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.