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.