Like Blackburn Rovers, Wigan Athletic’s return to the Championship felt pretty conclusive from the moment they went down.
They employed a manager in Paul Cook who played aggressive, attack-minded football and signed players such as Gary Roberts, Chey Dunkley, James Vaughan and Christian Walton. Wigan moved 15 players on during the previous summer and Cook was able to work with a younger and hungrier outfit, one that could score goals and create chances.
Cook got the best from players more than capable of producing in the third tier, Michael Jacobs, Nick Powell and Will Grigg all hitting double figures while centre-backs Chey Dunkley and Dan Burn scored 12 between them.
Their confidence and quality was also evidenced in their results, Wigan not only winning the league with an extraordinary 98 points but also dumping Premier League Bournemouth, West Ham United and Manchester City out of the FA Cup on their way to the quarter-finals.
The Latics haven’t had things all their own way since returning to the Championship so far. After a solid enough start (Wigan won 6 of their first 13 matches), they have struggled since with injuries beginning to mount up for key players.
Will Grigg has started just 10 matches, Michael Jacobs 9 and Gavin Massey 4. Nick Powell has been missing in recent weeks and with Joe Garner and James Vaughan’s work rate not matched by goals, the reliance has fallen on Josh Windass who has, at times, started as a lone striker. He has scored just twice in 20 matches.
Finding balance has been the difficulty for Cook, a manager who famously admitted to disliking setting up his side as they did to beat Manchester City. He wants to play on the front foot with aggression – it may help you understand why only Nottingham Forest have collected more cards this season.
Their style makes Saturday an interesting match up. Wigan have done their best work at home but will face a Blues side that are resolute and require strength of character to defy. Cedric Kipre, Dan Burn and Chey Dunkley will have their work cut out by Lukas Jutkiewicz and Che Adams, the most lethal strike partnership in the Championship, while Jota’s return means that Blues have the ability to change games for the better.
It will be interesting to see just how Blues start this one. Questions remain over the fitness of Jota and Craig Gardner’s ability to wind-up and get Blues on the front foot from the start of games. Wigan may be an ideal chance to test that out with Stoke City and Brentford at home on the horizon.
What won’t need questioning is the support from the visiting fans at the DW Stadium, Blues expecting to bring around 4,500 supporters to back the boys.
If that can’t inspire victory, I don’t know what can.
Paul Cook will again be without talisman Nick Powell as the attacking midfielder continues to recover from injury. Michael Jacobs and Antonee Robinson will also miss the clash but the Liverpudlian gaffer can call upon Gavin Massey and Chey Dunkley while Kal Naismith is back from suspension.
Michael Morrison is touch-and-go to return to the fold for Blues on Saturday. The captain has returned to training this week but may not be risked with a busy Christmas schedule ahead. Wes Harding will start at centre-half for the first time in his professional career. David Davis and Isaac Vassell are still a few weeks away.
Overall: Played 22; Won 7, Drawn 4, Lost 11; For 23, Against 30, GD -7; Points 25
Last six at home: Played 6; Won 2, Drawn 2, Lost 2; For 5, Against 4, GD 1; Points 8
Most starts: Christian Walton – 22
Most goals: Nick Powell & Will Grigg – 4
Worst discipline: Sam Morsy – 7 yellow cards & 1 red card
Birmingham City: 10th
Overall: Played 22; Won 7, Drawn 10, Lost 5; For 32, Against 27, GD 5; Points 31
Last six away: Played 6; Won 2, Drawn 2, Lost 2; For 9, Against 10; GD -1; Points 8
Most starts: Colin, Dean, Pedersen, Jutkiewicz – 21
Most goals: Lukas Jutkiewicz & Che Adams – 10
Worst discipline: Maikel Kieftenbeld – 4 yellow cards & 1 red card
When we last met:
Birmingham City 0-1 Wigan Athletic
Blues at home against a Wigan Athletic side heading down. We may have been struggling, but surely we would win this one. Nope. Blues started in a 5-4-1 system but were 1-0 down at half-time thanks to a Dan Burn goal. Blues made two half-time changes, Lukas Jutkiewicz and Kerim Frei replacing Josh Cogley and Maikel Kieftenbeld, but the performance remained flat. Blues were booed off at half—time and full-time. And yet Wigan were the side relegated in embarrassing fashion.
Opposition Player to Watch: Reece James
Chelsea produce some unbelievable young talents and Reece James appears to be the next in line to never appear for them. The teenage right-back has been involved in every Wigan Athletic game this season, scoring once with a superb free-kick and being praised almost on a weekly basis by manager Paul Cook.
Wigan Athletic 1-1 Birmingham City
Blues’ next five fixtures:
26/12/2018: Stoke City (H) – 15:00
29/12/2018: Brentford (H) – 15:00
01/01/2018: Sheffield Wednesday (A) – 15:00
05/01/2018: West Ham United (A) – 12:30
12/01/2019: Middlesbrough (H) – 15:00