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.

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Caldwell gets it wrong – Burton Albion (H) Match Reaction

A dull, scrappy game offering little in the way of entertainment seemed to be heading for a goalless draw until Abdenasser El Khayati scored for the visitors from a breakaway in the 74th minute. Au ugly, but well organised Burton Albion side, who had looked like they had come for a draw went on to inflict on Wigan their first league home defeat of the season. Once again Wigan were unable to defeat a team in the upper reaches of the League 1 table.

Gary Caldwell had chosen to field an unchanged starting lineup, following a 1-0 victory against lowly Shrewsbury on Saturday. It was to be a 3-4-3 formation with Alex Revell in the lone centre forward role and Michael Jacobs and Yanic Wildschut playing wide.

Wildschut made one of his trademark runs in the first minute with a cut back to Tim Chow in a good position, but the young player fluffed his shot. But Burton tightened up. They had clearly done their homework and Wildschut was heavily marked. Jacobs was ineffective on the right and Revell a lonely figure up front. Latics were playing cautiously, unwilling to put enough men into the penalty box for the fear of a breakaway at the other end. Their right hand side was having a torrid time, with Chow way out of sync, Daniels poor in his passing and Jacobs looking like a shadow of his normal self. Latics main idea of attack was to feed Wildschut, although the service he received left much to be desired. But Burton had little to offer going forward too.

Given the way Latics were struggling to break down the Burton defence one wondered if Caldwell would make a change at half time, not only in terms of players on the pitch, but in the team’s shape. The rigid 3-4-3 system was not getting the best out of the players, who looked lethargic. With such talent on the bench, surely Caldwell would bring on someone like Francisco Junior who can change the tempo of a game, but the African was not to come on until after Burton scored.

The second half started with another cross from Wildschut finding Chow at the far post, but he could not get high enough to head the ball down and the chance was lost. Burton had shown us an ugly side to their game in the first half with players going down as if poleaxed, with the referee surrounded by their teammates. It continued in the second half, much to the crowd’s frustration.

Latics just could not find a way through Burton’s defence and the game seemed to be heading for a draw. Craig Davies had come on for Revell after 65 minutes, but Latics had kept to the same shape and there seemed to be no way through the visitors’ defence. Then came Burton’s breakaway goal in the 74th minute, which prompted Caldwell to bring on both Junior and Will Grigg. Junior was pushed into an advanced midfield role, with Grigg partnering Davies up front. However, Burton continued to defy Wigan although a goal seemed certain after 85 minutes when Max Power’s shot inside the area was somehow blocked and Reece James hit the post from the rebound.

Given the amount of timewasting from Burton, the referee added seven minutes on at the end of the game, but Latics were unable to get the equaliser.

The Good

On a day when so many players were below par it is hard to come up with positives. Caldwell had clearly been preaching patience to his players, as they struggled to break down the Burton defence. Sadly the patience was there, but it was dynamism that was lacking.

The Bad

Caldwell had put out the same lineup despite a lacklustre performance in the previous game. Sadly in this match he did not get the best out of the players at his disposal.

The rigid 3-4-3 was easy for the visitors to read and the situation was crying out for a change in approach. Jacobs looks only half the player when playing wide. He has been most effective in a free role supporting the forwards from central midfield. Playing ugly to get a result is one thing, but Latics seemed happy to keep grinding away with little end-product.

Caldwell had a wealth of talent at his disposal, but left it too late making the necessary changes. Revell put in a good shift as a lone centre forward in the Fortune style. He could not be faulted for effort or commitment. However, Grigg’s career goalscoring record shows a strike rate almost twice as much as that of Revell and Davies’ too is 50% more. A twin strike force of Grigg and Davies could have been employed from the start, rather than at the later stages when things were getting desperate. It could be argued that Caldwell is using Davies cautiously because of potential injury, but he is clearly not getting the best out of Grigg. Grigg’s self-confidence can hardly be expected to be high after being repeatedly left out of the starting lineup.

Caldwell deserves some credit in persevering with Chow after an unimpressive display against Shrewsbury. He is a local lad and his presence in the starting lineup will give young players in the development squad the message that there are potential chances for them too. However, Chow looked out of his depth in this game, short of confidence and off the pace of the play. Chow’s more natural position is in midfield. Moreover questions need to be asked about bringing in a rookie young player against a team that is a rival for promotion.

Player Ratings

Jussi Jaaskelainen: 6 – a quiet night apart from the goal conceded. Calm in his distribution.

Tim Chow: 4 – sadly lacking.

Donervon Daniels: 5 – played better in the second half, but not at his best.

Craig Morgan: 6 – generally solid, but beaten for pace on the Burton goal.

Chris McCann: 7.5 – solid in defence, with good distribution from the back.

Reece James: 6 – worked hard.

Max Power: 6 – worked hard, if not at his best.

David Perkins: 6 – a bundle of energy as always, but not as influential as he often is.

Michael Jacobs: 5 – was he fit after the injury he received on Saturday?

Alex Revell: 6 – worked hard.

Yanic Wildschut: 6.5 – not at his best, being heavily marked, but was nevertheless the main danger to the visitors.

Substitutes:

Craig Davies: – a frustrating evening for him.

Will Grigg: – not at his best leaping for long balls. But why is he not in the starting lineup?

Francisco Junior: – added creativity to the midfield, but brought on too late.

Lots of striking options in the new era

Sharpe promised us a 20 goal striker.

Sharpe promised us a 20 goal striker.

David Sharpe is not afraid to make bold statements. Not only did he prophesy that Latics will smash the league with 100 points, but he also promised a 20 goal a year striker.

Given a tally of 10 points from the first 6 league matches, it leaves another 90 points in the next 40 to reach Sharpe’s target. A tall order, if by no means impossible. Up to this point Craig Davies and Will Grigg have each scored two goals, Jordy Hiwula has one. Attacking midfielder Michael Jacobs also has one.

For Wigan Athletic to reach that 100 point target it will need a major contribution from the strike force. Are the strikers that Latics currently have capable of delivering in a way that those of the past years were unable to?

Last season James McClean was the leading scorer with 6 goals from 37 appearances in all competitions, a sad indictment of the team’s performances. In the previous season under Owen Coyle and Uwe Rosler, Nick Powell led the goalscoring with 12 goals from 38 appearances, closely followed by Jordi Gomez with 11 from 43.

With the arrival of Haris Vuckic and Hiwula, Gary Caldwell has lots of striking options. At this moment in time his preferred choice would seem to be in having  Davies and  Grigg as twin strikers, with Jacobs behind them in an attacking midfield role. However, Grant Holt is progressing towards full fitness following an anterior cruciate injury and if all goes well he can be expected to return during October. Holt can add a kind of physicality to the attack akin to that of Davies,while Hiwula can threaten with his searing pace.

The signing of Vuckic might well complete the attacking jigsaw puzzle for Caldwell. The versatile Slovenian can play the twin striker role, or coming in from wide. Moreover he will surely compete for an attacking midfield role. At Chesterfield both he and Jacobs played attacking midfield roles behind the central striker.

Davies’ recent performances have certainly won over most of the skeptics among the fans. Up to this point he has stayed injury-free and he and Caldwell will be praying that he can stay that way.  Grigg too has impressed with his intelligent play and ball skills. Together they form a formidable striking partnership against League 1 opposition.

Shaq Coulthirst is recovering from a muscle injury, but is likely to return at some point. He too can play wide or in a twin striker role. Media reports suggest that Sanmi Odelusi might go on a short term loan to Portsmouth, seemingly pushed down the striker pecking order by the competition he faces. For Odelusi getting a regular game is important at this stage in his career.

Caldwell will be faced with some difficult choices in choosing his attacking options for Saturday’s visit to Port Vale. Will he play with twin strikers or will he opt for a lone centre forward with two attacking midfielders in support?

Caldwell has been adventurous in his recent formations – with three attacking players and the wing backs pushed far forward, the holding midfield and defence will have to be on its guard. Francisco Junior is due to return from injury and he is the natural option for holding midfield together with David Perkins.

The wins against Chesterfield and Scunthorpe have shown us what Caldwell’s new era team are potentially capable of. There have been moments to cherish. However, the players are still continuing to gel and mixed results are likely to come in over the coming weeks.

However, we have already seen enough to suggest that, in the long run, this “new era” team will prove to be a force to be reckoned with. Sharpe’s promise of a 20 goal striker might even come into fruition.