Seeking a balance in midfield

A more balanced midfield with Paul Cook in charge?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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The financial side of keeping a nucleus for League 1

“Que sera sera…..whatever will be will be….we’re going to Shrewsbury….que sera sera

So sang a group of Wigan Athletic supporters. It certainly took the wind out of the sails of the “going down” taunts of home fans at the Madejski Stadium last Saturday.

Shrewsbury is certainly a pleasant place to visit. Its football team has competed in each of the three EFL divisions. Their New Meadow stadium holds 9,375. Shrewsbury Town met Manchester United in the FA Cup in February 2016. They lost 3-0, which is not surprising given the fact that the Shrews had a wage bill of £2.5 m compared with £210 m of United.

In fact the Shrewsbury wage bill is typical of many clubs in League 1. According to an interesting article on the Daily Mail site, the average salary of a League 1 footballer in 2014-15 was £69,500. It compared with £324,200 in the Championship. The ratio of the average salaries is 1 to 4.7.

There are strong arguments to suggest that the league positions of clubs in the Championship division correlate to their wage bills. In their first season back in the Championship Wigan Athletic finished in a playoff place. The wage bill was around £30 m. Clubs in mid-table would typically have wage bills averaging £20 m.

Latics’ reputed wage bill for the current season is around £17 m. Assuming they were to trim next year’s wage bill according to, say, that previous ratio of average salaries between the two divisions, it would give a figure of around £3.6 m. In 2015-16, still buoyed by parachute payments, Latics had a wage bill of around £6 m in League 1, reportedly second highest after that of Sheffield United.

So at what level will David Sharpe pitch the wage bill for the coming season? As in the Championship there is some degree of correlation between wage bills and success on the playing field in League 1. If the club is to break even financially next season what kind of wage bill would be realistic? Moreover will the club be able to slash its wage bill as successfully as it did in the summer of 2015, when faced with a drop down to the third tier?

In 2015-16 Latics finished top of League 1 with an average attendance of 9,467. Shrewsbury Town finished in 14th place with an average of 5,407. The average attendance for the division was 7,163. Wigan’s cheapest adult season ticket cost  £250 while Shrewsbury’s was £285.

David Sharpe took a bold step in reducing season ticket prices for the club’s return to the Championship. Renewals were pitched at £179, with a price of £199 for new purchasers. The levels were uneconomic compared with those of competitor clubs, but Sharpe was clearly hoping to not only hold on to the core support, but to attract others. With just one match to go in the Championship season Wigan’s average home attendance is 11,560 up by more than 2,000 from the previous season in League 1. However, the bigger clubs in the Championship have brought sizeably larger away support than had those in League 1.

Rumour suggests that the club will maintain the levels of season tickets prices for the coming season. If this is so the £179 price would be almost 40% less than the figure of £295 to be offered by Shrewsbury Town for the coming  season. Moreover should Latics not be as successful as they were last time in League 1 attendances will surely fall. The match day revenue differentials between Wigan and Shrewsbury could merge closer.

Put simply potential match revenues for Wigan Athletic will in no way suffice to give them a competitive advantage over most of their rivals. Some would say that under Gary Caldwell Latics had bought their way out of League 1, having a wage bill twice that of most of their rivals. That was made possible by the parachute payments they were receiving at the time. However, now that the parachute era has come to an end, how can Latics get a financial advantage over most of their competitors in League 1?

One solution is to sell off assets. The second is for the ownership to provide the necessary funding.

The saleable assets Latics have are their players. The club’s main asset, Yanic Wildschut, was sold in January for a hefty premium. Early in the season Will Grigg would have been another major asset: he was scoring goals and looking comfortable in the higher division. It was sad to see how the player later found himself either warming the bench, playing as a lone centre forward with a derisory lack of support, or being played out of position. A player who could have probably drawn a transfer fee in excess of £5 m is now not such an attraction on the transfer market. Better to keep Grigg who has a superb record of goalscoring in League 1.

Nick Powell will surely be on his way. After months out through injury he roared back with spectacular performances as a super sub. In doing so, Powell put himself in the shop window. Dan Burn is another player who has caught the eye and will surely be of interest to Championship clubs. Burn was already an experienced Championship level player when arriving on a free transfer from Fulham. He has since developed a level of self-confidence  previously lacking. Between the two, Latics could possibly raise around £5 m on the market.

Omar Bogle was the most exciting of the January signings. Having scored a lot of goals for Grimsby he arrived brimming with confidence and style. But after a promising start Bogle was to wilt under  a horrible burden put on him by Joyce: that of being the lone striker in a 4-5-1 formation. Injury too was to hold him back. Like Grigg, his potential transfer value has plummeted. But the likelihood is that either Grigg or Bogle will be sold, albeit at a discounted price.

Max Power was almost sold to Birmingham City in January. Although he did not have the season he would have liked, Power remains one of the more saleable assets. Sam Morsy too is a player who could be sought by Championship clubs.

Last weekend Jonathan Jackson stated that “There will be some changes in the squad, but we want to keep the core there.”

Goalkeeper Matt Gilks and ex-captain Craig Morgan will be two of those core members who continue. Gilks was only signed in January on an 18 month contract and Morgan recently signed a two year extension to his contract. The long-term injured players – Donervon Daniels, Reece James, Andy Kellett and Shaun MacDonald – will also be staying. Alex Gilbey is another who has not been able to play in recent games after coming back from long-term injury. Latics will be hoping at least some of those players will be available for the beginning of next season.

It is difficult to predict who else will stay to provide a core for the coming season. The club is going to have to slash its wage bill some 60-70% to be financially viable. Put simply more than half of the players currently under contract are likely to depart over summer, many on free transfers. Others will be sent off on loan.

The players currently under contract for the coming season are:

Goalkeepers: Matt Gilks, Dan Lavercombe

Full Backs – Luke Burke, Reece James.

Centre backs: Dan Burn, Jake Buxton, Donervon Daniels, Jack Hendry, Craig Morgan.

Midfielders: Jack Byrne, Alex Gilbey, Andy Kellett, Josh Laurent, Shaun MacDonald, Sam Morsy, Max Power, Danny Whitehead.

Forwards: Nathan Byrne, Omar Bogle, Ryan Colclough, Will Grigg, Michael Jacobs, Mikael Mandron, Sanmi Odelusi, Nick Powell, Kaiyne Woolery.

The amount of turnover at the end of the 2015 season was remarkable, with 31 incomings and 44 outgoings, including loan players.

Latics currently have seven whose contracts are due to expire – Jordan Flores, Jussi Jaaskelainen, Billy Mckay, Gabriel Obertan, David Perkins, Andrew Taylor and Stephen Warnock. There are another eight players whose loans are coming to an end.

In 2015 Gary Caldwell had already been installed as manager to oversee the massive turnover that took place over the summer.

At this stage we do not know who the next manager is going to be and there have been mutterings about taking the time to choose the right man for the job.

But given a mountain of a task ahead we might well see an appointment made sooner rather than later.
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Latics fans react to victory at Birmingham on social media

An opportunist goal from Dan Burn gave Wigan Athletic a much needed three points at St Andrews last night.With just ten games to go, Latics remain second from bottom, but they moved closer to the pack directly above them in the table, just one point behind Bristol City in 22nd place.

Warren Joyce fielded a much more positive lineup and Latics were lively in the first half before falling back in stubborn defence in the second.

It was an uplifting victory that keeps Wigan within range of escaping relegation. Saturday’s  home match against relegation rivals Bristol City is crucial.

Although delighted with the victory Latics fans are now wondering if their side can pull off another one in quick succession. Joyce’s less negative starting lineup, with Gabriel Obertan and Michael Jacobs playing wide and Alex Gilbey in advanced midfield produced a more attacking approach in the first half at least. However, to some extent it was forced on him by injuries and suspensions reducing his selection options. It is to be hoped that he will not once again resort to the ultra defensive approach we were seeing prior to the Birmingham match.

We took a look at the social media following yesterday’s match and came up with a wide range of views. Our thanks go to the Cockney Latic Forum, Vital Wigan – Latics Speyk Forum, The Boulevard of Broken Dreams (Facebook), Instagram and Twitter for providing the media for the posts below to happen.  Thanks go to all whose contributions are identified below.

 

Jeffs right responded to Whittleblue on Latics Speyk:

Hope not. Hope that Obertan is ready finally because at last we have a replacement for Yanic. Been crying out for a winger since he left. A winger with pace and who could supply decent passes over that period could have contributed so much over the last few weeks. At least 5 points lost there.

King_dezeeuw06 on Latics Speyk opined:

I think those are fair points Whittle i fear you may be right; we’ve seen so many false dawns over the years we’d be silly to get too carried away but we’ve also seen plenty of unlilely great escapes too so i dont want to not embrace the hope either.

Every revival has to start somewhere and I’m just hoping we have it in us. Looking at the form table Bristol and Wolves have fallen apart in recent weeks and Brum are in total free fall too. So i think there’s still plenty of twists and turns coming in the relegation battle i just dont know if it will be a happy ending or end in tears.

I’ve not got blind faith but I’ve got some hope back after last nights results so I’m going into Saturday cautiously optimistic.

Nathan Wilkinson on The Boulevard of Broken Dreams commented:

 It’s the hope that kills you.

 adding:

 Saturday now reminds me of 2010 home game against Burnley… loser goes down

 David Sharpe @DavidSharpe91 tweeted:

Congrats to the big man @Danburn3 on his 1st goal for the club & also @JoshLaurent37 on his debut. Them & all the lads were top draw tonight

JimmyC on the Cockney Latic Forum commented:

Good first half, deep and nervous in the second but great 3 points. Birmingham were rubbish ref was even worse. Even brum fans were calling him. Two centre backs were terrific again, solid back four. Gilbey looks good but not match fit, missed him! We were creating chances and looking like a team. More of the same and we just might stay up.

 True Believer on Latics Speyk said:

I am certainly not seeing any false dawns in last nights performance, we were indeed the better of two poor teams. The difference between the two being the defence. We were certainly no great shakes going forward but at the back we look tight. I am however rejoicing in the fact that we picked up 3 points whilst others around us dropped points. We can only hope that the result gives the squad a boost and helps to settle their nerves and improve the confidence. I will take scruffy results if it means we stay up, however I still think the manager needs to look at his squad and put out a team with positive intent against Bristol. Still Believing, Up the Tic’s

Stephen Warnock23 @StephenWarnock3 tweeted:

Congrats to @JoshLaurent37 making his debut tonight. Many more to follow I’m sure. Great to have @agilbey8 back. What a performance from him

 Leylandlatic4ever on the Cockney Latics Forum added:

An ugly win by all accounts but who cares, a win is a win…good stuff chaps
Shame the 3 B’s all got a point. Just makes Saturday’s game a step above a Must Win game! Win on Saturday we’ve still a real chance of staying up; lose and we’re in real sh!te, especially if the games in hand go against us.

Some frightening away games left…Newcastle, Brighton, Reading, Ipswich…some dodgy homes as well Villa, Barnsley, Leeds etc…

 SJL @Livesey99 tweeted:

Dead and buried on Saturday. Open mutiny in the stands and they go and pull that out of the bag tonight. That’s as Wigan as you’ll get

Blackmamba on the Cockney Latic Forum stated:

Bristol city game absolutely huge now. Biggest game for two seasons?!

 

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A History Lesson

history

“Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.”
Winston Churchill

Uwe Rosler was the toast of Wigan in the summer of 2014. But within three months he was gone – his prior achievements counting for nothing. Dave Whelan had sacked him, in the hope that a strong Latics squad could still get promotion back to the Premier League. Little did we know what a disaster the German’s dismissal would turn out to be.

Had Rosler not been dismissed, would Wigan Athletic have been relegated? Granted, they were not playing well and Rosler’s new signings were taking a long time to gel with their teammates. Whelan had backed his manager in the transfer market. Hopes were high when he made the signings. Despite losing three of his best in Jean Beausejour, Jordi Gomez and James McArthur, Rosler had apparently strengthened his squad, bringing in a host of players who had good reviews. Not least of those were two exciting strikers from Europe.

Andy Delort and Oriol Riera were never bad players. The former has recently joined Universidad de Nuevo Leon, known as Los Tigres (the Tigers) for a fee over £6m, of which Latics received a portion, having put a sell-on clause in his contract when he was returning to Caen. Riera returned to La Liga and continues to enjoy the top division in Spain with Pamplona side, Osasuna, after time with Deportivo La Coruna. Neither player was given an extended run at Wigan, nor were they played as twin strikers. Marc Antoine Fortune had thought his first team chances were limited when the two arrived, but he was to see them off in January. MAF went on to score just 2 league goals in 37 appearances under Rosler and his successor, Malky Mackay.

We can only speculate about the futures of other Rosler signings. Midfielder Adam Forshaw is now playing in the Premier League after a slow start at Middlesbrough. James Tavernier and Martyn Waghorn have had a wonderful time at Rangers, albeit in the lowly standards of the Scottish Championship division. Emyr Huws has gone to Cardiff, his undoubted talent overshadowed by a consistent ankle problem and questions over his commitment to the club. Aaron Taylor-Sinclair’s time at Wigan was marred by injury: he remains at League 1 Doncaster. Don Cowie and Andrew Taylor, both signed from Cardiff, were to become the scapegoats of a relegation season. They had been successful in Wales but it was not to be in Wigan. Free agent signing William Kvist was captain of his national side, but could not reckon on a place in the starting lineup, Kvist went back to Denmark, where he continues to play for FC Copenhagen.

Like Rosler, Gary Caldwell also felt the need to bring in a swathe of new players to meet the demands of the Championship this season. Most are struggling to adjust to their new club and their manager’s preferred style of play.  Caldwell had brought in even more last season, when it took months for the sum of the parts to approximate to the whole. But in the end the quality of the players he could bring in gave him the divisional title.

Latics currently have 5 points from 8 league games. At the same stage two years ago Rosler’s team had 8 points. However, expectations differ greatly. Rosler was looking at promotion, whereas Caldwell will surely be looking at consolidation. But is Caldwell under the kind of pressure that prevailed upon Rosler at this time a couple of years ago?

Both managers had excellent records in their previous seasons. Caldwell’s achievement of winning League 1 is more than matched by Rosler’s success in revitalising his squad into reaching the playoffs and the FA Cup semi-final. But, given Rosler’s precipitous fall from grace, could Caldwell suffer a similar fate?

Looking back on the 2014-15 season one can only reflect in what might have happened. When Rosler was dismissed we continued to think about promotion. Perhaps we were being overoptimistic, but the woeful appointment of Malky Mackay put paid to that. He oversaw a January fire sale, including elements who had undermined his predecessor, leaving the squad threadbare. Relegation was the consequence.

Much has been said about Rosler being dictatorial with his players, that he brought in too many new faces, leading to discontent. But he was faced with an old guard from the eras of both Martinez and Owen Coyle. Modern football managers recruit players who will be loyal to them, rather than those whose fealty lies with predecessors. If Rosler made a key mistake, it was that of bringing in too many of his own men, bruising the egos of the status quo. Moreover his squad got so large that he had too many discontented players starved of first team football. Is Caldwell heading the same way?

There is a viewpoint that Caldwell should have stayed loyal with the players who helped him win the League 1 title. The departures of Sam Morsy and Jason Pearce were certainly controversial, the loaning out of Ryan Colclough was a surprise, and the stripping of the captaincy from Craig Morgan, following an abortive move to Sheffield United, suggests he will struggle to claim a place in the starting lineup. Moreover goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen, another key element last season, is now playing second fiddle to Adam Bogdan. It had been the introduction of the big Finn, in place of Richard O’Donnell who was struggling to meet Caldwell’s demands of a goalkeeper, that coincided with an upturn in performances. Jaaskelainen provided an aura of confidence to his defence and his ability to distribute the ball became an important cog in Caldwell’s possession football.

However, although Pearce has gone to Charlton on a permanent transfer, Morsy and Colclough have been sent out on season-long loans. Caldwell has inferred that Colclough remains in his plans although his lips have been sealed regarding Morsy. Colclough has already made three league starts for MK Dons, whereas ex-Latics goalkeeper Lee Nicholls and Jack Hendry, on loan until January, have not made any. One of the criticisms of Colclough’s loan was that it meant he was going back to League 1, whereas Morsy was going to a Championship club in Barnsley. In fact Morsy has made just one appearance so far with the Tykes, as a 65th minute substitute.

Long term injuries have robbed Caldwell of Donervon Daniels, Reece James and Andy Kellett from last season’s squad.  Moreover both Craig Morgan and David Perkins have recently been unavailable through niggles.

As it was during the second season under Rosler, new players brought in have been under the spotlight. None more so than Dan Burn and Shaun MacDonald, seen by some as replacements for Pearce and Morsy. Burn’s fateful error at Bristol saw him warming the bench for a couple of matches, but he has performed well in the last two games since his return to the starting lineup. Moreover MacDonald, who has played little first team football over the past two seasons, inevitably started slowly, but showed his worth on Saturday with a good display against Fulham.

It was bad news for Caldwell to see Alex Gilbey stretchered off the field on Saturday, after being an ever-present in league games up to that point. The ex-Colchester player has already made the transition from League 1 to the Championship, his fine technique providing him with a solid foundation. Jordi Gomez, back after a two year stint at Sunderland, has already showed what class he can bring to the team in three appearances to date.

Jake Buxton’s sending off in the League Cup led to a three match suspension and he has made just three appearances in the league so far. However, by naming him vice-captain Caldwell clearly expects Buxton to be a mainstay in the centre of defence. Reece Burke, arriving with the highest of recommendations following last season’s loan at Bradford, will most likely compete with Burn for a central defensive position, although he was employed in the troublesome right back position at Norwich. Nathan Byrne has looked lively in his two appearances off the bench so far, although there are questions about his defending skills as an orthodox right back. Byrne will best employed as a wing back in 3-5-2 or a winger in 4-3-3.

Nick Powell’s signing was a gamble by Caldwell, following a couple of seasons bereft of first team football and niggling injuries. Powell showed his exciting capabilities as a midfielder in the 3-0 defeat of Blackburn, but fitness concerns continue to dog him. At his best, Powell is a top player in this division, but he clearly has a long way to go in terms of achieving match fitness.

Adam Bogdan was an excellent goalkeeper at Bolton, but his difficult experiences at Liverpool will surely have damaged his confidence. At times this season he has looked dominant in his box and has made fine saves that kept his team in the game. However, his fatal error at Norwich shows that he is still coming to terms with Caldwell’s requirement for a goalkeeper to use his feet to build up moves from defence.

Luke Garbutt has not shown his best form yet. He had an indifferent loan spell at Fulham last season, not being helped by an injury early on. Garbutt’s loan is up to January, when he will most likely return to Everton where expectations were that he would be the successor to Leighton Baines. Caldwell will be hoping Reece James will regain fitness by the time that Garbutt’s loan is due to end.

On Saturday, Caldwell withdrew Will Grigg after 71 minutes, bringing on Adam Le Fondre. The manager’s dilemma will be in giving Le Fondre sufficient game time to keep him sharp. His preference for a lone central striker means that he is unlikely to play the two together, except near the end of games where his team needs to pull a goal back. Craig Davies already knows what it is like to be the backup striker, having had to be content with late appearances off the bench.

Caldwell’s starting lineup against Fulham contained six players signed over the summer. Moreover three more made appearances off the bench. Caldwell is familiar with the challenges of bringing in new players and weaning them into playing his style of football. He did it successfully in the past, but at this stage last season his team had 13 points, having won half the league games they had played. Caldwell’s current team has a solitary victory so far.

It is to be hoped that David Sharpe will heed Winston Churchill’s warning. His grandfather’s decision to dispense of Uwe Rosler’s services in November 2014 was compounded by the jettisoning of so many newly recruited players a couple of months later. The result was horrendous.

As with Rosler’s new recruits, Caldwell’s latest signings need time to adjust and to gel with their teammates. Caldwell himself will need time to get his squad up to speed. Sharpe needs to back the manager, who in turn needs to back his players. New players need time to adjust and to buy into Caldwell’s style of play.

There are testing times ahead. Latics are currently in the relegation zone, but as the new players gel results will surely improve. The question is when this will happen.

It could be later, rather than sooner.

 

Has Caldwell got it right in the pre-season?

exhaustedathelte

Wigan Athletic’s first league game in their return to the Championship is less than two weeks away. Since the last match of the previous season against Barnsley on May 8th Latics have signed four new players, moved to a superior training complex at Euxton and played five pre-season games without a win, scoring just one goal. Today’s 4-1 defeat at Rochdale has raised many eyebrows. Given what has happened so far what kind of season can we expect to follow?

Some weeks ago Gary Caldwell acknowledged that recruiting players this summer was going to be a different matter than it was a year ago. Latics no longer have the financial advantage over teams in their division, enabling them to offer lucrative salaries to prospective signings. Wigan are now up against clubs with higher revenues, many of them buoyed with parachute payments. Latics are now in their final “parachute” season with a less than rosy financial short term future ahead.

Nevertheless Caldwell and his recruitment team have done well over the past weeks. Dan Burn may not be the most fulfilled central defender, but he is only 24 years old and already has more than 80 appearances in the Championship under his belt. The question is whether Caldwell, an ex-central defender himself, can nurture the player into realizing his full potential.

The signing of Stephen Warnock on a one year contract was no surprise. Warnock proved to be an excellent loan signing for League 1 and has a wealth of experience in higher divisions, plus two England caps.  However, he will be 35 in December, hence the short term contract. Warnock will face fierce competition for the left back spot from the 22 year old Reece James, providing the young player can rid himself of the troublesome ankle injury that has been dogging him so long.

Caldwell has brought in one for the future in the 21 year old Alex Gilbey. A product of the Colchester academy he has the kinds of technical attributes akin to those of Max Power, together with a willingness to work hard for the team. Although only 22 years old he made over 100 senior appearances for the U’s. Gilbey’s arrival will heighten the pressure for places in the central midfield.

The signing of Nick Powell is a bold gamble that Caldwell will be praying will come off. Powell’s impressive performances for Latics in the first part of the 2013-14 season showed what a fine player he can be at Championship level. However, niggling injuries have played their part in knocking Powell’s career off-track. His loan spells at Leicester and Hull were fruitless. In fact, the last time Powell played in a starting lineup was on April 5th 2014 for Latics against Leeds United. But the player is still only 22 and has the ability to become an outstanding performer. Once again the question arises whether Caldwell and his coaching staff will be able to give the player the kind of nurturing he will need to help him turn his career around.

The loan signing of Adam Bogdan from Liverpool leaves Latics with four goalkeepers on their books. Although he has had a hard time at Anfield the Hungarian was highly regarded at Bolton, where he pushed Jussi Jaaskelainen out of the team. It is most likely that Bogdan will do the same again at Wigan, with the big Finn being the backup keeper and either Lee Nicholls or Dan Lavercombe leaving for a loan spell.

Right back continues to be a problem position, with recent loan signing Kyle Knoyle ruled out long term due to an elbow injury. In the meantime Caldwell has brought Ryan Taylor back to Wigan on trial. Taylor’s set piece deliveries were a key element for Steve Bruce’s team at Latics, but he left for Newcastle in February 2009, spending more than six years on Tyneside. However, injuries have taken their toll on the player who is now 31. Taylor started in only one Championship game for Hull City last season. Should Taylor be offered a contract it is unlikely to be for more than a year, given his recent history.

Caldwell will be hoping that his new signings can come out of the blocks running. However, in the cases of Bogdan and Powell, coming from unfulfilled spells at their previous clubs, it could take more time. Moreover Gilbey has to adjust to playing in the Championship for the first time and Burn has arrived possibly short on confidence after playing for a struggling Fulham team. However, new signings apart, the players remaining from last season’s League 1 title squad will also face the challenge of playing in a higher division. Key players such as Will Grigg and Max Power have never played at a level above League 1 and Yanic Wildschut only started in three games during his time at Middlesbrough in the Championship.

Wigan’s purchase of the Euxton training facility from Bolton Wanderers certainly looks like sound business. However, it puts into question the future of the venture at Charnock Richard, with implications for the development of the club’s academy. Dreams of developing a Category 1 academy now seem far away, given the short term financial situation the club will face. One wonders if Latics were to find their way back into the Premier League would they even then revisit the idea of having a top level youth programme?

In this month just a couple of years ago Uwe Rosler was the toast of the town after doing such a fine job in uplifting Latics following the damaging reign of Owen Coyle. But a calamitous pre-season proved to be the first nail in the coffin of a sequence of events which resulted in the German’s departure some four months later. Too many players picked up niggling injuries and a friendly match in Germany had to be cancelled because Rosler just did not have enough fit players. When the season started the majority of the players just were not up to going the whole 90 minutes, with slumps in the second half being too common. The seemingly old-fashioned concept of “over training” was raised by many fans at the time.

It is to be hoped that the lessons of a couple of years ago have been learned and that Caldwell’s squad is not being over trained. However, just one goal scored in five pre-season games is a worrying sign. Following a goalless draw at non-league Macclesfield Town the manager stated “It’s not about winning games or scoring lots of goals at this point, it’s about putting things into them physically and tactically and seeing how it works on the pitch.

However, he changed his tune somewhat following an abject 4-1 defeat at Rochdale yesterday, commenting that “I’m disappointed obviously with both the result and the performance because it wasn’t good enough. However, it’s understandable from the work we have been doing in training that the boys are going to be a little tired but we do still know that it’s unacceptable and we have two weeks to do something about it.”

Given the apparently heavy training regime and playing four games in eight days it is not surprising the players might be tired. The scheduling of the games against Manchester United and Liverpool on consecutive days was odd to say the least, offering more value in terms of PR than as a means of preparing the players for the season ahead.

Yesterday Caldwell was apparently unable to call on his three main centre backs – Donervon Daniels, Craig Morgan and Jason Pearce – and left back Stephen Warnock went off injured early on. Not surprisingly the back four of youth debutant Luke Burke together with Jack Hendry, Dan Burn and David Perkins was unable to assert itself.

Without a single victory in the pre-season up to this point, Caldwell will surely put more emphasis on winning for the two remaining friendlies at Oldham and Fleetwood. Although pre-season results are of minimal consequence as the season unfolds, the manager will want to restore the winning habit that the team established last season. He will also need to make greater use of his more established players, providing they are fit.

It is to be hoped that the sports science, physiotherapy and physical conditioning staff at the club are on top of things during the pre-season. Latics need to go out to that first league game at Ashton Gate with a squad of fit players who can give their all.

Surely the lessons of the Rosler era have been learned?