Caldwell set to shuffle his pack

“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.

Latics on the road to promotion – Rochdale (A) match reaction

 

What a difference a week can make. An abject defeat at Bury, followed by a 4-0 trouncing of Blackpool, then this 2-0 win at Rochdale. Gary Caldwell’s “new era” squad shows the kind of resilience that can surely send Latics on the road to promotion.

Caldwell had read the riot act to his players following the Bury fiasco, then made ten changes for the Blackpool game. Granted, the Seasiders were poor opposition on Tuesday night, but the performance nevertheless highlighted the strength in depth that Latics now have. Yesterday Caldwell fielded what must be pretty close to his first choice starting lineup, but still had players of the quality of Will Grigg, Francisco Junior and Chris McCann on the bench.

We have seen various tactical formations from Caldwell this season and one is never quite sure what he will do next. In the event he put out a 4-2-3-1 lineup, meaning that he had four specialist attack-minded players on the field. Jason Pearce and Craig Morgan formed an experienced partnership at the centre of defence, with the young Donervan Daniels and Reece James at full back. David Perkins and Max Power have now established themselves in the holding midfield positions and they played behind an advanced midfield trio. New signing Alex Revell started wide on the right, Yanic Wildschut on the left, Michael Jacobs in the centre. Craig Davies played the lone centre forward role. The 40 year old Jussi Jaaskelainen was once again preferred to Richard O’Donnell in goal.

Latics totally dominated the first half, the home team not managing a single shot on target. The running of Jacobs and Wildschut in particular was causing constant problems for Rochdale. Wigan’s tackling was crisp and they really took the game to the opposition. Pearce’s header from Jacobs’ free kick after 16 minutes had put Wigan in the driving seat, but they were unable to add another goal before half time, despite their dominance. Moreover James went off injured after 37 minutes to be replaced by Chris McCann.

One wondered at half time if Latics could continue to subdue the home team in that same way. Surely Keith Hill would make some changes at some stage in an attempt to wrest back some of the initiative for his team. If Rochdale were to get an early goal it would change the whole complexion of the match.

It almost happened early on in the second half when Jaaskelainen made a mess of a cross, the ball falling to Rochdale centre forward Joe Bunney, who spooned the ball over the bar to Wigan’s relief. Rochdale had pushed Wigan back deeper and were enjoying more possession. However, Latics’ pace was a threat on the counterattack. On 61 minutes a long pass from Daniels found Wildschut on the left. The Dutchman used his electrifying pace to get past the full back to the by line. His pull back found Jacobs who steered the ball home expertly. Rochdale then brought on two substitutes, with Latics introducing Don Cowie for Davies, Revell moving to centre forward.

However, that second goal had knocked the wind out of Rochdale’s sails. Although Jaaskelainen was forced to make a fine save from Bunney’s shot, Latics proved worthy winners in the end.

It had been a hard fought game with some full blooded physical confrontations. But unlike some of their near neighbours in League 1 Rochdale are a footballing side, as are Wigan. The foul count was to read 10 against the Dale, 6 against Latics. Having a Premier League referee, Neil Swarbrick, officiating helped keep things under control and the football flowing.

The Good

Despite yet another change in shape Latics looked well organised, particularly in defence where Pearce and Morgan were formidable.  At the beginning of the season it looked like the two were going to be the bastions of the Latics defence.  But injuries to both players, Pearce in particular, have meant they have played together less than a handful of times. Pearce had a typical all-action performance and showed how much he has been missed. Daniels once more showed that he can do a good job at full back, not only strong defensively, but showing a considerable amount of skill for a big man more used to playing in the centre of defence.

Latics appeared a well-oiled unit with all the players showing their commitment, a far cry from the dark days of last season. Power and Perkins have become the lynchpins of the midfield, full of energy and enterprise.

Wildschut’s direct running and lightning speed continues to be a constant threat to opposition defences. In the past he has been criticised for a lack of vision, in not delivering an end-product. However, his pass for Jacobs’ goal after skinning his full back revealed a maturity that belies such criticism. Will Caldwell be able to hang on to this dynamic player when his loan runs out in January?

Jacobs returned to form yesterday. Since Wildschut’s arrival he has seemed out of sorts. Some have questioned whether the two could both play effectively in the same team, given their need for a significant share of the ball. However, Jacobs reveled yesterday in the role just behind the centre forward, with Wildschut wide on the left. With an assist and a goal Jacobs stood out.

The Bad

It is to be hoped that the injury to James is not serious. McCann did a good job coming on at left back, but he was fortunate in not having a speedy winger on his side. Andy Kellett had a fine game against Blackpool in midweek at wing back, but there are question marks about his defensive abilities as a full back. Should James not be fit for the next match Caldwell will have to decide between the two.

Player Ratings

Jussi Jaaskelainen:  7 – good distribution and a fine save from Bunney, but his error in making a hash of a cross could have led to an equalizer.

Donervon Daniels: 7 – solid in defence and bright in attack. Had a good shot parried by the goalkeeper early on.

Craig Morgan: 7.5 – looks a good player at this level. He has had to play with a lot of different partners at centre back this year, but his partnership with Pearce seems the best option.

Jason Pearce: 8.5 – a well taken goals and a towering defensive performance.

Reece James:  – injured. Went off after 37 minutes.

David Perkins: 7.5 – as industrious and determined as ever. Also put in some good passes and had a rasping drive saved near the end.

Max Power: 7.5 – has matured rapidly over the past weeks. He always had the skill and technique, but now he has learned how to graft and tackle. Looks like a top player for the future.

Alex Revell: 6 – worked hard in his first appearance.

Michael Jacobs: 9 – an excellent all round performance from an accomplished footballer.

Yanic Wildschut: 8.5 – a constant threat to Rochdale. Also worked hard in his defensive duties.

Craig Davies: 7 – worked hard in the lone centre forward role. Unlucky with a run in the first half, his shot with the outside of his right foot going narrowly wide. Went off after 62 minutes.

Substitutes

Chris McCann: – did a good job at left back.

Don Cowie: – came on for Davies after 62 minutes.

Tim Chow: – came on for Power after 82 minutes.

Is Latics’ squad lacking in quality?

 

Some say that results in pre-season matches are not important. But then again, a 2-1 loss at Rochdale was hard for Wigan Athletic supporters to swallow, let alone a 4-1 drubbing in Dusseldorf yesterday.

Latics’ worst ever pre-season performance will surely be that of five decades ago, when fourth division Southport smashed non-league Wigan 10-2. My father told me at the time that friendly matches can produce strange results and do not really have much bearing on the season to follow. Strangely enough the same two teams met again four days later at Springfield Park and Latics went on to win 3-0. In the event it turned out to be a mediocre season for Latics, who finished in mid-table in the Cheshire League. That 10-2 scoreline proved to be an indicator of defensive weakness as Latics were to concede 82 goals in 42 league matches.

Following the 2-1 win over Besiktas, thanks largely to Ali Al-Habsi’s brilliance, we seemed to be looking forward to a good season ahead. Granted there were concerns over the departures of two of Latics’ most creative players – Jordi Gomez and Jean Beausejour – but Uwe Rosler had been moving shrewdly in the transfer market and was building up a stronger squad. Most fans have now accepted that Dave Whelan is not going to wave his cheque book around in the way he did to get Latics into the Premier League last time. Austerity has not yet set in, but stringent financial management is the order of the day at the club.

Rosler is used to working under tight budgets, through his experience with his previous clubs. He will bring in a mixture of youth and experience. The experienced Andrew Taylor and Don Cowie have played in the Premier League and been part of a Championship division winning team. James Tavernier and AaronTaylor-Sinclair are clearly the kind of youngsters who have the potential to develop into quality players. The 19 year old loanee, Emyr Huws , is an exciting young player who can play in the creative midfield role that Gomez used to enjoy. A good central striker at an affordable price is something that hardly exists in modern day English football, but Rosler has done well to bring in Oriel Riera from Osasuna. Riera scored 13 goals in La Liga last season for a team that was relegated, making an interesting comparison with Arouna Kone who scored 15 for Levante before arriving at Wigan.

In order to sign another central striker Rosler will need to raise funds by selling off one of his assets. Stories of Latics courting another goalkeeper might seem far-fetched, but both Ali Al-Habsi and Scott Carson are likely to be transfer targets for other clubs. A possible scenario is for one of them to be sold, with the exciting, but inexperienced, Lee Nicholls once more sent out on loan.

Rosler’s squad is not yet complete. We can expect more incomings and possibly outgoings over the coming weeks. But when the squad is finally completed will there be sufficient quality there to mount a serious challenge for promotion?

After playing for ten clubs in six countries in over a decade, Jean Beausejour has gone home to Chile. He will play in Santiago for Colo-Colo, the country’s historically most successful club. When Roberto Martinez signed him from Birmingham City in January 2012, Latics were struggling. Moreover fans were disappointed with Martinez’ lack of activity in that January transfer window. However, the arrival of a specialist left wing back blew fresh air into Latics’ play, helping them to produce the best quality of football and the best results in their history over the next three months. He was the missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle that Martinez was putting together. A team player, he was solid in defence. When Latics had the ball he was always available, hugging the touchline, stretching the opposition defence. He rarely lost the ball and had a few tricks up his sleeve with quick footwork. Beausejour is probably the best crosser of a ball who ever played for Latics, although some more senior supporters might also cite Walter Stanley whose sublime crosses helped Harry Lyon become a household name in Wigan.

Last season was not a good one for the Chilean, except for a memorable goal in the World Cup finals. Beausejour was frequently played at left back, rather than his natural wing back position. Like Gomez, he is another player who never got the recognition that he probably deserved from sections of the DW crowd.

During that late season rally in 2011-2012 and the FA Cup run in 2012-13, Latics beat the top teams in the country on merit, through playing quality football. The stats show that in winning the FA Cup final they committed only 5 fouls, compared with their opponents 11. Is it possible that they will ever be able to raise their football to that level ever again?

Since then lots of quality players have left the club. However, Emmerson Boyce, Shaun Maloney and James McArthur still remain. They are the pillars upon which Rosler will build this season’s team. Boyce is getting no younger, but at centre back he still has years ahead of him. The fitness of the two Scots will be of paramount importance and Rosler is nurturing them very carefully through the pre-season physical conditioning programme. Moreover the skilful Ben Watson and Chris McCann are making good progress in their recuperation from major injuries.

On the tactical front Rosler continues to demand the high tempo, high pressing style that he espouses. They did it for half an hour at Dusseldorf, but once again could not keep it going. It remains to be seen whether Rosler will ever enjoy that level of intensity he seeks from the players at his disposal.

In the meantime Rosler will scour the loan market to complete his squad. Maybe even that additional central striker will be a loan player? A return for Nick Powell continues to be touted by the media.

The name of Grant Holt continues to pop up in the social media and fan forums, the comments usually being derogatory. If no other club is willing to take the player off the club’s hands will Rosler be able to turn him into an asset? Would Holt be able to fit into Rosler’s style of play if he could regain full fitness?

Holt has proved in the past that he can deliver the goods by scoring key goals that win matches, but last season was one he will want to forget. During the reign of Owen Coyle he was used in a similar way that Bolton used Kevin Davies for so many years, a human battering ram posing a physical threat to the defence. That probably did Holt no favours and moreover it led to defenders constantly launching long balls in his direction. Given Rosler’s preferred style of play Holt would not be a regular starter, even if fully fit. However, he could have a role to play as an impact substitute.

Providing his ventures in the transfer market go well over the coming weeks, Rosler will have a squad good enough to challenge for promotion. Enough quality players remain, but the moot point is whether they can they stay fit.

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