A two sided view of Warren Joyce at Latics

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Wigan Athletic lost at Villa Park on Saturday due to a brilliant goal in the 89th minute. Up to that point we had seen them cancel out the attacking efforts of a team loaded with players who played in the Premier League last season.

Looking at the team lineup prior to the kickoff it was clear that Warren Joyce was going to utilize the same tactics as he did at Barnsley and Huddersfield, where Latics picked up a draw and a win. The plan was simple: play a massed defence, relying on the pace of Yanic Wildschut up front. It worked until the closing minutes. Latics went close to getting a hard earned point, although they never truly looked like coming back with three.

After the game Joyce expressed his satisfaction on the effort and commitment of his team, also adding that “That’s where we’re at, we’ve got to make sure we stop the opposition from playing in the best way that we can and limit their opportunities of scoring – which we did today – and then try and come up with ways that we can score goals to win games. We will approach the game no differently on Wednesday night, we will try and win the game in what we believe is the best way that we can go and do that.”

After just five matches in charge the new manager has already polarized the Latics support. Is he playing the right tactics? Is it the right way to get out of the relegation zone?

Any argument has two sides. Let’s take a look at a couple of opposing views:

 

It is far too early to judge Joyce after just five matches in charge, most of which have been against teams either in high positions or on strong runs of form. He inherited problems left behind by Gary Caldwell and it is going to take time to put it right. Joyce has been appointed for the long term, as evidenced by the three and a half year contract he was given. Previous managers were appointed on rolling contracts.

Joyce had a great reputation at Manchester United and has demonstated his ability to develop young players. In the long term this will be necessary for our club which does not have the available resources to compete on an even keel with the bigger clubs in the division. The reality is that David Sharpe’s Latics will be the kind of club that develops players and sells one or two off each year to balance the books. In his interviews with Sharpe prior to taking the job, Joyce surely gave the young chairman a vision of how he could do that. He must have known it would be a difficult task, given this scenario, but nevertheless gave up a relatively comfortable position at Old Trafford to take on the challenge.

Caldwell had made far too many mistakes this season and if he had stayed Latics would have been in a constant struggle against relegation. His summer signings were uninspiring, with the players brought in no better than those who were there already. Moreover he broke up the solid central defensive partnership of Craig Morgan and Jason Pearce, the former being stripped of the captaincy, the latter offloaded to Charlton. The pre-season was a mess and the players have not been fit enough. Joyce has increased the intensity of training and is getting real commitment from his players. It may not be pretty to watch at this stage, but these are early days. Joyce’s teams at Old Trafford had a reputation for playing entertaining football and this will surely come at Wigan, given time.

The first thing to put right in a team struggling against relegation is the defence. Joyce is on his way to making Latics a team that others do not want to play. Nottingham Forest had a team studded with Premier League players, with £20 million worth on the bench, but they did not look like getting past Wigan’s defence until that spectacular goal a minute from the end of normal time.

Joyce’s team selections have been criticised but he oversees training on a daily basis. If a player is not making the effort in training should he leapfrog over others into the starting lineup? Joyce is sending a clear message to his squad that their full commitment is required.

His immediate goal will to be to get towards the January transfer window, picking up enough points here and there to keep Latics within reach of the teams immediately above them in the table. He will keep things tight, not risking heavy defeats that can demoralize his players. He has inherited a weak squad and will need to bring in fresh blood in January. Much will depend on Sharpe’s willingness to back him in the transfer market. If the chairman does not provide the funds then Joyce will have to scour the loan market. His connections with Manchester United will surely help.

With time we can expect to see a team which effectively defends and attacks as a unit, with genuine pace up front and at the back. The days of the painfully slow build ups of Caldwell’s teams are gone and we can expect a more direct and high tempo approach from Joyce.

 

Since Joyce arrived Latics have gone backwards, rather than forwards. He started with a 3-0 home defeat and his only win was a steal at Huddersfield. The football has been horrible to watch. Even that served up by Owen Coyle was better. Players who were able to retain possession by stringing a series of passes together under Caldwell now seem unable to do so. Moreover if the defence or midfield wins the ball there is nobody to hold it up.

Joyce thinks a winger can be a centre forward, as did Malky Mackay with James McClean, which proved sadly misguided. Like McClean, Wildschut does not know how to hold up the ball or to head it. Moreover even as a winger he can be so inconsistent. I cannot recall a previous situation in English football when a manager has played a winger in the middle, with three centre forwards on the bench. Proven strikers are the most likely to win games for you.

On Saturday Joyce started with Luke Garbutt in wide right midfield and Michael Jacobs on the left. Most of their efforts were taken up by defending, with Wildschut looking solitary up front. Joyce’s game plans seem to have been based more on damage limitation rather than actually trying to win the three points.

Latics squad is far from the best in the division, but neither is it the worst. The problem is that he is not getting the best out of the squad at his disposal. With the right tactics and the right team selections there is already enough talent there to get the club out of the relegation zone.

The treatment of Will Grigg is baffling. The excuse that the player needs a rest because of being in the European Championship over summer wears thin. It appears that Joyce wants a central striker with more pace than Grigg (or Davies or Le Fondre), so he puts Wildschut there. Rather than adjust the tactics to suit the squad he has, Joyce chooses to leave out players who can win matches by scoring goals out of the blue. Is he so inflexible that he cannot see this? Common sense needs to prevail.

The right full back position remains problematic. Joyce’s preference has been Reece Burke, a central defender who lacks finesse in attack. His next choice is Garbutt, who is left footed and who had been left out of the team by Caldwell. Despite Joyce’s reputation of developing young players, Luke Burke continues to languish in the development squad, despite promising performances early in the season. Moreover Joyce also has another specialist right back in Kyle Knoyle who has disappeared from view.

When Latics were struggling to maintain their place in the Premier League in 2011-12 “Believe” was the theme. It happened. But at the moment it is hard to believe and it is not surprising that support in recent home games has been muted.

How can people believe in a manager who writes off a defeat at Aston Villa by saying that “Single points add up over the course of a season, but the reality is it’s just one point. It’s not all doom and gloom, it’s one point, in a tough game, against a massive club.” Prior to Saturday Latics had lost in just one of their previous eight visits to Villa Park.

Playing ugly football with just one forward is not the way to pick up points.

 

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Life without Pearce?

Photo courtesy of football365.com

Photo courtesy of football365.com

Wigan boss denies defender set for Charlton switch said a headline yesterday. Headlines are meant to draw attention to an article. This one certainly drew mine. But did Gary Caldwell really deny that Jason Pearce might be heading for Charlton?

The Latics manager had said that he had not yet received any offers for the central defender and quoted that that “The arrival of Jake [Buxton] has given me options that I need going forwards. If anything changes, we’ll let you know.”

It could be argued that the headline was misleading, but it has got fans debating as to whether a defender who was pivotal in the League 1 title winning triumph should be allowed to leave. Would Caldwell be willing to lose Pearce? It appears that the door has already been opened, given the absence of a comment from Caldwell saying that the player is staying at the club.

The 28 year old Jason Pearce was signed by Malky Mackay in January 2015. Impressing in a struggling team was never going to be easy, but Pearce held his own and formed a solid partnership with Harry Maguire in the centre of defence. He went on to make 15 appearances from February until the end of the season on May 2.

Then came a massive summer clear out by Caldwell, but Pearce was to become a rock upon which a League 1 title winning team was built. Pearce was to miss the start of the 2015-16 through injury, appearing in his first game in a home match against Crewe at the end of August. He partnered Donervon Daniels and Craig Morgan in a backline of three. Given Caldwell’s predilection to switch between three at the back and an orthodox back four, Pearce had to be flexible in his positioning, but was to be inevitably found on the left side of the central defence.

His wealth of experience in the lower divisions made him invaluable defensively in Caldwell’s set up, particularly when playing in tandem with Morgan. Moreover Pearce had worked on his passing skills out of defence, rarely wasting the ball. Given the player’s willingness to totally commit him to the cause, putting his body on the line so often, it was perhaps inevitable that injuries would result. In fact he went on to make 33 appearances. It was a reflection on the effectiveness of the Pearce-Morgan combination that Latics did not lose a single game when the two appeared together in the starting lineup until the final match of the season against Barnsley.

It could be that injury has once again intervened, preventing Pearce playing in the final two pre-season matches at Oldham and Fleetwood. If that is the case he will be among more than half a dozen of the squad currently suffering from pre-season injuries. However, rumours persist that the player wants to move back down south; moreover that Caldwell has already signed Buxton as his replacement.  Could it be that Caldwell does not see him as effective a player in the Championship as he was in League 1?

Jake Buxton’s arrival appears to be an indicator that Pearce is on his way out of the club. Buxton is a physical, combative player in the mould of Pearce and will fans are hoping he can reproduce the same kind of form at Wigan as he did during his prime at Derby, where he spent seven years, an idol of the fans. It can be seen as an indication of Caldwell’s regard for Buxton that he gave the player a three year contract at the age of 31. Pearce remains only 28. Is there not room in the defence for the two?

Should Pearce move on Caldwell will be left with just one player in his senior squad recruited prior to his appointment as manager.  That is Lee Nicholls, who faces competition from Adam Bogdan, Jussi Jaaskelainen and Dan Lavercombe for the goalkeeping position.

Jason Pearce has earned the respect of Wigan Athletic supporters due to his commitment and willingness to put his body on the line for his team. Whether he will be at Wigan at the start of the 2016-17 season next weekend remains uncertain.

 

 

 

Morgan and Pearce – a formidable partnership in the centre of defence

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Jason Pearce and Craig Morgan celebrate the Welshman’s last minute winner against Gillingham. Photo courtesy of http://www.bbc.com

Who would have thought that a couple of experienced old pros who have largely plied their trade in the lower divisions could fit in so successfully to a team striving to play possession football?

Between them the 30 year old Craig Morgan and the 28 year old Jason Pearce have amassed a total of over 800 senior appearances in their careers. Last summer Gary Caldwell picked up Morgan for nothing at the end of his contract at Rotherham. Pearce was signed by Malky Mackay from Leeds United in January 2015 for a bargain fee in the region of £300,000.

The two have formed a formidable central defensive partnership for Wigan Athletic this season. In fact Latics have not lost a game when the two have started together in the centre of defence. Their differing styles tend to complement each other.

Pearce is seemingly fearless, a player of total commitment who will put his own body on the line for the team’s sake. He is strong in the air, rugged in the tackle and rarely wastes the ball. Morgan too is strong in the air and relies on his timing and positioning to cut out opposition attacks. Unlike most central defenders with type of his career background, Morgan resists the hoof and is a fine passer of the ball from defence.

Both players have had injury problems this season, the result being that they have only played in the same starting lineup 16 times of the 41 matches played. Sometimes they have played together in a conventional back four, on other occasions being joined by a third central defender. Morgan has made 31 appearances this season, with a red card received against Bury in the League Cup and 6 yellows. Pearce has made 25 appearances with just 3 yellows, a low ratio for a player with a physical approach, revealing a level of self-discipline and maturity.

Before the season started Caldwell had a difficult choice between the two as to whom he would name club captain. Morgan had been captain at Peterborough at the age of 23 and skippered Rotherham to promotion from League 1 to the Championship and then holding their place there last season. Pearce had also been captain at the age at 23 at Portsmouth, going on to lead Bournemouth and Leeds. In the end Caldwell chose Morgan as captain with Pearce as vice-captain.

Both players are leaders on the field of play and their partnership in the centre of defence has been critical in Latics’ rise to contention for an automatic promotion place in League 1. Pearce missed the last game at Colchester after being forced off by injury at half time in the previous match at the DW Stadium against Peterborough.

With just 10 games to go Caldwell will be hoping that the two can steer clear of injuries and suspensions for what remains of the season. Their joint presence is critical in Wigan’s quest for promotion.

 

Can Latics hold their nerve for automatic promotion?

In March 2014 Uwe Rosler’s Wigan Athletic team were challenging for a playoff place in the Championship division. During that month they went on to amass 14 points from their 7 games, losing only one by a 1-0 margin at QPR. They looked odds-on to reach that playoff place, which they did finally achieve, but not without a stutter as they picked up just 11 points from their last 9 matches.

Rosler’s team had peaked too early and just could not maintain their form over the final six weeks of the season. They put up spirited displays in the semi-final of the playoffs against QPR, but just could not show the kind of intensity they had shown a couple of months earlier.

Gary Caldwell’s team too has been peaking, going on a 14 game unbeaten run. Their last defeat was against Blackpool on December 12th. Have they peaked too early? Can they hold their nerve and get an automatic promotion place?

Burton Albion’s defeat at Bradford on Tuesday evening could well prove to be a turning point for what remains of the season. They still stand four points ahead of Wigan Athletic, but significantly they no longer have games in hand. After being so consistent for so long is there a chink in Burton’s armour? They have now only won one out of their last five matches.

The most optimistic of Wigan Athletic fans are now seriously talking about their team winning the division. Burton have some tricky fixtures coming up in the final 11 games of the season. Four of those are against teams currently in the top six promotion zone – Millwall (A), Latics (H), Barnsley (H) and Gillingham (H).

Other than having to play at Burton, Latics have to play just one other team from the current top six – Barnsley (H) on the last day of the season.

This current Wigan Athletic team is capable of beating any other team in team in League 1, Burton included. They are have the capability to go the remainder of the season unbeaten. But they are also capable of producing poor results against teams they would be expected to beat. In recent home games they have failed to beat struggling Oldham and Peterborough and a 1-1 draw at Crewe in late January was disappointing.  But it was the shock 1-0 home defeat to Blackpool in mid-December that sparked the surging run they are on at the moment.

In their last 6 league games Latics have won 3 and drawn 3, an average of 2 points per game. Of the other teams in the top six only Barnsley have done better with 13 points, followed by Millwall on 11 points, Burton on 8, Gillingham on 5 and Walsall on 3.

Looking at stats for games played up to this point  it looks like the teams gaining automatic promotion this season will need less points than has been the norm over the past decade. It has been the kind of season where teams are closer in level, where they can quickly climb up or abruptly slide down the table within half a dozen games. However, for Latics to gain automatic promotion they are likely to need at least 86 points. That would require an average of 2 points in each of the remaining eleven matches.

Tomorrow’s game at Colchester is another of those potential banana skins upon which Latics have slipped several times this season. In their last six games Colchester’s record is LDLDWL. They lie in bottom place ten points from safety and have won just three home games this season.

All teams tend to have injury problems at this time of year and Wigan Athletic are no exception. Michael Jacobs and Reece James have been out long term and are still recuperating. Jussi Jaaskelainen is likely to return following concussion received against Peterborough, but both Conor McAleny and Jason Pearce are doubtful for tomorrow.

Caldwell commented this week that  “Whilst it’s a big disappointment to have players out, it’s an opportunity for other players to come in and show what they can do. It’s up to those players who haven’t been playing but have been asking to play and wanting to play to be ready for the opportunities.”

One of those players the manager could be referring to is Kevin McNaughton, who completed a full 90 minutes for the development squad on Tuesday. The Scot may not start at Colchester but could come on later in the game. Haris Vuckic is also due to reappear at some stage.

In addition to potential injuries Caldwell is likely to lose Will Grigg to the Northern Ireland squad for their friendly matches on March 24 and 28. Craig Davies is the obvious replacement, although he has not completed a full game for a long time.

Now is the time for Latics to hold their nerve and let the other teams cut each other’s throats. A late season dip in form like that which happened to Rosler’s team is what they must guard against.

 

 

 

Warnock – a great signing for Latics

Warnock

The “New Era” recruitment team at Wigan Athletic already had an impressive record, but the announcement of the signing of Stephen Warnock is really the icing on the cake. Warnock turned 34 in December and his loan signing might be short term, but with over 200 career appearances at Premier League level he will surely have much to offer in League 1.

The long term injury to Reece James and a two game suspension  for Chris McCann left Gary Caldwell short of options at left back/left wing back. Against Peterborough on Saturday he moved Reece Wabara across from the right to play there, while McCann was rested on the bench.  The 22 year old Andy Kellett had been signed as the back-up left sided defender, but in most of his appearances he has been played further forward. Moreover Kellett has been dogged by injury. His last first team appearance was against Gillingham in early January.

Warnock was born in Ormskirk and has two caps for England. He came through the Liverpool youth system, going through loan spells at Bradford City and Coventry City when in his early twenties. He went on to make 40 Premier League appearances for Liverpool before moving on to Blackburn and Aston Villa, subsequently dropping down to the Championship in 2012 with a loan move to Bolton. He was then to move on to Leeds United before signing for Derby County in January 2015.

Warnock has made 30 appearances in the Championship for the Rams, but the arrival of a new manager in January has seen his first team opportunities become limited.

With James still injured and McCann serving a two match suspension we can expect Warnock to go straight in the team for the visit to Colchester on Saturday. Moreover his arrival gives Caldwell more flexibility in being able to use McCann in the centre of defence or midfield.

The performance on Saturday was surely affected by losing three players to injury by half time. Jussi Jaaskelainen and Jason Pearce are key players in the promotion push and Caldwell will be hoping they will be back for Saturday. He will also hope that Conor McAleny will be back soon, although he has an obvious replacement in Haris Vuckic. Kevin McNaughton is getting closer to full fitness and will surely challenge Reece Wabara and Donervon Daniels for the right back position over the coming weeks. A back four of McNaughton, Craig Morgan, Pearce and Warnock would rank among the most experienced and accomplished in the division.

When Michael Jacobs was in injured at Crewe at the end of January it looked like Latics would be short on creativity, although the signing of Ryan Colclough has certainly helped. However, Jacobs was one of the main driving forces in the new era side until his injury, one of the best attacking midfielders in the division.

The return of Jacobs, apparently still a couple of weeks away in terms of fitness, together with the advent of Warnock could be crucial in the bid for promotion.

Warnock is a terrific addition to the squad, albeit with just 11 league games to go.