Wigan 1-0 Manchester City: Wigan stifle City and attack with tremendous width

May 13, 2013

The starting line-ups

Ben Watson headed a stoppage time winner as Wigan lifted the FA Cup for the first time.

Roberto Martinez was able to call upon Antolin Alcaraz in the centre of his three-man defence, and he used James McArthur as a right-wing-back and Jordi Gomez in central midfield.

Roberto Mancini picked Joe Hart despite having used Costel Pantilimon as his FA Cup goalkeeper throughout the competition. James Milner was only on the bench, as Mancini went with two ‘interiors’ and two forwards.

The nature of the result might suggest a ’smash and grab’ – but Martinez’s tactics outfoxed Mancini, and Wigan fully deserved their victory.

Wigan back three

Throughout this campaign, Martinez has been the only Premier League manager to pick a back three on a regular basis. The switch to this system towards the end of last season was a crucial factor in their impressive run to survival, and although it’s been less successful this season, it still offers a different challenge for opponents – and can make predicting results difficult, even if you have free bets to use.

However, in recent weeks Martinez has suffered from severe injuries at the back – which forced him to field a back four instead, albeit with a very deep-lying midfielder protecting the centre-backs (in Tuesday night’s defeat to Swansea, it was Ben Watson), almost as a forward-playing sweeper. Therefore, with Alcaraz a real doubt and Gary Caldwell – who hasn’t trained properly for months because of a hip injury, and lacks mobility – not risked, Mancini probably expected a back four (which, for example, was how Wigan were displayed on pre-match television graphics).

Instead, Wigan played a back three. This was crucial to their gameplan, and meant they always had a numerical advantage against Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero. Clearly, playing a back three isn’t a total solution to stopping two opposition strikers, but City were rather naive in how they played upfront – with both centre-forwards quite high up the pitch, they played into Wigan’s hands. The way to cause a back three problems is to stretch them laterally, or to leave only one player upfront, using the other to cause an overload in another part of the pitch. Martinez would have been delighted to see the lack of movement from City’s strike duo, who often rotated positions.

No Milner

If we can forgive Mancini’s miscalculation on that front, his decision not to start James Milner was less forgiveable. Milner, while not as naturally talented as other City attackers, is often a key part of City’s best performances – his positioning and running is highly valuable, and he links excellently with David Silva, City’s chief creator. Importantly, he also stretches the play – so when City are narrow and creative on the left, he provides some balance on the right.

Most importantly, however, Milner provides defensive support. He’s famed for his work rate, and against Wigan’s strong left flank, it was amazing that Mancini didn’t select him. Regardless of the formation, Wigan are always highly dangerous down that side – 42% of their passes go down the left (when breaking the pitch into three vertical strips), the joint-most in the Premier League with Everton.

Jean Beausejour might have been unavailable, but it was obvious in Wigan’s midweek defeat to Swansea that Roger Espinoza was a considerable attacking threat – he opened the scoring – even if he’s defensively suspect. With Silva playing narrow and not tracking back, Espinoza had the most space of any player on the pitch, playing so wide that his main problem often appeared to be keeping the ball in play, rather than about overcoming an opponent.

Kone positioning

Wigan’s danger down that flank was furthered by the interesting role played by Arouna Kone upfront. Rather than playing centrally and working the channels in turn, he peeled off and always moved to the left, behind Pablo Zabaleta, dragging Vincent Kompany out of position. He sometimes had a responsibility to track Zabaleta – which didn’t always work, as the Argentine got forward well a couple of times in the opening stages.

But when Kompany found himself one-against-one defending that entire side of the pitch, he looked very uncomfortable with Kone (Matija Nastasic, the other centre-back, was more concerned with Callum McManaman on the opposite side), and when Zabaleta was in a deeper position to give him support, Espinoza had freedom. Zabaleta never really seemed sure of his defensive role, and while Espinoza isn’t a particularly great player (he wouldn’t have started had Beausejour been fit), he had so much space, and was continually available for quick switches of play.

McManaman v Clichy

On the opposite flank was the key battle of the game, McManaman against Gael Clichy. For all Martinez’s tactical skill, this was the one area of the pitch where he simply needed a player to win his individual battle.

Before the game, it appeared Wigan’s best chance of a shock was a strong performance from McManaman – and he turned in a fantastic display against a much more experienced opponent. Clichy’s game is all about intercepting – steaming in ahead of an opponent to win the ball clearly. When forced to defend against a strong dribbler, the Frenchman is less assured – and the crucial part of McManaman’s game was his positioning, always putting himself in an intelligent situation to pick up possession before running at Clichy. He was given license to stay high up the pitch (not always tracking Clichy back) and moved in behind the City defend for the best two chances of the first half.


With Kone left and McManaman right, Shaun Maloney was fielded as a number ten, rather than in the left-sided role he’s more accustomed to. Positioning himself between the lines, although intended as an attacking player, Maloney’s actual role was primarily defensive, in that he occupied a City midfielder. Often, Kompany would be to the right watching Kone and Nastastic would be picking up McManaman with Clichy higher up. City needed someone to watch Maloney, so Gareth Barry or Yaya Toure would sit on him.

City nullified Espinoza after Milner's introduction

Not a great deal happened in the centre of midfield, which was bad for City, as their area of advantage was theoretically in that zone. With both Silva and Nasri coming inside, they should have been able to play clever interchanges in that zone. But there was no tempo to City’s passing, no-one in midfield who was putting their foot on the ball and dictating the game.

Wigan’s good work was also a factor – their forwards stood off in open play but they kept a reasonably high line (which made it peculiar City barely used Aguero’s pace in behind) to stay extremely compact.

Wigan also pressed City high up when Joe Hart had the ball, preventing him from passing out from the back. Instead, he had to hit a succession of long balls towards Tevez, Aguero, Nasri and Silva – hardly likely to win aerial duels – and City simply never got into a good passing rhythm. (Incidentally, at the other end City stood off Wigan and the 3 v 2 situation meant Martinez’s side could play out from the back easily.)

City’s best chance fell to Tevez, and came after a rare bit of wide play. Nasri had drifted to the left in behind McArthur, which took Emmerson Boyce over to that flank and meant Wigan were disorganised in the centre.

But overall, City’s play was too slow and too congested – the front four sometimes occupied a width of no more than 15 metres, playing into the hands of the Wigan back three.

Mancini subs

Mancini waited until the 55th minute to bring on Milner – he replaced Nasri, went to the right, and Silva moved to the left flank. Immediately there was more balance about City’s attacking, and Espinoza was no longer a key factor in the game because Milner tracked him back. City also created a couple of chances down the right – Milner and Zabaleta combined as the latter flashed a shot across the face of the goal, and Milner won (and took) a free-kick from the right for Jack Rodwell’s headed chance.

Rodwell replaced Tevez on 69 minutes as Mancini moved to a familiar plan B – one forward off, a central midfielder on, and Toure pushed forward to become the number ten. Often it has worked, here it didn’t – Toure was extremely quiet before and after the switch, and little changed in City’s build-up play.


Espinoza and McManaman had been Wigan’s joint-key players in the first half – with Espinoza nullified, McManaman carried a lot of responsibility in the second period. Thankfully for Wigan, he stepped up and motored forward on the break, constantly driving at the City backline.

The biggest feature of the final half hour was City’s repeated fouls on Wigan’s right-winger. Zabaleta collected his first yellow card for a cynical, deliberate trip – Nastastic was booked for a challenge on him with 15 minutes left, an then Zabaleta was dismissed for another clear foul as McManaman sped towards goal. City were down to ten, Milner moved to right-back, and City were 4-4-1ish.

With an extra man, Wigan put sustained pressure upon City. That resulted in a couple of free-kicks close to the box, and then McManaman bamboozled Clichy for the umpteenth time – there were shouts for a penalty, but Wigan won a corner. Shaun Maloney’s delivery found substitute Ben Watson (on as a straight swap for Gomez, the only change Martinez made – to head home in the 91st minute).


Football matches are often decided by extremely small margins – but even if Watson’s header had sailed over and this match went into extra time (and perhaps penalties) it was clear Martinez’s tactics were highly effective. City have incredible resources, and not a single Wigan player would get into City’s starting XI – but Wigan didn’t just park the bus and ride their luck at the other end, they set up intelligently and played excellent football down the flanks. The only thing they missed for long periods was a finishing touch – McManaman failed to take two golden opportunities – and it was a substitute from a set-piece that provided the missing part of the jigsaw.

Wigan’s victory was really about two things – they nullified City, and they played good football. The first part was probably more about City’s lack of tactical intelligence than Wigan’s positional brilliance – Martinez’s side are hardly renowned for their solid defence, and while the back three all performed competently, City failed to stretch them or play balls in behind.

The second part was about great strategy – Espinoza’s width was crucial on the left, in a much more advanced role than the disciplined McArthur on the right. Maloney in a central role helped keep City back, while Kone’s runs caused all kind of problems for Zabaleta and Kompany.

But the real star was McManaman – Martinez deserves great praise for keeping him in an advanced role, but sometimes you simply need a brilliant performance from individual. From his first half chances, to him single-handedly decimating the City backline in the second half, to him winning the corner for the winner, he was the game’s outstanding player.

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