Consolidation in a division where salaries and aspirations continue to spiral out of reasonable proportions? Warren Joyce showing us that Dave Whelan and David Sharpe made the right decision in appointing him? Come May will we see Latics out of the relegation zone?
Joyce has not had an easy start, picking up 4 points from his 4 games in charge. However, it could be said that he has been unlucky in having to face teams in top form at the time Latics played them. It is 18 years ago since Joyce saved Hull City from dropping down from the Football League. He had been appointed caretaker player-manager in November 1998 with the club in deep relegation mire. By the end of the calendar year his team had won only one game under his charge, losing the other five. But January saw them go on an unbeaten run and gather the momentum to free themselves from the threat of relegation.
Whether Joyce can turn around Latics’ fortunes will be largely influenced by the comings and goings in the January transfer window. He has taken over a squad that has been heavily hit by injuries, but which also contains players from last season’s League 1 title winning squad who have struggled to find their best form. Joyce will have to decide which of them will be able to make a mark in the Championship division, the alternative being to release them or send them off on loan in January.
Donervon Daniels and Andy Kellett are in the early stages of returning from injury, although Reece James has had another setback after being out since January. Luke Garbutt’s loan from Everton is due to expire, although Joyce might be tempted to look at extending it if complications over James’ ankle continue. Alex Gilbey is getting closer to recovery, but Adam Bogdan is out until the end of the season. To complicate things further, reports from London media suggest that West Ham will be cutting short Reece Burke’s loan due to injuries within their senior squad.
Last January Gary Caldwell signed Yanic Wildschut on a permanent contract and added Ryan Colclough, Sam Morsy and Reece Wabara to the squad. He also signed Dan Lavercombe and Danny Whitehead, both of whom were sent back on loan to their parent clubs. He released Don Cowie and Grant Holt with Richard O’Donnell being sold to Bristol City. Loanees Shaq Coulthirst, Jordy Hiwula, Francisco Junior, Sean Murray and Alex Revell were to leave in December/January. Caldwell later brought in more loanees in Conor McAleny in early February and Stephen Warnock in early March. The overall effect was a strengthening of the squad, leading to a League 1 champion’s title.
However, the previous season saw the fire sale when Malky Mackay ripped the heart of the squad by releasing thirteen players. He replaced them largely with loanees and short term signings. The result was a severely weakened squad, leading to relegation.
So will Joyce’s January transfer activities parallel the magnitude of the flux we have seen over the past couple of seasons? A new manager typically likes to bring in his own new players, the theory being that he is searching for those who will fit into his style of play. However, other than having pacey forwards capable of rapid counterattacking, it is hard to define the type of player Joyce would want to bring in.
In fact Joyce’s most urgent task is the recruitment of new coaching and backroom staff. First team coach, Joe Parkinson, left the club at the end of November but has not yet been replaced. Ex-Manchester City reserve team coach, Andy Welsh, currently Sunderland youth team coach was mentioned by the media as a possible replacement soon after, but nothing has materialised up to this point. Given Joyce’s links with Manchester United it was perhaps inevitable that there would be speculation over him bringing in people he knew there. The names of Paul McGuinness, Jim Ryan and Paul Scholes have been touted by the media.
Given the way the club has been run in recent years the recruitment of coaching staff and players will depend on financial constraints. The manner in which Will Grigg has been side lined by both Caldwell and Joyce it appears that the player could be on his way in January. Should Grigg be sold he would surely attract a transfer fee in excess of the £900,000 Latics reputedly paid Brentford for him. His sale would give Joyce funds to recruit players of his choice.
However, in purely business terms, the sale of Grigg in January would be inopportune. Better to wait until the end of the season. Had the player been given a regular place in the starting line-up and continued to score goals his transfer value would have rocketed. But given Joyce’s preference of pace in the lone centre forward position, as in his deployment of Wildschut, it is doubtful whether Grigg will ever become the first choice central striker under Joyce.
Joyce must seek a balance between bringing in new players and avoiding the kind of disastrous fire sale that we saw a couple of years ago.
So what are the areas that need strengthening?
Bogdan’s injury means that Joyce will search for a goalkeeper to compete with the 41 year old Jussi Jaaskelainen and the 20 year old Dan Lavercombe. The media are already speculating that he will go for the loan of 23 year old Sam Johnstone from Manchester United. It would be the seventh club Johnstone would have joined on loan.
A new right back is a real priority. Even if Reece Burke does not return to West Ham he is best deployed as a central defender. He is not a specialist right back. Over the summer Latics made bids for 22 year old Hearts right back, Callum Patterson, who was to go on to play for Scotland. The Edinburgh club rejected Wigan’s bids as being well below their valuation of the player. The current rumour is that Reece Wabara will return. Caldwell had stated that he had offered Wabara a contract in summer but terms could not be agreed. Wabara has not joined another club since and is available as a free agent. Wabara had his moments during his time at Wigan, but failed to totally convince.
Should Grigg leave, Joyce will seek a pacey central striker to replace him. He could also use a left winger with pace. Joyce might well want to play a high pressing game, but is currently hamstrung by the lack of pace in the centre of defence. None of Dan Burn, Jake Buxton or Craig Morgan has the kind of pace needed for playing a high line. Jack Hendry is due to return from his loan spell at MK Dons, but the 21 year old has made just 6 appearances so far for the League 1 side. Donervon Daniels has pace and will come back into the reckoning once he is fully fit. In the meantime Joyce could well look at bringing in fresh blood in the centre of defence.
On paper Latics have a well-balanced midfield, but up to this point it has hardly clicked. Shaun MacDonald has claimed the position in front of the back four with David Perkins and Max Power also capable of playing there or in a role further forward. Alex Gilbey had adjusted well to the Championship before his injury and will challenge for a place when fit. Jordi Gomez, Michael Jacobs and Nick Powell are better suited to more attacking roles, particularly in the hole behind the central striker. Neither Gomez nor Powell have made a consistent impression so far; Jacobs has shown his ability to work hard for his team but not consistently revealed the kind of flair he showed in League 1. The result has been a lack of creativity.
At times the midfield has looked short of a dominant player, someone physically strong with genuine presence. Such a player might prove beyond Latics’ price range, but the midfield blend has not worked well up to this point.
Jordan Flores’ career seems to have floundered, having made only one appearance this season in the League Cup defeat at Oldham. Flores is a skilful and talented performer, but one wonders if he has the physicality to adapt to Joyce’s system. Should he not feature or make an impression in the five games remaining in the calendar year we can expect him to be leaving in January, possibly on loan.
January could once again be a busy time for incomings and outgoings at Wigan Athletic.