Five things the new man must get right


It has been a whirlwind couple of days since the news broke that Dave Whelan had sacked Owen Coyle (sort of), and the rumour mill has been churning out names ever since.

Football certainly has both a sense of timing and humour, after the eventful week that led to Coyle losing his job also saw Rene Meluensteen accept the Fulham position and Steve McClaren supply the damage that ultimately sealed the former Bolton and Burnley manager’s fate.

There have been murmurs that Whelan regrets the short-term mentality of his latest appointment, after witnessing how little time it took Coyle to dismantle the three years of club ethos-building groundwork of his predecessor. One newspaper stretched this rumour to suggest he is specifically looking for his “next Roberto Martinez” — a young and ambitious manager with a long-term view and a twinkle in his eye. What seems more likely is the appointment of someone who, regardless of age, is thinking not just of how to get Wigan out of the Championship, but stay out of the Championship. The popular favourite at the moment is Mike Phelan — more on that here.

In the meantime, our top five recommendations for the new man:

1) No need for a revolution

Coyle could be forgiven for feeling that he was inheriting a disjointed squad after the relegation-fueled exodus at the end of last season. He acted swiftly and admirably to bring in a number of new faces, most of whom on paper, were excellent Championship signings. But it was a huge mistake to try and re-invent the club’s ethos and actively reject the work Martinez had done before him. Even if he felt the tikki-takka stuff wasn’t for him, there was simply not enough time to completely transform the way the team played, gel new signings, and obtain results. In Jordi Gomez, Ben Watson, James McArthur, Emmerson Boyce, Roger Espinoza, Callum McManaman, Jean Beausejour, and Sean Maloney before his injury, he had a set of players who performed key roles in an FA Cup winning squad. He also had Gary Caldwell, Ivan Ramis and Ali Al-Habsi to return from injury, and settled young talents Frazer Fyvie and Nouha Dicko ready to push for first team football. In the end, he rotated the squad so much that the established players at the club who knew each other and had chemistry on the pitch, were rarely in the lineup together.

If there is a concrete lesson for the new man in charge, it is to embrace the strengths the club already possesses and tweak rather than rebuild. Swansea is fantastic example when it comes to such smooth transitions, from Martinez to Paulo Sousa, to Brendan Rodgers and Michael Laudrup.

2) Get the fans back onside

Injuries or not, one got the sense that fan favourites such as Ali Al-Habsi and Sean Maloney were on their way out of the club. Add to this the limited playing time afforded to Roger Espinoza, despite repeated clamouring from the crowd to see him, and it was clear he was losing the supporters.

It would be a very good move to publicly talk up the returns of Al-Habsi and Maloney, give Espinoza a chance, and focus on getting the best out of the club’s established players such as Emmerson Boyce, James McArthur, Ben Watson, Jean Beausejour and the returning Ivan Ramis, who himself was gaining something of a cult following before that terrible knee injury at Fulham last January.

It would also be wise to praise the work of his predecessors. Coyle deserves immense credit for his work assembling a strong squad of players in a short period of time. Even more important, however, is public acknowledgement of what Martinez did, not only delivered the club’s greatest achievement, but investing hugely in the club’s long-term future. It is difficult to replace an icon, but acknowledging his work puts everyone on the same side.

3) Get the best out of Grant Holt

He was the marquee summer signing — the proven goalscorer at this, and just about every other level in English football — but it all seems to have gone wrong. An instinctive finish against Barnsley on day one promised great things, and he’s shown flashes of talent (his setup play for Marc-Antoine Fortune’s winner at Yeovil stands out), but it’s largely been frustrating for the big centre-forward, and in recent weeks, Wigan Athletic supporters. His confidence is clearly low, and he doesn’t appear fully fit after being rushed back from a knee injury several games back, but the biggest problem was tactical.

A striker who scores the vast majority of his goals from crosses was all too frequently playing with the wrong supporting cast. Beausejour — the finest crosser of the ball at the club — was rarely in the lineup at the same time. His starts seemed to coincide with matches in which Latics failed to control possession of the ball, limiting him to counter attacks for which his talents were ill-suited.

With the less-than-prolific Fortune and young, unproven Will Keane the other options in the striking department, it is clear that the new manager needs to get the best out of Holt if Wigan are to stand a chance of being promoted this season. That means providing service.

4) Fill the gaps

The other option, of course, is to spend time and money on another proven striker.

And a left-back, assuming Juan Carlos Garcia needs more time to adapt and Stephen Crainey doesn’t dramatically improve under new leadership.

If Graham Barrow’s 3-5-2 formation in yesterday’s loss against Leeds was anything to go by, neither is deemed one of the club’s best XI. If the new manager goes the same route, a backup for Boyce on the right flank will be a priority.

5) Improve away form

Another loss, this time to Leeds, means Latics have now lost five out of eight away games — the same number as Yeovil and more than Sheffield Wednesday, both in relegation places. Only Barnsley, bottom of the league, have lost more.

Think we missed one? Please leave us a comment below.

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Reflecting on Roberto: Time to repay his loyalty

Bright-eyed, congenial, eloquent as they come, Roberto Martinez is the kind of character people in the game love, with good reason. In the past year alone, he has led our unfashionable Wigan to survival on a shoestring budget in the most principled of ways. Then, he follows it up with an encore of rare football loyalty, turning down an offer from a much bigger club that would double his paycheck, not to mention spending power in the transfer market. The chairman treats him like a son, guaranteeing him a job for life. It’s a match made in heaven.

And it doesn’t stop there. His relationship with the club — and town — dates back to 1995, when he arrived as a player with fellow amigos Isidro Diaz and Jesus Seba, scored on his debut, finished club top scorer and was voted player of the year in the old Division 3. His return was to Wigan as a manager was greeted as that of the prodigal son, and rightfully so.

Fast forward to present. 19th in the league, fresh off a mistake-riddled 6th consecutive defeat, this time to our despised local rivals. Supporters have taken to the web and are understandably upset. If Martinez’s lineup on Saturday raised some eyebrows at kick-off, even more at full-time. Specifically, the inclusion of Steve Gohouri at left-back when both Maynor Figueroa and Patrick Van Aanholt were available; and the conservative decision to field James McCarthy in an unfamiliar left-wing role when more natural — an adventurous — options were available for the position.

The odd thing is that while these might have been mistakes, it is not individual tactical mistakes at the root of the fans’ growing frustration with Roberto. Deeper is the feeling that he is too rigid, unwilling to adjust his formation and style of play to accommodate the players available or the situation faced.

One recurring debate is his deployment of Hugo Rodallega on the left-wing ala David Villa — a goalscorer playing as a winger, cutting in and joining the centre-forward in attack. The idea is a good one, and sometimes works, but in practice Hugo is more limited than David Villa. He doesn’t have much dribbling, his crossing is not particularly good. He is most productive as a striker, playing alongside another striker. His best days came under Steve Bruce in a 4-4-2, with Heskey his partner.

The Rodallega conundrum is central to most fans’ concerns about Martinez. When you’re a goal down, at home, against weak opposition, why not switch from one centre-forward to two? The midfield could easily shift its shape to accommodate, while both Di Santo and Sammon would offer muscular foils for the Colombian. So many players have struggled in that lone centre-forward role, starved of service. Our wingers have not scored a goal this season, is there not a plan B? (And more importantly, shouldn’t plan B involve two strikers?)

My take on all this — and it has taken several days to reconcile with the Bolton performance — is that we owe him time and support to turn it around. It’s too easy, and not fair, to turn on him after a deeply frustrating match, in which three individual errors lost us the game. His system just about worked last season, once the squad was fit. It sounds foreign at the moment, but he had managed to make Wigan hard to beat. His defense was organized, his players fired up, and his key man Charles N’Zogbia (read Victor Moses for this season) started delivering goals. Once again, he has been terribly unlucky with injuries this time out. Whereas captain Gary Caldwell missed the first third of last season, Antolin Alcaraz has been out this time. Emmerson Boyce has missed games. Instability is a defense’s worst enemy, and Roberto has had more of that in defense than any other manager in the league.

Lets try to keep this all in perspective too. Anyone aware of Latics’ financial challenges (this article is essential reading) knows we are basically asking Roberto to perform miracles. His first moves were to free the club of big earners such as Titus Bramble, Paul Scharner, Mario Melchiot, Lee Cattermole. I would imagine Mo Diame, James McCarthy, Victor Moses, Antolin Alcaraz are making half the wages of their predecessors, which allows the club can keep ticket prices low, continue to expand it’s supporter base, and hopefully eventually compete on slightly more level playing field. The fact that Bolton were able to buy a young striker who made 63 appearances for Liverpool illustrates the gulf between even those two clubs in terms of transfer market spending power and allure. Ali Al-Habsi and Franco Di Santo remain the only players signed directly by Roberto Martinez from other Premier League clubs, and they were both reserves. He’s basically being asked to survive in the premier league with a team of players plucked from inferior leagues.

So, I’m supporting him. He’s a young manager and will make mistakes. But he’s been unlucky. If Jordi’s shot had gone in at Swansea, or Victor’s, or Ben’s penalty, Dave Jones’ lob at Goodison — any one of those would have pulled us out of the relegation zone. Unfortunately, the Bolton match was the kind that sours everything else. But you can bet he will be using this example to stamp out those kinds of mistakes. And who knows, given our players’  apparent need for a wake-up call, perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise that the relegation battle starts so early this year.