Wigan’s late ‘great escape’ is becoming such a regular feature of each Premier League season, that it’s difficult to work out how much Roberto Martinez’s change in formation has been a key factor in their recent run.
But the facts speak for themselves – Wigan played a back four for the first 24 games of the season and won three times – then since the switch to a back three, they’ve won six in 12. It is a remarkable turnaround for a side who sat bottom just six weeks ago, and has further boosted the reputation of Martinez.
The 3-4-3 system he has favoured in recent weeks is a highly adaptable formation that can become 5-4-1 easily in the defensive phase of play, and Martinez has drilled his players excellently so they understand the nature of the system with and without the ball. Equally impressively, Wigan have perfected the shape in two different ways – both playing proactively, taking the game to the opposition (as they did in the 4-0 home win against Newcastle last weekend) or by playing a complete counter-attacking game (as they did when winning 2-1 at the Emirates last month).
Against Newcastle they had 57% possession, against Arsenal it was 36%. They are two completely different gameplans, and it’s fair to say that one was achieved with a 3-4-3, the other with 5-4-1 – though it’s the same base system, the positioning of the wing-backs and the wingers with and without the ball clearly changes the ‘band’ of the system they are part of.
The most interesting part of Wigan’s formation is the defence – primarily because it remains very rare to see a side playing a back three in the Premier League. Antolin Alcaraz and Gary Caldwell, who were often the centre-back pairing when Wigan played a back four, are joined by Maynor Figueroa, who is more of a left-back than a centre-back. This is particularly obvious when Wigan are passing the ball out from the back, as Figueroa is the one to prompt the attacks and play the first pass into midfield. Against Newcastle, for example, Alcaraz had 68 touches of the ball and Caldwell 38, but Figueroa had 90 – he’s the man Ali Al-Habsi generally looks to when playing short passes.
Alcaraz plays to the right and Figueroa to the left, and those two are given license to move forward from the back three and track a striker moving deep – or an attacking midfielder in space between the lines. In turn, the other two shuffle across and cover the space. This means that Caldwell’s role is different to the other two – he’s always moving laterally as the spare man, while Alcaraz and Figueroa move vertically towards play.
That’s summed up in their defensive statistics. Figueroa makes 2.9 tackles per game, Alcaraz 2.4, but Caldwell just 0.6. Similarly, Figueroa intercepts 2.5 times per game, Alcaraz 2.6, and Caldwell only 1.4.
But then Caldwell is always on hand to do the penalty box defending – he clears the ball 5.9 times per game (compared to 4.4 and 5), makes 1.1 blocks (0.5, 0.5) and wins 1.4 aerial duels (1.1, 1.1). You can’t have three centre-backs trying to do the same thing, and therefore the separation of responsibilities has worked nicely.
Further forward, the signing of Jean Beausejour has been crucial to Wigan’s performance – he provides natural thrust from left wing-back, having made his name in a similar role Marcelo Bielsa’s 3-3-1-3 with Chile. He crosses the ball 2.5 times per game, which is significantly better than any other Wigan player (David Jones is next best, on 1), illustrating how much they needed Beausejour to play this system. On the other flank, Emerson Boyce is more conservative, though also understands his position well and is often the man in space to provide an out-ball for the back three.
In the centre of midfield, it’s easy to get mixed up between James McCarthy and James McArthur, the duo who also played alongside each other for Hamilton Academical – but they do have slightly different roles. McCarthy sits deeper and does more defensive work than McArthur (2.5-1.8 tackles, 1.8-0.9 interceptions). McArthur moves forward to join the front four, and helps with the pressing.
On the flanks, the star is Victor Moses, who is the second-most prolific dribbler in the Premier League behind Blackburn’s Junior Hoilett. More importantly, Moses has found his shooting boots – scoring six times since December, having only managed two goals in the previous two years. But though Moses is the man bigger clubs might be looking at, Shaun Maloney has been superb in recent weeks. Martinez switches the wide players from game to game, so full-backs don’t know what to expect.
Up front, Franco Di Santo was a figure of fun earlier in the season, but has gone about his work with commitment and determination. He is good at holding up the ball and understands the need to break quickly when Wigan are playing on the counter-attack. He’s also started to chip in with some goals himself, though is still only on six for the season. He’s not the most talented striker in the league, but is the right style for a side that sometimes hoard the ball, and sometimes counter-attack – he can spearhead the team effectively either way.
With everything going so well, it’s tempting to ask why Martinez didn’t use this system before – a harsh question, perhaps, but when Wigan lost eight consecutive games earlier in the season, they could have done with some variation in their play.
It’s been crucial that Martinez has the right players for the system, and equally crucial that they’ve been drilled well in training. But the key factor in Wigan’s recent run of success has simply been that Martinez has given opponents a different threat, something to make opposition coaches think. Often, the opposition have been forced to change their own system midway through the game to adapt – in itself, that shows the difficulty of playing against a 3-4-3 in a league obsessed with back fours. In an uninspiring relegation scrap, Wigan play the most attractive football and offer the most variety in their play – and their probable survival is good for the league as a whole.