Regaining the feel-good factor

Relegation can dampen the spirits of even the keenest football supporter. But three such occurrences in just five years, combined with a profligate waste of some £74 million of parachute payments is a real downer.

Morale had not been particularly high for Wigan Athletic fans over these recent weeks. But then came the announcement  that local lad Jordan Flores had signed a new two year contract. It came as a bit of a surprise as there had been no news about the player for weeks.

Always good to reward one of our own” were David Sharpe’s words as he announced the new contract on Twitter. In one instant it brought visions of a future where Wigan Athletic would at last have faith in home-grown talent, rather than incessantly bringing in loan players. It raised the feel-good factor, at least for a while.

But the warm feeling started to wither somewhat as the tweet above appeared on Twitter. The article went on to quote the chairman as saying:

“There’s going to be a couple of changes before the start of the season. There’ll be a couple of players hopefully coming in, and maybe a couple of players leaving.”

Those words of Sharpe caused the alarm bells to ring. Did he really mean just two of the likes of Dan Burn, Will Grigg, Sam Morsy, Max Power or Nick Powell will be going and the others staying?

A couple of years ago Latics had been relegated to League 1, but the chairman’s optimism over the summer of 2015 was uplifting. The famous quote about “smashing League 1 with 100 points” was a trifle overexuberant, but it set the tone over a summer of huge changes in the playing staff. Most of the high earners were sold off, paid off or loaned out, but the chairman played his trump card in paying up to £1 m for Will Grigg.

The end result was that the budget had been massively cut, but with the parachute money the club was still able to offer above-average salaries to attract players more than good enough for the third tier. Sharpe’s positivity continued into the season and at the midway point he paid somewhere approaching £1 m to sign Yanic Wildschut on a permanent contract. The Dutchman and Grigg proved to be crucial signings as Caldwell’s team won the division title.

Sharpe made efforts to keep the bouyant feeling obtained by winning League 1 by offering season tickets at levels well below the market rate. In the meantime Gary Caldwell started to bring in many more new players than he had previously predicted. The manager clearly did not believe the squad was good enough to survive in the Championship after all. There was no £1 m signing this time around, but ex-players Jordi Gomez and Nick Powell were brought in as marquee players on relatively high salaries.

Caldwell’s team had a poor pre-season and his tactics in the early league games were conservative. The manager had reportedly wanted Callum Patterson from Hearts to solve the problematic right back position, but Wigan’s bids had fallen far short of the Scottish club’s valuation. Midfield player Conor Hourihane of Barnsley was also apparently on Caldwell’s wanted list but nothing resulted. The woeful decision by Sharpe to replace Caldwell with Warren Joyce was to ultimately lead a demoralised squad to relegation. The possession football we had seen under Caldwell evolved into “fightball” under the ultra-defensive Joyce.

According to the Premier League website Wigan Athletic received £16,298,146 in parachute payments last season. Transfer fees paid out in summer 2016 were relatively modest. In January they jettisoned two of the highest wage earners in Jordi Gomez and Adam Le Fondre. Speedy winger Nathan Byrne was sent on loan to Charlton. The sale of Yanic Wildschut to Norwich was reputed to be in excess of £7 m including add-ons. It was rumoured that the wage bill at the start of the season was around £17 m. Joyce himself remarked on how he had reduced that wage bill by the January comings and goings. But the end-result on the field of play was the loss of a proven goal scoring centre forward, a creative midfielder who had previously proved himself to be a top Championship player and two wide players with searing pace. Some fans at the time had remarked that it looked like Latics were planning for relegation even in January.

After his disastrous appointment of Joyce, Sharpe wisely took his time in searching for the right man for the coming season. Paul Cook has a fine managerial record and his teams play the kind of good football that went out of the window under Joyce. However, after the initial hype of Cook’s appointment, including the angry reactions of Portsmouth fans, it has been surprising that we have not seen much of the new manager in the media since then. When Cook was appointed, Sharpe had said that “The squad is in very good shape; it doesn’t need major surgery but he may want to do a few bits if a couple of players leave but the core of it is very good and that was a big attraction to him.”

Since Cook’s appointment a couple of players have already left. Matt Gilks went to Scunthorpe who were able to offer him the kind of contract that Latics were unable or unwilling to provide. Jake Buxton was a rock in defence last season, but has already left the club by mutual consent.

The departures of Gilks and Buxton can be seen as indications of the club lowering its budget, which it clearly needs to do, given its huge potential loss in revenues. Despite what the chairman is saying it would be a surprise if only two more of the present squad leave before the season starts on August 5th.

The question is how Sharpe is going to use the remainder of the substantial revenues that came in last season? Will they be used to service the club’s debt? Or is he really planning to keep all of last season’s squad that remain, bar two?

At this stage there is not the level of optimism among the fans that one would expect with  a new manager coming in who has an impressive track record. The loss of parachute payments weighs heavily in our minds. Will Cook receive the level of financial and personal support from the chairman that is needed to get Latics back to the Championship?

Sharpe’s gesture in offering an extended contract to Jordan Flores is certainly good PR and we can only hope that it is a sign that home-grown talent will be given a better chance to succeed than we have seen in recent years. However, the chairman needs to enunciate his broader strategy.

What is his vision of what he wants for the current season and how he will achieve it? If he were to say that it was to be a period of austerity for the club, with any profits from last season used to pay off debts, few could argue with him if he is looking at the club’s long-term sustainability. If he were to say that he will have to make major cuts in the squad since the club needs to cut its cloth according to projected revenues, then once more it would be hard to argue against.

David Sharpe has a difficult task ahead of him. Like all of us he has made some good decisions and some bad ones. Perhaps his most redeeming quality as Wigan Athletic chairman is that he considers himself a fan, first and foremost. Moreover he is eloquent and very comfortable with the media.

The coming season will be the acid test for the young chairman. Should he take a gamble and back the new manager with a war chest to get the club back to the Championship? Or should he look at financial consolidation and future sustainability?

Without the parachute payments the feel-good factor has dropped alarmingly. How will the chairman deal with it?

 

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Seeking a balance in midfield

A more balanced midfield with Paul Cook in charge?

“So close to a famous win, absolutely devastated. Atmosphere was incredible.

So tweeted James McArthur after Harry Kane’s late equaliser had robbed them of victory in a game they did not really deserve to win.

He had come on as a substitute at the beginning of the second half in the cauldron that Hampden Park so often can be. In the eyes of an admittedly biased Wigan Athletic fan he should have been on from the start, but James Morrison and Scott Brown were chosen instead.

But seeing McArthur brought back memories of his partnership with James McCarthy. Both were signed from a modest club in Hamilton Academical, seemingly “players for the future”. But what a future it proved to be for them at Wigan as the pair became the engine room of the club’s greatest ever successes. Pitched up against the likes of Gerrard, Lampard and Scholes they held their own, famous victories over England’s richest and most powerful clubs resulting.

Roberto Martinez had developed what was loosely called a 3-4-3 system. McArthur and McCarthy supplied the energy and vision from the centre of midfield, with the excellent wing backs Emmerson Boyce and Jean Beausejour providing the width. One of the front three, Shaun Maloney or Jordi Gomez, would drop back to reinforce midfield and add to the creativity. The end result was a balanced midfield, capable of challenging the best in the land.

It is more than three years now since McArthur left Wigan, McCarthy having gone a year earlier. Since then Latics have had a plethora of midfield players pass through the club. The Macs had played together for three years, developing a mutual understanding, covering for each other when it was needed.

But last season that kind of understanding was sadly lacking, players too often being unable to find their teammates with their passes. Midfield players who had been key in winning League 1 the previous season had clearly found the step up to the Championship a tough one. Perhaps Gary Caldwell had realised that the midfielders of the title winning team might struggle in the higher division. He brought in reinforcements in Shaun MacDonald, Alex Gilbey and Nick Powell, but the latter two were to be stricken by injury. MacDonald had been a box to box midfielder at Bournemouth, but Caldwell was to use him in a “Busquets role” in front of the back four. He had used Sam Morsy in that role in the previous season, but the player had been dispatched off to Barnsley on loan.

MacDonald went on to become a rock in front of the defence, also being favoured by Warren Joyce when he arrived in November. Although he would rarely show the range of passing that we had seen from Morsy, MacDonald was equally firm in the tackle and his reading of the game. Moreover he was strong in the air. Sadly his horrendous injury at Reading is likely to rule him out for the large part of the coming season.

As part of his return from Barnsley, Morsy had been offered an improved contract with Joyce being keen to get him back. With MacDonald anchoring at the back, Morsy was pushed forward into a more creative role where he initially seemed to thrive. However, Joyce’s obsession with 4-5-1 was to mean that any midfielder’s role was to be primarily defensive. Like the other midfielders, Morsy just did not look as effective as he had earlier. The midfield was to shoulder the bulk of the frustration of fans wanting to see them push further forward to support the lone centre forward. The lack of creativity was to be exacerbated as Joyce was to play four central midfielders in his starting line-up, a tactic that was also to be followed by Graham Barrow when he took over as caretaker manager.

Latics fans will be hoping for a more positive approach from new manager Paul Cook. Cook’s preferred formation appears to be 4-2-3-1, so it is unlikely he will use someone in the anchor role occupied by MacDonald. David Perkins has been given a new short term contract, although he is now 35. However, Perkins was the Player of the Year in League 1 in 2015-16 and his infectious enthusiasm was a key element in the team’s success. Max Power was the subject of an offer by Birmingham City in January. Although he had a disappointing season he remains a young player with good technique who might well benefit from a move. Morsy has already proved himself in League 1 and would surely be in contention for a place, but his increased salary might prove too much for Latics to swallow, given their much decreasing revenues. It would be no surprise if both Power and Morsy were sold over the summer.

Cook already has players who can form the trio behind the centre forward. He has those who can play wide in Michael Jacobs and Nathan Byrne, plus “number 10s” in Jack Byrne, Alex Gilbey, Josh Laurent and Nick Powell. Nathan Byrne has genuine pace, making Joyce’s decision to send him on loan to Charlton difficult to understand. With both Wildschut and Byrne leaving his side was distinctly short of pace. Rumour suggests that Byrne had a falling out with the manager and was dispatched as a result. It could be that the player has already burnt his bridges at Wigan and will be gone over summer, but he has a fine record in League 1 and could be an important player, if he were to stay. Salary could also be an issue.

For the moment Latics are short on holding midfielders and Cook will be looking at bringing in at least a couple more. He will also look for more wide players. Jordan Flores can play wide on the left of midfield, but there is still no news of him signing a new contract.

Finding the right balance in midfield will be of paramount importance to Paul Cook if he is to build a squad good enough to get the club back to the Championship division. Continuity is something that has been so lacking at Wigan over the past three seasons. Ideally Cook will put together a midfield not only to get the club out of League 1, but also one which can serve the club more long-term as did the “Macs” in the Martinez era.

 

 

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Is it Caldwell’s fault?

blame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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The problem on the right

A rest from right back duties for David Perkins?

A rest from right back duties for David Perkins?

It is now sixteen months since Emmerson Boyce left Wigan Athletic under acrimonious circumstances. Boyce had been at the heart of most of the club’s greatest achievements and was much loved by the fans. It was never going to be an easy parting of ways.

When news broke out about Boyce’s departure in May 2015 there was consternation among his supporters, many of whom felt the club could have done more to keep him. There were myriad arguments for and against the club in the Boyce debate. But although the issues revolved largely around loyalty towards a player who had become a club legend, there were also those who questioned whether Latics could get a player who was any better to replace him.

Boyce was signed by Paul Jewell in August 2006. He went on to stay for nine seasons, his versatility in being able to play in the centre of defence or on the right being a real asset. Although in his early years at the club he was not the most technically proficient, he had a will to win that endeared him to the fans. When playing at right back Boyce had not been the most fleet footed or the best of distributors, but it was all to change when Roberto Martinez switched to 3-4-3 in November 2012. At the beginning Boyce looked uncomfortable in the right wing back position, but by the end of the season he had played his part in Wigan’s epic victories over the highs and mighties of the Premier League. Boyce had become the archetypal wing back, constantly available to receive the ball, helping stretch the play wide, thoughtful in his distribution and solid in defence.

Wing back is a specialist position, not easy to adapt to for someone used to playing right back in a quartet. Martinez and the coaches had worked with Boyce and he had mastered the position with aplomb. In January 2015 Martinez had brought in Jean Beausejour to play the left wing back role in which he had been utilized by his national team, Chile. The two smooth functioning wing backs were key cogs in Martinez’s machine.

Since Boyce’s departure no one has been able to claim the right back/wing back position as their own. In the first half of last season we saw glimpses of Kevin McNaughton, Jonjoe Kenny and Donald Love, with Tim Chow sometimes filling in. Donervon Daniels also played there when not playing in the centre of defence. Reece Wabara was signed in January and made 20 appearances without being totally convincing. He left in the summer after he and the club were unable to agree terms.

The turnover has continued this season. So far we have seen Luke Burke, Reece Burke, Nathan Byrne, Alex Gilbey, David Perkins, Max Power and Yanic Wildschut play there. Loanee Kyle Knoyle has not yet appeared after getting injured in the pre-season.

Were those who thought Boyce would be hard to replace right? Could Boyce have played a major role last season if he had stayed?

In fact Boyce went to Blackpool where he made just 17 starts last season. The reality was that he was 35 years old when he went there, with his best years behind him. Moreover after Martinez’s departure the player had, more often than not, found himself being played more as an orthodox right back or central defender. His halcyon days as a Premier League wing back were over.

Like Martinez, Gary Caldwell is a major proponent of the back three/wing back type of formation. But since taking over as manager he has rarely had the luxury of seeing two wing backs make a major impact in the same game. Moreover some of the players who have occupied the positions have not looked entirely comfortable with their roles.

Caldwell’s main preferred formations can be described as variations on 3-5-2 and 4-3-3. To be able to switch between the systems he would ideally have players with a bank of prior experience playing as both wing back and full back. But with most of his signings coming from English clubs it was going to be more likely he would get players used to playing as orthodox full backs, having to coach them into playing the differing wing back role.

Near the end of the transfer window Caldwell tried to sign attacking right full back Callum Paterson from Hearts, with an expectation of him playing either role. However, the deal never materialized and instead Caldwell signed Nathan Byrne from Wolves.

The complication is that Byrne is essentially a wing back or winger. So Caldwell faces the choice of sometimes playing Byrne as an orthodox right back or bringing in someone else for the position when he wants his team to play with four at the back. When fit, Knoyle could challenge for a place, although he probably lacks the experience to make the position his own.

Reece Burke is expected to return from injury shortly and can play right back, although he is primarily a central defender. The 18 year old Luke Burke knows both the wing back and full back roles through his time in the development squad, but Caldwell seems reluctant to rely on him as a regular alternative. When fit again Donervon Daniels will also challenge for a place on the right of defence.

It is possible that Caldwell will seek an experienced right back/wing back in the January transfer window. But budgetary constraints might well preclude that option.

Many fans prefer to see Latics play with an orthodox back four, citing greater defensive stability. However, in the latter days of the Martinez era at Wigan it could be argued that playing with three central defenders and two wing backs provided more defensive solidity than we had seen with a  back four.

But it does not necessarily work like that under Caldwell’s system. Is it that Caldwell just has not yet found the quality of wing backs he needs? Or is it that he sees them in a more attacking role than Martinez did?

The right side of defence has been one of Caldwell’s biggest headaches so far in his brief managerial career. At this stage it looks like Byrne will be his first choice right wing back, when fully fit. But who would be his preference at right back remains to be seen.

A turning point at Carrow Road

Will the display at Carrow Road be the turning point for the season?

Will the display at Carrow Road be the turning point for the season?

I was looking forward to a pleasant visit. Norwich is a delightful city, having a centre with beautiful old buildings, remains of its medieval times and an impressive modern riverside development. On late Tuesday afternoon it was awash with supporters wearing the yellow and green of its local football club.

The visit to the city, and the fen areas surrounding it, was clearly something to look forward to. But the trip to Carrow Road was cause for trepidation. The Norwich team was going to be laden with ex-Premier League players, backed by a big partisan crowd. It was a Wigan team in transition, with so many new faces taking time to adjust to Gary Caldwell’s way of playing, its displays being littered with defensive errors. The portents were ominous.

When the results don’t come a football manager will always get flak from fans.

Vitriol was already flowing from the keyboard warriors on the social media prior to this game. Opinions were voiced in no uncertain terms. Caldwell had brought in too many new players, many of whom were no better than those of the League 1 title winning team. His team selections had left much to be desired and he had been out thought by opposition managers, particularly in his use of substitutes. There had been little defensive continuity and it showed. The defence was porous, with a lack of protection from midfield making things worse. The midfield or attacking players Caldwell had used in the problematic right wing back position had looked ill at ease. The 18 year old Luke Burke had done well when given the chance, so why was he not chosen for the position? Moreover Nathan Byrne had been signed to play there, but had not even made the bench at Sheffield. Why was the manager sticking to a 3-5-2 system that was clearly not working? Would he continue to stubbornly stand by it?

After going two goals behind in the first ten minutes things were looking bleak. Another defensive error had led to the softest of goals after just two minutes. The defence looked very suspect. The locals were baying for a 5 or 6 goal haul. Was it going to be one of those low points, a Championship equivalent to that horrendous 9-1 defeat at Tottenham in the Premier League? Or did this new Latics team have the character to fight back?

But Caldwell had changed the team’s shape from the start, opting for 4-3-3. Young loan signing Reece Burke and Stephen Warnock had been moved over to orthodox full back positions, with Dan Burn and Jake Buxton at centre half. Jordi Gomez was back, forming a midfield trio with Shaun MacDonald and Max Power. Yanic Wildschut had been left on the bench, with Alex Gilbey and Michael Jacobs on the wings, Will Grigg at centre forward.  Seven out of the starting lineup were new this season.

Caldwell is nothing if not brave.  Despite poor results he has continued to insist that his team build up from the back, even when things have gone awry. Some will blame Adam Bogdan for his lack of concentration in not looking to his right when Jacob Murphy took the ball from his feet, catching him unawares. Others put more blame the manager for putting the goalkeeper into a role where quick footedness is as important an ability as it is to catch the ball. But despite being on a hammering to nothing Latics continued to build from the back.

As the game progressed they got better and better and could have snatched at least a point in the closing minutes. This time Caldwell got his substitutions right. Despite taking off midfield anchorman MacDonald and bringing on Wildschut the midfield became dominant as the back four pushed further forward. When Byrne came on for Burke most of us expected him to play at right back, but Gilbey was moved there with Byrne playing as a right winger. But the result was Byrne and Wildschut adding much needed pace to the Latics attack.

Whether the players brought in are better than those who were already at the club is up for debate. Would the presence of the departed Sam Morsy and Jason Pearce have provided more defensive security? Only time will tell if Caldwell made the right decision in bringing in 14 new players.

Last season showed us that new players at Wigan need time, not only to settle into the club and to get to know their teammates on and off the field, but also to learn to play the “Caldwell Way”. Moreover so many of the new signings, despite previous records of success in the Championship or above, arrived short of first team experience over the previous season. Nick Powell had not made a league start in two seasons, Shaun MacDonald made none last season for Bournemouth, Jake Buxton none for Derby. Adam Bogdan made just two  for Liverpool, Jordi Gomez only five for Sunderland. Both Adam Le Fondre and Nathan Byrne made ten league appearances for Wolves last season.

For those players it is not only a matter of adapting to new teammates and a demanding style of play, but also for them to gain the match fitness and the sharpness that cannot have been aided by their lack of playing time.

The display at Norwich might well prove to be the turning point in a season of transition. There were signs in that second half that Latics are enjoying the style of play the manager demands. Moreover they showed real fighting spirit with their backs against the wall.

Caldwell has had a difficult time back in the Championship division.  Injuries have deprived him of important players and errors of individual players have punished him. However, the Scot is not easily deterred and has that same kind of belief that Roberto Martinez possessed in the abilities of his players and in his style of play.

So often things get worse before they get better. That was the case at Carrow Road. But although the performance there might ultimately prove to be a turning point there are going to be lots of ups and downs over the coming months.

It has been a frustrating time for us as fans up to this point. Even those most who are the most supportive of Caldwell are likely to admit that he has made mistakes this season. However, he must learn from them.

Players need to be played in their most suited positions and the manager needs to show the level of tactical awareness we saw last season. The right back/wing back position is likely to be resolved by playing either Reece Burke or Luke Burke in an orthodox back four, with Byrne being used as a wing back or winger.

Alex Gilbey was a central midfielder at Colchester, but has been pushed further forward by Caldwell. At times he has looked comfortable in a wide attacking midfield role. But to play him on the right wing in a 4-3-3 formation and to leave Yanic Wildschut on the bench was not a successful ploy. Gilbey is neither winger nor full back. He is a talented young central midfielder with a lot to offer.

Caldwell has some difficult decisions to make regarding the centre of defence. Craig Morgan has been out of contention due to injury, but was close to leaving the club during the transfer window. It remains to be seen how much he is in the manager’s plans. Dan Burn was dropped after his gaffe at Bristol and played quite well at Norwich. At his best, Burn forms a solid physical presence in the back four, but is the manager going to keep faith in a player who has a tendency to switch off at times?

Jake Buxton has been brought in on a three year contract at the age of 31, a clear indication that Caldwell sees him as a key defender. Stephen Warnock has often been pushed into a back line of three, although lacking height and physique for such a role. Caldwell will have high hopes for Reece Burke in the centre of defence. Despite his tender age is Burke going to be a key player this season?

A settled defence, with a midfield that provides due protection, is something that Caldwell will surely be looking to put in place. In the meantime, despite the poor results, his players have shown the resilience to fight back under adverse conditions.

Such qualities will be needed to rise out of the relegation zone over the coming months.