Latics again in a state of flux

Warren Joyce’s first game in charge of Wigan Athletic coincided with the worst performance of the season. In fact some fans are even comparing the display with those we would too often see in the Malky Mackay era, when a demoralised and mediocre squad was not able to avoid relegation.

But comparisons with the Mackay era are groundless at this moment in time. A new manager has come in to take over a squad that had not been accumulating the points needed to keep the club away from the Championship relegation zone. When a new manager comes in results so often take an upturn, but with difficult away games following at Barnsley and Huddersfield it is going to be a hard task for Joyce.

Opening match performances for new managers can be deceptive. Indeed Mackay started with a promising 1-1 home draw with Middlesbrough when Latics performed with spirit and played good football in spells. It was not to continue with them losing their next four matches. By the end of January five of the players who had started against Boro had left the club. Latics were in turmoil with so many quality players leaving in that transfer window, being replaced largely by journeymen and young loanees.

The turmoil continues at the club. It has now had five managers in the past three years, a far cry from the longevity of six years with Paul Jewell and four with Roberto Martinez. Although Latics had returned to the Championship with the momentum of winning League 1 only three players in the starting line up on Saturday – Michael Jacobs, David Perkins and Max Power – were at the club precisely a year ago. Moreover chairman David Sharpe had spoken of Gary Caldwell being at the club long-term, but the young manager only lasted 18 months.

The stats suggest that successful teams are built upon stability rather than turnover. Last season when Leicester City won the Premier League there were 10 players who started in at least 30 of the 38 games in the season.  Kasper Schmeichel and Wes Morgan started in all 38, Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy in 36. During the course of the season 20 different players started for Leicester, a figure which is relatively low but bears little comparison to the 14 starters used by  Aston Villa to win the first tier in 1980-81 and the 16 employed by Nottingham Forest three seasons earlier.

But Gary Caldwell used 34 players last season. Caldwell’s team was in a constant state of flux, but he still went on to win the League 1 title after a difficult start when the players took time to gel. He was to continue in the same vein, recruiting 14 new recruits over the summer.  But this time it was to be his undoing.

Instead of retaining the momentum of the team that had won the third tier he ripped out the core and started from scratch in key positions. The effective centre back partnership of Morgan and Pearce was superseded by Burn and Buxton, the excellent distribution and the authority of Jaaskelainen was replaced by a more agile, if less authoritative, Bogdan. In midfield the combative, but skilful, Morsy was replaced by the steady, conservative MacDonald. The right back position remains problematic, with nobody at this point impressing any more than Wabara did previously. The club’s most valuable asset, Will Grigg, has found himself too often on the bench, despite his good start to the season. One wonders if the centre forward will still be at Wigan by the end of the January transfer window.

Caldwell’s new players clearly needed more time to gel in such a competitive environment as the Championship. The manager made mistakes, but the decision to dismiss him once more puts the club in a state of flux. It could be one that the chairman will later regret.

When new managers take over at football clubs they invariably look at bringing in people they have worked with before. When Caldwell was dismissed the goalkeeping coach, Mike Pollitt, and chief scout Malcolm Crosby were also relieved of their positions. Further changes in the coaching and backroom staff look on the cards.

Indeed the rumours today suggest that Jimmy Ryan and Paul McGuinness, long term employees of the Manchester United coaching and backroom staff, could be joining Latics. But given that Ryan is now 71 years old and has been retired for the past four years one ponders on the veracity of the reports. On the playing front rumours suggest that Joyce is interested in winger Cameron Stewart, a free agent. Stewart started his career at Old Trafford, but his promising career has been punctuated by injury. Although still only 25 he has played at 11 clubs.

The state of flux at Wigan Athletic is therefore likely to continue as the new manager brings in his own coaching and backroom staff over the coming weeks. The January transfer window will then allow him the opportunity to bring in his own players, with the seemingly inevitable departure of some of the current squad.

Joyce’s preferred playing formation could well be the 4-2-3-1 which is becoming increasingly prevalent in English football. The line up on Saturday was conservative to say the least, with David Perkins playing wide on the right.  The manager hinted that he had had some help picking the team, but he picked a left footed midfield player on the right wing, who is not known for cutting inside and shooting. David Perkins remains an important figure at the club, but needs to be played in a position where he can be more effective. The preference of Adam Le Fondre over Will Grigg was another one open to debate.

The manager has got off to an underwhelming start at the club, but like Gary Caldwell, he will need time. His teams at Manchester United were known for their attractive football and it is to be hoped that he will continue in that style at Wigan, in contrast to his predecessors Owen Coyle and Malky Mackay. He has inherited a squad containing promising young players and others who are rebuilding their careers after difficult times of late.

It will be interesting to see if Joyce will restore Craig Morgan back to play a leading role as he did last season. It was sad to see the Welshman stripped of the captaincy and almost bundled off to Sheffield United as the deadline approached for the summer transfer window. That, plus the controversial departure of Jason Pearce and the banishment of Sam Morsy on loan to Barnsley must surely have caused some discord within the camp.

It is to be hoped that the chairman has learned from the lessons of the January transfer window of a couple of years ago, when the family silver was sold off for a pittance, resulting in relegation. It could be argued that the players who left the club then were of higher profile than those currently at the club, but Joyce and Sharpe must beware of ripping the heart out of the team as happened then.

The state of flux is going to continue for some time yet. In the meantime we will hope to see a pattern in what the new manager is trying to create, that the club does have genuine direction and that the constant toing and froing of players will abate.

There are going to be some tough months ahead. A more immediate target for the manager will be to lift the club clear of the relegation zone by the end of the calendar year. There are eight games coming up in that time.

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The Season Starts Now

 

“In my head this season only starts from tonight onwards”.

So said David Sharpe at the end of the transfer deadline day. The chairman went on to say that the transfer window should finish on the 31st of July, rather than the 31st of August.

Much has been said by many people about the date of closure of the summer transfer window. Sharpe is one of many club chairmen unhappy with the current arrangement. The  Championship season started on August 6th and the clubs had played five league games before the transfer window closed. Sadly for Sharpe, Wigan Athletic only gathered four points from those matches, three less than last season’s League 1 runners-up Burton Albion and five less than playoff winners Barnsley.

Latics have once again made a poor start to a season, not only in terms of results, but also in terms of performances. Granted, the defeats at both Bristol and Nottingham came in time added on, but in neither match did Latics truly merit a point. The home games against Birmingham and QPR saw Latics play against teams with well organised and uncompromising defences, something they will have to get used to this season. There are few easy games in the Championship.

Some fans will attribute the disappointing start to the season to bringing in too many new players into a team that had won the League 1 title just three months before. The starting lineup for the first game of the season at Bristol contained just six players who started in last season’s finale against Barnsley. Moreover with the transfer window still open for another 25 days there were surely going to be more new players coming in. The slow start of last season’s team in the league was put down largely to the sheer number of new players brought in. It was bound to take time for them to cohere into a unit in which the whole at least approached the sum of its parts. It looks like it will be happening again.

In fact Caldwell had already brought in seven new players to his squad by the end of July. Since then he has added another seven. Fans are now wondering how long it is going to take for a squad with fourteen new players to gel into a cohesive unit. Is there such a gulf between League 1 and the Championship that Caldwell had to bring in so much new blood? Did the other promoted clubs feel the same need?

In fact, Barnsley, like Latics, fielded six players in their starting lineup on August 6th who had started in the last game of the 2015-16 season. Burton started with only five. Barnsley brought in nine new players during the month of August, Burton acquiring six during that same period.

The managers at all three clubs clearly felt a need to seriously strengthen their squads in moving to a higher division.

The League 1 winners of 2014-15, Bristol City struggled to come to grips with the Championship last season. They lost their first three games, but drew the next at home to Leeds and won the following one at Middlesbrough. They therefore had four points from their first five games, as Latics have right now.

But things got worse for City before they got better. After losing 4-0 at Burnley at the end of December they finished the calendar year in 22nd place. In the end City managed 18th place. City had not brought in a swathe of new players over summer, but made use of the loan system through the course of the season to effect. Of the other promoted teams, MK Dons were relegated and Preston NE finished 11th.

So, given the poor start what can we expect from Caldwell’s Wigan Athletic this season? Moreover what are the expectations of the chairman and can Caldwell meet them?

Last season Caldwell built a quality squad with strength in depth compared with other clubs in League 1. His bench was the envy of the division and he employed it to effect. When things were not going to the game plan Caldwell was able to bring players off the bench who would have a significant impact on the proceedings.

However, the bench that Caldwell had for the game at Bristol was less impressive. Not only had the stakes been raised by moving up to a higher division, but injuries in the pre-season had further reduced his options. When a partially fit Will Grigg finally left the pitch after 70 minutes there was no central striker available to replace him.

A month later there are still injuries but the squad is so much stronger. Adam le Fondre has come in, ready to challenge Grigg for a starting position, with Craig Davies now fit again and Nick Powell capable of playing a central striking role too. Nathan Byrne has been signed for the troublesome right wing back position, with Luke Burke as an alternative. Apart from Yanic Wildschut the squad was lacking players of genuine pace. Byrne can provide that as can Kaiyne Woolery, a rough diamond that Caldwell will seek to polish.

Reece Burke will add quality to the centre of defence, with the ability to play in the orthodox right back position if Caldwell opts for a back four. Jordi Gomez is a fine player at Championship level when played in a central midfield role.

The squad currently consists of:

Goalkeepers  – Adam Bogdan (28), Jussi Jaaskelainen (41), Dan Lavercombe (21).

Full backs/wing backs – Nathan Byrne (24), Kyle Knoyle (19), Luke Burke (18), Reece James (22), Stephen Warnock (34), Luke Garbutt (23).

Centre backs – Reece Burke (20), Dan Burn (24), Donervon Daniels (22), Craig Morgan (31), Jake Buxton (31).

Midfielders – Alex Gilbey (21), Max Power (23), David Perkins (34), Andy Kellett (22), Nick Powell (22), Jordan Flores (20), Michael Jacobs (24), Shaun MacDonald (28), Jordi Gomez (31).

Forwards – Will Grigg (25), Craig Davies (30), Yanic Wildschut (24), Kaiyne Woolery (21), Adam le Fondre (29).

The squad is now well balanced, although Daniels, James and Knoyle remain on the long term injured list. It appears to have sufficient quality to ensure a mid-table position, although results over the coming weeks might not show much improvement as new players “bed in” with their teammates and Caldwell’s preferred style of play. Put simply, results are likely to get worse before they get better.

Only Preston of last season’s promoted teams could reach a mid-table position last season. Should Caldwell’s team manage that it will be seen as a success by most supporters, consolidation in the first season back in the Championship providing a base upon which to build.

However, the ambitions within the club could well be higher. This is the last season of parachute payments and the Whelan family’s policy running of the club over the past few years has seen money invested, but at least as much recouped. It remains to be seen if they would be willing to front the cash needed to mount a promotion push a year from now without the parachute subsidy.

It is not publicly known what Sharpe’s aspirations are for the current season. He will certainly have learned from his “smash the league with 100 points” comment just over a year ago, but would he be happy with consolidation this season? Or does he see this as the season that Latics can conceivably regain their Premier League status? It would be a tall order, unlikely, but by no means impossible.

In the meantime Caldwell will be hoping that his new players can ‘gel’ in as soon as possible. It inevitably took time for the process to happen last season but the depth and quality of the squad ultimately proved to be the determining factor for success. His current squad is much stronger than it was a month ago, but is it good enough to challenge the best teams in the championship?

Last season taught us to be patient. We knew that the new squad was going to take time to gel into a cohesive unit. Patience will also be required this season, although the going is much tougher in a highly competitive Championship division with so many clubs having spent serious money on new players over the summer.

Given the situation a mid-table position would be an achievement:  anything higher an added bonus. The bottom line is to avoid relegation, but Caldwell’s squad is so much stronger than that of the hapless Malky Mackay a couple of seasons ago.

For the moment patience would seem to be the order of the day.