An Amigo View – Wigan Athletic 0 Blackburn Rovers 0 – five talking points

 

Games against Blackburn Rovers have never been easy. Neither was this one. This Rovers team was well organised and strong physically, but they also possessed enough flair to cause some worries for the Wigan defence. Their manager, Tony Mowbray, clearly did his homework beforehand, his team’s tactics diminishing Wigan’s creative threats, leading to a scrappy game in conditions that were far from perfect. A goalless draw resulted.

In the season prior to this match Blackburn had committed an average of around 11 fouls per game, with 10 committed against them. Wigan’s average was 11 committed, 13 against. The figures for yesterday’s game reveal that Rovers gave away 21 fouls, Latics 13.

So, Rovers committed almost twice as many fouls than their average. Many of them were conceded in the midfield, Sam Morsy and Nick Powell being particular targets.  The net result was to dampen Wigan’s creative play, preventing moves developing, disrupting the game, making fluent passing movements unlikely.

Despite a controversial red card for Elliott Bennett after 58 minutes, Latics just could not find a way past Rovers’ resolute defence. Paul Cook summed it up after the game by saying; “Although we had a lot of the ball, we never really opened Blackburn up like we wanted to.”

Let’s look at some points arising from the game.

The quality of refereeing

Following the expulsion of Bennett with his second yellow card of the game, Rovers fans chanted “You don’t know what you’re doing”. The Wigan contingent might well have echoed their views, particularly in the first half, as the referee seemingly permitted Rovers to systematically foul Wigan’s key players.

In the referee’s defence it could be said that a derby like this is never going to be an easy game to handle. Moreover, referees in League 1 tend to give players the benefit of the doubt in challenges that would be often be penalised in the Championship division.

However, they have an obligation to stop systematic fouling, which Wigan have suffered not only in this game, but in others prior to it this season. Nick Powell perhaps sometimes makes a meal out of the challenges he receives, but too often this season he has not been able to show his full range of skills because of persistently negative physical challenges against him.

Blackburn are promotion rivals

Following relegation from the Championship, Blackburn had a clear-out of players. However, Mowbray has pieced together a useful squad that will surely challenge for a promotion spot this season. As the new players continue to gel with their teammates we can expect them to get stronger and stronger.

Jacobs is a key player

Michael Jacobs can add dynamism to Wigan’s game by his willingness to run at defenders at full throttle. His running creates room for his teammates. But it was an off-day for the player and Latics suffered as a result. So often he seemed content to make a short pass to Callum Elder to cross the ball into the box. The element of surprise was lost.

But perhaps our expectations for Jacobs are too high. Can we really expect the player to provide that degree of high energy running and commitment on a match-by-match basis?

Morsy avoided provocation

Like Nick Powell, Sam Morsy was also subject to particular attention by the opposition. Were Blackburn trying to muffle his creative talents from deep midfield or hoping to provoke him into retaliation for the treatment he was receiving? Despite his lack of control in prior matches, leading to a string of yellow cards, Morsy showed patience and resilience by not retaliating and trying to get on with his game.

Shrewsbury lose at last

The Shrews 1-0 defeat at Peterborough leaves Latics just one point off first place after 16 games played. It has been a wonderful start to the season by Shrewsbury – but can they keep it up in the same way that another unfancied team, Burton Albion, did a couple of years ago?

Over the course of a season the quality of the squad tends to be the most important factor. Wigan certainly have a strong squad, which is well balanced except for cover for the right back position. It remains a priority for the January transfer window. It remains to be seen whether Shrewsbury have the depth of squad to match over the course of the season.

Are Blackburn Rovers more likely to be a threat? They gained a draw at the New Meadow in late September through a late Bradley Dack equaliser. An interesting statistic is that, unlike the encounter on Saturday, that game produced a total of only 15 fouls from the two teams, with the Shrews conceding 8.

 

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Five talking points arising from the win at Oldham

 

They were two goals up after 15 minutes and it looked like Wigan were going to win by a country mile. The Oldham defence looked stunned and more goals could have come in the first half which the away side dominated so much that Oldham could not muster a single shot on goal.

But the second half was a different matter, as the home team came back into the match and Wigan’s fluid passing dissipated. It was not so pretty to watch, but Wigan Latics were to come away with a  clean sheet, their rearguard action being effective in limiting Oldham’s opportunities on goal.

The end result was Wigan moving to the top of the League 1 table on goal difference ahead of Peterborough, Fleetwood and Shrewsbury. In contrast Oldahm Athletic share bottom place with Northampton Town with no points from the opening three games.

The performance gave us lots  to think about:

Paul Cook’s side is not afraid to take the game to the opponents from the start. There was no hesitancy to Wigan’s approach to this game. They pushed forward from the get-go, swamping Oldham in their own half of the pitch. The result was a couple of early goals which were to seal the result. It was an approach that was poles apart from the tepid, sterile stuff we saw under Warren Joyce.

Cook’s football so far has not been what we might have expected. The manager arrived with a reputation of possession-based football, but what we have seen up to this point has not been on a par with what we saw in the Caldwell or Martinez eras. Cook’s team is by no means afraid to launch long balls and  its central defenders will not hesitate to clear their lines when under pressure. It is a more pragmatic approach than we anticipated, but it is attack-minded, with Latics pushing men forward in a way that we have not seen for some time. No longer is the centre forward isolated, plowing a lone furrow. Moreover the wide players are seemingly expected to pump balls into the box with teammates moving forward to be on the receiving end. At times it is reminiscent of the football of the era of Paul Jewell.

This team is not averse to getting its hands dirty. It has a rugged centre of defence, fronted by a combative midfield, all outfield players expected to fight for possession. The choice of Sam Morsy as team captain sets the tone. Morsy and Lee Evans are a force in central midfield, with their ability to slug it out with the opposition and turn defence into attack. Yesterday Wigan committed 16 fouls to Oldham’s 11.

Alex Gilbey’s time will come. Gilbey has had to be satisfied with a place on the bench so far, with Nick Powell occupying his natural position in the centre of the advanced midfield trio. The ex-Colchester man is a talented player who will surely make an impact upon the season. Cook is probably reconciled to losing Powell by the end of August, but knows that he has Gilbey to call upon when needed.

David Sharpe will need to think twice before breaking up this squad. The young chairman will have to make some major decisions over the next two weeks. We continue to hear that Latics are a “selling club” and we know that, without funds coming in from transfer fees, expenditure on wages will far exceed revenue. The latest rumours tell us that a Championship club have made a bid for Nick Powell and that Birmingham City are interested in Dan Burn. Both have been key players in the flying start the team has made this season, but will they be here in September? Moreover Will Grigg and Michael Jacobs are in the final year of their contracts, making them prime targets for interested clubs.

Is Sharpe willing to take the risk of going into the red this season in order to keep intact a squad that is surely good enough to challenge for promotion?

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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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Overloading the midfield

Preferred position - central midfield.

Preferred position – central midfield.

Owen Coyle had left it late, but he finally got his man on the last day of the summer transfer window in 2013. Nick Powell was 19 years old and still in Alex Ferguson’s plans. Manchester United had paid Crewe £6 million for his services in July 2012. Powell had made his debut for United just a couple of months later, scoring against Latics after coming on as a 71st minute substitute for Ryan Giggs.

“We see him as a central midfield player. Crewe played him as a forward in behind the striker, but I asked a question of [Alex director of football] Dario Gradi as to whether he thought central midfield was his position. That’s what he thinks, and Nick thinks that’s his position too, so we’re all in accord on that.”

Ferguson’s comment seemed to fall on deaf ears with Coyle, who was faced with injuries to his two main central strikers, Marc Antoine Fortune and Grant Holt. Powell was to be played as a centre forward, a position he had played earlier in his career. Over the next couple of months he was to establish himself as the club’s best striker, scoring three goals in Latics’ inaugural appearance in the Europa League. The disastrous Coyle reign ended in early December, but new manager Uwe Rosler continued to play him in the starting lineup. But niggling injuries started to take effect and Powell lost form. By the end of the season he looked a shadow of what we had seen in the short-lived Coyle era.

When Powell returned to Wigan a couple of weeks back many of us looked at his arrival as a boost for an attack so dependent on Will Grigg. Powell could step in as a centre forward, or play just behind the central striker. But in Powell’s first two matches against Blackburn Rovers and Birmingham City he was played as a central midfielder.

Although it was not a position he played in during his earlier days at Wigan, Powell has already looked the part playing there. It is his preferred position, although Gary Caldwell has acknowledged that Powell offers him flexibility through being able to play in different positions. However, if Powell is to be a regular starter in central midfield, who will be giving way for him?

Last season’s central midfield lynchpins were David Perkins and Max Power. They were joined in January by Sam Morsy, who had some highly impressive displays in the “Busquets role” in front of the back four. However, the ex-Chesterfield man also had some disappointing performances. However, many of us saw the 24 year old Morsy as a player for the future, someone who could add steel to the midfield, but who was also able to spray out pinpoint passes.

It was therefore a surprise to hear rumours that Latics were trying to sell Morsy. Both Chesterfield and Sheffield United have apparently matched Wigan’s asking price of around £400,000, but Morsy remains at Wigan, for the time being at least. Morsy will surely be loath to step back down to League 1, after reaching the Championship. He is within his rights to put his foot down and refuse to move on, having two years remaining on his contract at Wigan.

But over the past couple of years we have seen what a powerful machine there is at the club in “helping”, or maybe cajoling, players into moving on. The likelihood is that Morsy will be gone soon, with Latics recently signing a replacement in Shaun MacDonald.

The main contenders for a central midfield role are now MacDonald, Perkins, Powell and Power, with Tim Chow as back up. Alex Gilbey has so far been played a more advanced role, but could also challenge for a holding role.

The term “midfielder “ these days can include wing backs and other wide players. Yanic Wildschut is what might have been described in the old days as a “winger”, nowadays labelled as a midfielder, although he can also play a twin striker role. Michael Jacobs can also be classed as a winger, although his best position is probably in the hole between the midfield and the central striker. Ryan Colclough is usually played wide, but is another who might be more effective in an advanced central midfield role. However, Latics have now signed Jordi Gomez who can operate effectively in that role. Jordan Flores is a bright young talent, also an attacking midfielder. It could be a make or break season for Flores who has struggled with the physical demands of the game, despite his excellent technique and footballing vision. Andy Kellett will provide another option when he regains fitness after surgery.

Caldwell has such a wealth of midfield talent at his disposal that some would say it is an overload. Others would say that there are 46 games to play in a Championship season and you need to rotate your midfielders to keep them fresh. However, Morsy is not likely to be alone in leaving.

Caldwell continues to search for another centre forward of the quality of Grigg. Such players cost big money and he will be looking at raising funds to pay for it. It would not be a surprise to see other players from last season’s League 1 team following Morsy out of the door. In the meantime there could be loan moves for the some of the younger midfielders on the fringes of selection.

For the moment Latics have midfielders who have proven goalscoring records. Gomez and Powell both scored goals in their previous spells at the club and last season Colclough scored 9, Wildschut 7, Jacobs 8, Power 6 and Gilbey got 5. However, Caldwell will also look at protecting his defence and it would be no surprise to see MacDonald in the “Busquets role” if Morsy departs.

The transfer window is nearing its close. Having expected Caldwell to stick with the backbone last year’s team it was notable that the starting lineup in the first league game at Bristol City included five new faces.

Even more change is on its way.

Winning with kids

Gary Caldwell continues to lower the average age of his squad.

Gary Caldwell continues to lower the average age of his squad.

“You can’t win anything with kids”.

So said Alan Hansen after a young Manchester United side had been beaten by Aston Villa. United’s lineup had featured an 18 year old Phil Neville, plus 20 year olds David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes, together with the 21 year old Ryan Giggs. They went on to win the Premier League that same season. Hansen’s comment became infamous in English football history.

As did Alex Ferguson twenty years ago, Gary Caldwell too has put a considerable amount of faith in young players. In fact three of them rank in the top four this season as far as appearances are concerned. That trio of Donervon Daniels, Reece James and Max Power are all 22 years old.

Over the January transfer Caldwell has continued to lower the average age of his squad. Don Cowie (32) and Grant Holt (34) left the club by mutual consent. In came Ryan Colclough (21), Conor McAleny (23), Sam Morsy (24) and Reece Wabara (24). Goalkeeper Dan Lavercombe (19) replaced Richard O’Donnell (27), although for the moment he is back at his previous club, Torquay. Midfielder Danny Whitehead (22) was also signed and loaned back to Macclesfield Town. Yanic Wildschut (24) was signed on a permanent contract following his loan spell from Middlesbrough.

Caldwell and his recruitment team have done a fine job, bringing in no less than 29 new players since summer. Moreover there are signs that the players are starting to gel and the team is starting to approach the point where the whole is at least the sum of its parts. Hopes for automatic promotion have been raised, although it remains a difficult task given the consistency of the teams above them.

Wabara has filled the problematic right wing back position, with Kevin McNaughton now back in training. A few weeks ago losing Michael Jacobs to injury would have left the team short of creative input. But the emergence of Haris Vuckic and the arrival of the confident and accomplished Colclough have helped allay concerns. Morsy has come in to add some steel to the midfield, potentially the replacement for David Perkins, who is now 33. The squad now has a better balance than it did a month ago.

Whether Latics will achieve automatic promotion remains to be seen. But with the talent at Caldwell’s disposal they will pose problems for any team in League 1. The least Latics are currently heading for is a place just below the top two, but  getting promotion through the playoffs is a precarious business where confrontations can be tight and so easily effected by unexpected events. The worst case scenario is at  least one more year in League 1.

Next season Latics will receive around £12 million in parachute payments, the final instalment. If they remain in League 1 they will be able to continue operating a budget three times higher than most clubs in the division. However, if promotion is achieved they will face fierce financial competition from Championship clubs, some boosted by much larger parachute payments, others buoyed by funding from benefactor owners. Moreover when their own parachute payments run out they will be faced with competing on an uneven keel against almost all the clubs in the division.

It is for these reasons that having a quality recruitment programme is key to the club’s long term future. Scouting for bargains in younger players coming from clubs in lower divisions or those released by big clubs will be the order of the day.

At the same time the club will need to be able to attract top teenage talent into its academy. Gregor Rioch came with a fine reputation in building up an academy at Coventry and he has already produced results at Wigan. The under 18 team breaking a club record by reaching the fifth round of the FA Youth Cup and taking Manchester City into extra time is an indicator of how much progress has been made. As in previous eras many of the youngsters recruited have come from the greater Manchester and Liverpool areas, often after being at a Premier League club. The recent loan moves of the 18 year old Adam Anson and the 19 year old Louis Robles, both previously in the Liverpool academy, to Macclesfield continue to show that the club seeks to toughen up the younger talent it is nurturing by sending them to clubs in physically competitive leagues. Sam Cosgrove, 18, previously at the Everton academy, has already had loan spells at Barrow and Chorley.

Over the years Alan Hansen might have come to rue his assertion that “You can’t win anything with kids”. But Premier League stats suggest that there is some degree of validity in his statement. When Manchester United won that title in 1995-96 they had six players under the age of 23 who played in 10 games or more. But nothing of the kind has happened since. In fact the average number of under 23s playing regularly in Premier League title winning squads over the last 20 years is less than three.

The success of Manchester United’s young players those two decades ago was clearly exceptional. But perhaps more importantly those players were to stay at the club, providing the backbone of the team for years to come.

Gary Caldwell will be hoping that this will prove the case for the majority of the young players he has recruited over recent months. He and his recruitment team are striving to build the backbone of a squad to serve the club for years to come.