In a display which echoed many from the golden period of the season when in possession, Town’s slump in form was extended by habitual failure when out of it.
Lacking the essential slices of luck which permeated the rise to the top of the league, this was still a self inflicted defeat which will test the manager’s search for an answer to persistent defensive frailties which extend beyond the nervous and naive home debut of Stankovic, however bad his performance.
David Wagner’s search for central defensive solutions saw two new combinations tried in a confidence sapping home defeat to a physical, tactically astute Wigan who were, nevertheless, grateful to a shockingly lenient referee who waived away two eminently awardable penalties with brazen incompetence.
Captain Mark Hudson and Stankovic were paired together for the first time, presumably on the basis of their limited culpability for recent defensive debacles, but Hudson’s hamstring injury put paid to the brave new world after just 7 minutes, forcing yet another new pairing as Schindler joined the Slovenian when a revitalising spell on the bench would have been hugely more preferable; particularly as it forced the German onto an unfamiliar right side of the pair.
Starting well, Town pressed the visitors relentlessly and created presentable chances, particularly for Kachunga, whose slightly mistimed header just cleared the bar following good work from Van La Parra.
Though often infuriating, Van La Parra is, at least, direct and his running at defenders is a contrast to the painfully slow build up practised by his team mates, and a well drilled Wigan side were given far too much time to set up defensively for most of the game.
They were nearly caught out by an excellent move which released Smith to fire a cross in which just eluded Kachunga at the back post. A goal at that point would have capped a very good opening, with little seen of Wigan as an attacking force.
While there were to be a few more notable attacks worthy of overwhelming possession statistics, they were to be oases in a desert of painfully laboured movement sadly lacking in spontaneity and littered with damaging, basic errors.
As the game matured, so did Wigan. Their defensive resilience improved, helped by some lame crossing of the ball from both wings (not helped, in any way at all, by the lack of presence in the box) and when they had the ball, they used it with intelligence and, crucially, pace.
The warning signs of the visitors’ ability to exploit a high back line arrived after 20 minutes. Twice, Wildschutz’ pace saw him carve out two good chances; the first he screwed wide and the second brought a comfortable save from Ward – neither finish was worthy of the opportunities.
However, with the vulnerability exposed, Town’s nervousness without the ball ratcheted up and a collective neurosis descended on the frail back four which was not to be dispelled for the rest of the game.
Kasey Palmer, his inexperience shining through at times, tried one trick too many just over the halfway line in a futile attempt to find space – a fault which surfaces too often – and he lost possession. Van La Parra’s insipid challenge set Wigan free and Wildschut swatted away Stankovic’s equally weak attempt to stop him marauding down the right, with most of the home players stranded further forward. Mooy, to his credit, tried hard to do what he would be called upon to do again later in the game, but he was unable to catch the fleet footed Dutchman.
With only Hogg making a concerted attempt to cover, Wildschut’s ball in to the box clipped off him and set up Burke for an easy conversion.
As much as the goal was against the run of play, Town’s inability to heed the previous warnings of Wigan’s ability to break quickly and smartly was a huge frustration and the (admittedly rather wild) early season optimism drifted away into the cold night air.
A first half which promised much but delivered too little after the first quarter prolonged the late Autumn misery around a club on such a high just a few short weeks ago, and Wigan finished the stronger side with another chance for Wildschut spurned.
In mitigation, the central defensive disruption hadn’t helped and a disgraceful tackle on Scannell after just 3 minutes by Warnock (a serial dirty bastard) saw the winger limp through to just before the end of the half before finally succumbing. It did seem strange that he carried on for so long, however.
Town were in a hurry to make amends in the second half and applied intense pressure on the visitors from the whistle in the second half. A weak Wells header was scant reward for a dynamic start, but the Bermudian made up for it with an excellent turn that took Wigan’s defensive line out of the game for a crucial few seconds having been fed by Stankovic in space. His delivery was also excellent, just eluding Smith before finding its way to Mooy who finished with some ease.
With almost a full half to play, this was Town’s opportunity to turn the screw on their opponents, and the best spell of the game for the home side extended until the hour mark with much quicker play, good interchanging and a more convincing intensity.
At this point, there seemed to be only one winner but a clear cut chance couldn’t be created for all the improved approach play and self immolation wasn’t far away.
Another promising spell of pressure was ended when Wells gave up possession cheaply. The slight danger appeared to be easily dealt with by Stankovic, but his winning tackle fell to the wonderfully named Max Power whose clever chip released Wildschut’s pace against a flat footed home defence. Putting his previous rather feeble efforts behind him, the speedy front man finished with cool ease and accomplishment and all the frustrations temporarily banished by the equaliser came roaring back to the surface.
With the platform for victory diminished considerably, Town reverted to the nervous, slow build up that improves possession statistics while not affecting the one that counts.
For all Mooy’s quality, and he was easily the best performer on the home side, including stopping two dangerous first half breakaways by the visitors, the play lacked cohesion again and Van La Parra’s decision making frequently negated his positive running with the ball and the overall standard of balls in to the box by him and others was poor.
In the Championship, as we have seen on many occasions, moments turn games and the sight of a stubbornly unmoved referee and linesman (who was in a far better position to see) as Wells was clipped from behind in the area was baffling and massively frustrating in equal measure.
When Kachunga was charged in the back and felled was met with a similarly insouciant response, it was hardly surprising that Warnock’s clearance with his upper arm while on the floor wasn’t even spotted.
Town’s defensive weaknesses were, undoubtedly, the main cause of this damaging defeat – Wigan had quite a few negligently assisted breakaway chances in the game, not just the two chances they converted – they were clearly robbed of golden opportunities to equalise and have another platform to go for a confidence boosting win.
Had one of the penalties been given, the outcome may well have changed, but the yawning defensive cracks which have condemned the club to a grim run of form would still be dominating post match discussion; a team which struggles to convert possession in to goals will always have to rely on resilience at the back and the current fragility is extreme and not obviously solvable in the near future with injuries, loss of form and suspension (Smith) complicating matters and reducing options dramatically.
There is, without doubt, a lot of talent in the squad and while overwhelming possession is easily mocked when not accompanied by results, it does, at least, provide some hope that the rather mechanical, over engineered performances are capable of being turned around.
With the benefit of hindsight, too many changes to the central defence have merely compounded problems. The lack of pace afflicting all the choices – with the possible exception of Hefele, though he is hardly lightening – is worrisome to say the least. Playing higher up the pitch against a team intent on defence was understandable, but persisting with it against Wildschut’s pace was horribly wrong.
The problems up front are less acute but more entrenched. Wells is clearly unsuited to the role despite his one bit of good play which lead to the equaliser and his burst through which should have lead to a penalty – it was unfortunate that Wagner’s decision to bench him in favour of the stronger Kachunga had no real chance to flourish with Scannell’s injury, though the availability of Bunn made more sense as a substitute.
A depleted squad now takes on a resurgent Blackburn – replete with 2 big forwards and an excellent set piece exponent in Marshall, and it is difficult to see a reviving result at Ewood Park in the current circumstances.