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.

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Short term loans or home grown talent?

Francisco Junior's one month loan has been extended to January.

Francisco Junior’s one month loan has been extended to January.

The last match of the 2014-15 season at Brentford typified the kind of football we had been witnessing far too often.

Latics had dominated the game up to the 25th minute, at least in terms of possession. But once a wicked deflection had beaten Lee Nicholls a team with such brittle confidence was never going to be up to the task of getting back into the game. What was to follow was merely a replay of the football we had seen so often over those past months.

Toothless in attack, woeful in defence, passing awful. But there were some saving graces in that 3-0 whitewash.

Gary Caldwell had already sent Leon Clarke back to Wolves and he left out young loanees Josh Murphy, Sheyi  Ojo  and Jerome Sinclair for the visit to Griffin Park.  Moreover he had given Tim Chow the chance to show what he could do in the first team, the 21 year old rewarding his manager’s faith with a headed goal in his first start against Brighton. Caldwell was to give Lee Nicholls his first start of the season in goal. Then after 64 minutes he introduced the 19 year old Jordan Flores and 18 year old Louis Robles for their debuts.

Caldwell’s actions looked like a bold statement at the time, giving a chance to home grown players. Fans had been asking questions for months. Why had Malky Mackay continued to ignore the young talent already at Wigan, giving priority to those from the likes of Liverpool and Norwich?

Caldwell was to continue in a similar vein in the pre-season, bringing in a host of development squad players alongside the senior professionals for the games at Altrincham and Southport.  Then Flores, Robles and Ryan Jennings were to make the starting lineup against Partick Thistle, the latter scoring a well taken goal. Sadly Chow was injured in the next game at Dundee and has not yet reappeared. But Flores was to go a step further with an excellent performance in his first competitive game as a starter against  Bury in the League Cup, with Jennings making his debut off the bench.

Caldwell has sent a clear message to the youth ranks within the club – if you can show you are good enough we will give you the chance. Had he learned from the mistakes of his hapless predecessor?

Mackay’s first signing had been that of Liam Ridgewell on a six week loan. Fans immediately questioned the value of such a short term loan, some suggesting that Portland Timbers had sent him to get match fit for the upcoming MLS season.  Ridgewell certainly did not look fit in his first game, being taken off after 45 minutes at Birmingham. However, little by little he was to impose some stability into a rickety Wigan back line. Mackay was to replace Ridgewell with the loan of Harry Maguire from Hull.

With the departure of thirteen senior players over the January transfer window, Mackay had a mountain to climb. It could be argued that the loan of Ridgewell was  a qualified success and Maguire did even better. Mackay was unlucky in losing the experienced loanee Chris Herd to serious injury early on in his stay, but it was his signing of young, developing players from other clubs that was to mystify the fans.

However, Mackay was faced with the likelihood of a threadbare squad and had to find loan players to bring in. The mid-season loan market was never going to supply Mackay with the quantity of experienced players he needed to fend off relegation. Moreover the signing of young loanees would come with strings attached, their clubs wanting some kind of reassurances that their players would be given first team opportunities.

Despite the positive messages Caldwell has sent out to young players within the club, he has also involved himself in the recruitment of young loan players, with Francisco Junior (23) and Sean Murray (21) being signed on a one month basis, and Jonjoe Kenny (18) for two months.

Having created a positive impression, both on and off the field, Junior’s loan has since been extended until January.  Should he continue to progress there would be a likelihood of a permanent deal, given that the player’s contract at Everton terminates at the end of the season. In the case of Junior it can be argued that the club had given itself time to fully assess the player before committing itself to a more long term deal.

Murray’s  case has been less straightforward. Junior had been recruited in July, giving him time to settle in during the pre-season. Murray joined in early August, making his debut as a 72nd minute substitute  at Coventry. He was ineligible to play in the League Cup match against Bury, but came back as a substitute against Doncaster (54th minute), Scunthorpe (76th minute) and Gillingham (46th minute). Unlike Junior, Murray has a wealth of senior team experience with 75 appearances for Watford, despite being only 21 years old.

With the impending returns of Tim Chow and Emyr Huws from injury, Caldwell has a significant number of midfielders at his disposal. On Saturday he chose to bring on Murray ahead of Max Power who has impressed in his early games for the club. Time is running out on Murray’s loan and Caldwell may be faced with having to make a decision on the player’s future at the club without being able to give him a starting berth.

Kenny is clearly a different type of proposition to Junior and Kenny. Although only 18 years old he is already looking like a future Premier League player.  With the injury to Kevin McNaughton, Caldwell will be leaning heavily on the youngster in the coming weeks. Although there may be possibilities for permanent signings in the cases of Murray and Junior, it is a matter of time before Kenny goes back to Everton. Should Caldwell be able to lengthen Kenny’s loan beyond that initial two months period he will surely do it.

Caldwell has already brought in 15 new players to the club and there will surely be more to come in the next couple of weeks. Some will be permanent signings, others loanees. There will also be more outgoings.

The long saga of Billy Mckay and Dundee United will surely be resolved soon. Caldwell had given Mckay his first start in that Brentford game and it will probably be the Northern Ireland international’s last at the club. With Mckay off the books and Shaq Coulthirst back at Tottenham, Caldwell will be anxious to bring in another striker, even if Grant Holt regains full fitness and is back by October.

Rumours are circulating regarding interest in Wycombe’s 22 year old central defender Aaron Pierre. The futures of both Leon Barnett and Chris McCann remain uncertain.

Caldwell will surely continue to keep the door open for home grown talent. Sending the 18 year old Sam Cosgrove out to Barrow on a short term loan looks like a good move. One wonders if Caldwell will look at similar opportunities for the likes of Flores, Jennings and Robles, or whether he will be able to offer them ample first team opportunities with the club.

In the meantime Caldwell will continue to scour the transfer market. His squad is close to being complete but there are still pieces missing in his jigsaw puzzle. Moreover it will be interesting to see if he will continue to look at short term loans as a means of assessing players with a view to signing them in the future or uses them as temporary to provide replacements to cover for injuries.

The “new era” has begun with one outstanding performance and four indifferent ones. However, the changes in the squad are still not complete and it is going to take some time before everything comes together. Despite the young chairman’s unfortunate “smashing League 1 ” statement it is clear that there are going to be some difficult times ahead for Caldwell and his squad.

A mid-table place by Christmas might be the best that we can expect. It is in the second half of the season that we are most likely to see Caldwell’s plans move towards fruition.