It is midway through the League 1 season. The “New Era” duo of Gary Caldwell and David Sharpe has breathed new life into a club that was down on its knees. After a prolonged period of gloom and despondency there is light at the end of the tunnel.
With 23 games played, Wigan Athletic stand in 5th place with a record of W11 D7 L5. They are in the playoff zone, just 8 points away from an automatic promotion place. They have a good defensive record, with just 21 goals conceded, bettered only by the top two teams.
Caldwell has shown himself to be a dynamic young manager, excellent in recruitment, tactically aware. His is articulate and sets a dignified tone for the club when dealing with the media. Sharpe too has made a strong impression, his sheer enthusiasm for the club shining through. He too is articulate, adept in his dealings with the national and social media. Together the two have forged a positive new identity for a club that had lost its way, but is now firmly back on track under their leadership.
Caldwell has built up a strong squad, the envy of other managers in the division. It was by no means easy to put together a revamped squad containing more than twenty new faces. Caldwell and his coaches faced a huge task on the training ground, helping the players gel as a unit that can play a style of football that Sharpe labels “The Wigan Way”. Moreover Caldwell has instilled a never-say-die spirit that means his teams have shown the ability to claw their way back into games they would seemingly have lost.
The foundations are certainly in place. The immediate goal is promotion back to the Championship. In order to achieve automatic promotion a total of at least 90 points will be needed. That will require a points average in excess of two per game for the rest of the season.
A long unbeaten run is what Caldwell will seek. Latics achieved an unbeaten run of 11 matches, stretching from mid-September to late November until a blip led to league defeats by Burton and Blackpool, together with an exit from the Football League Trophy at the hands of Barnsley.
However, a couple of hard-fought away victories at Barnsley and Fleetwood have put them back on track. After disappointing away performances early in the season they are now unbeaten in their last eight league games on the road, as the players have shown the ability to grit their teeth and grind out results.
Caldwell and his recruitment team did so well in the last transfer window. But can they achieve such good results in the January window that is almost upon us? What adjustments can we expect to be made to the squad? Will the two remaining short-term loanees – Donald Love and Yanic Wildschut – be staying?
Since the beginning of the season four loanees have already returned to their clubs. Caldwell was disappointed when Jonjoe Kenny was called back to Everton in late September, then Shaq Coulthirst went back to Tottenham just over a month later. Over the past couple of weeks Sean Murray has returned to Watford and Alex Revell to Cardiff City. Sadly the talented Francisco Junior has gone back to Everton to receive treatment on a troublesome groin injury that has hampered him during his time at Wigan. Caldwell will hope that the player can overcome the injury and that he can return before his loan period ends in mid-January. However, rumours suggesting Latics are close to signing midfielder Liam Kelly from Oldham suggest that Caldwell might be covering his bases in case the African does not make it.
The right back position has been a problem all season, with the serious injury to Kevin McNaughton early on and the departure of Kenny. Donervon Daniels has shown his versatility by playing there when needed. Tim Chow has also been tried there. Donald Love was signed on loan from Manchester United in early October. Injuries and call ups to the Scotland under-21 squad have limited Love to five starts and three substitute appearances. However, Caldwell clearly rates the 21 year old Rochdale lad and may well seek a permanent transfer.
Few players have made such a strong and immediate impression on Latics fans as Yanic Wildschut. His impact has rivalled that of Amr Zaki in 2008-09. Wildschut has started in ten games, coming on off the bench in six. He has scored four goals. In full flow Wildschut is a sight to behold, a winger with searing pace and a blistering shot when he cuts in from the left and shoots with his right.
Some would say Wildschut is a throwback to the past when the winger’s job was primarily to attack, although even in the days of 4-2-4 they were still expected to do some defensive duties. Defending is not Wildschut’s strong point, as noted by Middlesbrough manager Aitor Karanka. However, given the physical exertion he needs to put into his electrifying runs, can Caldwell really expect him to make a significant defensive contribution?
When Wildschut first arrived at Wigan he immediately caused panic in opposition defences. However, after a while other teams learned how to deal with him, if sometimes by foul means rather than fair. His recent performances in the starting lineup have been frustrating at times. However, bringing him on in the closing stages, when the opposition defenders legs are tiring, can have an explosive effect.
Although Caldwell has certainly bolstered his defence his team’s attacking can be slow and predictable. He needs a player with Wildschut’s explosive abilities who can upset the equilibrium of the opposition.
It is rumoured that negotiations with Middlesbrough over a permanent signing of the Dutchman have been going on for some time. Boro will surely want to recoup at least the £300,000 they paid Heerenveen for him in September 2014. Moreover other clubs might be in competition for his signing. At this stage it seems unlikely that Karanka will want him permanently back at Middlesbrough, given the “modern” type of footballer the Spaniard prefers. The question is whether Sharpe is willing to pay the kind of fee that Boro will demand for a player who is not a regular starter.
Caldwell will be hoping that a deal can be struck to keep Wildschut at Wigan. If that does not happen he is going to look elsewhere for the kind of player who can add such an extra dimension to Latics’ attack. Without such a player Wigan Athletic’s hopes for automatic promotion might well fall on the rocks.