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Tactics & Analysis

The Tactics Board – Did Wigan expose United weakness?

Manchester United had an unpleasant day at the DW Stadium. In the previous 14 games, United has won all 14 and Wigan has never been able to score. This was a game that showcased several tactical battles and changes by both managers. Roberto Martinez did a nice job for Wigan at countering Sir Alex Ferguson’s moves, and ultimately giving Wigan the chance to pick up points for the first time against United.

Manchester United vs Wigan Athletic

DW Stadium – April 11th 2012



Manchester United-
Manchester United came out in Sir Alex Ferguson’s standard 4-4-2, with three changes from the team that seemed flat and struggled to dispatch a short-handed QPR side only 3 days earlier. In the net was United’s number 1 keeper, David De Gea. The central defense consisted of Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand, who was thought that he might miss this game with the recent string 3 matches in less than a week. On the left side wearing the captain’s arm band was Frenchman Patrice Evra, while Phil Jones got the start at right-back while Rafael got the night off.

The central midfield had another change for United, with Ryan Giggs starting alongside of Michael Carrick. Giggs got the start in place of a seriously on-form Paul Scholes, whose return to the team has corresponded to a stretch of 31 points from a possible 33 in the league. On the right side Antonio Valencia got the start, with Ashley Young getting another start on the left side of the midfield.

Leading the line up front was team talisman, Wayne Rooney, while the Mexican striker Javier Hernandez got the start while Danny Welbeck started the game on the bench.

Starting Formation

Wigan Athletic-
Roberto Martinez started the same side that has played so well lately, including a 2-1 lost to Chelsea which was tainted by referee mistakes. Wigan plays a 3-4-3 that is rarely seen in England, and has seemed to trouble teams lately with some of their players coming into very good form.

The starting keeper for Wigan was Omani national keeper, Ali Al-Habsi. In the center of the 3 center backs was captain Gary Caldwell. On his left side was Maynor Figueroa and Antolian Alcaraz got the start on the right side. In the central midfield was the pair of James McCarthy and James McArthur. Some of Wigan’s most successful attacks of late have come from their aggressive attacking wing-backs, with Jean Beausejour starting on the left side and Emmerson Boyce on the right side.

Leading the line up front was Franco DiSanto, with the dangerous Victor Moses starting as the left forward. On the other side was Scot Shaun Maloney, who was acquired by Wigan in the summer of 2011 from Celtic. It has taken him some time to fit in at Wigan, but recently he has scored a goal and an assist in his last 5 games.

Key Points-

  • Wigan comes out with a high pressing defense, quick to close down United on the ball
  • Ryan Giggs has another lackluster performance in central midfield
  • Wigan dominates the central midfield in the first half
  • United lacks offensive chances
  • United’s halftime changes alter Wigan’s attack, but Martinez compensates


Wigan’s formation causes problems

Wigan started the game in a 3-4-3 formation that is unusual for an English team to come across. When Wigan controls the ball, they have 3 forwards attacking into the box and two wing-backs who are attacking up the flanks to give their attack width. When they lose possession, they switch into a 5-4-1 with the wing-backs dropping back into the backline to support the 3 center-backs. The wide forwards drop back and guard the outside of the midfield. This allows Wigan to offer solid defense in the back and strength in the middle of the pitch.

Javier Hernandez was given the start over Danny Welbeck as this was the 5 game in a row in which Sir Alex Ferguson opted to alternate the striking partner of Wayne Rooney. The hope with Chicharito getting the start was that he could provide length to United’s attack, and deal with a fairly static back 3 from Wigan. In Hernandez’s 4 starts against Wigan since joining Manchester United in the summer of 2010, he’s already scored 3 goals against them so it seemed like a reasonable choice to make.

Early on in the game, with United struggling to get any possession on the field, and by virtue of Chicharito getting the start, United played a much more direct style than they play when Danny Welbeck gets the start. Around the 10 minute mark, Jonny Evans first tried to play a long ball over top of Wigan’s defense to Chicharito, but Wigan was able to defend it well. 30 seconds later, United tried again to play behind Wigan’s defense as Ryan Giggs played a through ball to the Mexican, but Gary Caldwell was able to dispossess him before he could take a shot.

Wigan’s defense and United’s problems in midfield

Wigan came out of the gate playing with a quick tempo on defense, and a high line. They were very quick to close down United with the ball. This made it extremely hard for United to get into their typical possession-based approach. Without Paul Scholes in midfield to help control possession, it was largely left to Michael Carrick to recycle possession and link the play from United’s defense forward. He struggled all game to deal with the speed of Wigan’s pressure, as he was often closed down immediately upon receiving the ball by more than one Wigan player. This made it difficult for United to get any prolonged periods of possession, and they struggled to bring the ball up the field and move it laterally to exploit any spaces left in Wigan’s defense.

Another cause of problems for United in midfield came in the shape of Ryan Giggs. Ryan Giggs has put in some remarkable performances this year for Manchester United, but his last 3 games in which he started in the central midfield have been decidedly poor. During the game against Wigan, he spent most of his time playing in an advanced position which left Michael Carrick alone deep to try and bring the ball forward from United’s back four. In addition, Giggs’ lack of defensive shape and positioning made it extremely difficult for United to prevent Wigan from overrunning them in the middle of the pitch. This became clear in the 27th minute when Sir Alex Ferguson changed shape to a 4-4-1-1/4-5-1 and pulled Wayne Rooney back to strengthen the midfield.

Wayne Rooney started the game up front with Javier Hernandez, in the 4-4-2 shape that Sir Alex Ferguson seems to favor lately against some of the lower sides on the table. But, after 30 minutes, with United having problems in the midfield, he dropped behind Chicharito. This allowed him to drop into the midfield when United was without the ball, to prevent the overload that Wigan used to great advantage for most of the first half. Rooney was often used to close down James McArthur, while Ryan Giggs was responsible for James McCarthy. This allowed Michael Carrick to track Maloney and Di Santo when they came in front of the penalty area.

Wigan’s attack

On offense, Wigan played forward with pace and aggression, and this troubled United. With Rafael given the night off, Phil Jones got the start at right-back and his responsibility was dealing with the dangerous and on-form Shaun Maloney. Maloney would often play inside, between United’s defensive and midfield lines. Jones would struggle with his marking, losing Maloney on his inside runs and Giggs and Carrick were slow to pick him up.

While Franco DiSanto played up front for Wigan, he didn’t play in a typical striker role. He often operated between United’s lines, and tracked from side to side to link play with Victor Moses on the right and especially Shaun Maloney on the left side. The main strength of Wigan’s attacks came from Maloney and Moses, with over 50% of the shots originating from their left side. DiSanto’s lateral movements made him hard to track for United’s center-backs, and this created space for him to operate.

Behind Maloney, another of Wigan’s recent offensive threats came in left wing-back Jean Beausejour. Within the first 5 minutes of the game, Maloney was able to play a chipped ball forward for Beausejour to run onto near the corner flag. The Chilean was able to track the ball down, and played a low pass back into the box for an open DiSanto, but Michael Carrick was able to clear the ball just in time. After this early scare, Antonio Valencia did a good job marking him closely and keeping his attacking runs down United’s right side from creating any real scoring opportunities.

Opposite of Beausejour was Emmerson Boyce, playing as the right wing-back. He struggled for the first half as Ashley Young put in an impressive defensive shift. On the offensive side, Ashley Young was not heard from during his 45 minutes on the pitch, as he staying out near the left touchline rather than tucking inside as he had against QPR. While his offensive contributions were minimal, he did a great job tracking back in defense. During the entire first half, he limited Boyce to only 8 touches, and most of them were in Wigan’s own half of the pitch. Young’s hard work defending Boyce allowed Patrice Evra to concentrate on the dangerous Nigerian attacker, Victor Moses.

With 3 center-backs, Wigan would often have Maynor Figueroa or Antolian Alcaraz play the ball forward out of the defense. Coming from deep, they were repeatedly able to find plenty of space to run into and this was frequently used to overload United’s defense and create open chances. These runs forward out of the back created an uneven matchup in the center of the pitch; with Figueroa being especially dangerous coming forward on Wigan’s left side. He was repeatedly able to run the ball up the pitch to the edge of the penalty area before somebody would challenge him.

An attack with no bite

Manchester United’s attack struggled all game to deal with Wigan’s pressure defense. After 20 minutes, the Red Devils struggled to get any service forward for Chicharito, and most of his touches for the rest of the game came with him having his back to the goal, not his strongest playing position. While Rooney started up front with Hernandez, after 30 minutes he was dropped behind the Mexican striker to reinforce the midfield, and also to try and link the play going forward.

Once Wayne Rooney moved behind Hernandez, he started dropping deeper to pick up the ball. He could be seen several times later in the first half dropping back to receive the ball from Ferdinand and Evans, to support Carrick in bringing the ball out of the back. This left Rooney in a position too far to really influence the game. As a player who has averaged 1.5 key passes a game, and 55 pass attempts with 85% in the Premier League this year, he struggled to make any impact today with no key passes and completing only 75% of just 28 passes. With Rooney playing so deep, United struggled to provide any service up front and get many chances.

Antonio Valencia has been on blazing form of late, but he struggled all game dealing with the defensive pressure applied by Beausejour and Maloney. Even when Valencia was able to find space past Beausejour, Maynor Figueroa was always backing them up and the Ecuadoran struggled to deal with the defense in depth applied on Wigan’s left side. Compounding the problem for Valencia on the right side, he was missing Rafael at right back. With Phil Jones getting the start in his place, Valencia struggled without the aggressive overlapping and forward runs from the Brazilian to help apply more pressure and open space for Valencia.

In the central midfield, Ryan Giggs’ positional shortcomings cause problems for United on defense but he was able to get into some dangerous positions on offense. In the 18th minute, United were able to get the ball forward with Giggs on the right side. He passed it back to Michael Carrick in the center of the pitch, and continued his forward run for Carrick to immediately pass it back. This play was able to catch Wigan out, and only a well-timed block by Figueroa was able to prevent a promising shot on goal. Unfortunately, his positional prowess was blunted by repeated sloppy passes that gave up possession too easily. His problems holding onto possession and his defensive lapses caused problems for United in the central midfield all game long.

Changes and New Tactics

After halftime, Sir Alex Ferguson made a couple of changes. He brought Tom Cleverley, who spent all of last year on loan at Wigan, on for a largely anonymous Ashley Young in the hopes that his energy would even out the battle in the center of the pitch. Michael Carrick played as the holding midfielder, with Tom Cleverley playing ahead of him right of center and Ryan Giggs played ahead of Carrick and left of center. With Ashley Young being subbed off, Wayne Rooney was positioned out on the left wing to switch United into a more standard 4-5-1. This change had a noticeable effect on Wigan’s attack. With Cleverley being put in the midfield to use his pace and apply pressure on Wigan’s central midfield, their main avenue for attack in the first half. This change was able to close Wigan down in the central midfield, and Wigan shifted their attack more onto the wings with the main focus being their left side.

Second Half Formations

One of these attacks down the left side lead to the first goal for Wigan. James McCarthy played a ball out wide to the left for Beausejour. Phil Jones came out to close him down and the Chilean wing-back played the ball down to the end line and he tried to play a cross that appeared to go out of bounds of the Wigan player. While this should have resulted in a goal kick for United, the referee gave Wigan the corner instead. On the ensuing corner, Maloney played the ball short to Beausejour, who gave it back to Maloney on an overlapping run inside. Manchester United only had Phil Jones out covering both Wigan players on the corner, and he was left behind by Maloney, who brought the ball towards the middle of the pitch. Wayne Rooney stepped out to make a weak challenge, which Maloney was easily able to avoid before curling a shot around David De Gea into the far corner of the net.

As the second half went along, United started to gain more possession. Antonio Valencia was having problems out wide dealing with the double team of Beausejour and Maloney, the Ecuadorian started to tuck inside to attack in the gap left when Rooney went out wide left. This caused a new problem for Manchester United.

Wayne Rooney out on the left side blunted United’s already struggling attack in 2 different ways. First, by moving Rooney farther from the box, he wasn’t able to create the chances with his passing and was frequently positioned too far away to offer a credible shooting threat. In addition, Rooney has played very narrow when he’s been put out on the wing. His first instinct is to tuck inside and come forward in the middle of the pitch, but this caused problems for United as they would end up with Hernandez, Giggs, Cleverley, Rooney, Valencia, and Carrick all operating in roughly the same space. Instead of stretching Wigan’s defense as the game wore on, they allowed Wigan to defense close and congest the middle of the pitch to clog up United’s attack.

Lactics hang on

Even after going up 1-0 on Manchester United, scoring for the first time in 14 meetings, they continued to press forward and attack. United struggled to gain possession and were stuck back in their zone dealing with dangerous forward runs by both wing-backs for Wigan.

With 25 minutes left in the game, United’s manager made his last 2 substitutions in the hopes of stirring United’s attack to life. He brought out a fairly ineffective Javier Hernandez and replaced him with Danny Welbeck, while the surprise change was taking off the club’s leading goal scorer, Wayne Rooney, and replacing him with Nani. While this change was surprising, it made some sense for United’s shape. Nani came on and took up position on the left wing, adding more creativity and width to United’s attack.

The changes improved United’s attack fairly quickly. They were able to offer a more substantial attacking threat, stretching Wigan’s defense but they struggled to create good looks at goal. As the last 25 minutes of the game ticked away, United took more control over possession but Wigan continued to defend valiantly. One of United’s best chances came in the 71st minute, when Phil Jones tried to put a cross in from the right side and it appeared to hit off of Figueroa’s outstretched arm roughly 15 yards away. Unfortunately for United, the referee denied the penalty.

United were able to start controlling the possession, and Jonny Evans started venturing into the midfield to help pressure Wigan. The additional width created down the left side by Nani increased the space to operate for United’s attacks, and they were able to make several dangerous runs to try and get behind Wigan’s defense. Tom Cleverley was able to function near the top of the box, and repeatedly tried to play one-touch passes into Welbeck to get him into the box but Wigan was able to stop most of these attacks.

As the game wore down, Roberto Martinez made a pair of changes to improve Wigan’s defensive efforts at the cost of their attack. He took out Franco DiSanto up front and replaced him with midfielder Mohammed Diame. He also took out their most dangerous attacking threat, Shaun Maloney and brought in Conor Sammon, He played Diame into the central midfield while Conor Sammon continued to offer a threat going forward on the left side the same as Maloney had done.

In the final 10 minutes of the game, both sides had good opportunities as the play opened up. First, in the 80th minute, Moses attacked down the right side into the box and put a powerful shot on goal that De Gea deflected away with his legs. Within another minute, Wigan attacked again down the left side with Conor Sammon, who made it all the way to the byline before pulling a pass back to the top of the penalty area for Diame. His shot was deflected off Rio Ferdinand and went back to Diame. He passed out wide right to Victor Moses who the shot towards the far post but was wide of the mark.

Coming back the other way, United were able to get one of their better chances of the match when Nani passed the ball into the center for Tom Cleverley, who played a nice through ball into Danny Welbeck between Gary Caldwell and Jean Beausejour for Wigan. Danny Welbeck collected the ball in the box and took a shot at Wigan’s keeper, but he was able stop the ball and Wigan cleared it out.

With time running out, United tried to ratchet up the pressure but Wigan continued to defend their zone and outwork United. Manchester United tried bringing Phil Jones up front, to offer more of an attacking threat but they were never really looked close to getting a goal as time ran out.


This was a game that reminded most United fans of the game away to Newcastle. Manchester United seemed uninspired, and they were never really able to mold this game to their playing style. Without Paul Scholes in the middle of the pitch, it was left to Michael Carrick to try and control possession for United and bring the ball forward. Ryan Giggs had a desperate showing in central midfield, where his lack of defensive discipline really caused United problems in the first half. To make up for these problems, Sir Alex Ferguson was first forced to pull Wayne Rooney back to help out and in the second half, he had to bring in Tom Cleverley to shore up the defense.

Wigan's Attack Zone

For as lax as United played, Wigan showed determination and pace going forward and put in an extraordinary effort in defense. Wigan was first to any loose ball, and they were able to outwork United in every aspect of play. After losing 14 straight games to United, and never once even scoring a goal, this was a great effort by Wigan and a fantastic job by Roberto Martinez to convince his team that they could not only play with United, but beat them.

While this game was a disappointment for Manchester United, they still are 5 points clear of Manchester City at the top of the table with 5 games left to play. United are still in the driver’s seat when it comes to claiming their 20th league title, but it means that United cannot afford more flat performances in the games against Aston Villa, Swansea, and Sunderland.

By RangeRooney (@RangeRooney)