Key players stay – five talking points about the transfer window for Latics

Great news that Nick Powell is staying. Can he stay fit and reveal his true potential?

As a Wigan Athletic fan, I have come to dread the last days of the transfer windows. Last night I was anxiously waiting for news, hoping and praying had the chairman would back his manager by letting him keep his key players. Were the likes of Dan Burn, Will Grigg, Michael Jacobs, Sam Morsy, Max Power and Nick Powell going to stay?

The end result was largely a feeling of relief, tempered by the surprise late departure of Alex Gilbey and the absence of a new right back among the signings. But David Sharpe had resisted the urge to cash in on his prized assets, despite the economic pressure weighing heavily on him. It can be seen as a statement of intent that the chairman is willing to provide the broad financial backing needed to get the club back in the Championship division, given the low potential revenues coming in. However, the bitter pill will be somewhat sweetened by some £1.2 m brought in during the summer sales.

How many times in recent years have the dealings made in those transfer windows put the club in a better situation in the longer term? Warren Joyce signed eight last January, only one of whom is with the club now. Uwe Rosler signed nine new players in the summer of 2014, giving him a squad that was too big, making it difficult to handle. Almost half of the new boys were gone by the end of the January window. But worse was to come as Malky Mackay signed twelve in the winter months, only one of whom remained when the 2015-16 season started.

It remains to be seen whether this summer’s transfer activity will leave Latics in a better state that they were in at the end of last season. Harsh economics have come into play, forcing the club to cut its budget in the region of 60%. The reality is that the revenues the club will have coming in League 1 are way below what they had in the Championship, where they were buoyed by parachute payments.

Let’s look at some key points:

The squad remains strong enough to fight for automatic promotion, providing injuries do not prove too troublesome.

The squad is well balanced and has a wealth of quality players for the division they are playing in. When Gary Roberts was brought in it looked like Nick Powell was on his way out, but it turned out to be Alex Gilbey. Like Powell, Roberts has a lot of flair and can both create and score goals. The long-term injury suffered by Craig Morgan meant that another central defender would be brought in. Providing he stays fit Alex Bruce has the know-how and experience to be a top player in League 1.

The right back position remains problematic. It was a surprise not to see a new player drafted in. Nathan Byrne has established himself as the first choice in that position, but both Luke Burke and Donervon Daniels have been sent out on loan. We can only assume that if Byrne is unavailable then one of the central defenders or Max Power will be drafted in there.

Injuries took a major toll last season. Donervon Daniels and Reece James did not play a single league game and Alex Gilbey, Will Grigg, Andy Kellett and Nick Powell were absent for long periods. Gilbey has now been sold. Daniels and Kellett have been sent out on season-long loans with just one year of their contracts remaining. Grigg appears to be approaching full fitness and James has done well since his return. Powell appears to be building up his fitness, but has not yet been able to last the full 90 plus.

However, an injury to the excellent young loan goalkeeper, Christian Walton, is a real blow for Latics. Paul Cook has brought in Matija Sarkic from Aston Villa, but the 20-year-old lacks EFL experience. It appears that Jamie Jones will be first choice until Walton is fit to return.

Paul Cook has made some good moves  in the transfer and loan markets.

Cook’s signings of Noel Hunt and Gary Roberts from Portsmouth have hardly gone down well with most fans. Hunt is 34 and Roberts 33. However, they are on one-year contracts. Based on what happened at Portsmouth, Roberts is more likely to appear more regularly than Hunt who is most likely to be used as a substitute.

But Cook has not paid a penny for any of his 7 permanent signings, all of whom were recruited as free agents. He has raised funds by selling Omar Bogle, Kaiyne Woolery and Alex Gilbey. He has brought in 5 loan players, with Lee Evans, Christian Walton and Ivan Toney being ever-presents in the starting line-ups so far.

Cook has used the pre-season and cup games so far to give youth a chance. The club has some fine prospects coming through its academy, including the 16-year-old Catalan, Victor Maffeo, who made his debut at Blackpool on Tuesday. Cook has sent out four of them on loan to clubs of a suitable level – Luke Burke to AFC Fylde (National League Premier), Callum Lang to Morecambe (League 2), Chris Merrie to Southport (National League North) and Sam Stubbs to Crewe Alexandra (League 2). James Barrigan, Luke Burgess and Josh Gregory remain.

Economics need to be considered.

Dave Whelan has owned Wigan Athletic since 1995. Although his grandson is the club chairman it is Whelan’s financial backing that underpins the club’s future. During the club’s ascent to the Premier League and its eight years in the top-flight Whelan put close to £100 m into the club.

In recent years the club has been closer to making revenues and expenditures match. However, four years of parachute payments have been spent since Latics got relegated from the Premier League and the club is once again in League 1.

It is rumoured that players were asked to take pay cuts when the club was once again relegated. But even if this has been the case and funds have come in through transfers (including that of Yanic Wildschut in January), the imbalance between revenues to be gained and player salary costs is a major issue.

Given the recent history of cutting back on salaries when projected revenues could not support them, it is a surprise that Nick Powell is still at the club. Powell might well have taken a cut on his reputed £16,000 per week, but his salary almost certainly will still dwarf that of other players in League 1.

Has Powell been retained in an ambitious bid for automatic promotion or has his horrendous injury record deterred other clubs from signing him or taking him on loan? Or are the Whelan family taking a gamble on the player regaining full fitness and not only propelling Latics back into the Championship, but also vastly increasing his net worth on the transfer market?

Should this squad secure promotion, how would survival in the Championship look?

The recruitment focus in the early Gary Caldwell era was to bring in “hungry” players in their early to mid-twenties who could provide the backbone of the team for the future. Donervon Daniels, Will Grigg, Michael Jacobs, Reece James, Andy Kellett and Max Power were among those. Ryan Colclough, Alex Gilbey, Sam Morsy and Yanic Wildschut were to follow.

Six of those players remain for Cook to call upon next week. Gilbey and Wildschut have gone and Daniels and Kellett sent on season-long loans in the final years of their contracts. Last season’s squad was good enough to ensure survival in the Championship. It was the inept management of Warren Joyce that took Latics down. However, some £12 m in parachute payments underpinned a wage bill of around £18 m.

Put simply: if Latics were to go up it would need significant investment by the Whelan family to keep them there in the absence of parachute payments.

Will Grigg and Michael Jacobs need to be offered new contracts.

Cook had said that contract extensions would be looked at once the transfer window was closed and he had the squad he wanted. Failure to offer the two players extended contracts will mean they will be free agents at the end of the season. The complication is not knowing what division Latics will be in next season.

Let’s not forget Reece James, who will also be out of contract next summer. James has done well to come back after being out for so long and has looked impressive so far. If he can prove his fitness, surely he too will be offered a contract extension.

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Will Grigg go?

The rumours of departures from Wigan continue to rear their ugly heads. With the summer transfer window due to close on August 31st Wigan Athletic fans will be desperately hoping the club does not shed its best players in the craziness that will abound over the coming week. How many of the likes of Will Grigg, Dan Burn and Nick Powell will still be with us come September?

Paul Cook is currently basking in the luxury of having a strike force that is the envy of other clubs in the League 1. Grigg is now fit after relatively long-term injury to compete with Ivan Toney for the centre forward position. Nick Powell has been playing just behind the central striker up to this point, but is equally adept in that number 9 role.

However, the departure of Powell is seemingly inevitable, given that his salary is reputed to be around £16,000 per week. Put simply it would be hard for a club which needs to reduce its budget from around £18 m to somewhere close to £6 m to hold on to a player on that kind of salary. Moreover, given the player’s past injury record it would appear even more of a risk in keeping him on the books. The romantics among us will continue to hope that David Sharpe will stick his neck out and keep the player at the club, knowing that a fully fit Powell could be pivotal to promotion.

So the likelihood is that Powell will be gone within a week, but what about Grigg? Both he and Michael Jacobs have one year left on their contracts. Will they be offered new contracts or will the club cash in its assets by selling them in the coming week?

Some three weeks ago Cook was quoted as saying “Certainly we know who is in the last year of their contracts, and the big effort is nurturing the squad into the start of the season. Once we start the season, with the squad we want in place, we can start to look at lengths of contracts. And I’m sure once we get into August, September, October, you’ll start to see some movement on that score.

The rumours of Charlton offering in excess of £1m for Grigg are certainly credible, knowing that the player has exceeded the 20 goals per season mark three times previously in League 1. So many Latics fans see Grigg’s continuity at the club as crucial to the promotion push. But if the bid has been made and Latics have rejected it, is it a sign that they intend to keep the player and will not allow him to go to another club from the same division competing for promotion? Or are they expecting a higher fee for the player?

Jacobs too would be an important player in the promotion push. Although his form last season in the Championship was disappointing the player has been electric in the opening games. Jacobs is a quality player at League 1 level and Cook would be loath to see him go.

Cook’s words regarding extended contracts do not give anything away. However, the manager recognises that Latics are a “selling club” and if the right offer comes up a player is likely to be released.

Given his importance to the defence, Latics fans will be hoping that such an offer does not come in for Dan Burn. The loss of Craig Morgan for several months due to a hip injury is a blow to Cook. It appears that Latics are actively looking for another central defender. The immediate assumption is that it would be someone to replace Morgan, but some would argue that Cook has Donervon Daniels fit again and ready to step in and it is a sign that Burn might be leaving.

In the meantime it appears that Jack Byrne has now left the club. Cook has suggested that more departures are on their way, although it is not clear if they would be mainline or fringe players. We can also expect some new ones coming in.

Having a transfer window still open when the season has started can cause serious disruption to football clubs. It is something that might well be rectified a year from now. The immediate danger for Wigan Athletic is of key players leaving the club over the next week, unbalancing a squad that looks strong enough to challenge for automatic promotion.

But at this stage, the underlying reasons for selling players or moving them on are largely economic. The burden lies on the shoulders of David Sharpe and owner Dave Whelan. It is they who will ultimately decide whether players like Grigg, Burn and Powell will be Wigan players come September.

In the meantime, Paul Cook will surely be making contingency plans to cover all possible scenarios.

 

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Is it too early for alarm bells to be ringing?

Alan Nixon is not everyone’s cup of tea, but he so often gets inside information on what is going on at Wigan Athletic. In January he had kept us informed on Twitter about Latics’ pursuit of Omar Bogle, raising our spirits in that an exciting young centre forward might be on his way in. But this time around his tip-off serves more to dampen our spirits.

There have already been rumblings about the transfers that have already happened. The highly experienced Jake Buxton, Matt Gilks and Stephen Warnock have departed the club. The feeling among many fans is of being underwhelmed by the new signings brought in so far. The prospect of selling off the 24-year-old Bogle (who has 35 goals in 80 appearances over the past three seasons) to bring in the 29-year-old Doyle (15 goals in 66 appearances in the same time period) is daunting to say the least.

Reports also suggest that Latics are close to signing Gavin Massey (24) from Leyton Orient and Jimmy Ryan (28) from Fleetwood. Like the two players signed already – Chey Dunkley (24) and Terell Thomas (21) – Ryan is also a free agent. The Liverpool born midfielder played under Paul Cook’s management at Chesterfield, together with Doyle, who later played under the manager at Portsmouth. Rumours have also linked Cook with the 33-year-old Gary Roberts of Portsmouth who also played at Chesterfield with Cook.

The more positive supporters will say that these are early days and there is no need for the alarm bells to be ringing. They will cite the arrival of David Perkins from Blackpool, as Gary Caldwell’s first signing in the summer of 2015. Perkins was seen as a 33-year-old journeyman, a free transfer signing to bolster the squad. But he went on to have an outstanding season, winning the Player of the Year award. Thomas is yet to make an appearance in the EFL and at 19 he is one for the future, although one can only hope that he will get the kinds of chances not afforded to other young players at Wigan in recent years. But Dunkley played over 50 games for Oxford United in League 1 last season and will surely be in contention for a first team place.

Reports from Leyton Orient suggest that, should Latics concrete his signing, Massey could certainly add something to the attack. Although only 24 years of age, he has made over 200 appearances in the EFL. With Orient dropping out of the EFL Latics could well get a bargain in signing Massey.

The departures of Buxton, Gilks and Warnock indicate the massive cost-cutting exercise that the club will undergo over the summer. With revenues dropping from some £20 m last season to probably no more than £4 m in League 1 there will surely be lots more departures over the coming weeks. David Sharpe will need to look at a player salary budget of at least £6m if he is seriously looking at getting back to the Championship next season. Any shortfall between outgoings and revenues will be subsidised by player sales and any surplus from last season that has not been used to play off long-term debt.

Last Friday an article appeared in Wigan Today quoting Paul Cook as saying “I think the squad strength is there for all to see, and I certainly wouldn’t envisage there being many changes. I’m not envisaging ripping it up and starting again – there’ll be none of that.”

Is he seriously suggesting that Wigan Athletic will not be making many changes in the squad over the summer? He is used to dealing with tight budgets, but his comments appear unrealistic in terms of the financial implications of keeping the strength of the squad in place. The departure of either Omar Bogle or Will Grigg was always on the cards, in terms of raising funds. No information has been forthcoming from the club about Grigg’s recuperation from injury. With just a year remaining on his contract we would expect the club to be looking for offers for him over the summer. But is injury set to rule out a move for Grigg, hence the need to sell Bogle instead?

Cook also mentioned in that same article that the squad was too big and needed reducing. Some will be offered free transfers, others sent on loan. The high earners will be the priority and most of those on Championship level salaries can be expected to move on. Moreover, there are a host of players in the first team squad who have been brought in from other clubs as “up and coming” players, but the reality being that none of them has yet made a handful of appearances for the Latics first team. They include Jack Byrne, Jack Hendry, Josh Laurent, Dan Lavercombe, Mikael Mandron, Sanmi Odelusi, Danny Whitehead and Kaiyne Woolery. It remains to be seen how many of them will be retained as members of the senior squad and how many will be dispatched elsewhere.

Is it too early to be sounding the alarm bells? It certainly is.

However, despite the statements of manager and chairman it would be surprising if we did not see a considerable number of departures over the coming weeks. The hope is that the club can cut its coat according to its cloth, but also find suitable replacements for the higher earners who will surely be on their way.

A couple of years ago we saw a remarkable clear out of playing staff over the summer to balance the books. But the club was still buoyed with parachute payments. This time around, with far lower anticipated revenues, the situation appears more severe, with the playing staff budget due to be reduced to around a third of what it was last season.

Paul Cook has had lots of experience in working within tight budgets. It will take all his know-how and expertise to make Latics serious challengers for promotion, given the financial hand with which he will be dealt.

But perhaps this is what made him Sharpe’s top choice for the job of manager of Wigan Athletic for the foreseeable future?

Seeking a balance in midfield

A more balanced midfield with Paul Cook in charge?

“So close to a famous win, absolutely devastated. Atmosphere was incredible.

So tweeted James McArthur after Harry Kane’s late equaliser had robbed them of victory in a game they did not really deserve to win.

He had come on as a substitute at the beginning of the second half in the cauldron that Hampden Park so often can be. In the eyes of an admittedly biased Wigan Athletic fan he should have been on from the start, but James Morrison and Scott Brown were chosen instead.

But seeing McArthur brought back memories of his partnership with James McCarthy. Both were signed from a modest club in Hamilton Academical, seemingly “players for the future”. But what a future it proved to be for them at Wigan as the pair became the engine room of the club’s greatest ever successes. Pitched up against the likes of Gerrard, Lampard and Scholes they held their own, famous victories over England’s richest and most powerful clubs resulting.

Roberto Martinez had developed what was loosely called a 3-4-3 system. McArthur and McCarthy supplied the energy and vision from the centre of midfield, with the excellent wing backs Emmerson Boyce and Jean Beausejour providing the width. One of the front three, Shaun Maloney or Jordi Gomez, would drop back to reinforce midfield and add to the creativity. The end result was a balanced midfield, capable of challenging the best in the land.

It is more than three years now since McArthur left Wigan, McCarthy having gone a year earlier. Since then Latics have had a plethora of midfield players pass through the club. The Macs had played together for three years, developing a mutual understanding, covering for each other when it was needed.

But last season that kind of understanding was sadly lacking, players too often being unable to find their teammates with their passes. Midfield players who had been key in winning League 1 the previous season had clearly found the step up to the Championship a tough one. Perhaps Gary Caldwell had realised that the midfielders of the title winning team might struggle in the higher division. He brought in reinforcements in Shaun MacDonald, Alex Gilbey and Nick Powell, but the latter two were to be stricken by injury. MacDonald had been a box to box midfielder at Bournemouth, but Caldwell was to use him in a “Busquets role” in front of the back four. He had used Sam Morsy in that role in the previous season, but the player had been dispatched off to Barnsley on loan.

MacDonald went on to become a rock in front of the defence, also being favoured by Warren Joyce when he arrived in November. Although he would rarely show the range of passing that we had seen from Morsy, MacDonald was equally firm in the tackle and his reading of the game. Moreover he was strong in the air. Sadly his horrendous injury at Reading is likely to rule him out for the large part of the coming season.

As part of his return from Barnsley, Morsy had been offered an improved contract with Joyce being keen to get him back. With MacDonald anchoring at the back, Morsy was pushed forward into a more creative role where he initially seemed to thrive. However, Joyce’s obsession with 4-5-1 was to mean that any midfielder’s role was to be primarily defensive. Like the other midfielders, Morsy just did not look as effective as he had earlier. The midfield was to shoulder the bulk of the frustration of fans wanting to see them push further forward to support the lone centre forward. The lack of creativity was to be exacerbated as Joyce was to play four central midfielders in his starting line-up, a tactic that was also to be followed by Graham Barrow when he took over as caretaker manager.

Latics fans will be hoping for a more positive approach from new manager Paul Cook. Cook’s preferred formation appears to be 4-2-3-1, so it is unlikely he will use someone in the anchor role occupied by MacDonald. David Perkins has been given a new short term contract, although he is now 35. However, Perkins was the Player of the Year in League 1 in 2015-16 and his infectious enthusiasm was a key element in the team’s success. Max Power was the subject of an offer by Birmingham City in January. Although he had a disappointing season he remains a young player with good technique who might well benefit from a move. Morsy has already proved himself in League 1 and would surely be in contention for a place, but his increased salary might prove too much for Latics to swallow, given their much decreasing revenues. It would be no surprise if both Power and Morsy were sold over the summer.

Cook already has players who can form the trio behind the centre forward. He has those who can play wide in Michael Jacobs and Nathan Byrne, plus “number 10s” in Jack Byrne, Alex Gilbey, Josh Laurent and Nick Powell. Nathan Byrne has genuine pace, making Joyce’s decision to send him on loan to Charlton difficult to understand. With both Wildschut and Byrne leaving his side was distinctly short of pace. Rumour suggests that Byrne had a falling out with the manager and was dispatched as a result. It could be that the player has already burnt his bridges at Wigan and will be gone over summer, but he has a fine record in League 1 and could be an important player, if he were to stay. Salary could also be an issue.

For the moment Latics are short on holding midfielders and Cook will be looking at bringing in at least a couple more. He will also look for more wide players. Jordan Flores can play wide on the left of midfield, but there is still no news of him signing a new contract.

Finding the right balance in midfield will be of paramount importance to Paul Cook if he is to build a squad good enough to get the club back to the Championship division. Continuity is something that has been so lacking at Wigan over the past three seasons. Ideally Cook will put together a midfield not only to get the club out of League 1, but also one which can serve the club more long-term as did the “Macs” in the Martinez era.

 

 

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Being candid – a look at Cardiff (H)

 

 “I think, if I’m honest, they thought they were already down. That’s how I looked at the game. It was almost a case of frustration for them, this. This game’s not the one that’s got them relegated, is it? And I thought the crowd accepted it as well.”

Neil Warnock’s post-match remarks were not appreciated by some. The blunt Yorkshireman had gained an away point, after putting out a weakened lineup. He really did not have to say such things. But was there any truth in his assertions that both the players and the crowd thought Latics were already down?

I had gone to the match feeling that Latics had the slimmist of outside chances of staying up. If it was going to happen then a win over Cardiff was paramount. But Graham Barrow doused any fire that we might have had by naming yet another lineup packed with four central midfielders. The tactic was similar to that at Brighton five days earlier: keep things on hold until the final quarter when Nick Powell could come on to save the game.

Latics had 61% of the possession in the first half, but their lack of conviction had led one fan to suggest that they would not score if they played until next Christmas. Barrow had pushed Michael Jacobs further forward than he did at Brighton, but despite his energy, the final pass always seemed to be lacking. Not surprisingly the central midfield trio of Hanson, MacDonald and Perkins lacked creativity. Even a conservative manager might have played two of the three, leaving a space for a creative midfield player. If it were politics Barrow’s lineup could have been described as far right.

At half time a fan close to me said that he thought Latics were simply going through the motions and that both teams maybe thought they were on the training ground. Moreover the crowd had been so muted, not surprising given that they had already suffered thirteen home games when their team had not scored. It was a familiar pattern, Latics looking solid, but uninspired, as they have in so many games this season. Indeed Latics have so often played at least as well as their opponents but been let down by giving away a soft goal. It had almost happened again just before half time as Perkins somehow miscued the ball straight to Craig Noone in a good position. Luckily for Latics his shot hit the crossbar.

Sadly for Barrow, the introduction of Nick Powell in the second half did not produce the  desired effect, the Cardiff defence having appeared prepared for his arrival. In desperation Barrow brought on Alex Bruce for his debut, pushing Dan Burn up front, but apart from a prolonged bout of head tennis Latics still did not look like scoring. They didn’t and neither did Cardiff.

Once again the rumours were flying after the game. The latest one suggested that second half substitutes, Ryan Colclough and Sam Morsy, did not start the game because of appearance money clauses in their contracts. Following the Haugaard issue and the recent lack of game time for Morsy in particular one wonders as to the veracity of the rumours. Loan conditions and players’ contracts can be complicated matters these days. There were three loan players in the starting lineup on Saturday, including two in midfield. Were any of them there because of loan stipulations?

Barrow’s tactics and team selections over recent weeks have been reminiscent of his predecessor, Warren Joyce. Joyce never seemed to believe his players were capable of winning by putting out a balanced lineup. His emphasis was on massed defence and stopping the other team scoring. His ultra-defensive, fightball approach rarely worked. In contrast, under  Barrow, Latics have at least tried to serve up a decent level of football, even if they have been found wanting.

Near the end of the game a fan gave his view that, over the course of the season, Latics signed players who had not been making the starting lineups at their previous clubs. Moreover so many key players from last season’s League 1 title winning side have struggled in the higher division. Added to that were long-term injuries that forced the club to bring in more loan players than they might have done.

Given the stringent budget cuts the club will be making to cope with vastly decreased revenues in League 1 next season, we can expect that most of the players who graced the pitch on Saturday will be gone over the summer. It will be interesting to see how many of those who were previously successful in League 1 will remain.

There was news from the club yesterday that seven development squad players have been released. James Barrigan and Owen Evans were offered new contracts for another year, Josh Gregory and Luke Burke had already signed theirs. Those released include Sam Cosgrove, together with players who were instrumental in the record-breaking youth team of 2015-16. The cynics will say that once again the club is penny-pinching and ask why almost all of the young players coming through the youth ranks just do not make the grade.

The final two matches of the season offer the chance to give some of the club’s home-grown talent a first team opportunity.

Let’s hope that loan stipulations involving young players from other clubs do not impede this happening.

 
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