A defence for promotion

SecondDiv

“I want to smash the division with 100 points”.

They could have been the words of Dave Whelan prior to the opening of the 2002-03 season. But they weren’t.  The comment, or something close to it,  was made by his grandson thirteen years later.

Wigan Athletic did smash the third tier – then known as the Second Division – in that 2002-03 season. They only lost four league games all season and finished with 100 points.

Although they played a 4-4-2 formation with attacking intent it was their superb defensive record that was their real strength. They conceded only 25 goals in 46 league matches.  Goalkeeper John Filan started in all 46 league matches. Central defenders Matt Jackson and Jason De Vos started in 45 and 43 respectively. Moreover right back Nicky Eaden made 37 league starts. That experienced and capable quartet was to provide the consistent defensive stability that their team needed to mount its promotion push.

“I guarantee you a 20 goal per season striker”.

The 2002-03 team did not have one, in the league at least, where Andy Liddell scored 16 and Nathan Ellington 15. But if cup games are included then Ellington’s total rises above the 20 mark.

We are already a third of the way through the 2015-16 season in League 1 and Latics have already lost three league games and conceded 18 goals. Although Will Grigg has already scored 6 goals and could well be the 20 goal striker that David Sharpe was seeking, even the young chairman would now surely admit that his 100 point prediction was a trifle over-optimistic. There is no way the current side is going to equal the achievement of its predecessor of 13 years ago. But that does not mean that they cannot achieve automatic promotion or even win the division.

The circumstances can hardly be more different. It had been Paul Jewell’s second season at Wigan following his previous three years in management at Bradford City and Sheffield Wednesday. Dave Whelan had given him the funds to lure experienced professionals who had played at higher levels to play in the third tier. Latics had never been higher than the third tier, but Jewell had managed to win the title by a 14 point margin. The club was very much “on the up” in those days.

Gary Caldwell took over with the club at low ebb. The rookie manager took charge for a handful of games in the Championship, but could not work miracles with the inadequate squad he had inherited and relegation happened. His remit then became huge. He was to almost completely rebuild the playing staff of the club, cut the wage bill drastically, bring back a style of football that typified “The Wigan Way” and to get promotion this season.

Although they are not on track to rival the record of the 2002-03 team, can Caldwell’s team nevertheless win promotion? Moreover if it does can Caldwell then emulate the achievements of Jewell by getting Latics to the Premier League?

Jewell’s second division title winning squad provided a strong base for the following two seasons in the second tier. Filan, Eaden and Jackson continued as defensive lynchpins, together with Ian Breckin who had been brought in later in the 2002-03 season. The young Leighton Baines was to establish himself as the first choice left back. Jimmy Bullard and Lee McCulloch were regulars in midfield and Gary Teale played on the right wing in most games. However, Jewell’s masterstroke was to sign Jason Roberts as a partner for the dynamic Ellington up front. The promotion winning team of 2004-05 once more had a backbone of players who seemed to play in almost every game. In fact no less than seven of them made 42 league starts or more.

With two 20 goals a season strikers in Ellington and Roberts,  Jewell’s 2004-05 team had scored more goals than the team that had “blown away” the third tier. But once again they had the best defensive record in the division, this time conceding just 35 goals.

The implications for Caldwell’s team are clear. Decide on your best back line and stick with it as much as you can. Defensive cohesion results through having a consistent backline. Moreover cultivate players who can do a good job for the club long-term, those who can raise their play to another level if the club gets promoted.

Given his remit at the end of the 2014-15 season Caldwell has done a remarkable job. His teams are playing a brand of football in style his chairman would call “The Wigan Way” and despite a huge turnover in playing staff they are already in the playoff zone. However, if he is going to have a backbone of players who can play week in-week out as those of the Jewell era did then he is going to hope that injuries do not rear their ugly head.

Jewell used 20 players in his division-smashing 2002-03 league season. Caldwell has already used 27 in league games just a third of the way through the season. It is only in recent games that the injury list has reduced. Now that is squad is almost fully active he is in a wonderful position compared with any other manager in the division. Caldwell and his colleagues have put together a squad good enough to win automatic promotion, providing injuries do not prove excessive. Moreover he has young players in the squad who are already showing signs that they can operate in a higher level. He has not only built a squad to challenge for promotion, but one that could provide the backbone for competing at the Championship level should they get the chance.

A settled backline appears crucial to the promotion chances. But that remains a work in progress. Caldwell has brought in Jassi Jaaskelainen to dominate the penalty area in a way that Richard O’Donnell had not previously been able to do.  But one wonders if O’Donnell might have saved some of the shots that the big Finn has let in. Moreover Jason Pearce has been bogged by injury problems, but is now back in contention. Is Caldwell willing to sacrifice Chris McCann’s superb distribution from the back for Pearce’s more reliable defending? Donervon Daniels has done a fine job in the right wing back position, but will he be moved back into his favoured place in the back three? Will Donald Love stake his place as an automatic choice at right wing back?

Over the coming matches Caldwell will surely look at establishing a consistent backline. The manager remains under constant pressure from fans to play attacking football, but as an ex-central defender he will surely recognise the need for defensive stability.

Latics currently have the seventh best defensive record in League 1. Lessons from the past tell us that it needs to improve significantly if the side is going to win promotion.

 

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Selling off quality

“We need the right offer. I don’t want to stop the lad from going into the Premier League.”

The words of Dave Whelan regarding the probable departure of James McArthur over the coming days. Once again Latics are playing the role of a club selling off quality.

When thinking of James McArthur the words “automatic choice” come to mind. In fact his would be the first name most Latics supporters would pencil into a team lineup. The Scot might not be the most elegant of movers, but he has been the key man in the engine room of the team. McArthur grew up under the tutelage of Roberto Martinez, where good football was of the essence, even if the results did not always match.

Working under three different managers in less than a year, McArthur stayed with the club when relegation happened. He is a player of genuine Premier League quality, with a massive work rate to supplement his considerable skills. Even in the dark days of long ball under Owen Coyle, McArthur did not succumb. He stuck to his footballing principles, providing the link between defence and attack, preferring to keep the ball on the ground rather than make hopeful long passes. With McArthur on the pitch there has always been a chance of good football coming from Latics.

The same could also be said for Ivan Ramis, the club’s most classy defender. Ramis might well have proved to be one of Martinez’s most astute signings, had he not suffered that cruciate knee ligament injury at Fulham in January 2013. Ramis remains a class act and if he can maintain his fitness he can still be a top flight player. Martinez never had much luck with injuries to his squad and one can only ponder on what might have been if Ramis and Antolin Alcaraz had been able to play together in the centre of defence on a regular basis.

Reports suggest that Ramis is on his way to join Deportivo  La Coruña in Galicia, now back in La Liga after a year’s absence. No fee has been mentioned, but if there is one it is likely to be modest, given the player’s injury record over the past 18 months. Ramis is reputed to be one of the highest earners at the club and his departure has been imminent.

The media reports that both Burnley and Leicester City have made bids for McArthur, the latest one being around £5m from the Foxes. Whelan will probably try for £7m, but the final figure is likely be closer to £6m. The lure of playing in the Premier League and earning a commensurate salary will be hard for the Scot to resist, although the cynics might say that he could well be back in the Championship a year from now if he joins either of those clubs. However, possibilities remain for other Premier League clubs to get involved as the week progresses.

At the moment it looks like Latics are going to take one step forward – in signing Adam Forshaw – and two steps back in allowing players of the quality of McArthur and Ramis to leave.

The dismantling of Roberto Martinez’s squad continues. In July  Latics lost both Jean Beausejour and Jordi Gomez, skilful players who added poise to the team.  Martinez himself did his old club no favours a year ago when he took James McCarthy and Arouna Kone to Everton, along with Alcaraz and Joel Robles. Four of the players remaining from the Martinez era – Emmerson Boyce, Gary Caldwell, Ali Al Habsi and Shaun Maloney – are now well into their thirties. Al Habsi is playing second fiddle to Scott Carson and might well be gone over these coming days.  Roger Espinoza and Fraser Fyvie have not impressed  Rosler sufficiently to push for regular first team places. Even Ben Watson could have left in summer if it had not been for his double leg fracture. On a more positive note Callum McManaman is getting back to his best form and both Rob Kiernan and Lee Nicholls have come up through the ranks.

Times have changed at the club. Few fans these days expect Whelan to get out his cheque book as he did in not only in helping Latics rise to the Premier League, but in keeping them there.   They made losses for six successive years in the elite league despite selling off prized assets like Antonio Valencia and Wilson Palacios. However, when Whelan brought in Martinez he cut the budget and somehow the Catalan managed to keep the club up there for three more years,  an horrendous injury list contributing to relegation in his fourth and final year.

A few years ago fans might have expected Whelan to back the manager in retaining quality players like Beausejour, Gomez, McArthur and Ramis. Uwe Rosler does not have such luxury. He is now likely to lose his classiest players in both defence and midfield. Rosler has to balance the books, using money brought in from transfers to fund his own searches for players.

Ramis played at his best for Rosler when in the centre of a back line of three. Although Latics remain well stocked for central defenders only Caldwell has experience in that position.

It looks like Forshaw will be McArthur’s replacement.  A young player who has excelled at League 1 level compared with an experienced campaigner who played in all of the most eventful games in the club’s history in the higher echelons of English football.However, Rosler clearly has confidence in Forshaw’s ability to make it in a higher level of football.

However, fans will hope that the proceeds of the sales of Ramis and McArthur will go towards improving the squad. The media reports that Latics are in negotiations to sign central striker Andy Delort from French second division side, Tours. It is rumoured that they are offering around  £2m-£3m for the player. This added to an investment of around £5m for Riera and Forshaw would come close to what Latics would recoup. However, the possibility remains of more players leaving, particularly those on higher salaries or out of favour with the manager.

In McArthur and Ramis, Latics will be losing two more players of genuine Premier League quality. However, Rosler has to take a wide overview and make sure that his squad is well balanced and competitive in all positions. At the same time he needs to make sure that he not only breaks even on his transfer dealings, but that he keeps a cap on the wage bill.

Rosler does not have the financial backing that Paul Jewell or Steve Bruce had during their time at Wigan. His situation is more akin to that faced by Martinez. Although he has recruited mainly UK based players he has had to look further afield to find strikers that he can afford.

Fans will be disappointed to see McArthur and Ramis go, less so the Spaniard given his injury problems. They are quality players capable of performing at a high level in the first tiers of football in both England and Spain.

 

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Phelan for Wigan?

Mike Phelan

Mike Phelan

Mike Phelan is the bookmakers’ current favourite for the vacant manager’s job at Wigan Athletic.

The bookmakers consider Ian Holloway to be in close contention, followed by Paul Jewell and Karl Robinson.

Both Phelan and Robinson appeared in the odds with an outside chance of the same job in July.

Phelan is clearly a strong candidate. He had a hugely impressive record as assistant manager at Manchester United from 2008-13, when they won 3 Premier League titles, 2 League Cups, a World Club Cup and they reached two Champions League finals.

The 51 year old Phelan is a Lancastrian, being born in Nelson, starting his playing career at Burnley, before moving on to Norwich, Manchester United and West Bromwich. He played once for England.

The question is whether Phelan can be successful as a manager in his own right. However, similar questions were asked about Steve Clarke, who was one of the most highly rated right hand men in English football before successfully taking the reins at West Bromwich.

Were Phelan to be appointed it would be interesting to see who he would bring as his assistant manager, but it would be a surprise if it were not someone with an Old Trafford connection.

The 50 year old Bristolian Ian Holloway is well known, not only for his wacky quotes, but also for taking two clubs through the Championship playoffs into the Premier League. He took Blackpool up in 2009-10, and although they could not stay up he made lots of admirers through his positive footballing approach. He actually took the Tangerines back into the Championship playoffs in 2011-12 where they were beaten by West Ham.

Last season Holloway’s Crystal Palace were to defeat Brighton and Watford in the playoffs to reach the Premier League. However, he left by mutual consent on October 23rd.

Like any experienced football manager in England Holloway has had his ups and downs. He started his managerial career in 1996 as player manager of Bristol Rovers. He suffered relegation with Queens Park Rangers in 2000-01 and Leicester City in 2007-08. In between he was manager at Plymouth, whom he left under acrimonious circumstances for Leicester.

There have been rumours that Paul Jewell – now 49 years old –  might return to Wigan on a short term contract. Dave Whelan brought back Steve Bruce for a successful second spell at Wigan in November 2007, so there is precedent to suggest that a return for the ex-Latics icon is a possibility.

Karl Robinson is the 33 year old MK Dons manager. He played non-league football and was a bustling centre forward. However, at the age of 29 he was the youngest ever to get the UEFA Pro coaching licence. His Dons teams are known for their good football.

In the meantime Dave Whelan has been less than generous in his comments about the departing Owen Coyle.

Whelan is quoted as saying that “You can be lucky and get a great guy and get the right man like I got Roberto (Martinez) or you can be unlucky and get somebody who doesn’t get on with you, doesn’t get on with the team and doesn’t get on with the fans and that is actually what happened with Owen.”

Moreover the Daily Mirror alleges that Graham Barrow was told he would be taking temporary charge before Whelan and Coyle met for their fateful meeting in which the Scot offered to resign.

It is to be hoped that the new manager will receive the kind of support from the Chairman that Roberto Martinez received.

Owen Coyle certainly did not receive that level of support. He took over a playing staff that was decimated at the end of the Martinez era, having to keep transfer fees to a minimum. Moreover he was given a one year contract.

This is not to suggest that Coyle was the right man for Latics, but the dice were loaded against him from the start. Being an ex-manager of local rivals Bolton Wanderers was certainly not in his favour.

The new manager needs to be given adequate time and resources to be able to prove himself.

A couple of good signings in the January transfer window might suffice in bolstering up the current squad into making a genuine challenge for promotion.  That will depend on Whelan trusting the manager’s ability to make good decisions where largish transfer fees are involved.

Dave Whelan is like any other club owner in that sometimes he gets things right in his appointments, but other times he gets them plain wrong.

Paul Jewell, Steve Bruce and Roberto Martinez all did a fantastic job for Latics. Chris Hutchings and Owen Coyle were less successful.

Let’s hope Whelan gets it right this time around.

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Coyle brings back memories of Allan Brown

Wigan Athletic 1964-65. Back row, Wilf Birkett (Trainer),  Les Jackson (Chairman), Alan Halsall, Roy Wilkinson, Alf Craig, Ralph Gubbins, Derek Houghton, Derek Crompton, Frank Latham  Front Row: Les Campbell, Carl Davenport, Harry Lyon, Allan Brown (Player Manager), Walter Stanley

Wigan Athletic 1964-65.
Back row, Wilf Birkett (Trainer), Les Jackson (Chairman), Alan Halsall, Roy Wilkinson, Alf Craig, Ralph Gubbins, Derek Houghton, Denis Crompton, Frank Latham.
Front Row: Les Campbell, Carl Davenport, Harry Lyon, Allan Brown (Player Manager), Walter Stanley.
Thanks to WiganWorld for the photo.

A couple of weeks ago at Blackpool with Latics a goal behind, Owen Coyle made a bold move.  He already had two wingers on the field, Callum McManaman and James McClean, and decided to boost  Latics’ attack further by bringing on  two central strikers, Grant Holt and Marc-Antoine Fortune.  For a while Latics played in a formation akin to  4-2-4.

Seeing what was happening my mind drifted away to when I was a teenager watching Allan Brown’s team destroy rivals using that 4-2-4 system.

Brown took over at Wigan as player-manager in 1964 with a mandate to win the Cheshire League title. Latics had finished in mid table the previous year and it was obvious that a transformation was required. Brown and the Latics’ board at the time certainly meant business as they took the radical step of bringing in full-time professionals to give them a big advantage over the other clubs who use part-timers or amateurs. On top of that Brown brought in a 4-2-4 system, which was to reap high dividends.

As a teenager I was thrilled to get Brown’s autograph and those of his full time squad, who he would often take to the Roy Café in the centre of Wigan, where my mother worked. Sometimes I would even get a free ticket to the match.

LaticLatics4-2-4_formation_svgs played an orthodox 4-2-4 system like the one Brazil had used to win the 1958 World Cup. They had a flat back four with two ‘halfbacks’ – usually Dennis Crompton and Brown himself –  in the centre of midfield. Crompton was the ball winner/water carrier and Brown the number 10 who would put the passes through to the forwards, scoring goals himself in the process.  Wingers Les Campbell and Walter Stanley were there to supply crosses to the central strikers, although they did do a share of defensive duties.

Latics were to take the league title from Macclesfield, who were to finish five points behind. Wigan scored 121 goals in 42 matches, most of them  down to central strikers Harry Lyon and Carl Davenport. With such an emphasis on attack they needed a defence which could hold its own when the half backs and strikers got stranded upfield and the opposition counterattacked. The superb Derek Houghton was at right back and Roy Wilkinson on the left. Ex-paratrooper Alf Craig was a rock in the centre of defence alongside the elegant Ralph Gubbins.

Association_football_4-4-2_formation_svgIn 1966,  during Brown ‘s tenure at Wigan,  Alf Ramsey’s “wingless wonders” won the World Cup with midfield players – Alan Ball and Martin Peters –  playing in the wide positions. The 4-4-2 system he used was eventually adopted by most English clubs for years to come.  It provided more defensive cover with the wide players being regarded as midfield players, helping the attack and shielding the defence.

In recent years both Paul Jewell and Steve Bruce successfully used 4-4-2 at Wigan.

Whether Owen Coyle would call the system he briefly played at Blackpool 4-2-4 or 4-4-2 is academic. One system reverts into the other depending on the degree to which  the wingers/wide midfielders roles are focused on attacking.

There were times at Blackpool when both McClean and McManaman were both thrust into largely attacking roles. 4-2-4 is a dangerous ploy these days when a single goal can so often determine the final result.  Although it gives powerful attacking options it leaves the defence light on cover.

What a breath of fresh air it was to see Coyle attacking with two wingers and two central strikers. However, the wingers are only going to be effective if they get the ball. Too often the ball is launched long to the central strikers, cutting them out.

It is interesting how Latics’ regular wide players are listed on the club website. Both Jean Beausejour and James  McClean are regarded as midfielders, whereas Callum McManaman is listed as  a forward. One wonders how they will categorise Marc Albrighton.

One of the strengths of Allan Brown’s team was their consistency of approach. All players coming in knew the 4-2-4 system they had to fit into. The same could be said about Jewell’s and Bruce’s 4-4-2. Roberto Martinez was a tactical innovator, but his teams had a clear purpose, if they found it difficult to implement against star-studded opposition.

If there is one main criticism of Owen Coyle’s reign so far it has to be that there is no tactical blueprint of that type.

Moreover his wide players have not consistently delivered the goods in the opponent’s penalty box. Part of this is down to a lack of good form on their part, but too often their defensive duties have limited their scope in attack.

We will have to wait and see if the Wigan Athletic defence is going to be strong enough to allow the wide players to adopt a more attacking role. When that happens strikers like Holt and Fortune are going to get goals.

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