“In my head this season only starts from tonight onwards”.
So said David Sharpe at the end of the transfer deadline day. The chairman went on to say that the transfer window should finish on the 31st of July, rather than the 31st of August.
Much has been said by many people about the date of closure of the summer transfer window. Sharpe is one of many club chairmen unhappy with the current arrangement. The Championship season started on August 6th and the clubs had played five league games before the transfer window closed. Sadly for Sharpe, Wigan Athletic only gathered four points from those matches, three less than last season’s League 1 runners-up Burton Albion and five less than playoff winners Barnsley.
Latics have once again made a poor start to a season, not only in terms of results, but also in terms of performances. Granted, the defeats at both Bristol and Nottingham came in time added on, but in neither match did Latics truly merit a point. The home games against Birmingham and QPR saw Latics play against teams with well organised and uncompromising defences, something they will have to get used to this season. There are few easy games in the Championship.
Some fans will attribute the disappointing start to the season to bringing in too many new players into a team that had won the League 1 title just three months before. The starting lineup for the first game of the season at Bristol contained just six players who started in last season’s finale against Barnsley. Moreover with the transfer window still open for another 25 days there were surely going to be more new players coming in. The slow start of last season’s team in the league was put down largely to the sheer number of new players brought in. It was bound to take time for them to cohere into a unit in which the whole at least approached the sum of its parts. It looks like it will be happening again.
In fact Caldwell had already brought in seven new players to his squad by the end of July. Since then he has added another seven. Fans are now wondering how long it is going to take for a squad with fourteen new players to gel into a cohesive unit. Is there such a gulf between League 1 and the Championship that Caldwell had to bring in so much new blood? Did the other promoted clubs feel the same need?
In fact, Barnsley, like Latics, fielded six players in their starting lineup on August 6th who had started in the last game of the 2015-16 season. Burton started with only five. Barnsley brought in nine new players during the month of August, Burton acquiring six during that same period.
The managers at all three clubs clearly felt a need to seriously strengthen their squads in moving to a higher division.
The League 1 winners of 2014-15, Bristol City struggled to come to grips with the Championship last season. They lost their first three games, but drew the next at home to Leeds and won the following one at Middlesbrough. They therefore had four points from their first five games, as Latics have right now.
But things got worse for City before they got better. After losing 4-0 at Burnley at the end of December they finished the calendar year in 22nd place. In the end City managed 18th place. City had not brought in a swathe of new players over summer, but made use of the loan system through the course of the season to effect. Of the other promoted teams, MK Dons were relegated and Preston NE finished 11th.
So, given the poor start what can we expect from Caldwell’s Wigan Athletic this season? Moreover what are the expectations of the chairman and can Caldwell meet them?
Last season Caldwell built a quality squad with strength in depth compared with other clubs in League 1. His bench was the envy of the division and he employed it to effect. When things were not going to the game plan Caldwell was able to bring players off the bench who would have a significant impact on the proceedings.
However, the bench that Caldwell had for the game at Bristol was less impressive. Not only had the stakes been raised by moving up to a higher division, but injuries in the pre-season had further reduced his options. When a partially fit Will Grigg finally left the pitch after 70 minutes there was no central striker available to replace him.
A month later there are still injuries but the squad is so much stronger. Adam le Fondre has come in, ready to challenge Grigg for a starting position, with Craig Davies now fit again and Nick Powell capable of playing a central striking role too. Nathan Byrne has been signed for the troublesome right wing back position, with Luke Burke as an alternative. Apart from Yanic Wildschut the squad was lacking players of genuine pace. Byrne can provide that as can Kaiyne Woolery, a rough diamond that Caldwell will seek to polish.
Reece Burke will add quality to the centre of defence, with the ability to play in the orthodox right back position if Caldwell opts for a back four. Jordi Gomez is a fine player at Championship level when played in a central midfield role.
The squad currently consists of:
Goalkeepers – Adam Bogdan (28), Jussi Jaaskelainen (41), Dan Lavercombe (21).
Full backs/wing backs – Nathan Byrne (24), Kyle Knoyle (19), Luke Burke (18), Reece James (22), Stephen Warnock (34), Luke Garbutt (23).
Centre backs – Reece Burke (20), Dan Burn (24), Donervon Daniels (22), Craig Morgan (31), Jake Buxton (31).
Midfielders – Alex Gilbey (21), Max Power (23), David Perkins (34), Andy Kellett (22), Nick Powell (22), Jordan Flores (20), Michael Jacobs (24), Shaun MacDonald (28), Jordi Gomez (31).
Forwards – Will Grigg (25), Craig Davies (30), Yanic Wildschut (24), Kaiyne Woolery (21), Adam le Fondre (29).
The squad is now well balanced, although Daniels, James and Knoyle remain on the long term injured list. It appears to have sufficient quality to ensure a mid-table position, although results over the coming weeks might not show much improvement as new players “bed in” with their teammates and Caldwell’s preferred style of play. Put simply, results are likely to get worse before they get better.
Only Preston of last season’s promoted teams could reach a mid-table position last season. Should Caldwell’s team manage that it will be seen as a success by most supporters, consolidation in the first season back in the Championship providing a base upon which to build.
However, the ambitions within the club could well be higher. This is the last season of parachute payments and the Whelan family’s policy running of the club over the past few years has seen money invested, but at least as much recouped. It remains to be seen if they would be willing to front the cash needed to mount a promotion push a year from now without the parachute subsidy.
It is not publicly known what Sharpe’s aspirations are for the current season. He will certainly have learned from his “smash the league with 100 points” comment just over a year ago, but would he be happy with consolidation this season? Or does he see this as the season that Latics can conceivably regain their Premier League status? It would be a tall order, unlikely, but by no means impossible.
In the meantime Caldwell will be hoping that his new players can ‘gel’ in as soon as possible. It inevitably took time for the process to happen last season but the depth and quality of the squad ultimately proved to be the determining factor for success. His current squad is much stronger than it was a month ago, but is it good enough to challenge the best teams in the championship?
Last season taught us to be patient. We knew that the new squad was going to take time to gel into a cohesive unit. Patience will also be required this season, although the going is much tougher in a highly competitive Championship division with so many clubs having spent serious money on new players over the summer.
Given the situation a mid-table position would be an achievement: anything higher an added bonus. The bottom line is to avoid relegation, but Caldwell’s squad is so much stronger than that of the hapless Malky Mackay a couple of seasons ago.
For the moment patience would seem to be the order of the day.