Latics again in a state of flux

Warren Joyce’s first game in charge of Wigan Athletic coincided with the worst performance of the season. In fact some fans are even comparing the display with those we would too often see in the Malky Mackay era, when a demoralised and mediocre squad was not able to avoid relegation.

But comparisons with the Mackay era are groundless at this moment in time. A new manager has come in to take over a squad that had not been accumulating the points needed to keep the club away from the Championship relegation zone. When a new manager comes in results so often take an upturn, but with difficult away games following at Barnsley and Huddersfield it is going to be a hard task for Joyce.

Opening match performances for new managers can be deceptive. Indeed Mackay started with a promising 1-1 home draw with Middlesbrough when Latics performed with spirit and played good football in spells. It was not to continue with them losing their next four matches. By the end of January five of the players who had started against Boro had left the club. Latics were in turmoil with so many quality players leaving in that transfer window, being replaced largely by journeymen and young loanees.

The turmoil continues at the club. It has now had five managers in the past three years, a far cry from the longevity of six years with Paul Jewell and four with Roberto Martinez. Although Latics had returned to the Championship with the momentum of winning League 1 only three players in the starting line up on Saturday – Michael Jacobs, David Perkins and Max Power – were at the club precisely a year ago. Moreover chairman David Sharpe had spoken of Gary Caldwell being at the club long-term, but the young manager only lasted 18 months.

The stats suggest that successful teams are built upon stability rather than turnover. Last season when Leicester City won the Premier League there were 10 players who started in at least 30 of the 38 games in the season.  Kasper Schmeichel and Wes Morgan started in all 38, Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy in 36. During the course of the season 20 different players started for Leicester, a figure which is relatively low but bears little comparison to the 14 starters used by  Aston Villa to win the first tier in 1980-81 and the 16 employed by Nottingham Forest three seasons earlier.

But Gary Caldwell used 34 players last season. Caldwell’s team was in a constant state of flux, but he still went on to win the League 1 title after a difficult start when the players took time to gel. He was to continue in the same vein, recruiting 14 new recruits over the summer.  But this time it was to be his undoing.

Instead of retaining the momentum of the team that had won the third tier he ripped out the core and started from scratch in key positions. The effective centre back partnership of Morgan and Pearce was superseded by Burn and Buxton, the excellent distribution and the authority of Jaaskelainen was replaced by a more agile, if less authoritative, Bogdan. In midfield the combative, but skilful, Morsy was replaced by the steady, conservative MacDonald. The right back position remains problematic, with nobody at this point impressing any more than Wabara did previously. The club’s most valuable asset, Will Grigg, has found himself too often on the bench, despite his good start to the season. One wonders if the centre forward will still be at Wigan by the end of the January transfer window.

Caldwell’s new players clearly needed more time to gel in such a competitive environment as the Championship. The manager made mistakes, but the decision to dismiss him once more puts the club in a state of flux. It could be one that the chairman will later regret.

When new managers take over at football clubs they invariably look at bringing in people they have worked with before. When Caldwell was dismissed the goalkeeping coach, Mike Pollitt, and chief scout Malcolm Crosby were also relieved of their positions. Further changes in the coaching and backroom staff look on the cards.

Indeed the rumours today suggest that Jimmy Ryan and Paul McGuinness, long term employees of the Manchester United coaching and backroom staff, could be joining Latics. But given that Ryan is now 71 years old and has been retired for the past four years one ponders on the veracity of the reports. On the playing front rumours suggest that Joyce is interested in winger Cameron Stewart, a free agent. Stewart started his career at Old Trafford, but his promising career has been punctuated by injury. Although still only 25 he has played at 11 clubs.

The state of flux at Wigan Athletic is therefore likely to continue as the new manager brings in his own coaching and backroom staff over the coming weeks. The January transfer window will then allow him the opportunity to bring in his own players, with the seemingly inevitable departure of some of the current squad.

Joyce’s preferred playing formation could well be the 4-2-3-1 which is becoming increasingly prevalent in English football. The line up on Saturday was conservative to say the least, with David Perkins playing wide on the right.  The manager hinted that he had had some help picking the team, but he picked a left footed midfield player on the right wing, who is not known for cutting inside and shooting. David Perkins remains an important figure at the club, but needs to be played in a position where he can be more effective. The preference of Adam Le Fondre over Will Grigg was another one open to debate.

The manager has got off to an underwhelming start at the club, but like Gary Caldwell, he will need time. His teams at Manchester United were known for their attractive football and it is to be hoped that he will continue in that style at Wigan, in contrast to his predecessors Owen Coyle and Malky Mackay. He has inherited a squad containing promising young players and others who are rebuilding their careers after difficult times of late.

It will be interesting to see if Joyce will restore Craig Morgan back to play a leading role as he did last season. It was sad to see the Welshman stripped of the captaincy and almost bundled off to Sheffield United as the deadline approached for the summer transfer window. That, plus the controversial departure of Jason Pearce and the banishment of Sam Morsy on loan to Barnsley must surely have caused some discord within the camp.

It is to be hoped that the chairman has learned from the lessons of the January transfer window of a couple of years ago, when the family silver was sold off for a pittance, resulting in relegation. It could be argued that the players who left the club then were of higher profile than those currently at the club, but Joyce and Sharpe must beware of ripping the heart out of the team as happened then.

The state of flux is going to continue for some time yet. In the meantime we will hope to see a pattern in what the new manager is trying to create, that the club does have genuine direction and that the constant toing and froing of players will abate.

There are going to be some tough months ahead. A more immediate target for the manager will be to lift the club clear of the relegation zone by the end of the calendar year. There are eight games coming up in that time.

Like us on Facebook, or follow us on twitter here.

Advertisements

Champagne football returns to the DW –Latics 3 Blackburn Rovers 0 – with match highlights

It was probably Nick Powell's best display in a Wigan shirt.

It was probably Nick Powell’s best display in a Wigan shirt.

It brought back memories of the champagne football of yesteryear. Admittedly Rovers looked a poor side, but the quality of Wigan’s play in the first half was reminiscent of that of those glorious times of the tail end of the 2012-13 season. In those days Shaun Maloney had been at the heart of it: yesterday it was Nick Powell.

Gary Caldwell stuck with the 3-5-2 formation. With Jake Buxton suspended, Stephen Warnock moved to left centre back, with Dan Burn in the middle and Craig Morgan on the right. David Perkins was played as a left wing back, with Nick Powell taking his place in midfield.

Wigan soon settled into a positive rhythm, building up from the back, but not averse to launching calculated long balls. The wing backs were lively, the midfield fluid and classy, the two forwards constantly searching for space. Latics’ high pressing caused Blackburn problems from the start and Alex Gilbey might have scored as early as the third minute after Yanic Wildschut had dispossessed centre back Shaun Duffy and rolled the ball into his path. Gilbey fired narrowly wide.

Given Wigan’s dominance it came as no surprise when they scored after 14 minutes. A glorious long diagonal pass from Morgan to Wildschut initiated a move that saw Max Power teed up for a shot from outside the box. Power’s shot was wayward, but Will Grigg instinctively got his head to the ball and it flashed into the net. The champagne football continued, with Powell orchestrating the play, together with his midfield partners, Gilbey and Power. Latics almost went two up after 25 minutes with Wildschut hitting the crossbar but another goal was surely coming. It happened in the 33rd minute when Powell curled in a free kick from the left side of the penalty area, goalkeeper Steele getting hands to it, but unable to keep it out.

Latics went into half time with a two goal lead after playing scintillating football. But one wondered if they could keep it going or whether they would go into their shells as they did at Bristol a week before. Could they keep up that same intensity?

It turned out that they couldn’t. However, although they were to take their foot off the gas they remained in control. As the second half wore on, Powell’s influence was to diminish, as was the high pressing that had characterized their first half display. Powell was to go off after 62 minutes, being replaced by Michael Jacobs.

The visitors had started to come back into the game, but a minute later an own goal by the unfortunate Duffy from a superb cross by Jacobs was to knock them back on their heels. Tim Chow replaced the excellent Luke Burke after 75 minutes, with Craig Davies coming on for an equally excellent Will Grigg after 81 minutes. The game was to peter away with Latics seemingly having Tuesday’s game against Birmingham City uppermost in their minds.

The Good

The signing of Nick Powell a couple of weeks ago was a gamble. Lacking first team football over the past two years and being beset by injuries, Caldwell was nevertheless hoping the player could regain that spark that he showed in Owen Coyle’s days at Wigan. But Powell’s midfield play was a revelation in this match, probably his best display in Latics colours. He looked a complete player in midfield, his technical abilities being allied with a keen workrate. Gary Caldwell later remarked that:

That’s what Nick can do when he has got his mind on it and he’s right. He’s been first class since he came in, worked really hard with the fitness coaches – credit to them for getting him fit – and I’d probably say he’s working at a fitness level of about 60% at the moment and yet you saw today what he could produce.

Alex Gilbey also had a fine game. He is another player with a great technique, but he was to ally that with excellent movement off the ball and a willingness to fight for possession. Although in some ways a similar type of player to Max Power there seems to be room in the Wigan midfield for the two.

Luke Burke continues to impress. He is the complete wing back, intelligent in his distribution, strong in the tackle, with a level of composure that belies his 18 years of age. One wonders how he will fare when used as an orthodox right back when the manager opts for a conventional back four. On the evidence of what we have seen so far he should slot in seamlessly.

David Perkins was also impressive at wing back, constantly supporting attacks, solid in defence. The back three were strong, Craig Morgan being his usual calm influence, with his fine distribution. Dan Burn looked much more comfortable in the centre of the back three, where he was able to use his height to greater effect, winning headers, but he was also effective on the ground. Stephen Warnock was excellent throughout, tenacious in the tackle, thoughtful in his positioning, showing better judgement with his passing.

There have been questions as to whether Will Grigg can perform above League 1 level. On the basis of this performance there is no doubt that he can. Although faced with two uncompromising central defenders he led them a merry dance, his intelligent movement creating space. Yanic Wildschut was also impressive in a role where he has freedom to roam, rather being tied to a wide position which makes it easier for the opposition to nullify his efforts. Moreover the Dutchman is showing an increasing awareness of the positioning of his colleagues, more effective in his passing.

The Bad

Once again the second half performance was a disappointment after the first. Is there something in the players’ mindsets, is it a fitness issue, is it the manager’s desire to drop back on defence and hit on the counterattack? Or is it associated with the natural ebb and flow of a football game?

Whatever it is it needs to be addressed. Not only is it unfair on the fans, who go to a match hoping for entertainment, but it also lets teams off the hook who could have been dead and buried if the intensity had been kept up.

Uwe Rosler used the high pressing tactic to great effect during his better days at the club, although his players were unable to sustain it beyond the first half. Yesterday it was enough to unbalance the Blackburn defence in the early stages, but it dissipated as the game progressed.

It would be refreshing to see a Latics team, in the lead at the interval, come out and attack the opposition as soon as the second half starts. One can understand a team taking its foot off the gas in the final quarter, given another encounter being just three days away. But the second half slump is something that needs to be addressed.

Player Ratings

Adam Bogdan: 7 – had a fairly quiet time.

Luke Burke: 8 – excellent.

Craig Morgan: 8 – an understated, consistent performer and a calming influence on the defence.

Dan Burn: 8 – his best game so far.

Stephen Warnock: 8.5 – seems to relish that left centre back position. Influential.

David Perkins: 8 – as selfless as ever, but showing no mean level of skill too.

Max Power: 8 – getting back to his old form. Will he claim an assist for Grigg’s goal?

Alex Gilbey: 8.5 – looks a class player.

Nick Powell: 9 – a terrific display.

Will Grigg: 8.5 – a fine performance. His goal bore the stamp of a true poacher.

Yanic Wildschut: 8 – very good.

Substitutes:

Michael Jacobs: – came on after 63 minutes. Worked hard.

Tim Chow: – on for Burke after 75 minutes.

Craig Davies: – it was good to see the big man come on in the last 10 minutes for a tired Grigg. There have been rumours that he is on his way out of the club, but his physical presence gives Caldwell more options.

 

 

A big step towards automatic promotion – Gillingham (H) match reaction & highlights

 

“This can give us belief, though, and we can kick on from here

So commented Gary Caldwell after Craig Morgan’s 96th minute header had given Wigan Athletic a crucial victory over promotion rivals Gillingham. Despite the victory Latics remain in 5th place, but they are now only 6 points behind the 2nd place Gills, with a game in hand. Automatic promotion is now looking a distinct possibility.

The visit of the high flying Gills was never going to be easy for Latics, who had not beaten any of the teams above them up to that point. For most of the game Gillingham played with the confidence one could expect from a team in their position. They were well organised in defence and purposeful in attack. In contrast Latics looked pale and disjointed. However, after Gillingham went two up on the 53rd minute mark one wondered if that fighting spirit that Caldwell’s new era Latics has shown over the course of recent months would resurface. It certainly did, but it was aided by a couple of defensive errors from the visitors to seal the game for Wigan.

Caldwell decided to return to a formation that could be labelled 3-4-3, but was more precisely 3-4-2-1. He recalled Leon Barnett to play in a backline of three, with Craig Morgan and Jason Pearce. Donervon Daniels and Reece James were the wing backs, with Max Power and David Perkins in holding midfield. Will Grigg was the lone striker with Michael Jacobs and Andy Kellett in “number 10” roles between him and holding midfield.

Latics started cautiously in a scrappy first half that did not reflect well on the standards of League 1 football. Over the past decade or so at Wigan we have got used to watching players of high technical ability on the pitch, but there was not so much evidence of that last night. Gillingham manager, Justin Edinburgh, has done a fine job in building a promotion-challenging squad on a budget of around £2m. The whole has been more than the sum of its parts for the Gills this season, whereas the same could not be said for Caldwell’s Latics with a budget four to five times as big. Too often in the first half Wigan players would misplace their passes. Grigg was left in a truly lone striker role, with Latics rarely throwing enough players in the opposition penalty box. The wing backs were not pushing up and central midfield was too static.

Gillingham playmaker Bradley Dack hit the inside of the post with a superb free kick after 14 minutes as Latics just could not get coherence into their play. But Latics kept plugging away and Pearce should have scored from Perkins’ cross instead of poking a weak shot at the Gills keeper Stuart Nelson from close range. The ball had fallen to Pearce’s weaker right foot.

But it came as no surprise when in the 25th minute Dominick Samuel’s pace took him past Pearce and his shot beat Jussi Jaaskelainen at his near post. Despite still not playing well, Latics continued to plug away. Jacobs had a shot saved by Nelson, then Kellett found himself unmarked at the far post from a corner but put his header woefully wide. Soon after it looked like Jacobs was going to score, latching on to a low cross from Daniels, but he could not make the necessary contact and another chance went begging. Latics went off at half time a goal behind after not playing well, but if they had taken their chances they would have been ahead.

One wondered if Wigan would step up their efforts in the second half, but their performance in the opening minutes was worse than what we had seen in the first half. Gillingham were attacking with purpose and Latics just could not string their passes together. On 53 minutes Rory Donnelly headed home an inswinging cross from the right, too easily evading his marker Daniels. Caldwell immediately responded by bringing on Chris McCann to replace James at left wing back and Jordy Hiwula for Kellett. The shape moved to 3-4-1-2, with Hiwula partnering Grigg upfront.

With the extra forward in place Latics looked more dangerous in attack and within a quarter of an hour Hiwula’s cross from the left was nodded back by Jacobs at the far post for Grigg to force home with his left foot. The goal breathed life into Latics and they started playing with more confidence. Three minutes later a speculative long range shot from Power found the net due to awful handling by the Gills’ goalkeeper Nelson. Latics were back into the match at 2-2 with 23 minutes of normal time remaining. They were getting on top, although Gillingham continued to threaten the Wigan goal at times. Somehow 6 additional minutes were added on. Craig Davies was brought on in the first of those minutes as Latics launched long balls up front. They went on to score in that final minute when Gillingham left Craig Morgan unmarked from a corner which he headed home.

The Good

Once again Latics showed the fighting spirit needed to get back into a game that looked lost. Caldwell’s substitutions were to prove effective. McCann made surging runs through the opposition defence in a way in which James had previously been unable. Hiwula added an extra attacking threat in partnership with Grigg.

The win over Gillingham has not only helped narrow the gap between Latics and the teams above them, but it will boost confidence. It is the “belief” to which Caldwell was referring that is the key to a serious challenge for an automatic promotion place. The next step is to pick up three more points in the home tie against Sheffield United next Tuesday.

The Bad

As in previous games where Latics have come back with a late rally the questions are once again being asked about Caldwell’s tactics. The 3-4-2-1 system that he employed is surely better suited to playing away from home. In the first two thirds of the game Latics looked lightweight up front, with insufficient attacking intent. It was only when Caldwell brought on another forward and switched to 3-4-1-2 that Latics posed a more consistent attacking threat.

Once again we saw a hesitant, nervy start with Latics seeming to treat the Gills with too much respect. Is it a lack of confidence that underlies this trend? Or is it tactical?

In a post-match interview captain Craig Morgan acknowledged that the team’s version of possession football might not go down too well with the fans, but intimated that it pays dividends later in the game as opponents tire after chasing after the ball so long. Gillingham certainly wilted in the closing minutes, possibly paying the price for disrupting Wigan’s game by high pressing. Or was it psychological in that their goalkeeper had let Latics back into a game that they thought they had all but won?

The debates will continue not only as to whether Caldwell should play with twin strikers, but also whether the emphasis needs to be changed from a slow, methodical approach towards a more direct and dynamic style.

 

Don’t panic, but find the right blend

TableDec

Another awful performance and the doom and gloom is back in full force on the message boards. No wonder – within the space of a week Latics have lost at home to two sides in the relegation zone of League 1, albeit one defeat being on penalty kicks. With a budget more than four times higher than most clubs in the division can we not expect better performances from Gary Caldwell’s team? How much longer can we say that the team is still in the gelling process?

Is it time to press the panic button? Max Power does not think so.

“I don’t think it is time to panic; every team goes through a sticky patch and if this is ours then I fully believe we’ll come through it on the other side,” Power explained on the official WAFC site. “Saturday was only our second league defeat since September and that says a lot about us as a team but we know the last couple of weeks haven’t been good enough and it is up to us to put it right.”

This time a year ago Malky Mackay had been in charge for almost a month. Sadly Latics had not won any of their first four matches since his arrival, which had sparked mayhem from the media. But the optimists among us hoped that Mackay would get rid of the dead wood that was chewing away at the fabric of the club. Those were the players who just did not seem to care. They needed clearing out, with new players coming in who would give their all when wearing a Wigan Athletic shirt.

The disastrous regime of Mackay will be etched in our memories for years to come. But there are lessons to be learned from it that should be borne in mind in the present. Fans had been peeved with what appeared to be a lack of effort from the players that Mackay had inherited from Uwe Rosler. It seemed to give Mackay carte blanche to jettison no less than sixteen of them in the January transfer window. Household names were dispatched for minimal transfer fees with hardly a murmur. Sadly the net result was that Mackay was left with a threadbare squad of dubious quality, with the numbers being made up by young rookies from Premier League and other Championship  clubs. Relegation was the sad consequence.

As always when a team goes through a rocky patch there is criticism of the manager through the social media. Caldwell’s tactics and team selections are certainly under attack at the moment. Some point to him being a rookie manager, making mistakes along the way. Some of the comments can be off-the-wall, but others can be thought-provoking, like this one from Yon Mon on the Vital Wigan forum

“We play the same way no matter which players play. No matter what formation we play. Bring the ball halfway into the opposition’s half, pass sideways, pass backwards, pass forwards to the same point give it to Wildschut he then attempts to beat the 2 or 3 players on him. Sometimes he does sometimes he doesn’t. If he’s successful he then either shoots or plays across a crowded goalmouth. Trouble is our 1 or 2 players there are crowded out. It’s predictable and other teams have sussed us out. Where’s the variation? Where’s the movement upfront? Where’s the support when we attack? It’s too slow and it gives other teams time to get back and crowd us out. About 7 or so games into the season GC said he’d stopped having other teams watched because when they came here they played completely different. Has it not occurred to him it’s because we’re easy to play against and all they have to do is crowd us out to stop us being effective?”

Donnys Page  on the Cockney Latic forum echoes similar sentiments after the Blackpool game, although the writer acknowledges the need to give Caldwell more time :

“It wasn’t pretty. Slow, monotonous, boring. A continuation from last week. Not good enough. One pass to foot in the box to Grigg. Nothing in midfield but sideways and backwards movement and slow build ups. Again a job done by Pool and an easy job at that. We never stretched them at all. Got to give Caldwell a bit more time though. A month ago things were going quite well but at the moment clubs have us sussed unless he changes something.”

Horc responded to Donny on that same thread by making strong suggestions:

“Its time for a total clear out of everyone involved with the footballing side of Wigan Athletic who worked with and under Martinez and start again as it is just a continuation of the boring, negative, sideways and backwards, predictable crap we suffered under him for four years but with worse players.”

Sammy Salt 1968 on the forum of This Northern Soul opines that:

“We are pedestrian and predictable . So easy to play against . Every club has worked us out now . They let us have our possession , save their energy and then press us and counter our cart horse defence . We suffer from delusions of grandeur that we can a play a patient continental game and pass teams into submission . You would think we were on a dry pitch in August the way we set up with no plan to beat the elements as well . I am sure there is a role for both long and short corners but we seem to always take wrong option . There is total absence of a leader….”

Caldwell is under pressure at the moment, but as Max Power said, it is not time to panic. Despite gaining only one point from their last three league games, Latics remain in the playoff zone, in sixth place, just five points away from an automatic promotion spot. At the start of the season, given the almost complete turnover of the playing staff, I for one would have been satisfied with a mid-table position by Christmas.

Nor every Wigan Athletic fan was a lover of Roberto Martinez and his style of football.  Many see Caldwell as an acolyte of Martinez. They see the frustrations of the Martinez era returning under Caldwell. Patient possession football is not the order of the day for those who yearn for the days of Paul Jewell’s 4-4-2.

However, like Martinez, Caldwell will stick with his beliefs although he will surely be pragmatic enough to recognise when things are not working. Under managers such as Coyle and Mackay the hoof was the order of the day for defenders who did not know what to do with the ball. They were both poor appointments and set the club back on its heels. In the Caldwell era, as it was in that of Martinez, the hoof is frowned upon and players who do not have the self-confidence to do something imaginative merely pass the ball sideways or backwards.

Martinez always had a creative player capable of unlocking a visiting defence. Shaun Maloney, Victor Moses and Charles N’Zogbia were totally different in their styles, but were capable of doing something special.

Caldwell seemed to have that to some degree in Michael Jacobs earlier in the season, when he was playing in the hole between the holding midfield and the central striker. Jacobs was to be superseded by the arrival of Yanic Wildschut, who was devastating in his role of cutting in from the left wing, with blistering speed, not only unleashing powerful shots but providing superb assists.

The advent of Wildschut, combined with a knee injury sustained against Shrewsbury, has impacted upon Jacobs’form. He has been too often pushed away from his best position towards the right wing where he is much less effective. Moreover Wildschut is now not only heavily marked by the opposition, but defenders have started to figure out how to play him. He is not having the same impact that he was a few weeks earlier.

During the unbeaten run of eleven matches, Latics rarely looked like world beaters. So often good results were hiding unimpressive performances.  But they had an attacking threat. The more forward players were running into space, looking to receive the ball. Midfield was coming up in support.

In recent games these things have not been happening to the same degree. Too often a player can receive the ball in the middle of the field and have no other option but to pass the buck. Such a habit is contagious. Players who are fighting for their places in a very competitive squad are reluctant to make mistakes which can ultimately lead them to lose their place in the starting lineup.

On Saturday Caldwell chose a starting lineup that must have been pretty close to his eleven best available players, based on their form over the course of the season. On paper it looked a positive team selection.

However, choosing your best available players is not always the way to choose your potentially most viable lineup. Sometimes combinations of certain players just don’t work. You need the water-carriers and the flair players. It is the blend that is the key.

Question marks remain about the viability of playing the two best central strikers – Davies and Grigg – with Wildschut on the left wing. Moreover none of the three are likely to perform the levels of defensive duties necessary to keep things compact.  That, in turn, puts added pressure on the midfielders, who are expected to both support the attack and repel counterattacks.

Wildschut is an exciting player to watch and has made a huge impression since his arrival. His permanence at the club could prove crucial to Latics’ promotion chances. However, Caldwell needs to consider how best to use him. In the Martinez days of 3-4-3 Victor Moses was essentially a winger with freedom to roam. He was not strong on his defensive duties. However, he linked up well with his wing backs. Both Emmerson Boyce and Jean Beausejour were excellent in those functions. One did not feel that Moses cramped their style.

However, if Caldwell’s team plays 3-4-3, with the Dutchman in his preferred position on the left wing, one wonders about the difficulties the young left wing back, Reece James, must face. James is expected to attack, but his space is limited by having a left winger in front of him.

The lack of recent form of Michael Jacobs is a concern for Caldwell. Jacobs is the main creative force at his disposal. To get the best out of the player he needs to be played in that central advanced midfield role. He also needs a good share of the ball. Haris Vuckic is an obvious candidate for a similar role, but has not even appeared on the bench in recent games.

The lack of creativity in midfield has been a worry for Latics over the past weeks.  Max Power and David Perkins are largely involved in physical battles for the dominance in the middle of the park. Caldwell faces the choice of playing two holding midfielders with two wing backs in the 3-4-3 system, or three parallel midfielders in a 4-3-3 formation.

There are fans calling for wholesale changes in the January window. However, Caldwell must be cautious in his transfer dealings. Having endured problems in the gelling in of so many new players, he will be cautious about bringing in too many more. He simply cannot afford to have too much turnover, as happened in the Mackay era last January.

Caldwell’s dilemma is that he may need to leave out  some of his best players to provide a balanced and functioning unit. It is going to take some bravery on his part to do that.

 

Concentrating on the League

Davies2

“I was thinking to myself: last minute, against my old club, this is going to drop for me, I’m going to put them out. It was just one of those things. The ball’s ended up going a couple of yards behind me. It wasn’t meant to be, and we just have to get on with it.”

So said Craig Davies to Wigan Today.

There is an old saying in football that it is results that count. If that pass had reached Davies and he had put the ball in the back of the net then Wigan Athletic would almost certainly have reached the northern final of the Football League Trophy. The result would have overshadowed the poor performance.

In fact results have overshadowed poor performances on various occasions this season, as Gary Caldwell’s sides have battled back in the closing minutes to put things right. Last gasp winning goals from Jordy Hiwula at Chesterfield and Francisco Junior at home to Swindon, together with Will Grigg’s late equaliser at home to Millwall, added an extra five points to Latics ’tally. Without them Wigan Athletic would not be in the playoff zone now.

It had looked like another last gasp winner was coming against Barnsley, but sadly this time it did not.

Gary Caldwell was said to be “hugely disappointed” with his team’s exit from the competition.  A home game against League 1’s bottom club had looked like the passport to the Northern Final of the competition.  We had been looking forward to visiting Wembley once again. But hopes were dashed after the manager had struggled to muster five players to take the spot kicks. Barnsley had won a League Cup match against Scunthorpe through a penalty shootout, 7-6 in their favour. They were to go on to show enough confidence to do it again.

The disappointment of the defeat, of which even Caldwell himself admitted that Barnsley had merited their win, has been hard for fans to take. As always, the blame for such a poor performance falls on the manager’s shoulders. The social media and message boards are once more bristling with criticisms of Caldwell’s style of play and team selections. But one or two brave souls continue to sticks their necks out by suggesting that it is the players who are to blame for displays like that. Caldwell himself even went as far as to say that “If I was a player that played today, I’d be very worried about my place.”

As with the previous performances against Shrewsbury, Burton Albion and Southend United so many of Caldwell’s key players had not played up to expectations. The lack of form of Michael Jacobs and David Perkins has been particularly worrying, although it was always going to be hard for the two of them to keep up the high standards of performance they had maintained prior to the arrival of seasonably bad weather.

Recent matches have been played in particularly difficult conditions, which are hardly conducive to the style of football that Caldwell seeks. In such conditions against League 1 opposition, Latics will need to play with a more direct approach, as they did at Southend. There was no lack of effort or fight from the players on that occasion and they were able to grind out a 0-0 draw that could easily have turned into a victory if one of Leon Barnett’s three fine efforts had gone in. But the first half ploy of launching long balls to the twin strikers, Grigg and Revell, just did not work. It was only when Craig Davies had come on in the final quarter that the long balls started to work more effectively.

Sometimes a player’s arrival in a team can correspond to a change in fortunes. This has certainly been the case for Caldwell’s team.

Both Yanic Wildschut and Jussi Jaaskelainen made their debuts against Walsall in early October. Many fans would say that their arrival in the lineup was instrumental in Latics extending an unbeaten run of three into eleven.

Wildschut had come on as a substitute in the 46th minute. He followed up with a man of the match performance at Crewe, scoring a spectacular goal. The Dutchman went on to terrorise opposition defences for the next month. He still retains that capacity, although the opposing teams are now wise to his threat and are finding ways to deal with him, sometimes legally, sometimes not.

Given the player’s explosive style, Caldwell has used Wildschut carefully, often taking him off around the two thirds mark. The manager had talked during the week about the physical demands on Wildschut’s body, arising from his style of play. He chose to leave the big winger on the bench on Saturday, bringing him on after half time. Wildschut’s loan period from Middlesbrough ends on January 2nd. The player has added so much more of a goal threat to the attack that Caldwell will be desperate to fix up a deal with the north eastern club come January.

Boro manager Aitor Karanka apparently does not include Wildschut in his future plans. Wildschut does not meet his tactical plans, not least by his unwillingness to track back and help out his full back. It is not only Wildschut’s lack of defensive awareness that has impeded his career in the past, but an inability to lift his head and be aware of the situation around him. Wildschut continues to frustrate, but has not only scored three good goals, but also made a similar number of excellent assists. He is invaluable to the Wigan Athletic attack.

Jaaskelainen has impressed in his ability to dominate his box and to marshal his defence. He adds calmness to the defence through his experience and knowledge of the game. The other goalkeeper, Richard O’Donnell lost his place primarily because of his lack of forcefulness in his own box. He will clearly need to work on improving this aspect of his game. In early season O’Donnell was too often faced with dealing with awful back passes from defenders passing the buck to him and putting him under pressure. Following an uncharacteristically bad mistake at Bury, O’Donnell’s confidence is probably at a low. But he had an excellent record at this level with Walsall and was rated as one of the division’s top keepers.

Jaaskelainen exudes confidence through his pedigree as a top Premier League goalkeeper over many seasons. However, at 40, his reactions are not as quick as they were. At least some of the goals he has allowed would most likely have been saved by O’Donnell.

Alex Revell’s arrival met with instant success in his first two games, but less than that in his next three. Revell started on the right of an advanced midfield in the 4-2-3-1 system that Caldwell used at the start of the 2-0 away win at Rochdale. Then Revell scored a well-taken goal in a target man role with a header in the 1-0 win over Shrewsbury. But he was unable to impress in the confrontations with Burton, Southend and Barnsley. At 6 ft 3 in Revell is comfortable in the target man role, but his career record shows he has never been a consistent goal scorer. Fans continue to be puzzled why Revell gets the nod ahead of Davies in the starting lineup.

But perhaps Caldwell’s ploy of playing Will Grigg and Revell together was not such a bad one. The bright spot of the Barnsley game was seeing Grigg put away two goals in the manner of a true goal poacher. After the game the player admitted that he had not played particularly well, but it is goals that win matches and Grigg is the most likely to score them for Wigan Athletic. Although he scored a bagful of goals playing as a lone striker for MK Dons last season, Grigg would surely thrive playing alongside a big target man whose physical presence can draw away defenders and create space for him. The question is whether it should be Revell or Davies in the target man role.

Caldwell took a gamble on playing the left footed Andy Kellett at right wing back against Barnsley, which probably did not come off as much as he would have liked. The absence of both Donervon Daniels and Donald Love had forced his hand to some degree, although he could have called on Tom Chow. The renewal of Love’s loan period for another month will help Caldwell provide cover for that right back position, provided the young player can stay fit. Bringing in a raw young player on loan to a side seeking promotion is always going to draw criticism from fans, but Caldwell clearly rates the Rochdale-born lad highly.

In fact Love’s current loan spell will come to a conclusion four days after the transfer window opens on January 3rd. By then Caldwell will have decided whether he wants to negotiate with Manchester United on making Love a permanent signing or to seek another extension of the loan period. He will have to make similar decisions for Junior and Shaun Murray, both talented midfield players, but who have not shown enough to merit a regular place in the side up to this point. Revell’s permanence at Wigan will to a large degree depend on whether Grant Holt will be returning from his loan spell at Wolves, which ends on January 2nd. Caldwell has already voiced his enthusiasm to keep Wildschut, whose loan period also runs out on January. Wildschut might not be the finished product, but appears indispensable to Wigan’s promotion push.

Securing Wildschut on a permanent contract is going to depend largely on David Sharpe’s willingness to pay Middlesbrough the fee they will seek. This in turn might well depend on possible outgoings from Wigan. Economics could well dictate the departures of players on Championship level salaries, whose contracts expire at the end of the season. Latics might well seek small transfer fees in some cases, but the main concern is that of reducing the monthly wage bill. Leon Barnett, Don Cowie and Chris McCann are in that position.

Getting knocked out of three cup competitions has hardly been pleasing for the fans. The awful FA Cup exit at Bury was followed by dreams of Wembley being quashed by League 1’s bottom club. But for Caldwell, in his quest for promotion back to the Championship, it could turn out to be a blessing in disguise.  His players will be focused on one thing only – the league.

Latics currently lie 5th in the table, five points behind an automatic promotion place. This is despite the team rarely clicking on all cylinders. But, cup competitions apart, results have been remarkably good for a squad with 21 new players.  The home tie with Sheffield United on Boxing Day will be the 23rd league game, the half way point of the season.  If the team can overcome its recent jitters there is a strong possibility that Latics will be within close striking distance of an automatic promotion place by New Year.

As the season has progressed Caldwell’s players have gradually started to gel as a working unit. However, up to this moment in time the whole has not equaled the sum of its parts. A major concern for Caldwell will be the possibility of further turnover of playing staff in January. Will the economic side of things at the club be in his favour or against him?

Caldwell needs continuity in terms of his playing staff, not more wholesale changes which will further slowdown the gelling process. It could be argued that he would be wise to stick with what he already has, although quite a bit of that is beyond his control.

It remains early days in the “new era” at Wigan Athletic. The January transfer window is another hurdle to be crossed.

Caldwell, Sharpe and their recruitment team did so well in the last transfer window. The question is whether they can make the right decisions in January.

Promotion will largely depend on what happens.