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.

 

 

Getting the best out of the wing backs

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A bad start to the season is not uncommon for Wigan Athletic.

The beginning of the 2011-12 season was no exception. A  3-1 home loss to Wolves in early November was their eighth consecutive defeat and Roberto Martinez clearly had to look at changing something. The changes he made took some time to take effect, but in the end they were to underpin a remarkable turnaround in the team’s fortunes.

In the next match against Blackburn Rovers he brought in a back line of three central defenders, with Ronnie Stam and David Jones employed as wing backs. Stam had struggled as a conventional right back, but looked much more comfortable as a wing back where he had much more freedom to attack. Defending was not his forte. Jones was a central midfielder pushed into a new role, in which he never looked truly comfortable. Results improved a little, but by Christmas Latics were still locked in the bottom three.

By the time the January transfer window opened the fans were clamouring for new signings to reinvigorate a team that was heading for relegation. Martinez was to sign just one player, paying Birmingham City £2.5m for left winger, Jean Beausejour. It did not seem enough at the time.

However, Martinez knew that Beausejour had played as a wing back for Chile. He immediately replaced Jones in that position and made it his own. Stam’s defensive limitations, even as a right wing back, were to persuade Martinez to bring back Emmerson Boyce. If nothing else, Boyce could provide more stability to a defence that was hemorrhaging goals.

By mid-March and the introduction of Shaun Maloney the team was starting to play much better. The 3-4-3 system was working really well, not least because of the contributions of Boyce and Beausejour at wing back. When Latics were under pressure they would drop back to provide a back line of five, but still be available to link up with the central defenders to build up moves from the back. Their patient and skilful build up play was to prove a key feature in the amazing results the team was to achieve in avoiding relegation.

Boyce and Beausejour tucked in closely with the back three. If one advanced the other would stay put. Boyce was to show a range of skills that surprised so many of us – defensively solid and with a silky touch in attack. Beausejour rarely wasted a ball and his crossing could be reminiscent of David Beckham.

Sadly the era of Boyce and Beausejour is over, but the appointment of Gary Caldwell as manager has brought a return to a system involving wing backs.

On the tour of Scotland we saw the wing backs pushed well forward, much further than was typically the case under Martinez. The Scot has stated his preference for attacking football and deploying the wing backs in relatively advanced positions could be viewed as a consequence of that. But Martinez was facing high quality opposition and was rarely able to let his wing backs off a tight leash. Caldwell faces a different pressure – providing attacking football that delivers the goals that were so sadly lacking last season.

However, there were times in both matches where the wing backs were not dropping back sufficiently to receive the ball from the back three. The result was central defenders either looking for holding midfielders to receive the ball or playing it across their own back line, too often resulting into a back pass to the goalkeeper to punt forward. Moreover the central defenders were sometimes exposed to counterattacks as attacks had broken down with the wing backs stranded.

Yesterday Caldwell started with the youngsters Jonjoe Kenny and Reece James at wing back. Both have the ball skills, pace and energy to be effective wing backs, even if had not been their natural roles with Everton and Manchester United respectively. In the second half Kenny was replaced by the more conservative, but perhaps defensively stronger, Kevin McNaughton.

Thirteen out of the fourteen players who were involved in the action yesterday were new to the club. A certain degree of lack of cohesion was inevitable and so it proved with Coventry’s goals. Moreover Tony Mowbray had employed a Rosler-style high pressing game in the early stages that prevented the slow build up from the back.

Perhaps expectations of a good result at Coventry were unrealistically high. However, the sight of central defenders constantly passing the ball across the back line and to the goalkeeper suggests that they do not have sufficient passing options. In the days of Malky Mackay or Owen Coyle they would have often employed the hoof, so often resulting in the position gaining possession.

It is to Caldwell’s credit that he eschews that option. Despite the comments made on Latics Player/WISH FM, teams have achieved promotion out of League 1 playing the ball out of defence. Caldwell will resist the hoof and insist that good football is played. This is not to say that his defenders will not look to put forward a well measured long pass if a forward has moved into an appropriate receiving position.

Mowbray’s pressing tactics will surely be used by other teams to disrupt Latics’ game of building up from the back. It is to be hoped that Caldwell can develop a Plan B to deal with it.

History tells us that it takes time for players to adjust to playing in system that involves three central defenders and wing backs. Roberto Martinez learned that, but he persevered and it came good in the end. However, Martinez was not dealing with a practically brand new squad of players. His players knew each other’s games, even if the system they were playing under was tweaked.

It is going to take time for Caldwell’s new charges to effectively put his footballing ideas into practice. In the meantime it is to be hoped that he can look at providing more of a link between his central defenders and his wing backs. Perhaps a look at old videos from the “golden era” will show the wing backs what can be done against a calibre of opposition with which League 1 pales in comparison.

Yesterday’s team is the youngest Latics have fielded for some years, with six of the starting lineup being below 25 years of age. Young players make mistakes under the pressure of high expectations, as was learned last year under Uwe Rosler. It is to be hoped that the current crop are given time to settle, despite the expectations of the chairman and a significant number of fans.

With the fans clamouring for attacking football Caldwell is pushing his wing backs forward. The question to be posed is whether they are taking sufficient part in the build-up of moves from the back that will translate to goals up front.