Wigan Athletic: The Crucial Three
Wigan Athletic's innovative use of the back three has continued from the latter part of last season and helped the Latics to make a great start this time around.
September 17th, 2012
They are leading the way in adopting a back three in England and others are now following their successful example. Roberto Mancini at Manchester City has introduced a back three following Roberto Martinez’s initiative and it is likely that others will soon start to follow.
Martinez is a scholar of the game and has been heavily influenced by the European game and in particular Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, Walter Mazzarri’s Napoli and Udinese’s Franceso Guidolin.
Last season Wigan were looking for a solution to their disappointing early form, so Martinez introduced a change in formation to 3-4-3. Wigan had persevered with the possession-based tiki-taka, but it only fully came to life with the new formation. In the final ten games of the season, which featured six wins, many of which were against the top teams, the Latics dominated their opponents.
In the first half of the 4-0 win against Newcastle they were virtually unstoppable. Every outfield player contributed to the attacking play while the Wigan back three of Alcaraz, Caldwell and Figueroa were outstanding and gave nothing away.
Their counter attacking play is often a joy to watch with the diminutive Shaun Maloney pulling the strings, the James’, McArthur and McCarthy holding the midfield and wing-backs Figueroa/Beausejour and Boyce surging forward.
As with Napoli, Wigan do not have eleven excellent players but it is an excellent team. The sum of Wigan’s parts is greater than the parts individually.
This season in the opening game against Chelsea, apart from a crazy opening six minutes, they more than matched the reigning European Champions. They had more possession and had fifteen shots to their opponents’ six. In particular, the back three of Ivan Ramis, Gary Caldwell and Antolin Alcaraz operated most effectively against an expensively assembled Chelsea line-up including new signing £32m Eden Hazard and the £50m Fernando Torres.
The Wigan captain Gary Caldwell is not renowned for his pace but he marshals the defence with great confidence and is capable of making crucial goal saving tackles. He was a revelation at the end of last season, and he even managed to get on the score sheet and get the winner against Liverpool at Anfield.
Despite a rocky six minutes in the opening game, Ivan Ramis has settled down and is proving to be an astute signing by Roberto Martinez. The former Real Mallorca defender looks comfortable on the ball and can put his foot in when needed. At St Mary’s he was probably the most accomplished defender especially during Southampton’s early onslaught on the Wigan goal. The Latics extinguished the Saints’ early enthusiasm and ran out comfortable 2-0 winners, with goals by Franco Di Santo and new signing Arouna Kone.
Antolin Alcaraz is the third member of the crucial three; he is an experienced Paraguayan international, strong in the air and who has proved to be a vital cog in the new defensive system.
The defensive trio work in tandem with the attacking wing backs Maynor Figueroa or Jean Beausejour on the left and Emmerson Boyce on the right. Boyce and Figueroa/Beausejour have the ability to get forward but can also provide additional defensive cover when required.
Like Barcelona and Napoli, the Latics like to pass it from back to the front.
Wigan’s tiki-taka starts with the goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi, who is encouraged to pass or roll the ball out to his defenders rather than kick it long.
At Nottingham Forest in the Capital One Cup, Gary Caldwell was rested and Figueroa slotted effortlessly into the back three with Ramis and Alcaraz, and the Honduran defender even got forward to score a spectacular goal.
Wigan cruised past Forest 4-1 with some high quality goals. The Forest Manager Sean O’Driscoll commented afterwards that he could only aspire to the quality of Wigan’s passing style of play.
Another bonus of the system is the flexibility: given different types of opponents or a change in personnel they can adapt to 3-4-2-1. During the last ten games of last season and at the beginning of this season the formation was a base 3-4-2-1 that at times looked like a 3-4-3 and at times like a 4-4-1-1.
The crucial back three provides flexibility without sacrificing too much defensive strength. Martinez has designed a playing system that has a back three and one up front and six players who can adjust as required.
The benefits of sticking with the manager and giving him time to instill his ideology and implement a style of play throughout the club are clear. At Wigan every team from the youth teams through to the first team play the same way and the results are starting to bear fruit. The Chairman Dave Whelan has stuck by Martinez during some difficult times, but that faith is now showing dividends with a new formation, style of play and improved results.