Wigan stay up after a switch to 3-4-3

May 16, 2012

The surprise package in the second half of Premier League season was the only side who switched to a back three on a permanent basis.


It seems odd to trace Roberto Martinez’s successful experiment with a three-man defence back to an eight-goal defeat, but that’s where we’re going to start. On the final day of the 2009/10 season, Wigan travelled to Stamford Bridge, where Chelsea needed a win to make sure of the Premier League title. Chelsea won 8-0.

Wigan's formation v Arsenal away (2-1 win)

But that didn’t quite tell the story of the match. For the first half hour, Wigan actually dominated. They played an unusual 3-3-1-3ish formation, with Martinez taking the opportunity to experiment at a stage when Wigan had nothing to play for. They conceded an early goal, a slightly fortunate Nicolas Anelka strike following a set-piece – but from then on they were the better side for a good 20-minute spell. Chelsea, who were relentless and powerful at that point – but actually lacking in shape and discipline – found it very difficult to cope with the fact Wigan were playing three players in very wide positions with the ball, and by stretching the play as wide as possible, Wigan dominated possession.

What went wrong? Well, Wigan went down to ten men. Gary Caldwell was sent off for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity, and Wigan could no longer play with their brave starting formation. The entire point of them playing that match was no longer there, and they ended up losing the second half 6-0 with a ramshackle formation and a half-hearted attitude.

An interesting feature of Martinez’s post-match press conferences is his insistence on looking at a short, 10-15 minute spell when Wigan were the better side – even if it was at the end of a heavy defeat – and taking positives from it. That probably won’t be possible if Martinez moves to a bigger club, as the latest sports betting odds indicate is quite likely. At one stage this season, his confidence that these spells could be replicated over the course of 90 minutes bordered on the insane, considering his side was playing terribly for the majority of games. But this tendency to look beyond the result and see patterns of play in a set period of time is very interesting, especially when looking back at this fine first half performance (with eleven players) in an eight-goal thrashing.

Return to three at the back

Martinez returned to the three-man defence on the 11th February this year, for the home game with Bolton. Before that, Wigan had picked up 16 points from 24 games. From then, they won 27 points from 14 games. The turnaround was extraordinary, and while Wigan have made late comebacks something of a habit, their formation clearly played a crucial part in this season’s turnaround.

Formation v Newcastle at home (4-0 win)

Here are Martinez’s thoughts on the 3-4-3:

“When you play a 4-3-3, you rely a lot on the full-backs to get high up the pitch. You shouldn’t look at a system as away to win a football match, it is the players that play the system. Maynor [Figueroa], Gary [Caldwell] and Antolin [Alcaraz] have been so solid with a back three, and it allows [other] players to be high up the pitch, like the wing-backs. They aren’t full-backs that need to get deep and then forward to give us an extra man, they are in positions where they can do both a little bit better, and we can be a little bit more solid.

“The difference is the width that we get…before, we had to compromise a little bit, when you want to be very attack-minded, the full-backs have to push on, so you leave two players at the back. Now you’re still pushing the wing-backs on, but you’ve still got three players at the back, plus probably a midfielder. In the West Brom game, as Paul Scharner will tell you, we were attacking with seven, eight, nine players and they were surprised it, and that’s what the system gives you, without being weak at the back.

“It suits our players. When you’ve got a Jean Beausejour who is a specialist in that position, you take advantage of that. The back three gives you that. Then there’s the energy we’ve got in midfield, players who can play between lines like Shaun Maloney and Jordi Gomez. It’s so difficult to play against…there’s a few clubs playing it around Europe now, Napoli are one: they play it with Cavani, Hamsik and Lavezzi…this is the advantage of this system – it goes where the danger is…it’s not in defensive lines, it’s not working as a unit of four, it’s not man-marking.”

Back three characteristics

The most interesting part of the formation is, naturally, the back three. Other Premier League sides have experimented with a back three, but generally only in one-off games, and often for defensive reasons.

Martinez has been more committed to the shape, and it’s been interesting how ‘logical’ the statistics of his three centre-backs have been – Antolin Alcaraz, the right-sided centre-back, and the left-sided Maynor Figueroa, play as the ‘proactive’ defenders, happy to track a man, and willing to come up into midfield to make an interception. Gary Caldwell, who plays in the centre of the three, is effectively the spare man and does the dirty work in the penalty box.

Therefore, using the statistics in this piece for WhoScored, there is a big difference between the performance of the ‘outside’ centre-backs, and Caldwell. See the figures for tackling and intercepting, compared to clearances, blocks and aerial duels won:

These statistics take into account a period when Wigan played a back four, with Alcaraz a centre-back and Figueroa a left-back. But, regardless, the separation of duties works very naturally.

Defensive version

The interesting thing about the shape is that Martinez has made it work in two very different guises. There is the extremely defensive, counter-attacking shape (that is effectively more like 5-4-1, with the wide players dropping back a line), that Wigan played in the 2-1 win at Arsenal. That’s not unnatural – at the last World Cup, for example, we saw the usefulness of a three/five-man defence for minnows against stronger sides – if you’re going to sit deep in your own third of the pitch and not compete in an open game, the ‘formation battle’ isn’t so crucial. Instead, if you’re focusing on getting men behind the ball, you may as well employ an extra centre-back to deal with aerial balls into the box.

In the Arsenal game, Wigan sat very deep in front of their own penalty area. They had a 3 v 1 against Robin van Persie, and one of the centre-backs, usually Figueroa, would follow him into deep positions. Caldwell would shuffle across, Wigan would defend with a 2 v 0, with no Arsenal player looking to make a run into Figueroa’s space. The wing-backs became permanent full-backs and picked up the Arsenal wingers, while the wingers dropped back and tracked the Arsenal full-backs.

The interesting player was Victor Moses – although he generally stayed goalside of Bacary Sagna, he sprinted past the Frenchman as soon as possession was won, always providing the out-ball and launching Wigan breaks. The only ‘problem’ for Wigan was in the midfield, where they had a 2 v 3, but since they weren’t looking to have possession, this wasn’t a huge problem. James McArthur and James McCarthy picked up Arsenal’s two more attacking midfielders, while Franco Di Santo dropped back to become an extra midfielder, pressuring Alex Song.

Attacking version

Against Newcastle it was more attacking. Newcastle were playing a 4-3-3 shape, so Wigan only had 3 v 3 at the back. Faced with either playing 5 v 3 with the wing-backs dropping deep, or 3 v 3 with them pushing on, they went for the brave option. With Alan Pardew’s side looking to play quite a reactive game and letting Wigan have the ball, Martinez instructed his wing-backs to get forward and create 2 v 1 situations with the wingers down the flanks – Newcastle were caught understaffed at the back, conceding two goals in the opening 15 minutes.

The most interesting feature of the play, and a small example that sums up the benefit of the 3-4-3 shape, was that Newcastle didn’t know how to press the 3-4-3 with their 4-3-3. The problem was this – Ali Al-Habsi would look to play the ball out to his three centre-backs, so Wigan could get the ball down and play. Newcastle wanted to stop them building from the back, so Hatem Ben Arfa and Demba Ba in the wide positions looked to close down Wigan’s ‘outside’ centre-backs. But this then left the Wigan wing-backs free, and Al-Habsi could knock balls out to the flank, where the wing-backs would then move forward to create those 2 v 1 situations. If the Newcastle full-backs came out to the Wigan wing-backs, then the Wigan wingers would be free.

Newcastle were unable to press Wigan's 3-4-3 with a 4-3-3

Newcastle’s spare man was in the centre of midfield, and they could have been cleverer with how the three shifted across the pitch to close down the Wigan wing-backs, but they still would have been vulnerable to quick balls out to the flanks anyway. In the end, Pardew decided the only way Newcastle could press Wigan (at 2-0 down, and needing the ball) was to switch to a 3-4-3 himself. Newcastle hadn’t played that way before, and haven’t played that way since. Martinez had forced the overachievers of the season to play in an alien way, and that in itself was a victory.


Martinez has also shown great ability to vary the shape within games, able to play 4-3-3 or 3-4-3. Emmerson Boyce can play right-wing-back or right-back, Maynor Figueroa can play left-centre-back or left-wing-back, Jean Beausejour can play left-wing-back or left midfield. “At Anfield we played the two separate systems,” says Martinez. “And no-one would have been able to see the difference [in terms of standard of play].”

When asked if he thinks a sweeper should always play behind two other centre-backs in a back three, Martinez says, “If you play against a front two, you can do that. But if you play against a one and a one, then the sweeper plays in front, because obviously you can’t be three-versus-one at the back.”

Individuals have played their part. Moses’ rise into a top-level player has been crucial, Figueroa’s passing ability means he’s almost been like an extra midfielder when needed, and the signing of Jean Beausejour is one of the underrated transfer decisions of the season. He’s a natural crosser, knows this (rough) system well having been a wing-back in Marcelo Bielsa’s Chile side, and has provided more assists than any other Wigan played despite only joining in January.

But the key has been the system, and the manager who implemented it. Amongst more in-depth tactical analysis of the 3-4-3, there’s a lot to be said for simply ‘doing something different’ if you’re a weaker side in a league – give the opposition a new challenge, make them uncomfortable and ideally make them change, as Newcastle were forced to.

“In a year’s time, there will be a lot of teams playing a 3-4-3, believe me,” Martinez says. “And we’ll have to be able to change, to adapt to it. And that is why it’s so important that players are flexible tactically.”

Links: Wigan and NapoliThis Northern Soul, a Wigan blog

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