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The Tactics Board- MUFC 4-0 Wigan: Slow start and strong finish

Manchester United played host to Wigan, with memories fresh of the 1-0 loss at the DW Stadium towards the end of last season. 3 points that the Red Devils could have used, but they played poorly and struggled to deal with the 3-5-2 that Roberto Martinez’s side played extremely well. This game started well for the Latics, as they were able to disrupt Sir Alex Ferguson’s side and keep them from getting into an offensive rhythm. Wigan’s pressure, combined with Fergie’s decision to rest key players ahead of the Champion’s League tie on Wednesday led both teams to go in at the half scoreless. Wigan was effective at limiting United’s chances in the first half, but they struggled to create any chances of their own. In the second half, Manchester United was finally able to unlock Wigan’s defense after 5 minutes. Once the Red Devils got their first goal, the flood gates opened and Wigan struggled to deal with the higher pace United played at. By the time the final whistle blew, United had netted 4 and Wigan only managed 1 shot on target in a decisive victory for the Red Devils.

Manchester United vs. Wigan Athletic

Old Trafford – September 15th 2012

Game Setup-

Manchester United (4-4-2)
With the Champion’s League group stage starting on Wednesday, Sir Alex Ferguson opted to rest several of his important players such as Robin Van Persie, Shinji Kagawa, Antonio Valencia, Tom Cleverley, and Patrice Evra. At home against a lower level side that he figured would struggle for possession against his side, he opted to play a 4-4-2 that he’s used successfully for many years.

Starting for the second game in a row, Anders Lindegaard started in goal over David De Gea. The defensive line was very similar to the side that lined up against Southampton before the international break, with Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic starting their second game together for the season. Rafael started at right-back, while new acquisition Alexander Buttner got the start at left back as Patrice Evra missed the start with an injury. The Dutchman, acquired for just under £4 million from Vitesse at the end of the transfer window came in largely unknown by most United supporters.

The center of the midfield consisted of Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes, getting another start together after the international break. In this formation, both players tend to stay fairly deep to control possession and switch the point of attack. Starting out on the right wing was Nani, while Ryan Giggs got a rare start out on the left wing. Up front, with Wayne Rooney still out injured, and Robin Van Persie starting on the bench after picking up a slight knock while playing for the Netherlands, Danny Welbeck and Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez got the start together for only the 4th time in league games.

This formation functions as a traditional 4-4-2, with a couple exceptions. Up front, Chicharito and Welbeck are used to press high up the pitch, challenging Wigan’s backline when they have the ball. Also, against the 3 man defense that Wigan plays, one of them also marks any center-backs that come into the midfield when Wigan has possession. Offensively, it is more common to see Welbeck drop deep and move laterally to the wings while Chicharito stays on the shoulder of the last defender, trying the stretch the pitch length-wise. The only other change is that Giggs and Nani play defense further up the pitch than usual, marking the wing-backs as there are no full-backs to worry about.

Starting Formation

Wigan Athletic (3-4-2-1)
Roberto Martinez’s side came out in the same formation and lineup that they used in the 2-2 draw with Stoke City before the international break. Omani international Ali Al Habsi, fresh from the friendly against Scotland at Craven Cottage, started his fifth consecutive fixture for the club. Club captain Gary Caldwell started at the central of the three man backline, with Maynor Figueroa on the left side and Ivan Ramis got the start on the right side in place of an injured Antolin Alcaraz.

James McArthur and James McCarthy got the start in the central midfield, while Emmerson Boyce started as the right wing-back and Chilean international Jean Beausejour started as left wing-back, despite reports that he may miss the game due to a knock picked up during duty with his country. Ahead of the central midfielders, Arouna Kone started as the right attacking midfielder while Shaun Maloney starts on the left side. Maloney was responsible for the sole goal in the 1-0 defeat of Manchester United last April. Alone up front was Franco Di Santo.

Roberto Martinez’s side has been using a 3-4-2-1 so far this season, to good effect. The danger of this formation comes from the wing-backs who have license to get forward and attack more aggressively than traditional fullbacks, as there are three defenders in the back covering their zone. Additionally, this formation ensures that the defense is hard to overrun at the back. Against a 4-4-2, there is a center-back for each striker with an extra ‘sweeper’ who covers any mistakes and patrols the penalty area.

Key Points-

  • Fergie rested key personnel in anticipation of the Champion’s League game against Galatasaray, leaving Van Persie, Kagawa, Cleverley, Valencia, and Evra out of the starting lineup.
  • Another game of two halves, as United struggled in the first half to deal with Wigan’s defense but then dominated the second half
  • Alexander Buttner puts in an impressive attacking performance in his club debut, scoring a goal and picking up an assist.
  • Wigan’s 3-4-2-1 gives United problems early on, as they slow United’s pace and prevent any operating space in the center of the box.
  • The Red Devils exploit Wigan’s weakness out wide, and overrun McCarthy and McArthur in the middle


A toothless Wigan attack

Wigan had success throughout the first half in disrupting Manchester United’s attack, but they struggled to present any real threat with their own attack. The Latics struggled getting the ball forward, and soon resorted to playing long balls into the final third. This strategy worked well for Everton and Fulham against the Red Devils, but Wigan struggled. Whereas Everton and Fulham had Fellaini and Dembele, respectively, Maloney and Di Santo weren’t tall or strong enough to go up and beat United’s defenders in aerial duels. They had some success playing the ball up to Kone on the right side, but even if he won the header, the Lactics struggled to control the ball.

Wigan’s attack is largely dependent on the wing-backs bombing forward aggressively, but Manchester United’s attack was strong enough to pin Beausejour and Boyce back fairly deep. In the 1-0 loss to Wigan at the DW Stadium in April, Beausejour and Boyce combined for 1 assist, and 2 key passes. In this game, they struggled with a pass completion rate of less than 80%.

One of Wigan’s biggest issues going forward was their central midfield, where James McCarthy and James McArthur sat extremely deep. By playing deep, they got space from Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes. This left the duty of shutting them down to Danny Welbeck and Chicharito, who gave them more time on the ball than they would have gotten further up the pitch, but they did little with this time. Instead, they primarily passed the ball back and forth to try and get some control of possession, with their  attacking passes out wide to the wing-backs. They struggled to get the ball forward, and having the central midfielders hold up the ball near the halfway line didn’t help the cause.

With the wing-backs not providing much attacking threat, Shaun Maloney was left to link the midfield with the forwards while also providing much needed creativity. He often received the ball near the left touchline, and would cut inside trying to get between the Red Devil’s lines. Nani and Rafael switched marking assignments on Maloney, depending on how high up the pitch Beausejour was. He struggled to get any space, and had no real success playing passes forward into the final third. On the right side of the attack was Arouna Kone, but he had almost no impact on the game except for winning a few long balls, but possession was quickly lost as he received little support.

The lone striker up front was Franco Di Santo, and United’s central defenders shut him down all game. He managed 2 shots on goal, but struggled to get the ball in a dangerous position. He would frequently have to drift out to the wings to get on the ball, and supplied 2 crosses into the box but there was only 1 Wigan target against at least 4 United players on both crosses.

Defensively, Manchester United was aggressive in pressing Wigan high up the pitch, with both Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez putting in impressive effort harassing Wigan up the pitch. The Red Devils had success pressing high up the pitch when they lost the ball. Frequently, when they turned the ball over, several United players would immediately put pressure on the player and force a turnover. United were able to recover the ball in Wigan’s half of the field 10 times during the game, and plays like this led to the Red Devil’s second and third goal.

The Red Devils struggle early

Manchester United started another game slowly, struggling to deal with an unfamiliar formation and tight Wigan defense. Going forward, Wigan operated as a 3-4-2-1 but when they drop back into defense, they become a 5-2-1-2. The wing-backs would drop to the backline and join the 3 central defenders, which made the defense extremely hard to break down. In front of the back line of 5 sat the 2 central midfielders, James McCarthy and James McArthur. They stayed deep trying to prevent the Red Devils from finding space just outside the penalty area. Manchester United struggled not only with the formation, but Wigan used fouls and throw-ins to slow the pace of the game throughout the first half. This left United’s attack disjointed, and allowed Wigan to get back and set defensively so they were hard to break down.

For most of the first half, United struggled getting any quality chances. One of the best chances came in the 5th minute, when Nani put a nice one-touch lobbed diagonal through ball behind Wigan’s defense for Danny Welbeck by the left edge of the 18-yard box. As Welbeck was running it down, Al Habsi slid out to challenge for the ball. With no apparent contact, Welbeck went down and Michael Oliver pointed to the spot. While the penalty shouldn’t have been given, it ended up doing no harm as Chicharito couldn’t convert the penalty. He shot it low and to the right, and Al Habsi guessed correctly and palmed the ball away.

Wigan Defensive Setup

United overrun the midfield

Manchester United played as a 4-2-2-2 on the attack, with Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick sitting very deep in the central midfield. Ahead of them were Nani and Ryan Giggs on the wings, but both of them played inside as ‘Interiores’ to attack the center of Wigan’s defense. Up front, Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck led the attack.

Welbeck and Hernandez played as effective striker partners, with Welbeck more willing to drop into the midfield to get on the ball, overloading Wigan’s midfield. He also found considerable success drifting out to the left corner(red area above), where Wigan’s defense was especially vulnerable due to Ivan Ramis playing too narrow and Emmerson Boyce not dropping deep enough in defense. Chicharito preferred to stay on the last defender, trying to use his pace to get in behind Wigan’s defense.

The defense of the wide areas of the pitch, outside the 18 yard box near the corner flag is the primary weakness of the 3 man defense(red area). United took advantage of this repeatedly during the match, with Welbeck and Buttner frequently operating on the left side of the penalty area, and Nani and Rafael operating on the right side.

Behind the strikers were Ryan Giggs on the left wing and Nani on the right wing. Giggs played very narrow on the left side, and functioned in more of a central role to overload Wigan’s midfield. Nani stayed wide out on the right side, often receiving the ball near the touchline but he would then cut inside and try to get between Wigan’s defensive and midfield lines. The Portuguese winger had success with this strategy, finding space inside to take 5 shots and play 3 key passes.

Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes played fairly deep as the central midfielders, putting in very impressive performances. Scholes again was used to control the pace of the game, playing his patented long balls out to the wings to change the point of attack. Michael Carrick was used to play shorter passes, and his passes had a much more attacking thrust than they typically do. Additionally, when the Red Devils took control of possession, they would function as a double pivot and take turns pressing forward to ratchet up the pressure on Wigan’s defense.

By playing deep, marking Scholes and Carrick was left almost entirely to Shaun Maloney(blue glow above), as both Di Santo and Kone made poor effort to drop back to help defend. They preferred to stay up field, which could have helped Wigan spring a quick counter attack but they’re work rate to get into open space and receive passes left Roberto Martinez wanting.

Halftime and the breakthrough

Wigan had success disrupting United’s attack, and slowing the pace of the game. Going into halftime tied at 0-0 had to be considered a win for the Lactics. Unfortunately, the Red Devils started getting the upper hand just before the halftime break, and it was just after the game restarted that they were finally able to unlock some of Wigan’s defensive faults.

Wigan really struggled in the central midfield as the game went along. McCarthy and McArthur played fairly deep, in front of Wigan’s defensive line. With United’s central midfielders playing so deep, the task would appear simple as they were left to deal with just Ryan Giggs, who was playing as almost an attacking midfielder. However, United targeted this area and overloaded it with several players. Nani would often receive the ball near the right touchline and cut inside, but Beausejour was hesitant to follow him in. This led to Wigan’s central midfielders having to deal with marking Giggs, while also dealing with Welbeck dropping into the midfield, Nani cutting inside from the right side and Scholes and Carrick making the occasional forward run. This was too much for the Lactic’s midfielders to deal with, and United was able to start breaking down Wigan in the second half.

Nani’s play bringing the ball inside led to the Red Devil’s first goal, as they took control of the game in the second half. In the 51st minute, Wigan was pinned deep in their penalty area after conceding a corner. It was played short, and Nani proceeded to dribble rings around his marker, Shaun Maloney. He brought the ball in towards the 18 yard box on the byline and played a low pass to Danny Welbeck near the penalty spot. Welbeck had his back to goal and was forced to play it off to Carrick. Instead of taking a rash shot, Carrick passed it back wide to an unmarked Nani. The 25 year old Portuguese winger put in a low hard shot towards the far post that Al-Habsi was able to deflect, but it fell right to Scholes in the 6-yard box. Rarely in 700 games has he had an easier goal.

Buttner makes stellar debut

Making his first start for Manchester United, Alexander Buttner had a debut to remember. Starting as left back for an injured Patrice Evra, he put in a very impressive attacking performance.

With Ryan Giggs playing fairly centrally, it was left to Alexander Buttner to provide the width to United’s attack on the left side, and he was very effective. He used his pace to constantly take on defenders, and drive into the box near the goal line. He took advantage of the same space that Welbeck exploited, left near the corner flag. He proved to be a very dangerous attacking option, but it was a very different type of danger than Patrice Evra provides. The strength of Evra’s attack frequently comes from his skill crossing the ball, but Buttner struggled with his crosses. He attempted 7 crosses early in the game, and didn’t complete any of them. As the game went on, he stopped trying to cross the ball and instead drove into the box to link-up with the strikers and Ryan Giggs.

His defensive positioning is still a bit rough, but that is to be expected from a 23-year old. He showed great pace, and determination going forward on the attack. In the 63rd minute, he provided the assist on Manchester United’s second goal, which was earned through defensive pressure high up the pitch and the space Wigan left open on the left side of their 18-yard box.

The play started deep in Wigan’s area, with the right center-back Ivan Ramis intercepting a centering pass by Ryan Giggs to Chicharito. Ramis was able to intercept the pass, but Welbeck quickly challenged him and got the ball straight back for United inside Wigan’s penalty area. Giggs recovered the ball from Welbeck’s challenge and laid it off for Buttner, who took a shot turned pass that Chicharito was able to deflect into the goal. With Emmerson Boyce keeping him onside, Hernandez scored his first goal of the season in a typical poacher’s fashion.

If an assist wasn’t enough to cap off an impressive first appearance, he was able to claim a goal of his own 3 minutes later. This goal came from a mix of determination by Alexander Buttner and poor defending by Wigan. Carrick played a ball across the pitch to Buttner wide on the left side. Chased by Kone, he was able to retain possession and advance towards the goal. He easily wrong footed Boyce, then nutmegged McCarthy before stepping around Ivan Ramis and then taking a shot from a terrible angle that deflected off of Al Habsi’s leg and into the goal.

Wigan shuts down

After the Manchester United’s second goal, Wigan seemed to completely lose the plot. Their defense became truly lackluster and the effort put forth was a shadow of what was seen in the first 50 minutes of the game. The Red Devils third goal was a perfect example of this, as Wigan were also troubled with the loss of what little attacking spark they had. In the 59th and 69th minute, Roberto Martinez brought both Shaun Maloney and Jean Beausejour off the pitch. Maloney was responsible for what little creative spark that existed to Wigan’s attack, while Beausejour is arguably Wigan’s best play and his withdrawal allowed Rafael to make more aggressive runs down the right side.

Up by three goals, with the game well in hand, Sir Alex Ferguson took Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, and Nemanja Vidic off and brought on Robin Van Persie, Jonny Evans, and gave a league debut to Nick Powell. Nick Powell arrived early this summer from Crewe Alexander, and came into this game and slotted into the central midfield.

After seeing the excellent debut for Alexander Buttner, what were the chances of Nick Powell marking his arrival in style? United’s final goal came in the 82nd minute. Coming off a quick counter-attack, Chicharito laid the ball off near the top of the 18-yard box for Nick Powell. The 18-year old shifted the ball to his right foot, and hit a screamer past Al Habsi inside the left post.


This was another slow start for Manchester United, as they struggled to deal with the slow pace that Wigan was able to force onto them. As the first half developed, the Red Devils started to find gaps to exploit in Wigan’s defense but it took them until the second half before they were finally able to score. In the course of 15 minutes, Manchester United had a 4-0 lead as Wigan’s defensive structure and formation seemed to disintegrate under the pressure. Defensively, Manchester United were able to keep their first clean sheet of the season through effective pressure high up the pitch, forcing turnovers deep in Wigan’s half. Additionally, Wigan’s attack struggled with poor performances by Jean Beausejour and Emmerson Boyce. A poor result for Wigan, but a solid offensive and defensive game by Manchester United while also resting players for the Champion’s League game, what more could Fergie have wanted?

By RangeRooney