Latics again in a state of flux

Warren Joyce’s first game in charge of Wigan Athletic coincided with the worst performance of the season. In fact some fans are even comparing the display with those we would too often see in the Malky Mackay era, when a demoralised and mediocre squad was not able to avoid relegation.

But comparisons with the Mackay era are groundless at this moment in time. A new manager has come in to take over a squad that had not been accumulating the points needed to keep the club away from the Championship relegation zone. When a new manager comes in results so often take an upturn, but with difficult away games following at Barnsley and Huddersfield it is going to be a hard task for Joyce.

Opening match performances for new managers can be deceptive. Indeed Mackay started with a promising 1-1 home draw with Middlesbrough when Latics performed with spirit and played good football in spells. It was not to continue with them losing their next four matches. By the end of January five of the players who had started against Boro had left the club. Latics were in turmoil with so many quality players leaving in that transfer window, being replaced largely by journeymen and young loanees.

The turmoil continues at the club. It has now had five managers in the past three years, a far cry from the longevity of six years with Paul Jewell and four with Roberto Martinez. Although Latics had returned to the Championship with the momentum of winning League 1 only three players in the starting line up on Saturday – Michael Jacobs, David Perkins and Max Power – were at the club precisely a year ago. Moreover chairman David Sharpe had spoken of Gary Caldwell being at the club long-term, but the young manager only lasted 18 months.

The stats suggest that successful teams are built upon stability rather than turnover. Last season when Leicester City won the Premier League there were 10 players who started in at least 30 of the 38 games in the season.  Kasper Schmeichel and Wes Morgan started in all 38, Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy in 36. During the course of the season 20 different players started for Leicester, a figure which is relatively low but bears little comparison to the 14 starters used by  Aston Villa to win the first tier in 1980-81 and the 16 employed by Nottingham Forest three seasons earlier.

But Gary Caldwell used 34 players last season. Caldwell’s team was in a constant state of flux, but he still went on to win the League 1 title after a difficult start when the players took time to gel. He was to continue in the same vein, recruiting 14 new recruits over the summer.  But this time it was to be his undoing.

Instead of retaining the momentum of the team that had won the third tier he ripped out the core and started from scratch in key positions. The effective centre back partnership of Morgan and Pearce was superseded by Burn and Buxton, the excellent distribution and the authority of Jaaskelainen was replaced by a more agile, if less authoritative, Bogdan. In midfield the combative, but skilful, Morsy was replaced by the steady, conservative MacDonald. The right back position remains problematic, with nobody at this point impressing any more than Wabara did previously. The club’s most valuable asset, Will Grigg, has found himself too often on the bench, despite his good start to the season. One wonders if the centre forward will still be at Wigan by the end of the January transfer window.

Caldwell’s new players clearly needed more time to gel in such a competitive environment as the Championship. The manager made mistakes, but the decision to dismiss him once more puts the club in a state of flux. It could be one that the chairman will later regret.

When new managers take over at football clubs they invariably look at bringing in people they have worked with before. When Caldwell was dismissed the goalkeeping coach, Mike Pollitt, and chief scout Malcolm Crosby were also relieved of their positions. Further changes in the coaching and backroom staff look on the cards.

Indeed the rumours today suggest that Jimmy Ryan and Paul McGuinness, long term employees of the Manchester United coaching and backroom staff, could be joining Latics. But given that Ryan is now 71 years old and has been retired for the past four years one ponders on the veracity of the reports. On the playing front rumours suggest that Joyce is interested in winger Cameron Stewart, a free agent. Stewart started his career at Old Trafford, but his promising career has been punctuated by injury. Although still only 25 he has played at 11 clubs.

The state of flux at Wigan Athletic is therefore likely to continue as the new manager brings in his own coaching and backroom staff over the coming weeks. The January transfer window will then allow him the opportunity to bring in his own players, with the seemingly inevitable departure of some of the current squad.

Joyce’s preferred playing formation could well be the 4-2-3-1 which is becoming increasingly prevalent in English football. The line up on Saturday was conservative to say the least, with David Perkins playing wide on the right.  The manager hinted that he had had some help picking the team, but he picked a left footed midfield player on the right wing, who is not known for cutting inside and shooting. David Perkins remains an important figure at the club, but needs to be played in a position where he can be more effective. The preference of Adam Le Fondre over Will Grigg was another one open to debate.

The manager has got off to an underwhelming start at the club, but like Gary Caldwell, he will need time. His teams at Manchester United were known for their attractive football and it is to be hoped that he will continue in that style at Wigan, in contrast to his predecessors Owen Coyle and Malky Mackay. He has inherited a squad containing promising young players and others who are rebuilding their careers after difficult times of late.

It will be interesting to see if Joyce will restore Craig Morgan back to play a leading role as he did last season. It was sad to see the Welshman stripped of the captaincy and almost bundled off to Sheffield United as the deadline approached for the summer transfer window. That, plus the controversial departure of Jason Pearce and the banishment of Sam Morsy on loan to Barnsley must surely have caused some discord within the camp.

It is to be hoped that the chairman has learned from the lessons of the January transfer window of a couple of years ago, when the family silver was sold off for a pittance, resulting in relegation. It could be argued that the players who left the club then were of higher profile than those currently at the club, but Joyce and Sharpe must beware of ripping the heart out of the team as happened then.

The state of flux is going to continue for some time yet. In the meantime we will hope to see a pattern in what the new manager is trying to create, that the club does have genuine direction and that the constant toing and froing of players will abate.

There are going to be some tough months ahead. A more immediate target for the manager will be to lift the club clear of the relegation zone by the end of the calendar year. There are eight games coming up in that time.

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A big step towards automatic promotion – Gillingham (H) match reaction & highlights

 

“This can give us belief, though, and we can kick on from here

So commented Gary Caldwell after Craig Morgan’s 96th minute header had given Wigan Athletic a crucial victory over promotion rivals Gillingham. Despite the victory Latics remain in 5th place, but they are now only 6 points behind the 2nd place Gills, with a game in hand. Automatic promotion is now looking a distinct possibility.

The visit of the high flying Gills was never going to be easy for Latics, who had not beaten any of the teams above them up to that point. For most of the game Gillingham played with the confidence one could expect from a team in their position. They were well organised in defence and purposeful in attack. In contrast Latics looked pale and disjointed. However, after Gillingham went two up on the 53rd minute mark one wondered if that fighting spirit that Caldwell’s new era Latics has shown over the course of recent months would resurface. It certainly did, but it was aided by a couple of defensive errors from the visitors to seal the game for Wigan.

Caldwell decided to return to a formation that could be labelled 3-4-3, but was more precisely 3-4-2-1. He recalled Leon Barnett to play in a backline of three, with Craig Morgan and Jason Pearce. Donervon Daniels and Reece James were the wing backs, with Max Power and David Perkins in holding midfield. Will Grigg was the lone striker with Michael Jacobs and Andy Kellett in “number 10” roles between him and holding midfield.

Latics started cautiously in a scrappy first half that did not reflect well on the standards of League 1 football. Over the past decade or so at Wigan we have got used to watching players of high technical ability on the pitch, but there was not so much evidence of that last night. Gillingham manager, Justin Edinburgh, has done a fine job in building a promotion-challenging squad on a budget of around £2m. The whole has been more than the sum of its parts for the Gills this season, whereas the same could not be said for Caldwell’s Latics with a budget four to five times as big. Too often in the first half Wigan players would misplace their passes. Grigg was left in a truly lone striker role, with Latics rarely throwing enough players in the opposition penalty box. The wing backs were not pushing up and central midfield was too static.

Gillingham playmaker Bradley Dack hit the inside of the post with a superb free kick after 14 minutes as Latics just could not get coherence into their play. But Latics kept plugging away and Pearce should have scored from Perkins’ cross instead of poking a weak shot at the Gills keeper Stuart Nelson from close range. The ball had fallen to Pearce’s weaker right foot.

But it came as no surprise when in the 25th minute Dominick Samuel’s pace took him past Pearce and his shot beat Jussi Jaaskelainen at his near post. Despite still not playing well, Latics continued to plug away. Jacobs had a shot saved by Nelson, then Kellett found himself unmarked at the far post from a corner but put his header woefully wide. Soon after it looked like Jacobs was going to score, latching on to a low cross from Daniels, but he could not make the necessary contact and another chance went begging. Latics went off at half time a goal behind after not playing well, but if they had taken their chances they would have been ahead.

One wondered if Wigan would step up their efforts in the second half, but their performance in the opening minutes was worse than what we had seen in the first half. Gillingham were attacking with purpose and Latics just could not string their passes together. On 53 minutes Rory Donnelly headed home an inswinging cross from the right, too easily evading his marker Daniels. Caldwell immediately responded by bringing on Chris McCann to replace James at left wing back and Jordy Hiwula for Kellett. The shape moved to 3-4-1-2, with Hiwula partnering Grigg upfront.

With the extra forward in place Latics looked more dangerous in attack and within a quarter of an hour Hiwula’s cross from the left was nodded back by Jacobs at the far post for Grigg to force home with his left foot. The goal breathed life into Latics and they started playing with more confidence. Three minutes later a speculative long range shot from Power found the net due to awful handling by the Gills’ goalkeeper Nelson. Latics were back into the match at 2-2 with 23 minutes of normal time remaining. They were getting on top, although Gillingham continued to threaten the Wigan goal at times. Somehow 6 additional minutes were added on. Craig Davies was brought on in the first of those minutes as Latics launched long balls up front. They went on to score in that final minute when Gillingham left Craig Morgan unmarked from a corner which he headed home.

The Good

Once again Latics showed the fighting spirit needed to get back into a game that looked lost. Caldwell’s substitutions were to prove effective. McCann made surging runs through the opposition defence in a way in which James had previously been unable. Hiwula added an extra attacking threat in partnership with Grigg.

The win over Gillingham has not only helped narrow the gap between Latics and the teams above them, but it will boost confidence. It is the “belief” to which Caldwell was referring that is the key to a serious challenge for an automatic promotion place. The next step is to pick up three more points in the home tie against Sheffield United next Tuesday.

The Bad

As in previous games where Latics have come back with a late rally the questions are once again being asked about Caldwell’s tactics. The 3-4-2-1 system that he employed is surely better suited to playing away from home. In the first two thirds of the game Latics looked lightweight up front, with insufficient attacking intent. It was only when Caldwell brought on another forward and switched to 3-4-1-2 that Latics posed a more consistent attacking threat.

Once again we saw a hesitant, nervy start with Latics seeming to treat the Gills with too much respect. Is it a lack of confidence that underlies this trend? Or is it tactical?

In a post-match interview captain Craig Morgan acknowledged that the team’s version of possession football might not go down too well with the fans, but intimated that it pays dividends later in the game as opponents tire after chasing after the ball so long. Gillingham certainly wilted in the closing minutes, possibly paying the price for disrupting Wigan’s game by high pressing. Or was it psychological in that their goalkeeper had let Latics back into a game that they thought they had all but won?

The debates will continue not only as to whether Caldwell should play with twin strikers, but also whether the emphasis needs to be changed from a slow, methodical approach towards a more direct and dynamic style.

 

Seeking team synergy

teamwork1

Synergy is defined as the creation of a whole that is greater than the simple sum of its parts. It is something that can help football teams achieve way beyond what people would expect.

In the 1980-81 season Aston Villa broke Liverpool’s stranglehold on English football by winning the First Division.  Villa had finished seventh in the previous season, fourteen points behind champions Liverpool, in the days when a win was worth two points. Nobody had expected Aston Villa to win it the next season.

What was truly remarkable, in an era of low quality pitches and refereeing that was much more lenient than that of modern day, was that Villa used only 14 players all season. No fewer than 7 players were ever-present in all 42 league matches.

It can be safely said that in this case the whole was equal to more than the sum of its parts. It was far from a team of superstars, but that team synergy made them a formidable unit. Through playing together on a continuous basis over a long period of time, with a minimum of disruptions due to injury, the understanding between the players was the key to their success.

Gary Caldwell’s current team does not have synergy. In fact the whole is probably less than the sum of its parts.  The players have not yet consistently gelled together as a unit.

Caldwell has already been unlucky with injuries, which have robbed him of key players. He has used 23 players in just 10 league games up to this point. Only four players – Michael Jacobs, Reece James, Richard O’Donnell and David Perkins – have been ever-present. Those players have formed the backbone of the team, but if it had not been for injuries which other players might too have been ever-present?

The hapless Malky Mackay made only two permanent signings for the club. Billy Mckay has now left for Dundee United after being constantly snubbed at Wigan. But in Jason Pearce, Mackay signed a player not only with a successful pedigree of Football League experience, but a leader through example. Pearce was to be one of the few shining lights in the darkness of the Malky era.

Craig Morgan was Caldwell’s third signing, following Perkins and O’Donnell. The ex-Rotherham captain came in with similar credentials to Pearce. When Morgan and Pearce were named as captain and vice-captain it appeared that Caldwell was going to have a central defensive pairing as strong as any in the division. However, up to this point the two have played together only once, against Crewe Alexandra on August 29th.

Will Grigg scored 23 goals for MK Dons last season and Latics paid £1m to sign him.He has scored three goals in six starts and two substitute appearances so far.  Grigg too can be expected to be part of the backbone of Caldwell’s team.

When the lineup was announced an hour prior to the Millwall game on Tuesday night eyebrows were raised. Fans who have been clamouring for twin strikers were disappointed to see just Jordy Hiwula’s name in the side. Grigg was on the bench due his elbow injury, although he did come on to save the game in the closing minutes. Caldwell had the chance to play Sanmi Odelusi together with Hiwula, but the player’s lack of form was almost certainly a factor in not including him in the starting lineup. Craig Davies was again absent because of a hamstring injury and Haris Vuckic with an ankle injury. Grant Holt and Shaq Coulthirst continue to recover from injury.

Should Caldwell wish to play twin strikers he will have the six players to choose from, providing they are all fit at the same time.  Davies is the obvious choice to partner Grigg, but given his prior injury record, it is unlikely that he will manage a long run of games on a continuous basis. Davies can not only score goals in his own right, but his physicality provides Grigg with more freedom. Caldwell will surely be hoping that Holt will be able to reach peak fitness and be available to play a similar sort of role to Davies. Coulthirst, Hiwula and Odelusi have something different to offer, including pace.

In midfield Caldwell has various options. Assuming Perkins and Jacobs remain automatic choices then Tim Chow, Jordan Flores, Francisco Junior, Chris McCann, Sean Murray and Max Power will compete for places. Moreover Don Cowie is on the road to recovery from injury. Andy Kellett has the ability to play left midfield or left wing back. Caldwell has an alternative to Jacobs in the advanced midfield role in the versatile Vuckic.  Or he can play them both in attacking midfield behind the central striker in a 3-4-2-1 system.

The right back/wing back position remains problematic for Caldwell following the return of Jonjoe Kelly to Everton and the injury to Kevin McNaughton. The loan signing of Dutch winger Yanic Wildschut from Middlesbrough was announced today. One wonders if the player can also play as a wing back. Playing midfielders or central defenders in that position is hardly ideal. Caldwell will surely be scouring the transfer market in January for a replacement for Kenny. For the moment, Latics’ play is likely to be skewed to the left where James and Jacobs form a strong partnership.

The starting lineup against Millwall included only four players over the age of 23. In terms of looking towards the future it is something very positive.  However, in order to get promotion Caldwell will surely need to give priority to his more experienced players who have already enjoyed success in the Football League.

O’Donnell has established himself as the number one choice in goal. Morgan and Pearce will surely be the first names on the team sheet for the centre of defence, together with either Leon Barnett or Donervan Daniels.  James will be one of the two wing backs.  A three pronged attack of Davies and Grigg playing as twin strikers, with Jacobs coming in from midfield, would threaten even the best of League 1 defences.

The squad is laden with midfield players and Caldwell has been constantly switching them around. McCann has experience, Junior oozes class, the younger players show promise. Caldwell will look for a balance in midfield, but he must have box-to-box players who can move the ball quickly and not shirk their defensive duties. Too often we have seen midfielders passing the ball sideways or backwards and not providing sufficient solid defensive cover.

Caldwell will be searching for team synergy. The first step is to have all his key players fit, something that has not been the case up to now. He needs them playing on a regular basis, utilizing the younger and less experienced players in short spells.

Fingers crossed that the injury situation improves and that Caldwell will have the luxury of choosing what he considers his strongest possible lineup on each matchday over the coming months. Were this team to have synergy it would surely propel Latics out of League 1.

Rebuilding on free transfers

 

Caldwell will be checking out the availability of good players at the ends of their contracts.

Caldwell will be checking out the availability of good players at the ends of their contracts.

On this same day two years ago, Wigan Athletic were suffering from the pain of relegation from the Premier League. Six players from the senior squad had already found other clubs after being freed from their contracts. Speculation was mounting about the futures of others whose contracts had run down and when the big clubs would come in and snatch prized assets still remaining.

Owen Coyle had been appointed manager just ten days before with the brief of getting Latics back into the Premier League. Given the prospect of more players leaving, plus the necessity for a large squad because of Europa league involvement, Coyle clearly had a lot of recruiting to do. However, he was to resist going for big money transfers, instead relying on picking up players at the ends of their contracts or those available at discount prices.

On June 27th he made his first signing, Chris McCann from Burnley. The next day he picked up Stephen Crainey from Blackpool, then three days later Thomas Rogne from Celtic. All were on free transfers. During the month of July he was to pick up two more free transfers in Marc-Antoine Fortune and Juan Carlos Garcia, paying transfer fees for Scott Carson, Grant Holt and James Perch. With the new season approaching he paid transfer fees for Leon Barnett and James McClean. However, the total transfer fees paid by Coyle were modest compared with the incoming funds from the sales of James McCarthy and Arouna Kone.

By the start of the season Coyle had signed ten players, five on free transfers and five more for relatively modest transfer fees. In early September he was to sign Nick Powell and Ryan Shotton on loan.

Gary Caldwell too is currently facing a challenge putting together a squad that can challenge for promotion, albeit from League 1. Following a similar timeline to that of Coyle in his early days, he has  signed three players, all on free transfers. He has also been linked to signing players whose contracts have terminated, but whose clubs will be due some compensation as a consequence of their youth. John McGinn (20) of St Mirren and Max Power (21) of Tranmere Rovers , despite their youth, are experienced midfield players. They could prove to be valuable long term acquisitions, should Caldwell manage to acquire their services.

Caldwell has already managed to bring in probably around £2m in transfer fees through the outgoings of Scott Carson, Rob Kiernan and James McClean. He will gain more in his coffers as soon as James Perch is sold off. Reports suggest that he made bids for Sam Clucas of Chesterfield, but the competition from other clubs has driven the player’s value up beyond that Latics should pay. For the moment he will concentrate on finding clubs for the highest wage earners, meanwhile scouring the market for young, up-and-coming talent.  The likelihood is that he will be stuck with a significant number of players that he would have liked to move on, simply because no other club is willing to offer them the kinds of deals they seek.

Coyle has been criticized for his signings, particularly those of Holt and Fortune, who were both 32 at the time. Although he did not pay a huge transfer fee for Holt, offering him a three year contact became an issue. On the other hand, it was remarkable that given the limited time he had available, he put together a squad good enough to challenge for promotion.

Coyle’s problem was always going to be one of melding together two disparate groups, the ex-Martinez players from the Premier League, together with his mish-mash of ex-top  flight players and proven players from lower divisions.  But more than anything else with Coyle it was the lack of a defined style of play that crippled his teams. Too often the long ball would prevail, anathema to the Martinez disciples. It was to prove his undoing.

Caldwell has already clearly enunciated the style of play he expects. Players may be coming in from other clubs where the long ball has been the norm, but they will be required to play in the style the manager requires. Clubs have already shown that they can get out of League 1 playing good football, even if the majority rely on more traditional methods.

Up to this point one could say that Latics’ signings so far have been somewhat underwhelming, but these are early days. Like Coyle, Caldwell will pay fees for potentially key players, providing he can stay within his budget.

Not only does Caldwell face a challenge in signing a sufficient number of the “right kinds” of players, but he faces a bigger challenge in helping them gel into a functional unit. The training camps over the next month or so are likely to see a changing spectrum of different faces as players come and go. With so many players to move on, and so many to bring in, it is unlikely that the camps will be able to provide the “gelling” that they are primarily aimed to produce. Caldwell will have to deal with players who want to move on, but cannot, and their effect on morale. Not an easy prospect.

Given the sheer number of players that Caldwell is going to need to bring in and his budgetary constraints it is likely that more free transfer men will be brought in. However, one recalls the fine form of Chris McCann until he fractured his kneecap in the FA Cup win at the Etihad. Good players sometimes let their contracts run down in the hope of finding something more lucrative, as did Antolin Alcaraz, Franco Di Santo and Maynor Figueroa a couple of years ago.

It appears that Max Power is now on the verge of signing and Oriol Riera is staying with Deportivo. Press reports from Spain about the Riera transfer saga have been plentiful, but the figure for the fee has varied according to the source. The bottom line is that Latics will take a significant loss in terms of transfer fee originally paid and that to be gained in the coming days. Significantly Andy Delort did not show up for training, suggesting he is heading for new pastures, once again at a major financial deficit.

As July approaches the transfer activity is going to hot up. The sooner he can get all his squad in place, the better it will be for Caldwell. Players coming from other clubs will have to adapt to the style of football the Scot will dictate and the process will take time, as will the process of gelling as a team.

The advantage is that this time around the players will know what is expected of them, as they fit into a well-defined style of play.

One can only reflect on where Latics would be now if that had happened just a couple of years earlier.