Preview: Wigan Athletic

Back-to-back wins over the past week have cemented some genuinely impressive form from Coventry City since the end of September. While the points gap from the bottom three means that the Sky Blues cannot afford to rest on their laurels, this team hasn’t just turned a corner but has been one of the better teams in this division over a sustained period now.

A win in this upcoming home game against Wigan Athletic would guarantee that Coventry City would be outside of the relegation zone by the time the league pauses for the World Cup. The Latics may be winless in their past six games, but have the sixth-best away form in the division. Beating teams they are expected to at the CBS Arena has been one of the key things that this Sky Blues side has yet to do this season, there should be a sense of wariness heading into this fixture.

Expected Line-Up

Possible Line-Up (3-4-2-1): Wilson; Rose, McFadzean, Panzo; Eccles, Hamer, Sheaf, Bidwell; O'Hare, Allen; Gyokeres.

With only the possible return of Callum Doyle to selection consideration adding to Mark Robins’ options for this game, the manager will continue to have to make use of the limited hand he has to play currently.

The one area in which the Mark Robins has been able to rotate has been in attacking midfield, where switching between Callum O’Hare and Kasey Palmer has proved a successful formula of late. Being able to hone the efforts of two highly-energetic creative players over short bursts is working well for the team right now, and any temptation to try and start the two together is tempered by Jamie Allen also being in good form in the secondary attacking midfield role. That being the case, it is Callum O’Hare’s turn to step into the starting role for this game.

Elsewhere, the other key decisions for Mark Robins to make are in defence, where the potential return of Callum Doyle leaves the manager with a call to make as to whether to keep the important figure of Kyle McFadzean in the side or to bring in a younger, more technically-proficient performer to help the team in a game they could end up with a lot of the ball in. With Wigan Athletic having several physically-prepossessing strike options, the sensible call would be to keep McFadzean in the heart of the defence.

The other call to make is whether to keep Jack Burroughs at left wing-back or to bring Jake Bidwell back in. Whether that happens will depend on the exact reason why Bidwell was rested at the weekend. If it was to keep the experienced left-back out of the firing line as he sits on four yellow cards ahead of the 19-game cut-off for a one-match suspension, that Burroughs may keep his place. It it was simply a rest for Bidwell, then he is more likely to return to the starting XI.

Last Time We Met

It was in the meek, surrender stage of that once-promising full Tony Mowbray season at Coventry City when the Sky Blues made the trip up to a promotion-bound Wigan Athletic side. In contrast to the energetic, devastating performance that James Maddison, Ruben Lameiras, Adam Armstrong et al put in on the opening day of that campaign, Coventry played like a team going through the motions – Tony Mowbray even had to be reminded that he had initially named too many loan players in his matchday squad.

A second-half Will Grigg goal gave Wigan Athletic the win that Coventry City were perfectly happy to hand them. A penalty save from Reice Charles-Cook later on was the only sign of defiance from the Sky Blues in this game.

The Opposition

The Manager – Leam Richardson

A long-time assistant to Paul Cook, Richardson had shown little inclination of being interested in becoming a manager in his own right until he stepped into the breach with Wigan Athletic in financial meltdown and heading towards League Two around two years ago. After leading the club to unlikely salvation from relegation, Richardson was backed by the club’s new owners to put together a promotion-winning side a year later, and did so with a team built around experienced, proven third-tier performers.

A positive start to life in the Championship – with the Latics just two points off the play-offs before this six-game winless run – has been undermined by atrocious home form. Wigan Athletic are effectively two different teams, the one that can’t score and leaks goals for fun at home and the resolute, competitive away team. There isn’t really a good reason why that is the case, except for Wigan’s core of steady, experienced performers perhaps suiting games where the onus is on the opposition to take proceedings to them.

Who To Look Out For?

Possible Line-Up (3-4-3): Jones; Kerr, Whatmough, Tilte; Darikwa, Naylor, Power, McClean; Broadhead, Keane, Wyke.

Having made few notable additions to the promotion-winning squad over the summer, Wigan Athletic are, for better and worse, that same side. The core of this team is players in their late 20s and early 30s who have been top performers at League One level and solid performers in the Championship for much of their careers. That means that while there may be a limit on their potential, there is a consistent, reliable level of performance.

One of the most noticeable elements of this Wigan Athletic squad is just how many strikers they have to call upon. The star man is Will Keane, who fits the physical profile of a target-man but has excelled in dropping between the lines to link play before getting into the penalty area to finish things off in a Championship version of Harry Kane. There are five other strike options for Leam Richardson to utilise alongside Keane, with Callum Lang and Nathan Broadhead providing skill and pace, Josh Magennis and Charlie Wyke as genuine target-men, as well as Ashley Fletcher.

On top of those six strike options, Thelo Aasgard is the other source of attacking verve in this Wigan side. Part of an academy that has noticeably improved in productivity since a certain Gregor Rioch was lured away from the Alan Higgs Centre when the Latics were in the Premier League, Aasgard is an impudent and skilful attacking midfield player who can be devastating running directly at defenders. Richardson has used Aasgard cautiously over the past two seasons but he, along with Callum Lang and Nathan Broadhead, are the exciting young wildcards in what is otherwise a very experienced Wigan outfit.

The rest of the team is centred around keeping things tight and competing physically. In midfield, the duo of Tom Naylor and Max Power are a solid, reliable pairing to sit in front of either a back three or four. Jack Whatmough, Curtis Tilt and Jason Kerr are very consistent, physically competitive centre-backs. On the left side, James McClean may be another source of creativity for Wigan, but his approach of running directly on his flank and pinging accurate crosses in fits in with the general Latics back-end of the team ethos.

Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost

The challenge for Coventry City in this game is how they balance taking the game to a team that is likely to sit in and look to hit the Sky Blues on the counter, without leaving the back door completely open as they did in the recent home game against Rotherham United. A key part of this team’s recent success has been in sitting deep, soaking up pressure and being patient in waiting for opportunities at the other end, it has been apparent that the defence has been especially susceptible when the team pushes up the pitch.

Wigan Athletic are likely to leverage the physical presences of Charlie Wyke and Will Keane in their attack to both drag Coventry City’s defence out of position and to take advantage of James McClean’s deliveries down the left side of the pitch. With Nathan Broadhead – along with Callum Lang and Thelo Aasgard later on, if needed – pacey enough to take advantage of gaps opened up by the Sky Blues defence needing to keep Wyke and Keane closely marked, playing a high line against the Latics wouldn’t necessarily negate their attacking threat. It probably tips Mark Robins’ thinking towards starting Kyle McFadzean for his physicality, over Callum Doyle for his quality on the ball, in central defence.

This is potentially going to be a test for how Coventry City’s attacking players can break down a deep-lying defence, with a midfield sitting in ahead of it for further protection. The Sky Blues have been at their most threatening this season on the counter-attack, where Gustavo Hamer, Kasey Palmer, Callum O’Hare and Viktor Gyokeres can quickly burst into dangerous areas. When those transitions from defence to attack are slowed down is where there remain question marks about this side, especially given just how little the wing-backs contribute in terms of creativity, making Coventry narrow and predictable against when defences are set.

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