As January rolled into February, one thing looked certain in the English Premier League – Wigan Athletic were going down. They had lost 14 or their 23 matches, and were stuck on a paltry 15 points. They lost every match in September and October in a 8 match losing streak (9 if you include a League Cup defeat at Crystal Palace), before repeating that trick in January, losing all four league matches, and a FA Cop match at League Two side, Swindon Town.
And yet, a curious thing happened. Wigan lost only three of their next 13 matches, a run of results that has seen them out of the bottom three and looking like a good bet to stay up. Such has been their form over these 13 games that extrapolating it across a season, it would’ve seen them finish 5th last year, above Spurs.
It was, in short, a massive turnaround.
A large factor behind the recent upturn in results has been a tactical switch by Roberto Martinez.. Martinez has always tried to instill his teams a desire to get the ball down and play a quick short passing game, as can be seen in the current Swansea City team that still bares many of his hallmarks following his time in charge there from early 2007 to the summer of 2009.
He brought a similar philosophy to Wigan, yet results have seen the club mired in relegation battles year after year.
One of the big factors behind the recent upturn in fortunes for the Latics has been Martinez’s switch from a back four to back three.
The question is, could this current Wigan side be a template for the Portland Timbers to follow?
It’s been a difficult 2012 for the Timbers so far. Their first 8 matches have seen 5 defeats, with the most dispiriting coming in a toothless 2-0 defeat to expansion side Montreal Impact. In a weird coincidence, if you were to take that form across 23 matches the Timbers would lose, you guessed it, 14 of them – just like Wigan. You can whistle the Twilight Zone theme here, if you so wish.
John Spencer, now in his second year as head coach, has taken some criticism for his team selections and perceived lack of tactical flexibility. Much of it, I must admit, from me. He has thrown up a few variations – going with a midfield diamond, or an anchor sitting between defence and midfield, but all are very much under the 4-4-2 umbrella.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Spencer is seemingly wedded to this way of playing. For much of his time in the UK, and then in the States, the 4-4-2 was the predominant tactic. It’s what he’s used to, what he probably feels he knows best. But whatever the reasons, the results are that it’s simply not working right now.
Which isn’t to say a 4-4-2 doesn’t have it’s place, but given the personnel available to him, it simply doesn’t seem to be bringing out the best in his players. Too many players are asked to play in positions or roles that are unfamiliar or don’t suit them. Does anyone really believe Diego Chara is a wide midfielder? Or Jack Jewsbury the attacking hub?
Before we get to how Wigan’s new formation would work for the timbers, let’s look at how it stacks up, taking each players’ “influence” from the FourFourTwo StatZone app for the past four matches. (By the way, please do a MLS version!)
As you can see, the 3-4-3 is oft-times more a 3-4-2-1. I’m not the first to suggest such a change – John Nyen suggested a move to a 3-5-2 / 3-4-3 a while ago in a great article – but taking Wigan specifically as an example we can explore just how the Timbers could adopt much of what Martinez’s side do.
In my opinion, there are a number of similarities in the make up of the squads. Take Victor Moses as an example. Though Moses is often played as a wide-attacker, he naturally comes inside where he can be more involved, picking up the ball in pockets of space and running at defenders. So, that’ll be Darlington Nagbe, then.
I maintain that Nagbe isn’t an out-and-out striker, but neither is he best used out wide. In the 4-4-2 that Spencer is so enamoured with, there’s often no natural place to put Nagbe to get the very best out of him.
The Timbers don’t have a great squad. It’s good, and there are some real talents in there, but only those with the most green-tinted glasses would look at the squad as it is and think “top of the table”. But I’d maintain that, relatively speaking, the Timbers squad is no worse than Wigan’s is in comparison to the rest of the Premier League.
So it’s vital that we make the most of the big talents we have, just as Wigan do with their star players, and that means finding a way to let Nagbe off the leash.
Played in that role between the opposition’s defensive and midfield lines gives Nagbe the license to wreak havoc in dangerous areas. Joining him in the front-line are Kris Boyd and Kalif Alhassan, though it could easily be Franck Songo’o in place of Alhassan depending on form and fitness.
Though I wrote, way back when Boyd first signed, that he was only really suited to playing in a front two, I should probably have considered the context of *when* he’s been asked to play that role in greater detail.
When Rangers were in Europe, or facing up against Celtic, or for Scotland, who tended towards playing a 4-5-1 more often than not. In each of these scenarios, Boyd was playing in a team that was facing opposition of an equal, or greater ability than Rangers/Scotland.
In Europe, the modus operandi was to nick an away goal, defend resolutely and counter. It was a strategy that allowed Rangers to bore their way to the 2008 UEFA Cup final – an eight match run that saw them lose only two goals and play out 3 goalless draws on the way.
Similarly with Scotland, the matches tend to be about grinding out a result, a 1-0 preferably. Here the attackers role was much the same – run the channels, keep the defenders honest, don’t stop running, and then run a bit more. It’s more suited to a Kenny Miller than a Kris Boyd who is a “give me the ball and I’ll score” type than a “put the ball thirty yards over there and I’ll chase after it even though there’s no way I’m going to get it” one.
So, the best in Boyd has been brought out in a two-man attack where he can get fed the ball to feet and get a shot off. In a 3-4-3 system similar to Wigan’s, it would be the job of Nagbe and Alhassan to get into attacking positions and feed Boyd the ball in dangerous areas. Both are, I feel, more than capable of this. And the disparity in quality in the MLS isn’t as great as, say, Scotland and Holland.
Jorge Perlaza (and Mike Fucito, who I’ve not seen enough of to really comment on) is the loser in this system, though if the team wanted to play with two up-top it would be easy to throw Perlaza up there with Boyd, and put Nagbe in behind. Perlaza could be the Conor Sammon of the team – the under-appreciated striker who may not bag loads of goals, but will come on late to run at and stretch a tired defence.
Across the midfield are Steven Smith, Diego Chara, Eric Alexander and Lovel Palmer. I know that the party line is that Palmer isn’t a right-back, but there aren’t a great deal of options down the right hand side. I think Chara is wasted out wide, and I’d worry about putting an Alhassan or Songo’o in that position as it carries a large defensive element to it.
Steve Purdy could perhaps play there, and If Spencer is determined to get Jewsbury in the starting line-up at all costs, Alexander could go wide right.
Smith, with Rodney Wallace as cover, has played as a left midfielder before, so I don’t doubt he could (given match fitness) play there pretty comfortably and he has a good delivery from his left boot if he can get to the byline.
Chara reminds me a great deal of James McCarthy in the Wigan midfield. Both are box-to-box midfielders, tenacious in the tackle and great at disrupting opponents and setting off counter attacks. I’d love to see Diego get the chance to play that kind of role in the centre of the field, but it seems he’s doomed to be a wide midfielder or defensive midfielder for as long as the Timbers fixate on their brand of 4-4-2.
Alexander started the season pretty well in midfield, and pitched in with a few assists, but has found himself out of the squad recently. I’ve been impressed with his passing and work-rate and think he could slot into the middle pretty well.
Across the backline are Futty Danso, Eric Brunner and Hanyer Mosquera. Central defence is an area of relative strength for the Timbers, with David Horst and Andrew Jean-Baptiste also in consideration.
Brunner is the holder, the Gary Caldwell, if you like. It’s a role that Eric adopts already – he’s usually the guy who drops off and covers behind defence. It would be his job to marshal the defence.
Mosquera’s ability to read the game has been impressive and he’s strong and quick to step out of defence to snuff out a threat. Like his fellow South American, Maynor Figueroa, he would have the job of stepping out of defence in possession and giving the midfield an extra angle for a pass. His passing has been pretty solid so far.
Futty, or Horst/Jean-Baptiste, would give defensive cover with Brunner. Both Futty and Mosquera would be expected to pull out wider in possession, opening up the field, but pull together in defence, closing down space.
From the back, Troy Perkins should be looking for Futty or Mosquera out wide, or Brunner or Chara dropping deep to pick it up, rather than resorting to long, hit-and-hope punt up the field. This way possession can be retained, and the play can be built from the back rather than coming straight back down the field at them.
The way that Wigan play is all about short, crisp passing through the midfield.
It’s a shame that the MLS site doesn’t allow for breaking down the kids of passes made in a match, and I’m not about to start counting individual passes, but I’d wager that the Timbers hit a greater percentage of long passes. A large part of this is Spencer prefers a “direct” style. He wants the ball to go back-to-front in as short a time as possible.
Playing with Wigan’s template would mean a sea change in playing style. Wigan are more than comfortable to play the ball across the midfield and probe for weaknesses. If they can pull midfielders out of position, and open up spaces for a Moses or Jordi Gomez to receive the ball, they’re quite happy to take their time to do it, but transition quickly into attack when the opportunity presents itself.
Part of my reasoning behind putting Chara and Alexander in the centre is they’re both more comfortable passing the ball than Jewsbury or Palmer are in that position.
Keeping possession of the ball in the midfield would also help alleviate issues with late game tiring as anyone who’s played will tell you it’s much easier when you’ve got the ball than when you’re chasing it. I maintain that possession for possession’s sake is no great indicator of goal scoring or victory, but this isn’t just “keep ball” – the passing isn’t only to the side or back, it’s often little triangles and give-and-go’s, all designed to pull the opposition around and dictate the tempo. For this reason you need guys who are comfortable on the ball, playing in tight spaces, and with good movement. Chara and Alexander are the two I feel closest fit the bill in those regard, as well as maintaining good defensive instincts.
In defence, you often see the attacking two dropping into wide positions, and the wide players dropping back to form a 5-4-1 designed to stifle. Managing the transition of play is key to this kind of football. React too slowly to a loss of possession and you can leave yourself open at the back.
It may be that a 3-4-3 isn’t the way forward for the Timbers, but neither do I think the 4-4-2 as Spencer seems determined to stick to is. The fact is, the Timbers are a delight to play against. You know what they’re going to do, how they’re going to do it and how to stop them doing it.
I doubt, in all honestly, we’ll ever see a system like this from Spencer, but I’d hope that as much as I and other fans are putting time in thinking about these things, that Spencer and his coaching team are too. Far too often it seems that the bare minimum of thought has gone into how the Timbers are going to play other than showing “commitment” and “guts”.
However the Timbers play, we’re all just hoping they can get the season back on track. #RCTID is more than just a hashtag, but neither is it an excuse to accept sub-par football. We’re better than our league position shows at present, I’m sure of it, we just need to start showing it.
Everyone wrote off Wigan too, and if they can do it, so can we.