Unlocking the Powell enigma

Can Caldwell unlock the enigma who is Nick Powell?

Can Caldwell unlock the enigma who is Nick Powell?

In the 66th minute of a deadlocked game on Saturday, Stephen Warnock launched a superb cross into the Burton penalty box. Wigan’s number 25 made a run from midfield, ahead of a defender, dived in and headed it with power. Sadly for Latics the ball was to flash narrowly wide of the post. It had looked a certain goal.

Nick Powell had got himself into a great position and almost delivered the goods. It was not the worst miss we will see this season, but it was to open up a debate as to which Powell we are seeing right now. Would the dynamic young player who thrived under Owen Coyle have put the ball in the net? Or were we seeing the one who floundered under Uwe Rosler?

Three years ago to this month Powell starred in a Europa League victory over Maribor. His first goal had come after 22 minutes: a simple header into an empty net after the Slovenian goalkeeper had made a hash of a punch. Ben Watson added another 12 minutes later, but Maribor clawed their way back into the game as Latics went flat, scoring after 61 minutes. Powell’s deciding goal came in the 91st minute when he somehow found the energy that most of his teammates did not have to slalom through the visitor’s defence and score with style.

Powell’s stock was high. His name was being touted around the media as the one who could go back to Old Trafford and lift his parent club out of their lethargy. He had become a key player in Coyle’s squad. Given the number of games Latics were facing the manager was operating a rotation policy but Powell seemed to be the one Latics forward who could go the full 90 minutes on a regular basis. It prompted fans to wonder about the fitness levels of his team mates.

Following Coyle’s departure, Powell started in both of Graham Barrow’s games in charge, but was substituted early in the second half. He was pulled off after 65 minutes in Uwe Rosler’s first game, a 2-1 defeat at Maribor. However, in the next match he came back to play the full ninety against Bolton, scoring with a spectacular bicycle kick in Latics’ 3-2 win.He went on to score in the 2-1 win at Reading in the next match, but was taken off at half time.

Around that time in late December media speculation over Powell’s future was going haywire. Whether it was due to the media hype or to a series of niggling injuries, Powell could not recapture his early season form. What was visible to the fans was a Powell not showing the same kind of physical commitment that they had seen earlier in the season. Moreover the swagger that the young player was showing in his body language earlier in the season that had been seen as a sign of self-belief, was now being interpreted by some as a “couldn’t care less” attitude.

Powell went back to Manchester United when his loan expired in the summer of 2014. He started in the United team that lost 4-0 to the MK Dons in the League Cup, being taken off after 57 minutes. Within a week he had joined Leicester City on loan, but had to be content with just three appearances off the bench. His loan spell was cut short at the end of December with Leicester citing a lack of commitment to training. On his return to Old Trafford he was to be out for nine months with a hamstring injury.

In December 2015 he came on as a 69th minute substitute for United in a Champions League defeat at Wolfsburg. A week later he came off the bench after 74 minutes in a 2-1 reverse at Bournemouth. In early February 2016 Powell joined Hull City on loan, making his debut in a goalless draw with Arsenal in the FA Cup, being withdrawn after 78 minutes. He was to go on to make three Premier League appearances off the bench before completing a full 90 minutes in a 4-0 FA Cup defeat by Arsenal.

In the two years between leaving Wigan and returning, Nick Powell made a starting lineup 4 times, completing the full 90 minutes-plus just once. He made 8 appearances off the bench. Can he put this nightmare time behind him?

Gary Caldwell stuck his neck out in summer by signing Powell, given his form over the past two and a half seasons. Moreover the 22 year old is surely going to be on a salary above most of his teammates. Why did Caldwell take such a gamble? Can Powell get back to full fitness and the kind of form he showed three years ago?

Powell’s best times at Wigan were when he was playing as a central striker. However, Caldwell has been playing the Crewe-born player in his preferred role in midfield. Up to this point he has started 5 times with 5 appearances off the bench. His best performance up to this point was in his first appearance against Blackburn Rovers, where he scored from a free kick and had a good all-round game.

Although he has not been able to keep up his form of the Blackburn match, he has completed the full 90 minutes in three games. Given the player’s injury problems over the past couple of years it is a step in the right direction. Caldwell clearly has faith in this talented player who had lost his way. Can the Scot nurture Powell back to the match sharpness that will make him the threat to opposition defences that we saw under Owen Coyle?

In recent matches Powell has alternated with Jordi Gomez for the “number 10 role” behind the centre forward. Gomez too has been some way short of full match fitness after so little involvement in Sunderland’s pre-season. Both have the capability of controlling the flow of midfield play, together with potent goalscoring prowess.

Should both Powell and Gomez reach peak fitness, Caldwell will surely have a selection problem on his hands. There is a strong argument to suggest that there is not room in the midfield for the two of them. Each needs a good share of the ball to function. However, Powell can also play as a central striker, although Latics now have three others in Craig Davies, Will Grigg and Adam Le Fondre.

However, the reality at this moment in time is that Nick Powell has just started back on the road towards recuperating his football career. Should he manage to shake off those injury problems that have bugged him for too long he will also have to recover the kind of self-belief that he had as a 19 year old in the Coyle era.

Powell is certainly a high profile player at Wigan, but a real enigma. Can Caldwell unlock the enigma in a way that no manager has done over the last couple of years?

Like all players Powell has his supporters and his critics. In this same month three years ago the former surely outnumbered the latter. But since then a downturn in form has turned around fan opinion of him.

There is a long road ahead for Nick Powell in his bid to regenerate himself as a footballer. Let’s hope that in the months ahead that we will see his swagger as a manifestation of the levels of self-belief that he showed as a 19 year old.

Getting it right against Burton – match preview

In late November, 2015, we saw a dull, scrappy game at the DW Stadium.

It offered little in the way of entertainment and seemed to be heading for a goalless draw until Abdenasser El Khayati scored for the visitors from a breakaway in the 74th minute. An ugly, but well organised Burton Albion side, who had looked like they had come for a draw, went on to inflict on Wigan their first league home defeat of the season.

Following a difficult start to the season, Latics had been on an unbeaten run of 11 matches, moving up to 4th place, Burton being just a point behind them in 5th. Burton’s victory helped them leapfrog over Latics and it was to be the case for four more months, with the Brewers looking like potential champions until Wigan overtook them late in the season.

Latics entertain Burton once again on Saturday, four points behind the Brewers in the Championship division. In the corresponding game last season Gary Caldwell was outmaneuvered by his opposite number, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. On a day when so many players were below par it was hard to come up with positives. Caldwell had clearly been preaching patience to his players, as they struggled to break down the Burton defence.

Sadly the patience was there, but the dynamism that was lacking.Yanic Wildschut was heavily marked. Michael Jacobs was ineffective on the right and Alex Revell, favoured ahead of Will Grigg, was a lonely figure up front. So can Caldwell get it right this time around?

Even though Hasselbaink left the Brewers for QPR last December, Nigel Clough was to gain promotion on his return to the club. Like his predecessor Clough is tactically astute and his Burton team will pose a challenge. He will have done his homework and will be ready to cancel out Wigan’s attacking players.

Following a home win against Wolves and a draw at Brentford after a dismal set of results, Caldwell will be keen to get a good result on Saturday.

Last season he played a modified 3-4-3, which Burton managed to stifle. Given the improvements in performances since aborting playing three at the back Caldwell can be expected to adopt a 4-3-3 formation.

However, the manager is never predictable. The return from injury of Reece Burke gives him the option of playing the talented West Ham loanee on the right of a back three, with Nathan Byrne in his natural position as right wing back. The alternative is to play Burke at right back, with Byrne as a winger.

Latics are certainly good enough to beat Burton, but a home win is by no means a foregone conclusion. The visitors will be a hard nut to crack. Caldwell’s approach to the game last year was cautious, but at the time Wigan had ground out previous results playing like that. It just did not work out against another team which played the same way.

But then again, can Latics surprise us and press Burton from the start, getting an early goal, setting up a comfortable victory?

The problem on the right

A rest from right back duties for David Perkins?

A rest from right back duties for David Perkins?

It is now sixteen months since Emmerson Boyce left Wigan Athletic under acrimonious circumstances. Boyce had been at the heart of most of the club’s greatest achievements and was much loved by the fans. It was never going to be an easy parting of ways.

When news broke out about Boyce’s departure in May 2015 there was consternation among his supporters, many of whom felt the club could have done more to keep him. There were myriad arguments for and against the club in the Boyce debate. But although the issues revolved largely around loyalty towards a player who had become a club legend, there were also those who questioned whether Latics could get a player who was any better to replace him.

Boyce was signed by Paul Jewell in August 2006. He went on to stay for nine seasons, his versatility in being able to play in the centre of defence or on the right being a real asset. Although in his early years at the club he was not the most technically proficient, he had a will to win that endeared him to the fans. When playing at right back Boyce had not been the most fleet footed or the best of distributors, but it was all to change when Roberto Martinez switched to 3-4-3 in November 2012. At the beginning Boyce looked uncomfortable in the right wing back position, but by the end of the season he had played his part in Wigan’s epic victories over the highs and mighties of the Premier League. Boyce had become the archetypal wing back, constantly available to receive the ball, helping stretch the play wide, thoughtful in his distribution and solid in defence.

Wing back is a specialist position, not easy to adapt to for someone used to playing right back in a quartet. Martinez and the coaches had worked with Boyce and he had mastered the position with aplomb. In January 2015 Martinez had brought in Jean Beausejour to play the left wing back role in which he had been utilized by his national team, Chile. The two smooth functioning wing backs were key cogs in Martinez’s machine.

Since Boyce’s departure no one has been able to claim the right back/wing back position as their own. In the first half of last season we saw glimpses of Kevin McNaughton, Jonjoe Kenny and Donald Love, with Tim Chow sometimes filling in. Donervon Daniels also played there when not playing in the centre of defence. Reece Wabara was signed in January and made 20 appearances without being totally convincing. He left in the summer after he and the club were unable to agree terms.

The turnover has continued this season. So far we have seen Luke Burke, Reece Burke, Nathan Byrne, Alex Gilbey, David Perkins, Max Power and Yanic Wildschut play there. Loanee Kyle Knoyle has not yet appeared after getting injured in the pre-season.

Were those who thought Boyce would be hard to replace right? Could Boyce have played a major role last season if he had stayed?

In fact Boyce went to Blackpool where he made just 17 starts last season. The reality was that he was 35 years old when he went there, with his best years behind him. Moreover after Martinez’s departure the player had, more often than not, found himself being played more as an orthodox right back or central defender. His halcyon days as a Premier League wing back were over.

Like Martinez, Gary Caldwell is a major proponent of the back three/wing back type of formation. But since taking over as manager he has rarely had the luxury of seeing two wing backs make a major impact in the same game. Moreover some of the players who have occupied the positions have not looked entirely comfortable with their roles.

Caldwell’s main preferred formations can be described as variations on 3-5-2 and 4-3-3. To be able to switch between the systems he would ideally have players with a bank of prior experience playing as both wing back and full back. But with most of his signings coming from English clubs it was going to be more likely he would get players used to playing as orthodox full backs, having to coach them into playing the differing wing back role.

Near the end of the transfer window Caldwell tried to sign attacking right full back Callum Paterson from Hearts, with an expectation of him playing either role. However, the deal never materialized and instead Caldwell signed Nathan Byrne from Wolves.

The complication is that Byrne is essentially a wing back or winger. So Caldwell faces the choice of sometimes playing Byrne as an orthodox right back or bringing in someone else for the position when he wants his team to play with four at the back. When fit, Knoyle could challenge for a place, although he probably lacks the experience to make the position his own.

Reece Burke is expected to return from injury shortly and can play right back, although he is primarily a central defender. The 18 year old Luke Burke knows both the wing back and full back roles through his time in the development squad, but Caldwell seems reluctant to rely on him as a regular alternative. When fit again Donervon Daniels will also challenge for a place on the right of defence.

It is possible that Caldwell will seek an experienced right back/wing back in the January transfer window. But budgetary constraints might well preclude that option.

Many fans prefer to see Latics play with an orthodox back four, citing greater defensive stability. However, in the latter days of the Martinez era at Wigan it could be argued that playing with three central defenders and two wing backs provided more defensive solidity than we had seen with a  back four.

But it does not necessarily work like that under Caldwell’s system. Is it that Caldwell just has not yet found the quality of wing backs he needs? Or is it that he sees them in a more attacking role than Martinez did?

The right side of defence has been one of Caldwell’s biggest headaches so far in his brief managerial career. At this stage it looks like Byrne will be his first choice right wing back, when fully fit. But who would be his preference at right back remains to be seen.

A rainbow shines at Brentford


Brentford is not a particularly attractive place. Neither is Griffin Park football ground, at first glance. The Bees fans still have three more years to wait before their new stadium is built. But for all its faults the old stadium is well maintained, with a superb playing surface and we had a great view from the away supporters end. Moreover it was a rare pleasure to mingle with home fans before the match started, with no hint of the kind of insularity and hostility that can prevail in the vicinity of some English football stadia.

The home supporters were optimistic before the match, their team having scored nine goals in their last two home games. But they were to be disappointed as a resolute Latics side spoiled their afternoon by coming away with a point. One home fan went so far as to say that the only entertainment of his afternoon was provided by the stunning double rainbow which hovered above the stadium in the second half.

On the other hand the Wigan fans were appreciative of what they had seen. Their team had shown the kind of defensive strength that had been missing since the start of the season. That, together with the rainbow, will stick in many of our memories over the weeks to come.

Gary Caldwell’s tactics certainly worked. He packed his midfield, denying the home team of space. Will Grigg cut a lonely figure for most of the first half, the midfielders holding back rather pushing forward to support him. Wigan’s attack was muted, but so was that of the home team as the Latics defence held firm, shielded by a combative midfield. The home crowd had seemed muted too, their hopes of another goal-fest diminishing by the minute.

When the second half started it looked like a goalless draw was the most likely outcome. Could the Wigan defence hold out or was all the good work going to be ruined by sloppiness as the final whistle would approach? Caldwell was likely to bring Yanic Wildschut off the bench at some stage, but it seemed more likely to happen later rather than sooner.

Strangely enough Caldwell made a double substitution in the 57th minute, bringing on Wildschut and Nick Powell for Nathan Byrne and an ineffective Jordi Gomez. Caldwell was opening up the game with the substitutions. On one hand Latics were to increase their attacking intent. On the other Brentford were to enjoy more space. Powell and Wildschut did enliven the Wigan attack, while an under pressure defence still continued to hold firm. The 0-0 score at the end was a fair result for both sides.

The central defensive pairing of Jake Buxton and Dan Burn was strong in this game. They are clearly developing a mutual understanding. After a shaky start at the club Burn has shown his mettle in recent weeks. He was arguably the Man of the Match yesterday, towering above the Brentford forwards, his positioning sound and tackles firm. However, it could be argued that Buxton was just as good. He does not catch the eye as much as Burn can. Buxton just seems to get on with his job, nothing flashy, but solid and reliable. It was noticeable from an early stage in the game that the two had been given licence to clear their lines when under pressure. The inter-passing between defenders that had been problematic in previous matches had taken the back seat to a more pragmatic approach of safety first.

There has been much talk about the merits of 4-3-3 over 3-5-2. Although seemingly playing with a back four yesterday the presence of Shaun MacDonald so close to the central defenders reminded one of the role Ben Watson could play in the Martinez era. After getting so little playing time over the last two years the Welshman is getting back his match fitness and sharpness. He played a key role yesterday.

The point yesterday puts Latics out of the relegation zone. The cohesion is gradually developing and it is starting to look much more like a team rather than a collection of individuals. There will be ups and downs ahead, but the squad has sufficient quality to at least hold its own in the Championship division.

After the game I met up again with Billy Grant of Brentford fan site Beesotted. Billy has provided us with fascinating articles in the past and his podcasts are always worth a listen. His post-match podcast is to be found below. My contribution from a Wigan perspective starts at 8:00 minutes:





Lifting the gloom and doom against Wolves

A win against Wolves can dispel the doom and gloom among Latics fans.

A win against Wolves can dispel the doom and gloom among Latics fans.

Who would have thought that Wigan Athletic would be bottom of the Championship table by the end of September? The League 1 title had given the club back the momentum it had lost in the dark days of Malky’s reign. But now, once again, that prevailing atmosphere of doom and gloom has returned. Is there any light at the end of the tunnel?

But then again, it isn’t yet the end of September. The home game against Wolves is only a couple of days away. A win would not only propel them off the bottom, but could conceivably lift them out of the relegation zone too. But more than anything else it would lift the doom and gloom that is once again rearing its head. Is a win over Wolves likely to happen?

Football is a game of fine margins. The average number of goals per game in English football hovers around the 2.6 mark. It means that whichever team scores the first goal has a statistically good chance of winning the match. Sadly the authorities who run football remain staunchly conservative. Too many fine margins are determined by erroneous refereeing decisions as the sport continues to bury its head in the sand and resist the kind of video technology that has been invaluable in cricket and rugby. Those who oppose the use of video will say that the law of averages means that by the end of the season the number of dodgy decisions for and against even out.

Gary Caldwell would not necessarily agree. Sometimes those decisions just don’t balance themselves out. He was entirely right about the refereeing decision that led to Preston’s goal on Friday. He was also right about the incident at Bristol where a player who had already been booked should have been sent off a minute before he scored the match-winning goal. But such complaints from a manager tend to be looked upon as sour grapes and Caldwell needs to desist in making them if he is not to open himself up for criticism.

It could be argued that referees have not done Latics any favours so far this season. Many of us hoped that we would see better officials in the second tier than we saw last year in League 1. But if there is a difference in quality, is it so great?

But refereeing has not been the main factor in the poor results so far this season. Fitness has proved to be the overriding issue, exacerbated by the sheer number of new faces coming in. Once again the pre-season did not provide an adequate basis for the kind of physical competitiveness needed at the start of an English league season. Before the warm-up games started Caldwell already had long term injured players in Reece James and Andy Kellett, but he was soon to lose Donervon Daniels and Kyle Knoyle for several months too. For the game at Preston Caldwell was denied the services of at least seven of his squad through injury.

Given the injury situation Caldwell rightly boosted his squad size. He now had 27 players in the senior team squad. However, circumstances were to dictate that so many of the new signings he had brought in were well short of match fitness. It had taken some weeks to get the backbone of his team to a competitive level of fitness, but now he had to ease in new signings, some of whom had not had much game time in pre-season with their previous clubs.

Latics went to Preston to face a physical battle against a team whose style of play is reminiscent of the worst times of Sam Allardyce at Bolton. It was always going to be a difficult game, but the controversial, fortunate goal scored by the home team after just seven  minutes was a hammer blow to Wigan. To their credit they withstood that early onslaught and dominated possession thereafter. But a goal was not to come. The front three of Jacobs, Grigg and Wildschut all had poor games. Grigg had become a father for the first time just a couple of days before. Whether that affected his play on the day is up to debate, but the reality is that Latics need a sharp central striker when playing at places like Preston. The current North End team will never win an award for an aesthetically pleasing style of play, but their manager Simon Grayson has made them into a mean defensive unit.

Norwich City went to the top of the Championship division yesterday and with the strength of their squad they will surely be challenging for an automatic promotion place as May approaches. Despite an awful opening ten minutes at Carrow Road, Latics had gone on to match their rivals, coming so close to a result. The quality of Wigan’s play in the second half more than matched that of the Canaries. It showed that there is sufficient quality in the squad to at least consolidate in the Championship division.

Individual errors such as Dan Burn’s bad back pass at Bristol and Adam Bogdan’s howler at Norwich have been particularly frustrating. But most of the goals conceded have come from slack marking from defence and midfield. Much of it can be put down from a lack of continuity in the starting lineup, the players not “gelling”. The right back/wing back position has been a big headache for Caldwell. With Knoyle and Daniels out long term he has used no less than six players there in his starting lineup. Moreover he has yet to establish the kind of consistent pairing in the centre of defence that we saw last season with Morgan and Pearce. Burn and Buxton has been his recent preference.

So can Latics get off the bottom by beating Wolves?

Well there is one factor that has been missing this season that all teams need to be successful. Most people would call it “luck”, maybe like that goal scored by Preston. It could be said that Preston were “lucky” that the referee ignored the linesman’s flagging for a foul on MacDonald. Moreover there was a strong element of “luck” involved as McGeady’s shot was going harmlessly wide before it hit his own player, changing its direction to beat Bogdan.

Given Caldwell’s luck up to this point he would quite happily settle for not having a controversial refereeing decision against his side. Going one behind in the first half against any Championship side makes things very difficult. Caldwell will recall the Birmingham game when Donaldson was at least a yard offside when he raced ahead to gain a penalty for his team that almost won the match for them.

Put simply, Latics are not bottom because of refereeing decisions or luck being against them. But a controversial decision going their way or a scrappy goal could be enough to see off Wolves. But then maybe their key players will sparkle at the same time bringing the best performance of the season to date?

A loss on Tuesday would not be the end of the world, but would be a further disappointment in a frustrating return to the Championship.