Joyce has gone – time to BELIEVE again

Do we BELIEVE that Latics can get out of this predicament? Table thanks to Statto.com

David Sharpe did the right thing today by dismissing Warren Joyce and his close associate Andy Welsh. Some might say the chairman deserves praise for swallowing his pride and realising he did the wrong thing in November. But Sharpe is pragmatic enough to know that if he had kept Joyce in charge, Latics would surely have been doomed to relegation.

One of the fundamental building blocks in Wigan Athletic’s rise from the fourth tier to mingle for so long with the elite clubs of English football was sheer BELIEF. It was the belief of Dave Whelan in his managers – Paul Jewell, Steve Bruce and Roberto Martinez – that led to the club to an FA Cup, a League Cup Final and eight years in the Premier League. Whelan backed them, not only with his chequebook, but with his driving ambition to hold Wigan Athletic up there.

There were certainly sticky moments along the way, but there was always the hope that things would turn out alright in the end. They did apart from that fatal night at the Emirates, just three days after Ben Watson’s unforgettable goal had won them the Cup. But Whelan had chosen his managers wisely.

Jewell’s teams were built on solid defence, but always had flair players in attack. Whelan opted for continuity when Jewell left, giving the post to his assistant, Chris Hutchings. Sadly it did not work out and Hutchings was gone after barely three months in charge. Bruce came back to the club, Whelan backed him in the transfer market and he righted a foundering ship. His teams were based on a solid defence protected by a rugged midfield, but with a good smattering of flair players to provide balance.

Martinez was brought in to keep Latics in the Premier League on a much reduced budget. He went on to produce the best results in the club’s history, away wins at Arsenal and Liverpool, the club’s one and only victory at home to Manchester United, that epic victory on cup final day. Martinez was a great ambassador for the club, through his insistence that his teams compete against star-studded opposition by sticking to the principles of skilful possession football. The FA Cup victory against Manchester City was no fluke: Wigan had played the better football on the day, with not a hint of skulduggery.

Was Whelan just lucky with his appointments of Jewell, Bruce and Martinez or did he have a vision of what they would do? If he was lucky with those three, he certainly was not with his appointment of Owen Coyle. Neither was he in appointing Malky Mackay and his grandson made a similarly woeful appointment in Warren Joyce. None of those three names – Coyle, Mackay, Joyce – became synonymous with good football at Wigan Athletic. Indeed it was quite the reverse.

But Whelan did make a good appointment in Uwe Rosler, who picked up the mess left by Coyle and got Latics to the FA Cup Semi Final and the Championship playoffs. Sadly the going got rough in Rosler’s second season, but rather than showing faith in a manager who had achieved so much, Whelan showed him the door, bringing in the hapless Mackay. Sharpe did a similar thing with Gary Caldwell, who had only months before won the League 1 title. His replacement was the inept Joyce.

Sharpe has done the right thing for the moment. The odds are that Latics will not be able to avoid relegation, but without the shackles imposed by Joyce the players can make things happen. Few of us really and truly believed that Joyce was the right man for Wigan. To BELIEVE that Joyce could save the club from relegation was asking too much, given his obsession with the defensive side of the game and the hoofball we were witnessing.

Graham Barrow has been appointed caretaker manager again. Barrow is a survivor who has seen six managers come and go since rejoining the club in 2009. Barrow is not the kind of coach who will throw caution to the wind, but we can expect him to field line ups that are more balanced that we saw under Joyce. Due attention will be paid to the offence, as well as the defence.

With Barrow in charge we at least have a hope that we can BELIEVE our team can avoid the drop.

Courtesy of Statto.com

 

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Another fire sale, another relegation?

   firesale2

The January transfer window was approaching and Wigan Athletic had just lost their fifth game out of the seven they had cahmp-table-2014-15played under their latest manager. Their line up in that match against Sheffield Wednesday was studded with ex-Premier League players. They were playing a mid-table team with the lowest goals-for record in the division. Sadly it was not to be and Latics went down 1-0.  Callum McManaman’s sending off after 68 minutes surely being a contributory factor. The New Year of 2015 saw Latics second from bottom of the Championship with just 20 points from 24 games played.

There are clear parallels between the current New Year period in 2017 and that of a couple of years prior. Latics are once again second from bottom and their new manager yesterday suffered his seventh defeat in nine games in charge. Rumours are already floating around the social media of another fire sale of players, as happened in 2015. But surely the club has learned from recent history? Is another fire sale the answer to turning around the team’s fortunes?

But the fundamentals of the situation of a couple of years ago and that of now differ. In January 2015, the club did it as a means of drastically slashing its wage bill. Malky Mackay was the hapless manager who had to oversee it and patch up his squad, largely with young champ-table2017loanees and free agents on short term contracts. There was surprisingly little uproar from the fans at the time, with the likes of cup final heroes Shaun Maloney, Callum McManaman and Ben Watson being dispatched at bargain prices. People had been so disillusioned by a perceived lack of effort from the players that many did not question that a big shake up was required.

The rumours of the next departures are already floating around the social media. Nathan Byrne to Charlton, Sam Morsy to Barnsley on a permanent deal, Will Grigg to any club willing to pay £2m for him, Adam Le Fondre’s loan from Cardiff to be cut short, currently linked with Scunthorpe. We will doubtless see many more rumours flying around the message boards in the coming weeks. Some will have substance, some not. Once again many fans will welcome a shake-up, with so many players in the current squad being labelled as League 1 players, not of Championship standard.

A current poll on Vital Wigan indicates that 56% of fans believe that Warren Joyce can turn things around if given time. A significant proportion cast the blame for the club’s current predicament on Gary Caldwell and his recruitment team. Others cite Joyce’s inexperience as a manager and the woeful tactics and team selections we have seen over the past couple of months. But how much longer will David Sharpe be willing to wait if Joyce cannot deliver over the coming weeks? Sharpe will hopefully have learned from two years ago when he left it too late in the season to rid the club of Malky Mackay.

Rumours suggest that Joyce is trying to sign 34 year old Dean Whitehead, an experienced higher leagues player, although his better days are behind him. The big question is whether Sharpe will back Joyce with the funds needed to bring in quality reinforcements, a task complicated by the fact that Latics are currently on track back to League 1. Given the recent pronouncements of Jonathan Jackson on the club’s finances it seems more likely that Latics will sell off their prime assets – certainly Will Grigg and possibly Yanic Wildschut – and bring in loannees and experienced players of the ilk of Whitehead on short term contracts. With the prospect of a return to League 1 looming, Jackson and Sharpe will be unwilling to speculate on big money and long term contracts to tempt quality players to come in.

The fire sale of two years ago led to relegation. Repeating such actions this month will surely lead along the same path.

There are dangerous times ahead in the coming weeks.

 

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Echoes of Malky, but a point gained – Barnsley 0 Latics 0 – match reaction

 

They say that results are all important in football. So it could be said that Wigan Athletic supporters should be happy with the point at mid-table Barnsley. Latics played with the kind of passion and spirit that typified their rise up into the higher echelons of English football in latter years. After losing his first game 3-0, Warren Joyce had clearly instilled a backs-to-the wall mentality in his players. It was not pretty, but it got another valuable away point.

Joyce is no shrinking violet. He had the courage to leave his three front line centre forwards on the bench, with Dan Burn and Jordi Gomez totally absent. He brought back the experienced Craig Morgan, who had been marginalised by previous manager Gary Caldwell. Morgan went on to form a solid partnership with fellow veteran, Jake Buxton, as they held their own in repelling the Barnsley attacks. Morgan may not be fast, but his positioning remains as good as ever. He and Buxton were like peas from the same pod. Playing Nick Powell at centre forward and leaving out the likes of Davies, Grigg and Le Fondre certainly made a statement to us all.

But Powell went off after only 31 minutes, reportedly unwell. When Joyce replaced him with Luke Garbutt many of us wondered why would the manager replace a centre forward with a full back? Did he have any attacking intentions? Garbutt too had fallen out of favour with the previous manager. Was Joyce making a statement to say that the slate has been wiped clean and everyone starts from scratch with him? In fact, Garbutt was put into a left midfield position and was to go on to do no better or worse than most of his teammates. The reshuffle saw Yanic Wildschut move to the lone centre forward position. He was particularly lonely, although at times he could take on 3 or 4 defenders to try to salvage something.

I had surprisingly managed to get a live feed for the game, after preparing myself to listen to the audio commentary. Adam Bogdan went off injured after 58 minutes. When Jussi Jasskelainen came on the commentator told us he was a player/coach, which was a surprise to me. Has the big Finn replaced Mike Pollitt as goalkeeping coach?

When Caldwell was manager he would have close contact with Graham Barrow and the coaches during a game. But in this one Joyce seemed solitary, with the coaches in the background. The cynics might say he is waiting for them to leave. Or maybe it is just the manager’s preferred style? All will presumably be revealed in the coming weeks.

It could be said that in this case, the end justified the means. But that in itself would be a worry. The commentator had told us that Joyce had summonsed the players in for regular double training sessions. They certainly looked fit enough and did not cave in the closing minutes as has too often been the case this season. But what was worrying was the football, or lack of it.

Indeed the football was reminiscent of the days of Malky Mackay. It was more fightball than football. Moreover once again seeing a winger playing at centre forward was to further highlight those most painful of memories.

Barnsley manager Paul Heckinbottom summed up Latics’ approach by saying: “Their set-up and line-up, playing without a striker, a centre-midfielder at right midfield and the first sub is a left-back, so that shows that they came here paying us the utmost respect, trying to nullify us, which they did.

Warren Joyce has a reputation as a top coach whose teams have played skilful, entertaining football. But today it seemed like he had told his players to rip up the coaching book they had learned under Gary Caldwell and go back to basics. The possession football that the Scot had instilled in the players was barely evident today. Perhaps the manager had told his players to minimise potential errors at the back by playing the ball long when under pressure? But even that would not explain the lack of creativity and attacking intent from midfield.

Let’s hope that this is a one-off and that hoofball has not returned to Wigan.

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.

Losing a winning mentality?

Will Craig Morgan still be a Latics player three days from now?

Will Craig Morgan still be a Latics player three days from now?

Last season Wigan Athletic developed a winning mentality. After an indifferent start with one win in their first five matches, Latics went from mid-December to mid-April without losing a league game.  The losing mentality of the era of Malky Mackay that had caused relegation had been reversed into a winning mentality by Gary Caldwell.

Of course the circumstances of Mackay and Caldwell differed greatly. Mackay had been cast in the role of hatchet man, presiding over the departures of 11 senior squad players between the beginning of January and mid-February 2015. Given the lack of money available to sign new players, Mackay was to bring in loanees, free transfers or bargain basement signings. Relegation was almost an inevitable consequence.

Mackay will be remembered as one of the least successful managers the club ever had. Moreover the football his teams played resembled fight-ball more than anything else. By the time Gary Caldwell took over with just five league games to go it was too late. Not only was the squad weak, but the players had developed a losing mentality. It was not an easy start for the Scot.

The jettisoning of players was to continue over the summer with only remnants remaining when the new season opened in August 2015. But unlike Mackay, who had been hamstrung by the club’s reluctance to invest in quality new players, Caldwell was to find himself with the financial backing he needed from new young chairman, David Sharpe. Wigan’s wage bill was to dwarf most of the rest in League 1 and they invested around £1 million in centre forward Will Grigg.

However, after a disappointing start to the season the knives were out and the keyboard warriors were lively on the social media. There were those who thought Caldwell was wrong in wanting to play “the right kind of football” in League 1. How could he expect lower division players to bring the ball out of defence, playing the type of possession football that was the hallmark of Latics’ play when Caldwell had been captain? Some fans advocated a return to 4-4-2.

Caldwell was to prove them wrong. He stubbornly stuck to his beliefs, playing with a lone striker, not being afraid to switch between a back three and a back four. At times his tactics seemed to go haywire, but they mostly worked. Over the course of the season he was to use 34 players, a remarkable amount of turnover for a team that was to go on to win its division. At times it looked like there were too many players coming and going, but somehow Caldwell forged them into a cohesive unit. The bottom line was that the players all knew what the manager expected from them. He had ingrained in them a way of playing.

Once again Wigan Athletic have started a season badly. Moreover the turnover of players has continued. The departure of central defender and vice-captain Jason Pearce was a shock, if those of Tim Chow, Emyr Huws, Lee Nicholls, Billy Mckay and Andrew Taylor were not. The seemingly impending departures of captain Craig Morgan and combative midfielder Sam Morsy add to the surprises. Morsy was only signed in January, as was Ryan Colclough who might also be on his way. Just a few months ago it looked like they were the kinds of young and hungry players who would form the backbone of the team in the future.

“We’re probably looking at bringing in four or five new players” commented Caldwell in May.

He has since brought in Adam Bogdan, Jake Buxton, Dan Burn, Luke Garbutt, Alex Gilbey, Jordi Gomez, Kyle Knoyle, Shaun MacDonald and Nick Powell, in addition to signing Stephen Warnock on a permanent contract. After the Forest defeat Caldwell stated his need to further strengthen “certain areas”, bringing in the “right” players.

Craig Morgan was the lynchpin of the defence last season, his calmness under pressure and ability to play the ball out of defence being real assets to Caldwell’s side. Together with Pearce he formed a partnership that had an impressive record. Latics had just one defeat, that on the last day of the season, when the two started together. Although there were concerns about a lack of pace which could be exposed at Championship level it appeared that Caldwell would keep faith in the pair, at least in the interim period until new central defenders could be weaned in.

Despite being in negotiation with Sheffield United over his transfer prior to the QPR match, Morgan was included in the starting lineup. Not surprisingly he was not at his best. It remains to be seen whether he can come to agreement with the Yorkshire club, but what is clear is that he is no longer in Caldwell’s plans.

Although he has help from a recruitment team much of Caldwell’s time has surely been taken up by the incomings and outgoings. Critics will say that his team selections and use of substitutes so far this season have been unimpressive, that opposing team managers have out-thought him.

Caldwell has been blessed by the emergence of a bright young talent in the 18 year old Luke Burke, but in the last two games he has left him on the bench, starting with players at right wing back who do not have the requisite skills or motivation to play in that position. Last season Caldwell would adjust the shape of the team to match the situation of the game, alternating between three at the back and a conventional back four. He has somehow been reluctant to do it so far this season.

Once again it has been a time of turnover, even though five league games have passed by as the ins and outs have been worked upon. The club has been through so much turmoil over the past couple of years. Caldwell works within financial constraints: in order to bring in new players the manager has to persuade others to leave. It has to be an unsettling time at the club for the members of last season’s squad that remain, who might well be wondering if they will be next.

Caldwell clearly changed his mind over the summer. Instead of bringing in 4 or 5 new players he has brought in 10. With the incomings are the outgoings, as the manager seeks to balance his wage bill. He acknowledged the difficulties he now faces entering the market for players in the Championship.

There’s key areas we need to strengthen, and we’re working extremely hard to do that. “It is difficult to do that, with salary demands and agents’ demands, it is a difficult process. We have to make sure that, even at this late stage, we don’t panic and get the wrong player. But I’m pretty sure we’ll have a few new faces come Wednesday.”

But is Caldwell doing the right thing by ditching players who had played key roles in a title winning side? Were those players not hungry enough, or not good enough, to play in the Championship?

His supporters will tell us that he knows exactly what he is doing and we need to be patient. Caldwell came to a realisation that the squad he had at the beginning of summer training did not have the wherewithal to be successful in a higher division. The new players he has brought in will take time to adjust to the roles Caldwell has in mind for them. Last season saw lots of players come and go, but the team was ultimately successful.

Caldwell will surely be relieved that the international break is coming up. It will give him a breathing space in which to finalise his staffing changes, with an opportunity to calm down any disturbed waters before the next match at Sheffield Wednesday on September 10.

It is to be hoped that he can inculcate in his players the type of winning mentality that will be necessary to be successful in the Championship.