Gary Caldwell’s transformation of Wigan Athletic’s style of play took another step forward in a competitive contest at Dens Park. Dundee and Latics were well matched and the 1-0 result to the home team did not do Latics justice. It was another very competent performance from Caldwell’s new team, with lots of good football supplemented by a determined approach.
Last season’s SPL placings might suggest that Dundee and Partick Thistle were close, but Dundee had finished sixth in the “round robin” part of last season, having to play their final ten matches against the top five teams. Moreover they had a reputation of being a more physical team than Thistle. This proved to be the case last night when tackles came flying in at times. In a league game the home side would surely have finished with a handful of yellow cards. However, this Wigan team is not to be intimidated as it too often was in the Championship. Latics were prepared to get “stuck in”, although within the latter of the law.
Dundee itself has transformed since my time living there. There is a positive buzz around the city with lots of new building projects going on and a very significant improvement in the standard of housing. It is a city on the up. The same cannot be said of Dundee FC. In the 1970s I enjoyed many visits to Dens Park, when the memory of the club’s lifting of the Scottish League title was still with them. A 2-0 victory over AC Milan at Dens in the UEFA Cup remains a fine memory. But since then the club has fallen on hard times, with seemingly constant financial difficulties. Dens Park is no longer the proud venue it was. Its infrastructure is falling apart, with sections of the ground sealed off and a main stand that is antediluvian.
Caldwell once again opted for a 3-5-2 formation. Richard O’Donnell took over in goal. Donervan Daniels played on the right hand side of the back three, with Chris McCann on the left. Andrew Taylor was surprisingly played in the centre of the back line. Against lower division English teams it would not be such a viable option, but knowing that Dundee were going to play the ball largely on the ground, Taylor’s lack height would not be an issue. Kevin McNaughton and Reece James were at wing back, with Francisco Junior playing in front of the back three and Tim Chow and Max Power further forward in midfield. Caldwell fielded for his potentially optimal front line pairing of Craig Davies and Will Grigg.
Dundee started in a lively manner but Latics’ front men were soon working hard, ruffling the home team defence. Although Wigan generally tried to build up their moves from the back, they were not afraid to put aerial passes through to Davies in particular. The big man was looking lively and managed to evade the home defence after 15 minutes, being stopped by a sliding tackle. However, he continued to be involved and his neat interchange with Grigg led to the latter being fouled as he moved towards goal. Sadly Grigg skied his penalty way over the crossbar.
Caldwell was clearly taking the issue of Davies’ fitness seriously, given the player’s problems last season. The big man was taken off after 30 minutes, with David Perkins coming on, Chow and Power being pushed further forward. Power had been full of enterprise, but some of his moves did not quite come off. The tackles came flying in from the home team, but Latics were undeterred. Power went in for tough 50/50 ball and clearly came off the worst, leading to him going off after 40 minutes, being replaced by Ryan Jennings.
Caldwell continued with the same lineup after half time, with Junior once again oozing with class in holding midfield. James had looked lively on the left and his outswinging corners were causing the home defence problems, McNaughton forcing a save from the keeper, before heading narrowly over, as did Daniels. The big West Indian had been a little wayward in his passing early in the game, but was a major contributor in defence, his speed and physical strength coming to the fore.
On 60 minutes Caldwell replaced Chow, Grigg, Junior and McNaughton with Jonjoe Kenny, John Lundstram, Billy Mckay and Samni Odelusi. Odelusi sadly strayed offside with a chance being wasted. Kenny was soon to show his blistering pace in a counterattack, with neither Mckay nor Odelusi able to convert his excellent cross. Latics’ wing backs had been pushed far forward, acting almost as wingers. Lundstram was gradually getting into the game and Odelusi looked lively. Mckay was not at his best with his final touch. Perkins was lively as ever, winning the ball and moving forward. Jennings could not repeat his fine performance at Partick, but will surely challenge for a place.
Dundee were to get the breakthrough on 70 minutes as an exposed Latics defence left a gap on the right, with Loy converting. Daniels was replaced by Craig Morgan after 77 minutes after putting in a good shift. Dundee were restricted to long range efforts from outside the box. Odelusi went close with a left footed drive in the last minute, but Dundee were to hang on for a win they scarcely deserved.
Apart from the goal, Latics’ defence has been solid. Indeed O’Donnell’s first save came in the 90th minute. McCann was excellent once again, as he had been against Partick Thistle. The much maligned Taylor gave a professional performance in the centre of defence. In front of his home town crowd, McNaughton had seemed subdued in the first half, but was more involved in the second until taken off. He and Kenny are very different kinds of players and it gives Caldwell options in the right wing back position. It remains to be seen whether McNaughton will be offered a contract.
Caldwell will be getting closer to deciding on his first choice lineup. It will be interesting to see if he sticks with his midfield formation with one player sitting in front of the defence and two pushed further forward. Junior and Perkins are the prime candidates for the role in front of the defence, with Power the most likely in the role of midfield creator. Chow, Flores, Jennings and Lundstram and are also candidates for midfield places, as is McCann if he stays at the club.
Davies will be carefully nurtured, but one wonders if he will be fit for the opening league game at Coventry. Although he has not yet taken advantage of scoring opportunities, Grigg looks a fine player for League 1 and will surely make his mark. Mckay remains a work in progress, his confidence surely damaged by the shoddy treatment he received under Malky Mackay. Playing just a hundred yards from Tannadice Park there would surely have been a Dundee United presence at Dens Park last night. Mckay was regularly scoring goals at Inverness, playing as a lone centre forward. The Dundee United interest is therefore no surprise.
James Perch has not appeared in either match in Scotland, leading to speculation of an imminent departure. But the player might well be injured.
Although Caldwell already has the nucleus of a useful squad in place there may well be more surprises to come. Reports suggest that Wolves winger Michael Jacobs is close to signing and rumours persist about Swindon wing back Nathan Byrne.
The failure of the new players to gel was to eventually prove fatal to Latics last season. It will be a major issue for Caldwell, but having a clearly defined style of play is surely helping his players to adapt. The current mood is clearly positive and there are grounds for optimism. However, no matter how well the pre-season has gone it is going to take time for the team to fully gel and the results to come. We need to be prepared for some ups and downs over the coming weeks.
As the saying goes “Rome was not built in a day”.