Wigan’s 3 at the back has seen them win the FA Cup and, fight relegation successfully every year until this season. Despite Wigan’s relegation to the Championship, they have played some really exciting football this which has appealed to the neutral. They have also shown that 3 at the back is the way forward for small and big teams alike.
Wigan is a town with just over 81,203 people, and its main sport is Rugby League. The few football fans in the town mainly support the numerous surrounding clubs, such as Manchester United. Wigan is undoubtedly a small club, with the smallest wage and transfer budget in the league. They are owned by Dave Whelan, a man whose sports store businesses are being destroyed by the might of Mike Ashley’s ‘Sports Direct’ empire. Yet Wigan, even though they couldn’t avoid relegation this season, have won a trophy this season. It really shouldn’t be a surprise that Wigan have failed to pull off another great escape, the limited resources and injuries to key players have proved too much for their impressive resilience. The trophy win means that Wigan have won more trophies than comparitive giants Arsenal over an 8 year period. The secret to Wigan’s success, as well as clever buys in the transfer market, has been the 3 at the back formation that Roberto Martínez has implemented.
3 at the back has been favoured by Italian teams for a long time. The formation allows an extra player to be placed further up the field, and perfectly suits the Italian’s traditonal style of containing teams. Italian football did brilliantly in Europe as a result, with the 1990s seeing 6 out of 9 finals feature an Italian side. Milan, who reached 3 Champions League finals, winning 1. They played a 3-4-3 under Alberto Zaccheroni. 3 of the 9 cups went to Italy. Roma under Fabio Capello used a 3-4-1-2, winning the Serie A in 2002-Roma’s first major trophy in ten years. Now, Juventus are dominating domestically with Antonio Conte’s take on 3 at the back.
More European success was supplied by the formation, with Fatih Terim’s Galatasary exploiting a 3-4-1-2 against Arsenal in the final of the 1999-2000 UEFA Cup. Terim’s 3 at the back also saw them lift the UEFA Super Cup the next season, beating giants Real Madrid 2-1. Internationally it has also seen success, with a 3-4-1-2 being used by Luiz Felipe Scolari in Brazil’s 2002 World Cup triumph. Cafu and Roberto Carlos played as wingbacks, and are two of the best players ever in that role. Yugoslavia had a long history of deploying the 3-4-1-2 and Croatia also used it at the 2006 World Cup. The advanced playmaker, the ‘1’ in the formation, is very popular in the Balkans. This could go someway to explaining Croatia’s record of producing great playmakers, such as Luka Modrić, Niko Kranjčar and Milan Badelj.
Martínez guided Wigan to safety last season after he decided to permanently change his back four to a back three. In February, Wigan found themselves bottom of the league. The new formation changed everything, taking the Premier League by storm and seeing Wigan finish 15th, 7 points above the drop. The formation saw Jean Beausejour and Emerson Boyce play in the crucial wing back roles, running up and down touchlines supplying crosses and providing crucial tackles. When Wigan were in possession, the wing backs pushed up, supplying width and a quick outlet for their side. This enabled Wigan to quickly counter teams and get out of trouble with ease. When Wigan lost the ball, the wingbacks tucked in, playing as full backs. This changed the 3 at the back to 5 at the back, and made Wigan’s vulnerable defense more stable. The system also enabled Wigan to play three up front, with Maloney, Di Santo and Moses providing direct running and dribbling to trouble defenses.
If Wigan had not changed to 3 at the back last season, it is almost certain that they would have gone down. This season, teams have grown wiser on how to deal with the system, inevitably causing Wigan to struggle this season. Despite alternating 3-4-1-2 with the original 3-4-3, Wigan fell just short. It must be said that Wigan came close: they could finish just 2 points adrift from staying in the Premier League. A player who looks likely to leave Wigan is Arouna Koné. Koné has been a typically brilliant buy, taking Franco Di Santo’s spot at striker. He has scored 13 goals in 37 games for Wigan, assisting 6 times. This is an impressive total when you consider the quality of players that Wigan have. Koné also provides a fabulous option for Wigan when they are clearing from defense. A common sight, when watching Wigan, has been a clearance to Koné. Koné, making clever runs in the channels, and, crucially holding the ball up and bringing others into the counter-attack.
While the struggle did prove too much for Wigan, they still managed to deliver an FA Cup. Against Manchester City, the wing backs played a crucial role in the historic win. Roger Espinoza, filling in for the injured Beausejour, was a constant outlet for Wigan and threat to Manchester City. He also was perhaps unlucky not to win a penalty. The Wigan 5 man midfield pushed the City creators Samir Nasri and David Silva back down the pitch, stopping them from getting into advanced positions to create chances. Without their creative forces functioning, City looked hopeless, lacking any real penetration and creating few chances. Callum McManaman and Shaun Maloney were pushed further up the pitch by their wingbacks and played as advanced wingers, with City struggling to deal with the constant pressure. Pablo Zabaletta’s sending off highlighted the pressure that City’s defense was struggling to deal with.
One must consider the fact that Wigan’s players are not world beaters, yet they managed to win the FA Cup against a team full of expensive superstars. Much credit must go to the 3-4-1-2, which manages to confuse Sky every week, with them wrongly showing it as a 4-3-3 in Wigan’s faithful game against Arsenal. Imagine what 3 at the back could do for a team of world superstars. Glimpses of its potential were shown when Barcelona adopted a 3-3-4 formation in their final year under Pep Guardiola. While the formation saw Barcelona crash out of the Champions League, Barcelona dominated Chelsea, with a lack of clinical finishing costing them on the break. Manchester City might be the perfect team for this 3 at the back system, and, depending on the new manager, might apply it next season. (To credit the departing Roberto Mancini, he did try and implement 3 at the back. The implementation process does take time, and City struggled to adapt quickly enough during the point in the season Mancini tried to switch the system. Pre-season provides a perfect time period to adapt to 3 at the back). Zabaletta would be perfect as a wing back, as would Gaël Clichy. James Milner is a great defensive winger, with a fabulous work rate aswell. We also all know how good Maicon is at bombing up and down the touchline! David Silva playing in the ‘Jordi Gómez’ role would be perfect, feeding in a possible front two of Sergio Agüero and Carlos Tevez/Edin Džeko/new signing. City could play Yaya Touré and Gareth Barry/ Jack Rodwell/ Javi García holding the midfield. Vincent Kompany would be a perfect lynchpin for the defence, with athletic defenders Matija Nastasić and Joleon Lescott either side of him. Micah Richards would be perfect in this role, but he may not be the same player after his lengthy injury.
A lot of credit must go to Roberto Martínez for being brave and playing 3 at the back, hopefully a top team in England will try and be brave too. After all, if it can bring success to a small club, why can’t it to a big club with better players?
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