Wigan are not the first former top-tier side to slip into the third tier of English football, and they won’t be the last, and while ending up in League One again is far from ideal for a club that not too long ago was winning the FA Cup, as Wolverhampton Wanderers have shown, a season in the lower leagues can be cathartic and become the springboard for better things.
Some teams that drop to this level can take a few weeks to find their feet, often underestimating their opponents. While the quality of the football in League One is obviously poorer than the Championship, it’s a tricky division in which any team can beat any other team, and more than one big club have found themselves struggling in the early games as they adjust to the style of play, pitches and facilities of lower-league football.
Of course, having been in League One two seasons ago, Wigan had some idea of what to expect, but Paul Cook has ensured that any lingering complacency was quickly dispelled.
They don’t seem to have had any difficulty adapting to life back in the third tier, kicking off their campaign with three solid wins and gradually closing in on the upper reaches of the table. A 3-0 victory over Doncaster at the end of November saw them hit top spot, and they’ve stayed there until this week. In fact, they have only been beaten twice since then – with a run of 11 league games without defeat, during which we conceded just two goals.
That astonishingly tight defence is one of the reasons for Wigan’s success so far this season. The Lactics have conceded just 18 goals this campaign, which is by some distance the most impressive defensive performance in all four English divisions.
However, while their defence has given them an outstanding platform, going forward they have also made the most of their attacking resources. Top scorer Will Grigg, who first came to prominence at this level with Walsall, has been in fine form, and has been ably supported by Nick Powell and winger Michael Jacobs, making Wigan the division’s top scorers.
This combination of a miserly defence and free-scoring attack has proven potent, and the bookmakers appear to be unanimous in making Wigan the massive odds-on favourite in the League One winners market, despite the fact that they slipped to a point behind Shrewsbury, and only a one lead over third-placed Blackburn, but with games in hand over both.
Leaders Shrewsbury have surprised many with their durability at the top end of the table. The Shrews have built their challenge on an equally stubborn defence, and while they don’t have the same threat going forward as Wigan, they can hold their own against anyone in this division, as they showed when earning a point at the DW Stadium on Boxing Day.
Still, the suspicion is that Shrewsbury might begin to falter as the long, hard season takes a toll on their limited resources, and if Cook is concerned about any of Wigan’s rivals, it is more likely to be Blackburn. Rovers got off to a poor start, losing their first two games of the season, but they went 18 games without defeat between the middle of October and the end of January, before slipping to a 2-0 defeat at Plymouth.
Blackburn have the resources to match Wigan in the closing weeks of the season, and could yet close the gap, though their defence has not been as tight as the Lactics’, and they’ve also played two games more. Wigan also have a game in hand over Shrewsbury, which could also be a factor. However, if there is a defining run of fixtures to come this season, it could well be in the first two weeks of March. Wigan face a tough trip to Ewood Park on 4th March, followed by games against current play-off contenders Scunthorpe and Bradford, neither of whom have been in great form of late. If the Lactics can come through this spell of games unscathed, and if Shrewsbury start to falter, then promotion could effectively be wrapped up before Easter.
Even if that is achieved, Cook won’t be allowing any complacency to creep into the Lactics’ ranks, not least because the real work will start this summer. Still, after a miserable 2016-17 season, the style in which Wigan have bounced back this campaign is a boost for Lactics fans and an impressive first step on the long road back to the Premier League.