MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 26: James McCarthy of Wigan Athletic competes with Nani of Manchester United during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Wigan Athletic at Old Trafford on December 26, 2011 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
The September international break is over and Manchester United resume their young campaign when they host Wigan Athletic at Old Trafford for a Saturday afternoon league tie. Historically, Sir Alex Ferguson had essentially been able to name his scoreline versus the Latics but last season's 0-1 away defeat at the DW Stadium was the first dent into the eight-point title-race lead that the 19-time English champions would go on to relinquish. In this same fixture last season, the day after Christmas, a Dimitar Berbatov hat-trick inspired the Red Devils to a 5-0 victory.
Form Guide: United have been a disjointed side thus far but they've managed to earn six points from their first three league matches. The season opener was a 0-1 defeat by Everton and this was followed by 3-2 defeats of Fulham and Southampton.
Team News: The injury concerns are somewhat astonishing for this early stage of the season. Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, and Wayne Rooney are unavailable while Ashley Young is also a doubt. Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa picked up knocks while on international duty this past week and while Fergie didn't indicate they'd be unavailable for Wigan, their Friday evening appearance at a sponsor's launch -- along with Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) -- has led to speculation that they might be rested. At his weekly press conference, the gaffer did express concern at the travel distances that Chicharito, Kagawa, and Antonio Valencia had to endure while on international duty.
Form Guide: The Latics have picked up four points from their first three league matches. This has included a defeat by Chelsea, a victory over Southampton, and a draw with Stoke City. They've also defeated Nottingham Forest in a League Cup tie.
Teams News: Left-wing-back Jean Beausejour and defender Antolin Alcaraz -- both first-choice players -- are expected to miss out.
United: Ugh. I might as well try to predict lottery numbers. If we go off the most dire situation possible -- where the likes of Jones, Smalling, Rooney, Young, van Persie, and Kagawa are all unavailable -- then I suppose that could simplify things. But then again, we're not actually sure if the latter two are actually unavailable. Selections will surely be made with the past week's internationals and this week's upcoming matches -- a midweek European tie with Galatasaray and next weekend's visit to Liverpool -- in mind.
David de Gea is probable over Anders Lindegaard in goal. In central-defense, it's probably best to guess Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic over Jonny Evans. At left-back, Patrice Evra is first-choice but there have been rumblings that Alexander Buttner might make his United debut in this match. At right-back, Rafael is probable but Valencia is possible.
In central-midfield -- where Fergie could opt for either a two-man or three-man unit -- any of Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley, Anderson, Ryan Giggs, or Darren Fletcher are possible. Out wide in attack, Valencia is anticipated on the right flank but Nani is possible. On the left flank, any of Nani, Giggs, or Danny Welbeck could feature. If van Persie is out, Welbeck likely starts up front and if he has a partner, Chicharito or Federico Macheda are candidates to start along side of him.
Wigan: Predicting the starting XI for Roberto Martinez's side is a bit more straight-forward. Ali Al-Habsi is the clear No.1 and the starting defenders in his 3-4-1-2 system are expected to be Maynor Figueroa, Gary Caldwell, and Ivan Ramis. With Beausejour out, the left-wingb-back could be either Figueroa or David Jones. At right-wing-back, Emmerson Boyce is anticipated -- although he's also possible to start in the back three. The central-midfield duo will be James McCarthy and James McArthur. Shaun Maloney will operate as the No.10 in behind strikers Franco Di Santo and Arouna Kone.
* Will Wigan 3-4-2-1 system be lopsided in its shape or balanced?: In this Wigan scouting report, I discussed how their back seven -- the three-man defense, the wing-backs, and the central-midfield -- has mostly remained the same in comparison to last season. However, the function of their front three differs and can even vary during a game.
Maloney will almost certainly drift into the space between the lines looking to connect the midfield and attack. If he does this while coming in from the left side of attack, while either Kone or Di Santo play as a nominally right-sided attack, then this results in Wigan's shape being lopsided. In this scenario, communication will be key for United and Rafael will have to be sure someone is picking up Maloney when the Wigan No.10 drifts inside or otherwise he can't switch off. Rafa will have acres of space to go forward though when United transition into attack and 2 v 1 situations with Valencia are likely on the right flank.
If Wigan play in a more balanced 3-4-1-2 shape, one where Maloney is deployed centrally as a No.10 in behind striker Kone and Di Santo, then the key for United's attack might be their full-backs. This scenario results in Evra (or Buttner perhaps) and Rafa having no natural foil and each should be free to bomb forward and overloads can occur. The key for United defensively will be the need for Carrick to stay deep in order to secure United's shape. The worry for United would be that their central-defenders -- Vidic and Ferdinand likely -- will often be forced to defend in space when Wigan counterattacks and pace isn't a strong suit for either. A balanced 3-4-1-2 shape from Wigan could result in a very open game.
Will Wigan take a proactive or reactive approach?: In Wigan's upset win over United last April, Martinez instructed his side to actively press United's midfield and it worked brilliantly. At Old Trafford though, will the Wigan boss be as brave with his approach? United clearly can be bothered when they're intensely closed down so a proactive approach by Wigan might be worth the gamble. The central-midfield battle is pretty much straight-forward in this scenario but the Wigan wing-backs versus United's wingers might be the key battlegrounds. If Wigan are proactive in their approach, then it will be key for the United wingers to pin back their wing-back counterparts. When the ball is won by Wigan, their central-midfielders will look to swing the ball out wide to the wing-backs in order to ignite the attack. If these wing-backs are pinned back and unavailable to receive, the Latic's attack will sputter.
If Wigan take a reactive approach in this game, or switch to one late in the game in order to protect a result, then their shape will essentially be a 5-4-1 one -- the wide players will simply drop back a line. This will be difficult to break down so ideally, it will be United with the lead late in the game. If Fergie's side is chasing a late goal though, then the key will be playing with width and getting their full-backs forward. United's left-sided attacker tends to play narrow so it will be key, against a reactive 5-4-1, for this player to receive near the touchline. Accurate and well-timed crosses will be important as will United's ability to get on the end of crosses.
KO: 3:00pm BST, 10:00am EST | Old Trafford
Live TV: None (U.K.), FOX Soccer Plus (U.S.)
Referee: Michael Oliver
Odds: Manchester United 2/7, Draw 5/1, Wigan Athletic 14/1
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