Unlocking the Powell enigma

Can Caldwell unlock the enigma who is Nick Powell?

Can Caldwell unlock the enigma who is Nick Powell?

In the 66th minute of a deadlocked game on Saturday, Stephen Warnock launched a superb cross into the Burton penalty box. Wigan’s number 25 made a run from midfield, ahead of a defender, dived in and headed it with power. Sadly for Latics the ball was to flash narrowly wide of the post. It had looked a certain goal.

Nick Powell had got himself into a great position and almost delivered the goods. It was not the worst miss we will see this season, but it was to open up a debate as to which Powell we are seeing right now. Would the dynamic young player who thrived under Owen Coyle have put the ball in the net? Or were we seeing the one who floundered under Uwe Rosler?

Three years ago to this month Powell starred in a Europa League victory over Maribor. His first goal had come after 22 minutes: a simple header into an empty net after the Slovenian goalkeeper had made a hash of a punch. Ben Watson added another 12 minutes later, but Maribor clawed their way back into the game as Latics went flat, scoring after 61 minutes. Powell’s deciding goal came in the 91st minute when he somehow found the energy that most of his teammates did not have to slalom through the visitor’s defence and score with style.

Powell’s stock was high. His name was being touted around the media as the one who could go back to Old Trafford and lift his parent club out of their lethargy. He had become a key player in Coyle’s squad. Given the number of games Latics were facing the manager was operating a rotation policy but Powell seemed to be the one Latics forward who could go the full 90 minutes on a regular basis. It prompted fans to wonder about the fitness levels of his team mates.

Following Coyle’s departure, Powell started in both of Graham Barrow’s games in charge, but was substituted early in the second half. He was pulled off after 65 minutes in Uwe Rosler’s first game, a 2-1 defeat at Maribor. However, in the next match he came back to play the full ninety against Bolton, scoring with a spectacular bicycle kick in Latics’ 3-2 win.He went on to score in the 2-1 win at Reading in the next match, but was taken off at half time.

Around that time in late December media speculation over Powell’s future was going haywire. Whether it was due to the media hype or to a series of niggling injuries, Powell could not recapture his early season form. What was visible to the fans was a Powell not showing the same kind of physical commitment that they had seen earlier in the season. Moreover the swagger that the young player was showing in his body language earlier in the season that had been seen as a sign of self-belief, was now being interpreted by some as a “couldn’t care less” attitude.

Powell went back to Manchester United when his loan expired in the summer of 2014. He started in the United team that lost 4-0 to the MK Dons in the League Cup, being taken off after 57 minutes. Within a week he had joined Leicester City on loan, but had to be content with just three appearances off the bench. His loan spell was cut short at the end of December with Leicester citing a lack of commitment to training. On his return to Old Trafford he was to be out for nine months with a hamstring injury.

In December 2015 he came on as a 69th minute substitute for United in a Champions League defeat at Wolfsburg. A week later he came off the bench after 74 minutes in a 2-1 reverse at Bournemouth. In early February 2016 Powell joined Hull City on loan, making his debut in a goalless draw with Arsenal in the FA Cup, being withdrawn after 78 minutes. He was to go on to make three Premier League appearances off the bench before completing a full 90 minutes in a 4-0 FA Cup defeat by Arsenal.

In the two years between leaving Wigan and returning, Nick Powell made a starting lineup 4 times, completing the full 90 minutes-plus just once. He made 8 appearances off the bench. Can he put this nightmare time behind him?

Gary Caldwell stuck his neck out in summer by signing Powell, given his form over the past two and a half seasons. Moreover the 22 year old is surely going to be on a salary above most of his teammates. Why did Caldwell take such a gamble? Can Powell get back to full fitness and the kind of form he showed three years ago?

Powell’s best times at Wigan were when he was playing as a central striker. However, Caldwell has been playing the Crewe-born player in his preferred role in midfield. Up to this point he has started 5 times with 5 appearances off the bench. His best performance up to this point was in his first appearance against Blackburn Rovers, where he scored from a free kick and had a good all-round game.

Although he has not been able to keep up his form of the Blackburn match, he has completed the full 90 minutes in three games. Given the player’s injury problems over the past couple of years it is a step in the right direction. Caldwell clearly has faith in this talented player who had lost his way. Can the Scot nurture Powell back to the match sharpness that will make him the threat to opposition defences that we saw under Owen Coyle?

In recent matches Powell has alternated with Jordi Gomez for the “number 10 role” behind the centre forward. Gomez too has been some way short of full match fitness after so little involvement in Sunderland’s pre-season. Both have the capability of controlling the flow of midfield play, together with potent goalscoring prowess.

Should both Powell and Gomez reach peak fitness, Caldwell will surely have a selection problem on his hands. There is a strong argument to suggest that there is not room in the midfield for the two of them. Each needs a good share of the ball to function. However, Powell can also play as a central striker, although Latics now have three others in Craig Davies, Will Grigg and Adam Le Fondre.

However, the reality at this moment in time is that Nick Powell has just started back on the road towards recuperating his football career. Should he manage to shake off those injury problems that have bugged him for too long he will also have to recover the kind of self-belief that he had as a 19 year old in the Coyle era.

Powell is certainly a high profile player at Wigan, but a real enigma. Can Caldwell unlock the enigma in a way that no manager has done over the last couple of years?

Like all players Powell has his supporters and his critics. In this same month three years ago the former surely outnumbered the latter. But since then a downturn in form has turned around fan opinion of him.

There is a long road ahead for Nick Powell in his bid to regenerate himself as a footballer. Let’s hope that in the months ahead that we will see his swagger as a manifestation of the levels of self-belief that he showed as a 19 year old.

Relying on other teams’ results

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They are five points adrift in a relegation struggle, with just seven matches to go. Failure to win points in the next couple of games could practically seal the saddest of ends to a troubled season for Wigan Athletic.

Moreover one of those games is against a Middlesbrough team currently one point from an automatic promotion place with the joint best home record in the division. The second is a home game against a Derby County team that many of us thought was the best in the division, but has suffered a series of adverse results over recent weeks. Derby too will be desperate for a good result to get themselves back on track. Eyeing a Latics home record of W2 D8 L10 they must fancy their chances.

Supporters of many clubs would have psychologically thrown in the towel at this stage, given such a scenario. But optimism still remains among many Wigan Athletic supporters. There are people who believe that Malky Mackay’s patched up team of journeymen and short term signings can get the results needed to avoid the drop. After all, as supporters they have faced adversity before and given their full weight of support to their struggling teams with startling results. The neutral observer would be well advised never to count out Wigan Athletic.

It was looking ominous in the 2006-07 season when Latics went into the last match at Sheffield United needing a win to stay in the Premier League. But a fine finish by Paul Scharner, an ice-cool penalty from David Unsworth and gritty backs-to the-wall defending in the closing minutes helped keep the Blades out, consign them to relegation and keep Latics up.

The 2010-11 season also had a remarkable finale. Latics had gone into their penultimate game at home to West Ham, three points adrift of safety with a goal difference that was inferior to the teams above them. The Hammers were 2-0 up after just 26 minutes and Latics were a shambles. But they kept plugging away and scored two good goals through Charles N’Zogbia and Conor Sammon. However, the scores were tied as the game went into time added on. Four minutes later West Ham keeper Robert Green allowed a weak shot from N’Zogbia to squirm under his body to give Latics an invaluable three points, consigning his own team to relegation in the process.

Latics went into the last match of the season at Stoke level in 19th place, level on points with Blackpool and Birmingham, but with an inferior goal difference. Wolves and Blackburn stood just one point above them. It looked like Wigan had to win at the Stadium against a home side that had only lost four out of the eighteen home games they had played. But Hugo Rodallega’s header from Maynor Figueroa’s cross was to prove sufficient for a remarkable 1-0 win. In the event a draw would have been sufficient to keep Latics up as Blackpool and Birmingham both lost on that fateful day.

The following season Latics were once more locked in a relegation struggle and by the end of January they were in bottom place. Then came a slight upturn in results over February and March, but relegation looked certain. The revival that took place from late March onwards was nothing short of miraculous, with wins following against Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United. Latics were to win 7 of their last 9 matches to finish in 15th place, seven points clear of relegation.

Can Wigan Athletic achieve yet another great escape this season? Can Mackay inspire his team to get the results needed to avoid the drop in the same way as his predecessors Paul Jewell and Roberto Martinez? Fan support was crucial in such situations in the past. Will it be an essential element again? Will “Believe” come to the fore once more?

The current situation is serious. Latics remain 5 points behind 21st placed Rotherham and 8 points behind Fulham a place above the Yorkshire outfit. Either of the two could drop into the relegation zone should Latics get a good run of results. The pressure is on all teams in that relegation zone at this time of the season and teams can often go into freefall.

The last round of games was certainly eventful. Latics got a point through a 94th equalizer against Bolton, Fulham won 2-0 at Huddersfield with Nakhi Wells missing two penalties for the home team and Rotherham went down 3-2 at home to Sheffield Wednesday despite leading 2-1 after the regular 90 minutes.

Prior to that win Fulham had only won one of their last 13. It remains to be seen whether their win at Huddersfield will have boosted their sagging confidence sufficiently to end the season well. Like Latics they were one of the teams favoured by the bookies for promotion at the start of the season. Moreover they had paid around £12m for the striking duo of Ross McCormack and Matt Smith.

Rotherham’s defeat after being so close to a vital victory must have been hard for them to bear. After being beaten at home by Latics in mid-March they lost at Nottingham Forest before that fateful game with Wednesday. The question is whether they have the resilience to pick themselves up after such a cruel loss.

Despite a series of bad results and sacking their manager Millwall can still avoid relegation. They have drawn the last two games, 1-1 at home to Brighton and 2-2 away at promotion-chasing Brentford. They are just two points behind Wigan.

Wigan Athletic meanwhile continue to fail at home, despite four consecutive wins on the road. It is to be hoped that the failure to beat a poor Bolton side will not haunt them later. Mackay has put together a team that is willing to scrap for victory, which was not the case when he first arrived. However, it is doubtful whether his squad has the quality to get the kinds of results in the remaining matches that would render those of the other relegation candidates close to irrelevant.

Put simply Mackay needs either Fulham or Rotherham to fall apart while his own team narrows the gap. He also has to hope that Millwall cannot finish with a flurry. Should this not happen Latics will surely be doomed.

The next two games will go a long way towards deciding Wigan Athletic’s future in the Championship division. Tomorrow while Latics are away to Middlesbrough, Fulham play at home to Brentford, Rotherham travel to Birmingham and Millwall have a London derby at home to Charlton. Both Latics and Rotherham face games on Easter Monday, at home to Derby and Brighton respectively. Fulham have a day’s grace and play away at Charlton on Tuesday. Millwall have an eight day break before their next game on April 11th.

During the days of Roberto Martinez he would typically focus on his own team’s performances and results, rather than those of other teams in the danger zone. However, the results of the other teams certainly had an impact on where Latics were to end up.

Providing Latics can get good results in the final seven matches they will have a chance of staying up. Ideally they would win at least five of them, but given the squad they have it seems unlikely. The hope is that Fulham and Rotherham will fare much worse and Millwall no better.

Wigan Athletic’s hopes of avoiding relegation are very much dependent on the implosion of teams above them. Stranger things than that have happened in the past, but it surely should not be counted upon.

WITHIN STRIKING DISTANCE OF SALVATION – END OF YEAR REVELATIONS – A LOOK BACK AT WIGAN ATHLETIC IN 2011

Christmas is past and it is the time of year when we reflect back on events of the past twelve months and make our resolutions for the coming year. As a Wigan Athletic fan I have to admit that 2011 has been an extremely stressful, frustrating year. But the fact is that we are still in the Premier League – even if the establishment might not want us there and is doing us no favours. It is going to continue to be an uphill battle for us to hang in there, but we are within striking distance of salvation. We have got through an horrendous December fixture list with pride intact and have maintained our status quo in the table.

What revelations we have seen since the Wolves defeat in November. Revelation number one was Roberto Martinez changing his tactical system in a way that has got better performances from the players he has at his disposal. However, for me the biggest revelations have been the form of the previously unfavoured Ronnie Stam and the much maligned Jordi Gomez.

Ronnie Stam joined Latics after helping FC Twente win their first ever Eredivisie championship in 2009-2010. He was their player of the year that season. He was called up for his first Netherlands cap at the end of the season but was unable to make it through injury. Clearly an accomplished player noted for his strong motivation and work ethic. Taking over from his fellow Dutchman – the elegant Mario Melchiot – was never going to be easy and Stam was unable to provide the level of combative tackling required for a Premier League full back. However, at wing back he has the energy and drive to shield his central defenders whilst making surging runs upfield and providing tantalizing crosses. What a transformation!

Jordi Gómez is a product of the superb Barcelona youth system. He left the club when 22 years old in 2007 to join their city rivals Espanyol. He was later recruited by Swansea in a season-long loan in summer 2008, scoring 14 goals in the Championship division. Steve Claridge provided a scouting report of Gomez for the Guardian newspaper in February 2009 where he quotes that “Roberto Martínez has certainly used his knowledge of Spanish football to get Jordi Gómez on loan for the season from under the noses of three La Liga sides. Languid was a word that sprung to mind after I watched Gómez play as he is rarely rushed into doing anything, even in tight situations, and instead remains cool, calm and collected on the ball, making at times a difficult game look easy.” It is that languidity of style that has helped make Gomez the butt of frustrated fans who demand a more high action approach. In his first Premier League season at Wigan he was constantly fouled, prompting comments that he was slow on the ball. He was lambasted for his lack of tackling ability. Earlier this season he was asked to play on the right wing, clearly not his best position. This did not help him look good in front of the fans. However, I would challenge anyone who could criticise the man after his recent performances, where he has looked every ounce a Premier League player, playing the midfield general role with panache, but also covering a huge number of yards in each December game. I once heard a quote that we would only see Gomez show his real self when Latics were playing well. Hats off to Jordi for hanging in there, despite the pressure on him.

Going back to our tactical lineup. Having three central defenders is really helping to provide more stability in defence. Some weeks ago there were many who questioned the class of our captain, Gary Caldwell, some suggesting that he was a Championship player out of place in the Premier League. His recent performances have proved so many people wrong. It is no coincidence that the stats place him among the highest in the division for interceptions made: who is more likely to put his body in the way to save his team but this determined Scot? Maynor Figueroa had a difficult start to the season, playing as an orthodox centre half, but has been excellent in his new position of left centre half. Antolin Alcaraz has had a topsy turvy season, but for me, remains our best defender. The best is yet to come from him.

So what is our revelationary new system? How does it work and who plays where? We seem to have a legion of midfield players, a lone centre forward and another player with licence to roam in Victor Moses. In the Chelsea game I recall seeing Victor Moses haring down the left wing with David Jones running on his inside. Although one might have expected Jones to be the one going down the left wing and Moses inside the whole thing seemed to work. No matter what the system you have to have players coming into the penalty box for you to score most of your goals. Our old friend, Garry Birtles, pointed out the lack of support for the lone centre forward in the Arsenal match. Since then there has been a significant improvement, the midfield players getting further forward in support. However, the question remains whether the implementation of the system provides a consistent and adequate level of support for the central striker. Moreover orthodox wingers do not fit into that system, so one wonders whether the role of Albert Crusat is nullified by the system. It has been disappointing not to see more of Shaun Maloney, but this system may well suit him, if he can get back in there. However, Martinez retains the option to move to the old 4-3-3 setup, if the situation demands. All in all, a good situation where you have tactical flexibility. Well done, Roberto!

What kind of quality do we have in the Latics’ squad? A tough question to answer, but the bottom line is that we have enough to be edging towards mid-table. We have a lot of players who can be considered “a work in progress” . Some of them are good enough to play for a top four team with comfort. Our goalkeeper, Ali Al Habsi, competes with the best in the division. James McCarthy has become an excellent “Makelele” although we miss his attacking prowess. Ben Watson is a fine footballer who has fallen foul in some way – maybe the perception that he would not fit so well into the new system or perhaps something off-field? Victor Moses is potentially an international class player, but is young and lacks definition to his exciting runs. He needs more time. Mohammed Diame has probably been our best outfield player this season. A complete player who would fit comfortably into any of the top four teams. We have players like Franco Di Santo, with wonderful technique, but not the confidence to go with it. Alcaraz is potentially a class above his partners in defence, although this is not yet fully proven. The on-loan Van Aanholt is clearly a class player and we may well see him step into the left wing back position, as a stronger player defensively than David Jones. We have no real problem players in the squad – a far cry from recent years when we have had some people who were happy to pick up fat cheques for minimal work. Over the past two years Martinez has patiently unloaded such players. There are some real good pros there who work hard and do their best. Callum McNanaman will challenge for a position following a successful loan spell at Blackpool. Roman Golobart, a potential defensive giant, is doing so well at Inverness they want to extend his loan until the end of the season. Still only nineteen he could be the revelation a year from now.

Well done, Roberto Martinez, in sticking to your guns and having an expectation of good football. Your long term planning is exceptional and you have managed to keep Wigan Athletic in the Premier League despite the financial restraints you have had to deal with. You are to be commended on your faith in players, such as Stam and Gomez, and in your belief that we can compete at this level. We remain the in the mire, but there remains more than a glimmer of hope that we will be in the Premier League again next season. A week or two back I was getting pessimistic about our chances of hanging in there. Now we are within striking distance of salvation and there have been genuine revelations in player performances. My New Year Resolution must be to “KEEP THE FAITH” and not waiver. We can do it, despite the obstacles the Premier League puts in our way.