Another centre forward for Latics?

Eion Doyle

“PNE striker bound for Wigan?” 

So said a Lancashire Evening Post headline on Saturday.

The article went on to explain that Paul Cook was initially aiming to take Eion Doyle from Preston North End to Portsmouth, but that the centre forward’s  new destination  “might now be” Wigan.

Sometimes newspaper headlines can be pure speculation, but this one seemed to be well within the realms of possibility, if by no means confirmed. The 29 year old was on loan at Portsmouth in the second half of last season and previously played under Cook’s management at both Sligo and Chesterfield. But Paul Cook is known to favour the lone centre forward system and Wigan Athletic already have five of them on their books. Do they really need another?

But managers do sometimes like to bring in players who have been with them in the past.  Indeed Warren Joyce signed three in January – Gabriel Obertan, Ryan Tunnicliffe and James Weir – who were with him at Manchester United. Long will Latics fans remember the hapless Jason Scotland who had scored 53 goals in two years at Swansea under Roberto Martinez, but could muster only 2 in 36 appearances after the Catalan took him to Wigan. The Premier League had proved to be too big a step up for the Trinidadian.

But Doyle is a different matter. He was an important player for Cook at Chesterfield, scoring 38 goals for him in 64 starts and 20 appearances off the bench.  Indeed 21 of those goals had been scored at League 1 level in little more than half a season before he was transferred to Cardiff City at the beginning of February 2015. Admittedly Doyle’s goalscoring record since leaving Chesterfield has been less impressive, but it would be a surprise if Cook is not considering an offer for the player.

But Latics already have central strikers who could make a major impact on League 1 next season. If Doyle were to be brought in which ones would depart?

Will Grigg has scored in excess of 20 goals per season three times before in the third tier. His critics will say that he could not make the step up to the Championship last season, his last league goal being scored in September 2016. However, his supporters will say that the player had made a good start and looked comfortable at that level, only to be left on the bench or played out of position by his managers. But Grigg has just one year of his contract remaining and the likelihood is that Latics will invite offers over the summer, looking to recoup the £1m they paid Brentford for him a couple of years ago.

Omar Bogle we hoped would be the key figure in all of Joyce’s January signings. Full of confidence from his goalscoring exploits at Grimsby, he started off well, but he was to find Championship defenders a different kettle of fish to those in League 2. Injury also played its part in the player not making the impact that was hoped. However, although Bogle as a player is still a rough diamond in need of polishing, he has the physique and technique to be a top player. He is capable of making a major impact on League 1 if he can overcome his fitness issues.

Nick Powell‘s appearances near the end of last season showed his huge talent. Although he prefers to play in midfield, he can be devastating at centre forward. It could be argued that Latics would never have been relegated if Powell had been fit all season, giving his quality. But that was not a likely scenario, given his injury woes over recent years. If fit, Powell could take League 1 by storm, but therein lies the question. Would the club want to continue to pay a high-end salary to a player whose fitness is so uncertain? Powell put himself in the shop window with his displays over those closing weeks. There will surely be another club willing to take a gamble on a player of such quality.

Mikael Mandron was signed from Eastleigh Town in January. He had scored goals in the first half of the National League season and was known to Joyce’s assistant, Andy Welsh, through his time at Sunderland. He made just one start and two substitute appearances early on, but did not feature again after mid-March. Only 22 years old, Mandron could well be sent off on loan to gain further experience.

Billy Mckay remains a Latics player, although things never worked out for him at Wigan or on his loan at Oldham. But Mckay has a record of success in Scotland. He returned to his old club, Inverness Caledonian Thistle, on loan in January. It would not be a surprise to see Mckay complete his contract at Wigan with a further loan spell in Scotland. A return to the Latics squad would be a surprise, but by no means impossible.

The “PNE striker bound for Wigan?”  headline might have been speculative to some degree, but Doyle’s arrival might well come to fruition.

 

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High turnover but what’s changed? A perspective on Wigan’s latest window

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Management hates it, the media loves it, fans have little choice but to be glued to it in hope and trepidation. Transfer deadline day is bigger business every year that goes by. It’s one of the ways – the lack of a winter break being the other obvious one – in which the British game likes to make things that bit more complicated (and profitable) than the rest of the world.

For clubs that swapped managers during the first half of the season, the January transfer window has become an opportunity for the new regime to stamp its authority on the squad. Ship out players that don’t fit the tactical model; replace them with players that do; balance the books by shedding big earners and reinvesting in problem positions. It’s a pattern that has become all too familiar at Wigan, with last year’s success in League 1 the notable exception.

There are a couple problems with this approach. First, you have less time in January than in the summer, not only to recruit good players and find a home for high-earning misfits, but just as importantly to provide incomings the tactical and personal adaptation period they need to succeed. On top of that, you have to navigate an inflated market to negotiate fair prices for players, which can be particularly challenging if you appear desperate, as one does in a relegation fight, for example.

Another unpleasant feature of the January transfer window well known to Latics, particularly in the Premier League days, is the risk of losing your most successful players. It tends to be instigated by agents or players themselves, and to materialize in the dying hours of the window, preventing the club from finding an adequate replacement. Sometimes, these decisions become of huge financial importance to the club, and their approval is beyond the manager’s control.

Add to this Wigan’s very limited spending power compared to its Championship competitors – and you realize what a big ask we as fans are making of the manager. It’s worth pausing to put oneself in Warren Joyce’s shoes. There are plenty of arguments claiming the manager should only be judged after a window. I’d take them a step further to suggest that’s still nowhere near enough time. The new players haven’t had a pre-season with him; many will need to adjust to playing at a higher level; all will have to adapt to new surroundings and teammates; and Joyce himself will need to adapt his tactics, having lost his most valuable player.

The counter argument, of course, is that Joyce brought some of these challenges upon himself. Too much turnover is bad for any organization, specially in a short period of time, and the high number of ins and outs will breed instability. Was it really necessary to bring in so many people, so many loanees in particular? Right when the team was gaining some consistency and producing results on the pitch? Plenty to debate. In the meantime, here are some ups and down on another busy window:

Good News: The whopping fee received for Yanic Wildschut (£7.5 million according to Sky,£7 million elsewhere.) It’s hard to take, given his status as Latics’ best attacking threat, with pace and strength to burn, and room to improve. But his finishing was often frustrating, he was inconsistent, and very much rough around the edges. If he had to go, credit is due the club for gaining such a huge profit on their investment.

Bad News: Yanic again. Being gone so late in the window. It’s hard to ignore that Wigan have scored three goals fewer than Rotherham, and yet just sold their most effective attacker.

Good News: In Gabriel Obertan, the club have found as close to a direct replacement as could be expected. We’ll be left to imagine what Joyce’s team might have looked like with two pacey wingers on the pitch. But at least Obertan’s defining attributes are similar to Wildschut’s: pace and strength, some trickery, abundant potential yet inconsistent finishing. He should be entering his peak years, has something to prove, and lots of experience at a higher level. Joyce knows him, he’s apparently a good professional, and they have said encouraging things about each other. The term of contract is short, therefore financial risk is too. All in all, a gamble worth taking.

Bad news: The squad feels unbalanced and bloated. There are a lot of midfielders, but few wingers or attacking playmakers given Nick Powell’s absence. With Obertan almost certain to start, it’s likely Michael Jacobs (in desperate need of a goal) on the other wing, with Colclough, Weir and Browne all unproven backups. Meanwhile, in the centre of midfield, Joyce has Power, Morsy, Perkins, MacDonald, Gilbey, Tunnicliffe, Hanson, Byrne, and Laurent to keep happy. Perhaps some of these players will be used in different positions (Hanson as defensive cover, etc.), but it’s a bloated, uneven squad that Joyce may have a hard time keeping happy.

Good News: Welcome Omar Bogle! He may need time to adapt. But the club beat out competitors to get him, and on paper, he has everything he needs to succeed at Championship level. A lot of hope is resting on his inexperienced shoulders, but if his teammates can provide him service, there is reason to believe. The option of a little-and-large Grigg and Bogle parternship is also intriguing. He’s left-footed, too.

Bad News: Banking on lower division signings is playing with fire. If Grigg is to become injured, Latics are left with Bogle, and Mikael Mandron to lead the line. Both have potential, but their success has come in League 2 and the Conference, respectively. They are completely unproven at this level, and playing with new teammates.

Good News: Alex Bruce appears an astute short-term signing, with potential for a longer stay. Dan Burn and Jake Buxton have developed a useful partnership in recent games, but Bruce is a dependable and experienced head to provide backup, who should also be good to have around the place.

Bad News: He hasn’t played all season due to an Achilles injury.

Good News: Keeping Sam Morsy and Max Power. Much of the attention has been on keeping Morsy, who has performed very well since his return. Power may not have started strongly, but has been steadily improving and remains a player of undoubted potential. Had rumours of his departure materialised, Latics would have lost an opportunity to reap the rewards of blooding him at this level. Good things should come of establishing Power and Morsy as a partnership.

Bad News: Too many loanees. In order to secure loan signings, managers often have to pledge a certain number of game time to the players’ parent clubs. Given the maximum of five loan signings per match-day squad, it looks an impossibility Latics’ recent loan signings will all get their wish to show what they can do. Jakob Haugaard may find himself sacrificed given the arrival of Matt Gilks. Callum Connolly is certain to play. That leaves Jamie Hanson, Marcus Browne, James Weir, Ryan Tunnicliffe, Bruce and Haugaard to vie for the other berths. Presumably, borrowing players and not giving them a game reduces the chances of players being borrowed from the same clubs in the future. Given many of these players are expected to be fringe players anyway, might Latics have been better off without a few of them?

Good News: Joyce appears to have both a short-term, and long-term plan. Signings like Gilks, Bruce and Obertan point to survival needs, while the signings of Jack Byrne, Mandron, and Josh Laurent show a continued desire to invest in youth and capitalize on Joyce’s wealth of experience in the area of player development. Byrne, in particular, was highly rated at City and appears a good long-term signing.

Verdict

Despite the high turnover, it doesn’t appear likely there will be immediate, dramatic changes to the starting lineup – Obertan in for Wildschut, perhaps the goalkeeper, and a new striking option in Bogle off the bench. This should prove a blessing, given the progress made in recent weeks. But it also calls into question the need for such a high number of incomings and outgoings. Joyce would do well to resist the urge of upsetting the players who have recently given him good commitment and results.

As supporters, patience is going to be important. Demanding instant impact from players adapting to a higher level is unfair, as is demanding instant adjustment from a team that became dependent on Wildschut to create for it. But if the new signings can add to the promising form shown of late and provide cover for injuries, we can be cautiously optimistic that, with a new crew of Joyce-loyal players and relative stability in the starting XI, we’re better off than before the window.

Full squad can be seen here