It is less than a year ago since Owen Coyle left Wigan Athletic. The Scot was on a hiding to nothing when he took the job in July 2013. Not only was he an ex-Bolton manager, but he was expected to get Latics back into the Premier League in the space of one season. Expectations were high after the FA Cup triumph, following eight years in the Premier League. With their parachute payment, Latics had a clear financial advantage over most of the clubs in the division, plus a residue of players with a wealth of Premier League experience.
With the expectations of the fans and the owner weighing heavily on his back, it was a difficult time for Coyle. Results had not been meeting expectations and they were to get worse in December, when there was widespread disgruntlement among fans, fuelled by keyboard warriors on the social media. Successive defeats to Brighton and Zulte Waregem in late November were followed by a debacle against Derby County, soon after which Coyle’s departure was announced.
Some nine months on and the keyboard warriors are lively again. This time their disgruntlement is aimed at Uwe Rosler. It might be hard to believe after what Rosler has already achieved at the club, but some are starting to question if he is the right man for the job.
Following Coyle’s uncomfortable reign at Wigan, Rosler was to become viewed as the saviour. He took over a team that had been drifting towards the lower reaches of the Championship table and galvanized them into reaching not only the playoffs, but also the FA Cup semi-final. It was a remarkable achievement and it brought him widespread acclaim from fans.
However, within the space of six weeks Rosler’s star has waned. Latics are currently in those same lower reaches of the Championship table, where they were when he took over. They have won only six of their last twenty four matches.
Rosler has brought in nine new players over summer, none of whom have yet performed at their optimum. New players always take time to settle in, but many have been thrust into the starting lineup despite lacking match fitness. Moreover the pre-season training programme failed to provide the level of preparation necessary for the squad to compete at least on an even keel in the very physical environment of the Championship. .
Latics have so far amassed 8 points from 8 league games. At the same stage last season, Coyle’s team had 11 points.
With another 38 games Latics have time to turn things around. Physical fitness levels are improving and the new players are gradually settling in. Confidence is low at the moment, but Rosler has shown in the past that he can lift a team low on confidence. Rosler is a very capable manager who has a long term view. Like all managers, he makes mistakes, but he is honest and open and willing to reflect.
Wigan Athletic cannot even contemplate looking for another manager at this moment in time, as some of the more extreme keyboard warriors might infer. Dave Whelan would be wise to let supporters know that the German has his backing, despite the adverse results of late. The continued support of the fans will be needed to help things turn around.
Here are five things that Rosler must do if he is to lift Latics out of their current malaise and make them into genuine promotion contenders:
1) Build a team based on solid defence.
Rosler has a wealth of quality defenders at his disposal. Following his arrival last year Latics went on an unbeaten run of 6 league games, when they conceded only 3 goals, with four clean sheets. That is what is needed in the matches coming up.
Up to this point James Perch and Rob Kiernan have been ever present. Emmerson Boyce, Ivan Ramis and Andrew Taylor have played in 7 out of the 8 games. Latics have conceded only 10 goals in the 8 games so far, but the defence has looked ragged at times. On the 3 occasions when they have played with a back four they have conceded 6 goals. They have conceded only 4 goals on the 5 occasions where they have played 3-5-2.
Leon Barnett, a pillar in defence for most of last season, has appeared in only one game so far, coming on at half time against Birmingham. Neither Gary Caldwell nor Thomas Rogne have featured.
Rosler needs to decide whether he has the right blend in the centre of defence. The admirable Boyce has had a disappointing season so far, not looking like the player he has been in the past. Kiernan has had the ups and downs that can be expected of a young player playing in a key defensive position.
Given that so many Championship teams rely on aerial bombardment for a source of their goals it has been a surprise that the two best headers of the ball – Barnett and Rogne – have not made the starting lineup so far.
Rosler’s tactic of defending from the front through high pressing has not worked effectively up to this point, largely down to the lack of physical fitness of the players. Moreover he has a totally new midfield this season that has yet to gel. The end result has been more pressure on the back line.
2) Keep up squad morale
Rosler has built up a capable and well balanced squad of 29 players. Three or four of those are likely to be sent out on loan, which will give them more chance of playing time and reduce running costs. That still leaves him with a squad of around 25.
Rosler is an adherent to the concept of squad rotation, which he employed last season to a large degree. It was not universally popular with the fans. His critics would say that Rosler made too many changes from game to game, that he himself did not know what his best starting eleven was. However, the sheer volume of games that Latics had to play made a certain degree of squad rotation necessary. Moreover it meant that all players in the squad had a chance of getting on the pitch. This in turn produced keen competition for places and raised the morale of those who might not have been involved.
There are few automatic starters in the current squad. Goalkeeper Scott Carson has started in all the league games so far, but faces strong competition from Ali Al-Habsi. Callum McManaman has been in fine form this season and rightly has started in all eight league games. James Perch and Emmerson Boyce were regular starters last year and have remained so. Ivan Ramis seems to have shaken off his injury worries and is likely to be a regular starter.
However, fans have questioned Rosler’s willingness to give all squad players a fair crack of the whip. Fraser Fyvie had a good pre-season and has played well for the development squad, but has not played a single minute of Championship football this season. FA Cup Final hero and fan favourite Roger Espinoza has made just one appearance off the bench. It seems that they, together with Marc-Antoine Fortune, are to be sent out on loan, a signal that their careers at Latics are nearing an end since they are in the last years of their contracts.
The case of Grant Holt continues to give cause for concern. One of Rosler’s first moves when he arrived was to leave Holt out of the squad that travelled to Slovenia to play Maribor. Then in January the player was sent on loan to Aston Villa until the end of the season. Since he has come back he has been consigned to training with the development squad and he has not been given a squad number. Moreover his face was conspicuously absent from the squad photograph taken a few days ago.
Holt has become fair game to those who want to take a pot shot at him on the social media. Much of it has been over his weight, but many fans have also perceived that the player never made enough effort to succeed at the club. By all accounts the player has shed his excess weight, but it appears that Rosler is unwilling to welcome him back into the fold. Holt is reputedly one of the club’s best paid players and is only in the second year of a three year contract.
The best case scenario would be for another club to sign Holt, but who is going to sign a 33 year old player that does not even train with the senior squad? It is a Catch-22 situation that Rosler needs to find some way to resolve. It certainly cannot help morale within the club.
3) Provide support for the centre forward
Like Roberto Martinez before him, Rosler prefers to play with one central striker rather than two. His systems rely on the wide players and midfielders providing support the “lone” centre forward. Up to this point Andy Delort, Marc-Antoine Fortune and Oriel Riera have all failed to receive the necessary support. The service from the midfield to the centre forward has been poor. Both Delort and Riera had good goal scoring records at their clubs last year, but unless there is a change in the way Latics play they are unlikely to score many goals at Wigan. Only one of Latics ten goals has come from a centre forward, that being Riera’s goal against Blackpool.
Both teams that achieved automatic promotion last year played with two strikers. Danny Ings got 21 league goals for Burnley last season, his partner Sam Vokes getting 20. For Leicester, David Nugent scored 22 and Jamie Vardy 16.
Many fans still hanker for the 4-4-2 of the days of Jewell and Bruce where striking partnerships such as that of Ellington and Roberts were the blueprint for success. But the days of 4-4-2 are largely over, with managers preferring to have three players in central midfield.
Rosler’s favoured formations are 4-3-3 and 3-5-2. In 4-3-3 the two wide players are expected to get goals as well as provide them. In the 3-5-2 system operated by Rosler he tends to play a target man centre forward up front, together with a twin striker.
4) Insist on quality football
Rosler’s vision of Latics playing a high pressing, high tempo game with rapid counterattacking seems a long way off at this moment in time. However, that is not to say that it cannot happen someday. It took Martinez some two and a half years for him to see his vision materialize in spectacular fashion when Latics started beating the elite. Martinez received his share of animosity from sections of the crowd through sticking to his guns and insisting that his teams try to play football in the style that he espoused.
Like Martinez, Rosler needs to show courage in sticking to his footballing principles and to continue to work towards his stated vision. Martinez was under the constant pressure of keeping Latics afloat in the Premier League, whereas the pressure upon Rosler could be even greater given the need for promotion before the parachute payments run out.
Rosler recently stated that Latics are a team that plays possession football. Given the hoofing we have seen on occasions it was reassuring to hear him say this. Martinez and Rosler have different visions of how football should be played, but both clearly agree that quality possession football is the way forward.
It is to be hoped that the hoof is a thing of the past, except in cases of dire emergency.
5) Utilise players in their best positions
Rosler’s team selection against Ipswich left Latics with an unbalanced look. There was not a single naturally left footed player in the starting lineup. A right footed left back linking up with a right footed left winger stymied the attack on that side of the field. The problem was caused by Rosler switching Perch from right to left back. He had Andrew Taylor – a natural left footed full back – and James McClean – a natural left footed winger – sitting on the bench.
Perch is a fine defender who has made a significant improvement to the attacking side of his game under Rosler. His strength is on the right hand side of the field.
Shaun Maloney’s best position has always been in the centre of midfield, although during the Martinez era he would often start on the left, but move inside. At 31 years of age and having had so many problems with injury, the Scot is not likely to thrive on the left wing.
In the latter part of the second half against Ipswich, Adam Forshaw was moved into the centre of midfield, where he looked a different player. Forshaw could prove to be the playmaker that Latics have sorely missed up to this point.
Callum McManaman has the ability to be one of the best wingers in the country. However, the lack of protection he receives from referees in the Championship makes one wonder when he is going to pick up a serious injury. Playing him wide on the wing makes him an easy target for unscrupulous defenders. This season he has revelled in the free role he is afforded when Latics play 3-5-2. Not only does it make him harder to mark, but it gives him more opportunities on goal. If he were to play in that position and stay clear of injuries he could well become the 20 goal per season striker that Latics have been missing. But then again is Rosler willing to stick to a 3-5-2 formation on a regular basis?