A murky future for Latics – a Chinese buyout or Mike Phelan?

A murky time for Wigan Athletic.

 

These are unsettled times at Wigan Athletic. A team that has relegation staring in its face unable or unwilling to show the urgency needed to stave it off. The departure of the Head of Football Operations with barely a murmur from the fans. A new contract for a player who has hardly made an impact this season. The Sun newspaper telling us that another of Alex Ferguson’s men could be taking over as manager. Then the blockbuster rumour that Dave Whelan is looking to sell up, with a Chinese consortium visiting the facilities at Christopher Park, Euxton and the DW Stadium.

The players are surely caught up in this too. It has been an awful season with so many of last year’s squad finding the step up to the Championship division tough.

Some will say that the squad just has not had enough quality to compete in the higher division, but there were players of flair and high technical quality there at the start of the season. Nick Powell was always going to be a risky signing, given his horrendous problems with injury in recent years, and so it has proved. Saturday’s cameo appearance shows what a difference he could have made if he could have stayed fit. Jordi Gomez was another flair player and he had a great record in the Championship division with Latics and Swansea.  Gary Caldwell used him sparingly, Warren Joyce too, being seemingly content to shunt him off to Spain in January. Joyce also lost Latics’ most dynamic player and potential match winner, Yanic Wildschut, to Norwich City’s over-generous offer in January. Alex Gilbey too had shown flair early in the season before receiving a serious injury from which it took him months to recover.

Having had to make the massive shift from the possession football of Gary Caldwell to the hoofball of Warren Joyce the players have lost much of their ability to pass and receive the ball. Moreover with the end of the season approaching and League 1 beckoning, so many will be unsettled. Until the last couple of games a willingness to fight for the cause has rarely been lacking in the players, who have suffered so many heart-breaking defeats by fine margins. The seeming lack of urgency is surely a manifestation of a feeling of insecurity for so many of them. They know that the last time Latics were relegated there was a huge exodus of players, with 22 new players coming in.  Indeed some may have already been told to start looking for another club.

Matt Jackson’s departure was labelled as “the end of a consultancy period” on the club web site. After rejoining Latics in 2011 the ex-team captain had taken over as Head of Football Operations. Interestingly the club communique tells us that Jackson had not been involved in player recruitment for the past 18 months, although he was part of the newly formed Player Recruitment Department from the summer of 2015. Jackson was heavily involved in the Latics Academy and the switch to Euxton.

The announcement of a new two year contract for another ex-captain came as a surprise to many of us. Craig Morgan was a rock upon which League 1 was won last season, but has not had an easy time this year. Injuries and an infection have limited his availability and the 31 year old has made just 12 starts and 5 substitute appearances this season.  The contracts of Jussi Jaaskelainen, David Perkins and Stephen Warnock are also due to expire in June.

Given the results it is appears more and more unlikely that Graham Barrow will continue as manager next season. Indeed there are even rumours that a new manager may be brought in before the season finishes. Doing so would give a new incumbent the opportunity to decide on contracts and the players he would like to keep.

For weeks now we have heard rumours that ex-Hibernian and Rotherham manager and Bolton and Everton player, Alan Stubbs was a frontrunner. The rumours may have been fuelled by the fact that John Doolan, who was Stubbs’ first team coach at Hibs, has already rejoined Wigan. Moreover Stubbs will have been visible watching his son, Sam, play for Latics’ youth team and development squad. However, the assertion that ex-Manchester United assistant manager, Mike Phelan, might be taking the reins has already been met with concern by fans.  It also appears that a return for Gary Caldwell is a possibility.

To add to all of this uncertainty the alleged visit of a Chinese consortium is of even more import. The visit might well be tentative, but is this an indication that the 22 year Whelan dynasty will soon come to an end?

Much has been said and written about DW’s incredible success at the club. If he had not taken over in February 1995 what would have happened? Would another buyer have come in and made the investments that Whelan made? Not likely. The club was not an attractive proposition at the time, languishing in the fourth tier with attendances so often below 2,000. Its only real asset was Springfield Park. Whelan invested  with a mission to propel his home town club into the Premier League. Estimates vary as to how much he put into Wigan Athletic, but the figure appears to be somewhere between £90 m and £100m.

The club is surely more sellable in 2017 than it was in 1995. It has a more tangible “brand” after its successes in recent years – winning the FA Cup, reaching the final of the League Cup, eight years in the Premier League. But other than its players what assets does it have? Both the DW Stadium and the Euxton facility are owned by companies linked with the Whelan family, not the club itself.

Should the Whelan legacy continue we can expect continued financial backing for the near future at least. The club will be expected to be as financially self-sufficient as possible, although achieving that whilst maintaining success on the field of play will be a challenge. Wigan Athletic’s fan base has grown to maybe five times what it was in 1995, but still does not match those of the majority of clubs in the Championship. It is more akin to those of clubs in League 1. Moreover to maintain attendance levels the club has had to resort to cut-price season tickets. Put simply, the club will not have the revenue to seriously compete, even in League 1, unless there is backing from the ownership.

However, although Dave Whelan will surely provide a buffer for the club in the near future there appears to be no way that he will be making the scale of investment he has in the past. Given the club’s current predicament it is highly unlikely that it will reach the top tier of English football again in the foreseeable future.

Eleven of the twenty four clubs in the Championship are now owned by overseas investors. Aston Villa, Birmingham City and Wolves are Chinese owned.

In the long term it is unlikely that the Whelan family will continue to inject funds into Wigan Athletic. There will surely come a point where they will say “enough is enough”, but would anyone be tempted to buy a club that does not own its own stadium or training ground?

It is a time of uncertainty at all levels within the club. Ownership and management issues further cloud a murky near future.

 

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Is it Caldwell’s fault?

blame

There are various views on why Wigan Athletic are in their current predicament. Some say that Gary Caldwell should have been given more time to get things right in the Championship. Others point to a woeful start by his replacement, Warren Joyce, with puzzling team selections and tactics.

But a view that has been gaining more and more ground on the social media is that it was the recruitment over the summer that is the principal reason. Put simply, some people say that the players just are not good enough.

In May 2015 Wigan Athletic chairman, David Sharpe, announced a change in the club’s player recruitment structure. He considered it “crucial for long-term benefit of Wigan Athletic”. We were told that the new recruitment team was to be led by the Head of Football Operations, Matt Jackson, who together with Chief Executive, Jonathan Jackson, and Academy Head, Gregor Rioch, had been involved in reshaping the club’s Academy.

As stated in an article we published last week “A mental amount of movement”, in the  2015-16 season, Latics had 31 incomings and 44 outgoings of players, loans being included. The figures for the first half of the 2016-17 season were 14 coming in and 20 leaving. Since the article was published there have been two more outgoings, with Craig Davies having joined Scunthorpe and Nathan Byrne sent off on loan to Charlton. There has been one coming in, goalkeeper Jakob Haugaard.

The figures alone provide food for thought and debate. Is the huge turnover in players over the past couple of seasons an indicator of recruitment strategies that just have not worked or is it an indication of a chasm between recruitment and coaching? More crucially, why is the club that won the League 1 title struggling in a position below the other two clubs that were promoted? Is the recruitment team capable of making the right kinds of decisions? But crucially, how does the manager fit into the scheme of things?

It has been said that at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger’s influence is total. According to an article in the Guardian, Wenger “… is the lord of the kingdom he has built over the past 19 years. His influence extends into every pore of the club and where transfers are concerned, the manager’s authority is total. Wenger always has the final say. The board have attempted to put support systems in place around him, such as their purchase of StatDNA, the football data analytics company, which can help to identify potential signings. But Wenger continues to rely on his own eyes, together with those of his scouts.”

A comparison of Liverpool in the Brendan Rodgers era makes interesting reading. The Guardian tells us that Rodgers, the head of recruitment Dave Fallows, the chief scout Barry Hunter, the head of performance and analysis Michael Edwards, the chief executive Ian Eyre and FSG’s president Mike Gordon comprised the group that decided Liverpool’s entire transfer strategy.

There is clearly no blueprint for successful recruitment at any club. The top clubs in England have recruitment teams, whose composition tends to vary, using an increasingly data-driven approach. Some managers have more autonomy than others in determining the players they want, although the chairman tends to have the final word on the financial side.

At the end of May 2016, Gary Caldwell told us Latics were looking at bringing in four or five new players. That did not happen. By the end of the transfer window 14 new players had been brought in. However, 20 had gone.  The inference is that Caldwell had realised between May and the end of August that many of the players he had were not up to Championship standard. But was this solely Caldwell’s call? What say did the recruitment team have in that higher than expected turnover of players in summer?

Caldwell surely had a say in the players who left. His decisions to break up the successful central defensive partnership of Craig Morgan and Jason Pearce and send midfielder Sam Morsy off on loan were certainly controversial. But the overriding criticism has been that the players who were brought in were no better than those the club already had. Whether that is down to Caldwell, the recruitment team or financial matters is something that as onlookers we cannot say. However, we can take a look at the players who were brought in over summer to make assessments.

Nathan Byrne was signed from Wolves near the end of the summer transfer window for a fee reputed to be around £400,000. Caldwell signed Byrne essentially a right wing back, although he can play on the wing. Although he has only been at the club for around 4 months he has been sent off on loan to Charlton. Byrne made 6 starts with 8 substitute appearances. Joyce has not yet shown any inclination to use a back three with wing backs.

Goalkeeper, Adam Bogdan, was brought in on a one year loan from Liverpool, after a tough time at the Merseyside club. Being an ex-Bolton player hardly endeared him to the Wigan public. Neither did taking the place of fan favourite Jussi Jaaskelainen, as he had done before at the Macron. Bogdan had been a fine keeper at Bolton, but despite often making excellent saves and keeping his side in games when the defence was under pressure, his high profile error at Brighton and a hesitancy to leave his area  were problematic. When injury curtailed his season many fans were not unhappy to see him go. Jaaskelainen regained his place after Bogdan’s injury but he too made an error which led to a home defeat by Huddersfield. The Finn was replaced by Jakob Haugaard last Saturday. In the meantime rumours suggest that Joyce is also trying to sign Rangers keeper, Matt Gilks.

Luke Garbutt was signed on a half season loan to provide cover for the left back position, with Reece James being unavailable due to long term injury. Garbutt had had a reputation as a player for the future at Everton, but had come to Wigan after an indifferent spell on loan at Fulham in 2015-16. Playing as a wing back, Garbutt started against Nottingham Forest and QPR in late August. However, he was substituted after 59 minutes against Sheffield Wednesday on September 10 and did not appear again until Joyce took over as manager. Garbutt was used in midfield or at right back before returning to Everton at the end of his loan period in early January. Although he showed considerable expertise in taking set pieces, Garbutt’s all round play often failed to convince.

Reece Burke was signed on a season-long loan from West Ham, following an outstanding stint at Bradford City last season. Given the departure of Jason Pearce and the marginalisation of Craig Morgan by Caldwell, it appeared that Burke would be a strong contender for a position in the centre of defence. However, Burke was used in the right back position and made 8 appearances before returning to his parent club due to a hip injury in December. We surely did not see the best of the 20 year old playing out of his best position.

Dan Burn and Jake Buxton were signed from Fulham and Derby County respectively. They have become the regular central defensive partnership. Burn had a difficult start riddled with hesitancy and occasional major errors, but has shown much more consistency in recent games. Buxton’s start to the season was punctuated by a suspension following a red card in the League Cup tie at Oldham. But since then he has shown himself to be a consistent, reliable performer. Neither Burn not Buxton is at his best passing the ball out of defence, a key aspect of play under Caldwell. However, under Joyce it is not so crucial.

Whether their partnership is better than that of Morgan/Pearce is open to conjecture. The question that remains is why the latter partnership was not given a chance at Championship level, allowing a more gradual transition as needed. But the way that Pearce was hastily dispatched to Charlton and Morgan stripped of the captaincy suggests that there were more than footballing issues involved.

Sam Morsy’s recent return to Wigan has opened up the debate as to why he was sent off on loan. Under Caldwell, Morsy played the holding midfield role in front of the back four, but on Saturday he was pushed further forward with Shaun MacDonald behind. MacDonald arrived without  a big fanfare. He had been instrumental in Bournemouth’s rise up the divisions, but his career had been stifled by limited first team appearances in the Premier League. Moreover he was taking over the Morsy role, inevitably inviting comparisons.

Like Morsy, MacDonald is strong in the tackle, and although he does not reveal the range of passing that Morsy possesses, he rarely wastes the ball. However, at 6 ft 1 in, MacDonald is strong in the air and has the ability to step back and become a third central defender. Like Buxton, MacDonald has become the kind of unsung hero whose name will be among the first on any team list. Should Joyce be able to persuade Morsy to stay, the two together would provide a ring of steel in midfield.

The 22 year old Alex Gilbey was signed after impressing for Colchester United and has shown himself to be a technically skilled player, willing to work hard. Gilbey was making a successful transition between League 1 and the Championship until an injury against Fulham in mid-September. A recent tweet from the player suggests he could be back in action by the end of this month.

When Jordi Gomez was signed on loan from Sunderland, hopes were high that he could repeat the kind of form that made him Latics’ Player of the Season in 2013-14. Although we have seen flashes of the true Gomez on occasions we have not seen him play with the same kind of consistency that we saw in his time under Uwe Rosler. Joyce will be hoping that the play-maker’s form will improve, his ability to keep hold of the ball in midfield being so important when the defence is under pressure. Moreover the Catalan has the ability to drift in from midfield to score goals.

Caldwell’s biggest gamble over summer was in signing the injury-riddled Nick Powell on a three year contract. It is a gamble that has not yet paid off. Powell has been unable to get any consistency to his game, being constantly niggled by injury. The hamstring tear received on Saturday looks set to keep him out for the rest of the season. Powell’s career continues to hang over the abyss, a sad situation for such a talented player.

Rumours suggest that Cardiff are to cut short Adam Le Fondre’s loan period at Wigan in order to sell him. Given that Bolton are one of the clubs who apparently want “ALF” it seems unlikely that Cardiff will gain much in transfer revenue. But Le Fondre has been given few opportunities during his time at Wigan and the player himself might well want to move on. The 30 year old has made just 3 starts, with 8 appearances off the bench, scoring 1 goal.

20 year old right back Kyle Knoyle was signed on loan from West Ham but suffered an injury in pre-season that kept him out for months. His only appearance so far has been as an 89th minute substitute at Cardiff at the end of October.

Kaiyne Woolery, 22, was signed from Bolton Wanderers for a small fee. His sole appearance has been as an 87th substitute at home to Derby in early December.

The summer signings involved a relatively small financial outlay. Five players were brought in on loan, four on free transfers (Burn, Gomez, Powell, Warnock), Byrne for around £400,000, MacDonald for reputedly £125,000, Gilbey for a compensation fee, Buxton and Woolery for small fees.

Wigan Athletic may have even made a profit on their summer transfer dealings, having recouped around £1m for the sale of Emyr Huws to Cardiff plus small fees for Tim Chow and Jason Pearce.

In hindsight should David Sharpe have given Caldwell more financial support in the summer market? Were Caldwell’s hands tied, to some degree, in making the kinds of quality signings he would need to strengthen his team to compete in a higher division?

The well-publicised signing that did not come off over summer was that of Hearts right back, Calum Patterson. Wigan’s bids fell well below the Scottish club’s evaluation. Latics went on to pay a significant amount to sign Nathan Byrne, but the player did not have the defensive qualities to play as an orthodox full back. In retrospect, would the extra money that would have been needed to secure Patterson have been well spent, given that the right back position has been so problematic this season?

However, another factor facing the club was the prospect of the parachute payments running out at the end of the season. An immediate return to the Premier League would be ideal, but to mount a promotion push would have involved a major financial outlay in terms of transfer fees. Moreover should the bid not be successful Latics would be left with players on big contracts without the financial support of parachute payments.

In fact the summer transfer activity suggested that Latics were looking for consolidation, both in terms of league position and in finances. In order to compete for players, free agents included, the club has had to offer salaries commensurate to the division. However, other than the case of Nick Powell, the highest earners are largely on loans or contracts that expire at the end of the season. They include Adam Bogdan, Jordi Gomez, Adam Le Fondre and Stephen Warnock. Should the unspeakable occur once again – relegation – the club would sell off its prime assets and drastically reduce its wage bill.

So, is it Caldwell’s fault that Wigan Athletic are in relegation mire?

Many would fault Caldwell for the premature departures of Morsy and Pearce at the beginning of the season. Some would say he should have preferred Jaaskelainen to Bogdan, although the Finn is now 42 years old and well past his best. Perhaps he should have kept the backbone of his League 1 title winning team in place, phasing in the newcomers. Momentum was probably lost as a result.

However, in terms of recruitment Caldwell was at the mercy of both his chairman and the recruitment team. Burn, Buxton, Gilbey and MacDonald are by no means bad signings. Gomez has struggled to impose himself, but he has enough quality to do so in the second half of the season. Whether Woolery will ever achieve his potential remains to be seen. The management will be praying that Powell can rid himself of the hamstring problems that have dogged his career in recent years. At his best he is one of the top players in the division.

Caldwell used the loan market to good effect last season, but the rules governing loan signings changed, stays of less than half a season not now possible. Summer’s loan signings have been largely disappointing.

Latics are in relegation dog-fight partly because of mistakes made by both managers, Caldwell and Joyce, but the incomings and outgoings of summer transfer market may have had a more major effect.

If anyone or anything is primarily to blame for Wigan’s current position it has been a lack of ambition on the part of the club. Let’s hope Sharpe will back his latest manager in the January transfer window. That means not selling off his most saleable assets and bringing in more quality.

 

 

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Almost gone but there’s hope

Will Caldwell play 3-4-3 next season?

Will Caldwell play 3-4-3 next season?

At the start of the season there were rumours in the media that Wigan Athletic were looking to sign Benik Afobe on loan from Arsenal. Little did we know at the time that it would be Afobe who would put what could be the final nail in the coffin that represents Latics’ season.

Afobe has scored 23 goals this season. Wigan’s leading goalscorer is James McClean with 6. Would Afobe have been able to score like that if he had joined Latics, rather than MK Dons, at the start of the season? Or has Wigan become a strikers’ graveyard, a place where past performance counts for nothing?

Gary Caldwell must have found it hard in his first three matches to resist moving towards the 3-4-3 that became the hallmark of his days under Roberto Martinez. Yesterday he employed something approaching it, with the players he had at his disposal. Given Wolves’ penchant for thrusting players forward it had looked like the right decision to play with three central defenders. It seemed to be working until Afobe scored that “soft” goal, which sapped away Wigan’s brittle confidence. Caldwell would have hoped that a back line of three, becoming five with the wing backs dropping back, would cut out possibilities for a headed goal of that type.

With Latics a goal down and not looking like pulling one back, Caldwell felt it necessary to move to a conventional back four, so that he could accommodate changes in midfield and up front. William Kvist was pulled off after 56 minutes, with James Perch coming out of the back three to a holding midfield position. The goal-shy MAF came on at centre forward with the enigmatic James McClean moving to the left wing. Twelve minutes later Caldwell took off Jerome Pennant for Billy Mckay. But unlike what happened in the previous match with Brighton, the changes did not work this time around. Indeed the departure of Kvist probably did not help, given his ability to drop deep to receive passes and build up from the back.

Latics are surely heading for League 1. The direction had been set in January with the selling off of so much of the family silver. The departure of thirteen players would have been unimaginable at the start of a season that promised so much. Uwe Rosler had made a fatal mistake by signing nine new players over summer, despite having a squad good enough to reach the FA Cup semi final and the Championship playoffs. The result was a fractured squad where new players found it difficult to settle in and the morale of the existing players sank. But just as Rosler had erred in bringing in so many players, Malky Mackay was to do the same. He brought in eleven over a period of three months.

The disruptive pattern caused by managerial changes continues to be problematic in English football. The classic case is typified by a new manager bringing in his assistants, coaches and backroom men from his previous clubs. He then wants to bring in his own players, those who are more likely to be loyal towards him than those recruited by his predecessor. The new manager will say that he wants to bring in players who can play the kind of football he believes in. The result is inevitably disruption and turnover.

However, clubs are slowly adjusting to this scenario. A new model is emerging where a Director of Football has the overview at the club. The ability of a manager to bring in hordes of new coaches, backroom staff and players is diminished under this model. The Director of Football and those above him at the club will take the lead at identifying the kind of football they want at the club. The manager they appoint would need to fit into that philosophy rather than imposing his own.

With the appointment of Matt Jackson as ‘Head of Football Operations’ Wigan Athletic have moved towards the alternative model. Moreover Gary Caldwell has been appointed largely because he is the right fit for the club, given the statements of young chairman, David Sharpe. Sharpe has already stated the need to bring in at least ten new players over summer. His action of creating a new department for the recruitment of players is another indication of a change in model.

Moreover both Sharpe and grandfather Dave Whelan have insisted that the coaching staff largely remain intact, despite the changes in manager. When Rosler was appointed many of us expected him to bring in his assistant manager and first team coach from Brentford. In the event he was allowed to bring in Chris Haslam as Head of Performance, but the long-serving Graham Barrow was to continue as first team coach. Barrow was to be moved into the assistant manager position following the acquisition of Eric Black as first team coach in July. The rumours were that Black was Whelan’s appointment, not Rosler’s.

Malky Mackay’s appointment saw the arrival of David Kerslake as first team coach, despite already having Black in place. Black remains although, in the absence of information from the club, we can assume that Kerslake departed with Mackay.

The role of the coaches over the course of a terrible season has been questioned by many fans. The managers, Rosler and Mackay, have carried the can for poor performances, but Barrow, Black and goalkeeping coach Mike Pollitt remain in place.

Probably the biggest failure this season was the failure of the new players signed by Rosler to reach the performance levels they showed at their previous clubs. It was compounded by the lack of motivation of players who had played under Martinez and Rosler.

Seemingly bright young talents such as Adam Forshaw and James Tavernier were dispatched in January, with Emyr Huws and Aaron Taylor-Sinclair disappearing through injury. The mishandling of strikers Andy Delort and Oriol Riera was sad to see. Yesterday’s starting lineup saw just one of Rosler’s signing make the starting lineup, in William Kvist. Another two, Don Cowie and Andrew Taylor were on the bench.

The events of the first half of the season clearly had a negative effect on the players released in January. Tavernier’s loan spell at Bristol City has not seen him become a regular first choice, with 8 starts and 3 appearances off the bench. Likewise Forshaw’s stay at Middlesbrough has seen him used largely as a substitute, with only 5 starts. Delort scored two goals in his first three games on returning to Tours, but has not scored in his last seven, with the club just three points above the relegation zone. Riera has been more successful having made 13 starts at Deportivo La Coruna, with four goals. Rob Kiernan too has been a success in a loan spell, having started 11 matches at Birmingham to date.

One wonders if there is any possibility of those loan players returning. Delort, Kiernan and Tavernier are young and would surely improve if capably nurtured. Riera is an experienced central striker and goalscorer who was poorly treated by Rosler, then written off by Mackay.  If Caldwell is to adopt a 3-4-3 system next season he could clearly do much worse than put in Delort and Riera as two of his front men. Moreover Tavernier is naturally suited to the position of wing back and will score goals if given the chance. Kiernan had a difficult time this season, but he is still only 24 years old. At his best he is a cultured central defender who can pass the ball. He can also play in central midfield.

Whether the loan players will return is going to largely depend on the departure of the bigger wage earners. Latics will hope to get reasonable transfer fees for the likes of Scott Carson, James McClean and James Perch. Ali Al-Habsi will become a free agent, as will Marc-Antoine Fortune. Disaffected players like Leon Barnett and Chris McCann will most likely be encouraged to move on. The futures of the much maligned Don Cowie and Andrew Taylor might lie elsewhere.

Had Afobe joined Wigan Athletic at the start of the season, could he have scored the goals to help them stay afloat? The question is academic, but given the way that strikers with good credentials have failed to make it at the club, one doubts it.

The latest sad example is Billy Mckay, who must have been full of confidence after scoring a potful of goals in Scotland. Four months after signing from Inverness he still has not made a start for the club. A sad indictment on the recruiting/coaching functions at Wigan Athletic.

Mckay is merely the latest in the long line of strikers who have arrived with promise, but have not been sufficiently nurtured. The coaching staff must surely take some responsibility for what has happened.

Latics already have one foot in League 1. Even a draw for Rotherham in their midweek home game with Reading will be enough to finish them off.

But Gary Caldwell has been like a breath of fresh air since being appointed manager.

With the backing of the coaches he might well lead Latics back to the Promised Land.