Barclays Premier League leader Manchester United will try for their 13th consecutive victory against Wigan Athletic when they make the short trip to the DW Stadium on Saturday afternoon. In the return fixture at Old Trafford in November, United triumphed 2-0 with Patrice Evra and Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez bagging goals. Wigan come into the match sitting 18th in the table and inside the relegation zone. Despite having only won one league match in their last ten attempts, Wigan have earned a few positive results recently with a draw at Liverpool FC in their previous match and by defeating Blackburn Rovers in the match prior to that. United top the Premier League table by a single point over Arsenal, but the Reds have a game in hand on the North London side.
Wigan manager Roberto Martinez has won plaudits for his desire to play attractive football, but he may be feeling some heat because of the Lactics place in the Premier League table. Martinez's team play in a '4-3-3' shape, but it can more resemble a '4-5-1' when Wigan struggle to maintain possession. Wigan have very little concern in regard to injuries ahead of Saturday's tie, with only Callum McManaman and Emmerson Boyce being possible doubts. United's England U-21 midfielder Tom Cleverley, who is on loan to Wigan, will not be available to play versus United due to a loan agreement between the two clubs.
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Hugo Rodallega, who is the Lactics leading goal-scorer with seven goals, will lead the attacking line as the central striker. Charles N'Zobia will flank Rodallega in the attack on the right side. On the opposite side, Franco Di Santo, Ronnie Stam, or Victor Moses could be deployed on the left flank in the attack. Ben Watson, Mohamed Diame, and James McCarthy have recently been the central midfield three, with Watson often in a deep holding role. Hendry Thomas could be called upon as well in the central midfield and if he is, he likely plays in a deeper holding role. The center-back pairing will likely be Gary Caldwell and Antolin Alcaraz. Boyce is the typical starting right-back, but if he's unable to participate due to injury, then he'll likely be deputized by Steve Gohouri. Maynor Figueroa is a stalwart at left-back.
United certainly have injury concerns, many of which hampered the side in their recent scoreless draw at Marseille in UEFA Champions League action. Anderson, Park Ji-Sung, Rio Ferdinand, Antonio Valencia, and Owen Hargreaves are all unavailable for Saturday's match. Anderson and Park should return in a few weeks, and Ferdinand is hoping to return in time for the upcoming tie with Chelsea FC on Tuesday evening. Valencia continues to recover from a broken ankle and is now training with the reserves. Ryan Giggs and Michael Owen are injury concerns as well and their availability is not yet certain.
It's uncertain whether United will play in a '4-4-2' or a hydrid '4-3-3/4-5-1' shape. United played in the former in their last meeting with Wigan, but manager Sir Alex Ferguson may be tempted to go with the latter shape away from Old Trafford for the following reasons: (1) a lack of available wide players currently due to injuries (2) concern that Wigan's '4-3-3/4-5-1' would give the home side a numerical advantage in the center of the pitch (3) Fergie's propensity to use this shape in away matches.
With the recent mid-week Champions League match at Marseille and the upcoming congested fixture list, which includes a match with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday and a trip to Anfield to face bitter rival Liverpool next weekend, Fergie may end up rotating his squad for Saturday's match. It makes anticipating lineups a difficult process. Will Paul Scholes and Giggs, whom neither started on Wednesday at Marseille, be inserted into the starting lineup versus Wigan ahead of Tuesday's clash with Chelsea? Will Chicharito get a run and give Wayne Rooney and/or Dimitar Berbatov a rest?
I anticipate that Fergie will go with a '4-3-3/4-5-1' lineup versus Chelsea on Tuesday, one that may include Rooney leading the attacking line in the center and being flanked by Giggs and Nani in attack. Because of this, I will guess that United play in a '4-4-2' shape versus Wigan and utilize available personnel. However, if this is the case, I anticipate a substitution list that includes many regulars in case Fergie needs to chase a goal in the 2nd half at the DW Stadium. Here is my attempt at projected lineups:
If Fergie goes with a lineup such as this, he can put Rooney, Giggs, Scholes, Owen, and Darren Fletcher on his bench and provide himself some tactical flexibility if he needs to chase a goal in the 2nd half. If United is in control with this lineup, he can then rest some key figures for the upcoming fixture list. This would provide a practical approach.
If Fergie decides to match Wigan's shape, then he'll just be hoping that talent wins out, and that United can control the match due to that talent difference. However, the main concern for United in this case would be if the Reds could handle a Wigan side that would likely be more cohesive due to experience playing together. If Fergie decides to use a '4-4-2' shape, then the key will be to not get overrun in the middle of the pitch, and to ping the ball out to wide positions in a quick and efficient manner.
I don't care how ugly the approach, or how unpleasing it may be... I will be thrilled if we can earn three points and rest some regulars ahead of this crucial stretch of the current campaign. Results and practicality are key. Any other claims are rubbish.
Odds: Wigan 11/2, Draw 11/4, Manchester United 8/15
Prediction: Wigan 1-2 United