Despite the fact it’s only been two weeks it feels like a lifetime since I last wrote about Wigan Athletic. I wonder why…
All sorts has gone on in the past fortnight and to be honest I’ve not felt up to writing anything about it. I put out a few tweets here and there but it all felt rather hopeless and with so many other Latics fans creating excellent content around the issues I didn’t feel the need to add to things. Therefore I’m fresh and ready to get going with these last 8 match previews of the season!
After the three point deduction we received our survival bid has taken another hit and every game is must win now. This game, given the form of both sides, is a very winnable game, more than most have been this season and more than most will be after this. It’s that time of year where we usually kick into gear so hopefully this is the start of that.
Visitors QPR are having their own issues on and off the pitch. Off it they’ve recently released financial reports confirming they operate at a huge loss per season, and on it they’ve won just once since mid December. It’s seen them drop from play off chasers to relegation worriers and it’s up to us to pile on the misery today!
Latics Team News
Despite having the international break to recover it looks like we’ll still be without a couple of key figures this weekend. Jack Whatmough and Jordan Cousins, despite being back in training, look set to miss out according to Shaun Maloney’s latest interview, but young defender Charlie Hughes should be good to go which is nice.
Our internationals Ryan Nyambe, Steven Caulker, James McClean, Danel Sinani, Thelo Aasgaard and Josh Magennis all seem to have come back injury free and therefore I expect them all to feature in the matchday squad. They also haven’t missed much training either given the player’s strike at the beginning of the week which is good I suppose!
One position where both players have been in training is the goalkeeping department. Ben Amos and Jamie Jones continue to battle it out for the number 1 spot and whilst Amos it’s currently Amos’ shirt to lose you’re never sure what to expect from him. We need whoever gets the nod to be on it week after week, starting this afternoon.
Assuming the injury news as mentioned above is correct I’m expecting it to be the same back 5 that played away at Watford last time out. I’d actually say it’s a pretty strong unit, particularly given the fact there’s an argument to say none are definitely our first choice options. You’d probably say Kelly – Whatmough – Rekik is our best three so fair play to Hughes, Caulker and Nyambe for being impressive.
With wingbacks McClean and Darikwa outside them I’m pretty happy with that set up. Obviously it’s not got tonnes of star quality but if we can get them to click and play to their full potential I do believe we’ve got the ability to win enough games. Jimmy Mac picked up his 97th and 98th caps for Ireland recently too so he’s on a high.
Outside of football he also recently announced he’s been diagnosed with Autism, as has his daughter Willow-Ivy. It’s commendable and inspirational from him and everyone at the club is so proud of him.
The newfound best midfield pairing in the Championship is ready to take the field again! Christ Tiehi and Max Power have developed a wonderful partnership and are undoubtedly our strongest part of the pitch. The midfield battle is always important but as the home side it’s vital we set the tone early and these two will decide whether we do that or not.
In forward areas we’ve started to see the best from Danel Sinani which is good news. He’s a player that can make a real difference when on form and alongside players like Lang, Keane, Aasgaard and Fletcher he’ll be important. Now would be the perfect time for him to net his first goal in a Latics shirt…
An Opposition View
1) QPR are in a very different place to where you were the last time we met. From play off hopefuls under Mick Beale to relegation threatened under Gareth Ainsworth, can you sum up these past few months at QPR for us?
“Well, I appreciate I’m talking to a Wigan fan, and you’ve had one as well, so not to come over all ‘first world problems’, but it’s been an absolute nightmare. We were initially very hopeful Beale would be this bright, innovative coach who would drive us to every greater heights. Sadly, he was looking for an out almost as soon as he came in, spoke to several other clubs, and bailed to Rangers not long after that Wigan game, which always felt likely – he was Instagramming his days out in the directors box with the sporting director up there even while he was still here. To be fair, this long losing run did start under him, so you just wonder what he found here that made him so keen to get the hell out, and whether that had started to manifest even before he left. The extra problem with this, while QPR strenuously deny it, is that at the very least he’d been heavily involved with the summer recruitment, and actually it feels more like players such as Leon Balogun, Jake Clarke-Salter, Kenneth Paal, Tim Iroegbunam and others came here specifically to play for him. He made a big deal about his past relationships with a lot of our signings. Paal left a pregnant girlfriend back in Holland to come here, and Beale had a long story about how he’d first spotted him at an U11s tournament in Turkey or some such guff. Beale said himself “I’ve asked these boys to come on this journey with me and buy in, how would it look if I was the first one to jump ship?” shortly before he was the first one to jump ship. With the exception of Tim, the performance level and the availability of basically everybody who came here last summer has dropped off a cliff since he walked out. Paal, Balogun, Roberts, Richards, Laird, Clarke-Salter have all missed weeks and months of action. When they have played their performances have been a shadow of what they were under Beale. There’s a feeling they came to play for this inspirational guy, he’s abandoned them, and they’ve just gone ‘fck it’. We’ve gone into a complete freefall: two wins in 23 games. At times recently we’ve been missing all ten first choice outfielders through injury and suspension, so any team would struggle with that but particularly one that’s got one of the division’s smaller budgets. But the players that are playing are way, way below the standards they’ve set themselves previously – people like Rob Dickie, Jimmy Dunne, Seny Dieng, Chris Willock, have just collapsed in form and confidence. The team looks absolutely bereft and it’s difficult to see where wins are coming from. We’re conceding goals at a rate of three a game – worst defence in the league now along with yourselves. We get a 1-0 win against Watford completely out of the blue and you wonder if they’ve turned a corner, then lose 6-1 at Blackpool that Tuesday. It’s been horrible. A lot of angry questions among the online contingent now being asked about how this team was put together, why Mark Warburton was jettisoned, why our myriad academy coaches haven’t been able to produce a single lad who can come in and do a job for us while we’ve got ten first teamers out, what the director of football is doing and so on. The numbers still going to games is remarkable all things considered but the atmosphere at matches just seems completely apathetic and resigned to it – there were even fans still clapping them off and asking for shirts at Blackpool, Birmingham lost 6-1 there last year and there was a riot.” [@loftforwords]
“Well we’re a unique club at QPR. If you look at the stats the last time a team was relegated after being top was Millwall in 1996, so we’d be in very rare company if it were to happen to us! What’s probably more the case though is that Beale almost lucked out for a couple of months whilst he was here. The team has been in decline since the start of last year, so this is just a continuation of that. It’s also fairly clear that this goes beyond who the manager is. Mark Warburton, Beale, Critchley and now Ainsworth just can’t get a tune out of this group of players.” [@AnalyticsQPR]
2) Neil Critchley, someone I hoped Latics would appoint at some point , didn’t last long at your club and now R’s legend Gareth Ainsworth is at the helm. Has there been improvements under him or is it still much of the same?
“Critchley, right man wrong time. Might have been a good replacement for Warburton initially, but mid-season taking over a team that was already losing and had been abandoned by one of his best mates… not a good gig. After we lost at Fleetwood in the FA Cup, and got thrashed at Hull in the league, he openly and publicly questioned the players’ mentality and attitude, said the whole division had watched them collapse last season and formed an opinion about them, and at the time I was loving that because it’s exactly what I think and feel about these players as well. Sadly, modern football, the power is all with the players and if you do that you’ve got to hope they go with you and respond positively otherwise you get what Critchley got which was a string of defeats and the sack because they weren’t having him and his position was basically untenable. Ainsworth has come in, he’s missing ten players, there’s zero confidence in the group, they’ve been in thick relegation form for the best part of a year now apart from that flurry under Beale, he’s outside a transfer window… it’s a hospital pass. He’s only taken it because of his connection with the club and relationship with the fans here, there’s no way he’d have left what he had at Wycombe for a state like this at any other club. We’ve gone very long, very direct, very basic, very early. A complete departure and change from the style of the previous four managers we’ve had here. Against Birmingham last week we had multiple players in the team with pass completion at or around 50% – basically giving the ball away every other time they have it because they’re just turfing it down the field. It’s bracing, it’s attritional. We wait to see whether this is just what he’s got to do now with what he’s got available, or whether that’s us now. He’s still got Willock and Chair to come back in who are the main technicians. The passing it around at the back that we’d been doing for the previous 12 months was every bit as boring and dire to watch to be fair, and with the budget we’ll be working to going forwards perhaps it had got to the stage where we have to accept the players we can afford just aren’t good enough to do that purist style. But, yeah, the performance last week against Birmingham was bleak.” [@loftforwords]
“We all thought we’d turned the corner after beating Watford, only to be brought down to earth, massively, by Blackpool. It’s been very direct and long ball stuff, as expected, since GA took over. Can’t honestly detect an improvement, but to be fair we’ve had a lot of injuries to key players which hasn’t helped him. But as I said earlier, a lot of the problems at Rangers are beyond whoever is in the dugout.” [@AnalyticsQPR]
3) What do you think the reason for this drop off in form has been? Like Wigan you’re a club that never feel far away from a crisis, would you say all yours have come at once this season?
“Our problem and our salvation is our owners. Unlike Wigan, we have incredibly rich owners who so far have been extremely reliable in funding the club. As of the latest set of accounts, QPR loses £2m a month, every month, every season, season after season. The owners pay that bill, and then just convert the debt to equity, so while we’re right on the cusp of another FFP breach medium term, in theory we don’t have to worry about our existence and hassle like you’ve had this season. They’re also continuing to pay the £17m FFP fine we got for our ignoring the rules under Redknapp, and they’re most of the way through a £20m+ new training ground (£7m funded with a supporter bond, but still). So, they’re committed, paying their way, still investing, but they’ve been incompetent and these costs are in large part down to their mistakes. We had three seasons in the Premier League, we got back there straight away after a relegation for a big second chance, these were the chances to cement and solidify and build the club for decades to come, and we missed that boat twice. Their decision making, manager appointments, manager sackings, player trading, strategies have been, at my most kind, terribly naïve, and their critics would say just plain terrible. The clubs our size doing brilliant things – Brighton, sadly Brentford – have inspirational, switched on owners that are into everything and drive the thing – ours simply aren’t that. But who’s going to buy this club marooned in an ageing stadium, with nowhere to move to, costing £2m a month, with a fine, and a training ground still to pay? It would cost you £50m+ just to get the keys. Why would you do it? I’ve started hearing “sack the board” chants, but a board isn’t something you can sack, you have to replace them, otherwise we’re dead as of next payroll date. We’ve been killed by their incompetence, but we’re only kept alive by their benevolence.” [@loftforwords]
“Everyone has their theories. Many Rs fans question the motivation of a lot of the players, and I’d agree. For me, it’s a combination of many players here knowing they won’t be here next season (because we need to start selling many of them), an over-reliance on loans players, and the fact that many of the summer’s signings came in to play for Michael Beale and the project he sold to them. Injuries to key players such as Willock, Chair & Dykes haven’t helped. CW & IC are the only real creative players we have so their absence is keenly felt.” [@AnalyticsQPR]
4) Despite the poor run of form you’ve still got some very talented players at your disposal. Who are you hoping will be the difference maker at the DW against Latics?
“The team we’ve been putting out in the last few weeks is the weakest I’ve seen at QPR really since the days of administration and our last relegation from this league in 2000/01. The 6-1 at Blackpool is as bad a performance as I have ever seen from this club in 30 years of home and away support. You’ve got Osman Kakay, a League One full back at best, playing out of position one side of the defence so Aaron Drewe, a youth teamer whose last loan was Oxford City, can play the other – I feel like I’m kicking puppies here, but it is what it is. Albert Adomah, a dad in a dads and lads match, filling in at wing back last week. Sam Field, central midfielder, playing left centre back. Massive Chris Martin brought out of retirement at Bristol City and now not only our main striker but also the bloody captain as well. The team as it is doesn’t win another game, I don’t think, so starting this Saturday and moving forwards it’s down to which one of the missing dozen get fit, come back, look interested and play well. Ethan Laird, Chris Willock and Leon Balogun are the first three cabs off that rank this weekend and, look, we are so, so poor, that if those three are fit to play and are up for the challenge they can’t help but make a significant difference. If we can add Ilias Chair and Kenneth Paal to that ASAP we might have just about enough to be ok.” [@loftforwords]
“We’re all hoping the Willock returns on Saturday and that he’ll be a big difference maker. He hasn’t looked fit all season but he’s still a big hope for us. We might even see the return of Leon Balogun who hasn’t played since Beale left leading to all kinds of speculation. He’s been a big miss though purely as we need to give Dickie and Dunne a rest if we can” [@AnalyticsQPR]
Gareth Ainsworth’s methods as a ‘route one’ football manager look to have carried into this new job at QPR. In his first five games in charge they’ve averaged almost 20 more long passes per game than they had done previously and there’s been a clear shift of style, which admittedly is also partly down to injuries to several key players.
However, despite this new direct approach they’ve actually had more possession in three of the five games under Ainsworth. With players like Ethan Laird and Chris Willock looking to be back fit and ready to play they’ll be much better technically and in theory should be able to keep the ball more. However, I’m expecting Latics to look to dominate the ball, especially early on.
It’s no secret how Shaun Maloney wants us to play. Three defenders confident at progressing the ball with dribbles or passes, wing backs high and wide looking to stretch the pitch as much as possible, the midfield pairing brave in possession and energetic enough to create overloads on either side of the pitch.
Going forward bravery is the word again. The willingness and the ability to make incisive passes, direct runs and goal scoring opportunities for themselves and others. I’m not sure we’ve seen that happen enough so far but I am sure when Maloney brings his own players in it’ll happen more and more. Until then we’ve got to find solutions with what we have.
Personally I want to see us firing efforts on goal from range more often. I know the emphasis seems to be on a more patient approach, and that’s in football generally nowadays, but long shots can move the needle and provide unexpected moments unlike anything else. It’s no secret we find it difficult to break teams down patiently so why not test the keeper from range?
We’re in the bottom third of the division when it comes to shots attempted from outside the area and I really think that hinders us. Even if the ball doesn’t go directly in, a rebound like we saw against Sunderland at home or a wicked deflection might take the ball into the net simply because we had a go. As the saying goes, if you don’t buy a ticket you can’t win the lottery…
I like the way Maloney wants to play and against Coventry we saw some really nice patterns of play put into action. After more time on the training ground I’m sure they’ve been fine tuned even more and we might start seeing a slightly more well oiled machine turn up which would be lovely.
This is about as must win as it gets for Latics. Whilst it’s never over until it’s over I get the feeling most people will lose all hope of survival if we don’t secure three points this afternoon. If there’s anybody who can pull off the great escape it’s us though so let’s get right behind them in the hope we can do it.
We’ve got to feed on QPR’s doubts and frustration. Don’t give them any early momentum and see where it takes us. Hopefully it takes us to a much needed win…