Latics again in a state of flux

Warren Joyce’s first game in charge of Wigan Athletic coincided with the worst performance of the season. In fact some fans are even comparing the display with those we would too often see in the Malky Mackay era, when a demoralised and mediocre squad was not able to avoid relegation.

But comparisons with the Mackay era are groundless at this moment in time. A new manager has come in to take over a squad that had not been accumulating the points needed to keep the club away from the Championship relegation zone. When a new manager comes in results so often take an upturn, but with difficult away games following at Barnsley and Huddersfield it is going to be a hard task for Joyce.

Opening match performances for new managers can be deceptive. Indeed Mackay started with a promising 1-1 home draw with Middlesbrough when Latics performed with spirit and played good football in spells. It was not to continue with them losing their next four matches. By the end of January five of the players who had started against Boro had left the club. Latics were in turmoil with so many quality players leaving in that transfer window, being replaced largely by journeymen and young loanees.

The turmoil continues at the club. It has now had five managers in the past three years, a far cry from the longevity of six years with Paul Jewell and four with Roberto Martinez. Although Latics had returned to the Championship with the momentum of winning League 1 only three players in the starting line up on Saturday – Michael Jacobs, David Perkins and Max Power – were at the club precisely a year ago. Moreover chairman David Sharpe had spoken of Gary Caldwell being at the club long-term, but the young manager only lasted 18 months.

The stats suggest that successful teams are built upon stability rather than turnover. Last season when Leicester City won the Premier League there were 10 players who started in at least 30 of the 38 games in the season.  Kasper Schmeichel and Wes Morgan started in all 38, Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy in 36. During the course of the season 20 different players started for Leicester, a figure which is relatively low but bears little comparison to the 14 starters used by  Aston Villa to win the first tier in 1980-81 and the 16 employed by Nottingham Forest three seasons earlier.

But Gary Caldwell used 34 players last season. Caldwell’s team was in a constant state of flux, but he still went on to win the League 1 title after a difficult start when the players took time to gel. He was to continue in the same vein, recruiting 14 new recruits over the summer.  But this time it was to be his undoing.

Instead of retaining the momentum of the team that had won the third tier he ripped out the core and started from scratch in key positions. The effective centre back partnership of Morgan and Pearce was superseded by Burn and Buxton, the excellent distribution and the authority of Jaaskelainen was replaced by a more agile, if less authoritative, Bogdan. In midfield the combative, but skilful, Morsy was replaced by the steady, conservative MacDonald. The right back position remains problematic, with nobody at this point impressing any more than Wabara did previously. The club’s most valuable asset, Will Grigg, has found himself too often on the bench, despite his good start to the season. One wonders if the centre forward will still be at Wigan by the end of the January transfer window.

Caldwell’s new players clearly needed more time to gel in such a competitive environment as the Championship. The manager made mistakes, but the decision to dismiss him once more puts the club in a state of flux. It could be one that the chairman will later regret.

When new managers take over at football clubs they invariably look at bringing in people they have worked with before. When Caldwell was dismissed the goalkeeping coach, Mike Pollitt, and chief scout Malcolm Crosby were also relieved of their positions. Further changes in the coaching and backroom staff look on the cards.

Indeed the rumours today suggest that Jimmy Ryan and Paul McGuinness, long term employees of the Manchester United coaching and backroom staff, could be joining Latics. But given that Ryan is now 71 years old and has been retired for the past four years one ponders on the veracity of the reports. On the playing front rumours suggest that Joyce is interested in winger Cameron Stewart, a free agent. Stewart started his career at Old Trafford, but his promising career has been punctuated by injury. Although still only 25 he has played at 11 clubs.

The state of flux at Wigan Athletic is therefore likely to continue as the new manager brings in his own coaching and backroom staff over the coming weeks. The January transfer window will then allow him the opportunity to bring in his own players, with the seemingly inevitable departure of some of the current squad.

Joyce’s preferred playing formation could well be the 4-2-3-1 which is becoming increasingly prevalent in English football. The line up on Saturday was conservative to say the least, with David Perkins playing wide on the right.  The manager hinted that he had had some help picking the team, but he picked a left footed midfield player on the right wing, who is not known for cutting inside and shooting. David Perkins remains an important figure at the club, but needs to be played in a position where he can be more effective. The preference of Adam Le Fondre over Will Grigg was another one open to debate.

The manager has got off to an underwhelming start at the club, but like Gary Caldwell, he will need time. His teams at Manchester United were known for their attractive football and it is to be hoped that he will continue in that style at Wigan, in contrast to his predecessors Owen Coyle and Malky Mackay. He has inherited a squad containing promising young players and others who are rebuilding their careers after difficult times of late.

It will be interesting to see if Joyce will restore Craig Morgan back to play a leading role as he did last season. It was sad to see the Welshman stripped of the captaincy and almost bundled off to Sheffield United as the deadline approached for the summer transfer window. That, plus the controversial departure of Jason Pearce and the banishment of Sam Morsy on loan to Barnsley must surely have caused some discord within the camp.

It is to be hoped that the chairman has learned from the lessons of the January transfer window of a couple of years ago, when the family silver was sold off for a pittance, resulting in relegation. It could be argued that the players who left the club then were of higher profile than those currently at the club, but Joyce and Sharpe must beware of ripping the heart out of the team as happened then.

The state of flux is going to continue for some time yet. In the meantime we will hope to see a pattern in what the new manager is trying to create, that the club does have genuine direction and that the constant toing and froing of players will abate.

There are going to be some tough months ahead. A more immediate target for the manager will be to lift the club clear of the relegation zone by the end of the calendar year. There are eight games coming up in that time.

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Holgerrson to stay?

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Markus Holgerrson is one of several Latics players whose contracts expire this summer.

The big Swede, Markus Holgerrson, at last made his debut for Wigan Athletic, albeit coming on at Blackburn as a substitute after 72 minutes.

Holgerrson was signed as a free agent from New York Red Bulls in early February, with glowing references. His contract is until the end of the current season, which is impending.

Uwe Rosler took a gamble at Blackburn by surprisingly playing Ivan Ramis in a central back line of three. The Spaniard came off at half time, to be substituted by Leon Barnett. Knowing that Ramis could be a key player in the playoffs, Rosler took the gamble of playing him despite the risk of it being too early following the hamstring injury from which he has been recuperating. Only time will tell if Rosler was right to put Ramis in there. A fit Ramis could make a big difference to the promotion push. But will he make it?

At this stage Holgerrson’s future at Wigan is uncertain. Rosler has been able to assess him in training, in the development squad and in about 20 minutes of competitive league play.

Were Holgerrson not to be offered a further contract it would not be a surprise following previous occurrences at the club. At the beginning of last season Roberto Martinez brought in two young players from Spain who had represented their country at youth and schoolboy levels. Eduard Campabadal was an exciting young right back from Barcelona who had put in good performances for the development squad. Martinez gave him his league debut in the last match of the season against Aston Villa and he did not play badly. However, for some unstated reason the 20 year old left the club over the summer and is now back in Spain playing for Cordoba. The other young prospect, forward Guillermo Andres, signed from Villareal, remains in the development squad.

The fate of Nouha Dicko does not bode well for Holgersson and others struggling to get frontline experience. As has happened with other young players at Wigan, Dicko was never given a run of games in which to establish himself. Under Roberto Martinez he went to Blackpool on loan and played well, scoring 9 goals in 32 appearances. Owen Coyle’s arrival saw him shipped off to Rotherham where he once again gave a good account of himself and scored 5 goals in 5 appearances. Despite never giving him a chance in the first choice lineup, in January Uwe Rosler sold him to Wolves where he since has scored 13 goals in 19 appearances. Given Latics’ lack of a forward who can regularly score goals the Dicko transfer was hard to fathom.

The dearth of first team opportunities for young players in particular has been a sore point at Wigan for some time. Callum McManaman had to wait so long to get his chance, as did Lee Nicholls. Their contemporaries Danny Redmond and Jordan Mustoe still have not started in a single league match despite being 23 years old and successfully negotiating Latics’ youth system and the development squad. They still remain on Latics’ books.

During his tenure at Wigan, Roberto Martinez was loath to blood young players from within the club in league games. More surprisingly Martinez gave young midfielder Fraser Fyvie little opportunity outside cup games to prove his worth. Fyvie was certainly no raw recruit, having made more than 50 appearances for Aberdeen in the SPL up to the age of 20, when he joined Latics. The current season has been a disaster for the skilful midfielder with injuries and unfortunate loan spells at Yeovil and Shrewsbury taking their toll. He has now had three managers at Wigan who have not had the confidence to give him a further league start to add to the single one he received at the same time as Campabadal against Aston Villa.

Owen Coyle took Adam Buxton to the USA for pre-season, but the young defender soon disappeared from the limelight. Over recent months he has had loan spells at Burton Albion and Accrington Stanley .

The news came out today that Honduras coach, Luis Fernando Suarez, has named both Roger Espinoza and Juan Carlos Garcia in his squad of 23 players for Brazil. The Colombian has also included ex-Latics favourites Maynor Figueroa and Wilson Palacios. Given that Garcia has played only one senior game all season at Wigan, Suarez clearly has faith in the player’s abilities. It was a surprise that Rosler did not include Garcia in the squad for the Blackburn game on Saturday. The player still has two more years remaining on his contract.

Holgerrson is not alone in that he has a contract expiring in summer. He is joined by Jean Beausejour, Emmerson Boyce, Gary Caldwell, Stephen Crainey, Jordi Gomez and Mike Pollitt. Moreover the loan periods will expire for Jack Collison, Josh McEachran, Nicky Maynard and Nick Powell.

For the moment Rosler will be focusing on the playoffs, which will decide which division Latics play in next year. Should it be the Premier League he might well look at retaining some of those end of contract players who have proven experience at that level. Should it be the Championship, Rosler will look at bringing down both the average age and the salary costs of his squad.

It is going to be a very different Wigan Athletic squad we will see at the beginning of next season.

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Keep an eye out for… a look at Latics fringe players ahead of Swindon

Judging by his post-match comments earlier this week, Roberto is ready to give his first team a good week and a half of rest and relaxation. They did, after all, face the traditional top four in back-to-back matches, the most physical team in the Premier League away, and Sunderland in heavy rain and swirling winds. Two of those were played with 10 men, and at least one against 12, it could be argued.

All of which means we are likely to see a few of the younger players in the squad, and a few older faces that have been on the fringe of the squad this season. Here are some of the lads I’ll be looking out for tomorrow:

Callum McManaman: the 20-year-old is fresh from a successful loan spell at Blackpool, who judging by fan forums were sad to lose him. He scored a couple goals and looked quite confident. Scored for Latics almost exactly a year ago in last season’s FA Cup 3rd round, so he’ll be hoping to repeat the feat. It was cracker (40 secs in).

Nouha Dicko: Signed on the cheap from a club in financial trouble, just like Victor Moses, Dicko may well eventually be the man to replace him when Victor inevitably moves onward and upward. Lightning quick, the former Strasbourg man can play on the wing or as a striker, and has been the main attacking threat in the reserves for much of the season.

Shaun Maloney: When he joined towards the end of the summer transfer window, along with Albert Crusat and Patrick Van Aanholt (on loan), many felt he was Martinez’s biggest coup. One of the few players signed in the Martinez era with Premier League experience, Maloney is clever passer of the ball and dead ball specialist. He has, however, struggled with injuries down the years. This match should be a chance to assess his fitness levels.

Hendry Thomas: The Honduran hard man has been neither on the bench with the first team, or in the reserves regularly — and yet reports said he was due to have his contract renewed. The authors of this blog appreciate his no nonsense approach in midfield, it will be nice to see the old fella if he gets the call.

James McArthur: Almost certain to start, James has frequently featured for the first team in the last 10 minutes of Premier League matches, but hasn’t showed quite enough to jump Ben Watson, James McCarthy or Momo Diame in the pecking order. Probably one of the big reasons Hendry Thomas has fallen out of the reckoning, Martinez clearly has faith in the Scot. He’ll be looking forward to a full 90 minutes.

Emmerson Boyce: A favourite on this blog, Boycey is the ultimate professional, the most dependable player at the club. Unfortunately, he hasn’t featured since the away loss at Wolves, in which he skilfully earned the team a penalty. First, his young son was seriously ill, in hospital. And then he and his wife welcomed another baby into the family over the festive period. We understand his son’s health has improved — Latics fans will be grateful to see him back in the squad.

Michael Pollitt: Assuming Al-Habsi gets a rest, and the unfortunate Chris Kirkland has not recovered from his latest bout of injuries, it will be great to see Polly make an appearance. What an excellent professional, the only Latics players to have been with the club since their first Premier League season.