Can Joyce avoid relegation?

tablefeb2012In mid-February five years ago Wigan Athletic looked to be on a slide out of the Premier League. They had hit rock bottom in mid-January and just could not seem to climb out of the mire. A month later they were still bottom, with just two wins out of their previous ten league matches. However, a win at Bolton and a draw at home to Everton in the last two matches had provided some hope. The fans had started to “Believe” and rallied behind their manager and team.

It was to take another month for Latics to climb off the bottom, following a 1-1 home draw with West Bromwich Albion. But the defence had been tightening up, with less “soft” goals being given away. Shaun Maloney had finally got a place in the starting line-up against Albion and he was to be the catalyst to revitalise the attacking side of Wigan’s game. By the end of the season Latics were in 15th place, 7 points clear of the relegation zone. They had won five of their final six matches.

A year later Latics were to find themselves second from bottom in mid-February. By the end of the season they were to rise one place, not enough to avoid relegation. Some attributed relegation being due to the FA Cup campaign, others cited horrendous injury problems. But few would have traded an FA Cup win for a continuation in the Premier League.

A couple of years later, in mid-February 2015, Malky Mackay’s Latics were second from bottom, nine points from safety. When the manager had taken over from Uwe Rosler in early November 2014, Latics had been third from bottom, but only one point from safety. But the fire sale that followed in January, together with a lack of investment in suitable replacements, led to Latics finishing second from bottom, seven points behind Rotherham who were safe in 21st place. The quality of football during Mackay’s reign had plummeted drastically.

tablefeb2017

Once again Wigan Athletic find themselves second from bottom in mid-February. They are five points behind the 21st placed team, Burton Albion, but with a game in hand. Wigan were in  exactly the same position when Gary Caldwell was dismissed in late October and replaced by Warren Joyce.

In terms of results the records of the two managers are remarkably similar. Caldwell’s league record reads W2 D5 L7, GF 13 GA 16 Pts 11 and Joyce’s is W3 D3 L9 GF 14 GA 22 Pts 12.

So despite the change in manager, results have stayed largely the same. However, in terms of quality of football there has been a major change. The possession football that typified the Caldwell era has been replaced by a more “direct” style under Joyce, reminiscent of the Mackay era. Caldwell’s team had started the season cautiously, with the manager seemingly reluctant to push men forward to support the central striker, for fear of counterattack. The caution has become even more evident under Joyce, with frequent use of a version of 4-1-4-1, leaving the lone striker isolated and too often fighting a lost cause.

In their successful fight against relegation in 2011-12 Wigan Athletic continued to try to play good football, even when the odds were stacked against them. Their famous late season victories over Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United were gained on merit, through resolute defence and some inspired attacking. It looks unlikely to be the case this year, with Joyce in charge.

However, despite the poor quality of the football, Joyce appears to have made some progress. His insistence on a high level of fitness caused injury problems early on for players unused to the intensity he was seeking. But the players do look fitter now and willingly run themselves into the ground for the cause. There is no lack of effort.

Fans of Joyce will say that he has already improved some of the players and that he has filled gaps in the squad that needed attention. The departure of Yanic Wildschut has left the team short of pace on the wings, but nobody can argue with a transfer fee of around £7 million. The Dutchman certainly made progress under Joyce, not least in his level of fitness and being able to play the full ninety plus.

Dan Burn made a bad start in Joyce’s first game as manager, in  a 3-0 home reverse to Reading, the manager leaving him out for the next couple of games. But in recent weeks the big centre half has looked a much more assured and accomplished player. Joyce has fixed the problematic right back position with the acquisition of Callum Connolly on loan from Everton. Moreover he brought back Sam Morsy from his loan at Barnsley and the player has played consistently well since his return.

However, there remain questions over Joyce’s tactics. It can be argued that Joyce has tightened up the defence, although the goals against record does not reflect that,  albeit with three goals conceded against Reading, Fulham and Rotherham. Joyce’s critics will say that his emphasis is on trying not to lose, so often pulling back ten men in defence.

Latics were clearly unlucky not to save a point at Fulham on Saturday, going down to a last minute of stoppage time winner. But even with a 2-1 lead at half time were they really likely to come away with three points, given the way Fulham were dominating possession?

fulham-lineupOnce again Joyce operated the 4-1-4-1 formation. The stats revealed that Fulham had 73.3% of possession, Latics 26.7%. I simply cannot recall Wigan Athletic having such a small share of possession in a match.

Possession is a frequent talking point for Wigan Athletic supporters. Not everyone enjoyed the football served up by Roberto Martinez, despite his considerable accomplishments at the club. Neither was Gary Caldwell universally liked despite bringing home the League 1 title. At times the football served up by both managers could be sterile, with midfielders far too willing to pass the ball sideways or backwards. But at its best the possession football played by Martinez’s teams was enough to beat the top teams in the country in the Premier League and to win the FA Cup on merit, without resorting to over physical tactics. Caldwell built up a big squad, packed with players who had too much ability for most of the opposition in League 1. His football followed a similar style to that of his Catalan mentor.

Many long-standing supporters recall the days of 4-4-2 with Nathan Ellington and Jason Roberts, a dynamic partnership in attack. Many still yearn for the more direct, but rarely negative, football of Paul Jewell’s heyday at Wigan.

However, neither Caldwell nor Joyce, managers of the modern era, are fans of the twin striker formation. There have been so many times this season, under both managers, when the centre forward has been lone in the true sense. There has been a reluctance to attack the opposition in the way that Jewell’s teams might have done. But that said, it was Wigan’s defensive record under Jewell more than anything else that propelled them up the divisions.

There are arguments on both sides, for and against possession football. Warren Joyce has support from many fans for his teams not playing in that way. However, when David Sharpe was in his early days as chairman he talked about wanting football played the “Wigan Way”. Whether that was a reference to the days of Martinez or Jewell is open to conjecture. But whatever way we look at it, the football served up so far by Joyce has come nowhere close.

What Latics fans want more than anything else at this moment is to avoid relegation. Joyce will be largely forgiven for serving up “ugly” football if he can keep the club in the Championship division. His followers will say that he has been working on tightening up the defence and the players’ fitness, that better football will follow once he has players he has signed himself, who can play the style he wants. His signing of no less than fourteen new players over the January transfer window suggests that this is what he is seeking.

Joyce’s problem with the new players is that so many have arrived short of match fitness due to lack of competitive football since the start of the season. Wildschut’s pace has been badly missed. Gabriel Obertan is a different kind of player, but has genuine pace. However, he lacks match fitness, his last appearance in Russia being on December 1. Moreover he had only made 6 starts and 2 appearances off the bench for Anzhi Makhachkala since August. James Weir too lacks match sharpness after not making any appearances for Hull City since his move from Manchester United in summer. Joyce appears reluctant to include Ryan Colclough, who was called back from loan at Milton Keynes Dons after scoring 5 goals in 18 appearances.

But then again, it is not so much the amount of attacking talents Joyce has on hand. It is more a matter of not withdrawing his midfielders into largely  defensive roles and fielding a lineup with more attacking intent.

Should Joyce wish to adopt a more attacking posture he will need a more creative player in advanced midfield. Josh Laurent made the bench on Saturday, but did not appear. Joyce also has at his disposal the 20 year old Jack Byrne, signed from Manchester City. Byrne was signed as a player for the future, but could play an important creative role this season.

The jury remains out regarding Warren Joyce’s abilities as a Championship manager. However, most fans feel he deserves more time in the job. Given the length of contract he has this is most likely. In the meantime we can only hope that he can focus on playing to win, rather than not to lose.

Wigan Athletic fans like to “Believe”. They will support Joyce in his fight against relegation.

But wouldn’t it be something if we did not go into games focusing not only on stopping the other team playing, but also stressing the importance of attack?

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Overloading the midfield

Preferred position - central midfield.

Preferred position – central midfield.

Owen Coyle had left it late, but he finally got his man on the last day of the summer transfer window in 2013. Nick Powell was 19 years old and still in Alex Ferguson’s plans. Manchester United had paid Crewe £6 million for his services in July 2012. Powell had made his debut for United just a couple of months later, scoring against Latics after coming on as a 71st minute substitute for Ryan Giggs.

“We see him as a central midfield player. Crewe played him as a forward in behind the striker, but I asked a question of [Alex director of football] Dario Gradi as to whether he thought central midfield was his position. That’s what he thinks, and Nick thinks that’s his position too, so we’re all in accord on that.”

Ferguson’s comment seemed to fall on deaf ears with Coyle, who was faced with injuries to his two main central strikers, Marc Antoine Fortune and Grant Holt. Powell was to be played as a centre forward, a position he had played earlier in his career. Over the next couple of months he was to establish himself as the club’s best striker, scoring three goals in Latics’ inaugural appearance in the Europa League. The disastrous Coyle reign ended in early December, but new manager Uwe Rosler continued to play him in the starting lineup. But niggling injuries started to take effect and Powell lost form. By the end of the season he looked a shadow of what we had seen in the short-lived Coyle era.

When Powell returned to Wigan a couple of weeks back many of us looked at his arrival as a boost for an attack so dependent on Will Grigg. Powell could step in as a centre forward, or play just behind the central striker. But in Powell’s first two matches against Blackburn Rovers and Birmingham City he was played as a central midfielder.

Although it was not a position he played in during his earlier days at Wigan, Powell has already looked the part playing there. It is his preferred position, although Gary Caldwell has acknowledged that Powell offers him flexibility through being able to play in different positions. However, if Powell is to be a regular starter in central midfield, who will be giving way for him?

Last season’s central midfield lynchpins were David Perkins and Max Power. They were joined in January by Sam Morsy, who had some highly impressive displays in the “Busquets role” in front of the back four. However, the ex-Chesterfield man also had some disappointing performances. However, many of us saw the 24 year old Morsy as a player for the future, someone who could add steel to the midfield, but who was also able to spray out pinpoint passes.

It was therefore a surprise to hear rumours that Latics were trying to sell Morsy. Both Chesterfield and Sheffield United have apparently matched Wigan’s asking price of around £400,000, but Morsy remains at Wigan, for the time being at least. Morsy will surely be loath to step back down to League 1, after reaching the Championship. He is within his rights to put his foot down and refuse to move on, having two years remaining on his contract at Wigan.

But over the past couple of years we have seen what a powerful machine there is at the club in “helping”, or maybe cajoling, players into moving on. The likelihood is that Morsy will be gone soon, with Latics recently signing a replacement in Shaun MacDonald.

The main contenders for a central midfield role are now MacDonald, Perkins, Powell and Power, with Tim Chow as back up. Alex Gilbey has so far been played a more advanced role, but could also challenge for a holding role.

The term “midfielder “ these days can include wing backs and other wide players. Yanic Wildschut is what might have been described in the old days as a “winger”, nowadays labelled as a midfielder, although he can also play a twin striker role. Michael Jacobs can also be classed as a winger, although his best position is probably in the hole between the midfield and the central striker. Ryan Colclough is usually played wide, but is another who might be more effective in an advanced central midfield role. However, Latics have now signed Jordi Gomez who can operate effectively in that role. Jordan Flores is a bright young talent, also an attacking midfielder. It could be a make or break season for Flores who has struggled with the physical demands of the game, despite his excellent technique and footballing vision. Andy Kellett will provide another option when he regains fitness after surgery.

Caldwell has such a wealth of midfield talent at his disposal that some would say it is an overload. Others would say that there are 46 games to play in a Championship season and you need to rotate your midfielders to keep them fresh. However, Morsy is not likely to be alone in leaving.

Caldwell continues to search for another centre forward of the quality of Grigg. Such players cost big money and he will be looking at raising funds to pay for it. It would not be a surprise to see other players from last season’s League 1 team following Morsy out of the door. In the meantime there could be loan moves for the some of the younger midfielders on the fringes of selection.

For the moment Latics have midfielders who have proven goalscoring records. Gomez and Powell both scored goals in their previous spells at the club and last season Colclough scored 9, Wildschut 7, Jacobs 8, Power 6 and Gilbey got 5. However, Caldwell will also look at protecting his defence and it would be no surprise to see MacDonald in the “Busquets role” if Morsy departs.

The transfer window is nearing its close. Having expected Caldwell to stick with the backbone last year’s team it was notable that the starting lineup in the first league game at Bristol City included five new faces.

Even more change is on its way.

A case for Haris Vuckic

Vuckic

After scoring three goals in each of their previous four home games Wigan Athletic returned to their prosaic style at the DW Stadium on Saturday. Gone was the invention from midfield and the rapid movement on and off the ball that unhinged the previous opponents. In its place was a ponderously slow build-up emanating from the lethargy of ten outfield players seemingly unable to create space for each other.

A goalless draw against an Oldham team second from bottom was a hugely disappointing result for a Latics team seeking automatic promotion. The critics will say that Gary Caldwell got it wrong tactically, being outmaneuvered by his Oldham counterpart John Sheridan. Sheridan had his players stifle the Wigan midfield and the home team struggled as result. Others will say that it was not so much that Caldwell’s tactics were wrong, but that the players just did not perform, whether it be through complacency or sheer inability to put through accurate passes on the day.

Oldham had come into the game having lost only two of their thirteen away games. Although in a lowly league position they had gained draws at Coventry, Gillingham and Walsall among others. Perhaps the Wigan players were complacent, underrating the opposition. Or maybe it was just an off day. But did Caldwell get his tactics wrong? With hindsight, what kind of lineup might have produced a more conducive end-product?

The injury to Wigan’s main creative player, Michael Jacobs, in the 1-1 draw at Crewe on January 23rd was indeed a major blow for Caldwell. Jacobs went off after 30 minutes to be replaced by Haris Vuckic. The Slovenian had shown himself to be the kind of player who can help provide a link between holding midfield and the forwards in the previous games, at home to Sheffield United and Chesterfield, Latics scoring three goals in each. However, Vuckic did not go on to finish the match at Crewe, Caldwell hauling him off after 74 minutes.

Vuckic was to return to the starting lineup in the 3-0 drubbing of Port Vale, but was withdrawn after 62 minutes. In fact the longest time the Slovenian has stayed on the pitch in his three league starts was 70 minutes against Chesterfield.

Caldwell and his recruitment team did a fine job over the January transfer window. Indeed the signing of Ryan Colclough from Crewe meant that Latics had another creative player of the ilk of Jacobs at their disposal. Surely Colclough and Vuckic could fill the gaps were Jacobs not to be available?

However, up to this point that has not been the case. Caldwell’s last signing of the January window was that of Conor McAleny from Everton on loan. McAleny was thrust straight into the starting lineup at Sheffield United, ahead of both Colclough and Vuckic who were on the bench. Latics fans have learned to expect surprises from Caldwell and this was another. However, Caldwell’s choice was vindicated with the Everton player scoring an opportunist goal and showing pace and industry.

However, on Saturday McAleny could not impose himself upon the game. He is a different type of player to Colclough and Vuckic and could play an important role especially in away games when he can use his pace in counterattack. However, the Oldham game was crying out for creativity in midfield. Sam Morsy was brought on at half time, allowing David Perkins and Max Power to push forward, but it was not enough. Colclough was eventually brought on after 76 minutes, being pushed to the wide right.

Vuckic will surely be disappointed not to have figured in the last two games after putting in creditable performances. He scored in his first league start of the season against Chesterfield and added an extra dimension to Latics’ play through his cultured left foot. The main criticism has been that he has been reluctant to fire the trigger when in good shooting positions.

On Saturday Latics started with McAleny and Yanic Wildschut playing wide, despite their 3-4-3 formation with wing backs. But the need for a “number 10” was clear to see. None materialized.

Haris Vuckic has had a frustrating time at Wigan, having been troubled by injury and so often being left on the bench. He has still not completed 90 minutes in a game. It had appeared that finally Caldwell was going to give him the extended run in the team that would enable him to reach peak fitness and match sharpness. But he has instead found himself back on the bench.

Too many players were poorly handled at the club by managers prior to Caldwell. So many left Latics without reaching their true potential.

It is to be hoped that Caldwell will do a better job in this respect than either Rosler or Mackay.

 

Winning with kids

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

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

“You can’t win anything with kids”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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