Wigan Athletic’s first league game in their return to the Championship is less than two weeks away. Since the last match of the previous season against Barnsley on May 8th Latics have signed four new players, moved to a superior training complex at Euxton and played five pre-season games without a win, scoring just one goal. Today’s 4-1 defeat at Rochdale has raised many eyebrows. Given what has happened so far what kind of season can we expect to follow?
Some weeks ago Gary Caldwell acknowledged that recruiting players this summer was going to be a different matter than it was a year ago. Latics no longer have the financial advantage over teams in their division, enabling them to offer lucrative salaries to prospective signings. Wigan are now up against clubs with higher revenues, many of them buoyed with parachute payments. Latics are now in their final “parachute” season with a less than rosy financial short term future ahead.
Nevertheless Caldwell and his recruitment team have done well over the past weeks. Dan Burn may not be the most fulfilled central defender, but he is only 24 years old and already has more than 80 appearances in the Championship under his belt. The question is whether Caldwell, an ex-central defender himself, can nurture the player into realizing his full potential.
The signing of Stephen Warnock on a one year contract was no surprise. Warnock proved to be an excellent loan signing for League 1 and has a wealth of experience in higher divisions, plus two England caps. However, he will be 35 in December, hence the short term contract. Warnock will face fierce competition for the left back spot from the 22 year old Reece James, providing the young player can rid himself of the troublesome ankle injury that has been dogging him so long.
Caldwell has brought in one for the future in the 21 year old Alex Gilbey. A product of the Colchester academy he has the kinds of technical attributes akin to those of Max Power, together with a willingness to work hard for the team. Although only 22 years old he made over 100 senior appearances for the U’s. Gilbey’s arrival will heighten the pressure for places in the central midfield.
The signing of Nick Powell is a bold gamble that Caldwell will be praying will come off. Powell’s impressive performances for Latics in the first part of the 2013-14 season showed what a fine player he can be at Championship level. However, niggling injuries have played their part in knocking Powell’s career off-track. His loan spells at Leicester and Hull were fruitless. In fact, the last time Powell played in a starting lineup was on April 5th 2014 for Latics against Leeds United. But the player is still only 22 and has the ability to become an outstanding performer. Once again the question arises whether Caldwell and his coaching staff will be able to give the player the kind of nurturing he will need to help him turn his career around.
The loan signing of Adam Bogdan from Liverpool leaves Latics with four goalkeepers on their books. Although he has had a hard time at Anfield the Hungarian was highly regarded at Bolton, where he pushed Jussi Jaaskelainen out of the team. It is most likely that Bogdan will do the same again at Wigan, with the big Finn being the backup keeper and either Lee Nicholls or Dan Lavercombe leaving for a loan spell.
Right back continues to be a problem position, with recent loan signing Kyle Knoyle ruled out long term due to an elbow injury. In the meantime Caldwell has brought Ryan Taylor back to Wigan on trial. Taylor’s set piece deliveries were a key element for Steve Bruce’s team at Latics, but he left for Newcastle in February 2009, spending more than six years on Tyneside. However, injuries have taken their toll on the player who is now 31. Taylor started in only one Championship game for Hull City last season. Should Taylor be offered a contract it is unlikely to be for more than a year, given his recent history.
Caldwell will be hoping that his new signings can come out of the blocks running. However, in the cases of Bogdan and Powell, coming from unfulfilled spells at their previous clubs, it could take more time. Moreover Gilbey has to adjust to playing in the Championship for the first time and Burn has arrived possibly short on confidence after playing for a struggling Fulham team. However, new signings apart, the players remaining from last season’s League 1 title squad will also face the challenge of playing in a higher division. Key players such as Will Grigg and Max Power have never played at a level above League 1 and Yanic Wildschut only started in three games during his time at Middlesbrough in the Championship.
Wigan’s purchase of the Euxton training facility from Bolton Wanderers certainly looks like sound business. However, it puts into question the future of the venture at Charnock Richard, with implications for the development of the club’s academy. Dreams of developing a Category 1 academy now seem far away, given the short term financial situation the club will face. One wonders if Latics were to find their way back into the Premier League would they even then revisit the idea of having a top level youth programme?
In this month just a couple of years ago Uwe Rosler was the toast of the town after doing such a fine job in uplifting Latics following the damaging reign of Owen Coyle. But a calamitous pre-season proved to be the first nail in the coffin of a sequence of events which resulted in the German’s departure some four months later. Too many players picked up niggling injuries and a friendly match in Germany had to be cancelled because Rosler just did not have enough fit players. When the season started the majority of the players just were not up to going the whole 90 minutes, with slumps in the second half being too common. The seemingly old-fashioned concept of “over training” was raised by many fans at the time.
It is to be hoped that the lessons of a couple of years ago have been learned and that Caldwell’s squad is not being over trained. However, just one goal scored in five pre-season games is a worrying sign. Following a goalless draw at non-league Macclesfield Town the manager stated “It’s not about winning games or scoring lots of goals at this point, it’s about putting things into them physically and tactically and seeing how it works on the pitch.”
However, he changed his tune somewhat following an abject 4-1 defeat at Rochdale yesterday, commenting that “I’m disappointed obviously with both the result and the performance because it wasn’t good enough. However, it’s understandable from the work we have been doing in training that the boys are going to be a little tired but we do still know that it’s unacceptable and we have two weeks to do something about it.”
Given the apparently heavy training regime and playing four games in eight days it is not surprising the players might be tired. The scheduling of the games against Manchester United and Liverpool on consecutive days was odd to say the least, offering more value in terms of PR than as a means of preparing the players for the season ahead.
Yesterday Caldwell was apparently unable to call on his three main centre backs – Donervon Daniels, Craig Morgan and Jason Pearce – and left back Stephen Warnock went off injured early on. Not surprisingly the back four of youth debutant Luke Burke together with Jack Hendry, Dan Burn and David Perkins was unable to assert itself.
Without a single victory in the pre-season up to this point, Caldwell will surely put more emphasis on winning for the two remaining friendlies at Oldham and Fleetwood. Although pre-season results are of minimal consequence as the season unfolds, the manager will want to restore the winning habit that the team established last season. He will also need to make greater use of his more established players, providing they are fit.
It is to be hoped that the sports science, physiotherapy and physical conditioning staff at the club are on top of things during the pre-season. Latics need to go out to that first league game at Ashton Gate with a squad of fit players who can give their all.
Surely the lessons of the Rosler era have been learned?