I was looking forward to a pleasant visit. Norwich is a delightful city, having a centre with beautiful old buildings, remains of its medieval times and an impressive modern riverside development. On late Tuesday afternoon it was awash with supporters wearing the yellow and green of its local football club.
The visit to the city, and the fen areas surrounding it, was clearly something to look forward to. But the trip to Carrow Road was cause for trepidation. The Norwich team was going to be laden with ex-Premier League players, backed by a big partisan crowd. It was a Wigan team in transition, with so many new faces taking time to adjust to Gary Caldwell’s way of playing, its displays being littered with defensive errors. The portents were ominous.
When the results don’t come a football manager will always get flak from fans.
Vitriol was already flowing from the keyboard warriors on the social media prior to this game. Opinions were voiced in no uncertain terms. Caldwell had brought in too many new players, many of whom were no better than those of the League 1 title winning team. His team selections had left much to be desired and he had been out thought by opposition managers, particularly in his use of substitutes. There had been little defensive continuity and it showed. The defence was porous, with a lack of protection from midfield making things worse. The midfield or attacking players Caldwell had used in the problematic right wing back position had looked ill at ease. The 18 year old Luke Burke had done well when given the chance, so why was he not chosen for the position? Moreover Nathan Byrne had been signed to play there, but had not even made the bench at Sheffield. Why was the manager sticking to a 3-5-2 system that was clearly not working? Would he continue to stubbornly stand by it?
After going two goals behind in the first ten minutes things were looking bleak. Another defensive error had led to the softest of goals after just two minutes. The defence looked very suspect. The locals were baying for a 5 or 6 goal haul. Was it going to be one of those low points, a Championship equivalent to that horrendous 9-1 defeat at Tottenham in the Premier League? Or did this new Latics team have the character to fight back?
But Caldwell had changed the team’s shape from the start, opting for 4-3-3. Young loan signing Reece Burke and Stephen Warnock had been moved over to orthodox full back positions, with Dan Burn and Jake Buxton at centre half. Jordi Gomez was back, forming a midfield trio with Shaun MacDonald and Max Power. Yanic Wildschut had been left on the bench, with Alex Gilbey and Michael Jacobs on the wings, Will Grigg at centre forward. Seven out of the starting lineup were new this season.
Caldwell is nothing if not brave. Despite poor results he has continued to insist that his team build up from the back, even when things have gone awry. Some will blame Adam Bogdan for his lack of concentration in not looking to his right when Jacob Murphy took the ball from his feet, catching him unawares. Others put more blame the manager for putting the goalkeeper into a role where quick footedness is as important an ability as it is to catch the ball. But despite being on a hammering to nothing Latics continued to build from the back.
As the game progressed they got better and better and could have snatched at least a point in the closing minutes. This time Caldwell got his substitutions right. Despite taking off midfield anchorman MacDonald and bringing on Wildschut the midfield became dominant as the back four pushed further forward. When Byrne came on for Burke most of us expected him to play at right back, but Gilbey was moved there with Byrne playing as a right winger. But the result was Byrne and Wildschut adding much needed pace to the Latics attack.
Whether the players brought in are better than those who were already at the club is up for debate. Would the presence of the departed Sam Morsy and Jason Pearce have provided more defensive security? Only time will tell if Caldwell made the right decision in bringing in 14 new players.
Last season showed us that new players at Wigan need time, not only to settle into the club and to get to know their teammates on and off the field, but also to learn to play the “Caldwell Way”. Moreover so many of the new signings, despite previous records of success in the Championship or above, arrived short of first team experience over the previous season. Nick Powell had not made a league start in two seasons, Shaun MacDonald made none last season for Bournemouth, Jake Buxton none for Derby. Adam Bogdan made just two for Liverpool, Jordi Gomez only five for Sunderland. Both Adam Le Fondre and Nathan Byrne made ten league appearances for Wolves last season.
For those players it is not only a matter of adapting to new teammates and a demanding style of play, but also for them to gain the match fitness and the sharpness that cannot have been aided by their lack of playing time.
The display at Norwich might well prove to be the turning point in a season of transition. There were signs in that second half that Latics are enjoying the style of play the manager demands. Moreover they showed real fighting spirit with their backs against the wall.
Caldwell has had a difficult time back in the Championship division. Injuries have deprived him of important players and errors of individual players have punished him. However, the Scot is not easily deterred and has that same kind of belief that Roberto Martinez possessed in the abilities of his players and in his style of play.
So often things get worse before they get better. That was the case at Carrow Road. But although the performance there might ultimately prove to be a turning point there are going to be lots of ups and downs over the coming months.
It has been a frustrating time for us as fans up to this point. Even those most who are the most supportive of Caldwell are likely to admit that he has made mistakes this season. However, he must learn from them.
Players need to be played in their most suited positions and the manager needs to show the level of tactical awareness we saw last season. The right back/wing back position is likely to be resolved by playing either Reece Burke or Luke Burke in an orthodox back four, with Byrne being used as a wing back or winger.
Alex Gilbey was a central midfielder at Colchester, but has been pushed further forward by Caldwell. At times he has looked comfortable in a wide attacking midfield role. But to play him on the right wing in a 4-3-3 formation and to leave Yanic Wildschut on the bench was not a successful ploy. Gilbey is neither winger nor full back. He is a talented young central midfielder with a lot to offer.
Caldwell has some difficult decisions to make regarding the centre of defence. Craig Morgan has been out of contention due to injury, but was close to leaving the club during the transfer window. It remains to be seen how much he is in the manager’s plans. Dan Burn was dropped after his gaffe at Bristol and played quite well at Norwich. At his best, Burn forms a solid physical presence in the back four, but is the manager going to keep faith in a player who has a tendency to switch off at times?
Jake Buxton has been brought in on a three year contract at the age of 31, a clear indication that Caldwell sees him as a key defender. Stephen Warnock has often been pushed into a back line of three, although lacking height and physique for such a role. Caldwell will have high hopes for Reece Burke in the centre of defence. Despite his tender age is Burke going to be a key player this season?
A settled defence, with a midfield that provides due protection, is something that Caldwell will surely be looking to put in place. In the meantime, despite the poor results, his players have shown the resilience to fight back under adverse conditions.
Such qualities will be needed to rise out of the relegation zone over the coming months.