There has been much said, and written, about the switch to the three-at-the-back formation that helped turn Wigan from relegation certainties to world-beaters at the tail end of last season (there are two terrific articles from the zonal marking guy that I would highly recommend if you haven’t read them yet). The strategy has been lauded for many reasons by many different analysts but for me the core reasoning was always this: if you play a possession-based passing game, you want to have as many midfielders on the pitch as possible to control the game. Barcelona are the classic example for any team aspiring to play like this, and their formation reflects it: with a false nine (so no true striker) and fullbacks who often press very high up the pitch, you could argue that Barcelona frequently play with eight midfielders, with only two defenders and a keeper to make up the 11.
Of course, Wigan are not Barcelona, do not have Messi, and have to remain far more responsible at the back against a league of better-paid and more highly-regarded players. But what they did last season was not altogether dissimilar: by playing only 3 devoted defenders and one striker, they effectively always kept 6 midfielders on the pitch and were often able to control the middle of the park against ‘better’ opposition.
For this reason, I was surprised when it became clear that Roberto Martinez has chosen to start the season playing with two strikers up top, and taking us from what was a 3-4-3 with wide midfield/wing players to a 3-4-1-2 with an attacking mid and two strikers. Now, granted, there are a number of logical reasons for the switch in formation. One obvious reason is goals: the Latics struggling to score has been a recurring theme over the club’s Premier League lifespan and with both Kone and Di Santo firing right now, we may finally have solved our goalscoring problem. Another is personnel: if the logic to go by is to have your best 11 players on the pitch, on current form, it would be difficult to keep any of Kone, Di Santo and Boselli on the bench. I don’t think it is a stretch to call the team’s current group of strikers among the best (if not the best) in our Premier League history. As it stands, Martinez decided to play new signing Kone alongside last season’s starter Di Santo and the results on the score sheet have been encouraging.
Yet these are not the only repercussions these changes have had on our team. Most obvious, of course, is that the extra striker means one less midfielder, and what logically follows from having less midfielders is having less control of the midfield.
Much of our recent success has been predicated on winning the midfield battle, and when we overloaded the midfield zone with 6 players last season it allowed us to both press more effectively on defence, and control possession more on offense. While having another striker up front will certainly make us more dangerous in front of goal, the sacrifice of one of our midfielders could have some subtle but pronounced effects over the course of a 90-minute game: for example, a slight drop off in possession and more ground for the midfielders to cover on defence would most likely result in having more tired legs by the end of the game. Although it is still early on, it is not a stretch to say that these effects are already showing, as we have both scored and conceded more goals than we had at the same stage last season.
In addition, just as the personnel dilemmas we are facing up top are encouraging, we are facing some problems further back that give some cause for concern. Perhaps most notable among them is the plight of Emmerson Boyce at right wing back. At the tail end of last season, he was perhaps the least-suited of our players to his new position (as an older, career CB/RB), yet still played well when protected by a wide midfielder or winger in front. He was a bit less attack-minded than Beausejour on the left, but still did well to get forward occasionally, put in a few crosses and even popped up for a couple goals.
This year, however, instead of having wing backs and also wingers in the team, our wing backs are really the only wide players left on the pitch, and certainly are the only ones with any sort of defensive capacity. This means that Boyce is relied on to sprint up and down the pitch to provide offensive width and to defend, and while he is hardworking and industrious, he is also 33 years old and occasionally a bit off the pace when he tries to fulfil all of his responsibilities. It is no longer uncommon to see him get turned when scrambling back to defend in transition, or to stretch towards but not quite reach a through ball played to him in the latter stages of the game. Now I want to be clear when I say that none of this is an indictment of Boyce’s footballing ability or effort – it is simply a case where the system is letting him down. Yet many would argue that it is an acceptable trade-off to make when you have three strikers who are firing right now and are enjoying the benefits of having two together on the pitch.
Of course, we know what Roberto Martinez thinks at the moment – that we are good enough to take our 3-4-1-2 into any match, play our style of football, and come out with a result. But what do you think? Should we go back to the 3-4-3 at the expense of one of our in-form strikers? Maintain the 2 up top despite the shortcomings that result? Or maybe switch between the two – playing the 3-4-3 counter only against top opposition, or when we are away from home? And if we do, which of the two strikers must be sacrificed to the bench? Only one thing is certain – this is the best assortment of players, most suited to his playing style, that Roberto Martinez has ever had at his disposal. But what to do with them? Rather than provide my answer just yet, I want to leave this one up to you: let me know what you think in the comments section below.
Latics and Proud
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