Concentrating on the League

Davies2

“I was thinking to myself: last minute, against my old club, this is going to drop for me, I’m going to put them out. It was just one of those things. The ball’s ended up going a couple of yards behind me. It wasn’t meant to be, and we just have to get on with it.”

So said Craig Davies to Wigan Today.

There is an old saying in football that it is results that count. If that pass had reached Davies and he had put the ball in the back of the net then Wigan Athletic would almost certainly have reached the northern final of the Football League Trophy. The result would have overshadowed the poor performance.

In fact results have overshadowed poor performances on various occasions this season, as Gary Caldwell’s sides have battled back in the closing minutes to put things right. Last gasp winning goals from Jordy Hiwula at Chesterfield and Francisco Junior at home to Swindon, together with Will Grigg’s late equaliser at home to Millwall, added an extra five points to Latics ’tally. Without them Wigan Athletic would not be in the playoff zone now.

It had looked like another last gasp winner was coming against Barnsley, but sadly this time it did not.

Gary Caldwell was said to be “hugely disappointed” with his team’s exit from the competition.  A home game against League 1’s bottom club had looked like the passport to the Northern Final of the competition.  We had been looking forward to visiting Wembley once again. But hopes were dashed after the manager had struggled to muster five players to take the spot kicks. Barnsley had won a League Cup match against Scunthorpe through a penalty shootout, 7-6 in their favour. They were to go on to show enough confidence to do it again.

The disappointment of the defeat, of which even Caldwell himself admitted that Barnsley had merited their win, has been hard for fans to take. As always, the blame for such a poor performance falls on the manager’s shoulders. The social media and message boards are once more bristling with criticisms of Caldwell’s style of play and team selections. But one or two brave souls continue to sticks their necks out by suggesting that it is the players who are to blame for displays like that. Caldwell himself even went as far as to say that “If I was a player that played today, I’d be very worried about my place.”

As with the previous performances against Shrewsbury, Burton Albion and Southend United so many of Caldwell’s key players had not played up to expectations. The lack of form of Michael Jacobs and David Perkins has been particularly worrying, although it was always going to be hard for the two of them to keep up the high standards of performance they had maintained prior to the arrival of seasonably bad weather.

Recent matches have been played in particularly difficult conditions, which are hardly conducive to the style of football that Caldwell seeks. In such conditions against League 1 opposition, Latics will need to play with a more direct approach, as they did at Southend. There was no lack of effort or fight from the players on that occasion and they were able to grind out a 0-0 draw that could easily have turned into a victory if one of Leon Barnett’s three fine efforts had gone in. But the first half ploy of launching long balls to the twin strikers, Grigg and Revell, just did not work. It was only when Craig Davies had come on in the final quarter that the long balls started to work more effectively.

Sometimes a player’s arrival in a team can correspond to a change in fortunes. This has certainly been the case for Caldwell’s team.

Both Yanic Wildschut and Jussi Jaaskelainen made their debuts against Walsall in early October. Many fans would say that their arrival in the lineup was instrumental in Latics extending an unbeaten run of three into eleven.

Wildschut had come on as a substitute in the 46th minute. He followed up with a man of the match performance at Crewe, scoring a spectacular goal. The Dutchman went on to terrorise opposition defences for the next month. He still retains that capacity, although the opposing teams are now wise to his threat and are finding ways to deal with him, sometimes legally, sometimes not.

Given the player’s explosive style, Caldwell has used Wildschut carefully, often taking him off around the two thirds mark. The manager had talked during the week about the physical demands on Wildschut’s body, arising from his style of play. He chose to leave the big winger on the bench on Saturday, bringing him on after half time. Wildschut’s loan period from Middlesbrough ends on January 2nd. The player has added so much more of a goal threat to the attack that Caldwell will be desperate to fix up a deal with the north eastern club come January.

Boro manager Aitor Karanka apparently does not include Wildschut in his future plans. Wildschut does not meet his tactical plans, not least by his unwillingness to track back and help out his full back. It is not only Wildschut’s lack of defensive awareness that has impeded his career in the past, but an inability to lift his head and be aware of the situation around him. Wildschut continues to frustrate, but has not only scored three good goals, but also made a similar number of excellent assists. He is invaluable to the Wigan Athletic attack.

Jaaskelainen has impressed in his ability to dominate his box and to marshal his defence. He adds calmness to the defence through his experience and knowledge of the game. The other goalkeeper, Richard O’Donnell lost his place primarily because of his lack of forcefulness in his own box. He will clearly need to work on improving this aspect of his game. In early season O’Donnell was too often faced with dealing with awful back passes from defenders passing the buck to him and putting him under pressure. Following an uncharacteristically bad mistake at Bury, O’Donnell’s confidence is probably at a low. But he had an excellent record at this level with Walsall and was rated as one of the division’s top keepers.

Jaaskelainen exudes confidence through his pedigree as a top Premier League goalkeeper over many seasons. However, at 40, his reactions are not as quick as they were. At least some of the goals he has allowed would most likely have been saved by O’Donnell.

Alex Revell’s arrival met with instant success in his first two games, but less than that in his next three. Revell started on the right of an advanced midfield in the 4-2-3-1 system that Caldwell used at the start of the 2-0 away win at Rochdale. Then Revell scored a well-taken goal in a target man role with a header in the 1-0 win over Shrewsbury. But he was unable to impress in the confrontations with Burton, Southend and Barnsley. At 6 ft 3 in Revell is comfortable in the target man role, but his career record shows he has never been a consistent goal scorer. Fans continue to be puzzled why Revell gets the nod ahead of Davies in the starting lineup.

But perhaps Caldwell’s ploy of playing Will Grigg and Revell together was not such a bad one. The bright spot of the Barnsley game was seeing Grigg put away two goals in the manner of a true goal poacher. After the game the player admitted that he had not played particularly well, but it is goals that win matches and Grigg is the most likely to score them for Wigan Athletic. Although he scored a bagful of goals playing as a lone striker for MK Dons last season, Grigg would surely thrive playing alongside a big target man whose physical presence can draw away defenders and create space for him. The question is whether it should be Revell or Davies in the target man role.

Caldwell took a gamble on playing the left footed Andy Kellett at right wing back against Barnsley, which probably did not come off as much as he would have liked. The absence of both Donervon Daniels and Donald Love had forced his hand to some degree, although he could have called on Tom Chow. The renewal of Love’s loan period for another month will help Caldwell provide cover for that right back position, provided the young player can stay fit. Bringing in a raw young player on loan to a side seeking promotion is always going to draw criticism from fans, but Caldwell clearly rates the Rochdale-born lad highly.

In fact Love’s current loan spell will come to a conclusion four days after the transfer window opens on January 3rd. By then Caldwell will have decided whether he wants to negotiate with Manchester United on making Love a permanent signing or to seek another extension of the loan period. He will have to make similar decisions for Junior and Shaun Murray, both talented midfield players, but who have not shown enough to merit a regular place in the side up to this point. Revell’s permanence at Wigan will to a large degree depend on whether Grant Holt will be returning from his loan spell at Wolves, which ends on January 2nd. Caldwell has already voiced his enthusiasm to keep Wildschut, whose loan period also runs out on January. Wildschut might not be the finished product, but appears indispensable to Wigan’s promotion push.

Securing Wildschut on a permanent contract is going to depend largely on David Sharpe’s willingness to pay Middlesbrough the fee they will seek. This in turn might well depend on possible outgoings from Wigan. Economics could well dictate the departures of players on Championship level salaries, whose contracts expire at the end of the season. Latics might well seek small transfer fees in some cases, but the main concern is that of reducing the monthly wage bill. Leon Barnett, Don Cowie and Chris McCann are in that position.

Getting knocked out of three cup competitions has hardly been pleasing for the fans. The awful FA Cup exit at Bury was followed by dreams of Wembley being quashed by League 1’s bottom club. But for Caldwell, in his quest for promotion back to the Championship, it could turn out to be a blessing in disguise.  His players will be focused on one thing only – the league.

Latics currently lie 5th in the table, five points behind an automatic promotion place. This is despite the team rarely clicking on all cylinders. But, cup competitions apart, results have been remarkably good for a squad with 21 new players.  The home tie with Sheffield United on Boxing Day will be the 23rd league game, the half way point of the season.  If the team can overcome its recent jitters there is a strong possibility that Latics will be within close striking distance of an automatic promotion place by New Year.

As the season has progressed Caldwell’s players have gradually started to gel as a working unit. However, up to this moment in time the whole has not equaled the sum of its parts. A major concern for Caldwell will be the possibility of further turnover of playing staff in January. Will the economic side of things at the club be in his favour or against him?

Caldwell needs continuity in terms of his playing staff, not more wholesale changes which will further slowdown the gelling process. It could be argued that he would be wise to stick with what he already has, although quite a bit of that is beyond his control.

It remains early days in the “new era” at Wigan Athletic. The January transfer window is another hurdle to be crossed.

Caldwell, Sharpe and their recruitment team did so well in the last transfer window. The question is whether they can make the right decisions in January.

Promotion will largely depend on what happens.

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7 responses

  1. I’m not sure about renewing Revell’s loan or making it permanent to be honest. He’s been pretty poor and he has never been a prolific goal-scorer, although he can be a good target man. We have Craig Davies who can play that role though, and he is a much better player and a goal-scorer. He gets injured fairly often which is an issue, and Revell is the only other striker with his physicality whp can play as a target man. Grigg can play as a lone centre-forward as he did for MK Dons last season, which we should look in to. I think only one of Junior and Murray should get a loan extension, and I think Junior has been the better player. Wildschut is a must, to either get permanently or to get an extension. Right-back is where we are weak, and I think Love’s loan extension is good because he looked a promising player and we can try and get him permanently. Personally I believe the squad is a little large at the moment, and it can’t be good having so many first-team players all wanting to play. I think this is one of the reasons Caldwell doesn’t field the same team regularly. I say we let a few of them that have come here on loan go back, and we should also think of loaning out Odelusi and Hendry, because they don’t look up to this level at the moment.

  2. “Up to this moment in time the whole has not equaled the sum of its parts” sums it up very nicely. I do think things will improve and the transfer window will be another step in transforming the side the way Gary Caldwell wants. While I understand concerns about more disruption, surely he can’t be expected to sit still and pretend this side is not in need of further strengthening, particularly the need for a really creative player who can open up these tight defences we face.

    • Thanks NWL. It seems a matter of balancing out the need fo strengthening the squad against the disruption to the gelling process caused by turnover. Perhaps Caldwell has depended too much on Jacobs for the creative side of things, although he does already have Vuckic who is a natural number 10. I wonder why he is not even making the squad?

      • That’s a good point, considering Vuckic was very good for Rangers and clearly has talent. Junior, Murray or Flores I feel can also play the attacking midfield role, and personally I think the team needs to play with one midfielder in the hole behind the striker(s) rather than using the 3-4-3 we have used in recent weeks. 3-4-1-2 looks to suit us very well and I think 4-2-3-1 should be explored. I wonder, though, why you never reply to my comments JJ?

  3. Hi Roshan, You put forward some good stuff and we appreciate your input. Keep it coming!

    I am afraid I am not always systematic about responding to comments. But we want to encourage people to put their points of view forward. We all have our own views but they can be shaped by what we learn from others.

    I agree with you about Junior, Murray and Flores. But I feel Junior needs to establish himself as a holding midfielder, as Power has done. Flores is full of potential, but raw, and could benefit from a loan spell at another club. Murray’s career has been dogged by injury, but he should not be written off yet.

    My feeling about Caldwell’s tactical formations is that he has tried too many with a squad that has still not gelled. Keep the tactics simple – maybe adopt two basic “shapes” and switch between the two.

    Caldwell’s 3-4-3 differs from that of the Martinez days when the wing backs did so much more defensively. For me, Caldwell pushes his wing backs too far forward and they end up more like wingers. Boyce and Beausejour were key elements in the Martinez plan. I am not sure if Caldwell’s wing backs are so effective. This is not to criticise the likes of Daniels or James, but more of a question about how they are being employed.

  4. The finances of the squad have to be balanced against the development of youth at the club, ultimately there is little merit in moving up a division if the infrastructure isn’t there to support a further push to the premiership. If I had a choice of spending money on developing an academy or shelling out on Wildschut at an inflated price, I’d go for the academy any time, same applies to McCann and Cowie and to a lesser extent Barnett. Burton are showing how much a team is worth is not about sum of the value of each player. Caldwell knows that as well as any given his experience and has the players already to take us up.

  5. Yesterday’s performance illustrates the problems quite well. I think it’s mainly that having built a very large squad with lots of competition for places, GC now is trying to get those players to work as an effective team. He has not yet worked out how to effectively deploy most of his players and the results earlier in the season were covering up that particular crack. That’s not really a criticism of him as I think it’s a tough job when there are so many new players arriving at once. Give him time and he’ll get his team. In the meantime it’s not pretty.

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