When Roberto Martínez arrived at Wigan Athletic in the summer of 2009, he made it clear from the outset that he wanted to do things his way. “We’ve introduced a completely different style of play to the team,” he said in August. “We’re allowing the players to think more about their own decisions during the game.”
Martínez joined Wigan from Swansea City, where he had built a side whose flowing football garnered plenty of plaudits. His challenge was to bring style and success to the DW Stadium and from the very start his tactical plan revolved around a 4-2-3-1 shape that accommodated a two-man midfield platform and skillful passers in advanced positions. In the 2-0 pre-season defeat to Romanian side FC Timişoara in late July, and the 4-1 victory over Preston North End that followed a few days later, Wigan started with Lee Cattermole and Hendry Thomas in central midfield and three attacking midfielders in support of a lone striker, Hugo Rodallega.
Wigan lost Cattermole to Sunderland but his place was taken by Michael Brown (now at Portsmouth) for the first Premier League match under Martínez, an unexpected 2-0 victory at Aston Villa on the season’s opening day that attracted much praise for the quality of Wigan’s play. Their starting XI that day featured left-footed winger Charles N’Zogbia on the right flank and a pair of composed playmakers in Jordi Gómez, who followed Martínez from Swansea, and Jason Koumas.
“It’s a completely different way of playing to last season and if you ask every player it’s much more enjoyable to play in,” said Koumas. “The new manager wants us to attack from the first minute and I think we can hurt a lot of teams this season.”
The same trio started the 1-0 home defeat against Wolves on August 18, and it was there that things began to unravel. The following diagram, a screenshot from ESPN Soccernet, shows Wigan’s players’ average positions from that game (starting players circled):
[Squad numbers: 1. Chris Kirkland, 6. Hendry Thomas, 7. Paul Scharner, 9. Jason Scotland, 10. Jason Koumas, 11. Michael Brown (now at Portsmouth), 14. Charles N’Zogbia, 15. Jordi Gómez, 17. Emmerson Boyce, 19. Titus Bramble, 20. Hugo Rodallega, 25. Mario Melchiot, 27. Mohamed Diamé, 30. Marlon King (now in prison), 31. Maynor Figueroa]
Defeats followed in three of Wigan’s next four games – including a 5-0 thrashing at home to Manchester United and a 4-0 loss at Arsenal – and Martínez realised that changes were required. Since that defeat at Arsenal on September 19, Gómez and Koumas have started just four Premier League games between them.
The next game, a 3-1 victory over Carlo Ancelotti’s previously unbeaten Chelsea, could not have been more different. Where Gómez and Koumas brought feathery touches and searching passes, the team that beat Chelsea was all about muscle. The powerful Jason Scotland came into the side to provide an attacking focal point, while Paul Scharner, who began the season playing at centre-back, started in an advanced midfield role. Brown, meanwhile, had since been replaced by tall, tough-tackling Frenchman Mohamed Diamé.
In this system, Thomas and Diamé play deep with Scharner just ahead of them. Instead of a classic regista like Gómez, Scharner is able to drop into central midfield to bolster the team’s defensive capacities. Having such a defensively capable player in the playmaking role enables the wide men to push forward with more confidence, meaning that the system effectively becomes a 4-2-1-3 when Wigan are attacking.
“When you are Wigan and playing against the top four you have options: you can be brave and beat them or you can get hammered,” said Martínez after the victory over Chelsea. “That is what happened. We were beaten 4-0 and 5-0 and here the only reason we won is because we learned our lessons.”
Wigan’s new, more pragmatic approach had prompted an immediate upturn in their fortunes but they followed it up with a 2-1 defeat at Hull and the inconsistent pattern of their season was thereby established. Capable of beating Villa, Chelsea and, more recently, Liverpool, Wigan have also been dealt heavy defeats by Portsmouth and Bolton (both of whom beat them 4-0), conceded 10 goals in two matches to Manchester United and a scarcely credible 12 goals in two matches (thanks in no small part to the notorious 9-1 shellacking at White Hart Lane in November) to Tottenham.
With only seven games to play until the end of the season, Wigan are seven points clear of the bottom three and the general consensus is that there are too many poorer teams in the division for them to go down. That may be so, but Martínez is yet to find a consistent winning formula. The 4-2-3-1/4-2-1-3 hybrid remains his default shape but it continues to evolve and while pass and move is still the mantra – The Guardian’s Barney Ronay, rather unkindly, called it “pretty little second-rate tippy-toe prancing” – Wigan have become more and more athletic as the season has progressed.
Thomas and Diamé have held firm as Martínez’s first-choice destroyers, with N’Zogbia and Rodallega also enjoying unambiguous first XI status. The Spaniard’s signings since arriving at the club, meanwhile, have demonstrated a commendable ambition to cram the team with as much pace and youthful vigour as possible. Swaggering central midfielder Jamie McCarthy, 19, signed from Hamilton Academical in July, Bolivian striker Marcelo Moreno joined on loan from Shakhtar Donetsk in February and Wigan secured a major coup in the last transfer window by capturing highly-rated England Under-21 winger Victor Moses from Crystal Palace.
Of late, Rodallega has played from the left with Moreno in the middle and N’Zogbia on the right. The injury-time winning goal in Wigan’s 1-0 win over Burnley on Saturday appeared to represent a blueprint for the club’s immediate future, with McCarthy playing a pass to substitute Moses, who cut inside his man wide on the right before bending in a low cross that Rodallega met with a superb diving header.
Speed, strength, endurance, bravery. It remains to be seen if it will be enough to keep Wigan in the Premier League, but it is a far cry from the measured build-up play of the side’s earliest incarnations this season. Martínez has learnt quickly that the Premier League is no place for romantics.