We have now completed our first month back in the Championship, we have wiped our feet and said hello; the Roberto Martinez shaped shadow hanging over the club has vanished; and now it’s time to kick on with our promotion push. The indications from our first six games have shown that it’s going to be a long but potentially very rewarding and memorable season.
I will start by praising Owen Coyle and the signings he has made. He has taken a very difficult post at a club which has just been relegated, it’s never an easy task to turn the tide. There is often doom and gloom surrounding a relegated club as player and fans alike recover from the disappointment of demotion, this coupled with an overly expectant fan base can create a difficult atmosphere to work in. Thankfully, this doesn’t seem to be the case at the DW as the euphoria of the FA Cup win is still very much alive. Coyle has also freshened up the squad, looking to replace the relegation hangover with a fresh new energy brought by some shrewd signings who are determined to prove themselves.
As has been widely documented, our calendar for the season could lead to 60 odd games being played in nine months. This calls for a large squad which allows Wigan to compete in several competitions without hindering our chances of promotion, which is the ultimate goal. I think Coyle’s signings allow him to rotate the squad when necessary whilst not compromising on quality.
With ten signings in all, Coyle has options in all departments, with the possible exception of in the forward area, which may be solved today with Jordan Rhodes and Kenwyne Jones being rumoured signings. In Grant Holt I think Coyle has bagged a bargain, a player with a point to prove and a track record at this level. Remember, it’s only 12 months since people were screaming for him to be in the England squad. James Perch is another top addition, his versatility will prove vital as the games stack up, he was one of Newcastle’smost consistent performers in the top flight last year and was snapped up for less than £1million. James McClean is another who has dropped down from the Premier League and the North East, he looks like a very exciting player, and it speaks volumes of the club that talented players are willing to drop down to the Championship to play for us.
Add to those three the talents of Scott Carson, Leon Barnett, Thomas Rogne, Stephen Crainey, Juan Carlos Garcia, Chris McCann and Mark Antoine Fortune, Latics have what must be considered to be one of the largest and most talented squads in the Championship. Add to that the fact Consider too that key players such as Shaun Maloney, Callum McManaman and James McCarthy have stayed put (at the time of writing anyway), the summer must be considered a successful one in terms of enhancing the squad.
Now down to business, the opening day win at Barnsley certainly sent a message out to the whole league that we mean business. An emphatic 4-0 win, in which Wigan controlled the match completely, probably led to an over-optimistic response from some and a potentially pernicious ‘favourites’ tag from pundits. We can’t complain though, it does make a pleasant change from being slated off by ‘experts’.
The following weekend’s trip to Wembley was far less memorable than our previously two matches there, and the trend of criticism returned with the media having a field day over our modest following that day. In my opinion the Charity Shield is just a glorified friendly and the game was certainly played in that manner, with United cruising to a 2-0 victory. If the media are to be believed then it might be Moyes’ only ‘trophy’ of the season. Whilst we were away, promotion rivals QPR, Nottingham Forest and surprise pace setters Blackpool took advantage to open up a points gap between us and them.
If Wigan fans thought the Championship was going to be a stroll, they were certainly made to rethink after difficult games against two promoted sides, Bournemouth and Doncaster. The trip to the south coast displayed the pure unpredictability of the league, Bournemouth had been smashed 6-1 by Watford the previous week, surely Wigan would wipe the floor with them, right? Wrong. Lewis Grabban scored the only goal in a 1-0 defeat, the midweek home game against Doncaster gave Latics a chance to make amends but found themselves two down at half time despite controlling the early exchanges. Latics did fight back with two second half goals to salvage a point, Shaun Maloney’s trademark free-kick gave us hope, before Leon Barnett became the first Latic since Antoine Sibierski to score on both his home and away debuts for the club in injury time.
Although I was singing James Perch’s praises earlier in this article, I think those two games demonstrated that he’s not a centre half. His Steven Gerrard-esque under hit back pass gifted Lewis Grabban the winner at Bournemouth, whilst against Doncaster he struggled to deal with the aerial presence of Chris Brown, who had a hand in both goals to silence the DW. It was no surprise Thomas Rogne, a natural centre half, replaced him for the Forest game. I think Perch would make an excellent right back or even a defensive midfield player, but he was nothing but a stop gap at centre half until injured absentees returned. I’m a little surprised Emmerson Boyce wasn’t given this role instead though.
The Middlesbrough game again showed how difficult this league is, the game tossed and turned with both teams exchanging the lead before Jordi Gomez’s deflected free-kick settled the game at 2-2. Although I have thought our line up has looked better on paper than our opponent’s in each of our five league encounters, the fact we have only won two of them shows that the Championship certifies the cliché that ‘football isn’t won on paper’.
As we’d failed to win in the previous three, surely we’d have no hope when high flying Nottingham Forest arrived at the DW in full confidence after an unbeaten start? It looked that way when the technically brilliant Andy Reid fired home a free-kick (already the third seen at the DW this season); yet Latics rallied and Coyle will be delighted with the team spirit as his side again fought back from behind, this time to win the game 2-1.
In the opening five games, Coyle has generally gone for a 4-3-3 set up, although he did experiment with a 4-4-2 (which he played at Bolton) in the Doncaster and Middlesbrough games. Personally, I wasn’t enthused by this as I hate 4-4-2. It’s outdated, boring and predictable; clever teams can play between your lines and your two central midfielders can be overrun by a midfield three. However, I’m willing to accept that formations don’t win games, players do. So if Coyle feels he needs to play 4-4-2 to earn promotion then I have no issue with that, as long as it’s effective of course!
One thing the 4-3-3 does allow though is the wingers to push on and worry less about defensive responsibilities, which will certainly be welcomed by Maloney, McClean and McManaman. On the topic of Shaun, I feel that he’s been wasted on the right and he hasn’t seemed comfortable in that role. He’s at his most dangerous when he’s allowed to roam and cut inside, he isn’t the type of winger who will burn past a full back and look to get to the byline (which casts doubts on whether McClean and he can fit into the same team). With many games to play though, I think selection headaches are only a good thing as they display our strength in debt and variety of options.
Our first month in the Championship then has tough us a lot, gaining promotion will be a hard slog and we will lose/draw games we would expect to win. I for one have enjoyed it so far, and if anyone thinks we have made an indifferent start always remember: it could be worse, we could be Bolton.