the new gaffer which should hopefully stand us in good stead going into this North-West derby.

Opponents Blackburn have had such a strange season but find themselves within touching distance of the play-offs. A win tonight would move Rovers into 5th place in the Championship which is impressive given their chronic inconsistency. Just like how we have a good record at home against them, they’re pretty strong at Ewood Park and it’ll be a tough test in front of the Sky Sports cameras.

Latics Team News

A lot has changed since the last time Latics played. Players in, players out, manager in, manager out. We’re not exactly a new look side but 3 new signings is still a fair amount of change to our side and it’ll make the team selection very interesting this evening. It also seems like some players were close to exits but didn’t quite get them so I wonder if there’ll be some notable exclusions.

Obviously, a new manager brings new ideas, new tactics and new requirements from players. Whilst I don’t know for sure what kind of system Maloney is going to deploy I think I’ve got a pretty good idea based on what he did at Hibs last season. The past week will have given everyone a clean slate to impress the new boss so I guess we’ll see who has done that based on the team selection.

One key position we didn’t strengthen in January is the goalkeeping spot so we’re finishing the season with one of Jamie Jones or Ben Amos in net. Now as I’ve said more times than I care to remember, they’re statistically the two worst keepers in the division when it comes to xG conceded so we’ll be in need of drastic improvements from whichever gets the shirt.

Defensively we made several additions in the window. Steven Caulker was signed by Kolo and Martin Kelly and Omar Rekik were late additions to the squad by Maloney. They add depth and quality to the back line and you’d imagine at least one of them will feature tonight. Unless Curtis Tilt has remarkably become a Championship quality defender in the past 16 days he’d be the likeliest to drop out.

Another controversial position has been Left Back. Joe Bennett was linked with an exit but that didn’t come off, so that suggests he’s not Maloney’s kind of player. James McClean, a former teammate of our new gaffer if course, will probably retain his spot at LB/LWB which is fine as long as there’s better defensive cover behind him. Tom Pearce is back in training too so the sooner he’s back the better.

On the opposite side Nyambe and Darikwa will continue to battle it out for the RB/RWB spot as they have done all season. Going forward Nyambe looks pretty poor but hasn’t done much wrong defensively so I’d still continue to pick him. At Ewood Park, against his former club, I reckon he’ll be up for it.

In midfield we’ll be without Miguel Azeez who faces a one game ban for picking up a flare during the celebrations at Cardiff. Yep, the FA have been THAT petty. Anyway, he’ll need replacing and I’m expecting Christ Tiehi, Max Power and Tom Naylor to all get a run out tonight. Whether we go with a 2 or a 3 is yet to be seen, but I hope it’s 2.

Danel Sinani was our only attacking signing this window and I expect to see him come straight into the squad. He adds genuine Championship quality to the side and would be excellent in a front 3 alongside players like Keane, Lang or Thelo. I think if we play a 3-4-2-1 like Maloney did lots at Hibs, Sinani should start in the ‘2’. He’s a very exciting signing.

An Opposition View

As always I’ve called in the help of a couple of people far more knowledgeable about Blackburn Rovers than myself to contribute to this section of the preview!

1) It feels like there’s only one place to start with Blackburn Rovers at the minute. Talk us through the club’s transfer dealings in January, and the ones that didn’t quite go through…

“What a calamity we are at the moment, lining up such a fantastic signing which could provide the X-Factor and seal a top 6 spot as well as securing a top youth talent from under the noses of a team that appear to be heading back to the Premier League. Not our finest hour, not really over the debacle to be honest as no action seems to have been done to convince the fans that this type of nonsense will not happen again. Fool us once Rovers admin staff, however mug us off a 2nd time and there may be carnage.” [@roverseas]

“Well, for the ones that actually got done, it’ll be a short answer. The only deal we actually managed to complete was a loan move for winger Sorba Thomas from Huddersfield Town. It’s a good move in my eyes as he is clearly capable at this level given last year’s performances for an over achieving Huddersfield side, and the fact it is a loan makes it low risk.

However, it is the striker area that needed improving and we didn’t manage to do that, although there are reports that a couple of deals fell through very late in the process (I.e when medicals were booked), so maybe we was unlucky in that situation. The worry for the fans is the two deals that fell through due to Rovers missing paperwork. Lewis O’Brien, who was arguably the best midfielder in the league last season, had completed a medical and signed everything, only for the deal to not go through properly and it was also rejected by the EFL, as was a move for young Rochdale midfielder Ethan Brierley for similar reasons.

It’s all been a mess but the club have come out and senior staff have apologised, so it’s best we put it behind us and focus on the summer – let’s just hope that goes without too many hiccups because fans will really lose their patience then.” [@roverschat_]

2) On the pitch things are going much better for you under JDT. How’ve Rovers been doing since the reverse fixture at the DW?

“It’s been very much chalk and cheese, one day slick the other ragged. However to be fair we are transitioning from Mowbray ball into something new, my own personal view was as top 10 finish in May will do us grand. However like many other fans of other clubs, this season too 6 could well be within our sights.” [@roverseas]

“Like when we came to the DW, our form has been up and down, although we finally managed to get a draw last time out in the league, drawing 1-1 at Bristol City with ten men. We’ve put in some great performances such as two professional victories at Norwich, but then we’ve put in some absolute shockers such as two defeats to our local rivals, conceding seven goals in the process. I still believe JDT is the man to take us forward but the inconsistency is tiring at times and it can be hard to watch. We’ve just got to trust in the process and hope it comes good, the last thing we want is to keep changing managers like certain clubs…” [@roverschat_]

3) You’ve recently changed to a back 4 having spent large parts of the season with a 3. What’s the change done to your side?

“It’s given some players who appeared to be on their way out of the club a second chance. Take Joe Rankin-Costello for example, the majority of the fan base had made their minds up on the lad, however with injuries and a change of formation the Rovers academy graduate has seen a new lease of life. Behind Dack he has been the Rovers player to watch recently.” [@roverseas]

“Although I imagine we’d have moved anyway, this change has been almost forced given the fact we’ve rarely had our three best centre backs available all at the same time. The move has added more to our attacking output than anything. It’s allowed us to play a 4-2-3-1 formation, meaning Bradley Dack is back playing in behind the striker, a position that is undoubtedly done better by few others in this league. He’s showing the best form he’s had since the initial injury against Wigan, and I’m sure he’d love nothing more than to score tonight and silence the away end.” [@roverschat_]

4) It’s not quite as bad as your record at the DW, but Latics haven’t enjoyed too many trips to Ewood Park recently! Which players are you hoping will fire Rivers to victory on Monday evening?

“It’s been a bit of a retro revival of sorts for Rovers as the goals seem to be in short supply but those goals that have been scored have Bradley Dacks name on most of them. He is starting to show us what we all know, he is on the verge of clicking in to top gear, thankfully just in time as Ben Brereton Diaz goals have been sparse to say the least. Meanwhile I think most fans are curious to see our only new addition Sorba Thomas and see what he can provide this Monday night.” [@roverseas]

“Other than Bradley Dack, our attacking line has struggled in recent weeks and months. The aforementioned Thomas could start and it would be interesting to see how he would do from the get go, with him impressing in the U21s fixture last week.

One player I’d definitely keep an eye on is Joe Rankin-Costello, who will start at right back tonight (unless his absence is being hidden by the club in the pre-match press conference!) His time at the club looked done and dusted two months ago but he unexpectedly came into the side against Norwich before Christmas and has been up there with our best players ever since. He’s an outlet going forward and has been defensively solid, even if the rest of the team and defence haven’t been. We’re very much a side that can turn up and blow you away, or a side that struggles to do anything so let’s see which one turns up to Ewood tonight…” [@roverschat_]

Tactical Talk

How will Shaun Maloney line up? I think that’s the biggest question on my mind at the moment because, similar to Kolo at the start, we don’t have a lot to go off. At least with Maloney we have his, albeit brief, spell at Hibs to go back and evaluate and whilst I’ve done a little bit of that in a previous article, I’ll go into more depth here.

Firstly it’s important to understand the context behind his managerial career. He’s spent the majoirty of his time working with Roberto Martinez and looks to have adopted his 3-4-3/3-4-2-1 style for the most part. That’s what I expect him to go with at Latics too. I genuinely believe that we have the personnel to play that system, and play it well.

Defensively Maloney’s Hibs side were excellent. Prevented high quality chances for their opponents, didn’t face many shots on goal at all and conceded the 3rd fewest amount of goals in the SPL. They did this by retreating into a very compact shape when the opponents had the ball and keeping the distances between the lines very small. This is the sort of shape they often found themselves in when the opponents had the ball in the final third.

All the players would remain within the width of the penalty area in order to limit spaces for passes through the defence. The CBs were very rarely more than 7-8 yards away from each other which again cramps the space for opposition forwards and limits passing opportunities. The two CMs filled the gaps between the CBs, essentially creating a zig-zag structure as demonstrated above.

The roles of the 2 inside forwards (numbers 7 and 11) is also very important in defensive phase. They often tucked in to pressure the opposition midfielders but also had to stay alert in order to receive passes and launch counter attacks. Similarly the striker has to offer an outlet at the top of the pitch to ease pressure and hold the ball up when needed.

This is a shot map showing where Celtic, last seasons’ SPL Champions, took their shots from against Maloney’s Hibs. As you can see, there weren’t many quality chances at all.

Now, when you look at how much defensive responsibility each player has you might not be surprised to hear that Maloney’s Hibs side struggled going forward. Often they seemed to struggle to form quality patterns of play going forward because everyone was starting from deeper positions than they might in other systems.

Ultimately if we keep 18 clean sheets in our last 18 games that’s a guaranteed 18 points, with potential for more. Obviously there’s not a chance that happens but the point is it’s safer to prioritise defence over attack as it makes collecting points more likely. However, as I’ve said we can’t rely on our GKs to save the majority of shots they face so we do have to start scoring goals too.

Whether that means pushing the defensive lines higher and engaging our opponents closer to their goal, or whether it means leaving 2/3 up top in order to launch more attacks I’m not sure. In reality I think it’ll be somewhere in between. We can’t play too high a line as we don’t have quick enough CBs / a good enough sweeper keeper, but we also can’t leave too many men forward as we’re still one of the weakest teams in the division.

The main message from Maloney seems to be that we need improvement in both boxes. Defensively that’s correct as we’re often let down by individual errors rather than wider structural problems, but going forward it’s very much between the boxes. We don’t do much in the opponent’s box because we don’t get there very often! Maloney has to change that.

To be honest most of this is still guesswork for me. Obviously, we know bits and bobs about how he wants his team to set up but until we see it live we won’t know for sure. I do expect us to be more solid defensively but am still unsure about how we’ll build our attacks. Maloney’s spent the past 8 months visiting clubs and developing ideas on how to set his team up to attack so hopefully that shows tonight.

Final Thoughts

It’s a huge game. Latics are desperate for points and after the weekend results we have the chance to move 22nd, which considering how awful we’ve been recently is quite something. It won’t be easy and Rovers are very good at home but if we can get something tonight it could genuinely be season defining.

I’m really interested to see how we set up, who plays and if the new signings look settled in the side. Every game is a must win now so lets hope Maloney gets off to a good start in charge.

Up them Tics!

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