Look, I know that some of my views about Latics aren’t exactly what you’d call populist. I’m also aware that I’ve been accused of having an agenda (or two), too aware in fact, so aware that I regularly find myself two thirds of the way through an article only to bin it off because I don’t really want other contributors to the site to get tarred with that mucky brush you’ve got ready for me.
But you know what? It’s pretty tiring going through that, and I enjoy the act of finishing a piece of writing more than I enjoy writing for the sake of it, so with apologies to Jimmy, Chris, Ian et al here goes with my thoughts on Latics’ prospects now that the festive period is over.
Don’t worry, be happy…
The consensus view seems to be that Latics fans have nothing to be worried about at this time. We’re on top of the league, with a good gap between us and the play-off places and we’ve got the best goal difference in the division; shut up moaning and be happy, eh!
Clearly some people have been moaning, I don’t think I’m one of them. People have been chucking abuse at players, which I think is ludicrous. People have even been booing, which is best left for Pantomimes (both real and metaphorical). I’m not one of life’s moaners but, equally, I don’t have the most cheery or happy clapper of demeanours. Just because I’m not walking around with a massive grin on my face doesn’t mean I’m not happy.
Of course I’m happy, for all the reasons above and also because we’re run, basically, by fans who’ve got the best interests of the club at heart. But being happy doesn’t mean I have to bury my head in the sand and clap my way from here to the victory parade in May, being happy doesn’t mean I can’t have concerns. Being happy doesn’t mean there aren’t things to worry about. Bobby McFerrin got it wrong – you can be happy and still worry.
I’d insert a clever comment about complacency here, but I don’t need to try that hard.
Complacency is the thing that worries me more than anything. We’re only half way through the season and there are people who think we should be acting like we’ve won the league already. Chances are, that sort of thinking is most likely reason that we won’t win the league. “But, we’re top of the league…”. You know the rest and it’s exactly my point.
Going off the poor showings that the likes of Alan McLaughlin and Jeff Peron have had in our Emporium of Shite polls suggests not many of you remember 1999-00, I wish I didn’t to be honest. That was the year we were sitting pretty at Christmas, unbeaten, on 54 points and with the best goal difference in the division.
The first half of that season was notable for me boring my mates with claims that we were a dull team that i hadn’t seen play well all season, that we were over reliant on one man who’d struggle to take his form into the second half of the season and although we were solid, we could really do with attacking a bit more. Of course, John Benson’s Latics missed out on promotion after clinging onto a play-off place. The result at Wembley might have been cruel, but it should never really have come to that.
I’m not trying to make out that I knew best then or that I know best now. I’m not saying that will happen again, but it could and 18 years on, I find myself with largely the same concerns as I had that season.
Even better if…
It seems that our best performances this season have happened either in the first month or so at home, before teams worked out just how strong a side we could turn out to be, and away from home, where sitting back for a draw is rarely an option for the opposition. Although there’s an argument that he doesn’t contribute to team play as much as he should we’ve been reliant on Nick Powell (albeit in a totally different way than we were Stuart Barlow) for goals and assists and whether it be injury or Aston Villa, there’s the constant threat that he might not carry that on past the next game he’s selected for.
And then there’s the lack of attacking verve. A strange criticism of a team that won 7-0 the other week and has the best goal difference in the division, but the opinion that we don’t attack as well as we could/should is hardly an obscure one. The reasons as to why this is vary though, ranging from a lack of pace, to our strikers being rubbish, to the supply to our strikers being rubbish, to there being no supply to our strikers, to us playing two defensive midfielders, to us playing the wrong full backs, to Nick Powell not pulling his finger out, to this rather detailed, footbally, but excellent all the same, analysis of our positioning in the Charlton game.
And… still… to some, none of this barely matters, as long as we get our two points per pair of games we’ll be fine, and you know, that’s as true as any criticism of our poor play (at home). Would you have taken eight points from the four games over Christmas? Of course you would, but given that we started off with a hammering, wouldn’t it have been even better to have 12, or 10 maybe? Wouldn’t it have been nice for that 7-0 win to kick start a run that would have really put ground between us and Blackburn. Wouldn’t it be great if we could close the season looking like a Championship side rather than a good League one team?
How do we do that then?
I suppose the good news is that we could choose to do nothing and probably still be ok (providing we can keep Dan Burn, Nick Powell and Will Grigg on the pitch). If we want to do even better then, I think that, Paul Cook needs to ask himself a few questions ahead of the next time we’re going to face a team that’s going to try and sit back against us…
- How can I get people running at the opposition back line at pace?
- How can I create a bit of chaos and unpredictability around the opposition 18-yard box?
- How can I get my midfielders inbetween the opposition midfield and defence?
- How do I stop my midfield getting crowded as the full backs push on?
- Do I really need two players essentially playing in holding roles when the opposition aren’t that interested in breaking into our half?
I reckon all five of those can be answered without asking the Whelan’s to put their hands in their pockets. The sixth is a little more tricky, not least because it raises that old question of “how to play football”, but I think if we’re really going to look like a team ready to play at the level up from where we are, it’s worth asking…
- How do we start to really dominate possession in these games, put the opposition under constant pressure and stop them becoming scrappy affairs?
What was that? “Careful, your agenda’s showing”?
No, I’m not advocating a return to tikki-takka lite (although I would, given the chance) I just look at our team, at our squad and wonder why our midfield are bossing things, why the opposition are managing to make them look under pressure in possession, why they lose the ball so much? Some of that is down to the other team of course, but all too often it comes down to personnel.
I’ve said this on Twitter, I’ve said it on the podcast and I’ve been pilloried for it, but here goes again. I think that dropping Sam Morsy would lead to us becoming a more fluid, dominant side.
That’s not part of some purported anti-Morsy crusade, it’s just MY OPINION that what he brings to the team is largely unnecessary at the moment, that our more progressive midfield partnership at the moment would be Power and Evans and that the long term aim should be a pairing of MacDonald and one of those two. Any of those options would give us more imagination and momentum going forward whilst still giving adequate cover to a defence that is more than capable at this level.
Of course that’s not going to happen, as probably will none of the above. Paul Cook has got his team where it is, at the top of the league, by playing the way they are playing. He doesn’t look like a man who’d change a winning team, so why change a winning method? Of course that’s his prerogative.
And I won’t complain, I’ve nothing to complain about, I’ll possibly not even mention it again. But I feel a lot better now I’ve got it off my chest, so thanks for reading…
See you on the other side…