With a loss and a draw at home in their last two games, Fulham are in a rough patch (if only we’d enjoyed rough patches like this the last few years). Can Fulham figure out how to break down a team that bunkers? Are they just getting a bit unlucky (as expected goals seems to think)? What is Wigan going to bring to the table? We asked Ned and JJ from Los Three Amigos some questions, and they gave us their thoughts.
Cottagers Confidential: The Premier League to the Championship to League One and then back to the Championship. It's been quite a ride. New teams often struggle when coming up, but do you feel you'll do better than most? What were your expectations for the season?
Los Three Amigos: Don't forget the FA Cup win three days before relegation to the Championship!
It certainly has been a ride. There have been several pivotal moments. The first, and gravest mistake, was the appointment of Owen Coyle after Roberto Martinez's departure. Roberto had meticulously instilled an ethos from the first team down to the academy, not only in the style of play, but type of personalities brought into the club, and spending policy. Coyle didn't seem to have any plan at all, but most damagingly, rejected and undid much of the work that came before him. To be fair, his team didn't have much time to gel, but results were dire and the football was worse. Then came Rosler, who did well to get us into the playoffs in his first season, but made some bad recruitment decisions and alienated the dressing room. His reign was followed by the darkest patch in memorable history, under Malky Mackay, whose appointment most fans rejected from the start. The atmosphere during that period was toxic, results remained poor, and relegation loomed.
At this point, Dave Whelan stepped down as chairman, handing the reigns to his grandson, David Sharpe – who had grown up in the club's golden era, climbing the divisions with Paul Jewell, enjoying eight seasons in the Premier League. His first move was to appoint Martinez's former captain, Gary Caldwell – at the time still on the books as a player and youth team coach, but on a fast-track to an injury-enforced retirement – as manager, with a few games left.
We still went down, but for the first time since the Premier League relegation, there appeared to be a clearly defined plan. Caldwell was to clean house, start fresh, with parachute payment cash to build a team of players happy to be there. Tactically, the Martinez influence was plain to see from the off, something that most, if not all Wigan supporters appreciated. After a slow start, with so many new players taking time to gel, we comfortably won League One.
The big surprise this summer was just how much chopping and changing was done. The rumours are that Caldwell's ambition, and a couple behind the scenes falling outs, led to the unexpected ins and outs. The results is that the entire defense, including keeper, has been replaced; plus at least four new midfielders and a couple strikers in the squad. We've had a slow start, with players taking time to gel, others finding fitness and form after being on the fringes of their former teams, and individual mistakes from players short on confidence.
There are lots of potential goal threats in the Latics team. Will Grigg has scored 20 goals in each of his last three seasons and has already made a smooth transition to the Championship. Yanic Wildschut is lightning fast with a powerful shot, if somewhat unpredictable. Jacobs too can score goals from the wing and is dangerous on free kicks. Jordi Gomez was back at Norwich the other night, scoring one and almost getting another. A very good player at Championship level. Max Power has a powerful shot and a fine technique from holding midfield. The problem this season has not been in goalscoring, but in defending. Circumstances have prevented Caldwell playing a settled back line, with too many mistakes being made. Moreover midfield cover has been lacking.
Part of the problem has been through Caldwell recruiting 14 new players, half of whom came late in the transfer window. The team has not yet gelled sufficiently. But overall, I think we have more than enough talent, balance, and fight, to end the season comfortably in mid-table.
CC: Gary Caldwell doesn't have a lot of experience as a manager. What kind of style does he employ and are the supporters happy with him?
LTA: I've answered this one in part, above. He is indeed young, and as such, his tactics, team selection, and substitutions are sometimes a little unfairly scrutinized. There is no question he is young and still learning, and makes mistakes. But I for one, have been struck by how he has taken to it like a fish to water. He won a league in his first full season, after all, with a team that not only played stylish attacking football in League 1, but showed togetherness and fight. His recruitment has been solid, with more successes than flops, and all within the club's wisely conservative wage policy. In League 1, he had a financial advantage; but as we've seen in every division, that certainly does not guarantee success.
In terms of style of play, his biggest influence is Martinez. He likes to be able to adapt the formation in mid-game, often starting with a 3-4-2-1 or a 3-5-2, that can morph into a 4-3-2-1 or 4-3-3. The ball is always played out of the back, and possession is important. He is, however, more pragmatic than Martinez, per his other cited influence, Gordon Strachan. More crosses into the box. Direct when they need to be. He's brave, too – not afraid to "go for it" and risk embarrassment to salvage a match.
In general, there is a lot of good will towards him. He earned it as an honest, if limited, player, during some of the greatest times in the club's history; and as an articulate and promising young manager last season. Many supporters are frustrated with him at the moment, because of the poor start, results-wise. If you look closely, however, most matches have been decided by no more than a goal, with some late winners, penalty decisions gone the wrong way, individual errors you wouldn't expect – the early season table makes the situation look worse than it is. The transfer window creeping into the start of the season has hurt, as well. Seven of the starting XI against Norwich were new signings, and they will take time to learn the Caldwell system and form partnerships in different areas of the pitch. If results improve soon, as expected, he should have most fans back on board.
CC: Dan Burn was a long time Fulham player and one we had high hopes for. His development seemed to stall however. How has he looked with Wigan? Are there any other players Fulham should keep an eye on?
LTA: Dan Burn has had a few ups and downs already. He made one particularly high profile mistake against Forest, was dropped, but then bounced back against Norwich the other day with a fine performance. With other central defenders lacking in height, Burn should become an important player over the course of the season. So far, I think it's fair to say the jury is most definitely still out. Some fans are far from convinced, while others are pleading for patience with him, to give him time to establish himself and grow.
CC: Predicted lineup and score?
LTA: Team selection under Caldwell is very, very difficult to predict, but I'll go with a modified version of the team that so promisingly ended the match against Norwich:
(4-3-2-1) Bogdan: Burke-Buxton-Burn-Warnock; Power-MacDonald-Jordi; Wildschut-Jacobs(Byrne); Grigg
Wigan Athletic 2 Fulham 1