Keeping your key asset

Emyr Huws

Emyr Huws

With less than a week to go to the first training session of the new season the summer sell off at Wigan Athletic is starting to gather momentum. Scott Carson has already gone to Derby and it looks like James McClean is off to West Bromwich and Rob Kiernan to Rangers. The latest rumour is that James Perch will be joining McClean and Callum McManaman at West Bromwich.

The demand for ex-Premier League players like Carson, McClean and Perch was always going to be there. They were to be the three most likely to attract transfer income  for the club, as meanwhile it will ease its wage bill by some £20,000 per week or more for each of them. Keeping the three of them would have entailed using up around £3 m of an anticipated wage bill of £8- £10 m.

Behind them in the domestic transfer pecking order come Leon Barnett (29 years old), Don Cowie (32), Chris McCann (27) and Andrew Taylor (28) who have played in the Premier League, but are also experienced Championship division campaigners. Although their potential transfer values may not be high, the club will try to move on most of them, given their Championship-level salaries. Transfer fees will be waived as necessary.

The pairing of Andy Delort and Oriol Riera cost a total of around £5m in transfer fees last year. Sadly Delort was not able to regain his old goalscoring form after rejoining Tours on loan in January. He hit the back of the net only twice in fourteen starts. Reports from the French press suggest that there are Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 clubs interested in him, but it is doubtful whether they would be willing to pay the kind of transfer fee that Latics paid last September. Reports from Spain suggest that Deportivo La Coruna would like to keep Riera, but are unwilling to match the kind of transfer figure that Latics would like.

Latics face a dilemma with the two players. Sell them off for maybe a combined transfer input of  £1m, signifying a £4m loss, or bring them back and have to use up 20% or more of the total wage bill for a squad of around 24 players, on their salaries alone. The option remains of a further loan period for each, relieving wage bill costs, but leaving the door open for the future.

However, media reports suggest that Latics are actively seeking strikers from other English clubs. It therefore looks like they will take the first option and sell the two players off at a significant loss.

All of the players mentioned so far are those for whom salaries are an issue for a club facing a change from a £30m wage bill to one of around a third of that within a year. However, there are also the cases of the younger players such as James Tavernier (23), Martyn Waghorn (25), Aaron Taylor-Sinclair (23), whose salaries will also have to be taken into account, together with the Malky Mackay signings Billy Mckay (26) and Jason Pearce (27), whom one assumes will be staying.

David Sharpe talked some time ago about needing up to fifteen new players. The implication is that the majority of the players signed prior to 2015 will be encouraged to move on.

However, if players are to move on they need a club not only interested in their services, but willing to get close to matching the salaries they have been receiving. In Grant Holt’s case the options seem slim. Ostracised by Uwe Rosler, Holt faded out of the Latics’ scene.  He was sent off on loan to Aston Villa and Huddersfield, where he received an anterior cruciate knee injury that kept him out of action for the second half of last season. Holt is 34 years old and with that ACL injury he is unlikely to attract the interest of clubs who can afford to pay a salary probably well in excess of £20,000 per week.

Critics will say that Owen Coyle should not have been allowed to offer a three year contract with a lucrative salary to a 32 year old. At the time it appeared to be not such a bad bet, getting a player with proven goalscoring pedigree for a relatively low transfer fee. Little did we know that just two years later the club would be in League 1 and the player’s salary would be like a millstone around their necks.

Injuries certainly affect the marketability of a footballer. Holt’s injury while playing on loan at Huddersfield will most likely prove to be the factor that will mean him staying at the club. At 34 and past his best, recovering from injury, but playing in a lower division can he be a key player? Can he win back the fan support that he lost before he was dispatched to Villa Park?  The likely scenario is that Gary Caldwell will have to find ways of motivating a player who has had a difficult time at the club, into being part of a successful set-up.

The injury to Holt did Latics no favours, but the ankle problem that prevented Emyr Huws playing in the second half of last season might well prove to be a blessing in disguise.  The 21 year old Huws was initially signed on loan from Manchester City, but Rosler signed him for a fee in excess of £2m last September. Not long after Huws injured his ankle while playing for Wales and suffered a series of niggles with it that prevented him reaching top form.

However, it was an incident in training in early February that caused Malky Mackay to report that “Emyr’s rolled his ankle badly, we’ve had it looked at and he’s going to need operating on. He’s going to be out for three or four months, and that’s a real disappointment. He came back in for a couple of games, he grabbed his chance and did really well, and it’s a real blow for us and him.”

Mackay clearly rated Huws and the young Welshman was one who avoided the huge January sell-off. Midfield was to prove a problematic area under Mackay and one can only speculate what might have happened had Huws been fit.

Because of his injury Huws might well avoid the cull that will happen in the coming weeks. Big clubs will bide their time and see if he can overcome his injury and realise his full potential. Moreover Caldwell might consider him a key player, well worth paying a salary above the League 1 norm.

Huws showed what a quality player he can be when on loan at Birmingham in 2013-14. He has shown flashes of his quality at Wigan, but niggling injury has held him back. However, he has all the attributes needed to become a top midfield player. He is combative in the tackle, has a cultured left foot, good dribbling skills and the technique to score spectacular goals from distance.

In League 1 Huws is capable of being the kind of imposing midfield player that Latics have lacked since the departures of the Jimmy Macs, McCarthy and McArthur. Moreover in shedding players who have played at higher levels there is a danger of a lack of class in the team. Huws can provide that.

Who knows how many of the players from Coyle and Rosler’s days will be at Wigan come August? So many will be shed because of economic necessity.

But Emyr Huws could prove to be the asset most worth keeping from that 2014 squad.

Only time will tell if Gary Caldwell thinks the same.

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The stats of goalscoring at Latics

“One of our forward-thinking players is going to have to stick the ball into the back of the net and that’s the key to it.”

So said Malky Mackay after the Leeds match where Latics had 60% of possession and 19 efforts on goal without scoring.

But in these days of increased use of data in football, did Mackay bear in mind the stats when picking his starting strikers? Has he looked at the performance records of the players he has at his disposal?

Goalscoring stats can be misleading. So often they are quoted as appearances per goal, which can be so unfair on a player largely used as an impact substitute. How can we compare the record of a player coming on in the 85th minute with one who has played the full 90? When we calculate a stat of appearances per goal we should also take into account at the ratio of starts to substitute appearances to get a true picture of player performance. Perhaps a more reliable indicator is starts per goal, but what about a player like Callum McManaman who would rarely complete the full 90 minutes?

However, these stats together can help us get a picture of the player’s goalscoring capabilities. Moreover looking at the player’s past performance stats can give us an overview on their current performance.

Compiling stats is dependent on a reliable source. The data that follows was compiled using player performance information from www.soccerbase.com . It is based on appearances in league and cup.

Looking at the main strikers currently available to Mackay:

Goals1

The raw stats suggest that Mackay chose the two players with the least probability of scoring against Leeds, Marc-Antoine Fortune and James McClean. However, until his recent conversion to central striker McClean has been on the left wing, where it is harder to score goals, so the stats should be interpreted carefully. The career stats suggest that the pairing with the most likelihood of scoring goals is that of Leon Clarke and Billy Mckay.

The more senior Latics supporters will remember the lethal goalscoring partnership of Harry Lyon and Bert Llewellyn. From 1965-68 Llewellyn scored 96 goals in 115 appearances for Wigan. Lyon remains the club’s leading all-time goalscorer with 273 to his name in his stay from 1962-70.

More recently the most memorable pairing is probably that of Nathan Ellington and Jason Roberts, whose stats show that each of them needed only just over two starts per goal.

In the Premier League days the partnership of Emile Heskey and Amr Zaki was one the best. Heskey was never a natural goalscorer but he created the space for Zaki. The result was the Egyptian scoring 11 goals in 24 starts.

In the Premier League era, Henri Camara was Wigan’s most consistent goalscorer. Taking a look at the stats of strikers who have now left Latics gives considerable insight:

GOALSOLD

The case of Nouha Dicko stands out. Deemed not wanted by the club, but his goalscoring record for Wolves has been outstanding. Dicko never started in a league game for Latics.

The sad stays of such as Conor Sammon and Jason Scotland are reflected in the difference between their Latics stats and those of their careers. The simple explanation would be that they were not good enough for the Premier League. But then again, is Dicko good enough for the Championship?

Andy Delort and Oriol Riera are back to scoring goals again in their home countries following frustrating stays at Wigan. Given the downsizing at the club, even if the miracle happens and relegation is avoided, it is unlikely they will return.

Mackay is now talking about solving his goalscoring problem through the loan market. This must feel like a kick in the teeth for such players as Billy Mckay and Martyn Waghorn who have shown in the past that they have the ability to be in the right place at the right time as far as goalscoring is concerned.

The coaching and management at the club continues to ostracise players. It has been far too apparent over the past couple of years that HR skills are sorely lacking.

Mark Twain once said “Facts are more stubborn things, but statistics are pliable”. As outsiders we are not privy to the real facts about what is happening at the club during the Mackay era. But pliable as statistics might be there is no getting away from the woeful record the Scot has had since he took over.

In a season where Latics have scored only 32 goals in 36 league games, one begins to wonder where the next goal will come from. It is a sad result of the mismanagement of the striking talent that the club has had and continues to squander.

Ipswich – once again a turning point?

Will the Ipswich game prove a turning point for Mackay's Latics?

Will the Ipswich game prove a turning point for Mackay’s Latics?

“I think we were terrific. I have watched Ipswich four times this season as a neutral and I knew they grinded teams down before scoring and winning – that is why they are near the top of the league.

“We had to make sure we matched that and we did. There was very little between the two teams. Anyone watching that game couldn’t have said who was near the top and who was near the bottom.”

Malky Mackay’s words after a dire 0-0 draw at Portman Road yesterday.

How times change. A year ago Latics went to Ipswich having won their previous eight matches. They were too good for the Tractor Boys that day, winning 3-1, and it was no surprise. But that game sadly signaled the end of a wonderful run of results, Latics winning only 4 of the 12 league games that followed.

Mackay will hope yesterday’s trip to Ipswich will also be a turning point, but this time in the other direction. It has been something that we could have expected earlier in the Scot’s tenure. On his appointment one had visions of this kind of performance, all grit and determination. His teams have rarely been good to watch, but they have been effective.

Getting the defence right has been key to Mackay’s efforts at Watford and Cardiff. Yesterday, he wisely resisted the temptation to put in new signing Jason Pearce, instead relying on a back four that had played together the previous three matches. The end product was a solid performance from them, not riddled by the errors we have seen over the past months.

Mackay’s signing of Liam Ridgewell looked like a mistake in the loanee’s wobbly first appearance at Birmingham, but since then he has begun to provide the kind of defensive backbone that had been lacking. Ridgewell is the kind of combative professional that one might expect in a Mackay lineup. Moreover when Ridgewell’s short loan period comes to an end he will have Pearce to replicate that style of play.

In the meantime one hopes that Leon Barnett’s recuperation continues. Barnett was one of the stars last season until an injury at, of all places, Ipswich caused him to lose his place. Since then his form has plummeted and he just has not looked the same player. However, Barnett is an experienced and capable central defender, who would find a place in most Championship teams. He is by no means elegant, but he certainly has the ability to be a real asset at this level.

With Chris McCann injured, Mackay opted for a midfield trio of Don Cowie, Emyr Huws and William Kvist. Kvist is at last being given an extended run in the team, albeit not only for his ability in protecting the defence, but also for his long throws which are becoming one of Mackay’s key ploys. Cowie is sadly being maligned by many fans in the same way that Jordi Gomez was during the Martinez era. His pedestrian style of play does not do him any favours in this respect, but there can be no doubting his commitment and workrate. He and Andrew Taylor were key elements of Mackay’s Championship winning team at Cardiff and he is likely to continue relying on the two. Huws remains an enigma. He has all the talent and physical qualities to be a top player, but has still not shown his best in Latics colours. The question is whether Mackay will be able to give him the straight run of games that he needs in order to get his play into full gear.

The downside of yesterday’s performance was the lack of cutting edge up front. The stats show that each of the two front men, Marco Fortune and James McClean, was caught offside four times during the course of the game. That is unacceptable in a team so short of goals.

Getting a result through playing ugly is something that we are likely to see more and more during Mackay’s tenure. The question is whether Latics can do it consistently over the games that remain. Can Latics become the sort of team that nobody wants to play against?

On a positive note, Mackay, at last, got the commitment he sought from the players yesterday. Perhaps the selling off of the crown jewels will have a silver lining. He has lost most of his classy and skllful players. but enough quality remains for Latics to escape the trap door of relegation.

If Latics can show that same kind of resilience that they showed yesterday, over the final 18 matches, then they can look forward to another season of Championship football in 2015-16.

Climbing back up with experience – Latics are ready for the Owls

With renewed confidence following a hard fought victory at Leeds on Boxing Day, Wigan Athletic face Sheffield Wednesday at the DW tomorrow night. A win for Latics would see them climb out of the relegation zone.

In an attempt to draw in more support the club are offering ground admission at £10. Not surprisingly after so many poor performances at home this season’s average attendance stands at 12,518. It is down 18% from last season’s average of 15,176.

Interestingly the DW Stadium was the most popular venue for away supporters in the Championship last season, with an average of 1,968 per game. If this had been a weekend game we could have expected a significant number of away supporters making the journey across the Pennines. However, with a 7:45 pm start on a Tuesday evening in cold weather it is going to take the most loyal of Owls’ fans to make the journey.

Malky Mackay will continue to rely mainly on his experienced players for this match. Latics have the second oldest squad in the division, although Mackay fielded a couple of younger players against Leeds in Rob Kiernan and James Tavernier, both 23 years of age. He will surely stick by the 3-5-2 system that worked well at Leeds, giving wing backs Tavernier and Andrew Taylor the opportunity to move forward to support the attack. Tavernier has the ability to launch superb crosses and it will be interesting to see if the probable strike force of Marc-Antoine Fortune and James McClean can show the heading ability needed to capitalize on his deliveries. Oriol Riera would surely thrive on such service should he come on the field at some stage.

Mackay will be tempted to name an unchanged lineup, providing there are no fitness issues among those players. At Leeds he had a bench that would be the envy of many clubs – Ali Al Habsi, Emmerson Boyce, Roger Espinoza, Adam Forshaw, Shaun Maloney, Callum McManaman and Oriol Riera. However, he will be keen to keep a settled lineup, particularly on the centre of defence where a new trio of James Perch, Ivan Ramis and Rob Kiernan did well at Leeds.

It is only four weeks since Latics were defeated at Hillsborough in a mediocre match. That day the giant centre forward Atdhe Nuhiu gave Latics’ central defence a torrid time. Ivan Ramis had a rare off-day and had to be substituted at half time. Tomorrow Nuhiu will find it harder, facing a backline of three central defenders, with Ramis keen to atone for his display that day.

Since then Wednesday won 2-1 at Blackburn, lost 0-1 at home to Wolves and 4-0 at Fulham, but beat Blackpool 1-0 at home on Boxing Day. They lie in 13th place, 11 points above Wigan. It will be the fourth time the two clubs have met in a league game in the 2014 calendar year.

If Latics are to climb the table they need to be able to beat sides like Sheffield Wednesday. It could be a tight encounter tomorrow night at the DW Stadium.

Clear-out needed – Rotherham (H) match reaction

Will Mackay give the likes of Oriel Riera an extended run in the team?

Will Mackay give the likes of Oriol Riera an extended run in the team?

Once again Malky Mackay kept faith in the “old guard” and once again they let him down. Rotherham had not won a game since mid-October but they were good enough to beat a woeful Latics side. Once again Mackay’s team selection raised doubts, let alone the tactics on the pitch. Latics are going from bad to worse.

Mackay once again stuck with the old guard. There were just two Rosler signings in the starting lineup – Don Cowie and Andrew Taylor – both of whom were part of the manager’s previous old guard at Cardiff. Andy Delort was not even on the bench, after appearing in the 88th and 86th minutes of the previous two games. Was he injured or did his quotes in the French media upset the boss?

Mackay continues to shoot himself in the foot. James McClean has pace and power and cannot be faulted for his physical effort. But does he have the attributes to become a central striker? Physical effort needs to be matched by its mental equivalent, something the hard-working Irishman did not show in the first half when he was caught offside three times.

Perhaps Mackay was yielding to fan pressure when he brought on Marc-Antoine Fortune after 53 minutes for Shaun Maloney. Two central strikers on the pitch at the same time was something so many fans have been hoping for, but was the Rotherham goalkeeper going to be seriously tested by a pairing of McClean and Fortune?

In the event that partnership only lasted ten minutes until Oriol Riera was brought on for Cowie. The Spaniard went close near the end with a header that hit the crossbar, but would be better employed not having to fight for seemingly aimless long balls coming from defence and goalkeeper.

Mackay had chosen a one-paced midfield of Don Cowie, Chris McCann and Ben Watson. Cowie is well into his thirties and the other two have surely been brought in too early after long-term injuries. However, when he took off Cowie he reverted to a 4-2-4 system with two wingers and two central strikers. Not surprisingly the visitors became increasingly dangerous on the counterattack as he second half proceeded.

The time has come for the dissolution of the old guard. It would be true to say that most of the players signed by Rosler have not performed anywhere near the level expected of them. But Rosler created problems by bringing in ten new players over the summer, swelling the first team squad up to thirty. The end result was that he was unable to give so many of them the regular playing time they needed.

Rosler’s signings have come under a lot of criticism for their performances up to this point. Some fans have already written them off. In the podcast recently put on fan sites Mackay talked about the good young players he had at his disposal, including the 25 year old McClean in that category. Interestingly the name of Emyr Huws did not appear in the names he mentioned. The young Welshman made a positive start under Rosler until an ankle injury impeded his progress. Like Adam Forshaw he is a bright young talent. Let’s hope he has not disappeared off Mackay’s radar.

Latics need to start to rebuild a younger team. The old guard has had its day and Latics need to look at the future. The likes of Delort, Forshaw, Huws, Riera and Tavernier need to be given extended runs in the team. Moreover they need to be played in their best positions. For Delort it means playing him alongside another central striker, for Tavernier playing as either a wing back or a wide midfield player.

Although he never played badly for Latics the experienced Denmark captain, William Kvist, has been left out in the cold. Would a midfield of Kvist, Forshaw and Huws have done any worse than Cowie, McCann and Watson yesterday?

Somehow a new manager has come in and nothing much has changed on the pitch. If anything things have got worse and the level of football Latics are playing is poor even compared with the dark days of long ball under Owen Coyle.

Unless Mackay has a paradigm shift in his thinking, things are unlikely to get any better. Dave Whelan is unlikely to trust him with big money in the January transfer window and his new players are likely to be loan signings, plus Grant Holt.

The ball is firmly in Mackay’s court. Following yesterday’s game he was quoted as saying:

“It’s their [the fans] club, we’re custodians and I’ll do everything that I can to make them proud of us, make no mistake about that.”

The patience of those fans is being sorely tested. Is Mackay capable of making them proud of his team?

The jury is out on that one.