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.


What happened to the FA Cup? A post mortem

Wigan Athletic have enjoyed some unforgettable moments in the FA Cup. My fondest memory remains a trip to Maine Road to play European Cup Winners Cup holders Manchester City, in January 1971. A fine Man City footballing team full of household names like Bell, Summerbee, and Young, playing against non-league Wigan. There were more than 45,000 people there that day, estimates of 20,000 of them traveling from Wigan. Those were the days of Geoff Davies as Latics’ centre forward. Signed from Northwich for £800, Geoff scored five hat tricks in his first three months, ending up with 42 goals for the season. Latics were unlucky to be losing 1-0 to a Colin Bell goal after 83 minutes following a bad goal kick from their admirable goalkeeper, Dennis Reeves. He had split his boot but apparently did not want to lose his concentration by stopping the play. You can see it here. In the last minute, Geoff Davies had a superb header pawed onto the post by the excellent Joe Corrigan. An unlucky ending for Gordon Milne’s  Latics team whose performance brought great pride to its supporters.

I also recall watching Latics play Leeds United in the sixth round of the FA Cup in 1987. It was a scrappy affair played at a windswept Springfield Park. Sixth round remains the furthest Latics have reached in the FA Cup. When I was a little kid my Dad would talk about the epic cup ties with First Division Newcastle United in the 1953-54 season, with Latics drawing away 3-3 and being on the side of unfortunate refereeing decisions in the 2-3 reverse in the replay. That was the same season a crowd of 27,526 watched them beat non-league Hereford at Springfield Park. The figure remains a record home crowd for Wigan Athletic and also a record for two non-league teams playing at a non-league ground.

Then things changed. In the summer of 1999, Manchester United were given the opportunity to withdraw from the FA Cup for the 1999-2000 season. The reason was political: the FA wanted them to take part in the World Club Championship in Brazil. Alex Ferguson was later quoted “I regretted it because we got nothing but stick and terrible criticism for not being in the FA Cup when really, it wasn’t our fault. The FA and the government felt that playing in this tournament would help England’s bid to host the 2006 World Cup. There was a lot of undue criticism – but it was a great two-week break.” United crashed out in the first round in Brazil, England would fail in their World Cup bid, but Ferguson’s team would go on to win the Premier League by an unbelievable 18 points.

The world’s oldest competition has never recovered from that. United’s withdrawal sparked a downward spiral. How sad it is these days to see Premier League clubs fielding weak teams, citing the overriding importance of their league position. Wigan Athletic’s FA Cup record since joining the Premier League has been less than impressive. They have won 3, drawn 4 and lost 6 in the FA Cup. Last week’s debacle at Swindon is the second time they have lost to a League 2 side, having been defeated 2-0 by Notts County at the DW Stadium in 2009-2010. They have not progressed beyond the fourth round since arriving in the Premier League.

I have read some really good articles on Latics fan sites about last week’s performance against Swindon. I commend those Latics fanatics for the way they have tried to provide a factual kind of report, rather than lambast the players involved. Being Latics fans we need to have thick skins, having been through the real lows of 9-1 and 8-0 defeats to London sides in recent years. However, capitulation to big clubs like Tottenham and Chelsea is one thing, but losing so badly to teams from League 2 twice in three years is hard to take. Roberto Martinez has a great knack of stressing the positives and this time he singled out the performances of Callum McManaman and Jordan Mustoe in the Swindon game. McManaman was excellent during the first half, although he faded out in the second. Mustoe did not look out of place, but hardly excelled. Apart from the goalkeeper the rest were truly mediocre. In the second half it looked like Latics were going through a training exercise, there being so little dynamism and commitment. Supposedly the team was composed largely of fringe players bursting to prove themselves and get into the first team. That certainly did not look the case. Frankly it looked like many of them did not care. The stats show that Latics committed 4 fouls, a long way from their season’s Premier League average of 13 per game. Despite only committing so few fouls they received 3 yellow cards. Hard stats to digest! Moreover if either team played the classier football it was almost certainly Swindon. Hats off to Di Canio for his approach, but let’s not forget they were aided and abetted by a lack of commitment by their opponents.

So what is it with Latics and the FA Cup these days? Although there were two young players in the starting lineup the rest were seasoned Premier League squad players. Did those fringe players really believe that a good performance could edge them back into the first team? If so why did we not visibly see more effort from them? Was it already in their heads that the result did not matter? I simply cannot fathom this. Following the Tottenham drubbing a group of players got together to offer traveling fans their money back. Given how low those players must have felt at the time it was a magnificent gesture. I wonder if the players who underperformed at Swindon would think in a similar way?

Latics need to decide what they want from the FA Cup and give their fans due notice. I feel sorry for the dedicated fans who traveled to Swindon to watch that match. What alternatives do Latics have if they remain in the Premier League next year and the FA Cup comes up once again? One is to put their strongest team on the pitch and actually try to win. Another is to do what they have done in recent years and frustrate their fans to the point of losing their support. A third is to play the development squad and not worry about the result. A  fourth is to seek FA approval to withdraw from the competition. Whatever the decision it is my view that the FA needs to take a look at how it can revive the world’s oldest football competition, so that teams like Wigan Athletic will once again treat it seriously.

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.