Seeking a balance in midfield

A more balanced midfield with Paul Cook in charge?

“So close to a famous win, absolutely devastated. Atmosphere was incredible.

So tweeted James McArthur after Harry Kane’s late equaliser had robbed them of victory in a game they did not really deserve to win.

He had come on as a substitute at the beginning of the second half in the cauldron that Hampden Park so often can be. In the eyes of an admittedly biased Wigan Athletic fan he should have been on from the start, but James Morrison and Scott Brown were chosen instead.

But seeing McArthur brought back memories of his partnership with James McCarthy. Both were signed from a modest club in Hamilton Academical, seemingly “players for the future”. But what a future it proved to be for them at Wigan as the pair became the engine room of the club’s greatest ever successes. Pitched up against the likes of Gerrard, Lampard and Scholes they held their own, famous victories over England’s richest and most powerful clubs resulting.

Roberto Martinez had developed what was loosely called a 3-4-3 system. McArthur and McCarthy supplied the energy and vision from the centre of midfield, with the excellent wing backs Emmerson Boyce and Jean Beausejour providing the width. One of the front three, Shaun Maloney or Jordi Gomez, would drop back to reinforce midfield and add to the creativity. The end result was a balanced midfield, capable of challenging the best in the land.

It is more than three years now since McArthur left Wigan, McCarthy having gone a year earlier. Since then Latics have had a plethora of midfield players pass through the club. The Macs had played together for three years, developing a mutual understanding, covering for each other when it was needed.

But last season that kind of understanding was sadly lacking, players too often being unable to find their teammates with their passes. Midfield players who had been key in winning League 1 the previous season had clearly found the step up to the Championship a tough one. Perhaps Gary Caldwell had realised that the midfielders of the title winning team might struggle in the higher division. He brought in reinforcements in Shaun MacDonald, Alex Gilbey and Nick Powell, but the latter two were to be stricken by injury. MacDonald had been a box to box midfielder at Bournemouth, but Caldwell was to use him in a “Busquets role” in front of the back four. He had used Sam Morsy in that role in the previous season, but the player had been dispatched off to Barnsley on loan.

MacDonald went on to become a rock in front of the defence, also being favoured by Warren Joyce when he arrived in November. Although he would rarely show the range of passing that we had seen from Morsy, MacDonald was equally firm in the tackle and his reading of the game. Moreover he was strong in the air. Sadly his horrendous injury at Reading is likely to rule him out for the large part of the coming season.

As part of his return from Barnsley, Morsy had been offered an improved contract with Joyce being keen to get him back. With MacDonald anchoring at the back, Morsy was pushed forward into a more creative role where he initially seemed to thrive. However, Joyce’s obsession with 4-5-1 was to mean that any midfielder’s role was to be primarily defensive. Like the other midfielders, Morsy just did not look as effective as he had earlier. The midfield was to shoulder the bulk of the frustration of fans wanting to see them push further forward to support the lone centre forward. The lack of creativity was to be exacerbated as Joyce was to play four central midfielders in his starting line-up, a tactic that was also to be followed by Graham Barrow when he took over as caretaker manager.

Latics fans will be hoping for a more positive approach from new manager Paul Cook. Cook’s preferred formation appears to be 4-2-3-1, so it is unlikely he will use someone in the anchor role occupied by MacDonald. David Perkins has been given a new short term contract, although he is now 35. However, Perkins was the Player of the Year in League 1 in 2015-16 and his infectious enthusiasm was a key element in the team’s success. Max Power was the subject of an offer by Birmingham City in January. Although he had a disappointing season he remains a young player with good technique who might well benefit from a move. Morsy has already proved himself in League 1 and would surely be in contention for a place, but his increased salary might prove too much for Latics to swallow, given their much decreasing revenues. It would be no surprise if both Power and Morsy were sold over the summer.

Cook already has players who can form the trio behind the centre forward. He has those who can play wide in Michael Jacobs and Nathan Byrne, plus “number 10s” in Jack Byrne, Alex Gilbey, Josh Laurent and Nick Powell. Nathan Byrne has genuine pace, making Joyce’s decision to send him on loan to Charlton difficult to understand. With both Wildschut and Byrne leaving his side was distinctly short of pace. Rumour suggests that Byrne had a falling out with the manager and was dispatched as a result. It could be that the player has already burnt his bridges at Wigan and will be gone over summer, but he has a fine record in League 1 and could be an important player, if he were to stay. Salary could also be an issue.

For the moment Latics are short on holding midfielders and Cook will be looking at bringing in at least a couple more. He will also look for more wide players. Jordan Flores can play wide on the left of midfield, but there is still no news of him signing a new contract.

Finding the right balance in midfield will be of paramount importance to Paul Cook if he is to build a squad good enough to get the club back to the Championship division. Continuity is something that has been so lacking at Wigan over the past three seasons. Ideally Cook will put together a midfield not only to get the club out of League 1, but also one which can serve the club more long-term as did the “Macs” in the Martinez era.

 

 

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Jack Byrne –the best of the January 2017 signings?

 

Warren Joyce must have been looking forward to the January transfer window. It presented him with the opportunity to bring in his own men. Joyce had been appointed in early November to take over a squad used to playing possession football under their previous manager. Joyce was determined to change that approach to a more direct style of play.

But by the time the window had opened he had won just one of the nine games he had been in charge. Getting the right players in during the January window was never going to be easy. Clubs are not keen to lose key players in mid-season and the pickings in January tend to be thin.

Joyce went on to contract six new players, plus another seven on loan. He had a fair amount to say about the new arrivals, but his words about Jack Byrne were kept to a minimum:

“Jack is one for the long-term, a really hungry player who we feel can develop here over the next few seasons, a real talent.”

It was almost as if he was playing down Byrne’s signing, although the player had been given a three and a half year contract and had excellent reviews as a young player at Manchester City. The sale of Byrne did not go down well with quite a few City fans, frustrated that another talented young player coming through the ranks had been sold off. The transfer fee was of the “undisclosed” category, but City were unlikely to let the player go for peanuts. They had sold another talented young player to Latics a couple of years earlier. Wigan paid them around £2.5 m for Emyr Huws, who was 20 at the time. City would expect something substantial for Byrne, also 20.

One wonders if Joyce himself was responsible for Byrne’s signing or whether it was someone else within the club. Patrick Vieira, Manchester City youth team coach, had said a year ago that: “If you want to play direct, Jack will be useless but if you want to keep the ball on the floor, and you need someone really creative, Jack will be the player who can do that.” Joyce’s preferred playing style was certainly “direct”.

Byrne did not set foot on the pitch for the senior team during Joyce’s reign which was prematurely terminated in mid-March. But he does seem to feature in Graham Barrow’s thinking, having come on off the bench in the recent wins over Rotherham and Barnsley.

Born in Dublin, Jack Byrne joined Manchester City as a 14 year old. Byrne has played for the Republic of Ireland at U17,U18 and U21 levels. In 2014-15 he was a key player in a  Manchester City team that reached the quarter finals of the UEFA Youth League, scoring 6 goals in 8 appearances, including two against Bayern Munich.

Last season Byrne was sent to Cambuur to play in the Dutch Eredivisie. He made his debut in mid-September against FC Twente after a 6 week layoff due to an ankle injury.

The Irish site SportsJoe spoke to the Chairman of  De Kern van Cambuur (the Cambuur Supporters Club), Kees Elzinga. Referring to Byrne he commented:

Jack reminds me of the Welsh player Gareth Bale but he could probably learn a lot from Wesley Sneijder is mostly playing midfield and is able to give long distance passes to his left and right wing teammates. He also tries to get forward and threaten the goal of the opponent and he tries to score with long distance shots. Jack is well known in our Premier League; Dutch television (mostly FOX Sport) shows quite a lot of his actions and other teams do their best to keep him out of the play.”

 

Byrne went on to play 27 games for the Dutch team, scoring four goals.

Following a successful season in Holland, Byrne was sent on a season-long loan to Blackburn Rovers  last summer. It turned out to be a bad move for him as Owen Coyle so often left him out of the lineup. Byrne’s loan was cut short and he returned to Manchester City in early January.

Wigan Athletic have been desperately short of creativity this season. Jordi Gomez was too often sidelined before leaving in January. Both Nick Powell and Alex Gilbey had long spells out through injury. Byrne appeared late in the 85th minute against Rotherham, but was brought on after 54 minutes against Barnsley. His Wigan Athletic career has now been kick started.

Of all the January signings Byrne was perhaps the least heralded. But given his talent he will surely play a key creative role for Latics over the coming season, if properly nurtured. He has the ability to become a top player. Only time will tell if he proves to be the best of the January 2017 signings.


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High turnover but what’s changed? A perspective on Wigan’s latest window

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Management hates it, the media loves it, fans have little choice but to be glued to it in hope and trepidation. Transfer deadline day is bigger business every year that goes by. It’s one of the ways – the lack of a winter break being the other obvious one – in which the British game likes to make things that bit more complicated (and profitable) than the rest of the world.

For clubs that swapped managers during the first half of the season, the January transfer window has become an opportunity for the new regime to stamp its authority on the squad. Ship out players that don’t fit the tactical model; replace them with players that do; balance the books by shedding big earners and reinvesting in problem positions. It’s a pattern that has become all too familiar at Wigan, with last year’s success in League 1 the notable exception.

There are a couple problems with this approach. First, you have less time in January than in the summer, not only to recruit good players and find a home for high-earning misfits, but just as importantly to provide incomings the tactical and personal adaptation period they need to succeed. On top of that, you have to navigate an inflated market to negotiate fair prices for players, which can be particularly challenging if you appear desperate, as one does in a relegation fight, for example.

Another unpleasant feature of the January transfer window well known to Latics, particularly in the Premier League days, is the risk of losing your most successful players. It tends to be instigated by agents or players themselves, and to materialize in the dying hours of the window, preventing the club from finding an adequate replacement. Sometimes, these decisions become of huge financial importance to the club, and their approval is beyond the manager’s control.

Add to this Wigan’s very limited spending power compared to its Championship competitors – and you realize what a big ask we as fans are making of the manager. It’s worth pausing to put oneself in Warren Joyce’s shoes. There are plenty of arguments claiming the manager should only be judged after a window. I’d take them a step further to suggest that’s still nowhere near enough time. The new players haven’t had a pre-season with him; many will need to adjust to playing at a higher level; all will have to adapt to new surroundings and teammates; and Joyce himself will need to adapt his tactics, having lost his most valuable player.

The counter argument, of course, is that Joyce brought some of these challenges upon himself. Too much turnover is bad for any organization, specially in a short period of time, and the high number of ins and outs will breed instability. Was it really necessary to bring in so many people, so many loanees in particular? Right when the team was gaining some consistency and producing results on the pitch? Plenty to debate. In the meantime, here are some ups and down on another busy window:

Good News: The whopping fee received for Yanic Wildschut (£7.5 million according to Sky,£7 million elsewhere.) It’s hard to take, given his status as Latics’ best attacking threat, with pace and strength to burn, and room to improve. But his finishing was often frustrating, he was inconsistent, and very much rough around the edges. If he had to go, credit is due the club for gaining such a huge profit on their investment.

Bad News: Yanic again. Being gone so late in the window. It’s hard to ignore that Wigan have scored three goals fewer than Rotherham, and yet just sold their most effective attacker.

Good News: In Gabriel Obertan, the club have found as close to a direct replacement as could be expected. We’ll be left to imagine what Joyce’s team might have looked like with two pacey wingers on the pitch. But at least Obertan’s defining attributes are similar to Wildschut’s: pace and strength, some trickery, abundant potential yet inconsistent finishing. He should be entering his peak years, has something to prove, and lots of experience at a higher level. Joyce knows him, he’s apparently a good professional, and they have said encouraging things about each other. The term of contract is short, therefore financial risk is too. All in all, a gamble worth taking.

Bad news: The squad feels unbalanced and bloated. There are a lot of midfielders, but few wingers or attacking playmakers given Nick Powell’s absence. With Obertan almost certain to start, it’s likely Michael Jacobs (in desperate need of a goal) on the other wing, with Colclough, Weir and Browne all unproven backups. Meanwhile, in the centre of midfield, Joyce has Power, Morsy, Perkins, MacDonald, Gilbey, Tunnicliffe, Hanson, Byrne, and Laurent to keep happy. Perhaps some of these players will be used in different positions (Hanson as defensive cover, etc.), but it’s a bloated, uneven squad that Joyce may have a hard time keeping happy.

Good News: Welcome Omar Bogle! He may need time to adapt. But the club beat out competitors to get him, and on paper, he has everything he needs to succeed at Championship level. A lot of hope is resting on his inexperienced shoulders, but if his teammates can provide him service, there is reason to believe. The option of a little-and-large Grigg and Bogle parternship is also intriguing. He’s left-footed, too.

Bad News: Banking on lower division signings is playing with fire. If Grigg is to become injured, Latics are left with Bogle, and Mikael Mandron to lead the line. Both have potential, but their success has come in League 2 and the Conference, respectively. They are completely unproven at this level, and playing with new teammates.

Good News: Alex Bruce appears an astute short-term signing, with potential for a longer stay. Dan Burn and Jake Buxton have developed a useful partnership in recent games, but Bruce is a dependable and experienced head to provide backup, who should also be good to have around the place.

Bad News: He hasn’t played all season due to an Achilles injury.

Good News: Keeping Sam Morsy and Max Power. Much of the attention has been on keeping Morsy, who has performed very well since his return. Power may not have started strongly, but has been steadily improving and remains a player of undoubted potential. Had rumours of his departure materialised, Latics would have lost an opportunity to reap the rewards of blooding him at this level. Good things should come of establishing Power and Morsy as a partnership.

Bad News: Too many loanees. In order to secure loan signings, managers often have to pledge a certain number of game time to the players’ parent clubs. Given the maximum of five loan signings per match-day squad, it looks an impossibility Latics’ recent loan signings will all get their wish to show what they can do. Jakob Haugaard may find himself sacrificed given the arrival of Matt Gilks. Callum Connolly is certain to play. That leaves Jamie Hanson, Marcus Browne, James Weir, Ryan Tunnicliffe, Bruce and Haugaard to vie for the other berths. Presumably, borrowing players and not giving them a game reduces the chances of players being borrowed from the same clubs in the future. Given many of these players are expected to be fringe players anyway, might Latics have been better off without a few of them?

Good News: Joyce appears to have both a short-term, and long-term plan. Signings like Gilks, Bruce and Obertan point to survival needs, while the signings of Jack Byrne, Mandron, and Josh Laurent show a continued desire to invest in youth and capitalize on Joyce’s wealth of experience in the area of player development. Byrne, in particular, was highly rated at City and appears a good long-term signing.

Verdict

Despite the high turnover, it doesn’t appear likely there will be immediate, dramatic changes to the starting lineup – Obertan in for Wildschut, perhaps the goalkeeper, and a new striking option in Bogle off the bench. This should prove a blessing, given the progress made in recent weeks. But it also calls into question the need for such a high number of incomings and outgoings. Joyce would do well to resist the urge of upsetting the players who have recently given him good commitment and results.

As supporters, patience is going to be important. Demanding instant impact from players adapting to a higher level is unfair, as is demanding instant adjustment from a team that became dependent on Wildschut to create for it. But if the new signings can add to the promising form shown of late and provide cover for injuries, we can be cautiously optimistic that, with a new crew of Joyce-loyal players and relative stability in the starting XI, we’re better off than before the window.

Full squad can be seen here