Latics win the tactical battle
Despite Wigan’s status in comparison to Arsenal, it would be foolish to write the Latics off and put their victory entirely down to Arsenal misperforming. In fact, Roberto Martinez’s side got their tactics spot on, and he and his side deserve credit. Their formation caused problems for the Gunners in the first half, and then they readjusted their game plan in the second half. One of the excellent things about Wigan’s performance was how their shape was constantly adapting to the situation.
It is for this reason that Wigan’s formation is difficult to pinpoint. In attack, it was a 3-4-3, while in defence it was a 5-4-1. The wing backs were important in the away side’s victory – they got in between Arsenal’s wingers and full backs, causing chaos, as well as being the players who give Wigan’s formation its fluidity and evolution from defence to attack.
Wigan were able to string five defenders across the box in defence because of the wing backs, which Arsenal struggled to break down, but then thanks to the stamina and positions of Boyce and Beausejour, they were able to become auxiliary midfielders. The Gunners seemed to be thrown off by the fluidity and flexibility of Wigan’s formation – players seemed to be unsure of who they were meant to be marking, and what shape they were meant to take up in order to counter-act the 5-4-1/3-4-3.
This confusion in the Arsenal ranks eventually subsided – although not until it was too late, because Wigan had gone 2-0 up – and Arsenal’s wide players – Walcott especially, as Beausejour was far more adventurous than Boyce – decided to track the wing backs. This, however, led at times to Robin van Persie becoming increasingly isolated.
The away side attacked mainly down the left, through Victor Moses and Jean Beausejour, the left winger and wing-back respectively. What was good about this was, their defence was able to become a four man defence while Beausejour was on the attack – Maynor Figueroa took up the left back position, with Caldwell and Alcaraz shifting in slightly, and Emmerson Boyce playing as a right back. This way Wigan maintained defensive solidity, and didn’t leave themselves open to counter attacks when their own surges broke down.
After Wigan went 2-0 up, in the first half they limited themselves to mostly counter attacks, with all three of their forwards and some of the players further back also contributing to the attacks as Wigan ran at Arsenal, with many of Arsene Wenger’s men taken aback. They also started to take their time with set pieces – perfectly understandable, as you do what you have to do to survive, but it was Andre Marriner who allowed them to wind down the clock and break up Arsenal’s flow.
In the second half, Wigan were much less ambitious, and only threw forwards between two and four players at most, with the wing backs’ attacking instincts – Beausejour’s especially – curbed. Having already conceded one, and seeming likely to concede another, it’s likely that Martinez instructed his team to sit back more and attempt to frustrate Arsenal, and not throwing so many players forward.
Arsenal kept pushing back their opponents, and missed a couple of good opportunities early on in the second half, which was when you sensed they might make another break-through. Indeed, it got no better for the Gunners, as Wigan progressively sat deeper and deeper until what was now firmly a back five was strung across the edge of their box, with another four players in front. With the defence so deep, it was nigh-on impossible for Arsenal to thread any balls through for van Persie or Walcott, as they would have no space to run into; the ball would go straight to Wigan’s goalkeeper.
Wigan’s second half set-up was designed to frustrate, and frustrate Arsenal it did. They slowed the game down as much as possible, not letting Arsenal get into any rhythm or flow, and in fact Andre Marriner, the referee, helped them do it, giving them countless free kicks for minor offences, as well as not seeming bothered about their time-wasting. Arsenal were unable to get going thanks to this, and struggled to break down a stubborn Wigan defence, which at times consisted of nine players and their goalkeeper.
What was also impressive about Wigan was their compactness in defence – while they were exuberant in the counter attack, when they conceded possession they flooded back into their defensive positions and those positions helped to not give Arsenal any space to manoeuver. They crowded out any Arsenal player who got the ball, blocking off their options and forcing them to go backwards.
It seems as if Roberto Martinez’s new three man defence (plus the wing-backs who, again, strongly aid Wigan’s flexibility) was perhaps inspired by Barcelona; it would be no surprise considering he’s from Spain himself. You also get the feeling that if his side had employed the tactic they have been employing recently, they’d be doing a lot better than they are in the league table.
As for Arsenal, it’s difficult to pinpoint a way that they could have scored once Wigan went into lead-preservation mode; with a defence that stubborn it’s incredibly difficult to breach, especially when they’re so well-drilled and organised as Arsenal’s opponents clearly were. You get the sense that Arsenal missed Arteta; while supporters are accused of making Aaron Ramsey a scapegoat (and it’s true he didn’t help concede the goals, although his/Arteta’s absence certainly contributed towards going two goals down), he wasn’t performing well, and Arsenal lacked the cohesion in midfield.
With Arteta, Arsenal have a high-functioning midfield triangle who rotate and form two pivots: that of Arteta and Rosicky, and that of Arteta and Song. When Arsenal are pressing, Arteta and Rosicky usually take turns, with Song anchoring in front of the defence. Other times, Arteta and Song sit deep/breaking up play with Rosicky in front. That in mind, it’s easy to see how vital Arteta is to Arsenal’s game, and how Ramsey was unable to duplicate the role of the multi-functioning Arteta, a role which gives Arsenal’s midfield its flexibility and unpredictability.