Going into this match, it never looked likely that an upset was on the cards. Even though Wigan were playing their best football of the season and had a record of 2 draws 2 wins and 1 loss in the past 5 games (that loss arriving via some dreadful refereeing decisions that went against Wigan), Manchester United looked simply unbeatable.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s men had recorded 8 consecutive league wins, and were unbeaten in their last 12 Premier League games. They looked to be in pole position for the league title after City slipped up, and had the chance to firmly extend their lead over their rivals to an unassailable 8 points. On top of that, Manchester United had a perfect 100% record against Wigan: 14 wins from 14 games. Roberto Martinez’s men didn’t seem to have a chance.
Martinez named an unchanged side from the team that was so unfortunate to lose against Chelsea in their last league game. Ferguson did make some changes though: Phil Jones replaced Rafael at right-back, Javier Hernandez came in for Danny Welbeck up front, and Paul Scholes was rested from the matchday squad altogether, as fellow veteran Ryan Giggs took his spot in central midfield in United’s regular 4-4-2 formation.
It’s difficult to pin down Wigan’s formation in simplistic terms, as their shape is so fluid, similar to how Barcelona’s formation on paper is never really what it is on the field. Wigan’s formation has been called a 3-4-3, a 3-5-2, and a 5-4-1, but it doesn’t really matter because formations are but numerical structures designed to give a rough team shape.
In reality, Wigan play with 3 central defenders, and 2 wingbacks who provide all the width down both flanks. They also have 2 central midfielders, plus 3 roving forwards/attackers in front of them.
From the first blow of the referee’s whistle, Wigan were hounding United like starved animals. Martinez’s team didn’t give United any time on the ball whatsoever, pressing them up high, forcing United into aimless long punts and thus losing possession. This wasn’t out of character with many of United’s opponents: they often seek to pressure United early on in the game to try and nick a goal or simply make United uncomfortable, but United almost always eventually regains control.
The difference in this game was that it took until the 38th minute, just 7 minutes before the end of the first-half, for United to properly get hold of the ball and finally enjoy a spell of possession. In those first 38 minutes, Wigan were astonishingly relentless in their pursuit of the ball. It wasn’t just that Wigan’s players were winning all the crucial one-on-one tackles, it was also that Wigan were intercepting so many of United’s passes which prevented United from gaining any sort of foothold on the game.
Wigan’s left wingback Jean Beausejour was seeing a lot of the ball by staying out high and wide, and combining well with Shaun Maloney. Maloney looked to cut inside many times, and this gave Beausejour the space to attack. It seemed a curious decision by Ferguson to play Jones, a young player known more for his marauding runs forward than his defensive nous, at right-back against Wigan, a team who makes 41% of its attacks down the left side – the only other team to have such strong tendencies to attack down a particular flank is Wolves (42% down its left side as well).
On the other side, Wigan’s right wingback Emmerson Boyce was a lot more cautious and stationed himself near the halfway line, just slightly ahead of his three central defenders. Maynor Figueroa, Wigan’s left-sided centre-back, is also capable of playing as a left-back, and that versatility in Wigan’s backline allowed them to shift from a back 3 to a back 4 or even a back 5 whenever necessary.
Besides having a goal ruled out for an incredibly soft ‘foul’ that enraged Roberto Martinez, his men weren’t creating clear cut chances, but they were very clearly rattling a United side that’s accustomed to having a strong controlling grip on matches. The entire Wigan team were doing their part to press as a unit, as the defending started from the front with Franco Di Santo, Victor Moses and Maloney all working extremely hard to pressure United’s defenders.
Di Santo, probably the least prolific striker in the Premier League with a meagre 4 goals this season, showed why he still deserved to be in Wigan’s starting XI, working his socks off running from channel to channel, and dragging United’s players out of position with him.
One of those players was Jonny Evans, who wasn’t having a good game at all. He couldn’t deal defensively with Wigan’s hardworking attacking trio, often getting too tight on them and getting turned as a result. He also should’ve been sent off for a second yellow card offence – poor rash challenges that exemplified his performance for this match.
Moses posed a threat to United’s defence unlike any of his fellow Wigan teammates with his direct dribbling and hard running. The former Crystal Palace player was eye-catching on the ball as he successfully completed 5 dribbles, by far the highest out of all the players on the pitch, and twice the number of his average successful dribbles per game (2.5). His strength was evident in the 48th minute during the second-half, when he (legally) barged Rio Ferdinand off the ball and won possession back for his team.
Wigan’s central midfielders James McArthur and James McCarthy were tremendous in the middle of the pitch as well. They overpowered United’s own midfield pairing of Giggs and Michael Carrick, bossing the midfield in a fantastic show of power and drive. The roles of both McArthur and McCarthy seemed simplistic enough: run, tackle, win the ball, drive forward, pass the ball onto the forward trio and support them, intercept the ball and so on. They were everywhere.
In fact, Wigan had United pinned back to such an extent that centre-backs Figueroa and Antolin Alcaraz were often the ones taking turns to bring the ball out from the back. Somewhat ironically, these were also United’s best chances of scoring a goal in the first half, through a counter-attack that had one of Wigan’s centre-backs out of position, but United couldn’t capitalise on this at all.
In theory, as the first-half panned out with Wigan dominating, playing Hernandez up front made plenty of sense because his raw pace could be a potent weapon on the counter-attack. Unfortunately for United, in spite of Hernandez’s much acclaimed off-the-ball movement, they couldn’t carve any opportunities by long punts forward and the Mexican striker was virtually anonymous for the whole 58 minutes of his time on the field.
United’s lack of creativity stemmed from their inability to hold onto the ball (thanks to McArthur and McCarthy as outlined above), and wingers Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia spent more time defending in their own half than attacking in Wigan’s.
There is a school of thought that Carrick can only perform when in control and falters miserably when not. Well, the teacher of that school will be aware that this match is another piece of evidence of Carrick’s weaknesses, as the English midfielder was at his statuesque worst. His midfield partner was arguably worse. An ageing Giggs, whilst still undoubtedly a major part of United’s squad, was simply unable to cope with Wigan’s power and pace in central midfield – similar to how inadequate both Carrick and him performed against Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League, another team who pressed and pressured in midfield.
Ferguson recognised that how easily United’s central midfielders were being bypassed, and midway through the first-half, he instructed Wayne Rooney to drop deeper and form a 4-5-1 shape when United didn’t have the ball. The tactic didn’t work, likely because Rooney wasn’t sure exactly how deep he was meant to drop. He ended up in the lines between Wigan’s defence and midfield – a great position to take up in normal circumstances – but United just couldn’t get the ball to him. Simultaneously, it also caused Hernandez to be even more isolated up front. Thus, Ferguson substituted winger Young for another central midfielder Tom Cleverley at half-time in a further bid to gain control of the match.
Yet Wigan began the second-half in exactly the same manner as they had ended the first, and deservedly took a 1-0 lead in the 50th minute when Maloney, possibly Wigan’s most technically-gifted player, curled the ball into David De Gea’s net. United will complain that the corner which produced Wigan’s goal shouldn’t have been given, but, even ignoring the fact that Wigan were denied a perfectly legal goal before, United were the architect of their own downfall: they failed to push more players forward after Wigan’s short corner left Evans outnumbered 2 v 1, and Rooney allowed Maloney to skip around him way too easily.
Even then, it was only until around the 65th minute mark did United finally start to assert themselves on the match, just after Nani had replaced Rooney and Danny Welbeck had come on for the ineffective Hernandez.
Rooney’s substitution was slightly strange as out of all of United’s underperforming players, he had seemed the brightest and most determined to make something happen. The peculiarity of that decision continued when Nani didn’t move out to the left wing (which was empty after Young’s departure at half-time), but took up Rooney’s central striking position alongside Welbeck instead.
The two United strikers weren’t particularly effective either, and once again, that was due to a lack of service. United’s midfield three of Carrick Giggs and Cleverley saw a lot more of the ball after the 65th minute, but by then Wigan had retreated into a compact defensive shell – Beausejour and Boyce moved back to play more as fullbacks than wingbacks and form a back 5, while Moses and Maloney also switched to wide defensive positions to form a 5-4-1 formation – and United couldn’t penetrate their defence from the central zones.
As such, it was odd to see United’s left-back Patrice Evra have the whole left flank to himself and to also see Jones and not Valencia as the widest United player on the right. United needed more width in their play to break down Wigan’s defence, and Ferguson of all people should know the value of width and crosses into the box.
Martinez’s response to United’s search for an equaliser was to take off his exhausted striker Di Santo and put on midfield schemer Mohamed Diame in the 70th minute.. The move ensured that Wigan weren’t outnumbered in central midfield – both teams now had 3 central midfielders – but also caused Wigan to lack a striker.
Wigan were effectively playing a 5-5-0 formation at this point, and had no one upfront to hold up the ball and release the pressure. United were extremely dominant during this period as their players picked up every Wigan clearance and could restart their attacks with little trouble. Martinez realised his mistake and 7 minutes after his first substitution, withdrew tiring goalscorer Maloney for big targetman Connor Sammon. The move paid off as Sammon not only held up the ball well, but also created a few half chances through his strong dribbling.
Bar a penalty shout which probably should’ve have been given (but one’s got to sympathise with Martinez’s luck with refereeing decisions prior to this game), United failed to create any clear cut goalscoring chances, and Wigan deserve a huge amount of credit for that.
Limiting United to just a single shot on target – United top the league for average number of shots on target per game at 6.5 – takes immense effort which Wigan truly did put in. What will please Martinez the most is that Wigan’s display wasn’t down to a single individual having a great day (except for Maloney’s wonder goal), it was an awesome team effort from a side that has been playing supremely well in recent weeks.
Figueroa was statistically Wigan’s best defender with 4 tackles and 4 interceptions, but the stats also illustrate how it was a joint effort: as a team Wigan made an unbelievable 25 interceptions in total. In comparison, they average 15 interceptions per game, while Aston Villa average 19.9 interceptions per game, the top team in the league with regards to this particular statistic.
The 3 points Wigan gained are massive (and deserved) ones, and will go a long way in helping them secure top flight football next season. If they continue playing at this level for their final 5 matches – in their usual late season surge – then they surely deserve to stay up. Neutrals will feel happy for Martinez, one of the league’s most honest and likeable managers, who finally had Lady Luck on his side after he spent every one of the game’s 95 minutes on the touchline pointing and yelling instructions to his team. Credit must also go to the Wigan fans who, despite being less than 18,000 strong, cheered their team throughout the game and gave them a raucous applause at the end.
As for their opponents, United will definitely see this as 3 points dropped, a chance to extend their lead squandered. Some also believe that resting Scholes was a mistake. On a day when Manchester City won 4-0 to close the gap to 5 points, and still have to welcome United to the Etihad Stadium, just maybe the title race flickered to life once again.