Tightening up the defence

Craig Morgan - has three yellow cards in four league games.

Craig Morgan – has three yellow cards in four league games.

Will Grigg sent another message to his doubters on Saturday. His two opportunist goals at Nottingham had hauled his team back into a game where they had clearly been second best. What a shame his efforts were wasted by abysmal defending giving Forest a win in time added on.

In fact neither team’s defence looked solid. Witnessing the quality of Forest’s midfield play and the movement of their forwards one could have got the impression that they will challenge for promotion. So often they sliced through the Wigan defence like a knife. They scored four, and could conceivably have doubled that tally. But they have defensive problems. Grigg’s two goals were prime examples of opportunism as the centre forward punished the home team defence for their sloppiness.

Wigan too played some attractive football. Alex Gilbey and Michael Jacobs supported Grigg from midfield and Shaun MacDonald gave a promising first half display sitting in front of the back four. But the defence looked shaky from the start.

Gary Caldwell had decided to continue with the experiment of playing Yanic Wildschut as a wing back, as he had in the second half against Birmingham in midweek. It proved to be an ill-judged move.

Not only was the Dutchman lost in the role, but Craig Morgan was left exposed. With so little protection from not only the wing back, but also the midfield, the captain looked a shadow of the player he was last season.  Morgan struggled for pace against speedy attackers flooding his zone.

Given his contribution to last season’s title winning team few fans will openly criticise Morgan. Granted he never was the quickest of defenders, but he was able to use his experience to get into the right positions and make the best decisions. Some doubt that the captain is the right man to lead a defence in the Championship, but acknowledge that he is not alone in lacking pace in the Latics back line. The assertion is that a slow moving defence will have constant problems against the speedy forwards that so many Championship sides possess.

However, rarely will Morgan be as exposed as he was on Saturday. The failure of the midfield to protect the defence was a feature of the team’s performance. The absence of David Perkins was fully felt. Last season he was invaluable in covering his defence in deep positions, together with Max Power, whose defensive performance was found lacking at Nottingham. Moreover Morgan has been moved from his preferred position in the centre of the back three, where speed is an asset but an ability to read the game is paramount. Last season Morgan received one red card and seven yellows  in 38 league appearances. He has picked up three yellows  in the first four league games so far.

Having conceded four goals, despite another fine performance by keeper Adam Bogdan, the defence will inevitably take most of the blame. The decision to jettison Jason Pearce, who formed a formidable central defensive partnership with Morgan last season, continues to be questioned by the pundits. Should that partnership have been maintained, albeit in a higher division of football, where they would have been more tested by the pace and skills of Championship level forwards?

The use of Wildschut as a wing back was a speculative attacking ploy by Caldwell.  Against a stubborn Birmingham defence defending their one goal lead Caldwell had withdrawn his wing backs and placed Michael Jacobs and Wildschut in those positions. It was a bold move, typical of what we have come to expect from the manager over the past year. There were times last season when Caldwell threw caution to the wind and risked his defence being badly exposed. On occasions he got caught out, with the opposition scoring from rapid counterattacks, but there were times when games were won as a result.

There are fans who prefer to see Latics play with a conventional back four, rather than with three centre backs and wing backs. The 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 played by Caldwell’s teams last year saw the wing backs pushed high up the field, almost like wingers. An inherent danger in any type of 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 formation is wing backs being caught far forward and centre backs having to deal with pacy wide players on the break.

It is a far cry from the days in the Premier League when Latics had two excellent wing backs in Emmerson Boyce and Jean Beausejour who were not pushed so far forward. The two were so good at stretching the play by hugging the touchline and making themselves available to receive the ball from defence and support attacks. However, both played key defensive roles , the back three becoming a back five as they dropped back. On Saturday Wildschut looked lost when Forest attacked and Luke Garbutt made more of an impression in attack than in defence.

The three game suspension suffered by the experienced Jake Buxton, together with a long term injury for Donervon Daniels, has reduced Caldwell’s options in the centre of defence.  Following Buxton’s suspension Dan Burn was moved to the centre of the back line of three, with Morgan moving to the right.

With Buxton due to be available again for the match against QPR on Saturday, Caldwell might well opt for his experience on the right, with Morgan in the centre and Dan Burn on the left.  Although the manager did not include the 18 year old Luke Burke from the start at Nottingham, when the young player came on he once again looked the part. Despite his tender years he is the complete wing back. Buxton’s return could also enable Stephen Warnock to return to his more familiar position of left wing back. A return to 4-3-3 is also a possibility with a back four of Burke, Buxton, Morgan and Warnock.

A settled defence is key to Wigan’s chances of success in the Championship. Up to this point they have a record of W1 D1 L2, with a total of 4 points. Last year’s League 1 winning team had exactly the same record this time last year, as did Uwe Rosler’s team the year before which got relegated. It is simply too early in the season to predict what will happen later. Moreover both league defeats up to this point have come through goals in time added on.

In the meantime Caldwell will look at establishing a settled defence with a midfield in front of it that takes its fair share of defensive responsibilities.

Overloading the midfield

Preferred position - central midfield.

Preferred position – central midfield.

Owen Coyle had left it late, but he finally got his man on the last day of the summer transfer window in 2013. Nick Powell was 19 years old and still in Alex Ferguson’s plans. Manchester United had paid Crewe £6 million for his services in July 2012. Powell had made his debut for United just a couple of months later, scoring against Latics after coming on as a 71st minute substitute for Ryan Giggs.

“We see him as a central midfield player. Crewe played him as a forward in behind the striker, but I asked a question of [Alex director of football] Dario Gradi as to whether he thought central midfield was his position. That’s what he thinks, and Nick thinks that’s his position too, so we’re all in accord on that.”

Ferguson’s comment seemed to fall on deaf ears with Coyle, who was faced with injuries to his two main central strikers, Marc Antoine Fortune and Grant Holt. Powell was to be played as a centre forward, a position he had played earlier in his career. Over the next couple of months he was to establish himself as the club’s best striker, scoring three goals in Latics’ inaugural appearance in the Europa League. The disastrous Coyle reign ended in early December, but new manager Uwe Rosler continued to play him in the starting lineup. But niggling injuries started to take effect and Powell lost form. By the end of the season he looked a shadow of what we had seen in the short-lived Coyle era.

When Powell returned to Wigan a couple of weeks back many of us looked at his arrival as a boost for an attack so dependent on Will Grigg. Powell could step in as a centre forward, or play just behind the central striker. But in Powell’s first two matches against Blackburn Rovers and Birmingham City he was played as a central midfielder.

Although it was not a position he played in during his earlier days at Wigan, Powell has already looked the part playing there. It is his preferred position, although Gary Caldwell has acknowledged that Powell offers him flexibility through being able to play in different positions. However, if Powell is to be a regular starter in central midfield, who will be giving way for him?

Last season’s central midfield lynchpins were David Perkins and Max Power. They were joined in January by Sam Morsy, who had some highly impressive displays in the “Busquets role” in front of the back four. However, the ex-Chesterfield man also had some disappointing performances. However, many of us saw the 24 year old Morsy as a player for the future, someone who could add steel to the midfield, but who was also able to spray out pinpoint passes.

It was therefore a surprise to hear rumours that Latics were trying to sell Morsy. Both Chesterfield and Sheffield United have apparently matched Wigan’s asking price of around £400,000, but Morsy remains at Wigan, for the time being at least. Morsy will surely be loath to step back down to League 1, after reaching the Championship. He is within his rights to put his foot down and refuse to move on, having two years remaining on his contract at Wigan.

But over the past couple of years we have seen what a powerful machine there is at the club in “helping”, or maybe cajoling, players into moving on. The likelihood is that Morsy will be gone soon, with Latics recently signing a replacement in Shaun MacDonald.

The main contenders for a central midfield role are now MacDonald, Perkins, Powell and Power, with Tim Chow as back up. Alex Gilbey has so far been played a more advanced role, but could also challenge for a holding role.

The term “midfielder “ these days can include wing backs and other wide players. Yanic Wildschut is what might have been described in the old days as a “winger”, nowadays labelled as a midfielder, although he can also play a twin striker role. Michael Jacobs can also be classed as a winger, although his best position is probably in the hole between the midfield and the central striker. Ryan Colclough is usually played wide, but is another who might be more effective in an advanced central midfield role. However, Latics have now signed Jordi Gomez who can operate effectively in that role. Jordan Flores is a bright young talent, also an attacking midfielder. It could be a make or break season for Flores who has struggled with the physical demands of the game, despite his excellent technique and footballing vision. Andy Kellett will provide another option when he regains fitness after surgery.

Caldwell has such a wealth of midfield talent at his disposal that some would say it is an overload. Others would say that there are 46 games to play in a Championship season and you need to rotate your midfielders to keep them fresh. However, Morsy is not likely to be alone in leaving.

Caldwell continues to search for another centre forward of the quality of Grigg. Such players cost big money and he will be looking at raising funds to pay for it. It would not be a surprise to see other players from last season’s League 1 team following Morsy out of the door. In the meantime there could be loan moves for the some of the younger midfielders on the fringes of selection.

For the moment Latics have midfielders who have proven goalscoring records. Gomez and Powell both scored goals in their previous spells at the club and last season Colclough scored 9, Wildschut 7, Jacobs 8, Power 6 and Gilbey got 5. However, Caldwell will also look at protecting his defence and it would be no surprise to see MacDonald in the “Busquets role” if Morsy departs.

The transfer window is nearing its close. Having expected Caldwell to stick with the backbone last year’s team it was notable that the starting lineup in the first league game at Bristol City included five new faces.

Even more change is on its way.

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.

 

 

 

Frustrations in co-existing with a rugby club

A couple of weeks ago Wigan Warriors met the Catalan Dragons in a televised match at the DW Stadium.  The events that followed have once again brought to the surface the latent frictions between followers of the two codes, the ground-sharing issue once again being hotly debated.

The pundits said that the rugby match would have been postponed had it not been on television. The DW pitch was already in poor condition after the constant rains that had fallen over recent months. Allowing a rugby game to be played in atrocious conditions caused so much further damage that a couple of days later David Sharpe was to take drastic action by installing a brand new surface within the week that followed.

The social media message boards were buzzing. Some Latics fans advocated evicting the rugby club; others questioned why towns like Huddersfield and Hull don’t have the same types of problems with their pitches. However, it is understood that the control of the DW Stadium rests in the hands of the Whelan family, not Wigan Athletic itself. Moreover we are told that the rugby club was given a 50 year lease on using it.

Theories abound as to why the pitch has been so problematic since the opening of the stadium in 1999. The common view is that it was built on marshy, reclaimed land close to a river and a canal, so how could we expect any better? Another claim is that there is a large cesspit beneath it, from which gases rise over the winter months, poisoning the grass above.

The bottom line is that Sharpe has invested a significant amount of money in providing a new pitch for the short term, with more work to be done over the summer. The new pitch looked remarkably good for the Oldham match last Saturday, although the players will have found some difficulty adjusting to the longer grass, which could not be cut to normal length at the time because of its newness.

Sharpe’s investment will surely help Gary Caldwell’s players in their quest for promotion. Having to play on a quagmire would have seriously damaged Latics’ promotion chances, given their preferred style of possession football. But more rugby games are coming up as the football season continues.

The recent announcement that the Warriors home game with Salford has been moved forward a day to Thursday, February 25th has brought indignation from their fans. Latics have a home game with Bury on Saturday, the 27th. Warriors’ chairman, Ian Lenegan, eloquently discusses the fixture schedule complications that caused the rearrangement of the match on YouTube.

The upcoming matches at the DW are now:

Sat, Feb 20 – Warriors v Brisbane

Thurs, Feb 25 – Warriors v Salford

Sat, Feb 27 – Latics v Bury

Sat, March 5 – Latics v Peterborough

In 2011 we published an article called “1932 and all that – is Wigan a rugby town?”

The intention was to examine the more recent history of both Wigan Athletic and Wigan Warriors, looking at attendance trends in particular.

From 1932 to 1978 a look at attendances would appear to an outsider that rugby was the dominant force in the town, although a significant number of Wiganers would typically travel to Liverpool and Manchester to watch top flight football. After achieving Football League status in 1978, Latics’ average attendance went up five fold in that first season, the average of 6,701 eclipsing the 4,505 average of their rugby counterparts for the first time.

However, it was Latics’ entry into the Premier League in 2005 that was to give them dominance in terms of attendance. Even after relegation to the Championship their attendances held up in the first year, only to fall below the rugby last season

Football season Rugby season Wigan Athletic Wigan Warriors
2005-06 2006 20,160 14,464
2006-07 2007 18,159 16,040
2007-08 2008 19,045 13,995
2008-09 2009 18,350 14,080
2009-10 2010 17,848 15,181
2010-11 2011 16,976 16,125
2011-12 2012 18,634 16,043
2012-13 2013 19,375 13,556
2013- 14 2014 15,176 14,102
2014-15 2015 12,882 13,980

Can a small town like Wigan support two aspiring clubs?

In terms of attendance the highest ever aggregate of the two clubs’ attendances was 34,677 in the 2011-12 football season/2012 rugby season. The contrast with 1977-78 season is stunning, with the rugby club averaging 5,544 and Latics 1,334 in their last season in the Northern Premier League.

Latics current average attendance of in League 1 of 8,679 will surely be eclipsed by the Warriors this year. However, should promotion back to the Championship occur, history suggests that they would compete on an even keel with the rugby team next season.

In terms of attendances it appears that both clubs can co-exist. It is the prickly question of ground-sharing that is the more urgent issue. Questions remain whether the pitch can withstand constant use over the course of a year and as to whether the Super League can play its part in ensuring that the rugby club’s fixtures complement those of their football counterparts.

Ground-sharing in a small town makes economic sense. Let’s hope the frictions can be reduced by dealing with the key issues.