Wigan Athletic Sensible Transfers – Centre Backs

For the first edition of my January Sensible Transfers series it was only right I covered the position that received the most votes in the poll I included in my Sensible Transfer Explained article that was released on Tuesday. Before reading anymore of this article I’d highly recommend you check that one out by clicking above!

Now that you’re back lets crack on with looking at, in the eyes of Latics fans, is the most important area that needs addressing, Centre Backs.

The Current Options

There are four what you’d class as ‘first team’ Centre Backs in the Latics squad at the moment. Jack Whatmough, who has played every minute he’s been fit for, Curtis Tilt who is the only natural Left footer of the four, Jason Kerr who had been impressive before picking up a season ending injury and Rarmani Edmonds-Green who has struggled for game time since arriving on loan from Huddersfield.

Lets have a closer look at their statistical performances this season:

Jack Whatmough

Most Latics fans would probably agree that Jack Whatmough is the best Centre Back at the club. Considering he’d never played a minute of Championship football before this season I’d say he’s adjusted to life well in the second tier and looks comfortable at the level.

He’s not been as error free as he was last season though it has to be said. Games such as Middlesbrough, Burnley and Coventry spring to mind as games where he looked to be struggling but on the whole he’s been good. Statistically he shows up as our best CB too.

He’s above average in every defensive statistic and particularly high when it comes to blocking shots. As a team that does more defending than most you’d expect our defenders to rank relatively highly in these kind of metrics but that shouldn’t take away from the fact he does his duties very well.

In possession he’s not been too impressive but that’s as much down to the system he’s played in as it is his own ability. Under Kolo Touré I expect those percentile rankings to increase.

He’s out of contract in the summer and that needs sorting out urgently. He could be a Championship CB for the best part of a decade to come, we can’t let players like him leave for nothing.

Curtis Tilt

The CB with the second highest amount of minutes played is Curtis Tilt. Its fair to say he’s given a real mixed bag of performances this season, some real standouts and some that left a lot to be desired. With nearly 1700 minutes under his belt so far he was Leam’s favoured partner for Whatmough and started Kolo’s first game against Millwall.

I don’t think its wide of the mark to say a big reason he’s favoured is that he’s the only natural left footer we have. It seems to be the modern way to try and forge left/right footed partnerships in defence in order to open up as many passing angles as possible, and Tilt has been a beneficiary of that.

The statistics show he’s not given Latics fans much to shout about. Ranking in the bottom 25 percentiles on 4/5 defensive metrics, and his passing output has been really poor. Considering the theory for having a left footer on the left is to maximise their ability to keep the ball its not something Tilt does particularly well.

Again, he wasn’t helped by Leam’s long ball style of play and in fairness he was good in possession against Millwall, even starting the move for the goal by stepping out of defence and playing a brave pass forward. His first touch and technique probably aren’t Championship standard but perhaps Touré can help improve them.

Like Whatmough he’s out of contract in the summer and at 31 you’d imagine he’ll be moved on. Therefore, signing a left footed Centre Back should be a priority.

Jason Kerr

This hurts to write a little… Its extremely likely that we won’t be seeing anymore of Jason Kerr this season after he picked up an ACL injury in our 2-2 draw with Swansea, leaving Latics with just 3 CBs to last the remainder of the season.

Its a big shame as he’d been putting in some pretty decent performances. It seems like Kerr was Leam’s go to man when playing a back 3, slotting into that RCB role comfortably as he did last season. Its a role he knows well having played there for St Johnstone and on the whole has looked solid there for us.

He’s never really been trusted in a back 4 though which is strange. Its a shame that he’s injured at the beginning of the new manager’s spell in charge as he’ll go a few months without being drilled in a back 4 system. Leam played a back 4 but as I mentioned with Tilt always favoured a L/R combination. We don’t know if Kolo is the same yet.

Statistically he’s very mixed. Tackles and Aerial Duels he has been one of the best in the division but falls down in the Interceptions, Blocks and Clearances mark. A reason for this could be the fact he’s playing as a wide centre back. He does less clearing and blocking in front of his own goal, but is required to make more tackles in wide areas.

As I’ve said though we probably don’t have to think about Kerr for the rest of the season now which is a shame. He’s contracted till 2024 so hopefully he’ll kick on when he returns to full fitness.

Rarmani Edmonds-Green

The final CB at the club is Huddersfield Town loanee Rarmani Edmonds-Green. He’s barely featured for us this season but with the injury to Kerr we can expect to see a lot more of the 23 year old over the remainder of the campaign. His parent club, who sit below us in the league currently, may regret the decision to loan him out if his performances come good for us too!

The decision to bring REG in in the summer was a shock to many. Firstly, lots of people were surprised that Huddersfield let him go after he’d played the first 3 games of the season for them, especially to a division rival. He’d impressed at Rotherham last season so was obviously a player Leam and his staff knew well.

From what we’ve seen of REG so far he looks a rather athletic defender who’s comfortable with the ball and solid defensively. In every game for Latics he’s been the RCB in a back 3 which suggests he’s very much the Jason Kerr replacement in our squad. Its where he played last season at the Millers and is well suited to it.

Due to the lack of minutes this season he doesn’t have a big enough sample size to compare against other Championship CBs. However, on the left are his base stats taken from Wyscout, which are taken from his time at Latics AND his 3 games at Huddersfield.

The stats show that he’s good in the air, positionally smart and pretty good on the ball. I’d suggest he’s probably more suited to a passing style than Curtis Tilt and possesses a youthful bravery in possession. You don’t really want ‘flair’ from a CB but he seems to balance risky passes with sensible decision making well.

Current Squad Summary

Long story short we need a new CB this window! Whatmough is good but still adjusting to the level, Tilt is experienced but error prone, Kerr isn’t going to be fit till the summer and REG is yet to really prove himself at the club. Three of the four of them have contracts with the club until June 30th so there needs to be some long term planning for this position.

With that in mind I’m not going to be suggesting any old players winding down their careers, say like Danny Fox or Jonas Olsson from years gone by. Both, Fox especially, contributed during their times at the club but in a far less aging squad than this one. I think with Tilt, the two GKs and several others at the club we don’t have to worry about bringing in more Championship experience this window.

I’ll be looking at 4 primary targets as well as a few special mentions, evaluating their play style, their physical suitability to the Championship and Touré’s system, their room for development and how much it’ll cost us to bring them here. Lets get into it.

Target 1 – Josh Earl

The first name on my shortlist is Fleetwood Town’s 24 year old defender Josh Earl. The Preston North End academy graduate had been at Deepdale for the last 15 years but after limited game time and several loan spells away from the club Earl left for fellow North West side Fleetwood Town in the summer.

Joining Scott Brown’s side has turned out to be a wonderful decision and he’s quickly proven that he’s ready for an immediate return to the second tier. A natural Left Back, the Southport born defender has been moulded into a left sided Centre Back in Brown’s 3-5-2 system and has looked really comfortable.

At 6’4″ most people would’ve foreseen Earl’s transition to a Centre Back. He’s probably not as quick as some would like their full backs to be, not to say he’s slow but he’s not a ‘flying full back’! As CBs go though he’s quick and that’s one of several attributes he could add to our back line.

I have no doubts that he has the physical attributes to cope with Championship football as a Centre Back. At 24 he’s still developing with plenty of room for growth, particularly in his new position. The fact he’s never played as a CB in a pairing is a slight concern for me but it shouldn’t put us off him. As he continues to mature he’ll learn the role quickly and considering he took to playing in a back 3 like a duck to water, I’m confident he’d be just fine.

Statistically he’s showing up really well this season. Obviously he’s playing a level below Tilt but the Fleetwood defender dwarfs him in several metrics, particularly passing wise. Its worth noting that A) Fleetwood play a back 3 which usually makes ball retention easier and B) they average over 51% possession whereas Latics average 48%.

Despite that I have no qualms saying he’s a more technically sound player and far more comfortable on the ball. His 2.22 progressive runs and 11.42 progressive passes show a confident ball playing defender that would fit perfectly into our back line.

His aerial success % is level with Tilt’s, further showing he’s suited to a CB role. Positionally he’s impressively aware and registers good numbers for interceptions and blocks, and his overall successful defensive actions number is high.

So, statistically he passes with flying colours, fits the suitable physical profile, is still young and coachable and offers us solutions in two important positions. But how available is he?

He joined Fleetwood in the summer on a 2 year deal and the Cods have the option to extend his deal by a further year. Website Transfermarkt values him at £800k which is probably out of Latics’ price range, and even if that figure isn’t entirely accurate I’d imagine they’d command over £500k for him, particularly in January. It would be a tough deal to do, particularly in this window, but he would be an absolutely fantastic signing.

Target 2 – Alex Hartridge

Another left footed Centre Back excelling in League One is Exeter City’s Alex Hartridge. Having played a key role in the Grecian’s promotion into the third tier last season he’s settled into the new division well and looks a very capable EFL defender. Former Latics and current Exeter boss Gary Caldwell has praised him in recent weeks too, so that’s a decent reference!

He’s a player that I mentioned in my Centre Back Sensible Transfers article in the summer too, with the caveat that he’d be a big risk having never played above League Two. However, I think its fair to say he’s now definitely shown he’s more than capable of playing at a higher level.

At 23 he’s another young academy graduate that Exeter’s impressive academy has produced. A slight concern is he’s never left the Devonshire area so might have some doubts about moving so far North, but from what I’ve seen in interviews he seems an ambitious, intelligent man who’d consider a move to a bigger club in a better division.

Physically I have a couple of doubts but nothing major. At 6’1 he’s not the biggest CB around but his slightly ‘lanky’ frame makes him deceptively tall. Having a thin frame isn’t uncommon for CBs, think Jack Whatmough for example, but it does mean he can struggle against big, physical front men.

It’s been a decent season so far for Hartridge and statistically he’s looking pretty good. He plays as the LCB in a back 3 for a side that like to mix things up with their build up play. Exeter go long as often as they patiently build from the back.

Hartridge is the player responsible for launching Exeter’s attacks with his switches of play and long balls into the channels. This, along with a few technical flaws that can be quickly rectified, is the reason for his low passing accuracy %. His short/medium pass (passes >40m) accuracy is 87% so he is good enough on the ball to play a possession heavy system.

Defensively he’s performed well. Despite what I mentioned earlier about his physique he’s been good in the air, better than Tilt even. He doesn’t dive into slide tackles which can be good but also suggests he lacks a bit of aggression which I personally like in a CB.

For someone still young Hartridge doesn’t make rash decisions though which is a big quality of his and one that makes me think he’d adapt well to Championship football.

His contract is up at the end of the year but I expect Exeter to try and extend that very soon. However, after over a decade at the club you have to wonder whether or not the 23 year old is ready to spread his wings and test himself elsewhere. If that is the case he could be a really smart pick up for Latics. He has his issues, lack of experience, favours a back 3 rather than 4 and some technical and physical question marks BUT overall I think he’s a really promising young left sided Centre Back.

Target 3 – Dan Happe

The third player I’ll mention is another name that featured in my article from the summer, its Leyton Orient captain Dan Happe. Despite having played just 970 minutes of football last season I knew he was a really talented CB and I’d like to think that has been proven right this season. Self praise done, I’ll move on!

Having recovered from injury problems that plagued his 21/22 campaign he’s returned to the starting 11 of an Orient side that are sitting pretty at the top of League Two. With nearly 1700 minutes under his belt Happe is back to his best and at 24 years old still has plenty of growth left in him.

Despite his young age he’s a key figure in Orient’s leadership group and clearly commands respect from his teammates on and off the pitch. In every interview I’ve watched of him he strikes me as a really positive character, someone who would settle into any dressing room well and not struggle to adapt to different surroundings. For a 24 year old that’s really impressive and you’d think it’ll only improve.

He’s another left sided defender and has spent the season playing in a 4 at the back possession heavy system. I’d suggest his agility/speed might not be optimal for playing a high line but his positional awareness gets him out of trouble more often than not. He’s also never played a level above League Two but personally I think he’s suited to playing at a higher level. Tottenham were interested in signing him a few years ago which is a decent suitor to have!

The immediate standout from a statistical perspective is Happe’s dominance defensively. Winning 73% of defensive duels and 69% of aerial duels shows that he is a rock at the heart of a 4 man defence and at 6’5″ he’s a great size for a CB.

As I mentioned earlier his positional awareness is very good. Because he’s playing for a dominant side that has a lot of the ball he’s often tasked with preventing counter attacks, cutting out long balls and covering space left by onrushing teammates.

In terms of his passing ability the data shows he’s very capable. With 82% pass accuracy he’s one of the more accomplished CBs in League Two with the ball, but whether that will translate to Championship football remains to be seen.

He’d have less time on the ball, be pressed more intelligently and be part of a less dominant side so would have to adapt his game somewhat. He doesn’t make too many line breaking passes but that’s something that can be coached into him pretty quickly.

Again like Alex Hartridge he’s never left home during his career, and if given the opportunity to join a club closer to London I wouldn’t be surprised if he took it. However, if he is willing to relocate I’d love for Latics to sign him as he’d bring great balance to our defence. At 24 he’s got so much development left in him and touch wood he is past his injury problems too. With his contract up in the summer he should be available for a cut price fee, no more than a £250k I’d imagine.

Target 4 – Luke McNally (loan)

The first 3 players were all ‘sensible permanent transfers’ who are just as much players for the future as they are players for the present. Target number 4 is my first loan option and a player that I was a bit gutted Latics didn’t sign in the summer, albeit there was hardly any chance of that happening.

Luke McNally had a wonderful season at Oxford United in League One last season and earnt himself a move to Vincent Kompany’s Burnley in the summer. Despite his obvious talent and suitability to their playing style he’s struggled for game time this season and, in my opinion, is in desperate need for a loan move.

McNally is a modern Centre Back who is brilliant in and out of possession. He takes the ball under pressure and handles it very well, be that with smart short passes, accurate switches of play or bursts of pace breaking out of defence into midfield positions. Kolo Touré has already said he wants his defenders to be brave on the ball and I think that his style would really suit McNally’s attributes.

Despite being right footed he’s comfortable playing on the left and isn’t overly reliant on his strong foot. With the way he brings the ball out of defence and his composure he doesn’t find himself needing to use his weaker foot too often, and even when he does have to he’s not a liability. He has that youthful confidence that I mentioned earlier which is a real asset and something we lack.

As I’ve mentioned McNally has barely played this season, just 93 minutes in all competitions, so there isn’t enough data to make a fair comparison with Curtis Tilt. So, I’ve taken the pairs’ data from last season to have a look at, its as fair as I could make it.

Oxford played a back 3 so he was given slightly more licence to run forward, but even so his 2.55 progressive runs per 90 is very impressive. I’ve already mentioned how confident he is on the ball and he’s not afraid of breaking lines with passes or runs.

Averaging over 11 progressive actions (passes + runs) per 90 is incredible for a CB and something we’re crying out for at the minute. When you look at our goal against Millwall its made by Tilt moving out of defence with the ball. McNally can do it quicker, better and more often I would suggest.

You may think I’ve not spoken much about him defending but don’t fear, he is a very handy stopper. In the air he’s decent, winning 2/3s of his duels and with a 72% success rate in defensive duels he’s reliable when called upon. He’s strong in the tackle and a threat from set pieces at 6’4″.

I think a loan move is really possible for him. He’s struggling for game time, Burnley have a settled defensive unit with back up options so could afford to lose him for 6 months and he wouldn’t have to relocate. Kolo and Vincent Kompany know each other well from their time at Manchester City so there is a trust there and he absolutely fits our system. If he becomes available we should move heaven and earth for him.

Notable Mentions

Those are my 4 main targets but there a a few other players that are worth a mention. They don’t quite make my main shortlist for one of several reasons, either their availability, the cost of bringing them in, their current ability or the fact they might need a bit more time to prove themselves. However, should they become available they’d definitely be good signings for Latics this January.

Target 5 – Kean Bryan

26 Y/O West Bromwich Albion CB. Left sided, can play at FB or WB too. Been out with an injury for almost a year but returned to training last month and is ready for game time. Might struggle to get into WBA team and needs game time to return to full fitness. Ball Playing Defender, good in the air and able to progress the ball with runs and passes.

Deal runs till 2023 so could be a loan or ‘mutual agreement’ to join on a free transfer. Physical doubts and potentially high wages, but a good CB with EPL and EFL experience.

Target 6 – Teden Mengi

20 Y/O Manchester United youth player. Right footed but has experience playing both sides of defence as well as the middle of a 3. Spent second half of last season on loan at Birmingham City, played 9 Championship games and looked solid enough in a poor side before loan was cut short due to injury. Modern CB, quick and strong but not great in the air. Adds much needed recovery pace to our back line.

Loan move very doable. Could easily afford to cover his wage should that be required but only a short term fix to a long term problem. Not an obvious immediate upgrade but a solid option, slight doubts around his injury record and technical attributes though.

Target 7 – Leo Hjelde

Another young PL starlet, 19 Y/O Norwegian at Leeds. Played with Thelo Aasgaard at international level, has played LB/LWB and LCB for club and country. Tall, lanky build creates doubts around his physical suitability to the CB role but at 6’2″ more than capable in the air. Great on the ball, composed and brave in possession. Good 1v1 defender but prone to lapses in concentration.

Would be a loan move but his wages are affordable. A risk as he’s got very little first team experience but might be a good option to add depth to the squad. Can play LB and CB but probably not an immediate starter in either.

Target 8 – Ross Graham

A rising star in the SPL, 21 Y/O Ross Graham has been great for Dundee over the past 12 months. Not quite as good on the ball as some of the other names mentioned but a very capable short/medium range passer of the ball with his left foot. Not the quickest but very strong and excellent in the air, uses his positional awareness to prevent getting into too many foot races.

Potentially out of our price range, particularly in January. Dundee in a relegation fight so won’t want to sell their best CB unless a silly offer comes in which we won’t do. Someone worth keeping in mind for the summer, or if there is a good amount of money to spend this January.

Final Thoughts

We need a Centre Back desperately this January and should any of these 8 players come through the door you can be very happy. Most of them wouldn’t set us back much money, all the permanent options could be at the club for years to come and the loan options improve the squad depth greatly.

Should we look to bring in a more experienced, older head I wouldn’t mind too much, but with 1 CB contracted beyond this summer we need some long term options. Its a hugely important position and we need to nail it to give us the best chance of staying up this season.

Who do you want us to sign? From the 8 names I’ve given, let me know who has caught your eye the most!

Next up, I’ll be covering Left Backs. Keep an eye out for that article in the next few days, and thanks for reading this one! I hope you enjoyed.

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