Getting it right against Burton – match preview

In late November, 2015, we saw a dull, scrappy game at the DW Stadium.

It offered little in the way of entertainment and seemed to be heading for a goalless draw until Abdenasser El Khayati scored for the visitors from a breakaway in the 74th minute. An ugly, but well organised Burton Albion side, who had looked like they had come for a draw, went on to inflict on Wigan their first league home defeat of the season.

Following a difficult start to the season, Latics had been on an unbeaten run of 11 matches, moving up to 4th place, Burton being just a point behind them in 5th. Burton’s victory helped them leapfrog over Latics and it was to be the case for four more months, with the Brewers looking like potential champions until Wigan overtook them late in the season.

Latics entertain Burton once again on Saturday, four points behind the Brewers in the Championship division. In the corresponding game last season Gary Caldwell was outmaneuvered by his opposite number, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. On a day when so many players were below par it was hard to come up with positives. Caldwell had clearly been preaching patience to his players, as they struggled to break down the Burton defence.

Sadly the patience was there, but the dynamism that was lacking.Yanic Wildschut was heavily marked. Michael Jacobs was ineffective on the right and Alex Revell, favoured ahead of Will Grigg, was a lonely figure up front. So can Caldwell get it right this time around?

Even though Hasselbaink left the Brewers for QPR last December, Nigel Clough was to gain promotion on his return to the club. Like his predecessor Clough is tactically astute and his Burton team will pose a challenge. He will have done his homework and will be ready to cancel out Wigan’s attacking players.

Following a home win against Wolves and a draw at Brentford after a dismal set of results, Caldwell will be keen to get a good result on Saturday.

Last season he played a modified 3-4-3, which Burton managed to stifle. Given the improvements in performances since aborting playing three at the back Caldwell can be expected to adopt a 4-3-3 formation.

However, the manager is never predictable. The return from injury of Reece Burke gives him the option of playing the talented West Ham loanee on the right of a back three, with Nathan Byrne in his natural position as right wing back. The alternative is to play Burke at right back, with Byrne as a winger.

Latics are certainly good enough to beat Burton, but a home win is by no means a foregone conclusion. The visitors will be a hard nut to crack. Caldwell’s approach to the game last year was cautious, but at the time Wigan had ground out previous results playing like that. It just did not work out against another team which played the same way.

But then again, can Latics surprise us and press Burton from the start, getting an early goal, setting up a comfortable victory?

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Oldham (A) preview – another chance for homegrown talent?

This time a year ago Wigan Athletic sank to a 2-1 home defeat to Bury in the League Cup, just three days after losing their opening League 1 match at Coventry. They had been up 1-0 but their legs seemed to go two thirds of the way through the match and the Shakers took full advantage.

There was a suspicion of lack of fitness on Saturday too at Bristol, with Latics being sharp and positive in the first half, but abject in the second, unable to stem the flow of the home team’s attacks. Most supporters there put it down to Caldwell’s team being negative, trying to defend a 1-0 lead through a rearguard action. But were the majority of the players really prepared for 90 minutes of hard toil?

The League Cup tie at Oldham will give us more insight. Will the players who turn out be able to play full-on for 90 minutes? What kind of lineup and tactical formation will Gary Caldwell use?

The League Cup will surely be low in Caldwell’s priorities. But typically such occasions can provide opportunities for the fringe players. Tim Chow, Ryan Colclough, Donervon Daniels, Jussi Jaaskelainen, Michael Jacobs and Sam Morsy were on the bench at Bristol so we can expect them to start this evening. Jack Hendry will surely take a central defensive role, together with at least one of the three who started on Saturday. Jordan Flores can be expected to start too. Left back remains a problem position, given Reece James’ continued absence and Stephen Warnock’s pre-season injury, although he played at the weekend.

For the trip to the West Country, Caldwell could not call on Craig Davies, Emyr Huws, Reece James, Andy Kellett and Nick Powell because of injury. Should most of those continue to be unavailable will the manager give further opportunities to young talent developed within the club?

Caldwell deserves credit for giving the talented 18 year old full back, Luke Burke, his competitive match debut on Saturday. He could have played another senior squad player at wing back, even if it were not their best position. Burke responded by giving a fine display, showing remarkable composure when facing wave after wave of opposition attacks in the second half. Hats off to the manager for having faith in the player.

However, Caldwell missed the opportunity to give a young striker an opportunity on Saturday. Knowing that Will Grigg could not last the full game he put in Michael Jacobs, later replacing Yanic Wildschut with Ryan Colclough. Neither was effective. Both are wide players or creative midfielders who can be effective in the hole behind the centre forward. But strikers they are not.

Strikers are hot property and cost a lot. Rumour continues to suggest that Latics are willing to splash out money to sign Lee Gregory from Millwall. A very positive prospect. However, speculation persists regarding the 29 year old free agent, Ishmael Miller, who has a career goalscoring record akin to that of Marc Antoine Fortune. Caldwell could have used a big man like Miller on Saturday, someone to hold the ball up, to draw a foul, take pressure of his defence. But would a signing like that be better than giving home grown talent an opportunity?

The 18 year old James Barrigan is likely to be the next former youth team player to make his senior team debut, after being on the bench at Bristol. Development squad central striker Sam Cosgrove, 19, will probably make the squad tonight, although Nick Powell could be the starter assuming he has shaken off his groin injury. Development squad winger Danny O’Brien, 20, who has had loan spells at Chester and Wrexham could also make the squad.

Caldwell will look for a blend of youth and experience in his lineup tonight. Given his wont for shuffling between 3-5-2 and 4-3-3 it could be the latter formation, with Colclough, Powell and Barrigan the front three and Morsy, Chow and Flores in midfield.

Oldham were defeated 3-0 at Millwall at the weekend, but will be keen to renew their rivalry with Wigan. Latics v Latics is a Lancashire derby and we can expect some passion. Let’s hope Wigan Latics can not only play with commitment and pride, but do so for the full 90 minutes.

 

Blowing away Southend

When Wigan Athletic played at Southend in late November it was a cold and windy day in the seaside town. Latics had lost at home to Burton four days prior and they were to face one of the form teams in League 1 at the antediluvian Roots Hall ground. The portents were ominous.

Wigan had not played badly against Burton, but had got caught by a goal from a counterattack from a team with a well organised defence and a strong work ethic. A win over the Brewers would have seen them move into third place behind Coventry and Gillingham, but it was not to be. Following the disappointment of the 0-1 reverse they were keen to do better against Southend.

Getting a good result at Roots Hall was made difficult by the cold, blustery wind swirling around the tight pitch. It was not going to be a day for good football. Latics simply had to slug it out with the home team to come away with any points. In the end they came away with a well -earned point, thanks to the effort they put in.

Strangely enough Southend United are the visitors to the DW Stadium today following on from Wigan’s 1-1 draw at Burton on Tuesday. Gary Caldwell’s team have a pragmatic side to them which enables them to grind out results when they are not playing well. Although the Brewers were in a run of poor form they were going to be formidable opposition on the tight pitch at the Pirelli Stadium. Burton’s pitch is actually 72 yards wide, compared with Southend’s 74 yards, although both are 110 yards long. Once again Latics had put in a backs-to-the-wall performance on a small pitch to get a result.

Playing away on small pitches is a very different prospect to playing at the DW with a relatively expansive playing area measuring 115 yards by 74. Those extra few yards can make a difference to the style of football on display. The larger pitch surely suits Caldwell’s style of possession football and Latics have produced some sparkling displays over the season on their home ground.

However, it has not always been the norm. So often visiting teams will either “park the bus” or use pressing tactics to stop Wigan building up their moves methodically from the back. Moreover lenient and close to incompetent refereeing has too frequently allowed visiting teams the licence for tactical fouling of Wigan’s most skilful players. The end result has been sporadic flashes of the champagne football that Caldwell’s team is capable of producing. In fact the last three home matches have resulted in tight 1-0 wins for the Latics.

Wigan Athletic fans will be primarily looking at getting a positive result today, but a sparkling performance would be particularly welcome too. With adequate refereeing and a “get at them” approach from Latics from the onset a goal fest would be a distinct possibility. The alternative is a cagey approach, dominated by the promotion jitters that have hit so many of the League 1 promotion hopeful teams in recent weeks.

The swirling wind and the bumpy pitch made it difficult to play good football at Southend. But strong winds are not forecast for Wigan today and the DW pitch has performed well in recent weeks. Latics fans will be hoping their team will take the initiative from the get-go, blowing away Phil Brown’s Southend United in the process.

Caldwell set to shuffle his pack

“It was a capitulation. That capitulation cost us the league. I knew that night we were gone. It’s an absolutely great example of complacency. It’s a disease.”

The words of Alex Ferguson after his Manchester United side let the Premier League title slip through their fingers in 2011-12. He pinpointed a 4-4 draw with Everton in late April when his team had let a two goal lead slip away. A week later they went down 1-0 at Manchester City, who went on to win the title thanks to a goal in stoppage time in the final game against QPR.

One way in which Ferguson dealt with complacency was by not putting out the same line up in consecutive matches.

In 1980-81 Aston Villa won the First Division title using only 14 players, seven of whom were all present in the 42 league matches. But Ferguson’s views on complacency have clearly resounded in the ears of today’s football managers.

Gary Caldwell too rarely fields the same line up in consecutive matches. Part of his rationale is surely influenced by complacency issues, but he also wants to keep opposition managers guessing about his line ups. Last weekend against Bradford City he did keep the same line up, but he changed their shape, making it less easy for his opposite number, Phil Parkinson.

Caldwell is very much the modern day manager. Guessing his starting line ups is never easy. It is also hard to predict the shape his team is going to employ at the start of the game, which might nevertheless change as play progresses. We have become used to surprises.

Some prefer the kind of approach used by Ron Saunders in the early eighties at Villa. You could more or less predict the starting line-up and they played with the same shape, week in, week out. Complacency was not an issue.

However, times have changed. Managers often talk up the ability of the opposition they are due to play. They have them watched beforehand so that their strengths and weaknesses can be assessed. It can be viewed as guarding against complacency among the players, although there are fans who feel that Caldwell too frequently offers the opposition too much respect.

Rather than the fixed team shapes and the settled line ups of Saunders’ days, Caldwell will talk about building partnerships between players. Probably the most crucial of those as Latics approach the nine game run-in towards automatic promotion is that in the centre of defence.

Craig Morgan and Jason Pearce have formed such a partnership over the past months, to the effect that Latics have never lost a match when they have started together. Sadly Pearce has been out injured for the past two games. Pearce’s play complements that of Morgan. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts in this case.

If Pearce is to be unavailable this weekend, Caldwell will be anxious to find a suitable replacement. Chris McCann is the obvious candidate, with his cultured left footed passing from the back. However, McCann lacks the physicality of Pearce. Caldwell is therefore likely to add the physically imposing Donervon Daniels to make a trio with Morgan and McCann. Stephen Warnock is the obvious choice at left back, but the position on the right is up for grabs. Reece Wabara is the current incumbent, but is likely to face competition from the fit-again Kevin McNaughton and from Daniels if he does not play in central defence.

Caldwell has the choice of three holding midfielders in Sam Morsy, David Perkins and Max Power. When playing with a back four Caldwell will use Morsy in the “Busquets role”, with Perkins and Power pushed further forward. Operating 3-4-3 means leaving one of them out. Power has been one of Latics’ best players this season but his form has dipped of late. It would be no surprise to see him rested in one of the games over the Easter weekend.

Haris Vuckic’s well taken goal against Bradford City might have gained him a place in the starting eleven at Swindon. His most likely position is on the right side of the attack, although he can possibly be more effective in the centre of an attacking midfield trio in the 4-2-3-1 formation that Caldwell can favour. Like many other players over recent years at Wigan, Vuckic has struggled to claim a regular place despite his obvious talent. Up to this point the Slovenian has made only five starts in league games, with four appearances off the bench. Importantly Vuckic is the kind of player who can link midfield and attack. He also has a good left foot and is likely to score goals cutting inside from the right. His lack of playing time so far is a mystery, although he did go through a period of injury problems in the first half of the season. Meanwhile the unwanted, and largely untried, Billy McKay has now scored 11 goals for a Dundee United side who sit in unfamiliar territory at the foot of the SPL table.

In the meantime Michael Jacobs is back in light training, but Caldwell is going to have to wait another 2-3 weeks before he will be challenging for a first team place. For the weekend Caldwell will be able to choose between Ryan Colclough, Conor McAleny (if fit), Haris Vuckic and Yanic Wildschut to form the attack with Will Grigg in the lone centre forward position.

Craig Davies is fitter than he has been for some months, but his time on the field is limited by Caldwell’s unwillingness to start with twin strikers. Davies has had just seven starts in league games, with his last being in the home defeat to Blackpool in mid-December. He has made 17 appearances off the bench. Some have been critical of Davies’ form over the past months, but being used as a late substitute to either lead a late rally or to hold up the ball in high pressure situations to kill off games is not an easy task. However, should Grigg become unavailable, Davies would be a dependable stand-in.

Latics lie level on points in second place with Walsall, six points behind Burton Albion, and five points above fourth placed Gillingham. Less than three weeks ago Walsall sacked Sean O’Driscoll as manager, replacing him with Jon Whitney. They have since won their last three matches. Despite a defeat at Bradford a couple of weeks ago, Burton bounced back, winning their next two games. Their 4-0 away win at Port Vale on Saturday was impressive against a side with a strong home record.

Walsall’s next match is at Sheffield United on April 2, their Easter matches being postponed due to players absent on international duty. Only time will tell whether this will prove a blessing or a curse for the Saddlers. Should Latics win both matches over Easter then Walsall will be under pressure making up a six point gap. But should they fail to do so it would give the midland club with the upper hand.

Wigan Athletic’s recent performances have been less than impressive, but they have nevertheless continued to maintain an average of two points per game over the last six matches. Two wins in three days over Easter is a tall order and Caldwell will need to rotate his team to keep players fresh.

The bottom line is that, despite injuries, Caldwell retains a squad that is more than capable of gaining more points than their rivals in the run-in. But he will need to instil a mentality where players treat every game remaining as a cup final.

As Ferguson said, complacency is a disease to be avoided. Making small, but regular, rotations in the starting line-up will be a ploy that Caldwell can use to guard against it.

Can Latics hold their nerve for automatic promotion?

In March 2014 Uwe Rosler’s Wigan Athletic team were challenging for a playoff place in the Championship division. During that month they went on to amass 14 points from their 7 games, losing only one by a 1-0 margin at QPR. They looked odds-on to reach that playoff place, which they did finally achieve, but not without a stutter as they picked up just 11 points from their last 9 matches.

Rosler’s team had peaked too early and just could not maintain their form over the final six weeks of the season. They put up spirited displays in the semi-final of the playoffs against QPR, but just could not show the kind of intensity they had shown a couple of months earlier.

Gary Caldwell’s team too has been peaking, going on a 14 game unbeaten run. Their last defeat was against Blackpool on December 12th. Have they peaked too early? Can they hold their nerve and get an automatic promotion place?

Burton Albion’s defeat at Bradford on Tuesday evening could well prove to be a turning point for what remains of the season. They still stand four points ahead of Wigan Athletic, but significantly they no longer have games in hand. After being so consistent for so long is there a chink in Burton’s armour? They have now only won one out of their last five matches.

The most optimistic of Wigan Athletic fans are now seriously talking about their team winning the division. Burton have some tricky fixtures coming up in the final 11 games of the season. Four of those are against teams currently in the top six promotion zone – Millwall (A), Latics (H), Barnsley (H) and Gillingham (H).

Other than having to play at Burton, Latics have to play just one other team from the current top six – Barnsley (H) on the last day of the season.

This current Wigan Athletic team is capable of beating any other team in team in League 1, Burton included. They are have the capability to go the remainder of the season unbeaten. But they are also capable of producing poor results against teams they would be expected to beat. In recent home games they have failed to beat struggling Oldham and Peterborough and a 1-1 draw at Crewe in late January was disappointing.  But it was the shock 1-0 home defeat to Blackpool in mid-December that sparked the surging run they are on at the moment.

In their last 6 league games Latics have won 3 and drawn 3, an average of 2 points per game. Of the other teams in the top six only Barnsley have done better with 13 points, followed by Millwall on 11 points, Burton on 8, Gillingham on 5 and Walsall on 3.

Looking at stats for games played up to this point  it looks like the teams gaining automatic promotion this season will need less points than has been the norm over the past decade. It has been the kind of season where teams are closer in level, where they can quickly climb up or abruptly slide down the table within half a dozen games. However, for Latics to gain automatic promotion they are likely to need at least 86 points. That would require an average of 2 points in each of the remaining eleven matches.

Tomorrow’s game at Colchester is another of those potential banana skins upon which Latics have slipped several times this season. In their last six games Colchester’s record is LDLDWL. They lie in bottom place ten points from safety and have won just three home games this season.

All teams tend to have injury problems at this time of year and Wigan Athletic are no exception. Michael Jacobs and Reece James have been out long term and are still recuperating. Jussi Jaaskelainen is likely to return following concussion received against Peterborough, but both Conor McAleny and Jason Pearce are doubtful for tomorrow.

Caldwell commented this week that  “Whilst it’s a big disappointment to have players out, it’s an opportunity for other players to come in and show what they can do. It’s up to those players who haven’t been playing but have been asking to play and wanting to play to be ready for the opportunities.”

One of those players the manager could be referring to is Kevin McNaughton, who completed a full 90 minutes for the development squad on Tuesday. The Scot may not start at Colchester but could come on later in the game. Haris Vuckic is also due to reappear at some stage.

In addition to potential injuries Caldwell is likely to lose Will Grigg to the Northern Ireland squad for their friendly matches on March 24 and 28. Craig Davies is the obvious replacement, although he has not completed a full game for a long time.

Now is the time for Latics to hold their nerve and let the other teams cut each other’s throats. A late season dip in form like that which happened to Rosler’s team is what they must guard against.