Can Joyce avoid relegation?

tablefeb2012In mid-February five years ago Wigan Athletic looked to be on a slide out of the Premier League. They had hit rock bottom in mid-January and just could not seem to climb out of the mire. A month later they were still bottom, with just two wins out of their previous ten league matches. However, a win at Bolton and a draw at home to Everton in the last two matches had provided some hope. The fans had started to “Believe” and rallied behind their manager and team.

It was to take another month for Latics to climb off the bottom, following a 1-1 home draw with West Bromwich Albion. But the defence had been tightening up, with less “soft” goals being given away. Shaun Maloney had finally got a place in the starting line-up against Albion and he was to be the catalyst to revitalise the attacking side of Wigan’s game. By the end of the season Latics were in 15th place, 7 points clear of the relegation zone. They had won five of their final six matches.

A year later Latics were to find themselves second from bottom in mid-February. By the end of the season they were to rise one place, not enough to avoid relegation. Some attributed relegation being due to the FA Cup campaign, others cited horrendous injury problems. But few would have traded an FA Cup win for a continuation in the Premier League.

A couple of years later, in mid-February 2015, Malky Mackay’s Latics were second from bottom, nine points from safety. When the manager had taken over from Uwe Rosler in early November 2014, Latics had been third from bottom, but only one point from safety. But the fire sale that followed in January, together with a lack of investment in suitable replacements, led to Latics finishing second from bottom, seven points behind Rotherham who were safe in 21st place. The quality of football during Mackay’s reign had plummeted drastically.

tablefeb2017

Once again Wigan Athletic find themselves second from bottom in mid-February. They are five points behind the 21st placed team, Burton Albion, but with a game in hand. Wigan were in  exactly the same position when Gary Caldwell was dismissed in late October and replaced by Warren Joyce.

In terms of results the records of the two managers are remarkably similar. Caldwell’s league record reads W2 D5 L7, GF 13 GA 16 Pts 11 and Joyce’s is W3 D3 L9 GF 14 GA 22 Pts 12.

So despite the change in manager, results have stayed largely the same. However, in terms of quality of football there has been a major change. The possession football that typified the Caldwell era has been replaced by a more “direct” style under Joyce, reminiscent of the Mackay era. Caldwell’s team had started the season cautiously, with the manager seemingly reluctant to push men forward to support the central striker, for fear of counterattack. The caution has become even more evident under Joyce, with frequent use of a version of 4-1-4-1, leaving the lone striker isolated and too often fighting a lost cause.

In their successful fight against relegation in 2011-12 Wigan Athletic continued to try to play good football, even when the odds were stacked against them. Their famous late season victories over Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United were gained on merit, through resolute defence and some inspired attacking. It looks unlikely to be the case this year, with Joyce in charge.

However, despite the poor quality of the football, Joyce appears to have made some progress. His insistence on a high level of fitness caused injury problems early on for players unused to the intensity he was seeking. But the players do look fitter now and willingly run themselves into the ground for the cause. There is no lack of effort.

Fans of Joyce will say that he has already improved some of the players and that he has filled gaps in the squad that needed attention. The departure of Yanic Wildschut has left the team short of pace on the wings, but nobody can argue with a transfer fee of around £7 million. The Dutchman certainly made progress under Joyce, not least in his level of fitness and being able to play the full ninety plus.

Dan Burn made a bad start in Joyce’s first game as manager, in  a 3-0 home reverse to Reading, the manager leaving him out for the next couple of games. But in recent weeks the big centre half has looked a much more assured and accomplished player. Joyce has fixed the problematic right back position with the acquisition of Callum Connolly on loan from Everton. Moreover he brought back Sam Morsy from his loan at Barnsley and the player has played consistently well since his return.

However, there remain questions over Joyce’s tactics. It can be argued that Joyce has tightened up the defence, although the goals against record does not reflect that,  albeit with three goals conceded against Reading, Fulham and Rotherham. Joyce’s critics will say that his emphasis is on trying not to lose, so often pulling back ten men in defence.

Latics were clearly unlucky not to save a point at Fulham on Saturday, going down to a last minute of stoppage time winner. But even with a 2-1 lead at half time were they really likely to come away with three points, given the way Fulham were dominating possession?

fulham-lineupOnce again Joyce operated the 4-1-4-1 formation. The stats revealed that Fulham had 73.3% of possession, Latics 26.7%. I simply cannot recall Wigan Athletic having such a small share of possession in a match.

Possession is a frequent talking point for Wigan Athletic supporters. Not everyone enjoyed the football served up by Roberto Martinez, despite his considerable accomplishments at the club. Neither was Gary Caldwell universally liked despite bringing home the League 1 title. At times the football served up by both managers could be sterile, with midfielders far too willing to pass the ball sideways or backwards. But at its best the possession football played by Martinez’s teams was enough to beat the top teams in the country in the Premier League and to win the FA Cup on merit, without resorting to over physical tactics. Caldwell built up a big squad, packed with players who had too much ability for most of the opposition in League 1. His football followed a similar style to that of his Catalan mentor.

Many long-standing supporters recall the days of 4-4-2 with Nathan Ellington and Jason Roberts, a dynamic partnership in attack. Many still yearn for the more direct, but rarely negative, football of Paul Jewell’s heyday at Wigan.

However, neither Caldwell nor Joyce, managers of the modern era, are fans of the twin striker formation. There have been so many times this season, under both managers, when the centre forward has been lone in the true sense. There has been a reluctance to attack the opposition in the way that Jewell’s teams might have done. But that said, it was Wigan’s defensive record under Jewell more than anything else that propelled them up the divisions.

There are arguments on both sides, for and against possession football. Warren Joyce has support from many fans for his teams not playing in that way. However, when David Sharpe was in his early days as chairman he talked about wanting football played the “Wigan Way”. Whether that was a reference to the days of Martinez or Jewell is open to conjecture. But whatever way we look at it, the football served up so far by Joyce has come nowhere close.

What Latics fans want more than anything else at this moment is to avoid relegation. Joyce will be largely forgiven for serving up “ugly” football if he can keep the club in the Championship division. His followers will say that he has been working on tightening up the defence and the players’ fitness, that better football will follow once he has players he has signed himself, who can play the style he wants. His signing of no less than fourteen new players over the January transfer window suggests that this is what he is seeking.

Joyce’s problem with the new players is that so many have arrived short of match fitness due to lack of competitive football since the start of the season. Wildschut’s pace has been badly missed. Gabriel Obertan is a different kind of player, but has genuine pace. However, he lacks match fitness, his last appearance in Russia being on December 1. Moreover he had only made 6 starts and 2 appearances off the bench for Anzhi Makhachkala since August. James Weir too lacks match sharpness after not making any appearances for Hull City since his move from Manchester United in summer. Joyce appears reluctant to include Ryan Colclough, who was called back from loan at Milton Keynes Dons after scoring 5 goals in 18 appearances.

But then again, it is not so much the amount of attacking talents Joyce has on hand. It is more a matter of not withdrawing his midfielders into largely  defensive roles and fielding a lineup with more attacking intent.

Should Joyce wish to adopt a more attacking posture he will need a more creative player in advanced midfield. Josh Laurent made the bench on Saturday, but did not appear. Joyce also has at his disposal the 20 year old Jack Byrne, signed from Manchester City. Byrne was signed as a player for the future, but could play an important creative role this season.

The jury remains out regarding Warren Joyce’s abilities as a Championship manager. However, most fans feel he deserves more time in the job. Given the length of contract he has this is most likely. In the meantime we can only hope that he can focus on playing to win, rather than not to lose.

Wigan Athletic fans like to “Believe”. They will support Joyce in his fight against relegation.

But wouldn’t it be something if we did not go into games focusing not only on stopping the other team playing, but also stressing the importance of attack?

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