Unlocking the Powell enigma

Can Caldwell unlock the enigma who is Nick Powell?

Can Caldwell unlock the enigma who is Nick Powell?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The return of Chris McCann

Mcann

Relegation from the Championship saw a Wigan Athletic fire sale that was surely unparalleled in the club’s history. Players on Championship-level salaries were jettisoned at bargain prices as the club made efforts to drastically slash its wage bill with the prospect of much reduced revenues in League 1. It was anybody’s guess who would remain from last season’s squad as the cull neared its completion.

Many of us thought they would keep up-and-coming young talent and cash in on the players with rich Championship or Premier League experience. It was therefore a surprise to see the 28 year old Chris McCann line up for the opening match of the season at Coventry. Here was a player who had appeared disaffected in the latter part of the previous season, who had not started a game since early February.

McCann could have been expected to be one of the first to be offloaded. But it was not to be. In fact, the Dubliner has played in all eleven league games up to this point. His versatility in being able to play in midfield or on the left side of a central defensive trio has been of paramount importance to Gary Caldwell, given the injury problems he has already had to cope with.

Owen Coyle must rank as one of the most unpopular managers that Wigan Athletic have ever had, although most fans would probably rank Malky Mackay even lower. Coyle lasted less than six months in charge at Wigan before he left “by mutual consent”.

Coyle was given the mountainous task of taking Latics back into the Premier League within a year, together with leading through an historic Europa League campaign. He inherited a group of players who had played under the tutelage of Roberto Martinez, but given the mass exodus of players in the summer he had a lot of recruiting to do.

Coyle’s first signing was to be Chris McCann. The Dubliner had played under him at Burnley and was available for free at the end of his contract. McCann had been at Turf Moor since arriving from Home Farm in 2004. He had an outstanding season in 2008-09, when Burnley won promotion to the top tier of English football. Sadly he sadly was only able to make half a dozen Premier League appearances for the Clarets before receiving a cruciate knee injury. McCann returned in January for a couple of games before injury ruled him out for rest of the season. However, the Irishman was to come back to start in 83 Championship matches over the next two seasons. But he was unable to once more reach the heights of that promotion season form at Burnley, with further knee problems not helping.

McCann’s early performances for Latics were solid, if uninspiring. Some said that Coyle had brought in an ex-player who was not up to par and was snubbing players from the Martinez era. However, McCann gave a fine display against Rubin Kazan in the Europa League, being tireless in defence, with his cultured passing when under pressure helping Latics keep possession. He followed that up with a fine performance at Charlton, being unlucky with a flick header that hit the crossbar. McCann had clearly now settled in and was to become an important cog in Coyle’s machine.

McCann must have wondered what would come next when Uwe Rosler replaced Coyle in December 2013. The Irishman is not the world’s most fortunate footballer and he was sadly sent off in Rosler’s first match in charge, leading to Latics being eliminated from the Europa League. Latics had been a goal up at Maribor when a shot from the edge of the box hit McCann’s upraised arm after he had turned his back to the shooter. It was clearly not intentional, but the Polish referee not only gave a penalty, but also gave McCann a yellow card. Since he already had an earlier one he was sent off.

But McCann was to become a key player for Rosler in Latics’ rise up the table and into the FA Cup semi-finals. He would usually operate on the left of midfield, where his surging runs forward, accurate passing and toughness in the tackle were a real asset. However, from time to time Rosler would play him on the left of a back line of three. He was playing in that position in the FA Cup sixth round match at Manchester City on March 9th, when he sadly fractured his knee cap during the first half of what was to be another stunning victory. Once again a serious injury had interrupted McCann’s career.

He was to make his return as a late substitute at Brighton on November 4th, in the penultimate game of Rosler’s reign. Mackay’s first match as Wigan manager saw them draw 1-1 at home to Middlesbrough, with McCann putting in an excellent performance. He became a frequent starter, although his performances had started to wane. McCann’s last appearance as a starter was on February 7th in a home defeat to Bournemouth. After that he was limited to three appearances off the bench for the remainder of the season.

McCann has staked his claim for a future under the management of Gary Caldwell. He has had his downs in his career, particularly with injuries, but continues to show his resilience. He has bounced back after appearing to be on his way out.

When McCann plays at the back Latics are pretty much guaranteed cultured passes coming in from the left hand side. Moreover at 6 ft 1 in and with a strong tackle McCann is able to cope with the physical side of defensive play.  However, his best position is on the left side of a trio of midfield players. It is from such a position that his attacking abilities are most effectively employed. On occasions when he has been played as one of two holding midfielders he has been less effective.

It has been a remarkable turnaround from McCann. Although seemingly destined to leave the club he has stayed and fought his way back to a regular starting place.

Over the coming weeks, providing the injured players gradually ease their way back in, it will be a challenge for McCann to maintain his place. But then again, given the player’s resilience, who can say that he will not be a key player in Caldwell’s plans?

Rebuilding on free transfers

 

Caldwell will be checking out the availability of good players at the ends of their contracts.

Caldwell will be checking out the availability of good players at the ends of their contracts.

On this same day two years ago, Wigan Athletic were suffering from the pain of relegation from the Premier League. Six players from the senior squad had already found other clubs after being freed from their contracts. Speculation was mounting about the futures of others whose contracts had run down and when the big clubs would come in and snatch prized assets still remaining.

Owen Coyle had been appointed manager just ten days before with the brief of getting Latics back into the Premier League. Given the prospect of more players leaving, plus the necessity for a large squad because of Europa league involvement, Coyle clearly had a lot of recruiting to do. However, he was to resist going for big money transfers, instead relying on picking up players at the ends of their contracts or those available at discount prices.

On June 27th he made his first signing, Chris McCann from Burnley. The next day he picked up Stephen Crainey from Blackpool, then three days later Thomas Rogne from Celtic. All were on free transfers. During the month of July he was to pick up two more free transfers in Marc-Antoine Fortune and Juan Carlos Garcia, paying transfer fees for Scott Carson, Grant Holt and James Perch. With the new season approaching he paid transfer fees for Leon Barnett and James McClean. However, the total transfer fees paid by Coyle were modest compared with the incoming funds from the sales of James McCarthy and Arouna Kone.

By the start of the season Coyle had signed ten players, five on free transfers and five more for relatively modest transfer fees. In early September he was to sign Nick Powell and Ryan Shotton on loan.

Gary Caldwell too is currently facing a challenge putting together a squad that can challenge for promotion, albeit from League 1. Following a similar timeline to that of Coyle in his early days, he has  signed three players, all on free transfers. He has also been linked to signing players whose contracts have terminated, but whose clubs will be due some compensation as a consequence of their youth. John McGinn (20) of St Mirren and Max Power (21) of Tranmere Rovers , despite their youth, are experienced midfield players. They could prove to be valuable long term acquisitions, should Caldwell manage to acquire their services.

Caldwell has already managed to bring in probably around £2m in transfer fees through the outgoings of Scott Carson, Rob Kiernan and James McClean. He will gain more in his coffers as soon as James Perch is sold off. Reports suggest that he made bids for Sam Clucas of Chesterfield, but the competition from other clubs has driven the player’s value up beyond that Latics should pay. For the moment he will concentrate on finding clubs for the highest wage earners, meanwhile scouring the market for young, up-and-coming talent.  The likelihood is that he will be stuck with a significant number of players that he would have liked to move on, simply because no other club is willing to offer them the kinds of deals they seek.

Coyle has been criticized for his signings, particularly those of Holt and Fortune, who were both 32 at the time. Although he did not pay a huge transfer fee for Holt, offering him a three year contact became an issue. On the other hand, it was remarkable that given the limited time he had available, he put together a squad good enough to challenge for promotion.

Coyle’s problem was always going to be one of melding together two disparate groups, the ex-Martinez players from the Premier League, together with his mish-mash of ex-top  flight players and proven players from lower divisions.  But more than anything else with Coyle it was the lack of a defined style of play that crippled his teams. Too often the long ball would prevail, anathema to the Martinez disciples. It was to prove his undoing.

Caldwell has already clearly enunciated the style of play he expects. Players may be coming in from other clubs where the long ball has been the norm, but they will be required to play in the style the manager requires. Clubs have already shown that they can get out of League 1 playing good football, even if the majority rely on more traditional methods.

Up to this point one could say that Latics’ signings so far have been somewhat underwhelming, but these are early days. Like Coyle, Caldwell will pay fees for potentially key players, providing he can stay within his budget.

Not only does Caldwell face a challenge in signing a sufficient number of the “right kinds” of players, but he faces a bigger challenge in helping them gel into a functional unit. The training camps over the next month or so are likely to see a changing spectrum of different faces as players come and go. With so many players to move on, and so many to bring in, it is unlikely that the camps will be able to provide the “gelling” that they are primarily aimed to produce. Caldwell will have to deal with players who want to move on, but cannot, and their effect on morale. Not an easy prospect.

Given the sheer number of players that Caldwell is going to need to bring in and his budgetary constraints it is likely that more free transfer men will be brought in. However, one recalls the fine form of Chris McCann until he fractured his kneecap in the FA Cup win at the Etihad. Good players sometimes let their contracts run down in the hope of finding something more lucrative, as did Antolin Alcaraz, Franco Di Santo and Maynor Figueroa a couple of years ago.

It appears that Max Power is now on the verge of signing and Oriol Riera is staying with Deportivo. Press reports from Spain about the Riera transfer saga have been plentiful, but the figure for the fee has varied according to the source. The bottom line is that Latics will take a significant loss in terms of transfer fee originally paid and that to be gained in the coming days. Significantly Andy Delort did not show up for training, suggesting he is heading for new pastures, once again at a major financial deficit.

As July approaches the transfer activity is going to hot up. The sooner he can get all his squad in place, the better it will be for Caldwell. Players coming from other clubs will have to adapt to the style of football the Scot will dictate and the process will take time, as will the process of gelling as a team.

The advantage is that this time around the players will know what is expected of them, as they fit into a well-defined style of play.

One can only reflect on where Latics would be now if that had happened just a couple of years earlier.

The controversial MAF

Fortunemiss

“Marco is a quality player and we were very impressed by just how well he did for us last season. People say he didn’t have a fantastic scoring record. But look at the goals from midfield after he came in. The goals the other boys scored because the way he played was phenomenal. Marco had a great ethic about him in his training as well as his playing. He was a privilege to work with.”

So said Peter Grant when Marc-Antoine Fortune signed for Celtic in July 2009. Grant had moved to a coaching position at Celtic after a spell at West Bromwich Albion, where he had previously worked with the French Guianan.

Celtic had paid Nancy a fee of £3.8m for “MAF”, after he had impressed in a loan spell with West Bromwich in the second half of the 2008-09 season. MAF had become a fan favourite at the Hawthorns and after 18 appearances and 5 goals he was voted ‘’Player of the Season”.

Sadly times have changed for MAF. A mere mention of his name among Wigan Athletic supporters will cause controversy.

The player appears shot-shy, unwilling or unable to make the probing runs off the ball that are expected of a striker. But despite a record of 7 goals in 70 appearances (including 43 starts), MAF continues to figure prominently in Malky Mackay’s plans. It causes a considerable amount of consternation among the majority of fans. Put simply, how can a player with such a striking record regularly make the starting lineup?

However, MAF does have his supporters who will say that he is a real team player, with his strong hold-up play and willingness to chase. Moreover on occasions when he has been substituted during the course of a game, Latics’ play has got worse, not better. The team so often seems to play better when he is on the pitch.

At 33 and nearing the end of his contract, will there be a possibility of him staying at Wigan? He has never been a prolific goalscorer, but there have been spells at clubs where his record has been well within the acceptable range. Is he at the end of his career now or can he still show that he can score goals more often?

That move to Celtic had been potentially the high point of MAF’s career, but despite scoring 10 goals in 32 appearances for the Glasgow club, he could not live up to his price tag and new manager Neil Lennon shipped him off to West Bromwich a year later.

MAF was not able to relieve his previous highs in his second spell with the midlands club, but nevertheless stayed with them for three more years. He was to score 10 goals in 62 appearances.

When Owen Coyle took over as Wigan Athletic manager in the summer of 2013 he had a major rebuilding job to do with a squad that had been decimated following relegation from the Premier League. Coyle had been given a year to get the club back into the Premier League. His recruitment plan was to largely focus on seeking experienced professionals who had played in the Premier League.

In his signing of Grant Holt and MAF it looked like he had found a good blend of strikers. Holt was the bustling, goalscoring centre forward, with MAF the foil, through his unselfish and hardworking support. Sadly the partnership never really got together , with Holt dispatched off on loan in January.

Their lack of success had drawn criticism from many fans of Coyle’s signing of two 32 year olds on long term contracts. With the departure of Holt on loan the focus fell more and more on MAF. Under Coyle he had made 19 appearances, which included only 8 starts. His solitary goal had come ironically from a superb crossfield pass from Grant Holt at Yeovil. However, he was to find favour with new manager Uwe Rosler under whom he made 15 starts and 15 appearances off the bench, scoring 4 goals.

When Oriol Riera and Andy Delort were signed early on in the current season, and with Martyn Waghorn’s proven goalscoring record, it had looked like MAF would fall well down the pecking order. But he has come bouncing back. Riera and Delort are gone, Waghorn is marginalised and new signing Billy Mckay finds himself warming the bench. MAF has weathered the storm, working under three managers at Wigan, all of whom have shown faith in his abilities.

So far this season MAF has made 22 starts, with 5 appearances off the bench. He has scored 2 goals and made no assists. The last time he scored a goal at the DW Stadium was in February 2014.

Despite the value MAF might add through his hold-up play and commitment can Malky Mackay continue to justify his inclusion in a team desperately short on goals?

Has Mackay considered playing MAF wide on the right, where he can play an effective role but not labour under the burden of scoring goals?

The controversy appears set to linger on until the end of a bitterly disappointing season.

 

 

Can Malky’s new players gel in time?

embers

The flames of Malky’s fire sale have now subsided. Only the embers remain of the most successful era in Wigan Athletic history.

Is there method in this apparent madness in selling off the family silver? Does Mackay know what he is doing? In what direction is the club heading?

Malky Mackay may well be the least popular manager in Wigan Athletic’s history. But perhaps only someone with ratings so low would be willing to withstand the ire of the fans by selling off the club’s most talented players. Did Dave Whelan bring him in as the axe man, ready to chop away the dead wood, so that new and stronger roots could start up? Is that why he has seemed relatively unconcerned about the awful results during his tenure? Is he at Wigan for the long haul, come what may?

The club is at its lowest ebb for decades. There is no doubt that we will be seeing a new reality over the next couple of years. Gone are the glory days of entertaining the rich and famous clubs of English football. Moreover it looks like we can also forget about attacking football. Mackay’s teams have been built on defence and resilience, unattractive but effective. But even that would be an improvement on what we have seen these past months.

Over the transfer window Latics lost ten players, four of whom played in the FA Cup Final. Only one of those heroes now remains – the 35 year old Emmerson Boyce. Mackay was not fully able to stick with his plan of recruiting “hungry British players”. He did manage to get Leon Clarke, Billy McKay, Sheyi Ojo, Jason Pearce and Liam Ridgewell. But he also signed Cameroonian Gaetan Bong and Australian Chris Herd, with Korean Kim Bo-Kyung seemingly about to become the eighth new player.

One of the concerns under Uwe Rosler was that a squad of 30+ players was too big. Most of us expected a considerable slim down in squad size. In fact with Juan Carlos Garcia coming back from an unsuccessful loan period at CD Tenerife the squad has not shrunk much at all. Granted Latics have shed many of their highest wage earners, but the current squad certainly looks much lower on quality, if not in quantity.

Some fans would say that Uwe Rosler made appalling signings and put Latics into the situation they are in at the moment. Others would say that the players he signed had genuine potential, but they could not adapt quickly enough and never reached the levels expected. Then again, it could be argued that they were not well handled and that led to their demise.

Typical of football managers, Rosler wanted to bring in his own men. He went on to sign ten on permanent contracts. That made the squad large, with inevitable problems. His demise was precipitated by those players not gelling in the squad.

To be fair on Rosler, he had taken over players who had been recruited by managers whose preferred style of play was diametrically opposed. He did well last season to keep some kind of harmony between the ex-Premier League players of the Martinez era and the mish-mash of quality players and journeymen brought in by Owen Coyle. But bringing in his own men added an extra dimension of complication that eventually was to become insurmountable.

Now Mackay is trying to do the same.

However, unpopular though he might be, Mackay has had the blessing of the majority of fans in making major changes in the playing staff. Put simply, players on fat contracts just had not performed as they should. It has given him carte blanche to cull the legends of the Martinez era, something Coyle was unable to do.

The acid test remains for Mackay.

There are 18 matches remaining for Latics to salvage a season where promotion was once a realistic possibility. Relegation looms.

Fans will back Mackay in bringing in new men, “refreshing the squad”, in his vernacular. Given the woeful lack of commitment by the players over the course of the season, it has been looked on as necessary.

However, in the process he has lost most of the creative talent that was there. However, he could say that those players were not being effective and his new charges may be less talented, but can achieve more.

Frankly speaking, some of the players brought in by Mackay during this transfer window would not have been signed in previous eras. Expectations have been lowered.

However, he now faces the problem that Rosler had. That is “bedding in” of his new players. With only 18 games left that is a major issue.