Caldwell’s Christmas Shopping List

shopping

Time is marching on and the January transfer window is creeping up on us.

Gary Caldwell has worked wonders so far in the transfer market, his dealings having kept Latics balance sheet out of the red. Moreover he has put together a squad strong enough to reach a playoff position by early November, despite their underperformance in the FA and League Cups.

Gaining promotion must be Caldwell’s main priority, despite the debacle at Bury on Saturday.  It was interesting to see that three of the four teams above Latics in the League 1 table – Gillingham, Burton Albion and Coventry City also suffered ignominious defeats in the FA Cup this past weekend.

Caldwell will go into the January market with limited funds available for transfers and will be constrained by the club’s salary policy. That will rule out higher profile signings Once again Caldwell will be looking out for bargain buys whose salary demands are realistic.

Latics currently stand in 5th place in League 1, only five points from the top two teams, Gillingham and Burton Albion. If they can continue in this vein they will be in a good position to mount a realistic promotion challenge. Moreover Caldwell has the chance to bring in new blood to cover the squad’s weaker areas through the transfer window.

By January the futures of short-term loanees Francisco Junior, Donald Love, Sean Murray and Yanic Wildschut will have been determined. Despite his talent Murray has yet to shine at Wigan and unless he can really force his way back into the team with some outstanding performances it looks like he will be returning to Watford. However, there are ten league fixtures on hand until Murray’s loan period is due to end in mid-January. Time remains for Murray to make an impression.

Junior remains inconsistent and his fitness a concern. At his best he can influence the course of a game, his positional and passing abilities adding an extra dimension to Latics’ play. But he has failed to establish himself as a regular starter and has been frequently substituted when he has started. Junior continues to adapt to the physicality of life in League 1. He can rush into rash challenges and can be outmuscled by bigger opponents. So many fans will be hoping Junior will stay. At his best he can look a class above League 1, but he has yet to fully convince Caldwell, and if even if he does there is the matter of dealing with Everton over his future.

Love is only 20 years old and is one for the future. He has the attributes to become a good full back, but like many young players at big clubs, his long-term chances at Manchester United are limited. Caldwell paid United around £1m for Reece James. Would he and David Sharpe be willing to fork out another significant transfer fee to land another Old Trafford youngster who has potential, but has little experience outside the youth and development squad levels?

Although his recent performances might have been less convincing Wildschut has made a great impression since arriving at Wigan on a two month loan from Middlesbrough. The Dutchman has had a frustrating career, seeming to promise so much but so often lacking vision in his delivery. However, his pace is electric and he has the physical presence to not easily be knocked off the ball. The other League 1 managers may seek to nullify his influence by assigning multiple markers but this will serve to create space for other Wigan players. The questions to be asked are whether Wildschut’s early form was a flash in the pan and whether Middlesbrough would be willing to release him. Caldwell will be keen to keep the player whose sheer pace and directness can cause panic in opposition defences.

So what are the areas that need strengthening?

Grant Holt’s departure on a short term loan to Wolves leaves Caldwell with just two target men to play up front, Craig Davies and Will Grigg. Should Holt’s time at Wolves not be extended Latics will look towards offloading his salary on another Championship side until his contract terminates in summer. Should Holt not return we can expect Caldwell to look for another front man in the January window.

Much will depend on decisions yet to be taken on the players who have come in on loan. However, there remains the possibility that Latics will continue their efforts in shedding players on Championship level salaries.

Chris McCann continues to command a place in the starting lineup and his ability to play in the back three or midfield allows Caldwell the possibility of changing his team’s shape during a game without making substitutions. The manager clearly likes to play McCann in the back three, where his distribution from the back adds an extra dimension. However, critics will say that the Irishman is not a natural defender and is not assertive enough within his own penalty area. Many would prefer to see Jason Pearce return to that position on the left in the back line trio. However, Pearce is another who signed a contract while Latics were in the Championship. Moreover he has not even featured on the bench recently. Leon Barnett is now back on the bench after regaining his place for a while.

The situation with loan players and those on higher salaries will surely be the subject of much review by Caldwell and his coaching staff over the next couple of months. However, Caldwell might want to consider bringing in a couple of players in the central defence and holding midfield who can add an extra touch of steel.

Given the style of play based on aerial bombardment favoured by so many League 1 teams a big, rugged central defender who is strong in the air would give Caldwell extra options. Someone of the ilk of Harry Maguire would seem to fit the bill. Moreover a combative holding midfielder who can be brought on when the going gets tough would also aid Latics’ cause. Perhaps someone who can perform the same kind of role that Graham Kavanagh fulfilled in Paul Jewell’s Championship promotion team?

January might well be another busy time for incomings and outgoings at Wigan Athletic.

 

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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.