Concentrating on the League

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“I was thinking to myself: last minute, against my old club, this is going to drop for me, I’m going to put them out. It was just one of those things. The ball’s ended up going a couple of yards behind me. It wasn’t meant to be, and we just have to get on with it.”

So said Craig Davies to Wigan Today.

There is an old saying in football that it is results that count. If that pass had reached Davies and he had put the ball in the back of the net then Wigan Athletic would almost certainly have reached the northern final of the Football League Trophy. The result would have overshadowed the poor performance.

In fact results have overshadowed poor performances on various occasions this season, as Gary Caldwell’s sides have battled back in the closing minutes to put things right. Last gasp winning goals from Jordy Hiwula at Chesterfield and Francisco Junior at home to Swindon, together with Will Grigg’s late equaliser at home to Millwall, added an extra five points to Latics ’tally. Without them Wigan Athletic would not be in the playoff zone now.

It had looked like another last gasp winner was coming against Barnsley, but sadly this time it did not.

Gary Caldwell was said to be “hugely disappointed” with his team’s exit from the competition.  A home game against League 1’s bottom club had looked like the passport to the Northern Final of the competition.  We had been looking forward to visiting Wembley once again. But hopes were dashed after the manager had struggled to muster five players to take the spot kicks. Barnsley had won a League Cup match against Scunthorpe through a penalty shootout, 7-6 in their favour. They were to go on to show enough confidence to do it again.

The disappointment of the defeat, of which even Caldwell himself admitted that Barnsley had merited their win, has been hard for fans to take. As always, the blame for such a poor performance falls on the manager’s shoulders. The social media and message boards are once more bristling with criticisms of Caldwell’s style of play and team selections. But one or two brave souls continue to sticks their necks out by suggesting that it is the players who are to blame for displays like that. Caldwell himself even went as far as to say that “If I was a player that played today, I’d be very worried about my place.”

As with the previous performances against Shrewsbury, Burton Albion and Southend United so many of Caldwell’s key players had not played up to expectations. The lack of form of Michael Jacobs and David Perkins has been particularly worrying, although it was always going to be hard for the two of them to keep up the high standards of performance they had maintained prior to the arrival of seasonably bad weather.

Recent matches have been played in particularly difficult conditions, which are hardly conducive to the style of football that Caldwell seeks. In such conditions against League 1 opposition, Latics will need to play with a more direct approach, as they did at Southend. There was no lack of effort or fight from the players on that occasion and they were able to grind out a 0-0 draw that could easily have turned into a victory if one of Leon Barnett’s three fine efforts had gone in. But the first half ploy of launching long balls to the twin strikers, Grigg and Revell, just did not work. It was only when Craig Davies had come on in the final quarter that the long balls started to work more effectively.

Sometimes a player’s arrival in a team can correspond to a change in fortunes. This has certainly been the case for Caldwell’s team.

Both Yanic Wildschut and Jussi Jaaskelainen made their debuts against Walsall in early October. Many fans would say that their arrival in the lineup was instrumental in Latics extending an unbeaten run of three into eleven.

Wildschut had come on as a substitute in the 46th minute. He followed up with a man of the match performance at Crewe, scoring a spectacular goal. The Dutchman went on to terrorise opposition defences for the next month. He still retains that capacity, although the opposing teams are now wise to his threat and are finding ways to deal with him, sometimes legally, sometimes not.

Given the player’s explosive style, Caldwell has used Wildschut carefully, often taking him off around the two thirds mark. The manager had talked during the week about the physical demands on Wildschut’s body, arising from his style of play. He chose to leave the big winger on the bench on Saturday, bringing him on after half time. Wildschut’s loan period from Middlesbrough ends on January 2nd. The player has added so much more of a goal threat to the attack that Caldwell will be desperate to fix up a deal with the north eastern club come January.

Boro manager Aitor Karanka apparently does not include Wildschut in his future plans. Wildschut does not meet his tactical plans, not least by his unwillingness to track back and help out his full back. It is not only Wildschut’s lack of defensive awareness that has impeded his career in the past, but an inability to lift his head and be aware of the situation around him. Wildschut continues to frustrate, but has not only scored three good goals, but also made a similar number of excellent assists. He is invaluable to the Wigan Athletic attack.

Jaaskelainen has impressed in his ability to dominate his box and to marshal his defence. He adds calmness to the defence through his experience and knowledge of the game. The other goalkeeper, Richard O’Donnell lost his place primarily because of his lack of forcefulness in his own box. He will clearly need to work on improving this aspect of his game. In early season O’Donnell was too often faced with dealing with awful back passes from defenders passing the buck to him and putting him under pressure. Following an uncharacteristically bad mistake at Bury, O’Donnell’s confidence is probably at a low. But he had an excellent record at this level with Walsall and was rated as one of the division’s top keepers.

Jaaskelainen exudes confidence through his pedigree as a top Premier League goalkeeper over many seasons. However, at 40, his reactions are not as quick as they were. At least some of the goals he has allowed would most likely have been saved by O’Donnell.

Alex Revell’s arrival met with instant success in his first two games, but less than that in his next three. Revell started on the right of an advanced midfield in the 4-2-3-1 system that Caldwell used at the start of the 2-0 away win at Rochdale. Then Revell scored a well-taken goal in a target man role with a header in the 1-0 win over Shrewsbury. But he was unable to impress in the confrontations with Burton, Southend and Barnsley. At 6 ft 3 in Revell is comfortable in the target man role, but his career record shows he has never been a consistent goal scorer. Fans continue to be puzzled why Revell gets the nod ahead of Davies in the starting lineup.

But perhaps Caldwell’s ploy of playing Will Grigg and Revell together was not such a bad one. The bright spot of the Barnsley game was seeing Grigg put away two goals in the manner of a true goal poacher. After the game the player admitted that he had not played particularly well, but it is goals that win matches and Grigg is the most likely to score them for Wigan Athletic. Although he scored a bagful of goals playing as a lone striker for MK Dons last season, Grigg would surely thrive playing alongside a big target man whose physical presence can draw away defenders and create space for him. The question is whether it should be Revell or Davies in the target man role.

Caldwell took a gamble on playing the left footed Andy Kellett at right wing back against Barnsley, which probably did not come off as much as he would have liked. The absence of both Donervon Daniels and Donald Love had forced his hand to some degree, although he could have called on Tom Chow. The renewal of Love’s loan period for another month will help Caldwell provide cover for that right back position, provided the young player can stay fit. Bringing in a raw young player on loan to a side seeking promotion is always going to draw criticism from fans, but Caldwell clearly rates the Rochdale-born lad highly.

In fact Love’s current loan spell will come to a conclusion four days after the transfer window opens on January 3rd. By then Caldwell will have decided whether he wants to negotiate with Manchester United on making Love a permanent signing or to seek another extension of the loan period. He will have to make similar decisions for Junior and Shaun Murray, both talented midfield players, but who have not shown enough to merit a regular place in the side up to this point. Revell’s permanence at Wigan will to a large degree depend on whether Grant Holt will be returning from his loan spell at Wolves, which ends on January 2nd. Caldwell has already voiced his enthusiasm to keep Wildschut, whose loan period also runs out on January. Wildschut might not be the finished product, but appears indispensable to Wigan’s promotion push.

Securing Wildschut on a permanent contract is going to depend largely on David Sharpe’s willingness to pay Middlesbrough the fee they will seek. This in turn might well depend on possible outgoings from Wigan. Economics could well dictate the departures of players on Championship level salaries, whose contracts expire at the end of the season. Latics might well seek small transfer fees in some cases, but the main concern is that of reducing the monthly wage bill. Leon Barnett, Don Cowie and Chris McCann are in that position.

Getting knocked out of three cup competitions has hardly been pleasing for the fans. The awful FA Cup exit at Bury was followed by dreams of Wembley being quashed by League 1’s bottom club. But for Caldwell, in his quest for promotion back to the Championship, it could turn out to be a blessing in disguise.  His players will be focused on one thing only – the league.

Latics currently lie 5th in the table, five points behind an automatic promotion place. This is despite the team rarely clicking on all cylinders. But, cup competitions apart, results have been remarkably good for a squad with 21 new players.  The home tie with Sheffield United on Boxing Day will be the 23rd league game, the half way point of the season.  If the team can overcome its recent jitters there is a strong possibility that Latics will be within close striking distance of an automatic promotion place by New Year.

As the season has progressed Caldwell’s players have gradually started to gel as a working unit. However, up to this moment in time the whole has not equaled the sum of its parts. A major concern for Caldwell will be the possibility of further turnover of playing staff in January. Will the economic side of things at the club be in his favour or against him?

Caldwell needs continuity in terms of his playing staff, not more wholesale changes which will further slowdown the gelling process. It could be argued that he would be wise to stick with what he already has, although quite a bit of that is beyond his control.

It remains early days in the “new era” at Wigan Athletic. The January transfer window is another hurdle to be crossed.

Caldwell, Sharpe and their recruitment team did so well in the last transfer window. The question is whether they can make the right decisions in January.

Promotion will largely depend on what happens.

Seeking team synergy

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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.