Can we “Believe” again after Chesterfield?

Photo courtesy of fansonline.net

I would have loved to have gone to Chesterfield and been part of the Wigan contingent that was so deliriously happy after that stunning finale.

But it would have been a long trip from Boston to get there and I would have been shirking my family responsibilities. However, I thought I could at least settle for second best, by listening to the Neill Rimmer and Ashley Houghton commentary on WISH FM. But when it was decided by family consensus that we were leaving for an overnight stay in Rhode Island around kick-off time in the UK it seemed that my hopes were dashed.

However, son Ned and 3G technology came to the rescue. As we were being driven along the I-95 interstate highway we were able to listen to Latics Player through Ned’s phone. The score was 0-0 at halftime, when he closed his phone down to conserve the battery’s charge. It sounded like the game could go either way, both sides having had their chances.

But the second half started and Chesterfield were  to score a spectacular goal a quarter of an hour later. However, hope remained that Latics could pull one back. It was a little hard to hear the phone so when we heard that Leon Barnett had scored a goal, Ned and I started to celebrate. But then came the realization that then goal was for Chesterfield, not Wigan. In an instant I suggested to Ned that he turn the commentary off to save the battery.

When we arrived at our destination I realized what I had done. I have watched Wigan Athletic since 1961 through thick and thin. I have prided myself on never having left a match before the end, no matter how dire the performance. I have always tried to see the bright side. I believed in “Believe”.

But in this case I was “he of little faith”, giving upon a game before it had finished. Fortunately Ned had more faith than me and by the time he got the commentary back the game was in its last three minutes and Latics had scored twice. When Hiwula scored in the 90th minute we were ecstatic.

Watching Latics over the past twelve months has tested the mettle of even the most fervant supporters. Being two goals behind with less than a third of the match remaining there would have been no way that last year’s team could have clawed their way back in.

In the first half of last season the team had the talent, but not the commitment. The reverse was the case in the second half. Malky Mackay was no tactical genius, but the asset-stripping that happened in the January transfer window had left him with a squad short on quality, with the few remaining players from previous eras seemingly shell-shocked by the sequence of events. Put simply, it was very hard  for us to “Believe” in the  Mackay era.

But under Caldwell I can at least rekindle some belief. Caldwell is viewed as a disciple of Roberto Martinez, who was a man brimming in belief. His infectious belief was always evident – he truly believed that his multicultural squad of bargain signings could beat the best in the country without resorting to dubious methods. Moreover he succeeded and his team’s league wins over Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United and the FA Cup final victory over Manchester City will be etched in our minds for years to come.

The journey was by no means easy. At times Latics looked out of their depth, characterized by a porous defence and a tactical system where the term “lone centre forward” became a reality. Martinez could be frustrating for all of us, playing seemingly one-paced football, never seeming to have a plan B. But he believed in his players and they so often played out of their skin against some of the best players in the world. He defied the odds and kept Latics up in the Premier League for three seasons before the seemingly inevitable happened in the loss against Arsenal. With Martinez one always sensed that he had a long term plan and that he believed it would come into effect.

Caldwell rightly claims he has been influenced by all the managers he worked under. But many would say that it was Martinez who influenced him most. One wonders if he is still in regular contact with the Catalan, who has provided him with two quality loan players in Jonjoe Kenny and Francisco Junior. Moreover the way he is pushing his wing backs so far up the field is reminiscent of what Martinez did with Coleman and Baines in his early days at Everton. But does Caldwell have that sheer determination that his mentor had?

As a player Caldwell was certainly determined. Joining Latics relatively late in his career, and despite with his hips failing, he was always there to be called upon. Latics had their greatest successes under his captaincy. He was the marshall of a back line, which was playing against the odds as it faced household name strikers on a regular basis. Caldwell certainly made mistakes as a player, but his commitment could never be questioned.

The “New Era”, heralded by Caldwell and young chairman, David Sharpe is now the order of the day. Largely through poor choices made by Sharpe’s grandfather, Dave Whelan, Latics have fallen down two divisions since winning football’s oldest competition.

However, nobody who has watched the club’s rise over the past two decades can doubt the wonderful achievements under Whelan. The “Believe” motto did not exist when DW told people that a struggling club in the fourth tier would be in the Premier League within a decade. It was not only Whelan’s financial backing, but his “belief” and sound management of the club that propelled things along. Now it is the era of a rookie manager and a rookie chairman, both of whom have nevertheless started their jobs in impressive fashion.

Caldwell clearly believes in the kind of football that he practiced under the auspices of Martinez. However, Caldwell has already shown his flexibility and willingness to change a tactical system if it appears not to be working. His teams have already played in a variety of “shapes” , something Martinez was loath to do. Put in a nutshell, Caldwell adheres to the Martinez notion of style, but is more pragmatic about adapting his tactical formations to get results. However, being a broad adherent of the Maritinez brand he will broadly insist on a slow build up from the back, coupled with a possession-style football.

In the days of Martinez his players were faced with the enormous physical task of containing the talents of teams they played in the Premier League. Maintaining possession gave his players the breathing space to hold their own physically against opposition that was so often technically superior.

The noticeboards of football fan sites provide a conduit for supporters to air their views. That can go both ways. I always enjoy trawling Vital Wigan’s Latics Speyk, where some really high quality stuff so often comes through, together with posts where the ventings of fans who have reached the limits of their patience are plentiful. On Saturday we heard from charlz54 who posted:

This is pathetic Wigan……..Caldwell is too naive about tactics. For goodness sake, what are our coaching staff doing? We need to attack teams, not just sit back and what’s this over use of playing the ball out from the back? Sorry Gary, but your lack of experience is showing at the moment……..just listening to the commentary…..we are too slow!!” 

Clearly a level of frustration from a fan not happy with Caldwell’s approach of patiently playing the ball out from the back. However, this fan was apparently not at the game. If he had been maybe he would have thought of joining the others who left the Proact Stadium prematurely and missed out on the last ten minutes. Up to that point it looked like Latics were heading for another 2-0 away defeat, something hard to bear for a fan base that has stayed loyal despite the awful football that they have had to endure over the past year.

Interestingly Caldwell has made every effort to play attacking football, pushing his wing backs high up the pitch. Moreover at Chesterfield he had both Michael Jacobs and Haris Vuckic supporting centre forward Craig Davies from attacking midfield positions. The wing backs tend not to tuck inside to support the central midfield, their main role being as outlets on the flanks The end result can be the two central “holding” midfielders being outnumbered by the opposition, unless the attacking midfielder drops back.

Fan frustration was certainly present during the Martinez era, especially at the beginning when the players would often struggle to translate the manager’s ideas into effect. It has been a similar case for Caldwell so far. His is a work in progress, with bad moments interspersed with glimpses of the sublime. A group of strangers on the field is gradually melding into a cohesive force. But not only is it a matter of new players “bedding in”. The club is still on its way out of a trough of depression, where not winning was the order of the day. That amazing rally at Chesterfield will surely lift the club and its players. Confidence is the key to success for Caldwell’s team.

Despite the frustrations of some fans Caldwell will persevere with a style of play he believes in. He has already shown himself to be more tactically flexible than Martinez was at Wigan, but will  insist on his footballing principles.

Self-belief is a key quality in a football manager. If Caldwell can continue to inculcate his footballing philosophy into his players they will surely respond. The current season has had its ups and downs – and there are surely more of the latter still to come – but there is purpose in the way his team is playing. Caldwell is fortunate in having very few players from prior regimes at the club still present. It is much easier to set the tone of a new philosophy with a new group of players rather than with those who were entrenched through longevity and working under previous managers.

There are lots of fans who consider that it is time to leave behind the “Believe” motto of yesteryear. The days of “I’m a Believer” beaming out from the loudspeakers at the DW Stadium might soon be over. “Believe” sadly became overused for political purposes within the town.

Whether “Believe” as a motto  will become a thing of the past is hard to predict. But what is crucial is that Caldwell continues to hold by his footballing principles and shows the kind of belief in his players that Martinez showed.

Over the past couple of seasons too many potentially good players have been dumped before their time was due. The time has come for a group of committed, talented players to be given a genuine chance at the club.

Caldwell and his recruitment team have done an amazing job in bringing twenty new players to Wigan. He now needs to give them the support they need to produce their best.

There has been far too much upheaval. Now is the time for consolidation. Put simply, the manager needs to “Believe” in the players he has brought in.

 

 

 

Believing again with Malky and Sharpy

Photo courtesy of fansonline.net

e Photo courtesy of fansonline.net

Situations can change quickly in the football world.

Three weeks ago I published an article “Can we believe under Mackay?” Latics had lost badly at Nottingham Forest and Malky Mackay’s record at Wigan was W1 D3 L10. Moreover the club seemed to be drifting with its talismanic leader, Dave Whelan, nowhere in sight. It was a club where leadership appeared noticeably absent. “Believing” was not easy.

The weekend later Latics did inspire some momentary confidence with a 1-0 win at Reading. There were two home games coming up, so the more optimistic of supporters raised their hopes that it could be the start of a revival, although the battle-hardened contingent warned us to beware of a false dawn. The darksiders proved to be right as Latics lost to both Charlton and Cardiff. A failure to get three points in the next match at Blackpool would nail the relegation coffin for Latics, psychologically of not mathematically.

The 3-1 win at Bloomfield Road was certainly a tonic, but unsettling rumours were starting to spread about the club being sold to Thai buyers. Still no word from Whelan. Moreover the next match was away at Norwich, who had won their last six games and were challenging for promotion.

Within the space of a few days the future suddenly seems much brighter. DW stepped down as chairman, but made it clear that the Whelan family and Chief Executive Jonathan Jackson would continue to run the club. There would be no sell-off. Fans were debating the idea of Whelan’s 23 year old grandson, David Sharpe, taking over as chairman although the more savvy pointed out that Jackson was the pillar upon which the near future of the club would largely rest.

The 1-0 win at Norwich, gained with just 32% possession, was precisely the kind of performance that many of us expected when Mackay was appointed. A gritty, backs to the wall display, based on strong defence and a moment’s inspiration from the excellent Kim Bo Kyung. Sharpe will surely have enjoyed overseeing a hard fought victory on receiving the reins from his grandfather.

The mood is much more positive among the fans now. The team has won two consecutive games for the first time this season and people are seriously thinking whether they can once more “Believe”. The manager remains unpopular and Sharpe has a hard act to follow as future chairman, but there is at least something to look forward to now.

The pundits tell us that Mackay’s current record of W4 D3 L12 – a winning percentage of 21% – lifts him above the level of being statistically the club’s least successful manager. He has certainly transformed things since his arrival. Not one of Uwe Rosler’s ten signings started the game at Norwich and only four of the eleven have contracts at Wigan beyond summer. At last he has succeeded into motivating the players to wear the Wigan Athletic jersey with pride, willing to give their all on the pitch.

But there is a hard road ahead for both Mackay and Sharpe.

After those consecutive wins the manager has regained some degree of credibility. However, he has incredibly still not won a match at the DW Stadium. He will be anxious to notch up his first against Leeds tomorrow. Can he lift his players to the same levels of energy and passion that they showed at Blackpool and Norwich? It will be a challenge to do so for the third time in a week.

David Sharpe has been active at the club for over a year now. He worked with Mackay on the January clear-out and is likely continue to support the manager at least until the end of the season. Questions remain whether relegation can be avoided and if Mackay is the right manager for Latics in the long term.

However, there suddenly seems much more purpose at the club, following Dave Whelan’s announcements and a couple of good results.

Let’s hope we can “Believe” in the Malky-Sharpy partnership.

 

Can we “Believe” under Mackay?

Mackay's record makes sad reading: W1 D3 L10.   Photo courtesy of Sky Sports.

Mackay’s record makes sad reading: W1 D3 L10.
Photo courtesy of Sky Sports.

“Certainly off the back of tonight’s performance, there is going to be a couple of changes. It’s back to the training ground, we’ve got another few players into the club over the last couple of weeks so they’ll certainly be players getting their chances.”

So said Malky Mackay after arguably the worst performance of a depressing season, a 3-0 loss at Nottingham Forest.

Mackay had chosen a team with one change from that which lost against Bournemouth. Chris Herd came in for the injured Chris McCann. Billy McKay remained on the bench.

Mackay clearly had a plan to smother Forest’s fire by playing ugly. With Leon Clarke playing a lone centre forward role there was clearly going to be little goal threat from Latics unless the midfield trio of Cowie, Kvist and Herd got up to support him. With all three being defence-minded players that was unlikely to happen. Somehow Latics scrapped it out for 33 minutes until Britt Assombalomba opened the scoring, heralding a disintegration of order within the Wigan side. The only surprise is that Forest scored only two more.

One win in the last 16 league matches is the most dire of statistics. Moreover there is little likelihood of it changing soon as Mackay is likely to  bring in more players who have never played together before, some of whom will be lacking match fitness as has been the case with Herd and Kim Bo Kyung in the past couple of games.

The loss of Emyr Huws for the rest of the season is a hammer blow for Mackay. Moreover the absence of Chris McCann last night left him desperately short of midfield cover.

Looking at the Wigan lineup before the game gave one a sense of foreboding. There just was not the talent in the starting eleven that we have become accustomed to over these years. The family silver was sold off and the side is now desperately short on quality.

Mackay has signed in only two new players on permanent contracts, Billy McKay and Jason Pearce. Clarke – who has played for 14 clubs – and Herd are players whose contracts expire at the end of the season, coming to Wigan on loan, unlikely to be offered extensions by their parent clubs at the end of the season. Kim’s contract at Cardiff was cancelled, as was Gaetan Bong’s at Olympiakos. They are on short term deals until the end of the season. Harry Maguire and Sheyi Ojo are young players coming from Premier League clubs, the former having minimal experience of Championship football, tghe latter none.

Ironically the two players who have been signed on permanent terms have been low on the totem pole.

Pearce is yet to appear, despite the poor form showed by Leon Barnett, who now looks a mere shadow of the player he was a year ago. Mackay once again persisted in a back four of Perch, Barnett, Ridgewell and Taylor. One would have expected that that quartet would have built up some mutual understanding following several games as a unit, but the way Forest were able to slice them open suggests that was not the case.

Mackay will be forced to change his back four in the next game at Reading, with Liam Ridgewell returning to Portland. Andrew Taylor is another whose form has been below par and he might well be replaced by Gaetan Bong. The most likely formation at Reading will be Perch, Pearce, Maguire and Bong. Not an ideal situation at this time of the season to have a new team of back four players.

McKay sadly seems to be following in the footsteps of Andy Delort, having come on last night after 88 minutes, although he did play the full second half against Bournemouth. Despite scoring 10 goals in 23 Scottish Premier League games his manager does not deem him necessary in the starting lineup. Let’s hope he will be better treated at the club than the Frenchman, who is now back at Tours, the rumours being that Latics continue to pay his wages.

Both Kim and Herd arrived at the club short of match fitness. Kim played the first 45 minutes on Saturday and only 9 minutes more last night. Herd’s stats are 59 minutes and 63 minutes respectively. Putting in unfit players when the team is struggling is hardly ideal.

However, with an absence of technically skilled players in the squad Mackay probably felt Kim was worth the risk. Ojo showed his skills on Saturday, but is unproven at this level. Can he put those skills into effect over a whole game? Mackay was forced to play Herd at right back against Bournemouth in the absence of Perch. Last night he was pushed in to shore up the midfield.

In the days of Roberto Martinez the “Believe” motto became the standard that raised the team into achieving against the odds. The manager himself had clear belief in his players and they responded on the pitch.

Under Mackay “believing” is much harder for us fans. His record up to this point as Latics manager is unbelievably bad. Will Dave Whelan pull the plug and bring in someone else to try to salvage the season, or is he already resigned to the club being in League 1 next year?

The likelihood is that Mackay will stay at least until the end of the season. He has come in as a hatchet man, chopping away at the squad, but he has not been allowed to bring in hordes of new players on long term contracts.

If Mackay stays next season, albeit in League 1, what can we expect?

The Scot is clearly a better manager than his results at Wigan suggest. His record at both Watford and Cardiff stands close scrutiny in terms of team performances. However, his teams have not been known for their entertainment value. Attendances will plummet, but the club will be cushioned by a continuing parachute payment of some £9 million. The pragmatists would continue to support him providing he got the results good enough to bring the club back upmto the Championship. If the results did not come then his situation woukd become untenable.

it is a bleak near future that lies ahead for Wigan Athletic. Will we ever get back to the point where we can “believe” again?

 

Wigan Athletic 1 Norwich City 0: Bottom half narrows as Kone does it again

kone1

Arouna Koné scored another late goal to settle a poor contest against Norwich on a gusty day in Wigan. The lack of quality on display will be quickly forgotten by Latics fans, however, as a glance at the league table now reveals an amazingly slim six-point gap between 10th and 18th place. Wigan themselves have leapfrogged Aston Villa into 17th, and are now only a point behind Sunderland, three behind Newcastle, and four behind Norwich, Southampton and Stoke. All of which means there is no mid-table security this year.

The match itself was scrappy and characterised by misplaced passing and hopeful shooting from both sides. When Wigan did produce moments of quality, they were always born at the feet of Shaun Maloney and Jean Beausejour, while Norwich caused the occasional problem without looking an incisive threat. The goal came as a result from Wigan’s best passage of play, a period of quick, urgent passing football from minutes 70 to 80, in which they twice went close before Kone’s powerful strike beat Lee Camp at the near post.

The Good:

Another incredibly valuable three points at home. Despite not playing their best football, Martinez’s charges got the job done and kept a clean sheet in the process. Shaun Maloney was just fantastic, once again. Robles looked confident in goal, and Kone is enjoying his role as the main man up front. Jean Beausejour too, looks to be back to his best.

Despite Southampton’s second consecutive win against a big team, other results were positive. Sunderland lost at home to Manchester United, while Reading were thumped 4-1 by Arsenal. Newcastle lost to Manchester City, and Stoke are, at the time of writing, losing to Everton. The bottom half of the table is tight.

The Bad:

Despite laying on a nice pass for Kone to score from, Jordi Gomez put in an infuriating display, constantly slowing down Wigan’s attacks, forcing the team to go backwards rather than forwards, and dwelling on the ball far too long before being dispossessed. James McArthur, excellent upon introduction, may well have done enough to earn his place back into the starting lineup.

Paul Scharner had a wobbly game and did not look quite right. The clean sheet speaks well of the defence as a whole, but the Austrian looked off the pace today. His partnership with Antolin Alcaraz is potentially excellent, but showed signs of its relative youth at times.

Player Ratings: 

Joel Robles: 7 — Didn’t have a lot of shots to save, but showed good hands on crosses, catching the ball when it might have been tempting to punch. Promising.

Emmerson Boyce: 7 — Steady and uncomplicated.

Antolin Alcaraz: 8 — Made some outstanding tackles and interceptions.

Paul Scharner: 6 –Wobbly at times, but kept them out in the end.

Maynor Figueroa: 6 — One sloppy pass aside, did a professional job.

James McCarthy: 7 — His energy and running was important in regaining possession. Very unlucky with an excellent right-footed shot that kissed the upright. One magical nutmeg in the second half that the crowd savoured.

Jordi Gomez: 5 — Poor. Slow and negative with his passing. The one time he sought to play a through ball it was an excellent one and led to the goal. May have been instructed to try and keep possession, but surely not every pass needs to go sideways.

Shaun Maloney: 8 — Another outstanding attacking performance with of sharp movement, passing and dribbling. One poor shot, but he was involved in everything positive today including the build-up to the goal.

Callum McManaman:  6 — Quiet game on the right flank, but perhaps that’s what he needed. Occasionally booed by traveling support, but got on with his job and was positive when he did see the ball.

Jean Beausejour: 8 — Played some top class crosses in both halves that should have resulted in goals.

Arouna Kone: 8 — Got the winner, and looked a threat throughout.

Subs:

James McArthur: 7 — Looked hungry when he came on and moved the ball quickly and effectively.

Franco Di Santo: Brought on to waste time in the dying minutes of the game. Probably would have been brought on sooner if Kone had not found the back of the net.