A case for Haris Vuckic

Vuckic

After scoring three goals in each of their previous four home games Wigan Athletic returned to their prosaic style at the DW Stadium on Saturday. Gone was the invention from midfield and the rapid movement on and off the ball that unhinged the previous opponents. In its place was a ponderously slow build-up emanating from the lethargy of ten outfield players seemingly unable to create space for each other.

A goalless draw against an Oldham team second from bottom was a hugely disappointing result for a Latics team seeking automatic promotion. The critics will say that Gary Caldwell got it wrong tactically, being outmaneuvered by his Oldham counterpart John Sheridan. Sheridan had his players stifle the Wigan midfield and the home team struggled as result. Others will say that it was not so much that Caldwell’s tactics were wrong, but that the players just did not perform, whether it be through complacency or sheer inability to put through accurate passes on the day.

Oldham had come into the game having lost only two of their thirteen away games. Although in a lowly league position they had gained draws at Coventry, Gillingham and Walsall among others. Perhaps the Wigan players were complacent, underrating the opposition. Or maybe it was just an off day. But did Caldwell get his tactics wrong? With hindsight, what kind of lineup might have produced a more conducive end-product?

The injury to Wigan’s main creative player, Michael Jacobs, in the 1-1 draw at Crewe on January 23rd was indeed a major blow for Caldwell. Jacobs went off after 30 minutes to be replaced by Haris Vuckic. The Slovenian had shown himself to be the kind of player who can help provide a link between holding midfield and the forwards in the previous games, at home to Sheffield United and Chesterfield, Latics scoring three goals in each. However, Vuckic did not go on to finish the match at Crewe, Caldwell hauling him off after 74 minutes.

Vuckic was to return to the starting lineup in the 3-0 drubbing of Port Vale, but was withdrawn after 62 minutes. In fact the longest time the Slovenian has stayed on the pitch in his three league starts was 70 minutes against Chesterfield.

Caldwell and his recruitment team did a fine job over the January transfer window. Indeed the signing of Ryan Colclough from Crewe meant that Latics had another creative player of the ilk of Jacobs at their disposal. Surely Colclough and Vuckic could fill the gaps were Jacobs not to be available?

However, up to this point that has not been the case. Caldwell’s last signing of the January window was that of Conor McAleny from Everton on loan. McAleny was thrust straight into the starting lineup at Sheffield United, ahead of both Colclough and Vuckic who were on the bench. Latics fans have learned to expect surprises from Caldwell and this was another. However, Caldwell’s choice was vindicated with the Everton player scoring an opportunist goal and showing pace and industry.

However, on Saturday McAleny could not impose himself upon the game. He is a different type of player to Colclough and Vuckic and could play an important role especially in away games when he can use his pace in counterattack. However, the Oldham game was crying out for creativity in midfield. Sam Morsy was brought on at half time, allowing David Perkins and Max Power to push forward, but it was not enough. Colclough was eventually brought on after 76 minutes, being pushed to the wide right.

Vuckic will surely be disappointed not to have figured in the last two games after putting in creditable performances. He scored in his first league start of the season against Chesterfield and added an extra dimension to Latics’ play through his cultured left foot. The main criticism has been that he has been reluctant to fire the trigger when in good shooting positions.

On Saturday Latics started with McAleny and Yanic Wildschut playing wide, despite their 3-4-3 formation with wing backs. But the need for a “number 10” was clear to see. None materialized.

Haris Vuckic has had a frustrating time at Wigan, having been troubled by injury and so often being left on the bench. He has still not completed 90 minutes in a game. It had appeared that finally Caldwell was going to give him the extended run in the team that would enable him to reach peak fitness and match sharpness. But he has instead found himself back on the bench.

Too many players were poorly handled at the club by managers prior to Caldwell. So many left Latics without reaching their true potential.

It is to be hoped that Caldwell will do a better job in this respect than either Rosler or Mackay.

 

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Winning with kids

Gary Caldwell continues to lower the average age of his squad.

Gary Caldwell continues to lower the average age of his squad.

“You can’t win anything with kids”.

So said Alan Hansen after a young Manchester United side had been beaten by Aston Villa. United’s lineup had featured an 18 year old Phil Neville, plus 20 year olds David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes, together with the 21 year old Ryan Giggs. They went on to win the Premier League that same season. Hansen’s comment became infamous in English football history.

As did Alex Ferguson twenty years ago, Gary Caldwell too has put a considerable amount of faith in young players. In fact three of them rank in the top four this season as far as appearances are concerned. That trio of Donervon Daniels, Reece James and Max Power are all 22 years old.

Over the January transfer Caldwell has continued to lower the average age of his squad. Don Cowie (32) and Grant Holt (34) left the club by mutual consent. In came Ryan Colclough (21), Conor McAleny (23), Sam Morsy (24) and Reece Wabara (24). Goalkeeper Dan Lavercombe (19) replaced Richard O’Donnell (27), although for the moment he is back at his previous club, Torquay. Midfielder Danny Whitehead (22) was also signed and loaned back to Macclesfield Town. Yanic Wildschut (24) was signed on a permanent contract following his loan spell from Middlesbrough.

Caldwell and his recruitment team have done a fine job, bringing in no less than 29 new players since summer. Moreover there are signs that the players are starting to gel and the team is starting to approach the point where the whole is at least the sum of its parts. Hopes for automatic promotion have been raised, although it remains a difficult task given the consistency of the teams above them.

Wabara has filled the problematic right wing back position, with Kevin McNaughton now back in training. A few weeks ago losing Michael Jacobs to injury would have left the team short of creative input. But the emergence of Haris Vuckic and the arrival of the confident and accomplished Colclough have helped allay concerns. Morsy has come in to add some steel to the midfield, potentially the replacement for David Perkins, who is now 33. The squad now has a better balance than it did a month ago.

Whether Latics will achieve automatic promotion remains to be seen. But with the talent at Caldwell’s disposal they will pose problems for any team in League 1. The least Latics are currently heading for is a place just below the top two, but  getting promotion through the playoffs is a precarious business where confrontations can be tight and so easily effected by unexpected events. The worst case scenario is at  least one more year in League 1.

Next season Latics will receive around £12 million in parachute payments, the final instalment. If they remain in League 1 they will be able to continue operating a budget three times higher than most clubs in the division. However, if promotion is achieved they will face fierce financial competition from Championship clubs, some boosted by much larger parachute payments, others buoyed by funding from benefactor owners. Moreover when their own parachute payments run out they will be faced with competing on an uneven keel against almost all the clubs in the division.

It is for these reasons that having a quality recruitment programme is key to the club’s long term future. Scouting for bargains in younger players coming from clubs in lower divisions or those released by big clubs will be the order of the day.

At the same time the club will need to be able to attract top teenage talent into its academy. Gregor Rioch came with a fine reputation in building up an academy at Coventry and he has already produced results at Wigan. The under 18 team breaking a club record by reaching the fifth round of the FA Youth Cup and taking Manchester City into extra time is an indicator of how much progress has been made. As in previous eras many of the youngsters recruited have come from the greater Manchester and Liverpool areas, often after being at a Premier League club. The recent loan moves of the 18 year old Adam Anson and the 19 year old Louis Robles, both previously in the Liverpool academy, to Macclesfield continue to show that the club seeks to toughen up the younger talent it is nurturing by sending them to clubs in physically competitive leagues. Sam Cosgrove, 18, previously at the Everton academy, has already had loan spells at Barrow and Chorley.

Over the years Alan Hansen might have come to rue his assertion that “You can’t win anything with kids”. But Premier League stats suggest that there is some degree of validity in his statement. When Manchester United won that title in 1995-96 they had six players under the age of 23 who played in 10 games or more. But nothing of the kind has happened since. In fact the average number of under 23s playing regularly in Premier League title winning squads over the last 20 years is less than three.

The success of Manchester United’s young players those two decades ago was clearly exceptional. But perhaps more importantly those players were to stay at the club, providing the backbone of the team for years to come.

Gary Caldwell will be hoping that this will prove the case for the majority of the young players he has recruited over recent months. He and his recruitment team are striving to build the backbone of a squad to serve the club for years to come.

 

 

Three home games towards automatic promotion

Three successive away games is a bit of a rarity in League 1. But if it were to happen to a team and they collected 7 points from those encounters, their fans could be expected to be pleased. But there is a nervousness among Wigan Athletic fans, as Gary Caldwell’s team seeks automatic promotion.

Latics have collected those 7 points playing in less than ideal weather conditions on tight pitches, hardly an ideal scenario for a club that prides itself in playing football “The Wigan Way”. Earlier in the season Latics were strong at home, but away performances had left much to be desired. Since then consecutive defeats by Burton Albion and Blackpool were to shatter an unbeaten home record. But on the road Latics have really improved their results, with 5 draws and 4 wins coming out of the last 9 away games.

The 2-0 win at Barnsley was achieved on a pitch that is 5 yards shorter than that of the DW Stadium. According to the Football Ground Guide  the pitch at Oakwell is 110 yards long and 75 yards wide, compared with Wigan’s at 115 x 74. Fleetwood’s pitch measures 112 x 74, Scunthorpe’s 111 x 73.

But the smallest pitch Latics have played on this season was that of Roots Hall, where Latics played out a goalless draw with Southend United. The conditions that day had made good football very difficult. Latics had to grit their teeth and grind out a result against a team keen to overcome them. Given the conditions it was no surprise that Latics’ goal threat had come largely through set pieces, with Leon Barnett going close on three occasions.

Latics have clearly had to modify their approach away from home. They have tightened up defensively, conceding 8 goals in those last nine games, after allowing 9 in their first four. The recent performances on the road would be more aptly labelled “professional” rather than “free-flowing”.

The professional performance at Scunthorpe on Saturday was enough to claim a point. But with three of the four teams above them winning, it produced more anxiety for fans who saw the gap between Latics and the teams in the automatic promotion places widen to 9 points. However, with teams below them not getting good results the gap between Latics top six and Southend at the head of the teams outside the playoff zone widened to 4 points.

A tally of 17 points from 9 away games signifies that Wigan Athletic are genuine contenders for an automatic promotion place. But in contrast with earlier in the season it has been their home form that has been letting Latics down. After mediocre 1-0 victories against lowly Swindon and Shrewsbury they were beaten 1-0 by Burton Albion in a game where the result could have gone either way. That was followed by an abject 1-0 defeat by Blackpool.

Caldwell’s team have certainly learned how to graft and painstakingly grind out results away from the DW. But they need to find a more pragmatic approach at home. So many teams will come to “park the bus”, looking for goals on the break or through set pieces.

Over the past couple of months Latics have relied heavily on Yanic Wildschut for inspiration, but he has gone back to Middlesbrough, at least for the time being. However, Caldwell will be buoyed by the return to form of Michael Jacobs, now back in his best role, just behind the central striker. But other than Jacobs, who else can provide those moments of quality and the kind of spark offered by Wildschut?

Playing in an advanced midfield role, Andy Kellett has provided some memorable moments of skill in recent games, with well taken goals at Barnsley and Fleetwood. Kellett will most likely keep his place against Gillingham with Caldwell operating a 3-4-3 formation with Kellett and Jacobs operating behind Will Grigg. However, both Craig Davies and Haris Vuckic, each of whom can offer something special are waiting for their opportunity.

It is a mystery why Davies has not been used more since his return to fitness. Caldwell’s preference for a lone centre forward in the starting lineup is a major factor, but Alex Revell seemed to have jumped over Davies in the pecking order prior to his return to Cardiff. Then on Saturday, Jordy Hiwula was brought off the bench in preference to him. Admittedly Hiwula is a different type of player, lacking the physical power of Davies, but with an excellent strike record of 6 goals in his 7 starts and 5 substitute experiences.

Vuckic has practically disappeared off the radar. He was on the bench at Fleetwood, but was left out completely against Scunthorpe. Vuckic is exactly the kind of player to fit into the kind of role currently occupied by Andy Kellett.

Caldwell simply has not got the best out of Davies or Vuckic, although injuries have not helped. However, there is lots of time left this season for that to happen.

Gillingham on Thursday is the first of three consecutive home games, being followed by Sheffield United on the Tuesday and Chesterfield the next weekend. With such a gap between Latics and the teams in the automatic promotion positions these games take on extra importance.

The word “massive” is wildly overused in football circles when describing upcoming games. But it comes close to describing the Gillingham match as far as automatic promotion is concerned, with the Kent club currently in second place. Moreover a win over the Gills, followed by successive victories over Sheffield United and Chesterfield, would put pressure on those clubs above Latics who fear their ascendency.

The results in the next three matches will provide a barometer reading for Wigan Athletic’s chances of automatic promotion. The gap between Latics and the teams above them needs to be narrowed – better sooner than later.

Lots of striking options in the new era

Sharpe promised us a 20 goal striker.

Sharpe promised us a 20 goal striker.

David Sharpe is not afraid to make bold statements. Not only did he prophesy that Latics will smash the league with 100 points, but he also promised a 20 goal a year striker.

Given a tally of 10 points from the first 6 league matches, it leaves another 90 points in the next 40 to reach Sharpe’s target. A tall order, if by no means impossible. Up to this point Craig Davies and Will Grigg have each scored two goals, Jordy Hiwula has one. Attacking midfielder Michael Jacobs also has one.

For Wigan Athletic to reach that 100 point target it will need a major contribution from the strike force. Are the strikers that Latics currently have capable of delivering in a way that those of the past years were unable to?

Last season James McClean was the leading scorer with 6 goals from 37 appearances in all competitions, a sad indictment of the team’s performances. In the previous season under Owen Coyle and Uwe Rosler, Nick Powell led the goalscoring with 12 goals from 38 appearances, closely followed by Jordi Gomez with 11 from 43.

With the arrival of Haris Vuckic and Hiwula, Gary Caldwell has lots of striking options. At this moment in time his preferred choice would seem to be in having  Davies and  Grigg as twin strikers, with Jacobs behind them in an attacking midfield role. However, Grant Holt is progressing towards full fitness following an anterior cruciate injury and if all goes well he can be expected to return during October. Holt can add a kind of physicality to the attack akin to that of Davies,while Hiwula can threaten with his searing pace.

The signing of Vuckic might well complete the attacking jigsaw puzzle for Caldwell. The versatile Slovenian can play the twin striker role, or coming in from wide. Moreover he will surely compete for an attacking midfield role. At Chesterfield both he and Jacobs played attacking midfield roles behind the central striker.

Davies’ recent performances have certainly won over most of the skeptics among the fans. Up to this point he has stayed injury-free and he and Caldwell will be praying that he can stay that way.  Grigg too has impressed with his intelligent play and ball skills. Together they form a formidable striking partnership against League 1 opposition.

Shaq Coulthirst is recovering from a muscle injury, but is likely to return at some point. He too can play wide or in a twin striker role. Media reports suggest that Sanmi Odelusi might go on a short term loan to Portsmouth, seemingly pushed down the striker pecking order by the competition he faces. For Odelusi getting a regular game is important at this stage in his career.

Caldwell will be faced with some difficult choices in choosing his attacking options for Saturday’s visit to Port Vale. Will he play with twin strikers or will he opt for a lone centre forward with two attacking midfielders in support?

Caldwell has been adventurous in his recent formations – with three attacking players and the wing backs pushed far forward, the holding midfield and defence will have to be on its guard. Francisco Junior is due to return from injury and he is the natural option for holding midfield together with David Perkins.

The wins against Chesterfield and Scunthorpe have shown us what Caldwell’s new era team are potentially capable of. There have been moments to cherish. However, the players are still continuing to gel and mixed results are likely to come in over the coming weeks.

However, we have already seen enough to suggest that, in the long run, this “new era” team will prove to be a force to be reckoned with. Sharpe’s promise of a 20 goal striker might even come into fruition.