Wigan Athletic make the short trip north deeper into Lancashire as we take on Preston North End in another local derby in the Championship. It’s a ground we’ve struggled at in recent years but this weekend gives us the chance to put an end to our dismal record at Deepdale, backed by a huge contingent of travelling Latics fans.
Despite what the league table suggests, Latics have been impressive in recent weeks. New boss Shaun Maloney, who is approaching one month in charge at the club, has improved the team’s performances greatly and seems to have instilled a sense of confidence on and off the pitch which was much needed after a tricky spell over Christmas.
Opponents Preston have had their tricky spell in the past month or so with one win in six. There seems to be a lot of frustration in their fanbase around the lack of investment and improvement in the club, and with the side sat in 14th it looks like it’ll be another pretty boring season for North End. How Latics fans would long for one of those!
Latics Team News
Last weekend’s game with Norwich saw us plagued with more injury problems, and of course we were hit in the position where we’ve struggled so much already. As if having Jason Kerr, Martin Kelly and Omar Rekik out injured wasn’t enough, star man Jack Whatmough hobbled off after a collision that damaged his right knee.
Shaun Maloney confirmed in his pre-match presser that Whatmough hasn’t trained all week, but didn’t rule him out completely. He also confirmed Omar Rekik has trained this week and is back in contention for the squad so that definitely softens the blow of losing Whatmough somewhat. Hopefully the knock wears off quickly and he’s back for the Birmingham game.
Steven Caulker replaced Whatmough on Saturday and looked as solid as you’d hope he would. The biggest compliment I can give him is that we didn’t miss Whatmough once he went off, so if he can perform to a similar standard in this game we’ll be very happy. Alongside Charlie Hughes and Ryan Nyambe he commanded the back 3 well and deserves to keep his place.
The wing-back positions are becoming evermore tricky to pick. Darikwa and McClean have both been solid, particularly the skipper who is playing some of his best football in a Wigan shirt right now, but both also have players ready to take their places. If Omar Rekik comes back in at LCB you’d expect Ryan Nyambe to challenge at RWB, whilst Tom Pearce netted twice for our U21s in midweek and is ready to take McClean’s spot on the left.
It feels like I’m praising our midfield partnership of Max Power and Christ Tiehi every week and there’s good reason for that. They’ve made us so much better on the ball whilst also providing a wonderful screen in front of our defence, allowing us to keep three clean sheets in our last four. If we can get a little bit more creativity out of them that’d be ideal.
In attacking areas there are some big decisions to make. The trio of Callum Lang, Will Keane and Ashley Fletcher registered more chances than any other combination on Saturday but failed to take them which ultimately cost us the three points. However, the work they did to make those chances happen was superb and you’d back them to take those chances more often than not.
Players like Charlie Wyke, Thelo Aasgaard and Danel Sinani (who missed the Norwich game due to being on loan from the Canaries) will all be chomping at the bit to get a go from the start and with Shaun Maloney clearly not afraid to make changes pre and during matches I wouldn’t be surprised to see one or two come in for this one.
Maloney also hinted at the potential for some youth players to make the squad for this game in his pre match presser too. He was very impressed with the performances of several young players in the recent U21s game and gave five of them the chance to train with the squad this week. If they’ve made enough of an impression on him we might see them get in the 18 for this game which would be nice to see.
An Opposition View
As always I’ve called in the help of somebody far more knowledgeable about Preston North End than myself to contribute to this section of the preview!
1) A lot of football has been played since these two sides last met on the opening day of the 2022/23 season. Can you give us a quick run through of how things have gone at Preston this season?
“PNE’s start to the season was pretty bizarre. They scored two goals and conceded zero in seven games, winning two of those and drawing five. North End have struggled to score goals and win games at home all season, with their mid-table position largely down to a strong away record and those early clean sheets. PNE have picked up some great wins on the road, but Ryan Lowe doesn’t half need to find a solution to the Deepdale struggles.” [@GHodgsonSport]
2) It feels like this is often the case with PNE, we’re approaching the run in period of the season and you don’t have much to play for at all! Would you say this season is already looking like a bit of a right off?
“Yeah pretty much. North End have never really been in any relegation trouble since they gained promotion in 2015, which cannot be taken for granted. But in that time, there’ve only been a couple of seasons where PNE have really been pushing for a play off place. It’s 14 years since Preston last made the Championship play-offs and supporters, as you can imagine, are desperate to feel that excitement again. They have seen so many other clubs in the area have their time in the top flight.” [@GHodgsonSport]
3) Goals have been the problem for North End all season, just 28 in 32 games. Moves were made in January to change that but it doesn’t seem to have worked, so what do you think is the biggest issue at the top end of the pitch? Personnel or tactics?
“Emil Riis was ruled out for the season at the start of the year, but PNE’s squad really lacks pace and 1v1 ability. It is full of honest, hard working , committed pros but North End do lack that spark of quality and they have relied quite heavily on the loan market too. You’re then looking to young strikers to step up and deliver the big moments. Tactically, PNE do often look quite rigid in their 3-5-2 shape and there’s no doubt that this squad should be able to produce better than the second worst goal record in the league. Ched Evans was viewed as third/fourth choice heading into this season, but he is the club’s top scorer with seven goals in 24 appearances.” [@GHodgsonSport]
4) Our record at Deepdale is troubling to say the least, but there’s hope this is the game to end our torrid run there. Who from the Preston squad are you hoping keeps the 3 points in PR1?
“Any of them! It’s been a long old wait for a league win at Deepdale – November 1st the last. Alvaro Fernandez can provide a threat and some excitement down the left flank, while Tom Cannon has been trusted to start every game since his arrival from Everton. He has had a couple of chances to score, but is yet to find the back of the net. It’d be nice to see the young striker get up and running in Preston colours – his effort and endeavour has merited a goal so far.” [@GHodgsonSport]
Latics’ tactical set up has been rather flexible ever since Shaun Maloney took charge this time last month. A lot of what he’s set us up to do has been designed around the specific roles of players rather than specific positions, which is something a lot more managers are doing nowadays. Pep Guardiola and Mikel Arteta both pick their teams based on roles / specific tasks a player needs to carry out rather than just filling a specific area of the pitch.
Obviously we’re not playing at that level and we’re still very much in the infancy of this new tactical approach. However, having looked a bit more closely at the set up of our team in recent weeks it’s become apparent that our players are being picked for their roles, not their positions. Think Ryan Nyambe in what everyone would describe as a LCB position or James McClean as a sort of hybrid LWB / LM position. They are the areas of the pitch they play in but rather than just being picked there to fill space on the pitch, they have specific and specialised roles to perform which make things more natural for them.
Starting with Nyambe, it became clear very quickly into his time at Latics that he was a fantastic defender that didn’t offer much going forward. We saw him used at RCB quite often under Leam where he looked pretty good, but under Maloney he’s been used on the left of defence more often than not. He’s not a natural on that side and on the ball occasionally struggles to manoeuvre the ball off his weaker foot, but the role he plays for the team is essential to allowing us to remain compact and solid.
Firstly, a lot of right wingers like to cut in onto their left foot and shoot. Against a left footed LB that means attacking their weaker foot on the inside and, in theory, having an easier route to goal. With Nyambe’s tackling foot being his right this means opponents are reluctant to cut inside because they know how good a defender he is, instead choosing to take the ball down the outside further away from goal and maybe try to dig a cross out or something like that. This is exactly what we want.
By forcing opponents further away from goal we immediately make ourselves less likely to concede. If you took your idea of a LCB and imagined the perfect player for that role, Ryan Nyambe probably wouldn’t be it. But in this system with the job he has been told to do he suits it much better than expected. The role he has been asked to play suits him far more than the ‘position’ does, and you’ll probably start to see a lot more analytical pieces ignoring the concept of ‘positions’ in the future.
The other Latics player that fits this description is James McClean. Defining his position is pretty tough, as some of you will know I’ve tried it and come up with a different answer most weeks, but when looking through the ‘roles not positions’ lens it becomes slightly more clear. He is essentially tasked with being our width on the left side, covering the entire left flank and providing an option at all times.
I spoke about it in a recent preview too, the width he provides also helps stretch the play by such a distance that pockets of space start to appear in our opponents defensive structure. Whether it be dragging their RB out and creating room in the half space, or forcing a midfielder to come out and track him which leaves more space centrally, the role he plays is hugely important to our build up. He doesn’t even have to touch the ball to make an impact in the game.
He also has a lot of defensive responsibilities too, mainly doubling up against wingers with Nyambe or tracking them to the byline once they’ve been forced wide (as mentioned above). Once that’s done McClean is tasked with getting high and wide once again, which is why you can’t really class him as a WB as his starting position is too high. Because of his incredible athleticism and fitness, and because he doesn’t excel at defending nor attacking currently, he’s a solid all action left sided player.
This average positions map shows how high and wide McClean positions himself. When compared to Darikwa you can see that it’s not really possible to give him a traditional, defined name for the position he plays. He’s almost as high up the pitch as Danel Sinani was yet made more defensive duels than anyone else in the team that day. Basically, rather than call him LB, LWB, LM or LW we need to start defining him as ‘Our left side’…
Our record at Deepdale is brutal. Our last two visits have an aggregate score of 7-0 to the hosts and in front of another packed out away end, we really can’t afford another drubbing. They’re winless at home since November and it has that sickening feeling of one of those games where our opponents get their season back on track at our expense. I pray with everything I have that’s not the case today.
Preston games don’t have many goals and ours haven’t lately either. I expect a tense game for the most part but we just have to be more clinical in front of goal to ensure we take home the much needed three points. We have a real chance of getting something here so let’s make sure we do!
Up the Tics!