Roberto Martinez's shift to a back three system last season saved Wigan from the drop.
Next up for Manchester United is a league clash at Old Trafford versus Wigan Athletic -- a foe that is probably more formidable than most casual Premier League observers might give them credit for. It's also a club that defeated Sir Alex Ferguson's side last April at the DW Stadium. The Latics were off to a horrid start last season but after manger Roberto Martinez permanently switched his side to a back three system in early February -- more specifically a 3-4-3 system with wing-backs -- they went on to comfortably finish seven points clear of the relegation zone while impressively earning 27 points from their final 14 league matches.
For the most part, Wigan were fairly constant in their 3-4-3 system for the final few months of last season: there was a back three, wing-backs that bombed forward to provide width in attack while also tracking back to pick up the opposition's wide attackers when out of possession, two relatively deep central-midfielders, and two relatively narrow wide-attackers in support of a center-forward. The only real variation was whether they'd be proactive in their approach by closing down high up the pitch or whether they'd be reactive by having their wide players drop back a line in order to provide a more secure 5-4-1 shape. Against United in April, it was something in between as Wigan's midfielders disrupted their counterparts by immediately closing down in the center of the park.
For the new campaign, not much has changed for the back three, the wing-backs, and the central-midfielders. For each of these units, I'll discuss some of the specifics and once that is out of the way, I'll go over some of the variation that Wigan's front three has shown this season.
Diagram 1: The lopsided 3-4-1-2ish system used by Wigan in the first-half of their 0-2 away defeat of Southampton.
Last season, Gary Caldwell was the central player and he was typically flanked by Maynor Figeuroa to the left and Antolin Alcaraz to the right. This season has seen Ivan Ramis play either side of Caldwell when injury forced Figueroa to fill-in at left-wing-back on two occasions. If Wigan are up against two out-and-out strikers (think 4-4-2, 3-5-2, etc), then it's typically the wide central-defenders -- Alcaraz and Ramis -- that step out to challenge the strikers while Caldwell sweeps in behind. If they up against an out-and-out striker supported by an attacker 'in the hole' (think 4-4-1-1, 4-1-2-3-1, etc), then one of the wide central-defenders -- typically Figueroa or Ramis -- will step out to close down the deeper attacker while Caldwell and the other central-defender have a 2 v 1 situation versus the lead striker.
Jean Beausejour is a key player in this system as his tremendous ability to get forward and create chances from the left flank is instrumental to Wigan's success. Fortunately for United, he's expected to miss Saturday's match due to injury. Figueroa is anticipated to step into this role and while he's not as dangerous as Beausejour in attack, he's industrious and has enough pace to be effective. Emmerson Boyce will be on the opposite side as the right-wing-back.
Wigan tend to attack much more down the left side and these four reasons perhaps factor into that: (1) As previously mentioned, Beausejour is a very good wing-back on this side and he even has experience in this role for Chile. (2) There's space going forward for overlaps because Shaun Maloney -- the attacking player typically based on the left -- drifts inside to work the space between the lines. (3) When Figueroa is deployed as the left-sided central-defender, he usually has enough pace to cover for Beausejour. (4) James McArthur is the left player in his central-midfield partnership with James McCarthy. McArthur tends to hold his deep-position more and is available more often as cover on this side. On the opposite side, Boyce tends to be quicker in getting back in support of the back three when Wigan lose possession.
The roles are fairly simple for McArthur and McCarthy, but not necessarily easy. They are often outnumbered in the center of the park (when against three-man midfield systems such as 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1) but both are industrious, combative, and adequate at quickly swinging the ball out wide to the flanks for the wing-backs. They're nothing special, but both are decent players. In addition, they are relatively disciplined about staying compact with the backline when Wigan are out of possession. However, intelligent movement can allow the opposition's No.10 to pop into dangerous positions between Wigan's lines when the passing is quick and the movement fluid. As previously mentioned, McArthur tends to stay deep and this stabilizes his team's shape while McCarthy will get forward for late-arriving runs into the box.
Front Three | lopsided 3-4-1-2
Victor Moses started Wigan's first game against Chelsea but he has since departed for the same Chelsea side. Moses was typically deployed as a wide forward on the right and his pace and dribbling was key for Wigan when they broke forward for counterattacks. In the past transfer window, Martinez brought in Arouna Kone from Levante and he's been the player to replace Moses in the starting XI -- although he doesn't appear to be the same sort of player.
Against Southampton in the first-half -- Wigan's second league match of the season -- Kone was deployed as the No.9 and it was Franco Di Santo that was pushed out wide to the right. Kone tended to stay high but he was willing to drop deep when necessary in order to link play or hold the ball up so that others could be brought into attack. Di Santo stayed high and narrow on the right -- while sometimes crowding Kone's space -- and he didn't really look comfortable in this role. Maloney was positioned deeper and he drifted inside from the left into the space between the lines. From here, he was the player to link the midfield and attack. This whole dynamic lopsided Wigan's shape.
Diagram 1 (again): lopsided 3-4-1-2
Front Three | balanced 3-4-1-2
In the second-half versus Southampton, Roberto Martinez made an adjustment: he deployed Maloney centrally in a traditional No.10 role in behind strikers Kone and Di Santo. This perhaps was done to get Di Santo into a more familiar central (-ish) striker's role while getting Maloney more central as well so that he could link play for both sides of the pitch. This slightly narrowed the front three and the result was the clear instruction for the wing-back to push forward even more in order to provide width for the attack. It didn't take long for Wigan to reap the benefits from this adjustment as Boyce bombing forward found Maloney between the lines just outside the box. From here, Maloney sublimely slipped Di Santo through and the striker struck home for the game's opening goal. The game opened up for Southampton too as they were continually finding space in behind Wigan's now increasingly marauding full-backs.
Diagram 2: a balanced 3-4-1-2 shape that was used by Wigan in the early second-half versus Southampton
Front Three | 3-4-2-1
This 3-4-2-1 for Wigan isn't that much different from their front three last season of Di Santo in the center, Moses on the right, and Maloney on the left. Maloney still does his thing where he works the space between the lines and Di Santo (or Kone possibly) would play as the No.9. Moses was direct as a wide forward but Jordi Gomez, if deployed out on the right at any point at Old Trafford, will likely drift inside and deeper in order to link play -- his style is somewhat in between Moses and Maloney (if that makes any sense). Gomez playing deeper than Moses makes this more of a 3-4-2-1 shape.
Diagram 3: a possible 3-4-2-1 shape with Jordi Gomez
If you're fairly familiar with Wigan's tactics from late last season, then you won't notice much difference from their back three, central-midfielders, and wing-backs. The only difference is that Beausejour's injury likely pushes Figueroa forward to left-wing-back and Ramis likely deputises in Figueroa's normal left-center-back role (fortunately, this makes Wigan's attack less dangerous). At Old Trafford on Saturday, we're most likely to see Martinez deploy his side in either a lopsided 3-4-1-2 (diagram 1) or a balanced 3-4-1-2 shape (diagram 2). These front threes deviate slightly from last season's front three. A possible late game adjustment option is the 3-4-2-1 with Jordi Gomez coming on as a substitute (if he starts, this is the likely shape then).
Besides systems and shapes, the other thing to consider is what approach will Wigan take? They pressed our midfield last season and this caused problems for Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs. I anticipate them doing this again but if Martinez decides to sit back at any point in this match and defend deep -- especially if Wigan lead or have a level scoreline late in the match -- then United will be up against a back five as the wide players -- wing-backs and wide attackers -- will each drop back a line. That will be difficult to break down so let's hope we're not chasing a late goal.