Seeking team synergy


Synergy is defined as the creation of a whole that is greater than the simple sum of its parts. It is something that can help football teams achieve way beyond what people would expect.

In the 1980-81 season Aston Villa broke Liverpool’s stranglehold on English football by winning the First Division.  Villa had finished seventh in the previous season, fourteen points behind champions Liverpool, in the days when a win was worth two points. Nobody had expected Aston Villa to win it the next season.

What was truly remarkable, in an era of low quality pitches and refereeing that was much more lenient than that of modern day, was that Villa used only 14 players all season. No fewer than 7 players were ever-present in all 42 league matches.

It can be safely said that in this case the whole was equal to more than the sum of its parts. It was far from a team of superstars, but that team synergy made them a formidable unit. Through playing together on a continuous basis over a long period of time, with a minimum of disruptions due to injury, the understanding between the players was the key to their success.

Gary Caldwell’s current team does not have synergy. In fact the whole is probably less than the sum of its parts.  The players have not yet consistently gelled together as a unit.

Caldwell has already been unlucky with injuries, which have robbed him of key players. He has used 23 players in just 10 league games up to this point. Only four players – Michael Jacobs, Reece James, Richard O’Donnell and David Perkins – have been ever-present. Those players have formed the backbone of the team, but if it had not been for injuries which other players might too have been ever-present?

The hapless Malky Mackay made only two permanent signings for the club. Billy Mckay has now left for Dundee United after being constantly snubbed at Wigan. But in Jason Pearce, Mackay signed a player not only with a successful pedigree of Football League experience, but a leader through example. Pearce was to be one of the few shining lights in the darkness of the Malky era.

Craig Morgan was Caldwell’s third signing, following Perkins and O’Donnell. The ex-Rotherham captain came in with similar credentials to Pearce. When Morgan and Pearce were named as captain and vice-captain it appeared that Caldwell was going to have a central defensive pairing as strong as any in the division. However, up to this point the two have played together only once, against Crewe Alexandra on August 29th.

Will Grigg scored 23 goals for MK Dons last season and Latics paid £1m to sign him.He has scored three goals in six starts and two substitute appearances so far.  Grigg too can be expected to be part of the backbone of Caldwell’s team.

When the lineup was announced an hour prior to the Millwall game on Tuesday night eyebrows were raised. Fans who have been clamouring for twin strikers were disappointed to see just Jordy Hiwula’s name in the side. Grigg was on the bench due his elbow injury, although he did come on to save the game in the closing minutes. Caldwell had the chance to play Sanmi Odelusi together with Hiwula, but the player’s lack of form was almost certainly a factor in not including him in the starting lineup. Craig Davies was again absent because of a hamstring injury and Haris Vuckic with an ankle injury. Grant Holt and Shaq Coulthirst continue to recover from injury.

Should Caldwell wish to play twin strikers he will have the six players to choose from, providing they are all fit at the same time.  Davies is the obvious choice to partner Grigg, but given his prior injury record, it is unlikely that he will manage a long run of games on a continuous basis. Davies can not only score goals in his own right, but his physicality provides Grigg with more freedom. Caldwell will surely be hoping that Holt will be able to reach peak fitness and be available to play a similar sort of role to Davies. Coulthirst, Hiwula and Odelusi have something different to offer, including pace.

In midfield Caldwell has various options. Assuming Perkins and Jacobs remain automatic choices then Tim Chow, Jordan Flores, Francisco Junior, Chris McCann, Sean Murray and Max Power will compete for places. Moreover Don Cowie is on the road to recovery from injury. Andy Kellett has the ability to play left midfield or left wing back. Caldwell has an alternative to Jacobs in the advanced midfield role in the versatile Vuckic.  Or he can play them both in attacking midfield behind the central striker in a 3-4-2-1 system.

The right back/wing back position remains problematic for Caldwell following the return of Jonjoe Kelly to Everton and the injury to Kevin McNaughton. The loan signing of Dutch winger Yanic Wildschut from Middlesbrough was announced today. One wonders if the player can also play as a wing back. Playing midfielders or central defenders in that position is hardly ideal. Caldwell will surely be scouring the transfer market in January for a replacement for Kenny. For the moment, Latics’ play is likely to be skewed to the left where James and Jacobs form a strong partnership.

The starting lineup against Millwall included only four players over the age of 23. In terms of looking towards the future it is something very positive.  However, in order to get promotion Caldwell will surely need to give priority to his more experienced players who have already enjoyed success in the Football League.

O’Donnell has established himself as the number one choice in goal. Morgan and Pearce will surely be the first names on the team sheet for the centre of defence, together with either Leon Barnett or Donervan Daniels.  James will be one of the two wing backs.  A three pronged attack of Davies and Grigg playing as twin strikers, with Jacobs coming in from midfield, would threaten even the best of League 1 defences.

The squad is laden with midfield players and Caldwell has been constantly switching them around. McCann has experience, Junior oozes class, the younger players show promise. Caldwell will look for a balance in midfield, but he must have box-to-box players who can move the ball quickly and not shirk their defensive duties. Too often we have seen midfielders passing the ball sideways or backwards and not providing sufficient solid defensive cover.

Caldwell will be searching for team synergy. The first step is to have all his key players fit, something that has not been the case up to now. He needs them playing on a regular basis, utilizing the younger and less experienced players in short spells.

Fingers crossed that the injury situation improves and that Caldwell will have the luxury of choosing what he considers his strongest possible lineup on each matchday over the coming months. Were this team to have synergy it would surely propel Latics out of League 1.

Will injuries haunt Caldwell?

Roberto Martinez had bad luck with injuries in his final season at Wigan. Will Gary Caldwell prove more fortunate in his promotion push?

Roberto Martinez had bad luck with injuries in his final season at Wigan. Will Gary Caldwell prove more fortunate in his promotion push?

Antolin Alcaraz and Ivan Ramis are now playing for UD Las Palmas and Eibar in the Primera Division of La Liga. Both were fine centre backs in their time, strong in defence and comfortable on the ball.  In fact they were the kinds of players that Roberto Martinez liked to have in the centre of his defence.

Ramis was signed from Real Mallorca in the summer of 2012, to supplement the centre of defence of a team that had beaten the best in England in the final months of the previous season.  Alcaraz had starred in that run, playing in a backline of three with Gary Caldwell and Maynor Figueroa. Ramis had a fine record in La Liga and looked an excellent signing by Martinez. The squad that Martinez had built up was probably the strongest Wigan Athletic had had in their history. Our hopes were high as the season approached.

The Paraguayan and Spaniard played together in the centre of defence for the first three games of the season, a 2-0 home loss to Chelsea being followed by an away win by the same margin at Southampton and a resounding 4-1 League Cup victory at Nottingham Forest. But that was to be the last match in which they featured together. Alcaraz had picked up an injury and did not return to first team action until February. In his absence Ramis stablished himself as a regular, solid in defence, with excellent distribution.  Sadly Ramis’ season was to end in January when he picked up an anterior cruciate knee injury at Fulham.

Injuries to key players were to be the main factor in Wigan Athletic’s relegation from the Premier League that season. Indeed by the time the FA Cup Final came in May, Martinez was deprived of not only Ramis, but also of fellow central defenders Gary Caldwell and Maynor Figueroa and wing back Jean Beausejour. Midfielders Roger Espinoza and James McArthur were to be employed as wing backs, with a back three of Alcaraz, Emmerson Boyce and Paul Scharner. But, not surprisingly, the energy dissipated in that fabulous victory was to be lacking three days later when the 4-1 defeat at Arsenal sent Latics to the Championship.

Neither Alcaraz nor Ramis was able to reach their peak form again in the future. Martinez was to take Alcaraz with him to Everton, but the big Paraguayan was to struggle with injury and poor form, his release at the end of last season proving no surprise. Following a long period of recuperation Ramis had some good moments under Owen Coyle and Uwe Rosler, but niggling injuries were to constantly plague him. He was subsequently released by Malky Mackay in January 2015 to join Levante in La Liga.

Both UD Las Palmas and Eibar would have known of the two players’ injury issues prior to signing them this summer. Each signed a one year deal.  They are clearly calculated gambles by newly promoted clubs looking for experienced central defenders to do a short term job for them in a highly competitive league. Up to this point Alcaraz has played in all five league games for UD and Ramis in the first four for Eibar.

Gary Caldwell’s acquisition of Kevin McNaughton was also a calculated gamble. McNaughton has been a fine player in his time in the Premier League and Championship, but injury meant he only made 9 appearances for Bolton Wanderers last season. The 32 year old had fallen out of favour with Neil Lennon who had been critical of the player’s fitness. McNaughton’s his misery was compounded by a fractured fibula at the beginning of March in a match against Reading. It had been his first start since October. McNaughton is on a one year contract at Wigan.

Given the return to Everton of Jonjoe Kenny following a two month loan, Caldwell will be hoping that McNaughton will make a swift recovery from the hamstring injury that has kept him out since the Gillingham game a month ago. In the meantime he will either look for an out-of-contract or loan signing to provide further cover at right back/wing back, although midfielders Tim Chow and Max Power have experience in that position.

Caldwell took a bigger gamble in signing the 29 year old Craig Davies from Bolton on a two year contract. The big striker has had his fill of injury problems in his career, but none more than last season when he was restricted to just three starts from the turn of the year following a succession of hamstring problems.

After a series of excellent displays Davies missed the Fleetwood match with a hamstring injury. However, Caldwell explained to Wigan Today that:

“We knew his history when we signed him, and I have to say the fitness coaches and the physios have done magnificent with him. The actual injury he has now is on the other leg and is very minor for a hamstring injury. We’re looking after him very well and I’m sure he’ll be back stronger than ever.”

At his best, Davies is surely among the top central strikers in League 1. The question is whether he can overcome his hamstring problems and stay fit.

Other than McNaughton and Davies, Latics were also without Will Grigg, Francisco Junior, Craig Morgan and Haris Vuckic and for the Fleetwood game.

Grigg has torn ligaments in his elbow and missed the Fleetwood match after previously being away for international duty.  Morgan damaged his shoulder against Crewe on August 29th and Vuckic injured his ankle at Port Vale.

Junior has not played for a month due to a muscle injury, having been substituted at half time at Gillingham.

All of the six would surely challenge for a place in the starting line-up were they fit.

Injuries can make or break a club’s season, as Martinez found out in 2012-13.

It is to be hoped that Caldwell will have more good fortune in this regard than his ex-boss. Given their recent history Davies and McNaughton will have a challenge on their hands to regain their fitness and maintain it over the course the season. Caldwell and his coaches know that and will carefully monitor the two players’ fitness.

In the meantime Caldwell will be hoping that there will be no long term injuries to key players this season. Latics have had more than their fair share of those over recent years. Maybe the pendulum will turn in their favour this time around?

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Is Caldwell’s squad too young?

Can Gary Caldwell and his coaching staff get the best out of young players like Haris Vuckic?

Walking down the street in the suburbs of Boston with my son and one year old grandson, a stranger asked “Are you from Wigan?” Given the fact that the three of us were wearing Latics shirts the question was perhaps no surprise. But his next comment was. “Do you know they have just signed a guy from Newcastle?”

Coincidentally we had heard of Haris Vuckic’s signing less than five minutes before. This young American who we had bumped into surely knew his stuff – “Looks like a good signing” he said “My name’s Vince by the way. See you around.”

It was more evidence of Wigan Athletic’s global visibility. Eight years in the Premier League and winning the FA Cup helped that to happen. But will Wigan still be a name known on the streets of Massachusetts ten years from now? Can they get back up there with the big boys, within the media spotlight?

Curiously enough the signing of Vuckic could provide the kind of impetus Latics need to meet their more immediate goal, that of getting out of League 1. The big Slovenian has a lot of skill and a rocket shot with his left foot. A leftie was very much needed in an attack laden with right footed players. Moreover Vuckic can play in any role up front or in midfield. He will give Gary Caldwell extra options.

However, Vuckic is 23 years old and has still not established himself at Newcastle, despite being there for seven years. There had been rumors that Newcastle would release him, but they decided to give him a contact extension. Some of the pundits suggested they were doing that so they could sell him. His market value is reported to be around £450,000.

Will Vuckic make it at Wigan? Up to this point his main success has been a loan spell at Rangers, where he made the starting lineup and scored goals on a regular basis. But is the standard in the Scottish Championship akin to that of League 1? One doubts it.

Gary Caldwell and his recruitment team have done a fantastic job in signing no less than twenty new players up to this point. They have also shed players – seven free agents have left, three players have been sent out on season-long loans and nine have been sold at “give away” prices.

But Caldwell suggests that the intake of new players is coming to a close, acknowledging  a massive turnover of players, and that everyone who had wanted to go had gone, together with the exits of those that the club did not want.

The currently active senior squad is as follows:

Goalkeepers – Richard O’Donnell (26), Lee Nicholls (22), Jussi Jääskeläinen (40)

Full backs/wing backs –  Reece James (21), Jonjoe Kenny (18), Andy Kellett (21), Kevin McNaughton (32).

Centre backs – Leon Barnett (29), Donervon Daniels (21), Jack Hendry (20), Craig Morgan (30), Jason Pearce (27).

Midfielders – Tim Chow (21), Don Cowie (32), Jordan Flores (19), Ryan Jennings (21), Francisco Junior (23), Chris McCann (28), Sean Murray (21), Max Power (21), David Perkins (33).

Attacking players – Craig Davies (29), Will Grigg (24), Jordi Hiwula (20), Grant Holt (34), Michael Jacobs (23), Sanmi Odelusi (22), Haris Vuckic (23).

Of these twenty eight  players no less than sixteen are 23 years old or younger. Only three are in the age range of 24-27 which was put forward as a recruitment guideline by chairman, David Sharpe.

The younger players could be placed into two broad categories – “up and coming” and “not yet achieved their potential”. The old adage tells us that young players need time to develop. Caldwell’s challenge is to develop those young players under the pressure of  the challenge for promotion so actively sought by the chairman.

Haris Vuckic is a typical example in the second category. Will Caldwell and his coaches be able to get the best out of the 23 year old?Or will he fall by the wayside as have so many other young players at the club over the past couple of years?

It appears that Caldwell’s quest for Huddersfield’s James Vaughan is over. Given the player’s history of injury problems it was certainly going to be a gamble. He had already gambled by taking on Craig Davies and Kevin McNaughton, given their injury issues at Bolton last year.

Sadly McNaughton is injured again, together with Don Cowie. Grant Holt continues his rehabiliation from an anterior cruciate knee injury, but will he be able to reach the levels of fitness needed to make his mark this season? Caldwell’s latest headache involves an injury to captain and defensive lynchpin, Craig Morgan, who will be out for 3-4 weeks.

Caldwell will largely depend on his more experienced players, but the younger ones will clearly have a role to play. The question is whether the younger players can mature quickly enough to command regular first team places. For the moment Caldwell is depending on an 18 year old, on-loan right back in Jonjoe Kelly with McNaughton out for a matter of months.

Moreover Caldwell is faced with Kenny’s absence on England under-21 duty for the visit to Chesterfield tomorrow. Tim Chow has played in that position for the development squad, but has only just come back from injury and may not be match fit. Caldwell has already talked about changing the shape for tomorrow, but he will be forced to play a midfield player – possibly Max Power – or a central defender at right back.

Caldwell’s squad is brimming with young players with lots of potential. It is the time of reckoning for the coaching staff at the club. The development of the younger players is largely in their hands and they need to step up to the plate. The demise of the likes of Delort, Forshaw, Kiernan, Tavernier and Taylor-Sinclair last season put the club back when it should have been moving forward. There is a new batch of players of similar ages who must not be allowed to fall between the cracks.

It is the emergence of young players such as Haris Vuckic that can make the difference. But can Caldwell and the coaching staff do it, given the pressure of promotion weighing so heavily upon them?

Investing in 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


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.