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.

 

 

 

A tough approach needed for Bury and Millwall

 

 

“They are the best team in the league. I know we have done well against them but they have recruited fantastically well. They are a very, very good team. Their subs’ bench is absolutely incredible. They are a top team and it’s one we can look forward too. I’m really looking forward to this week to get a game plan together to compete with them.”

It is the final sentence in David Flitcroft’s comments that is the important one. The Bury manager will surely have more tricks under his sleeve when his side visit the DW Stadium tomorrow. With two wins and a draw under his belt against Latics already this season, can he do it again? What tactics will he employ?

The likelihood is that Flitcroft’s main tactic will be to adopt a physical approach in an attempt to put Latics off their game.

The same can be expected from Millwall on Tuesday. Latics were mauled by the opposition players and their crowd at the New Den in a key relegation match in mid-April last season. It was early days in Gary Caldwell’s new managerial position and Millwall manager Keith Harris’ intimidatory tactics worked. The 2-0 victory to the Lions proved to make no difference in the long run, with both clubs being relegated.

Neither Bury at home, nor Millwall away, is a particularly comfortable fixture for Latics. The Lancashire derbies have their own special feel and the competition can be fierce. Playing away at Millwall is never going to be easy, given the fiercely partisan crowd. Bury have only won one of their past ten, but Millwall have won four out of the last six and are serious challengers for a playoff place.

Latics have not played at all well against Bury this season. The League Cup tie in mid-August was decided by a controversial penalty given against Craig Morgan, the Shakers winning 2-1. But Morgan was to have his revenge by getting a last minute equaliser at Gigg Lane in early October in a 2-2 draw. Wigan’s performance in the 4-0 FA Cup defeat at Gigg Lane in early November was woeful, although it did leave one wondering how interested they were in progressing further in the competition.

But the Wigan team that faced Bury in the first half of the season, during the gelling process with so many new players, is a different kettle of fish than the current one. Latics are second in the table, on an 11 game unbeaten run, scared of nobody.

The win at fellow promotion hopefuls, Walsall, pushed them above the midland team for the first time. Wigan were much the better team on the day, but only won the game in the closing minutes. Will Grigg missed a handful of clear opportunities. Had he scored at least one of them he could have out the game out of reach for the home side.  However, it must have been a bittersweet return to the Bescot Stadium for him with the home fans jeering his every touch. Grigg is a fine centre forward at League 1 level, but such profligacy cannot continue if Latics are to attain that automatic promotion spot.

A home win for Latics tomorrow is most likely, but they must be careful to avoid complacency. But then again they have good reason to make a big effort in retaliation for the bad results against Bury so far. Flitcroft claims a long injury list, but it remains to be seen what side he will put out tomorrow. One thing is for certain – Latics can expect a rough reception from the visitors.

The Millwall game is another against a promotion hopeful and will not be easy. The Lions are now in fifth place, but surprisingly their home record has been poor, having a record of W7 D2 L7, whereas away they have the second best stats in the division behind Walsall. But Neil Harris will surely once again rile up his players and his crowd to give Wigan a hard time.

Gary Caldwell has used 33 players this season, six of whom were on loan and have gone back to their parent clubs. Two players – Grant Holt and Richard O’Donnell – departed over the January transfer window. Four players are injured or in recuperation – Michael Jacobs, Reece James, Kevin McNaughton and Sanmi Odelusi.

But Caldwell has a squad that is the envy of the other League 1 managers. The ability to bring players off the bench of the quality of Craig Davies and Yanic Wildschut gives Caldwell that added factor that the other managers do not have.

Wigan Athletic have the quality to win the division. But much will depend on avoiding complacency and being willing to slug it out with teams like Bury and Millwall.

Neither match is easy. Both are winnable at a physical cost. It would be no surprise if Caldwell once more rotates his team or changes its shape in the next two games. A return of four points from the two would keep Latics on track. More would be even better.

Three home games towards automatic promotion

Three successive away games is a bit of a rarity in League 1. But if it were to happen to a team and they collected 7 points from those encounters, their fans could be expected to be pleased. But there is a nervousness among Wigan Athletic fans, as Gary Caldwell’s team seeks automatic promotion.

Latics have collected those 7 points playing in less than ideal weather conditions on tight pitches, hardly an ideal scenario for a club that prides itself in playing football “The Wigan Way”. Earlier in the season Latics were strong at home, but away performances had left much to be desired. Since then consecutive defeats by Burton Albion and Blackpool were to shatter an unbeaten home record. But on the road Latics have really improved their results, with 5 draws and 4 wins coming out of the last 9 away games.

The 2-0 win at Barnsley was achieved on a pitch that is 5 yards shorter than that of the DW Stadium. According to the Football Ground Guide  the pitch at Oakwell is 110 yards long and 75 yards wide, compared with Wigan’s at 115 x 74. Fleetwood’s pitch measures 112 x 74, Scunthorpe’s 111 x 73.

But the smallest pitch Latics have played on this season was that of Roots Hall, where Latics played out a goalless draw with Southend United. The conditions that day had made good football very difficult. Latics had to grit their teeth and grind out a result against a team keen to overcome them. Given the conditions it was no surprise that Latics’ goal threat had come largely through set pieces, with Leon Barnett going close on three occasions.

Latics have clearly had to modify their approach away from home. They have tightened up defensively, conceding 8 goals in those last nine games, after allowing 9 in their first four. The recent performances on the road would be more aptly labelled “professional” rather than “free-flowing”.

The professional performance at Scunthorpe on Saturday was enough to claim a point. But with three of the four teams above them winning, it produced more anxiety for fans who saw the gap between Latics and the teams in the automatic promotion places widen to 9 points. However, with teams below them not getting good results the gap between Latics top six and Southend at the head of the teams outside the playoff zone widened to 4 points.

A tally of 17 points from 9 away games signifies that Wigan Athletic are genuine contenders for an automatic promotion place. But in contrast with earlier in the season it has been their home form that has been letting Latics down. After mediocre 1-0 victories against lowly Swindon and Shrewsbury they were beaten 1-0 by Burton Albion in a game where the result could have gone either way. That was followed by an abject 1-0 defeat by Blackpool.

Caldwell’s team have certainly learned how to graft and painstakingly grind out results away from the DW. But they need to find a more pragmatic approach at home. So many teams will come to “park the bus”, looking for goals on the break or through set pieces.

Over the past couple of months Latics have relied heavily on Yanic Wildschut for inspiration, but he has gone back to Middlesbrough, at least for the time being. However, Caldwell will be buoyed by the return to form of Michael Jacobs, now back in his best role, just behind the central striker. But other than Jacobs, who else can provide those moments of quality and the kind of spark offered by Wildschut?

Playing in an advanced midfield role, Andy Kellett has provided some memorable moments of skill in recent games, with well taken goals at Barnsley and Fleetwood. Kellett will most likely keep his place against Gillingham with Caldwell operating a 3-4-3 formation with Kellett and Jacobs operating behind Will Grigg. However, both Craig Davies and Haris Vuckic, each of whom can offer something special are waiting for their opportunity.

It is a mystery why Davies has not been used more since his return to fitness. Caldwell’s preference for a lone centre forward in the starting lineup is a major factor, but Alex Revell seemed to have jumped over Davies in the pecking order prior to his return to Cardiff. Then on Saturday, Jordy Hiwula was brought off the bench in preference to him. Admittedly Hiwula is a different type of player, lacking the physical power of Davies, but with an excellent strike record of 6 goals in his 7 starts and 5 substitute experiences.

Vuckic has practically disappeared off the radar. He was on the bench at Fleetwood, but was left out completely against Scunthorpe. Vuckic is exactly the kind of player to fit into the kind of role currently occupied by Andy Kellett.

Caldwell simply has not got the best out of Davies or Vuckic, although injuries have not helped. However, there is lots of time left this season for that to happen.

Gillingham on Thursday is the first of three consecutive home games, being followed by Sheffield United on the Tuesday and Chesterfield the next weekend. With such a gap between Latics and the teams in the automatic promotion positions these games take on extra importance.

The word “massive” is wildly overused in football circles when describing upcoming games. But it comes close to describing the Gillingham match as far as automatic promotion is concerned, with the Kent club currently in second place. Moreover a win over the Gills, followed by successive victories over Sheffield United and Chesterfield, would put pressure on those clubs above Latics who fear their ascendency.

The results in the next three matches will provide a barometer reading for Wigan Athletic’s chances of automatic promotion. The gap between Latics and the teams above them needs to be narrowed – better sooner than later.