Wigan Athletic Sensible Appointments – Manager

Well, well, well. I didn’t think I’d be writing this article a month ago I can tell you that for free!

On Thursday morning Wigan Athletic parted company with Leam Richardson in a move that has been questioned by many, welcomed by some and will be debated for weeks, months perhaps even years to come.

Leam was sacked and given the fact he had 3 years left on his deal I imagine there was a handsome pay-out for him. That’s worth noting as it means there may be less money to spend on a new manager and any new signings our next gaffer may want. That limits the pool of coaches we can pick from.

As you may have seen in the summer I did a series of articles about potential new signings. This will be similar, but there are a few more things we have to take into account when it comes to appointing a new manager. Here are the things I’ll be taking into account when putting forward my options:

  • Playing Style

For me this is the most important one. Leam was sacked because of a terrible run of results in which the football we played was borderline archaic and unquestionably boring, with no real idea what the game plan was. I’m looking for a replacement whose philosophy is unequivocal, plays a more attractive brand of football and is willing to adapt pre game and mid game. Ideally, they’ll also be able to make their style work with the current squad of players too, albeit with a few January additions added into the mix.

  • Coaching Prowess

Another thing I’ll be focusing on is how well the candidates develop their own players. We have some talented young players in our first team and youth set up who need a new manager to come and help improve them. I want to see evidence of players, young and old, improving under the tutelage of these coaches.

  • Industry Connections

This is another vital quality that our new manager should have. The loan market will be huge for Latics in the January transfer window and in order to get the best players possible we need a manager who can be trusted by the big teams. I’ll be looking at manager’s former jobs, potential connections at Premier League clubs and their previous record with loan players.

  • Suitability to Wigan

All of the above are important when it comes to on the pitch matters but before anything we need to make sure the candidate fits the mould of the club. I’ll be looking for an honest coach, someone who will be able to form strong bonds with staff and fans alike and someone not averse to upsetting the odds. Ironically, as close to Leam Richardson as possible in these regards.

  • Availability

Ultimately as I’ve said we don’t have tonnes of money to throw around at a new manager. I’m expecting us to focus on candidates currently out of work in order to minimise our spend and therefore all my options will be people currently out of work who don’t require a compensation fee. They’re all UK based too as I don’t deem it a sensible plan to take a risk on a manager who would have to settle into a new country as well as fight relegation.

Right then that’s all the admin out of the way, let’s move onto the candidates shall we?

Candidate 1 – Rob Edwards

The first name on my list is former AFC Telford United, Forest Green Rovers and Watford manager Rob Edwards. He’ll be a name familiar to many of you as the man sacked just 10 games into his tenure at Watford earlier on this season, but that stain on his record shouldn’t put fans off him.

Edwards has gained a reputation as a wonderful young coach, something he started building at Wolverhampton Wanderers 8 years ago. His work in their youth team eventually led to him taking interim charge of the first team for a few games in 2016. He clearly made a positive impression there as he was linked with a return to Molineux a month ago following the sacking of Bruno Lage. However, Edwards reportedly turned the opportunity down in search of something more long term.

I’d like to focus on his work at Forest Green Rovers now. He arrived at the club in 2021 and guided them to their first promotion out of League Two at the first time of asking, and did so whilst playing a wonderful brand of football. They won the title last season despite a poor finish to the season, but that was arguably down to the fact they’d all but secured promotion by the end of March! He also deservedly won the League Two Manager of the Year award.

His style of play is certainly more modern than Latics fans will be used to. Edwards favours a 3-4-1-2 system which arguably suits the players we have in our current side, and it’s what Leam Richardson was playing for the final few games of his time in charge.

However, comparing the pairs styles would be like comparing chalk and cheese! Edwards’ expansive style of play was a joy to watch at Forest Green last season and was ultimately the reason behind Watford approaching him with the management opportunity. They scored 75 goals whilst conceding just 44 in their 46 games, and all of this was with a squad not fancied for the Title.

To put it simply he wants his sides to have possession with a purpose. His Forest Green side had the 3rd highest average possession last season, and his Watford side averaged over 50% in their 10 games under him. He wants his teams to play quickly and focus a lot of their play through the middle of the pitch which opens up space for the wing backs who he encourages to be very aggressive.

Nicky Cadden and Kane Wilson were his best two players at FGR and both got good moves in the summer off the back of their performances. Wilson was actually a player I highlighted in my sensible transfers series, he scored 3 goals and made 13 assists for Edwards’ side last term. If he was to come to us he’d definitely want to invest in the wing back spots.

We also don’t really have a squad suited to possession football at the moment. The lack of a natural playmaking midfielder is definitely a problem and our wing backs aren’t as athletic as he might like, but they’re both areas I feel like we’ll be able to strengthen using the loan market.

I should touch on his time at Watford but I do feel like it has given his reputation an unfair amount of damage. Everyone knows how trigger happy their owner is and a manager like Edwards needs time to implement his style, especially after coming into a recently relegated club with a completely different style of play to what he’d like. Yes, results didn’t go as well as they could’ve but most Watford fans wanted to give him more time.

His brief spell at Vicarage Road means he’s probably looking for a job to rebuild his reputation at. Saving Latics from relegation would certainly go a long way to doing that! The biggest question mark around Rob Edwards is whether his style is suited to battling relegation. I’ve said he needs time to implement his style, a relegation battle might not be the best environment to do that in but.

It seems as though Edwards was at the Blackpool game on Saturday which suggests he’s interested in taking the job. It feels like a good fit, we’re a club looking to rebuild our Championship reputation and he’s a manager looking to rebuild his reputation. What I should also add is that he seems like a wonderful guy. There’ve been plenty of interviews/clips of him that I’ve watched and been really impressed by. Leam had that and I think Edwards has it too.

Here’s how I think we’d line up under Rob Edwards, and how well he fits the criteria I discussed earlier:

Candidate 2 – Neil Critchley

The second manager on my target list is another manager already being heavily linked with a move to the DW Stadium. Former Blackpool gaffer Neil Critchley is another highly thought of young coach and has had experience working at some of the biggest clubs in the world in coaching roles and a full year of Championship football under his belt as a number 1.

Having started his coaching career in the youth teams at Liverpool he worked under some of the best coaches in the country and is credited with helping develop several players currently playing at the highest level; see Trent Alexander-Arnold, Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliott for instance. This gives him superb connections at a top club that we could use to our advantage in the loan market.

His good work at the Reds earnt him a move to Blackpool, a League One side at the time. His first full season in charge saw Blackpool achieve promotion through the play-offs with the best defensive record in the league (37 conceded) and a really well structured unit in general. They weren’t exactly free-flowing going forward, scoring 60 goals in 46 games, but they did put 5 past us when we were at our lowest point of administration! That’s not much to shout about though to be fair…

The promotion wasn’t really expected and many assumed they’d drop back down straight away given their perceived weak squad. However, under Critchley’s guidance Blackpool finished a comfortable 16th place and shut up a lot of the bookies that had tipped them for an immediate return back to the third tier.

In that sense he feels like the perfect appointment for Latics. Our squad isn’t a strong Championship squad on paper and what it needs is a simple, effective and progressive system to play in which will give us the best chance of picking up points. Critchley probably offers that better than any other candidate on this list.

He favoured a 4-4-2 system at the Seasiders, but far and away from the stereotypical version of that formation from yesteryear. His was all about pressing from the front with the two strikers and wide players, who looked to cut passing lanes into the middle of the pitch and funnel the opposition into wide areas. They were supported by a back 4 set up in a mid block with two screening holding midfielders in front of them who made it very difficult for teams to play through ‘Pool.

Latics’ current crop of players will be well versed with this method. We’ve defended really narrowly this season and will feel comfortable funnelling play wide and inviting crosses into our box which we should deal with. The difficulty will be instilling the pressing trigger into our forward line which is currently far more ‘stand offish’ than what Critchley will probably want.

I think he’d be able to make his system work with our current squad which certainly makes him a favourable target, especially for our ownership group as it will require less investment in theory! We’ve got enough forward players to satisfy the need for 4 on the pitch at a time and our midfielders look like a perfect match to those he had at Blackpool in my opinion.

There might not be enough pace at centre back to allow him to play a 4 with confidence but then again he did play 35 year old Richard Keogh there for a lot of last season, albeit alongside Marvin Expiteta who is pretty quick. He’ll probably want to improve the wing backs as they play a big part in his attacking play too but on the whole I think we’re a ready made squad for him.

The only glaring cross against his name in my opinion is the way he left Blackpool in the summer. To leave a stable and exciting Championship head coaching role to go back to being ‘just’ a coach at Aston Villa suggests to me that he might not have the managerial bug like others do. Mick Beale for example, the man who Critchley replaced at Villa, seems to be a manager who tried coaching rather than a coach who tried managing.

My fear is, if Steven Gerrard gets another job and wants to bring Critchley in again would he be tempted by that and leave. We’d get some good compensation if that did happen but that pales in comparison to the havoc it would cause at the club. Just look at where Blackpool are this season…

From a footballing perspective it makes sense. He knows the area so that helps too, and seemed to instil real pride in the club and the town when he was at Blackpool. There may be question marks about his hunger for a ‘top job’ but perhaps the Villa experience and their failings has humbled him somewhat. He’s favourite for the job with us AND Luton, so he’ll have to make the decision quickly.

Here’s how I think we’d line up under Neil Critchley, and how well he fits the criteria I discussed earlier:

Candidate 3 – Duncan Ferguson

Well this would ruffle a few feathers wouldn’t it! Duncan ‘Big Dunc’ Ferguson has been heavily linked with the club in the past few days and given the fact he’s been public about his intention to get into management you’d have to assume he’d be interested in a move to Latics. But I’ve seen all your questions and your doubts, and I’m here to answer the main one.

Would he really be a ‘sensible appointment?’

He’s definitely someone that need’s no introduction. A wonderful player, a ferocious target man and a fearless character, Big Dunc was one of the most iconic figures in 90s and 00s British football. That clip of him and Jimmy Bullard at the JJB after the Scotsman was sent off is famous worldwide, and that aggression certainly makes him an interesting pick for manager.

He strikes me as a manager that won’t waste time with players he doesn’t rate. When caretaker manager at Everton he infamously subbed Moise Kean on and off again within 20 minutes, a brave move for a caretaker boss with one of the most highly thought of youngsters in world football at the time. Its fair to say he won’t be shy of making big calls.

You’d have to question whether that’ll suit this current side. Leam struck me as ‘one of the lads’ with his management style and someone that would defend his team in the press at all costs. I’m sure he was tough on them in the dressing room but he always defended them in the press. Ferguson, as we saw with Moise Kean, is slightly less concerned with this kind of thing and does and says what he thinks no matter what.

Its difficult to suggest what tactical style he’ll try and implement as he’s never been in a permanent managerial role. When taking caretaker charge of Everton he used a 4-4-2 but its worth noting the context in which those games took place – the Toffees were in need of points and were playing sides far better than them (Manchester United, Chelsea, Villa). With Latics in a relegation scrap this could well be his method here.

He seems to be against the idea of a back 5. In a recent interview he claimed ‘I don’t like back 5s, it means you’re covering up things and that’s not the way you should be going’. That tells me he’s a forward thinking manager that wants his team to be on the front foot which makes sense as a former number 9. Is that possible at Latics though, I guess that remains to be seen?

His lack of managerial experience is a concern. Chucking him into the deep end of the Championship is a hell of a task for someone new to management but he’s absolutely not someone that will shirk a tough challenge. He also has a hell of a lot of managers to call upon if he needs help. Carlo Ancelotti, Sam Allardyce, David Moyes and our own Bobby Martinez to name a few.

He’d probably look to add players in January and may well look to bring in someone from Everton to help his cause. With Nathan Broadhead already at the club though he’d only be able to go back to Goodison Park for one more player so he’d better choose wisely! Given his positive work in their youth team though he has a good reputation in the game and would probably be trusted by many to develop young talent.

Its an appointment that would certainly grab the headlines. Here’s my overall grading on Big Dunc as the next Latics boss…

Candidate 4 – Shaun Maloney

‘You put your left leg in, your left leg out…’

The only former Latics man on this list (there you go, there’s a hint) is Shaun Maloney. A Latics hero in his playing days and the man who assisted the most important goal in our clubs history, its fair to say he’d come to the club well loved. But, his coaching record isn’t quite as positive as his playing one was and there have been doubts about him ever since his name was thrown into the mix.

Credible journalist Alan Nixon reported on Sunday morning that Maloney has thrown his hat into the ring. This comes after the Scotsman’s brief spell in charge at Hibernian in which he failed to impress much and failed to build on the impressive reputation he’d built during his time as coach of the Belgium national team.

As you can imagine his style is in the mould of Roberto Martinez, the man who brought him to Latics back in 2011 and took him on as coach at Belgium. Maloney used a 3 at the back for the most part at Hibs and looked to keep possession of the ball as much as possible with a fluid front 3 and energetic midfield. It was high risk high reward stuff as Martinez’s style was which we’re all well aware of!

The problem is that in high pressure situations its sometimes better to be slightly less gung ho. Leam was very much of the opinion that ‘not losing’ should be our priority rather than ‘maybe winning’ which is fair enough to a point but I feel like he took that to the extreme. Maloney, perhaps like Bobby before him, is at the other end of the scale.

It didn’t work out well at Hibs which to some extent was down to the squad he inherited. Jack Ross, Maloney’s predecessor, favoured a more direct style of play so Maloney was tasked with building a system from scratch in his first managerial job. In many ways it was a baptism of fire for him, but what worries me is its almost an identical scenario at Latics.

We don’t really have the squad for a possession focused team as I mentioned earlier in the Rob Edwards section. The difference is Edwards’ system is far more adaptable (eg, he likes to use a target man so there’s always the potential to go long) whereas Maloney seems slightly more set in his ways. That’s fine, but you have to have the right squad for that and he simply wouldn’t at Latics.

He would have the January window to bring in some more technically gifted players but if I’m honest I don’t see it working as well as I do with the others on this list. It feels like slightly too big a job for Maloney at this moment, I’d like to see him take a League One job and really build from scratch in that division. I also don’t want him to ruin his legacy as a Latics player by not living up to his high standards as a manager…

Here’s how I think we’d line up under Shaun Maloney, and how well he fits the criteria I discussed earlier:

Candidate 5 – Mark Bonner

The first manager on my list currently employed by another club, its Cambridge United manager Mark Bonner. He wasn’t someone I was initially planning on covering but after asking Latics fans on Twitter who they’d like to see me cover his name cropped up a fair few times. So here we go, would Mark Bonner be a sensible appointment?

He’s certainly a sought after coach. When Paul Warne left Rotherham earlier on in the season it seemed that Bonner was the Millers’ number one choice to replace him but the 36 year old remained committed to the Amber Army. However, as his Cambridge side continue to struggle in League One perhaps now is the time he jumps at the chance to move up a division…

Its worth noting that he’s very much unfancied by the bookies, and I’ve not seen him linked yet. It seems like we’re trying to appoint a free agent manager, maybe to save money but also to make it a smoother transition. Bonner is extremely settled at Cambridge having been in charge there since 2020 so uprooting might be tough for him. Then again, maybe now is the perfect moment for him to try something new, you never know…

Bonner’s positive reputation is well deserved. He guided Cambridge to 2nd place in League Two in his first full season in charge and kept them up in League One comfortably last season. They also achieved a memorable 1-0 victory over Newcastle in the FA Cup which pretty much consolidated Bonner’s status as a U’s legend. He’s got a contract till 2024 too so the compensation required will be significant.

The main quality of his Cambridge side is that they are very difficult to beat. Latics fans will remember the two games we had against them last season, a defeat at the DW and a draw at Abbey Stadium (a game we were 2-0 down in). They were compact, well organised and extremely effective going forward. It was exactly how a ‘weaker’ team in a division should set up.

They also did all of that whilst playing a relatively attacking-looking 4-2-3-1 but were still able to remain defensively sound. That should be music to Latics fans ears.

His direct style works well in League One but the step up too the Championship doesn’t seem quite as receptive to these methods. Realistically, if it was Leam Richardson would still be in a job! The way Leam set us up this season is pretty much exactly how I’d expect Bonner to set us up and with that in mind you’d have to ask whether its a progressive appointment or not.

For me it seems like too much of a risk. He doesn’t have any Championship experience, he has very few notable contacts in the game that we could utilise to our favour and the style he’d implement is what many supporters are keen for us to transition away from. Whilst his style might be more suited to our current playing squad I don’t think it works as well as people might think.

He feels like someone made for Cambridge and vice versa. Here’s how sensible an appointment I think Bonner would be…

Candidate 6 – Pete Wild

The final name on this list will definitely be a surprise to many, in fact some may not even be aware of his good work. Barrow manager Pete Wild has been one of the standout coaches in the EFL this season and has guided The Bluebird’s to an impressive 5th place in the league. Many had Barrow pencilled in as relegation favourites before the season so that’s testament to what a good job he’s doing.

Wild’s journey to professional management has been different to most in the fact that he never played professional or even academy football. His first coaching role came at Oldham Council before he moved to Oldham Athletic to coach in their academy. After working his way up the ranks he became caretaker manager in 2018 following a couple of years in charge of England Amputees!

He was offered the job at Halifax Town in 2019 and built something really impressive at The Shaymen. Three consecutive top 10 finishes at a club whose budget was dwarfed by many teams in the division was an impressive feat and they were unfortunate to miss out on promotion through the play-offs on two occasions.

Wild’s success earnt him a move to League Two Barrow in the summer who as I’ve mentioned were tipped for relegation in pre season. The 38 year old has gone in there and made them tough to break down, hard working and very effective going forward in their 4-2-3-1 system. I’d argue the similarities between Wild, Bonner and Leam Richardson are plentiful in that sense.

This season Barrow have performed almost exactly as well as the expected goals model suggests they should. They’ve scored 24 goals from an xG of 23.92 and conceded and conceded 18 from an xG of 19.56. This suggests they absolutely deserve to be where they are and that Wild is capable of getting the best out of a group of players he inherits. That bodes well for Latics.

We probably have a squad of players that Wild would be able to fit into his favoured system. Latics have spent lots of time playing 4-2-3-1 in the last 18 months or so and I’d imagine that Wild would set us up like that. His use of inverted wingers would also be music to Antony Scully and Thelo Aasgaard’s ears as they’d definitely be players he’d get the best of.

The glaring issues for me with Pete Wild are his lack of Championship experience and high level contacts. We need a strong January window and I’m not sure his recruitment would be as impressive as other candidates on this list. He has made several smart signings in his time as a manager and often on a shoestring budget so that is a positive. Whether he could do the same in the Championship is a different question entirely though…

He’s under a 5-year contract at Barrow so that poses another stumbling block for the deal, but in terms of a left field appointment I think we could do a lot worse than Pete Wild…

Final Thoughts

This appointment has to be nailed. The decision to sack Leam Richardson was justifiable considering our form/performances but it still isn’t sitting right with a large number of Latics fans. Whoever comes in next will need to hit the ground running quickly and build a strong connection with supporters or we’ll hear a lot of ‘this is why we shouldn’t have sacked Leam’ chat…

Plenty of other names have been linked, most recently Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard, but these six names make the most sense in my opinion. There are a couple of stand out candidates for me personally though – Rob Edwards and Neil Critchley.

If we manage to get either of them in I’d be over the moon. Ferguson would be intriguing as would Maloney, whilst Bonner and Wild have strong and growing reputations within the EFL. But for those four I feel like the Championship relegation battle isn’t the place to make their next move.

Whoever it is will have my full support. Its been pretty plain sailing under the Phoenix 2021 Ltd group and this is their first really key decision. I have faith in them to make the right choice, lets wait and see…

Thanks for taking the time to read this article, I hope you enjoyed it! If you’d like me to cover any more potential managers let me know, I’ll see what I can do!

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