One step forward and two steps back – Doncaster (H) match reaction

“There’s signs it’s coming together, then it’s maybe one step forward and two steps back.”

Gary Caldwell was right about that. In reality Latics were lucky to scrape a point out of a game that Doncaster dominated, even if they were denied what Caldwell called a “stonewall” penalty in the final minute of the match.

Despite the defeat in the midweek game against Bury there had been positive signs. The 4-3-3 formation had appeared to be one that the players were comfortable with. It seemed logical that Caldwell would build on that, continuing with that same formation, with largely the same players. It was not to be.

Caldwell made three changes. Jonjoe Kenny came in for Kevin McNaughton at right back and Chris McCann and Francisco Junior were brought in for Jordan Flores and Samni Odelusi. After playing 3-5-1-1 and 4-3-3 in the previous matches, Caldwell once again tinkered with his formation, packing it with midfield players. He started a back four, with David Perkins and Chris McCann sat in front of them and Max Power and Junior further forward in midfield. Will Grigg occupied his lone position as lone centre forward and Michael Jacobs was on the left wing.

Latics started poorly and the visitors spurned a good chance in the second minute, Forrester skewing the ball wide. The home side could establish no rhythm, with the players seeming to struggle in the new formation. Jacobs had a well taken free kick scrape the crossbar in the 17th minute.

The crowd’s frustration was showing as crossfield passes ended up in Doncaster hands and O’Donnell had to deal with awful back passes from his own defenders. Fortunately the goalkeeper was to show his form with two outstanding saves, keeping out shots from Wellens and Williams. Although they had the majority of the possession Wigan produced only sporadic threat to the visitors’ defence, most of their play being either across the field or backwards. The visitors were causing problems for a Wigan defence that was in disarray.

Kenny had been reluctant to move forward out of defence and when he did he was not always well covered. However, we saw the young full back can do when he latched on to a superb defence splitting pass from Power and put in a dangerous cross that was cleared. With nobody on the right wing Latics’ play went through the centre or through James and Jacobs on the left. Junior was looking classy in a more advanced midfield role, but could not produce the kind of defence splitting passes that were needed. A nice move saw James pull the ball back for Power whose shot was well struck but straight at the goalkeeper. But Wigan were to breathe a sigh of relief a couple of minutes before half time when Coppinger went down in the box under James’ challenge, but the referee did not award a penalty.

Doncaster continued to cause problems in the second half, leading to Caldwell making a double substitution after 54 minutes. Junior and McCann were to be replaced by Sean Murray, with Shaq Coulthirst brought on to play wide, with a change to 4-3-3.

The introduction of more width stretched the visitors’ defence a little more, but Wigan could not get midfield control and Doncaster continued to threaten. James cleared a McKenzie header off the line after 58 minutes. Leon Barnett had had a torrid first half, but was dealing effectively with the aerial threat posed by the visitors. Power had a good effort from outside the box saved after 78 minutes, but for the next ten minutes Doncaster put Latics under even more pressure and a goal seemed inevitable.

Somehow they had held out, surviving two more penalty appeals in the second half. Perhaps the referee was to bear those in mind when he denied Latics the opportunity of a last minute winner with Power appearing to be brought down as he burst into the box.

The Good

The draw at least helps break a losing sequence. Once again the visiting team had more energy than Wigan as the game progressed, but the Latics’ defence played with a lot of determination in keeping Doncaster out in the second half.

Leon Barnett is not the best passer of a ball and looks ill-suited to the kind of football that Caldwell prefers. However, there is a need to have a dominant header of the ball in the centre of defence against the constant aerial attacks that can be expected in League 1. Barnett is a shadow of the confident, rugged defender he was when Owen Coyle had brought him to Wigan. But without his aerial power Latics’ defence would have been in even more trouble. Barnett was poor in the first half, but his contribution in the second was important, if not pretty to watch.

Jonjoe Kenny is only 18 years old and sometimes it shows. It was a surprise to see him preferred to Kevin McNaughton, who had performed well in midweek. However, with no right winger Caldwell was probably expecting Kenny to move forward and fill the void. Kenny can clearly offer an attacking outlet on the right hand side, with his pace and intelligence. But in this game it was his defensive contribution that was to prove more important, particularly in the second half when he made some crucial clearances.

David Perkins continues to be the midfield dynamo, with seemingly boundless energy and selfless team play.

Richard O’Donnell showed what a superb shot-stopper he can be, as well known to fans of his previous club, Walsall.

The Bad

The poor performances so far this season can be largely put down to the influx of so many new players and the team’s inability to gel. However, Caldwell’s switching of tactical systems is hardly going to help. Put simply it would be preferable to stick with either 4-3-3 or 3-5-2 as the main formation, using the alternative sparingly.

The pass back to the goalkeeper was a feature of this match that sticks in the mind. O’Donnell is being put under constant pressure by players from his own side who are either unwilling or unable to pass the ball out of defence. The pass backs rarely lead to anything constructive and some in this match were simply ridiculous. It is no wonder that elements of the crowd were incensed by it.

Francisco Junior was taken off prematurely after 54 minutes and being at Wigan on a one month loan one wonders if we will see him again. Junior adds style and poise to the midfield and his departure would be sad to see.

Once again Latics were put under the cosh in the closing minutes, stuck deep in defence, raising further questions about their fitness levels.

Caldwell needs to find an answer to the kinds of aerial bombardments we have seen from the opposition sides up to this point. One way to alleviate it is to prevent the crosses coming in from the wings and cutting down the number of corners conceded, admittedly hard to do. O’Donnell made some fine stops, but is not the kind of goalkeeper to dominate in the air.

Above all there is a need for a central defender with real height and physical power in the mould of Harry McGuire. Donervon Daniels might ultimately be able to provide this, but he is a young player who still has a lot to learn. He has been left on the bench for the past two games. Caldwell transfer dealings are clearly ongoing. Rumours suggest that Leon Barnett is off to Preston. If this is true then Caldwell surely has someone lined up to take his place.

Player ratings

Richard O’Donnell: 7 – made some fine saves.

Jonjoe Kenny: 6 – made some mistakes, but has undoubted quality.

Craig Morgan: 6 – mobilised his defence in the second half to withstand the Doncaster onslaught.

Leon Barnett: 6 – poor in the first half, but made key interventions in the second.

Reece James: 7 – solid in defence and useful going forward.

Chris McCann: 5 – a shadow of the midfield player he once was. Withdrawn after 54 minutes.

David Perkins: 7 – not his best game, but still got through more work than any other Wigan player.

Max Power: 7.5 – showed his class. It was good to see him take a more direct approach towards the goal.

Francisco Junior: 6 – played in a more advanced midfield role. Withdrawn after 54 minutes.

Michael Jacobs: 6 – threatened, but with no end result apart from his free kick.

Will Grigg: 6 – very isolated. So often knocked off the ball by the central defenders. Needs decent service.

Substitutes:

Sean Murray: – came on after 54 minutes. Played in a midfield holding role, but could not stamp his authority on to the game.

Shaq Coulthirst: – added width, but is he going to establish himself as a regular starter in a 4-3-3?

 

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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.

A Walsall fan’s view of Richard O’Donnell

Richard-ODonnell

“Delighted to have agreed a deal to join @LaticsOfficial for next season. Can’t wait to start and help get them back where they should be….”

So said new Latics acquisition Richard O’Donnell on Twitter today.

O’Donnell is a 6 ft 2 in goalkeeper, born in Sheffield, who will sign Wigan Athletic as a free agent from League 1 club Walsall. He is 26 years old, a product of the Sheffield Wednesday academy.

As a young player from O’Donnell was sent on loan to seven clubs in the lower divisions and non-league from 2007-11. He made his Football League debut as a 19 year old for Oldham Athletic against Luton Town in March 2008. It was three years later to the month that he made his debut for Wednesday in a match at Southampton. After making 19 appearances for the Owls he was released in May 2012.

O’Donnell then signed a one year contract for League 2 side Chesterfield. Covering for the absence of regular goalkeeper Tommy Lee he made 14 starts, but lost his place on Lee’s return from injury. In January he was loaned out to Stockport County in the Conference where he made 20 starts. He returned to Chesterfield for the last game of the season in a 4-0 win over Exeter.

In summer of 2013 he joined Walsall where he was to establish himself as the first choice goalkeeper, making 90 appearances in his two seasons there. He kept 21 clean sheets last season.

In order to learn more about O’Donnell’s time at Walsall we reached out to the BescotBanter.net fan site (@BescotBanter). Our thanks to them for the fan’s view that follows:

Following the Saddlers’ acquisition of goalkeeping coach Neil Cutler, Richard joined the club in the summer of 2013 and quickly went on to establish himself as first-choice, bringing his brand of committed stopping to the side.

A player who is willing to put his body on the line, Richard made over fifty first team appearances during his debut season with the club and penned a new eighteen-month contract in January 2014.

Following his debut season Richard continued as first-choice goalkeeper and went on to make his one hundredth consecutive first-team appearance for the club as the Saddlers played host to Notts County on 3rd April.

Richard established himself as a clear fan favourite during his time with the club and went on to be named both the Fans and Players’ Player of the Season at the 2014/15 End of Season Awards.

O’Donnell also came close to single-handedly breaking a club record for most clean sheets in a season, which was held by former Trinidad and Tobago international Clayton Ince, who was unbeaten on twenty-two occasions during the 2006/07 campaign.

The record was ultimately collected by Craig MacGillivray, as he kept a clean sheet during his debut against Oldham Athletic.

 Following a lengthy spell of contract negotiations, which began in November 2014, Richard made the decision to leave the club and join Wigan Athletic on a three-year deal, the move seems to have come down to a length of contact issue, with the Saddlers either unable or unwilling to match the Latics’ three-year offering.

When the dust of his move settles Richard will go down as one of the best stoppers in the club’s recent history, and will always be welcome at Banks’s Stadium.