Squad’s Up

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August 11th certainly represents something of a fresh start for Wigan Athletic. Six years is a long time in football and, under Paul Jewell’s stewardship, the club has travelled a fair distance in terms of league position, if not in some other areas. He has left us on the verge of a season that could be a watershed in terms of establishing ourselves in the top flight. Significantly we are also starting the season with our first wholly Premier League side, or at least our first side that have all been brought in since promotion to these “hallowed” lands.  

The loss of our final links to the days when success meant winning games and not scraping through by the skin of your teeth was never going to be nice, but players will always move on and as attached as we may become, none of them is irreplaceable. Unsworth aside, all this summer’s departures go way back with the club and you’d be excused for suspecting a deliberate cull of the old manager’s men, except that efforts were made to retain at least a couple of the flitters.

Comparisons can be made with the loss of key players last season and their replacement with players who carried as many questions as they did answers. The loss of De Zeeuw, Jackson and Baines not only means there are three good replacements required, but that we need to look for three new leaders and a fair bit of experience. The replacements at the back so far are Melchiot, Granqvist and Bramble are a mixed bag, with experience as well as a little more in the way of legs, but each has got a lot to prove in one way or another.

Twenty yards further up the field and the quest to replace Jimmy Bullard continues with Michael Brown and Jason Koumas joining the fray. With Sibierski taking Lee McCulloch’s place in the squad we’ve at least got more in the way of numbers than we did last season and should have the competition for places that was missing throughout last season.

A bigger positive in the middle of the park is Hutchings’ recognition that with players like Koumas and Landzaat on the park, there’s little point playing the game in the air. Above all else, this was Latics major failing last year and it’s certainly no lie to say that many fans would have been prepared to see Latics relegated than have to suffer some of the fayre that was served up for most of last term.

As things stand though, it’s all just words. Hutchings has been with Jewell for a long time and who’s to say that he’ll stick to playing football when things get tough? If we do resort to the big lump again you can see us coming unstuck even quicker, I just can’t see Koumas getting stuck in, in the same way that big Lee used to.

No one will be more glad about the bolstering of the midfield than Emile Heskey. Too many times last season he found himself trying to be both creator and finisher. Great you say? An all-round forward? Unfortunately when he was being one, there was no one around to be the other. It still goes without saying that the best partner Latics have for Heskey is a physically and mentally fit Henri Camara. Whether we’ll ever see that again is another matter.

Of the other potential partners, Aghahowa carries most potential to play the Camara role, but both will be off to Ghana in January. That leaves Caleb Folan and Sibierski fighting for the role. Folan may have come in and done a job last season, but Latics need more than that now and there have to be major doubts about whether he can carry off being a top flight striker.

This situation pushes the attention back onto the midfield, although a lack of striking options was a cause for concern last season, the dearth of opportunities presented to the strikers we did have was much more worrying. Much has been said about the need for midfielders to chip with goals but the starting point has to be for them to start creating goals for the people who are paid to do the job.

This is where Koumas comes in, but also where Chris Hutchings will be hoping that Louis Antonio Valencia’s season in the top flight will have been enough of a preparation for him to take a major role this year. Flattering to deceive is no longer an option and, as the only player likely to take on a winger role on a regular basis, we’ll be looking for him to start delivering the crosses that Heskey can (and, fingers crossed, will) convert.

I was one of the few that agreed with Paul Jewell’s assertion that last season’s squad was an improvement on the previous one. Ok, so they didn’t produce the expected results but that’s not important now. What is important is that the signings we’ve made should represent a further improvement. In all, I don’t think we can go further than a probably on that one at the moment.

The lack of pace at the back seems to have been addressed, but at the cost of real experience and of course we have a massive hole at left back. We have the numbers in midfield, and appear to have some real quality, but will it deliver the goods? Up front… well there have been no changes, but maybe the manager didn’t think they were required.

As things stand I’ll be happier once I know who (if anyone) will be replacing Baines. I’d also like to see at least one ‘proper’ wide-man on the books. With the impending African Cup of Nations, it looks essential that we buy a front man who has no chance of playing in that tournament (because of nationality, not quality). Those three signings would make a massive difference to the squad, and depending on who they are could really change the club’s destiny this season.

Bring on August 31st.

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