Investing in youth

youth

Two defeats in the first two games have tested the resolve of the long-suffering Wigan Athletic following. Defeat is something that supporters had to learn to live with last year, when team lost 25 of the 46 league matches they played.

Just a week ago there was an almost tangible wave of optimism as fans looked forward to embarking on the “new era” of the club, under the youthful leadership of Gary Caldwell and David Sharpe. But the disappointing performance at Coventry, followed by a narrow defeat at home to Bury has dampened enthusiasm somewhat.

Most fans refuse to panic. There have been only two games so far and they accept that the new players brought in will take time to gel. But results matter, even if an early exit from the League Cup is by no means a tragedy for a club wanting to concentrate on the league, seeking promotion.

As always when things don’t go to plan the keyboard warriors are starting to rear their heads. There are those who are not fans of possession football, those who want two central strikers and a small minority who do not believe that Caldwell is the right man for the job, not having enough experience and being a blind follower of the Martinez ethos.

However, the style of play in the midweek game against Bury could hardly be labeled as possession football. But once again Caldwell fielded a lone centre forward, albeit with two wide players. It is not only the keyboard warriors who advocate playing with twin strikers. Some would say it is essential in League 1.

Like Uwe Rosler and Roberto Martinez and so many managers at the top level of English football, Caldwell appears to be a follower of the lone centre forward setup. When he plays 4-3-3, as he did on Tuesday, there will be two wide players, supposedly moving inside to shoot and ghost in to scoring positions from the flanks.

Caldwell’s version of playing with three central defenders and wing backs differs from the 3-4-3 that was the hallmark of Martinez’s success at Wigan. Caldwell plays what could be broadly described as 3-5-2, or 3-5-1-1. His preference could well be the latter, with the second striker playing a free role akin to that of Victor Moses in the Martinez era. Last season Malky Mackay bowed to pressure to play a 4-4-2 system that was not particularly effective, although it would be fair to say that he did not have outstanding twin strikers at his disposal. Caldwell is unlikely to cave in to such pressure, although the pragmatic side of his footballing philosophy might lead him to playing twin strikers when the occasion might demand.

In May, David Sharpe had said that the club would be looking to sign “young, hungry players between the ages of 24-27, ones who have done it before, who know what it’s like to win promotion, who are willing to learn and put in the hours, and buy into Gary’s brand of football.”

Today’s announcement of the loan signing of the 20 year old Tottenham forward, Shaq Coulthirst, brings the number of new players signed over summer to sixteen. Nine of those are aged 23 or under. Only two – Will Grigg and Richard O’Donnell – are between 24 and 27.

Caldwell certainly has one of the youngest squads that Latics have had in recent years. Other than the new signings can be added the names of Tom Chow (21), Jordan Flores (19), Ryan Jennings (20) and Lee Nicholls (22) who have come up through the development squad. Louis Robles (18) is also on the fringe of challenging for a spot in the senior squad.

Although burdened by the pressure of his chairman’s statement of “smashing League 1” Caldwell has made a significant start in building a squad that will serve the club for years to come. Unlike many of his predecessors he cannot be accused of not giving youth a chance. Both Reece James and Max Power are only 21 years old and will surely have bright futures within the game. Will Grigg (24) and Michael Jacobs (23) are likely to be the main strikers, while the powerful Donervon Daniels (22) is an option in the centre of defence. Moreover he has waved the olive branch towards the development squad through giving first team opportunities to players developed within the club.

Only time will tell if Caldwell’s signings prove to be a success at Wigan. But his willingness to give youth a chance may prove the key for the club’s long term prospects.

In the meantime he faces the here and now. A win against Doncaster on Sunday would certainly help nervous fans feel better about what is to follow.

 

Getting the best out of the wing backs

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A bad start to the season is not uncommon for Wigan Athletic.

The beginning of the 2011-12 season was no exception. A  3-1 home loss to Wolves in early November was their eighth consecutive defeat and Roberto Martinez clearly had to look at changing something. The changes he made took some time to take effect, but in the end they were to underpin a remarkable turnaround in the team’s fortunes.

In the next match against Blackburn Rovers he brought in a back line of three central defenders, with Ronnie Stam and David Jones employed as wing backs. Stam had struggled as a conventional right back, but looked much more comfortable as a wing back where he had much more freedom to attack. Defending was not his forte. Jones was a central midfielder pushed into a new role, in which he never looked truly comfortable. Results improved a little, but by Christmas Latics were still locked in the bottom three.

By the time the January transfer window opened the fans were clamouring for new signings to reinvigorate a team that was heading for relegation. Martinez was to sign just one player, paying Birmingham City £2.5m for left winger, Jean Beausejour. It did not seem enough at the time.

However, Martinez knew that Beausejour had played as a wing back for Chile. He immediately replaced Jones in that position and made it his own. Stam’s defensive limitations, even as a right wing back, were to persuade Martinez to bring back Emmerson Boyce. If nothing else, Boyce could provide more stability to a defence that was hemorrhaging goals.

By mid-March and the introduction of Shaun Maloney the team was starting to play much better. The 3-4-3 system was working really well, not least because of the contributions of Boyce and Beausejour at wing back. When Latics were under pressure they would drop back to provide a back line of five, but still be available to link up with the central defenders to build up moves from the back. Their patient and skilful build up play was to prove a key feature in the amazing results the team was to achieve in avoiding relegation.

Boyce and Beausejour tucked in closely with the back three. If one advanced the other would stay put. Boyce was to show a range of skills that surprised so many of us – defensively solid and with a silky touch in attack. Beausejour rarely wasted a ball and his crossing could be reminiscent of David Beckham.

Sadly the era of Boyce and Beausejour is over, but the appointment of Gary Caldwell as manager has brought a return to a system involving wing backs.

On the tour of Scotland we saw the wing backs pushed well forward, much further than was typically the case under Martinez. The Scot has stated his preference for attacking football and deploying the wing backs in relatively advanced positions could be viewed as a consequence of that. But Martinez was facing high quality opposition and was rarely able to let his wing backs off a tight leash. Caldwell faces a different pressure – providing attacking football that delivers the goals that were so sadly lacking last season.

However, there were times in both matches where the wing backs were not dropping back sufficiently to receive the ball from the back three. The result was central defenders either looking for holding midfielders to receive the ball or playing it across their own back line, too often resulting into a back pass to the goalkeeper to punt forward. Moreover the central defenders were sometimes exposed to counterattacks as attacks had broken down with the wing backs stranded.

Yesterday Caldwell started with the youngsters Jonjoe Kenny and Reece James at wing back. Both have the ball skills, pace and energy to be effective wing backs, even if had not been their natural roles with Everton and Manchester United respectively. In the second half Kenny was replaced by the more conservative, but perhaps defensively stronger, Kevin McNaughton.

Thirteen out of the fourteen players who were involved in the action yesterday were new to the club. A certain degree of lack of cohesion was inevitable and so it proved with Coventry’s goals. Moreover Tony Mowbray had employed a Rosler-style high pressing game in the early stages that prevented the slow build up from the back.

Perhaps expectations of a good result at Coventry were unrealistically high. However, the sight of central defenders constantly passing the ball across the back line and to the goalkeeper suggests that they do not have sufficient passing options. In the days of Malky Mackay or Owen Coyle they would have often employed the hoof, so often resulting in the position gaining possession.

It is to Caldwell’s credit that he eschews that option. Despite the comments made on Latics Player/WISH FM, teams have achieved promotion out of League 1 playing the ball out of defence. Caldwell will resist the hoof and insist that good football is played. This is not to say that his defenders will not look to put forward a well measured long pass if a forward has moved into an appropriate receiving position.

Mowbray’s pressing tactics will surely be used by other teams to disrupt Latics’ game of building up from the back. It is to be hoped that Caldwell can develop a Plan B to deal with it.

History tells us that it takes time for players to adjust to playing in system that involves three central defenders and wing backs. Roberto Martinez learned that, but he persevered and it came good in the end. However, Martinez was not dealing with a practically brand new squad of players. His players knew each other’s games, even if the system they were playing under was tweaked.

It is going to take time for Caldwell’s new charges to effectively put his footballing ideas into practice. In the meantime it is to be hoped that he can look at providing more of a link between his central defenders and his wing backs. Perhaps a look at old videos from the “golden era” will show the wing backs what can be done against a calibre of opposition with which League 1 pales in comparison.

Yesterday’s team is the youngest Latics have fielded for some years, with six of the starting lineup being below 25 years of age. Young players make mistakes under the pressure of high expectations, as was learned last year under Uwe Rosler. It is to be hoped that the current crop are given time to settle, despite the expectations of the chairman and a significant number of fans.

With the fans clamouring for attacking football Caldwell is pushing his wing backs forward. The question to be posed is whether they are taking sufficient part in the build-up of moves from the back that will translate to goals up front.

Ned’s season preview

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In anticipation of the opening league game of the season we were approached by  www.undertheprem.co.uk to respond to some questions from them. The following article will shortly appear on their site.

HOW DID YOU FEEL THE 14/15 SEASON WENT FOR YOUR TEAM?

From my perspective, last season was the worst in Wigan Athletic history. Everything went wrong. From Uwe Rosler’s initially promising transfer dealings, to the appalling appointment of Malky Mackay, Dave Whelan’s subsequent defence of it, to the loss of identity on and off the pitch, and ultimately, relegation.

The atmosphere at the club was as dark as it has ever been, with a dressing room that had seen greater turnover in a year than any other in the country. For a period of time, it felt as though the club had lost its direction and the strong ethos that had guided it so successfully for so many years prior.

The darkness was finally lifted, however, when Gary Caldwell was installed as manager with a handful of games to go. Though he couldn’t steer us to safety, his impact was immediate – we saw a welcome return to the footballing values, both on and off the pitch, of his former manager and mentor, Roberto Martinez.

HAVE YOU BEEN IMPRESSED WITH THE ADDITIONS MADE DURING THE SUMMER BREAK?

It’s hard to assess them at this stage – there are so many of them. On paper, and in theory, yes. Will Grigg is exactly the type of striker we have been unable to secure for years, a tricky all-rounder with a proven goalscoring record in the league we’re in, and experience playing in a lone role.

Craig Morgan appears an excellent signing in the defensive department, with important leadership skills and experience to build an organized unit around. Michael Jacobs will hopefully provide the much needed flair to unlock defenses, while Max Power looks a cultured player. Reece James from Manchester United sounds well-suited to the tactical systems likely to be employed by Gary Caldwell, seamlessly switching back and forth from traditional full-back to wing-back roles. Richard O’Donnell should be a reliable keeper and is accomplished in this division.

ARE THERE ANY AREAS YOU FEEL STILL NEED STRENGTHENING?

I feel we need another flair player or two, be that a winger or a second forward capable of playing in the hole behind Grigg. Another dribbler. At the moment we look a bit reliant on Jacobs producing a moment of magic. Craig Davies, the most likely to partner Grigg up front, has a bad injury record, and Billy McKay hasn’t quite come off yet at Wigan – I’d also be on the lookout for another striker, perhaps on loan until Grant Holt makes his comeback.

ARE THERE ANY FIXTURES THAT YOU’RE PARTICULARLY LOOKING FORWARD TO?

Coventry City, today. While we need to be patient with what is essentially a brand new squad and rookie manager, I think most of us Latics fans just can’t wait to get the new season under way and banish the demons of yesteryear. There is a real feeling of goodwill and optimism around the club – a fresh start for everyone – and we just want to start enjoying watching and supporting our team again.

WHICH OPPOSITION TEAM DO YOU HAVE HIGH HOPES FOR THIS SEASON?

Sheffield United sound like the team to watch after their near miss last year. Even more so after signing ex-Latic Conor Sammon! He may have only scored one goal for us in thirty-ish appearances, but it was a good ‘un! Sparked the comeback against West Ham which kept us up for another glorious season of Premier League play. He should be quality at League 1 level.

WHICH PLAYERS AMONG YOUR SQUAD SHOULD WE BE LOOKING OUT FOR THIS TERM?

The obvious ones are Will Grigg and Michael Jacobs – proven performers in this division with goals and flair respectively. But I’m personally really hoping one of our loanees from Everton, Francisco Junior, takes advantage of the fresh start we’re giving him and fulfills some of his huge potential in midfield. Roberto wouldn’t have sent him to us if he didn’t think he had something to offer.

One massive question mark is Grant Holt. His signing two years ago has been an unmitigated disaster, with injuries, loan spells, differences of opinion, and managerial changes combining to keep from making any impact other than draining the club’s coffers on his big wages. But if, and this is a big if – he can make a full recovery to a serious knee injury at age 34 – he could be something of a wild card in this division and mend a strained relationship with the club’s fans. It’ll be fascinating to see.

WHERE DO YOU THINK YOU’LL END UP AT THE END OF THE SEASON?

A slow start to the season as the team beds in. Mid-table by Christmas and playoffs all things told.

Regaining a winning mentality

Can Caldwell instill a winning mentality into his squad?

Can Caldwell instill a winning mentality into his squad?

Those initial waves of optimism crashed ashore yesterday as Wigan Athletic were beaten 3-0 at Blackburn. Suddenly that trip to Coventry next week is not as appealing as it was a couple of days ago.

But did people really expect Latics to get a good result at Blackburn, which has so often been a graveyard for them? It was goalless up to the 73rd minute, with “expert commentator” Neill Rimmer getting constantly frustrated by the football he was watching. Rimmer has tried to be positive in the past, but it was depressing listening to him yesterday. He was clearly not happy with Latics’ slow build up from the back and Will Grigg being unsupported up front.

However, if Lee Nicholls had done better with a speculative long shot a minute later maybe the result would have stayed 0-0. But once Blackburn had scored the first goal they were to grow in confidence. Their second goal came after Latics had already substituted two of their three starting central defenders.

Perhaps Caldwell’s most difficult task in his early days as a manager is to help his team regain a winning mentality. The last time Latics had it was through February to mid-March in 2014 when they went on an unbeaten run of eight games in the league and knocked Manchester City out of the FA Cup. Even if they were not playing that well they were able to grind out results. Since then they have far more often lost than won.

It was perhaps predictable in that the pre-season was not going to help in regaining that winning mentality. A 1-1 draw at Altrincham was followed by a 2-0 win at Southport, a 1-1 draw at Partick Thistle and defeats at Dundee and Blackburn. Winning came secondary to using the games  to get the players fit for a long, grueling season ahead. Caldwell was able to induct his new players into playing football in the style he prefers. But with so many new players there was no way that any lineup that Caldwell put out would be able to effectively able to gel together. Yesterday’s starting lineup against Blackburn had only one player who was at the club last season.

The starting lineup at Blackburn will surely provide indicators for the side to face Coventry. A back three of Daniels, Morgan and McCann is highly probable, with James at left wing back. A decision will need to be made soon whether Kevin McNaughton will be offered a contract. If not, Caldwell will be looking towards acquiring an experienced right back/wing back to challenge Jonjoe Kenny for a place.

In the games in Scotland the wing backs were pushed well forward, proving support for the central midfield and the forwards. However, against strong opposition with good wide players Caldwell will employ his wing backs more conservatively. Interestingly yesterday Caldwell once more gave Andrew Taylor a role ahead of Leon Barnett. It was perhaps another indication that Barnett’s time at Wigan is drawing to a close.

Caldwell will also have to decide which formation to employ in central midfield. Both Francisco Junior and David Perkins can play the holding role just in front of the back three. Caldwell has the option of playing one of them in that position and the other pushed further forward with Max Power. The alternative is to play the two of them in front of the back three, with Power more advanced in a creative role. Midfield trialist John Lundstram was noticeably absent yesterday. Although he did not play badly in his two appearances in Scotland, he was unable to impose himself on the games. It remains to be seen if he will be offered a contract.

As expected Caldwell gave Michael Jacobs his debut yesterday alongside Will Grigg. Jacobs has pace and trickery but does not possess the physicality of someone like Craig Davies. Neither does Billy Mckay, who was noticeably the one substitute who did not get game time yesterday. Once again, an indication that a player is on his way out of the club? Sanmi Odelusi remains another option up front, physically strong and fast, but has his game evolved sufficiently for him to challenge for a starting place in the lineup?

Caldwell has already talked about the exciting possibility of a Grigg-Davies striking partnership, but the big Welshman has still not managed more than 30 minutes during a match so far. Getting him to peak fitness, free from the hamstring problems that dogged him last season, is the priority. Caldwell will be unlikely to risk him as a starter at Coventry.

Regaining a winning mentality is the key to Wigan Athletic’s promotion hopes. It is something that can happen, but if it does it will take time. Moreover younger players now dominate the squad. Seven of the starting lineup yesterday were under 25. Young players need time to progress – so often it can be two steps forward and one step back. They will make mistakes that will cost points.

Some of the more savvy fans are quietly saying that a mid-table position this season, giving the young players time to develop, would not be a bad thing. The team would not have gained a winning mentality, but it would have shed that losing mentality that was the hallmark of last season.  It could provide a strong base for a promotion push in 2016-17.

However, such a scenario is unlikely to satisfy the demands of a young chairman who wants to “smash” League 1. However, if Latics were to occupy a mid-table position around Christmas, the players would have better knowledge of each other’s games and would have learned to play the way that the manager seeks. A promotion push in the second half of the season might then be a more realistic expectation.

In the meantime Caldwell will continue to trade in the transfer market. There are likely to be several more departures and arrivals. At the same time he will identify the players who will form the core of his team, week in, week out. The type of rotation policy adopted by Uwe Rosler is unlikely under the Scot.

Shedding that losing mentality is the first step towards gaining a winning one. Despite criticism of leaving his centre forward isolated, Caldwell will look at building a solid defence first and foremost. That means his wing backs not being pushed permanently forward as they were in Scotland, leaving the back three exposed.

If Caldwell can build a strong, well organized defence that does not give away soft goals it will be a step forward. An emphasis on defence, as the new players continue to gel together into a working unit, might well be the way he starts off the season. To push men forward gung-ho without the advantage of mutual understanding between the players could be a recipe for disaster.

As fans we will need to be patient. Turning a disparate bunch of footballers into a team with a winning mentality is something that will take time.

An important pre-season

 

Jason Pearce

Jason Pearce

“He wants us to train hard and well in order to be ready to take that onto the pitch in matches. Clubs I’ve been at before haven’t got the footballs out so quickly and there has been lots of running but I’ve enjoyed the balance this year and it’s been really beneficial because you get your touch back quicker.”

Jason Pearce was commenting on the pre-season preparations up to this point. It will be the 27 year old Pearce’s eighth pre-season as a first team squad player with 356 first team appearances under his belt for Bournemouth, Portsmouth, Leeds United and Latics. Given his wealth of prior experience, Pearce’s comments surely carry some weight.

Pearce is one of the pillars upon which Gary Caldwell will build his team. He is a player more largely defined by his physicality and commitment, hardly seeming to typify the type that Caldwell needs to build a team that can play a brand of football akin to that of the Martinez yesteryear. However, looking at the signings so far, it is clear that Caldwell’s teams will have the steel necessary to scrap it out with the more robust sides of League 1. A central defensive trio of Pearce, Craig Morgan and Donervon Daniels will pose a stern physical challenge to any opposition forwards.

Pearce’s  positive comments about Caldwell’s approach to the pre-season will be welcomed by Wigan Athletic supporters. A year ago a disaster was on its way to happen. A Latics squad that was buoyant from the reaching the Championship playoffs and the FA Cup semi-final was to be brought to its knees by its pre-season training regimen. There are those in football who will say that players cannot be “overtrained”, but whatever happened in those training camps in Germany got the season off to a disastrous start.

One game in Germany had to be postponed because Latics did not have enough fit players. By the start of the season so many players were carrying knocks or niggling injuries or were just not fit. Caldwell and his staff will have learned from that and will surely not let it happen again. A focus on ball skills and stamina conditioning is surely the right approach at this stage.

Latics started last season by going 1-0 up against Reading, only for their legs to go in the second half and having to be rescued from defeat by James McArthur’s late equalizer. It was a pattern that was to repeat itself over the weeks that followed. Being unable to physically compete on an even keel against the most moderate of Championship opposition meant the superiority in terms of skill and flair that Latics might have possessed was nullified. So many players were unable to produce their best form as the “movement” necessary for good team work just did not happen.

Caldwell will be looking at launching a frontal attack on opposing teams when the season commences, going in with guns a blazing. A good start is crucial for a new team of players who will not be weighed down by the psychological consequences of what happened last season. The pre-season is even more crucial this year with so many new players coming in. Moreover many of those players will not have been playing the Caldwell brand of football at their previous clubs.

However, a little over six years ago Roberto Martinez’s team won the opening game of the 2009-10 season with a 2-0 victory at Aston Villa. The brand of football was poles apart from that of Steve Bruce’s team the previous season. Martinez had produced that change in just a handful of weeks of training. Caldwell will clearly believe he can do the same.

Reports tell us that Latics played a friendly game against Queen of the South in La Manga, Spain, this week. Only Ryan Jennings played in both halves of the game. However, one can only speculate on how many of the 21 players who took the field that day will be at the club when the season starts. Caldwell’s challenge is to move on most of the players who are on Championship division salaries.

Owen Coyle signings Leon Barnett, Chris McCann and James Perch remain at the club, but it would appear a matter of time before players of their experience are snapped up by Championship clubs.

Of the Rosler signings there have been rumours linking Martyn Waghorn with Sheffield United and James Tavernier with Rotherham. Should both Perch and Tavernier both leave then Caldwell will be looking at least one more right back. Don Cowie still has one more year to go on his contract, but did not appear in the Queen of the South game. Andrew Taylor did appear, but rumours suggest that ex-Hull City full back Joe Dudgeon has been training with Latics with a view to signing. Given the added presence of Aaron Taylor-Sinclair it could be a sign that Taylor is going to move on. Rumours have surfaced about Burnley wanting to sign Emyr Huws, but Latics need the kind of midfield creativity he can provide.

In order to recruit new players Caldwell has to move others on. Up to this point five under contract  senior players have left the club –Andy Delort, Scott Carson, Rob Kiernan, James McClean, Oriol Riera – and seven have been signed – Donervon Daniels, Craig Davies, Craig Morgan, Sanmi Odelusi, Richard O’Donnell , David Perkins and Max Power.

Caldwell has been trying hard to get the 20 goal per season striker that David Sharpe has talked about. They made a £1 m bid for Nadir Ciftci, which was accepted by Dundee United, but the player declined the offer to come to Wigan. Latics are currently bidding for Brentford’s Will Grigg, underused by Uwe Rosler in his time at Griffin Park, but scored 20 goals in 43 appearances for MK Dons last season. Latics have offered slightly less than the £700,000 being reported, but with add-ons. Brentford are asking £1m.

Reports tell us that ex-Fleetwood Town forward David Ball has been training with Latics in Spain. The ex-Manchester City youth player is now 25 years old and has made 98 appearances, scoring 26 goals, for Fleetwood.

A fascinating article on footballeagueworld.co.uk compares Ball with Eric Cantona quoting that “the crucial parallels are: flair, unpredictability, magic from out of nothing, unique running style, goals from all over the pitch and a hatful of assists” . Ball has left Fleetwood because of their inability to meet his contact demands. He is clearly a flair player and could prove a key asset for Latics if they can secure his services.

 

Gary Caldwell and his recruitment team have done a fine job up to this stage in recruiting useful players through the bargain basement. They have not yet been successful in their quest for a potential 20 goal per year striker. That could well prove to be Will Grigg.i

But it is not so much the ability of each player in a striking partnership to score goals on his own, but more the ability to complement each other in style and approach. David Ball can offer the kind of unpredictability and spontaneity that Latics have lacked upfront over the past couple of years. Moreover his style of play could fit in very well into the brand of football that Caldwell seeks.

Latics’ first league match is at Coventry on August 8th, four weeks from today. Caldwell has already made good progress in reshaping his squad, but there remains much more to be done. The sooner he can do it the better.

In the meantime he will work on getting his players fit and inducting them into the style of play he seeks.

A good start of the season is something that Latics have struggled with over these past years. Given the turnover in playing staff it is going to pose a tough challenge to Caldwell, but it is surely something he will be up for.