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.