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.