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.



3 responses

  1. I thought that interesting too, JJ, that the supposed age range of 24-27 for our transfer targets has been changed to somewhat lower than originally planned. Still, no-one should want to argue with the probable quality of players like Power, James and Jacobs even if they are younger than 24. Have you worked out what the average age is of our recruits, including and excluding the loan players?

    • Thanks, NWL. I agree with your comments about those three players.

      With a new 40 year old goalkeeper being signed it is going to skew the average age upwards. Perhaps a profiling of the different age ranges might be more mathematically sound.

      Moreover there are still departures imminent for more experienced players from last year’s squad. They might well be replaced by young players through the loan system.
      For me the squad is not yet complete.

      There is a need for a Maloney-type, a playmaker who can unlock defences. Power is potentially the man, but at 21 maybe it is too much to ask. Murray could also fit the bill if he can settle in, then extend his loan period. Another central defender plus another winger/striker in the Jacobs mould would help, although Coulthirst might fit the bill.

  2. I don’t want to sound like a naysayer, but I really feel we have enough now in the way of signings. Coulthirst comes highly-rated from Spurs but he wasn’t exactly lighting up League Two, so wouldn’t we rather develop Robles and Cosgrove? Sean Murray comes highly-rated from Watford, but personally I’d rather see us develop Jordan Flores (who looks quality) and Tim Chow (when he returns from injury). If Watford want him to develop why can’t they give him opportunities themselves instead of buying in a dozen foreign players? That’s why I personally hope we don’t extend his loan spell, but extending the loan spells of Junior and Kenny would be a good idea as they would leave us with few options in defensive midfield and right-back. I certainly believe we are on the right track with our signings and developing youth, but I think we can put more emphasis on developing our Academy players rather than loaning in players. What do you think, JJ?

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