Optimism had been the watch word at Coventry City for much of this summer but as we approach the actual playing of football, caution and trepidation are more prominent in the mind. A slow summer of transfer activity that has contrasted with the hope that we might be able to challenge for at least the play-offs that came when Tony Mowbray extended his contract with the club has tempered the hopes of many. A poor set of pre-season results featuring zero wins and just two goals has further dampened the mood around the club.
Pre-season is often a poor indicator of the outcome of the season and often bares little relation to even the early season form. Regardless of the disappointing results and performances, it only takes a cursory look at the available squad for the opening day to know that we are far from being fully equipped for the challenges of the season ahead.
It was with some surprise then that Tony Mowbray moved for the young Middlesbrough midfielder Bryn Morris in the loan market this week. As talented as he may be, Morris doesn’t arrive to address an area of the pitch that many are concerned about with John Fleck, Romain Vincelot and even Conor Thomas fairly strong players for the central midfield spots.
The only injury concern heading into this meeting with recently-relegated Wigan Athletic is that of Danny Swanson who limped off in the final pre-season friendly against Oxford. It virtually guarantees that Ruben Lameiras will make his full debut instead, alongside fellow new signings Romain Vincelot and Sam Ricketts who both look certain to make the starting XI.
The main selection issue for Mowbray will be the make-up of his attacking unit. Marcus Tudgay as a starting lone striker may rough up a Wigan defence acclimatising to a lower division but hardly presents an outlet for crosses and passes into the box. Dropping him deeper would compromise James Maddison’s starting spot and reduce the team’s creativity moving forwards. Dropping him altogether would leave a very young attacking unit featuring Maddison, Adam Armstrong and Ruben Lameiras. None of those options sound particularly appealing and only serve to further outline the need for reinforcements.
Last Time We Met
This game will be our fifth ever league fixture against Wigan, with our last four meetings coming between 2003 and 2005 as Wigan quickly rose to Premier League promotion whilst we continued to underwhelm in the Championship. The last meeting came at Highfield Road where Gary Teale gave Wigan the lead before Gary McSheffrey levelled from the penalty spot. Nathan Ellington gave the Latics all three points in front of a crowd of around 12,000 which won’t be too dissimilar from the likely attendance ten years later at the Ricoh Arena in League One.
How Are They Doing?
Along with Sheffield United, Wigan are the hot favourites for promotion due to their significant financial advantage over most in the division and their recent Premier League history. Ex-Sky Blues loanee Gary Caldwell will be managing Wigan in just his sixth competitive game as manager of the club for this fixture, although with the scale of change that has taken place over the summer, this will be a very different Wigan team to the one he oversaw in a 3-0 defeat at Brentford in May.
The sheer amount of player turnover over the summer has been dramatic and risks getting Wigan off to a bad start whilst players are still gelling. Experienced players such as James Perch, Emmerson Boyce and Ali Al-Habsi have been allowed to leave and replaced by younger, fresher-faced players such as Max Power, Jonjoe Kenny and Reece James. The combination of a managerial rookie, the loss of experience and the desire to play a passing style of football could be a cocktail for disaster.
Yet there is also an argument that overhauling a team that suffered relegation in such meek fashion as Wigan did, needed to be disbanded in one fell swoop. Wigan are hoping to avoid falling victim to the motivation problems that overpaid, over-hyped and over-the-hill players can suffer when dropping down to a lower level. The recent additions of the experienced Kevin McNaughton at full-back and Chris Kirkland in goal should give Wigan a competitive edge to the potentially soft under-belly.
Caldwell has been trying to keep his team selection for this game a mystery and with an available squad of nearly 30, he has plenty of options. Given the amount of central defenders signed over the summer, a three-man defence looks likely although the experienced midfielder Chris McCann could be asked to play on the left-side of that defence. Although new signings Sanmi Odelusi and Michael Jacobs are nominally wingers, Caldwell looks to lack the wide options too to play anything other than a wing-back system.
The key area for Wigan this season will be in attack where the link-up play between new additions Will Grigg, Craig Davies and Michael Jacobs in support will define their season. Grigg is a pretty standard penalty area striker who scored over 20 goals last season as he helped MK ‘Dons’ to automatic promotion. Craig Davies has his fitness struggles but is more of a physical presence and will be expected to do more of his work around the box. Jacobs is a dynamic winger who can also operate centrally and had twice been linked with a move to Coventry City before joining Wigan this summer.
Possible Line-Up: (3-4-1-2) O’Donnell; Daniels, Morgan, McCann; Kenny, Power, Perkins, James; Jacobs; Davies, Grigg
Despite the clear and present threats that Wigan offer, I have maintained a confidence throughout the summer that we will be able to beat them. Recently-relegated sides to this level always struggle in the opening weeks of the season and given the sheer amount of change that has taken place at Wigan over the summer, the players will need time to gel and with their manager looking to implement a possession-based style of football, the performance may be valued over the result. It’s all about us being proactive in this game, getting in Wigan’s faces and denying them the time on the ball that they will be looking to have.
Although our own squad is in an early phase of bedding-in too and that we look fairly weak at the moment, I am sticking with my gut feeling that we will win this game 1-0.