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TACTICAL REVIEW: Manchester United 5-0 Wigan Athletic | Antonio Valencia the key man in a 'Dani Alves' role

Antonio Valencia the key man in the match
Antonio Valencia the key man in the match

Opening Lineups and Formations

Injuries and illness has ravaged Manchester United during this festive season -- particularly in defense -- so manager Sir Alex Ferguson was forced to come up with some clever solutions in regards to his limited selection options. For the second successive league match, Anders Lindegaard was chosen in goal over David de Gea. Midfielder Michael Carrick joined Jonny Evans and Patrice Evra in defense while winger Antonio Valencia was deployed in a wing-back sort of role down the right flank. Darron Gibson and Ryan Giggs were the central-midfield pairing while both Park Ji-sung and Nani roamed freely from their nominal wide midfield roles -- each acted similarly to Manchester City's 'interiores' during the derby disaster. Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) were the striker tandem.

Wigan Athletic manager Roberto Martinez deployed his side in what has recently become their typical 3-4-3ish shape. Ali Al Habsi was the goalkeeper while the three central defenders positioned ahead of him were captain Gary Caldwell, Maynor Figueroa, and Antolin Alcaraz. In central-midfield, James McCarthy and Mohamed Diame were the duo and they were flanked by wing-backs Ronnie Stam on the right and David Jones on the left. Conor Sammon was the fulcrum in attack and he was supported by Victor Moses and Jordi Gomez.

Further description of United's shape

Despite Evans and Evra being the only natural defenders in United's starting XI, it appeared as though the shape would still be 4-4-2 -- with Evans and Carrick as the center-backs and Evra and Valencia as the full-backs. However, as the match began to play out, United were essentially playing with a back three while Valencia was surging forward in a Dani Alves type of role. Rather than being up against Gomez, his natural foil was most often either wing-back Jones or left-center-back Figeuroa -- the Ecuadorian's average positioning was essentially on par with the likes of attack-minded midfielders Giggs, Park, and Nani.

Wigan's Moses -- who is typically deployed as the left-sided forward -- was used as a right-sided forward in this match but he continually came across the pitch into the space of his more-favored left-side. His natural marker was Evra* so this often dragged the United left-back inside. With Gomez playing deeper than Moses as the left-sided player in attack -- where he often looked to link the midfield with the attack -- Valencia had freedom to get forward as his defensive responsibility was Jones when United were out of possession. As a result, the trio of Evra, Evans, and Carrick enjoyed a '3 v 2' in the back versus forwards Sammon and Moses.

* Perhaps Wigan did this with the intention of having their trickiest attacker go against the out-of-form Evra.

Valencia was the key man

Wigan defended deep and they tried to keep the space between the lines compact. This meant that their back five (the three center-backs and the two wing-backs forming a defensive band when the away side did not have possession), the central-midfielders, and a hard-working Gomez (who continually tracked back) made it difficult for United to penetrate through the middle. United's two nominal wide players -- Nani and Park -- were fluid in attack and it was typical for one to drift to the other side of the pitch and create overloads. Their movement typically was between the lines and when they went inside, a defender often was dragged with them. On the right side, this created acres of space for the marauding Valencia to move forward into. This avenue in attack was consistently the most penetrative for United.

When United were building an attack, a typical sequence involved the following {see diagram below}: (1) United's two strikers were marked by two center-backs and a spare man. (2) Nani and Park were interchanging in attack and dragging defenders inside with them {Nani drags Jones inside in the diagram below} . (3) The overloads made it difficult for McCarthy and Diame to track three players -- therefore, a central United player often was allowed to receive with plenty of time on the ball. (4) If Gomez tracked back to help against the overloads, then Carrick was often free to step forward to give United a '4 v 3' advantage in the center -- thus, someone was still free to distribute the ball. (5) When Jones or another defender got dragged away from the space near the touchline, Valencia surged forward and it was typical for either Gibson or Carrick to play a pass for Valencia. (6) From here, Valencia was free to send in crosses or beat a help defender by getting to the byline and sending in a cross from there. He was more of an attacker than he was a defender -- perhaps his recent experience at right-back enabled this disguise from Wigan and pundits.

United's 2nd goal displayed a similar sequence -- except that when a help defender came to provide cover on Valencia, he dropped a short pass back for an open Gibson and it was the Irishman that whipped in the cross to assist for Berbatov's goal.

It is very typical for central players have more touches on the ball than wide players in football -- they're simply involved more due to obvious reasons. Therefore, Valencia's 84 touches in this match -- only topped by Gibson's 90 -- is a strong indicator as to the opportunity that he was continually given. The Ecuadorian was the key tactical man in this match and his goal and an assist provides some tangible evidence of his influence -- as does his 3 'key passes' and 12 attempted crosses which continually created goalscoring chances

Gibson and Carrick enjoyed time on the ball

Because of Wigan's desire to keep it compact in the back while defending so deep, and also because of the threat created by Park's and Nani's continual drifting in the space between the lines, United's deeper-lying players -- specifically Giggs, Gibson, and Carrick -- were given time on the ball due to the positioning of Wigan's central-midfielders. It was in this deep-lying space where United dictated the match.

Giggs often went forward and looked for incisive passing and/or opportunities for a driving run in or around the box. Gibson played a bit deeper and he did extremely well to swing the ball and spread the play -- particularly to Valencia on the right flank. His passing was incredibly accurate (76/80 passing | 95% success rate) but perhaps more importantly, he did well to quicken tempo when needed by moving the ball with decisive passing and with a good range of passing. When Carrick stepped forward, he did well to act as a deep-lying playmaker and in similar fashion to Gibson. Carrick's passing statistics were superb (41/42 passing | 98% success rate) and it was he who often ignited attacks from the back.

A benefit of having deep-lying players that can distribute with great effect is that it can force a deep-defending side to come out and close down these passers. When this occurred against Gibson and Carrick -- by way of McCarthy, Diame, and Gomez coming forward in an attempt to close down their counterparts -- this created more space between the lines for Nani and Park. Both of these nominal wide players -- or 'interiore' types in this particular match -- had very good matches and did well to exploit their opponents from this space.

Wigan's approach

As mentioned earlier, Moses -- arguably Wigan's most dangerous attacker -- was deployed out right for this match and it is very possible that Martinez did this in order to expose Evra's current lack of form. Despite having a few moments where he looked a threat, Moses' continual diagonal runs across the attack line resulted in very little. Center-forward Sammon failed to get involved as well prior to being sent-off (unjustly?). In combination with Moses, the duo did little to trouble United's back three.

Former FC Barcelona youth academy product, Gomez, drifted between the lines and it was he who looked to link play between the midfield and attack. He combined decently well at times with Jones and Figueroa but once Wigan reached the attack, they were often out of ideas. In addition, the build-up was often so slow and seemingly with little ambition, that United were afforded plenty of time to organize defensively when the home side lost possession.

An area of the pitch that Wigan were able to break into at times was on the flanks. Jones tried to break into the space behind Valencia when the United wide player was caught ahead of the ball when his side lost possession. In addition, the narrowness of Evra's positioning combined with Park's advanced positioning allowed Stam to find space to receive into. Although a few breaking opportunities were created, little often resulted because once again, things would stumble further up in attack or the midfield was simply too slow in supplying their wingbacks when they had a chance to break into space.

Wigan's poor attack wasn't done any favors when Sammon was sent off. This effectively ended the match.

2nd half

Wigan were forced to play with ten-men just before half-time and their resulting shape was a 3-4-2. In the back, the shape was essentially the same but the loss of an attacker took away an outlet from an already struggling side. There were slight adjustments in shape though for both sides.

United brought on youngster Zeki Fryers to start the 2nd half and this moved Evra to center-back. Most of the first-half was spent playing with a three-man back while Valencia was solely a wide attacker on the right flank. However, in the 2nd half, United's shape was more structured and while Valencia still surged forward, he could be considered more a full-back in this half. Both Park and Nani interchanged less to begin the 2nd half and this continued in a more drastic manner when Federico Macheda came on for Nani in the 64th minute -- Park moved out wide to the right with Macheda deployed as the wide left player.

Franco Di Santo came on for Diame to start the 2nd half and this provided Wigan with a more conventional striker pairing. When Sammon was sent off, Gomez was dropping deep and Moses was essentially an isolated lone striker. The Latics were now playing with their same 3 center-backs, 2 wing-backs, 2 central-midfielders {with Gomez moving to central-midfield}, and now with 2 true strikers. This exposed them though even more.

What resulted was predictable. United dominated possession and because the majority of the half was spent in Wigan's half of the pitch -- this was magnified with Wigan having ten-men -- United's wide players pinned back Wigan's wing-backs. With the Latics three center-backs marking United's two strikers, and with the central-midfielders tracking each other, this provided space for United's full-backs this half -- Valencia and Fryers -- to get surge forward into. They had no natural foil.

Although Valencia had already been doing something similar in the 1st half, his freedom to get forward was for slightly different reasons this half. In addition, this resulted in United having width from the left-side as well -- something that was relatively rare in the 1st half. Fryers looked comfortable enough getting forward but perhaps United may have been better served if he was deployed at center-back and if Evra was able to get forward as a free left-back. Nonetheless, United dominated the half as expected and bagged three goals. They did well to patiently move the ball from flank to flank, look for openings, and use overloads to unlock Wigan defense.


Despite four of United's five goals resulting after Sammon was sent off, a lopsided result appeared likely anyway. United found an avenue in attack through Valencia on the right flank and Wigan was unable to adjust. Whether United's three-man back in the 1st half was a tactical adjustment or just a result of the natural flow of the match is uncertain. Either way, Fergie's side figured out that this was an exploitable area of the pitch and they did well to take advantage. Wigan defended deep and looked to grind out a result against an injury-plagued United side. However, the champions showed resolve and put in one of their finer performances of the season. As a result of City dropping points on Monday, United are now level on points with them at top of the Premier League.