In early April the doom and gloom that was prevailing at Wigan Athletic was suddenly lifted. For so many months Wigan Athletic seemingly had no direction and leadership. But within a short amount of time Latics had a new chairman and a new manager, both young and hungry for success. Even if relegation were to happen there was now a sign of light at the end of the tunnel.
The new chairman had opted for a manager who believed in playing football the “Wigan way”. Moreover he intimated that the new manager would stay in the position long-term.
The 23 year old David Sharpe and the 32 year old Gary Caldwell were to launch the “new era” at the club.
It was a lovely mild spring evening on April 10th when Caldwell made his managerial debut at Craven Cottage, which had rarely been a happy hunting ground for Wigan Athletic. The match against Fulham turned out to be an entertaining 2-2 draw and Latics were well worth their point. A win was just beyond their reach and relegation crept even closer. But the bright side was that, after just two days of training, Caldwell had got the team moving towards a brand of football reminiscent of the club’s best of times in the Premier League.
Latics went on to lose three of their next four matches and were relegated to League 1. However, few fans could blame Caldwell, who had inherited a team packed with journeymen and loanees. Relegation was a calamity, but there remained genuine hope that the new of Sharpe/Caldwell duo could put the club back on track after so sadly losing its way.
The last game of the season had been a miserable 3-0 defeat at Brentford, but Caldwell was to make a statement by bringing on the 18 year old Louis Robles and the 19 year old Jordan Flores for their first senior appearances after 64 minutes. Moreover soon after his appointment Caldwell had brought 21 year old Tim Chow back to the club after he had been released by Malky Mackay. Chow has been given his debut at Millwall and gone on to score against Brighton in a 2-1 home win. Was this an indication that Caldwell would be using home-grown talent as a basis for the future?
Since that last match on May 2nd, so much has changed. Caldwell and Sharpe were clearly determined to jettison so many of the players of the previous era, whose Championship-level salaries could not be supported on a League 1 budget. Just a handful now remain.
Let’s take a look at Caldwell’s progress in the season so far. The grades go on a scale from A (excellent) to E (poor), with pluses and minuses indicating the top and bottom of the range (A+ being best possible, E- worst).
Success in the Transfer Market: A-
Caldwell has done a remarkable job in moving on so many players from the previous era to make room for “hungry” new players to come in. The loanees returned to their clubs and none of the seven players at the ends of their contracts were to stay at the club. Nine players were sold, mostly at bargain-basement prices, and another four sent out on loan.
Latics now have an active first team squad of 29 players. It includes three “home grown” players, with five players remaining from last season’s senior squad. There are seven loanees and two players – Will Grigg and Reece James – for whom they have paid transfer fees around the £1m mark. The remainder were procured for bargain fees or at the ends of their previous contracts.
Caldwell’s squad has its share of experienced professionals, but it is packed with young players of potential. The £1.5 m received for the transfers of James McClean to West Bromwich Albion, together with the accumulation of smaller fees received for other players compensates for outgoing transfer fees. However, despite the continued presence of those five players on Championship-level salaries, Caldwell has drastically reduced the wage bill. Moreover four of those five have contracts that terminate in June 2016.
Caldwell has recruited 21 players since the beginning of May – a remarkable feat. Moreover he has brought in experienced players who have played in the Championship and Premier League, together with capable younger ones who can help form a foundation for the future. Having recruited such a large number of new players it was practically inevitable that he would have had to take a gamble on some who have had injury problems in the past years. However, only one of those is on a contract beyond June 2016, it terminating a year later.
The main frustration last season was with the players’ apparent unwillingness to fight for the cause. At times so many of them just did not seem to care. However, Caldwell’s squad has a different mentality – a fighting spirit and an unwillingness to give up when even two goals behind. It is a testament to his ability in finding the “right type “of player.
Public Relations: – A
Caldwell is a bright and eloquent young manager, seemingly unbowed by the prospect of being peppered with awkward questions, whether it be in an open fan forum or from the media. He is not only eloquent, but bold in enunciating his philosophy of football. For a 32 year old manager in his first job he is impressive.
Caldwell clearly believes that what he is doing is the right way forward for Wigan Athletic, even if he recognises that it remains a work in progress. It is through his belief that he has the strength of character to stand up there and put his head in the firing line.
Results so far: – B
Latics are currently in 10th place in League 1 after 12 matches. At home their record is W3 D3 L0, with an away record of W1 D2 L3. They were knocked out of the League Cup by Bury, but remain in the Johnstone Paints Trophy.
Given the high proportion of new players in the squad it is not surprising that results up to this point have not reached most fans’ expectations.
There has been a welcome change in an upturn in home form, but the away results have been disappointing.
Results over the next couple of months are likely to remain unpredictable, with the players needing more time to gel as a team.
Latics need to be in at least a mid-table position by the end of December if they are going to make a push towards promotion.
The Balance and Quality of the Playing Squad: – A
Caldwell has done well in making sure that there are at least two players competing for every position. On paper the squad is strong enough to gain automatic promotion.
All of his permanent signings are British, except for the Finnish goalkeeper Jaaskelainen who has been in England a long time. He has loan players from Guinea-Bissau, Holland and Slovenia.
The squad is particularly well stocked in the area of midfield. There are a more than a handful of players who can play the of a twin striker role, although there are fewer suited to a lone centre forward role.
With probably the largest squad in the division Latics will be well positioned compared with other clubs in mid-season when the injuries start to reel in. But the downside is that with a squad so large Caldwell will have to adopt a rotation policy to give all those players game time. The alternative is to have disgruntled players, as with what happened last year under Uwe Rosler.
The squad is bristling with the highest proportion of young players we have seen at Wigan for some years. There is a lot of talent, which augurs well for the future, but the team continues to suffer through their inconsistencies. There is an old adage that young players need time, but can Caldwell offer them that, given the pressure to achieve promotion?
Tactics and Team Selection: – B-
Not surprisingly, given injury problems and the need to rotate a large squad, Caldwell has used 30 players so far, including Jonjoe Kenny who has now returned to Everton.
The critics will say that Caldwell does not know his most favoured starting eleven. However, given the number of injuries suffered by his players it is doubtful if he would have ever been able to do field his strongest eleven , even if he did know it. Then again he would still need to shuffle his pack on a regular basis due to the size of his squad.
Caldwell is a rookie manager learning the job. Like any newcomer on the scene he has made mistakes, but his long-term view and his belief that his players can achieve is to be commended.
Some fans will say that Caldwell lacks courage in his approach and affords the other teams too much respect. They urge him to attack the opposition from the start. They will say that the slow build-up from the back involving passing between defenders allows the other team time to regroup. Moreover the result of defenders trying to pass the ball among themselves too often leads to the opposition intercepting the ball or a pass back to the goalkeeper and a punt upfield conceding possession.
They will say that possession means nothing, that it is goals that count. Some look back to the days of 4-4-2 with twin strikers of the ilk of Ellington and Roberts terrifying opposition defences. In away games Caldwell has constantly lined up with a lone centre forward who has been unable to make an impact given poor service and support from midfield. Moreover the defence has leaked too many goals that were preventable, being particularly vulnerable to crosses and set pieces. They cite the stunning late turnarounds, when Latics have been trailing and have come back in the final quarter “guns a blazing”. Could they not have done that from the start?
However, there are parallels to the Martinez area, when similar issues were so often raised, especially in the early days. Like Martinez, Caldwell clearly has a strong belief in his approach. In flashes Latics’ football under the Scot has been a joy to watch. What is missing is consistency. Possession football can wear the opposition down, leaving them vulnerable in the final quarter of the game. However, no matter what the style of football you need a solid defence, a midfield that can push forward to create chances and forwards who are capable of converting them to goals.
Caldwell can hardly be accused of tactical rigidity or being cautious in the use of substitutes. He has used 3-5-2, 3-4-3, 4-4-2 and even 4-2-4 in the closing part of the game. He has typically used his bench earlier in the game than his recent predecessors. What has hurt Caldwell most up to this point has been the absence of key defenders and forwards through injuries and suspensions, together with so many numbing refereeing decisions that have gone against his team.
On Saturday the Bury manager was upset with the referee for sending off one of his players after he had committed two professional fouls, each deserving of a yellow card. For once the tactical fouling of the opposition was punished by a referee. Sadly the norms of arbitrage in League 1 are worryingly low and too many cynical challenges go unpunished.
Wigan Athletic are a big name in the division and other teams will try to raise their game to beat them. Latics will come across teams who will employ whatever means necessary to stop their more talented players. However, the “big name” aspect can also cause teams to wilt when Latics really attack them. What is lacking is the collective confidence in the Latics squad to do that from the start. So often midfielders will take the easy option with a pass backwards or across the pitch. They are playing for their places and are afraid to make mistakes.
Playing 4-2-4 is so exciting to watch, but in the modern game it is a last resort. No manager is going to go into a match with that formation, let alone a rookie like Caldwell. However, when your team is behind and the opposition is tired near the end of the 90 minutes it is a viable option.
Areas to work on
Caldwell has done well to put together a squad that matches that of any other in the division. Providing he gets the best out of his players, promotion back to the Championship remains a possibility.
In order to succeed in League 1 a club needs quality players who are not easily deterred and ready to fight for the 50-50 ball at all times. It is something that Caldwell has clearly been instilling into his players, more than half of whom had never previously played in League 1. Many are still adjusting to the pace and physicality of the play in a division where tackles are tolerated that would draw red or yellow cards in the Championship or Premier League.
Caldwell needs to reduce his squad size to alleviate the need for constant rotation of his lineups. Although arguments can be made that injuries have played a big part, using 30 players up to this point is excessive. He needs to identify the players who make up his core lineup and play them together on a regular basis, injuries permitting. Moreover chopping and changing between different tactical formations is not helping players gel as a unit. The players have not only had to adapt to his preferred style of play, but also frequent changes in shape.
Caldwell deserves commending for giving youth a chance, but there is some validity in the phrase “kids don’t win promotion”. When he has the bulk of his most capable and experienced players at his disposal he must use the youngsters more sparingly.
Caldwell and his squad need more time. It is simply too much to expect a group of players recently put together to gel into a fully functional unit at this stage. However, Caldwell clearly believes that with time it will come together. The question is – how much time will it take?
The hope is that maybe a couple of months from now Caldwell’s team will ramp up its gears, taking the game to the opposition from the start. It is the collective confidence that is lacking, but having played high-flying teams like Bury and Walsall in recent matches the players will surely have learned there are no teams to fear in the division.