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.

Winning with kids

Gary Caldwell continues to lower the average age of his squad.

Gary Caldwell continues to lower the average age of his squad.

“You can’t win anything with kids”.

So said Alan Hansen after a young Manchester United side had been beaten by Aston Villa. United’s lineup had featured an 18 year old Phil Neville, plus 20 year olds David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes, together with the 21 year old Ryan Giggs. They went on to win the Premier League that same season. Hansen’s comment became infamous in English football history.

As did Alex Ferguson twenty years ago, Gary Caldwell too has put a considerable amount of faith in young players. In fact three of them rank in the top four this season as far as appearances are concerned. That trio of Donervon Daniels, Reece James and Max Power are all 22 years old.

Over the January transfer Caldwell has continued to lower the average age of his squad. Don Cowie (32) and Grant Holt (34) left the club by mutual consent. In came Ryan Colclough (21), Conor McAleny (23), Sam Morsy (24) and Reece Wabara (24). Goalkeeper Dan Lavercombe (19) replaced Richard O’Donnell (27), although for the moment he is back at his previous club, Torquay. Midfielder Danny Whitehead (22) was also signed and loaned back to Macclesfield Town. Yanic Wildschut (24) was signed on a permanent contract following his loan spell from Middlesbrough.

Caldwell and his recruitment team have done a fine job, bringing in no less than 29 new players since summer. Moreover there are signs that the players are starting to gel and the team is starting to approach the point where the whole is at least the sum of its parts. Hopes for automatic promotion have been raised, although it remains a difficult task given the consistency of the teams above them.

Wabara has filled the problematic right wing back position, with Kevin McNaughton now back in training. A few weeks ago losing Michael Jacobs to injury would have left the team short of creative input. But the emergence of Haris Vuckic and the arrival of the confident and accomplished Colclough have helped allay concerns. Morsy has come in to add some steel to the midfield, potentially the replacement for David Perkins, who is now 33. The squad now has a better balance than it did a month ago.

Whether Latics will achieve automatic promotion remains to be seen. But with the talent at Caldwell’s disposal they will pose problems for any team in League 1. The least Latics are currently heading for is a place just below the top two, but  getting promotion through the playoffs is a precarious business where confrontations can be tight and so easily effected by unexpected events. The worst case scenario is at  least one more year in League 1.

Next season Latics will receive around £12 million in parachute payments, the final instalment. If they remain in League 1 they will be able to continue operating a budget three times higher than most clubs in the division. However, if promotion is achieved they will face fierce financial competition from Championship clubs, some boosted by much larger parachute payments, others buoyed by funding from benefactor owners. Moreover when their own parachute payments run out they will be faced with competing on an uneven keel against almost all the clubs in the division.

It is for these reasons that having a quality recruitment programme is key to the club’s long term future. Scouting for bargains in younger players coming from clubs in lower divisions or those released by big clubs will be the order of the day.

At the same time the club will need to be able to attract top teenage talent into its academy. Gregor Rioch came with a fine reputation in building up an academy at Coventry and he has already produced results at Wigan. The under 18 team breaking a club record by reaching the fifth round of the FA Youth Cup and taking Manchester City into extra time is an indicator of how much progress has been made. As in previous eras many of the youngsters recruited have come from the greater Manchester and Liverpool areas, often after being at a Premier League club. The recent loan moves of the 18 year old Adam Anson and the 19 year old Louis Robles, both previously in the Liverpool academy, to Macclesfield continue to show that the club seeks to toughen up the younger talent it is nurturing by sending them to clubs in physically competitive leagues. Sam Cosgrove, 18, previously at the Everton academy, has already had loan spells at Barrow and Chorley.

Over the years Alan Hansen might have come to rue his assertion that “You can’t win anything with kids”. But Premier League stats suggest that there is some degree of validity in his statement. When Manchester United won that title in 1995-96 they had six players under the age of 23 who played in 10 games or more. But nothing of the kind has happened since. In fact the average number of under 23s playing regularly in Premier League title winning squads over the last 20 years is less than three.

The success of Manchester United’s young players those two decades ago was clearly exceptional. But perhaps more importantly those players were to stay at the club, providing the backbone of the team for years to come.

Gary Caldwell will be hoping that this will prove the case for the majority of the young players he has recruited over recent months. He and his recruitment team are striving to build the backbone of a squad to serve the club for years to come.

 

 

Latics need a Wildschut for promotion

 

It is midway through the League 1 season. The “New Era” duo of Gary Caldwell and David Sharpe has breathed new life into a club that was down on its knees. After a prolonged period of gloom and despondency there is light at the end of the tunnel.

With 23 games played, Wigan Athletic stand in 5th place with a record of W11 D7 L5. They are in the playoff zone, just 8 points away from an automatic promotion place. They have a good defensive record, with just 21 goals conceded, bettered only by the top two teams.

Caldwell has shown himself to be a dynamic young manager, excellent in recruitment, tactically aware. His is articulate and sets a dignified tone for the club when dealing with the media. Sharpe too has made a strong impression, his sheer enthusiasm for the club shining through. He too is articulate, adept in his dealings with the national and social media. Together the two have forged a positive new identity for a club that had lost its way, but is now firmly back on track under their leadership.

Caldwell has built up a strong squad, the envy of other managers in the division. It was by no means easy to put together a revamped squad containing more than twenty new faces. Caldwell and his coaches faced a huge task on the training ground, helping the players gel as a unit that can play a style of football that Sharpe labels “The Wigan Way”. Moreover Caldwell has instilled a never-say-die spirit that means his teams have shown the ability to claw their way back into games they would seemingly have lost.

The foundations are certainly in place. The immediate goal is promotion back to the Championship. In order to achieve automatic promotion a total of at least 90 points will be needed. That will require a points average in excess of two per game for the rest of the season.

A long unbeaten run is what Caldwell will seek. Latics achieved an unbeaten run of 11 matches, stretching from mid-September to late November until a blip led to league defeats by Burton and Blackpool, together with an exit from the Football League Trophy at the hands of Barnsley.

However, a couple of hard-fought away victories at Barnsley and Fleetwood have put them back on track. After disappointing away performances early in the season they are now unbeaten in their last eight league games on the road, as the players have shown the ability to grit their teeth and grind out results.

Caldwell and his recruitment team did so well in the last transfer window. But can they achieve such good results in the January window that is almost upon us? What adjustments can we expect to be made to the squad? Will the two remaining short-term loanees – Donald Love and Yanic Wildschut – be staying?

Since the beginning of the season four loanees have already returned to their clubs. Caldwell was disappointed when Jonjoe Kenny was called back to Everton in late September, then Shaq Coulthirst went back to Tottenham just over a month later. Over the past couple of weeks  Sean Murray has returned to Watford and Alex Revell to Cardiff City. Sadly the talented Francisco Junior has gone back to Everton to receive treatment on a troublesome groin injury that has hampered him during his time at Wigan. Caldwell will hope that the player can overcome the injury and that he can return before his loan period ends in mid-January. However, rumours suggesting Latics are close to signing midfielder Liam Kelly from Oldham suggest that Caldwell might be covering his bases in case the African does not make it.

The right back position has been a problem all season, with the serious injury to Kevin McNaughton early on and the departure of Kenny. Donervon Daniels has shown his versatility by playing there when needed. Tim Chow has also been tried there. Donald Love was signed on loan from Manchester United in early October. Injuries and call ups to the Scotland under-21 squad have limited Love to five starts and three substitute appearances. However, Caldwell clearly rates the 21 year old Rochdale lad and may well seek a permanent transfer.

Few players have made such a strong and immediate impression on Latics fans as Yanic Wildschut. His impact has rivalled that of Amr Zaki in 2008-09. Wildschut has started in ten games, coming on off the bench in six. He has scored four goals. In full flow Wildschut is a sight to behold, a winger with searing pace and a blistering shot when he cuts in from the left and shoots with his right.

Some would say Wildschut is a throwback to the past when the winger’s job was primarily to attack, although even in the days of 4-2-4 they were still expected to do some defensive duties. Defending is not Wildschut’s strong point, as noted by Middlesbrough manager Aitor Karanka. However, given the physical exertion he needs to put into his electrifying runs, can Caldwell really expect him to make a significant defensive contribution?

When Wildschut first arrived at Wigan he immediately caused panic in opposition defences. However, after a while other teams learned how to deal with him, if sometimes by foul means rather than fair. His recent performances in the starting lineup have been frustrating at times. However, bringing him on in the closing stages, when the opposition defenders legs are tiring, can have an explosive effect.

Although Caldwell has certainly bolstered his defence his team’s attacking can be slow and predictable. He needs a player with Wildschut’s explosive abilities who can upset the equilibrium of the opposition.

It is rumoured that negotiations with Middlesbrough over a permanent signing of the Dutchman have been going on for some time. Boro will surely want to recoup at least the £300,000 they paid Heerenveen for him in September 2014. Moreover other clubs might be in competition for his signing. At this stage it seems unlikely that Karanka will want him permanently back at Middlesbrough, given the “modern” type of footballer the Spaniard prefers. The question is whether Sharpe is willing to pay the kind of fee that Boro will demand for a player who is not a regular starter.

Caldwell will be hoping that a deal can be struck to keep Wildschut at Wigan. If that does not happen he is going to look elsewhere for the kind of player who can add such an extra dimension to Latics’ attack. Without such a player Wigan Athletic’s hopes for automatic promotion might well fall on the rocks.