A two part look at the modern premier league miracle that is Wigan Athletic
Whilst the vast majority of the football world watched transfixed last Sunday as Manchester City produced the single most dramatic moment in Premier League history, Wigan had wrapped up victory against already relegated Wolves to secure their 7th win in 9 games to finish 15th and 7 points clear of the relegation zone. This scenario seemed scarcely believable even a few months ago as Wigan approached the critical run in with trips to Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and home games against Manchester United and Newcastle. Yet unlike some of the great escapes of previous seasons, where teams have scraped and fought there way to safety, Wigan have sauntered there playing an attractive and progressive style of football that was as good to watch as it was unexpected. Only one other team has managed to beat all the teams listed above, Manchester City, not bad company for Roberto Martinez's men.
What should we make of Martinez's achievement in maintaining Wigan's top flight status for an 8th straight season and ensuring that they remain the only team in the top division to never be relegated from it. Unlike teams such as QPR and Wolves, the club and the owner Dave Whelan, chose to stick by Martinez when the club endured 8 successive defeats and have been handsomely rewarded for their faith. It is difficult to pin point exactly where everything started to go right for the men from the DW, prior to their trip to Liverpool they were still bottom of the table and had only won twice in their previous 15 games.
The main reason feted for Wigan's change in fortunes was Martinez's decision to move to a 3-4-3 and this has unquestionably impacted upon both results and their style of play. Before they switched to the 3-4-3/3-4-2-1 that they ended the season with, Wigan had still enjoyed a healthy average possession in the majority of their games however they had looked fairly toothless and this combined with a leaky defence was only going to end one way.
However a few important events happened that changed the course of the clubs season and one of the most important moments was the result of Senegal qualifying for the African cup of nations over a year ago. Mohammed Diame is decent footballer and a tremendous athlete and has been a mainstay in Wigan's team over the past two seasons. However when Diame departed for the Gabon and the African Nations Cup in January, it forced Roberto Martinez to turn to James McArthur (not to be confused with James McCarthy) and this was a critical point in Wigan's season. With the addition of MacArthur it added a "passer" to the side and as such not only improved their ability to retain possession but also provided a greater attacking threat as they now possessed two midfielders with the ability to create goal scoring opportunities.
The move to a three man defence was made on the 11th of February for the home match vs Bolton Wanderers, the statistics connected with this game are quite remarkable. Before this match Wigan had collected 16 points from 24 home games. From then on they won 27 points from 14 games, an outstanding turnaround for sure. Some have been arguing that too much is being made of Martinez's achievements and that he "plays" on being Spanish and this masks his failings. Equally some argue that the fact that Wigan enjoyed such a fantastic last third of the season is merely hiding how poor they were for the previous two thirds. One of these arguments has a certain grounding to it, the other is little more than what could politely be termed "a little Englander attitude".
There is no question that Wigan endured a poor campaign up to February and looked certain to be relegated after successive thrashings by Arsenal and Manchester United. However those who wish to use this period against Martinez and Wigan should actually take note of how impressive it is that Martinez, his coaches and the players were able to radically transform their season even after such a torrid run of form. Mick McCarthy was unable to change Wolves' fortunes, Alex McLeish struggled throughout the season, Owen Coyle and Steve Kean were never able to sustain more than fleeting runs of good form whilst Martinez, who works on a significantly lower budget than the clubs and managers mentioned above(we will deal with finances in the second part of this piece), was able to not only to bring about a change of form but far more importantly to sustain and build on it.
The idea that Martinez has in some way benefited due to the fact that he is originally from Spain and is well spoke, well dressed and well educated (he holds a degree in physiotherapy and a post graduate degree in business management) holds no sway with me. It is a well trotted argument that overseas managers are given more respect and time than British managers with examples such as Mark Hughes' time at Manchester City being one such example. However for every British manager who has been released you can find a foreign manager who has been treated just as poorly and ridiculed, Andre Villas Boas springs to mind straight away.
Part of the reason why Martinez has received the plaudits he has so much so that he is now a strong contender for the Liverpool job, is that he has quite a unique style and is very open and tactically astute and does not just trot out the usual platitude of cliches and generalisations that many managers in relegation battles do. For instance, during the period in which Wigan were consistently losing Martinez would pick a 10-15 minute spell and extol the virtues of his side and how well they had done in that period. Many of us, myself included, thought this was simply his way of deflecting blame and that Wigan would never be able to put together such form over a whole game never mind successive games but lo and behold that's precisely what they did.
From a personal view one of the reasons why Roberto Martinez is deserving of the praise he has received is that tactically Martinez has tried a system which is rarely employed in this country and has excelled with it. Few sides in the premier league attempt to be innovative and experiment with formations with practically ever side playing some variant of 4-5-1/4-3-3 and as such it is not surprising when English clubs do encounter sides who do utilise different systems, such as with Manchester City when they met Napoli back in September, they often struggle.
The final point on Martinez is almost certainly a key factor in why he is seemingly a candidate to take over at Anfield is his ability to buy astutely in the transfer window. As will be covered in the financial component of this piece, Wigan have precious little transfer and wage funds to utilise and as such this raises the achievements of Martinez still further. If you had said at the end of last season that Charles N'Zogbia and Hugo Rodallega would not contribute to Wigan Athletic next season and yet the club would actually finish higher in the league and score more goals, not many people would have believed you, yet this is precisely what happened. Despite N'Zogbia departing for Aston Villa and Rodallega not finding any sort of form this season, Wigan have coped without two of their most talented players in recent years. A major component in this was Martinez's shrewdness in the transfer market and for all the talk recently of Moneyball and everything that it entails, Martinez is certainly an exponent of some of its core principles.
By acquiring individuals like Shaun Maloney and Jean Beausejour Wigan were bringing in individuals who had been undervalued by their clubs and often used out of position. Maloney has consistently been used as a wide sided midfielder in his career despite having a skill set more suited to playing as a number 10. Equally Beausejour was used as an orthodox left winger by Birmingham last season when actually he is ideally suited to playing as wing-back as demonstrated in Marcelo Bielsa's exciting Chile side at the 2010 World Cup. Martinez identified these two as players whom could fit well into the way he wanted to shape his team and picked them up for nominal fees. The same could be applied with the purchases of Ali Al-Habsi, Gary Caldwell and even someone such as Franco Di Santo, who although much derided is actually a far better player than he is often given credit for.
If Roberto Martinez is appointed Liverpool manager which seems to grow increasingly likely day by day it will certainly be an intriguing appointment. Whether Martinez will consider using three at the back at Anfield and how he copes managing far bigger names than he will ever have worked with will be a fascinating sub plot of next season. Regardless of this, people should be under no illusions, Martinez is a good manager who has done a pretty extraordinary thing at Wigan and is deserving of all the credit that has come his way recently.
The Unfashionables Part Two: Whelan of Fortune