Caldwell’s summer shopping list

Will Grigg has been on fire but the dust has now settled on Wigan Athletic’s achievement of winning League 1. Now it is time to look ahead to the start of the Championship season on August 6th.

shoppingGary Caldwell will surely be relieved that he will not have to go through the massive restructuring of last summer. But at the same time he will know that the current squad will need strengthening if Latics are to hold their own in the higher division. At least half a dozen reinforcements are likely to be brought in.

Caldwell’s immediate priority will be to deal with players out of contract and players who have come in or gone out on loan.

Caldwell has already secured the services of Stephen Warnock for the next couple of seasons following a very successful loan from Derby County. Warnock has looked a class act in League 1, whether playing as a left back or on the left side of a back line of three. However, he is 34 years of age and it comes as a surprise that a contract of more than a year was offered.

Rumours also suggest that Caldwell is trying to tie up a deal with Everton for Conor McAleny. The 23 year old scored 4 goals in his 9 starts and 4 appearances as a substitute since joining Wigan on loan in January. McAleny’s career has been dogged by injury, but Caldwell must feel reasonably confident that the player can maintain a good level of fitness. McAleny can hit the ball as hard as anyone, as evident on the screamers he scored at Walsall and Shrewsbury.

Haris Vuckic is the third loan player who finished the season for Latics. The 23 year old Slovenian has a great left foot and can both score and create goals. The question mark over Vuckic has been his fitness. He made 5 starts for Latics, but never completed the 90 minutes. Vuckic has reportedly gone back to Newcastle and given his inability to establish himself at Wigan it is unlikely he will be sought after by Caldwell.

Caldwell has the option of bringing back three players who were packed off on loan to other clubs at the start of last season. With Reece James and Stephen Warnock, Latics do not need another left back, so it is likely that Andrew Taylor will once again be sent away on loan until his contract expires in June 2017.

Billy Mckay was given minimal opportunities at Wigan, but has scored 12 goals in 28 starts for Dundee United who finished bottom of the SPL. However, it is reported that there is interest in him from other Scottish clubs and it is unlikely he will return.

The prospect of Emyr Huws playing in midfield with the likes of Max Power is mouth-watering, but it appears that he might have burnt his bridges at Wigan. Huws is a combative midfielder who oozes class, but comments attributed to him as not wanting to play for Latics when they were going down to League 1 were unfortunate to say the least. Moreover it appears that the ankle problem the player suffered at Wigan has continued to plague him. Huws has another two years to run on his contract and the likelihood is that Latics would accept any reasonable transfer fee put forward.

There are seven players out of contract. Both Leon Barnett and Chris McCann were recruited by Owen Coyle in the days when the club’s annual salary bill was well above what we can expect for the near future. Barnett is an experienced ex-Premier League player, but has found it difficult to adjust to the possession football that Caldwell demands. McCann on the other hand has thrived under Caldwell. The Scot has not only called on him to play in the centre of defence as he did at times under Uwe Rosler, but has reinvented the big Irishman as a wing back. Although Barnett’s stay at the club looks to be coming to a close, Caldwell will be keen to retain McCann, although he will have to ask the player to take a significant salary cut if he wants to stay.

Reece Wabara was signed on a short term contract in January, since when he made 14 starts with 3 appearances off the bench. Although Wabara has by no means played badly, neither has he convinced us that he must stay. Wabara is already being linked with other clubs and rumours suggest he is on his way out of the club.

Kevin McNaughton missed most of the season out through injury and although the 33 year old Scot is an accomplished full back it is unlikely Caldwell will offer him a further contract.

The positions of three younger players who are out of contract are unclear. The 23 year old goalkeeper Lee Nicholls has amassed nine league appearances over his five years or so at the club. He has had loan spells at six clubs, his most successful being in 2012-13 when he was an ever-present for Northampton Town. Fan opinions on Nicholls vary. Some say that he is the kind of commanding keeper that Latics need and that successive managers have never given him the chance he has deserved. Others cite a lack of concentration, that some of the goals he has conceded should have been easily saved. Rarely has the rift in fan opinion been more apparent than in the last game of the season. On the Vital Latics forum 18% of readers voted him ‘’Man of the Match’’ whereas others slated him for all four Barnsley goals. The signing of young Dan Lavercombe from Torquay in January could prove a key factor in the decision whether or not Nicholls will be offered a new contract.

The other two young players whose contracts are due to expire are Jordan Flores and Ryan Jennings, both 20 years old. It was always going to be hard for young, inexperienced players to break their way into a team aiming for promotion. Both have certainly showed promise, although only Flores played in league games this past season. He made two league starts, both in September, scoring a fine goal against Fleetwood but getting sent off at Oldham a week later. Flores has had injury issues, but he has a great left foot and shows some silky skills. Jennings made his senior Latics debut as a substitute in the League Cup game against Bury and has been on loan at Grimsby and Cheltenham, making a total of 9 starts and 9 appearances as a substitute.

So what are the areas that need strengthening?

David Sharpe has recently made it clear that Latics will not be spending big money to bring in players in their late twenties or beyond. However, that does not preclude money being spent on young players who have already shown what they can do at other clubs. Any more experienced players coming in are likely to be free agents or those available at knockdown prices.

With Jussi Jaaskelainen now 41 years old, Caldwell is likely to seek an experienced goalkeeper to challenge the Finn for his place. Rumours suggest that they will once again try to sign the 32 year old Andy Lonerghan. The ex-Preston and Bolton man has a wealth of experience and is midway through a two year contract at Fulham.

Right back was a problem position last season and Caldwell will be keen to recruit someone who can fill the bill. Donald Love (21) could be that player should Latics be able to persuade Manchester United to part with him for a reasonable fee. Love’s loan spell at Latics was interrupted by injury and call-ups from the Scotland under-21 team, but he did enough to suggest that he would be a good investment for Wigan.

Caldwell will also be looking for a quality central defender with the speed to cope with pacey Championship forwards. With the likely departure of Barnett it will be a priority.

Rumour suggests that Latics are interested in the 31 year old Darren Pratley, a holding midfielder with a wealth of experience with over 300 appearances under his belt at Swansea and Bolton. Together with the 22 year old Danny Whitehead, signed from Macclesfield Town in January, Caldwell would be adding a balance of youth and experience to his midfield if he were to sign Pratley.

Caldwell will also seek another centre forward. Much depended on Grigg last season and Latics need alternatives in case he is called up for international duty or injured. Craig Davies had his most injury-free season for some time, but was only used as a substitute in the second half of the season. Caldwell will broaden his options by going for a third central striker.

Should Vuckic not be returning, another left footed winger/creative player would help maintain a balance. Ryan Colclough, Michael Jacobs, Conor McAleny and Yanic Wildschut are all right footed although Andy Kellett can play a left footed role on the right of midfield.

Caldwell and his recruitment team have done a fine job over the past year. Their next challenge is to find half a dozen new recruits who can add further balance to a squad that is going to have to come to grips with playing at a higher level this coming season.

Can Latics hold their nerve for automatic promotion?

In March 2014 Uwe Rosler’s Wigan Athletic team were challenging for a playoff place in the Championship division. During that month they went on to amass 14 points from their 7 games, losing only one by a 1-0 margin at QPR. They looked odds-on to reach that playoff place, which they did finally achieve, but not without a stutter as they picked up just 11 points from their last 9 matches.

Rosler’s team had peaked too early and just could not maintain their form over the final six weeks of the season. They put up spirited displays in the semi-final of the playoffs against QPR, but just could not show the kind of intensity they had shown a couple of months earlier.

Gary Caldwell’s team too has been peaking, going on a 14 game unbeaten run. Their last defeat was against Blackpool on December 12th. Have they peaked too early? Can they hold their nerve and get an automatic promotion place?

Burton Albion’s defeat at Bradford on Tuesday evening could well prove to be a turning point for what remains of the season. They still stand four points ahead of Wigan Athletic, but significantly they no longer have games in hand. After being so consistent for so long is there a chink in Burton’s armour? They have now only won one out of their last five matches.

The most optimistic of Wigan Athletic fans are now seriously talking about their team winning the division. Burton have some tricky fixtures coming up in the final 11 games of the season. Four of those are against teams currently in the top six promotion zone – Millwall (A), Latics (H), Barnsley (H) and Gillingham (H).

Other than having to play at Burton, Latics have to play just one other team from the current top six – Barnsley (H) on the last day of the season.

This current Wigan Athletic team is capable of beating any other team in team in League 1, Burton included. They are have the capability to go the remainder of the season unbeaten. But they are also capable of producing poor results against teams they would be expected to beat. In recent home games they have failed to beat struggling Oldham and Peterborough and a 1-1 draw at Crewe in late January was disappointing.  But it was the shock 1-0 home defeat to Blackpool in mid-December that sparked the surging run they are on at the moment.

In their last 6 league games Latics have won 3 and drawn 3, an average of 2 points per game. Of the other teams in the top six only Barnsley have done better with 13 points, followed by Millwall on 11 points, Burton on 8, Gillingham on 5 and Walsall on 3.

Looking at stats for games played up to this point  it looks like the teams gaining automatic promotion this season will need less points than has been the norm over the past decade. It has been the kind of season where teams are closer in level, where they can quickly climb up or abruptly slide down the table within half a dozen games. However, for Latics to gain automatic promotion they are likely to need at least 86 points. That would require an average of 2 points in each of the remaining eleven matches.

Tomorrow’s game at Colchester is another of those potential banana skins upon which Latics have slipped several times this season. In their last six games Colchester’s record is LDLDWL. They lie in bottom place ten points from safety and have won just three home games this season.

All teams tend to have injury problems at this time of year and Wigan Athletic are no exception. Michael Jacobs and Reece James have been out long term and are still recuperating. Jussi Jaaskelainen is likely to return following concussion received against Peterborough, but both Conor McAleny and Jason Pearce are doubtful for tomorrow.

Caldwell commented this week that  “Whilst it’s a big disappointment to have players out, it’s an opportunity for other players to come in and show what they can do. It’s up to those players who haven’t been playing but have been asking to play and wanting to play to be ready for the opportunities.”

One of those players the manager could be referring to is Kevin McNaughton, who completed a full 90 minutes for the development squad on Tuesday. The Scot may not start at Colchester but could come on later in the game. Haris Vuckic is also due to reappear at some stage.

In addition to potential injuries Caldwell is likely to lose Will Grigg to the Northern Ireland squad for their friendly matches on March 24 and 28. Craig Davies is the obvious replacement, although he has not completed a full game for a long time.

Now is the time for Latics to hold their nerve and let the other teams cut each other’s throats. A late season dip in form like that which happened to Rosler’s team is what they must guard against.