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.

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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.

Rebuilding on free transfers

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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