Almost gone but there’s hope

Will Caldwell play 3-4-3 next season?

Will Caldwell play 3-4-3 next season?

At the start of the season there were rumours in the media that Wigan Athletic were looking to sign Benik Afobe on loan from Arsenal. Little did we know at the time that it would be Afobe who would put what could be the final nail in the coffin that represents Latics’ season.

Afobe has scored 23 goals this season. Wigan’s leading goalscorer is James McClean with 6. Would Afobe have been able to score like that if he had joined Latics, rather than MK Dons, at the start of the season? Or has Wigan become a strikers’ graveyard, a place where past performance counts for nothing?

Gary Caldwell must have found it hard in his first three matches to resist moving towards the 3-4-3 that became the hallmark of his days under Roberto Martinez. Yesterday he employed something approaching it, with the players he had at his disposal. Given Wolves’ penchant for thrusting players forward it had looked like the right decision to play with three central defenders. It seemed to be working until Afobe scored that “soft” goal, which sapped away Wigan’s brittle confidence. Caldwell would have hoped that a back line of three, becoming five with the wing backs dropping back, would cut out possibilities for a headed goal of that type.

With Latics a goal down and not looking like pulling one back, Caldwell felt it necessary to move to a conventional back four, so that he could accommodate changes in midfield and up front. William Kvist was pulled off after 56 minutes, with James Perch coming out of the back three to a holding midfield position. The goal-shy MAF came on at centre forward with the enigmatic James McClean moving to the left wing. Twelve minutes later Caldwell took off Jerome Pennant for Billy Mckay. But unlike what happened in the previous match with Brighton, the changes did not work this time around. Indeed the departure of Kvist probably did not help, given his ability to drop deep to receive passes and build up from the back.

Latics are surely heading for League 1. The direction had been set in January with the selling off of so much of the family silver. The departure of thirteen players would have been unimaginable at the start of a season that promised so much. Uwe Rosler had made a fatal mistake by signing nine new players over summer, despite having a squad good enough to reach the FA Cup semi final and the Championship playoffs. The result was a fractured squad where new players found it difficult to settle in and the morale of the existing players sank. But just as Rosler had erred in bringing in so many players, Malky Mackay was to do the same. He brought in eleven over a period of three months.

The disruptive pattern caused by managerial changes continues to be problematic in English football. The classic case is typified by a new manager bringing in his assistants, coaches and backroom men from his previous clubs. He then wants to bring in his own players, those who are more likely to be loyal towards him than those recruited by his predecessor. The new manager will say that he wants to bring in players who can play the kind of football he believes in. The result is inevitably disruption and turnover.

However, clubs are slowly adjusting to this scenario. A new model is emerging where a Director of Football has the overview at the club. The ability of a manager to bring in hordes of new coaches, backroom staff and players is diminished under this model. The Director of Football and those above him at the club will take the lead at identifying the kind of football they want at the club. The manager they appoint would need to fit into that philosophy rather than imposing his own.

With the appointment of Matt Jackson as ‘Head of Football Operations’ Wigan Athletic have moved towards the alternative model. Moreover Gary Caldwell has been appointed largely because he is the right fit for the club, given the statements of young chairman, David Sharpe. Sharpe has already stated the need to bring in at least ten new players over summer. His action of creating a new department for the recruitment of players is another indication of a change in model.

Moreover both Sharpe and grandfather Dave Whelan have insisted that the coaching staff largely remain intact, despite the changes in manager. When Rosler was appointed many of us expected him to bring in his assistant manager and first team coach from Brentford. In the event he was allowed to bring in Chris Haslam as Head of Performance, but the long-serving Graham Barrow was to continue as first team coach. Barrow was to be moved into the assistant manager position following the acquisition of Eric Black as first team coach in July. The rumours were that Black was Whelan’s appointment, not Rosler’s.

Malky Mackay’s appointment saw the arrival of David Kerslake as first team coach, despite already having Black in place. Black remains although, in the absence of information from the club, we can assume that Kerslake departed with Mackay.

The role of the coaches over the course of a terrible season has been questioned by many fans. The managers, Rosler and Mackay, have carried the can for poor performances, but Barrow, Black and goalkeeping coach Mike Pollitt remain in place.

Probably the biggest failure this season was the failure of the new players signed by Rosler to reach the performance levels they showed at their previous clubs. It was compounded by the lack of motivation of players who had played under Martinez and Rosler.

Seemingly bright young talents such as Adam Forshaw and James Tavernier were dispatched in January, with Emyr Huws and Aaron Taylor-Sinclair disappearing through injury. The mishandling of strikers Andy Delort and Oriol Riera was sad to see. Yesterday’s starting lineup saw just one of Rosler’s signing make the starting lineup, in William Kvist. Another two, Don Cowie and Andrew Taylor were on the bench.

The events of the first half of the season clearly had a negative effect on the players released in January. Tavernier’s loan spell at Bristol City has not seen him become a regular first choice, with 8 starts and 3 appearances off the bench. Likewise Forshaw’s stay at Middlesbrough has seen him used largely as a substitute, with only 5 starts. Delort scored two goals in his first three games on returning to Tours, but has not scored in his last seven, with the club just three points above the relegation zone. Riera has been more successful having made 13 starts at Deportivo La Coruna, with four goals. Rob Kiernan too has been a success in a loan spell, having started 11 matches at Birmingham to date.

One wonders if there is any possibility of those loan players returning. Delort, Kiernan and Tavernier are young and would surely improve if capably nurtured. Riera is an experienced central striker and goalscorer who was poorly treated by Rosler, then written off by Mackay.  If Caldwell is to adopt a 3-4-3 system next season he could clearly do much worse than put in Delort and Riera as two of his front men. Moreover Tavernier is naturally suited to the position of wing back and will score goals if given the chance. Kiernan had a difficult time this season, but he is still only 24 years old. At his best he is a cultured central defender who can pass the ball. He can also play in central midfield.

Whether the loan players will return is going to largely depend on the departure of the bigger wage earners. Latics will hope to get reasonable transfer fees for the likes of Scott Carson, James McClean and James Perch. Ali Al-Habsi will become a free agent, as will Marc-Antoine Fortune. Disaffected players like Leon Barnett and Chris McCann will most likely be encouraged to move on. The futures of the much maligned Don Cowie and Andrew Taylor might lie elsewhere.

Had Afobe joined Wigan Athletic at the start of the season, could he have scored the goals to help them stay afloat? The question is academic, but given the way that strikers with good credentials have failed to make it at the club, one doubts it.

The latest sad example is Billy Mckay, who must have been full of confidence after scoring a potful of goals in Scotland. Four months after signing from Inverness he still has not made a start for the club. A sad indictment on the recruiting/coaching functions at Wigan Athletic.

Mckay is merely the latest in the long line of strikers who have arrived with promise, but have not been sufficiently nurtured. The coaching staff must surely take some responsibility for what has happened.

Latics already have one foot in League 1. Even a draw for Rotherham in their midweek home game with Reading will be enough to finish them off.

But Gary Caldwell has been like a breath of fresh air since being appointed manager.

With the backing of the coaches he might well lead Latics back to the Promised Land.

Is Maloney central in Rosler’s plans?

Shaun Maloney

Will Shaun Maloney have a major role to play this season?

They say that every new manager likes to bring in his own men. Owen Coyle brought in ten new players at the start of last season. He had little choice than to do otherwise, with twelve members of the senior squad players having left following relegation, together with the  need for a large squad due to the extra matches involved in Europa League participation.

Only two of Coyle’s recruits – Scott Carson and James Perch – started in the Huddersfield game on Tuesday. Five of that starting lineup were new, signed by Uwe Rosler over the past couple of months. Two of the starters – Rob Kiernan and Ivan Ramis – were signed by Roberto Martinez. The other two were Callum McManaman  and Emmerson Boyce. McManaman joined the club as a 16 year old in 2007. The evergreen Boyce was signed by Paul Jewell in 2006.

Given that he already had a large squad, inherited from Coyle, how was Rosler going to make space to bring in his own players?

Rosler started by trying to sell Ivan Ramis in January, but both Cardiff City and Crystal Palace backed out of possible deals on medical grounds. However, by selling Nouha Dicko to Wolves and loaning Grant Holt to Newcastle, he was able to bring in a handful of loan players over the next few months. Of those only Martyn Waghorn remains, having signed a permanent contract in April.

Over the summer Jean Beausejour and Jordi Gomez left at the ends of their contracts. Stephen Crainey was released, together with Jordan Mustoe and Danny Redmond. Juan Carlos Garcia was farmed out to Tenerife on loan. James McArthur was sold to Crystal Palace.

In the space of ten months and despite the obstacles to doing so, Rosler has managed to bring in ten of his own men. However, he now needs to reduce his now-inflated squad by sending players out on loan. They appear to include not only Grant Holt, but also Roger Espinoza, Fraser Fyvie and Marc-Antoine Fortune. The Championship loan market is open to mid-November. The latter three players are in the final year of their contracts at the club, so a loan move would signal that they are no longer in the manager’s future plans.

Wigan Athletic lost three key players over the summer. In Beausejour, Gomez and McArthur Latics had players with considerable technical ability who could play the passing game. There has been a considerable amount of debate among fans in recent weeks about the type of football Latics have been playing this season, which has seemed to alternate between the possession football typical of the Martinez era and the long ball of the Coyle reign. Do Latics still have players to play that passing game effectively?

It has been a difficult start to the season for Rosler, not only with having so many new players to settle in, but also due to fitness issues. Too many players have been physically ill-prepared to compete on an even keel with opposing teams. New players invariably need time to gel with their teammates, but the lack of a clearly defined style of play has made it even more difficult for them. The style of play espoused by the manager –  high pressing, high tempo, with rapid movement – is light years away from what we have seen up to this point. Goals have been given away by sloppy defending and goal opportunities have so often been wasted. But more than anything else it is the lack of creativity that has stood out.

Rosler clearly has faith in his recent signing, Adam Forshaw, in being able to provide a creative spark in midfield. Forshaw did it to great effect at Brentford and Rosler will be banking on him doing the same at Wigan. In recent matches Emyr Huws has provided much of that spark, but he is only 19 years old and needs time. However, if you were to ask a room full of Latics fans who is the best bet for a creative midfield role, the name of Shaun Maloney would surely be their typical response. However, is Maloney in Rosler’s plans? If so, is there room for both he and Forshaw? In what position would Maloney be employed?

Without doubt the best football Wigan Athletic have ever played was in the final part of the 2012-13 season and in the FA Cup triumph in 2013-14. The common theme was that it was based on a 3-4-3 system. There were two central, holding midfield players, who linked up with the wing backs on each side to make a strong middle line. The front three consisted of a centre forward (Di Santo/Kone), a mobile wide player/striker (Moses/McManaman) and typically Shaun Maloney. When Latics were under pressure the wing backs would retreat to make a back five, but they would supply the front three when they moved forward. Sometimes Maloney would be played wide on the left, but he was most effective when playing an advanced midfield role in the “hole” behind the centre forward. If anybody made the side tick it was he.

Martinez had switched from a flat back four system in that 2012-13 season, after his defence had been leaking goals. 3-4-3 became his preferred shape. Maloney had a key role as the playmaker. In the memorable 2-1 victory at Arsenal, Jordi Gomez played in Maloney’s place and had a fine game. However, having the two on the field at the same time rarely worked. Will also be the case with Maloney and Forshaw this season?

Rosler also plays a system with a back line of three defenders. He labels it 3-5-2. His midfield consists of the wing backs plus three more central midfielders. Some fans say that the system is too defensive, with a back line of five shielded by three central midfielders, leaving only two players up front. However, at Huddersfield Huws played a more advanced midfield role than the other two central midfielders, Cowie and Kvist. At times it looked more like 3-4-3 than 3-5-2.

Rosler’s 3-5-2 system is inherently defensive only if the wing backs and the three central midfielders do not get forward to support the attack. To be fair on the manager he is to be seen frequently urging his team forward from his touchline position. However, far too often this season the lone centre forward has been starved of good service and left without support from the midfield. Adverse results have surely played a part in the players’ minds, being reluctant to commit themselves forward for fear of an opposition counterattack. The fitness issue is also surely a factor. Confidence has a huge part to play. So often the courses of matches are changed when the opposition scores a goal out of the blue or poor refereeing decisions play their part.

Shaun Maloney did not play in the pre-season games but has amassed a total of 115 minutes in the league in four appearances off the bench. He started in the League Cup game at Burton Albion, lasting 60 minutes. He has not been at his best, but his superbly timed slide rule pass for Waghorn’s goal against Birmingham highlighted the talent he possesses.

Maloney proved himself as a top quality Premier League player. But questions remain, if at 31 years of age and after a major hip operation, he will ever get back to where he was. At his best and playing in his favourite position in the centre of midfield, he would be an outstanding performer in the Championship.

Is there room for both Maloney and Forshaw in the same team? If so will Maloney be consigned to wide position?

Let’s see what happens over these coming weeks.

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Wigan Athletic 2 Watford 1 – a well-earned win for Latics

Waghorn celebrates Wigan's second goal.

Waghorn celebrates Wigan’s second goal.

Wigan Athletic’s undefeated run goes on, this time with a narrow, but well-earned win over a cultured Watford side. Despite a miserable away record and a position in mid-table the visitors proved to be worthy opposition, being well organized and playing good football. In Ikechi Anya – born in Scotland from a Nigerian father and Romanian mother – Watford were to have the outstanding performer on the day.

Uwe Rosler sprung a surprise in his starting lineup, bringing in Rob Kiernan to make his first league start for Latics against his former club. Kiernan formed a central defensive trio with Emmerson Boyce and Ivan Ramis. James Perch and Jean Beausejour occupied the wing back positions, with James McArthur and Jordi Gomez in the centre of midfield. James McClean and Martyn Waghorn played further forward supporting Marc Antoine Fortune.

The common misunderstanding about a team playing with three centre backs is that they are playing light on defence. The reality is that the wing backs typically come back to complete a back line of five. However, as soon as the game started Latics’ wing backs, Beausejour in particular, were pushed far forward. Rather than playing 3-4-3 it became more akin to 3-2-5.

With so many men pushed forward Latics were able to launch long passes, putting pressure on the visitor’s defence. McClean fired wide from a good position then Gomez put Beausejour through with a great ball but the Chilean could only fire straight at goalkeeper Almunia. McClean again failed to convert a chance shooting straight at the goalkeeper.  With a little more composure Latics could have been 3-0 up in the first fifteen minutes. In the 18th minute Ramis rose to Waghorn’s corner but header was cleared off the line.

At the other end Wigan’s defence had held firm, despite Anya looking a threat. The Scotland international had an effort go past the post, and then could not find the target after a swift counterattack caught out Latics’ defence. McClean had another shot saved by Almunia, then his final ball let him down with Waghorn waiting at the far post.

Wigan should have had the game done and dusted but their profligacy was letting them down. In a way it did not come as a surprise when the visitors took the lead with a beautifully struck low shot from Lewis McGugan in the 36th minute. But Latics were back in the game four minutes later when Ramis’ long pass found Beausejour whose volley was blocked by Almunia, but the Chilean headed home the rebound.

Wigan took the lead on 55 minutes, Waghorn turning and firing home after McArthur had scuffed his shot. Latics brought on Jack Collison for Waghorn after 61 minutes, then Nick Powell for McClean eight minutes later. Gomez and Beausejour had efforts go wide before Watford started to apply concerted pressure in the last 15 minutes with Latics tiring. Anya had a chance go narrowly wide of the post, then could not finish a good opportunity after getting behind Thomas Rogne who had come on for Kiernan.

McArthur was to miss a sitter near the end as the ball had been pulled back to him.

Despite having to play five minutes of added time Wigan held on for a deserved win.

The Good

Rosler launched Latics into this game with their guns a blazing. Rarely over these past years have we seen Latics push so many men forward from the very start. His tactic of pushing the wing backs well forward led to Beausejour finding himself practically in  a centre forward position on a couple of occasions.  Unfortunately the wing back does not have the clinical finishing abilities of a good centre forward, being unable to put away his first opportunity, but scoring his second from the rebound.

With the wing backs coming forward McClean and Waghorn were given the opportunity to play more central roles, supporting Fortune. We have seen great improvements in the Irishman’s finishing over these past weeks, but in this match it was lacking. However, he remained a threat to the Watford defence before being taken off midway into the second half. Fortune was his usual self, full of endeavour, linking up well with teammates.

Gomez proved that he can do a good job in a midfield holding role, together with the industrious McArthur. The Spaniard must have covered every blade of grass on the pitch, tackling, intercepting, and receiving. He is benefitting from as long a run of matches as he has received in his five years at the club. Apart from his industry, his touch was excellent and he sprayed out some great passes.

Kiernan looked comfortable in the role on the left hand side of the line of centre backs. He made a few misplaced passes in the first half but showed his worth defensively. Collison came off the bench and soon looked at ease. He could prove a valuable loan signing.

The Bad

Once again Latics flagged in the last 15 minutes and were put under pressure by Watford. Powell came on to play in a wide position, where he overindulged at times. Hopefully Rosler will use him in a central striking position over the coming matches.

Player Ratings

Ali Al-Habsi: 7 – did all that was asked of him. Could not be faulted for the goal.

James Perch: 7 – as hard working and dependable as ever.

Emmerson Boyce: 7 – he and Ramis formed a formidable partnership in the centre of defence.

Ivan Ramis: 7.5 – see above. Unlucky with his header on goal and his passing as good as ever, including the pass for Latics’ first goal.

Rob Kiernan: 6 – solid in defence.

Jean Beausejour: 8 – an excellent performance in his favourite position as wing back. Must have impressed his family who were over from Chile and at the game.

James McArthur: 7 – a model of consistency in the middle of the park.

Jordi Gomez: 8.5 – superb in midfield.

Martyn Waghorn: 6 – took his goal well, but otherwise rather subdued.

Marc Antoine Fortune: 7 – full of running and endeavour.

James McClean: 6 – got himself in great positions but could not deliver. Nevertheless a handful for the Watford defence. Substituted after 61 minutes.

Substitutes:

Jack Collison: -came on after 61 minutes. Looked the part.

Nick Powell: – came on after 69 minutes. Frustrating.

Thomas Rogne: – came on after 79 minutes.

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