Latics need a Wildschut for promotion

 

It is midway through the League 1 season. The “New Era” duo of Gary Caldwell and David Sharpe has breathed new life into a club that was down on its knees. After a prolonged period of gloom and despondency there is light at the end of the tunnel.

With 23 games played, Wigan Athletic stand in 5th place with a record of W11 D7 L5. They are in the playoff zone, just 8 points away from an automatic promotion place. They have a good defensive record, with just 21 goals conceded, bettered only by the top two teams.

Caldwell has shown himself to be a dynamic young manager, excellent in recruitment, tactically aware. His is articulate and sets a dignified tone for the club when dealing with the media. Sharpe too has made a strong impression, his sheer enthusiasm for the club shining through. He too is articulate, adept in his dealings with the national and social media. Together the two have forged a positive new identity for a club that had lost its way, but is now firmly back on track under their leadership.

Caldwell has built up a strong squad, the envy of other managers in the division. It was by no means easy to put together a revamped squad containing more than twenty new faces. Caldwell and his coaches faced a huge task on the training ground, helping the players gel as a unit that can play a style of football that Sharpe labels “The Wigan Way”. Moreover Caldwell has instilled a never-say-die spirit that means his teams have shown the ability to claw their way back into games they would seemingly have lost.

The foundations are certainly in place. The immediate goal is promotion back to the Championship. In order to achieve automatic promotion a total of at least 90 points will be needed. That will require a points average in excess of two per game for the rest of the season.

A long unbeaten run is what Caldwell will seek. Latics achieved an unbeaten run of 11 matches, stretching from mid-September to late November until a blip led to league defeats by Burton and Blackpool, together with an exit from the Football League Trophy at the hands of Barnsley.

However, a couple of hard-fought away victories at Barnsley and Fleetwood have put them back on track. After disappointing away performances early in the season they are now unbeaten in their last eight league games on the road, as the players have shown the ability to grit their teeth and grind out results.

Caldwell and his recruitment team did so well in the last transfer window. But can they achieve such good results in the January window that is almost upon us? What adjustments can we expect to be made to the squad? Will the two remaining short-term loanees – Donald Love and Yanic Wildschut – be staying?

Since the beginning of the season four loanees have already returned to their clubs. Caldwell was disappointed when Jonjoe Kenny was called back to Everton in late September, then Shaq Coulthirst went back to Tottenham just over a month later. Over the past couple of weeks  Sean Murray has returned to Watford and Alex Revell to Cardiff City. Sadly the talented Francisco Junior has gone back to Everton to receive treatment on a troublesome groin injury that has hampered him during his time at Wigan. Caldwell will hope that the player can overcome the injury and that he can return before his loan period ends in mid-January. However, rumours suggesting Latics are close to signing midfielder Liam Kelly from Oldham suggest that Caldwell might be covering his bases in case the African does not make it.

The right back position has been a problem all season, with the serious injury to Kevin McNaughton early on and the departure of Kenny. Donervon Daniels has shown his versatility by playing there when needed. Tim Chow has also been tried there. Donald Love was signed on loan from Manchester United in early October. Injuries and call ups to the Scotland under-21 squad have limited Love to five starts and three substitute appearances. However, Caldwell clearly rates the 21 year old Rochdale lad and may well seek a permanent transfer.

Few players have made such a strong and immediate impression on Latics fans as Yanic Wildschut. His impact has rivalled that of Amr Zaki in 2008-09. Wildschut has started in ten games, coming on off the bench in six. He has scored four goals. In full flow Wildschut is a sight to behold, a winger with searing pace and a blistering shot when he cuts in from the left and shoots with his right.

Some would say Wildschut is a throwback to the past when the winger’s job was primarily to attack, although even in the days of 4-2-4 they were still expected to do some defensive duties. Defending is not Wildschut’s strong point, as noted by Middlesbrough manager Aitor Karanka. However, given the physical exertion he needs to put into his electrifying runs, can Caldwell really expect him to make a significant defensive contribution?

When Wildschut first arrived at Wigan he immediately caused panic in opposition defences. However, after a while other teams learned how to deal with him, if sometimes by foul means rather than fair. His recent performances in the starting lineup have been frustrating at times. However, bringing him on in the closing stages, when the opposition defenders legs are tiring, can have an explosive effect.

Although Caldwell has certainly bolstered his defence his team’s attacking can be slow and predictable. He needs a player with Wildschut’s explosive abilities who can upset the equilibrium of the opposition.

It is rumoured that negotiations with Middlesbrough over a permanent signing of the Dutchman have been going on for some time. Boro will surely want to recoup at least the £300,000 they paid Heerenveen for him in September 2014. Moreover other clubs might be in competition for his signing. At this stage it seems unlikely that Karanka will want him permanently back at Middlesbrough, given the “modern” type of footballer the Spaniard prefers. The question is whether Sharpe is willing to pay the kind of fee that Boro will demand for a player who is not a regular starter.

Caldwell will be hoping that a deal can be struck to keep Wildschut at Wigan. If that does not happen he is going to look elsewhere for the kind of player who can add such an extra dimension to Latics’ attack. Without such a player Wigan Athletic’s hopes for automatic promotion might well fall on the rocks.

Caldwell’s Christmas Shopping List

shopping

Time is marching on and the January transfer window is creeping up on us.

Gary Caldwell has worked wonders so far in the transfer market, his dealings having kept Latics balance sheet out of the red. Moreover he has put together a squad strong enough to reach a playoff position by early November, despite their underperformance in the FA and League Cups.

Gaining promotion must be Caldwell’s main priority, despite the debacle at Bury on Saturday.  It was interesting to see that three of the four teams above Latics in the League 1 table – Gillingham, Burton Albion and Coventry City also suffered ignominious defeats in the FA Cup this past weekend.

Caldwell will go into the January market with limited funds available for transfers and will be constrained by the club’s salary policy. That will rule out higher profile signings Once again Caldwell will be looking out for bargain buys whose salary demands are realistic.

Latics currently stand in 5th place in League 1, only five points from the top two teams, Gillingham and Burton Albion. If they can continue in this vein they will be in a good position to mount a realistic promotion challenge. Moreover Caldwell has the chance to bring in new blood to cover the squad’s weaker areas through the transfer window.

By January the futures of short-term loanees Francisco Junior, Donald Love, Sean Murray and Yanic Wildschut will have been determined. Despite his talent Murray has yet to shine at Wigan and unless he can really force his way back into the team with some outstanding performances it looks like he will be returning to Watford. However, there are ten league fixtures on hand until Murray’s loan period is due to end in mid-January. Time remains for Murray to make an impression.

Junior remains inconsistent and his fitness a concern. At his best he can influence the course of a game, his positional and passing abilities adding an extra dimension to Latics’ play. But he has failed to establish himself as a regular starter and has been frequently substituted when he has started. Junior continues to adapt to the physicality of life in League 1. He can rush into rash challenges and can be outmuscled by bigger opponents. So many fans will be hoping Junior will stay. At his best he can look a class above League 1, but he has yet to fully convince Caldwell, and if even if he does there is the matter of dealing with Everton over his future.

Love is only 20 years old and is one for the future. He has the attributes to become a good full back, but like many young players at big clubs, his long-term chances at Manchester United are limited. Caldwell paid United around £1m for Reece James. Would he and David Sharpe be willing to fork out another significant transfer fee to land another Old Trafford youngster who has potential, but has little experience outside the youth and development squad levels?

Although his recent performances might have been less convincing Wildschut has made a great impression since arriving at Wigan on a two month loan from Middlesbrough. The Dutchman has had a frustrating career, seeming to promise so much but so often lacking vision in his delivery. However, his pace is electric and he has the physical presence to not easily be knocked off the ball. The other League 1 managers may seek to nullify his influence by assigning multiple markers but this will serve to create space for other Wigan players. The questions to be asked are whether Wildschut’s early form was a flash in the pan and whether Middlesbrough would be willing to release him. Caldwell will be keen to keep the player whose sheer pace and directness can cause panic in opposition defences.

So what are the areas that need strengthening?

Grant Holt’s departure on a short term loan to Wolves leaves Caldwell with just two target men to play up front, Craig Davies and Will Grigg. Should Holt’s time at Wolves not be extended Latics will look towards offloading his salary on another Championship side until his contract terminates in summer. Should Holt not return we can expect Caldwell to look for another front man in the January window.

Much will depend on decisions yet to be taken on the players who have come in on loan. However, there remains the possibility that Latics will continue their efforts in shedding players on Championship level salaries.

Chris McCann continues to command a place in the starting lineup and his ability to play in the back three or midfield allows Caldwell the possibility of changing his team’s shape during a game without making substitutions. The manager clearly likes to play McCann in the back three, where his distribution from the back adds an extra dimension. However, critics will say that the Irishman is not a natural defender and is not assertive enough within his own penalty area. Many would prefer to see Jason Pearce return to that position on the left in the back line trio. However, Pearce is another who signed a contract while Latics were in the Championship. Moreover he has not even featured on the bench recently. Leon Barnett is now back on the bench after regaining his place for a while.

The situation with loan players and those on higher salaries will surely be the subject of much review by Caldwell and his coaching staff over the next couple of months. However, Caldwell might want to consider bringing in a couple of players in the central defence and holding midfield who can add an extra touch of steel.

Given the style of play based on aerial bombardment favoured by so many League 1 teams a big, rugged central defender who is strong in the air would give Caldwell extra options. Someone of the ilk of Harry Maguire would seem to fit the bill. Moreover a combative holding midfielder who can be brought on when the going gets tough would also aid Latics’ cause. Perhaps someone who can perform the same kind of role that Graham Kavanagh fulfilled in Paul Jewell’s Championship promotion team?

January might well be another busy time for incomings and outgoings at Wigan Athletic.

 

Short term loans or home grown talent?

Francisco Junior's one month loan has been extended to January.

Francisco Junior’s one month loan has been extended to January.

The last match of the 2014-15 season at Brentford typified the kind of football we had been witnessing far too often.

Latics had dominated the game up to the 25th minute, at least in terms of possession. But once a wicked deflection had beaten Lee Nicholls a team with such brittle confidence was never going to be up to the task of getting back into the game. What was to follow was merely a replay of the football we had seen so often over those past months.

Toothless in attack, woeful in defence, passing awful. But there were some saving graces in that 3-0 whitewash.

Gary Caldwell had already sent Leon Clarke back to Wolves and he left out young loanees Josh Murphy, Sheyi  Ojo  and Jerome Sinclair for the visit to Griffin Park.  Moreover he had given Tim Chow the chance to show what he could do in the first team, the 21 year old rewarding his manager’s faith with a headed goal in his first start against Brighton. Caldwell was to give Lee Nicholls his first start of the season in goal. Then after 64 minutes he introduced the 19 year old Jordan Flores and 18 year old Louis Robles for their debuts.

Caldwell’s actions looked like a bold statement at the time, giving a chance to home grown players. Fans had been asking questions for months. Why had Malky Mackay continued to ignore the young talent already at Wigan, giving priority to those from the likes of Liverpool and Norwich?

Caldwell was to continue in a similar vein in the pre-season, bringing in a host of development squad players alongside the senior professionals for the games at Altrincham and Southport.  Then Flores, Robles and Ryan Jennings were to make the starting lineup against Partick Thistle, the latter scoring a well taken goal. Sadly Chow was injured in the next game at Dundee and has not yet reappeared. But Flores was to go a step further with an excellent performance in his first competitive game as a starter against  Bury in the League Cup, with Jennings making his debut off the bench.

Caldwell has sent a clear message to the youth ranks within the club – if you can show you are good enough we will give you the chance. Had he learned from the mistakes of his hapless predecessor?

Mackay’s first signing had been that of Liam Ridgewell on a six week loan. Fans immediately questioned the value of such a short term loan, some suggesting that Portland Timbers had sent him to get match fit for the upcoming MLS season.  Ridgewell certainly did not look fit in his first game, being taken off after 45 minutes at Birmingham. However, little by little he was to impose some stability into a rickety Wigan back line. Mackay was to replace Ridgewell with the loan of Harry Maguire from Hull.

With the departure of thirteen senior players over the January transfer window, Mackay had a mountain to climb. It could be argued that the loan of Ridgewell was  a qualified success and Maguire did even better. Mackay was unlucky in losing the experienced loanee Chris Herd to serious injury early on in his stay, but it was his signing of young, developing players from other clubs that was to mystify the fans.

However, Mackay was faced with the likelihood of a threadbare squad and had to find loan players to bring in. The mid-season loan market was never going to supply Mackay with the quantity of experienced players he needed to fend off relegation. Moreover the signing of young loanees would come with strings attached, their clubs wanting some kind of reassurances that their players would be given first team opportunities.

Despite the positive messages Caldwell has sent out to young players within the club, he has also involved himself in the recruitment of young loan players, with Francisco Junior (23) and Sean Murray (21) being signed on a one month basis, and Jonjoe Kenny (18) for two months.

Having created a positive impression, both on and off the field, Junior’s loan has since been extended until January.  Should he continue to progress there would be a likelihood of a permanent deal, given that the player’s contract at Everton terminates at the end of the season. In the case of Junior it can be argued that the club had given itself time to fully assess the player before committing itself to a more long term deal.

Murray’s  case has been less straightforward. Junior had been recruited in July, giving him time to settle in during the pre-season. Murray joined in early August, making his debut as a 72nd minute substitute  at Coventry. He was ineligible to play in the League Cup match against Bury, but came back as a substitute against Doncaster (54th minute), Scunthorpe (76th minute) and Gillingham (46th minute). Unlike Junior, Murray has a wealth of senior team experience with 75 appearances for Watford, despite being only 21 years old.

With the impending returns of Tim Chow and Emyr Huws from injury, Caldwell has a significant number of midfielders at his disposal. On Saturday he chose to bring on Murray ahead of Max Power who has impressed in his early games for the club. Time is running out on Murray’s loan and Caldwell may be faced with having to make a decision on the player’s future at the club without being able to give him a starting berth.

Kenny is clearly a different type of proposition to Junior and Kenny. Although only 18 years old he is already looking like a future Premier League player.  With the injury to Kevin McNaughton, Caldwell will be leaning heavily on the youngster in the coming weeks. Although there may be possibilities for permanent signings in the cases of Murray and Junior, it is a matter of time before Kenny goes back to Everton. Should Caldwell be able to lengthen Kenny’s loan beyond that initial two months period he will surely do it.

Caldwell has already brought in 15 new players to the club and there will surely be more to come in the next couple of weeks. Some will be permanent signings, others loanees. There will also be more outgoings.

The long saga of Billy Mckay and Dundee United will surely be resolved soon. Caldwell had given Mckay his first start in that Brentford game and it will probably be the Northern Ireland international’s last at the club. With Mckay off the books and Shaq Coulthirst back at Tottenham, Caldwell will be anxious to bring in another striker, even if Grant Holt regains full fitness and is back by October.

Rumours are circulating regarding interest in Wycombe’s 22 year old central defender Aaron Pierre. The futures of both Leon Barnett and Chris McCann remain uncertain.

Caldwell will surely continue to keep the door open for home grown talent. Sending the 18 year old Sam Cosgrove out to Barrow on a short term loan looks like a good move. One wonders if Caldwell will look at similar opportunities for the likes of Flores, Jennings and Robles, or whether he will be able to offer them ample first team opportunities with the club.

In the meantime Caldwell will continue to scour the transfer market. His squad is close to being complete but there are still pieces missing in his jigsaw puzzle. Moreover it will be interesting to see if he will continue to look at short term loans as a means of assessing players with a view to signing them in the future or uses them as temporary to provide replacements to cover for injuries.

The “new era” has begun with one outstanding performance and four indifferent ones. However, the changes in the squad are still not complete and it is going to take some time before everything comes together. Despite the young chairman’s unfortunate “smashing League 1 ” statement it is clear that there are going to be some difficult times ahead for Caldwell and his squad.

A mid-table place by Christmas might be the best that we can expect. It is in the second half of the season that we are most likely to see Caldwell’s plans move towards fruition.