Wigan Athletic: The revival of the back three in the Premiership?

The majority of teams in England’s top flight utilise the same formation. Since December, Wigan have used a 3-4-3 system that has finally become coherent in recent weeks and seen them have the upper hand over the bigger teams. Salim usually doesn’t like to write about anything to do with the English Premier League as it’s well-covered, but the footprints of Wigan’s haven’t been so well-covered so, naturally, he has decided to write this. The three-man defence has been ubiquitous with the Italian Serie A in recent times with relatively unfashionable teams, notably Napoli and Udinese, using wing-backs to take advantage of the lack of width in a league where the 4-3-1-2 system was king. Last season, Walter Mazzari’s Napoli finished third and qualified for the Champions League group stages using a 3-4-2-1 system, whilst Francesco Guidolin’s Udinese finished fourth after adopting a 3-5-1-1 system, notably scoring 4 goals at the San Siro in a 4-4 draw against eventual Champions AC Milan (who also had the best defensive record in the league). There was further relative success in the relegation fight, too, as Cesena’s adoption of three at the back  saw them finish seven points above the relegation zone.

The success of those clubs alerted tactical brains of other clubs in the league and the three-man defence is default in Serie A at the moment. But, outside of Serie A, it’s a system seldom used by teams. In England, the tactical landscape has often been dominated by the 4-4-2 system and, more recently in the top half, the fashionable 4-2-3-1 which has been prevalent across Europe. Jim Smith’s Queens Park Rangers was the first team to use the 5-3-2/3-5-2 system as an initial strategy from the beginning of games when they used it in 1988 and that kickstarted a trend where a sizeable amount of teams adopted it in the 1990s. “I first got the idea from watching European football on TV, particularly the Germans,” explained Jim Smith to Bob Yule in Issue Four of  The Blizzard. “I thought it was a great way to play.”

And it is a great way to play – to me, anyway. On a personal level, as a left-back, I love watching the three-man defence at work and establishing the role of the different players in it and yearning for a time when I can go to a park kickabout and play as a wing back! Since the late 1990s, no teams have consistently used a three-man defence in the English top flight. Liverpool under the stewardship of Kenny Dalglish have used the system less than a handful of times so it hasn’t really been a consistent feature.

But then there’s Wigan. The unfashionable Northerners and perennial relegation escape-artists, widely ridiculed for being such a small club with a medicore fanbase are, with their 3-4-3, becoming fashionable. With their 3-6-1/3-4-3 system, they have now managed to beat Liverpool away, Arsenal away and Manchester United at home in the space of four weeks.

The system walked its first steps in December and although the steps were very hesitant initially, the amiable Roberto Martinez has persisted with it and has reaped its full rewards. It’s easy to understand why it didn’t work at first: it was a system the majority of the players would have been alienated with, a system out of their comfort zone in their footballing education. Additionally, some of the jigsaw puzzles didn’t quite fit –  David Jones, normally a central midfielder, was played as a left wing-back and he didn’t possess the pace, positioning nor defensive nous for the position, essential characteristics in a wing-back. In January, Wigan signed Jean Beausejour, who plays as a left-wing back for the Chile National Team in their 3-4-3 system, and Wigan have understandably looked more coherent, particularly down the left flank. It’s no surprise, then, that the signing of the Chilean has coincided with only 3 defeats in 12 games – two those defeats away to Tottenham and Chelsea (although this happened in controversial and Wigan were impressive for large periods).

Their performance against Manchester United was the magnum opus that showcased the fruits of their system. Thrown a curveball to what they’re used to, the league leaders simply didn’t know how to react for much of the first half to the pressing and, more glaringly, Wigan’s thrusting wing-backs, Beausejour and Emerson Boyce, who were comprehensively outplaying Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia. When they eventually reacted, Valencia and Young were asked to track the runs of Boyce and Beausejour. As a result, the Man Utd wingers were stationed very deep in their own territory, allowing Wigan to win the possession battle in the first half.

Defensively, Gary Caldwell is the commander-in-chief in the middle of the trio, often responsible for the role of sweeping and winning aerial duals whilst the rash Antolin Alcaraz and the athletic Maynor Figueora, who play either side of him, are more comfortable on the ball. The latter plays the role of a left centre-back even though he has played as a left-back for a predominant part of his Wigan career. He doesn’t merely stay back, he’s encouraged to dash forward when in possession of the ball, like a left-back, whilst his left-wing accomplice, Beausejour, pushes higher up.

More impressively, like a very poor man’s version of Barcelona, Wigan also used possession as a form of defence for good spells in their memorable victories. Against Arsenal, for instance, instead of merely retreating and absorbing the pressure, like most ‘small’ sides would have done, they enjoyed good periods of possession even in the latter stages of the matches, neatly caressing the ball even in tight situations. Integral to this philosophy is James McCarthy, who lacks pace but whose composure on the ball and decision-making belies his 21-year-old self and the stereotype of a midfielder plucked from the SPL. He and his ex Hamilton Academical team-mate, James McArthur, have been terrific at protecting the defence by acting as the screening midfielders.

From an offensive point of view, Wigan are most dangerous from the left-wing with the combination of Beausejour and Victor Moses. The rampaging of their wing-backs and their wide centre-backs, particularly Figueroa, gives the opposition wingers an added, unorthodox duty of tracking back. Franco Di Santo spearheads the attack and despite lacking remorse in front of goal, his hold-up play is very good and he brings the likes of Moses and Shaun Maloney into play.

The major criticism with Wigan is their lack of goals, if they could find a more prolific goalscorer of Di Santo’s mould they would have fared better this season. The real jewel in the crown has been Moses – his volcanic–like explosion added with strength has made him one of the toughest players to cope with in the Premier League. With 2.6 successful dribbles per game, only Blackburn’s Junior Hoilett has completed more this season. The doubters, quite rightly, question his end-product but when you need Di Santo to finish off the chances you create then your assists statistics are bound to look unimpressive.

What happens from here on in will be interesting for The Latics and the Premiership. It remains to be seen whether Wigan’s recent success can spark a tactical trend in the Premiership this season – it’s simply too late in the season for teams to start introducing new systems.

But what will happen next season, not only at Wigan (in terms of being able to keep hold of their manager and players) but especially at other clubs will be interesting – assuming Wigan stay up (which looks very likely at this stage), will other teams adopt the 3 at the back? During his short managerial career, Martinez has already been able to influence the likes of Ian Holloway on a tactical level, with the Blackpool manager a key admirer of the way the Spaniard sets his teams up and much of the foundations we now see at Swansea were laid down by Martinez. Whatever happens, a tactical innovation means Wigan have added some much-needed tactical variety in the Premiership and they are now fashionable; they are the new black.

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