“It was a capitulation. That capitulation cost us the league. I knew that night we were gone. It’s an absolutely great example of complacency. It’s a disease.”
The words of Alex Ferguson after his Manchester United side let the Premier League title slip through their fingers in 2011-12. He pinpointed a 4-4 draw with Everton in late April when his team had let a two goal lead slip away. A week later they went down 1-0 at Manchester City, who went on to win the title thanks to a goal in stoppage time in the final game against QPR.
One way in which Ferguson dealt with complacency was by not putting out the same line up in consecutive matches.
In 1980-81 Aston Villa won the First Division title using only 14 players, seven of whom were all present in the 42 league matches. But Ferguson’s views on complacency have clearly resounded in the ears of today’s football managers.
Gary Caldwell too rarely fields the same line up in consecutive matches. Part of his rationale is surely influenced by complacency issues, but he also wants to keep opposition managers guessing about his line ups. Last weekend against Bradford City he did keep the same line up, but he changed their shape, making it less easy for his opposite number, Phil Parkinson.
Caldwell is very much the modern day manager. Guessing his starting line ups is never easy. It is also hard to predict the shape his team is going to employ at the start of the game, which might nevertheless change as play progresses. We have become used to surprises.
Some prefer the kind of approach used by Ron Saunders in the early eighties at Villa. You could more or less predict the starting line-up and they played with the same shape, week in, week out. Complacency was not an issue.
However, times have changed. Managers often talk up the ability of the opposition they are due to play. They have them watched beforehand so that their strengths and weaknesses can be assessed. It can be viewed as guarding against complacency among the players, although there are fans who feel that Caldwell too frequently offers the opposition too much respect.
Rather than the fixed team shapes and the settled line ups of Saunders’ days, Caldwell will talk about building partnerships between players. Probably the most crucial of those as Latics approach the nine game run-in towards automatic promotion is that in the centre of defence.
Craig Morgan and Jason Pearce have formed such a partnership over the past months, to the effect that Latics have never lost a match when they have started together. Sadly Pearce has been out injured for the past two games. Pearce’s play complements that of Morgan. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts in this case.
If Pearce is to be unavailable this weekend, Caldwell will be anxious to find a suitable replacement. Chris McCann is the obvious candidate, with his cultured left footed passing from the back. However, McCann lacks the physicality of Pearce. Caldwell is therefore likely to add the physically imposing Donervon Daniels to make a trio with Morgan and McCann. Stephen Warnock is the obvious choice at left back, but the position on the right is up for grabs. Reece Wabara is the current incumbent, but is likely to face competition from the fit-again Kevin McNaughton and from Daniels if he does not play in central defence.
Caldwell has the choice of three holding midfielders in Sam Morsy, David Perkins and Max Power. When playing with a back four Caldwell will use Morsy in the “Busquets role”, with Perkins and Power pushed further forward. Operating 3-4-3 means leaving one of them out. Power has been one of Latics’ best players this season but his form has dipped of late. It would be no surprise to see him rested in one of the games over the Easter weekend.
Haris Vuckic’s well taken goal against Bradford City might have gained him a place in the starting eleven at Swindon. His most likely position is on the right side of the attack, although he can possibly be more effective in the centre of an attacking midfield trio in the 4-2-3-1 formation that Caldwell can favour. Like many other players over recent years at Wigan, Vuckic has struggled to claim a regular place despite his obvious talent. Up to this point the Slovenian has made only five starts in league games, with four appearances off the bench. Importantly Vuckic is the kind of player who can link midfield and attack. He also has a good left foot and is likely to score goals cutting inside from the right. His lack of playing time so far is a mystery, although he did go through a period of injury problems in the first half of the season. Meanwhile the unwanted, and largely untried, Billy McKay has now scored 11 goals for a Dundee United side who sit in unfamiliar territory at the foot of the SPL table.
In the meantime Michael Jacobs is back in light training, but Caldwell is going to have to wait another 2-3 weeks before he will be challenging for a first team place. For the weekend Caldwell will be able to choose between Ryan Colclough, Conor McAleny (if fit), Haris Vuckic and Yanic Wildschut to form the attack with Will Grigg in the lone centre forward position.
Craig Davies is fitter than he has been for some months, but his time on the field is limited by Caldwell’s unwillingness to start with twin strikers. Davies has had just seven starts in league games, with his last being in the home defeat to Blackpool in mid-December. He has made 17 appearances off the bench. Some have been critical of Davies’ form over the past months, but being used as a late substitute to either lead a late rally or to hold up the ball in high pressure situations to kill off games is not an easy task. However, should Grigg become unavailable, Davies would be a dependable stand-in.
Latics lie level on points in second place with Walsall, six points behind Burton Albion, and five points above fourth placed Gillingham. Less than three weeks ago Walsall sacked Sean O’Driscoll as manager, replacing him with Jon Whitney. They have since won their last three matches. Despite a defeat at Bradford a couple of weeks ago, Burton bounced back, winning their next two games. Their 4-0 away win at Port Vale on Saturday was impressive against a side with a strong home record.
Walsall’s next match is at Sheffield United on April 2, their Easter matches being postponed due to players absent on international duty. Only time will tell whether this will prove a blessing or a curse for the Saddlers. Should Latics win both matches over Easter then Walsall will be under pressure making up a six point gap. But should they fail to do so it would give the midland club with the upper hand.
Wigan Athletic’s recent performances have been less than impressive, but they have nevertheless continued to maintain an average of two points per game over the last six matches. Two wins in three days over Easter is a tall order and Caldwell will need to rotate his team to keep players fresh.
The bottom line is that, despite injuries, Caldwell retains a squad that is more than capable of gaining more points than their rivals in the run-in. But he will need to instil a mentality where players treat every game remaining as a cup final.
As Ferguson said, complacency is a disease to be avoided. Making small, but regular, rotations in the starting line-up will be a ploy that Caldwell can use to guard against it.