**A slightly different version of this preview will also appear at the Arsenal blog 7amkickoff.com
After the incredibly annoying AVB’s little Spurs won at Stoke following another crappy display, now it is official that Arsenal have no room left for the slightest slip-up. The Gunners must win both of their two remaining games. Somewhat ironically, on Tuesday they are facing Wigan, aka the Kings of FA Cup, who will be relegated themselves unless they win at Arsenal. It is a massive game for both sides. It is more massive than AVB’s insecurity and lack of logic.
You might be interested in knowing that I have not cut my fingernails since the QPR game 10 days ago. As I type, my nails are getting stuck in the keyboard. I have also done a lot of Ashtanga Yoga (I have not done no such thing; I do not even know what that is). Just like every Arsenal fan, I am getting ready for the nail-biting wretched 90 minutes on Tuesday.
Before I start with a bit of tactical analysis of Wigan, here are the likely starting 11s. For Arsenal, Giroud is still suspended, but there are no fresh injuries. For Wigan, no injuries can stop them, because they are just awesome!
• Arsenal (4-3-3) Szczesny (GK), Sagna (RB), Koscielny (CB), Mertesacker (CB), Gibbs (LB), Arteta (CM), Ramsey (CM), Rosicky (CM), Cazorla (LF), Walcott (RF), Podolski (CF).
• Wigan (3-4-1-2) Robles (GK), Alcaraz (CB), Scharner (CB), Boyce (CB), McArthur (RWB), Espinoza (LWB), Jordi Gomez (CM), McCarthy (CM), Maloney (AM), Kone (F), McManaman (F).
How Do Wigan Play?Roberto Martinez has adopted a hybrid (or should I say unorthodox?) system at Wigan whose objective is to preserve width while keeping the center of the pitch congested. Their game plan tries to achieve those conflicting objectives in three ways.
First, Wigan employ three center-backs (against City in the FA Cup final they had Boyce, Alcaraz and Scharner as CBs) and defend their flanks with two wingbacks. Their first choice wingbacks (Stam on the right and Beausejour on the left) are both injured. Therefore, against City they used Espinoza on the left and McArthur on the right. When the opposition have the ball, their two central midfielders, McCarthy and Jordi Gomez, drop deep in front of the Wigan box. Depending on the direction of the attack, one of the two center-backs sweeps behind the full back (more on this later). For example, if McArthur is caught high up the pitch on the right, Boyce pushes towards the right back position. Scharner does the same to cover for Espinoza on the left.
Second, when the opposition have the ball, Shaun Maloney, Wigan’s most advanced central midfielder, stays slightly higher up the pitch than McCarthy and Gomez and presses the opposition build-up. Kone drops to the wide left position and McManaman stays wide right. When Wigan gain possession, Kone and McManaman provide quick outlets for transition through wide areas and Maloney provides the link up. In other words, the first ball in transition is usually played towards one of the flanks, instead of a central striker who is being marked by opposition center-backs.
Third, both of the two wingbacks play quite high up the pitch and motor forward to create an overlap when Kone and McManaman run inside to central areas. For example, against City Espinoza could be seen as a covering left back inside Wigan box in one instance, and then appearing as a left winger shortly after (see image below). The Kone-Espinoza combination gave the typically excellent Zabaleta such a hard time in the FA cup final, simply because David Silva was not tracking back Espinoza’s forward runs. Same can happen against Arsenal if Walcott again decides to play like a central striker and evacuates the flank!
Below, I will try to illustrate those 3 points through the help of some images taken from the FA Cup final against Manchester City on Saturday.
Kone on the left and Mc Manaman on the right stay wide, Maloney works between the lines like a traditional #10.
The image sequence below is useful to illustrate how none of the three attacking players for Wigan (Kone, McManaman and Maloney) occupy the traditional central striker role when Wigan gain possession and break forward. In the first image, timed at 8:19, Maloney (on the far right side of the image) has started the break by finding McManaman who is controlling the ball under pressure. Notice how wide of the pitch the first ball is received as Wigan break. Also observe Kone at the other side of the pitch as he will be involved in the next image.
After controlling the ball, McManaman turns inside and passes the ball to Kone, who is on the other side of the pitch. The point is how wide the two forwards are stationed when the move starts. Kone has now received the ball in the next image (timed at 8:43) and is attacking Zabaleta. On the far right, McManaman is now looking to pick his time for a run behind Nastasic. There is no Wigan central striker that City centerbacks can mark easily.
The final image from this move captures 2 seconds later, timed at 8:45. Kone has brought the ball inside Zabaleta, and is feeding McManaman’s run past Nastasic. The young forward will waste a good opportunity after receiving the ball. This is how Wigan make the transition from 5-3-2 off the ball to 3-4-1-2 when they gain possession with Maloney linking up play behind Kone and McManaman. The crucial point is how Kone and McManaman leave the centerbacks alone, stay wide to stretch play.
Arteta and Ramsey should be alert to close down the passing angles to Kone and McManaman when Wigan break from their own half. Rosicky and Cazorla should again start pressing high up the pitch to allow Arsenal to get into shape. The template here should be the Swansea away game when Wigan gain possession in their half. Press quickly and then retreat into shape!
An important duel in the game will be between McManaman and Gibbs on Arsenal’s left flank. McManaman simply tortured Clichy all game long, but this was also because Clichy received absolutely no help from Nasri in front of him. McManaman threat on Wigan’s right might also pin Gibbs back and deny him the opportunity to overlap on the left which is vital for Cazorla to roam inside.
Wigan Crowd Out the Center with Three Centerbacks and Two Midfield Anchors
The image above illustrates how Wigan defend with 5 men at the back and how their two central midfielders congest the area in front of their box. Here, Mc Carthy is trying to close down the ball. Behind him, Jordi Gomez is screening in front of the box packed with three centerbacks. The right wingback McArthur has retreated very deep amd level with his three centerbacks. The closest CB to the right wingback is Boyce. More central are the other two CBs Scharner and Alcaraz On Wigan’s left, Espinoza has retreated deep and has come narrow. Look how narrow City are and how Wigan have congested in front of their box.
Arsenal will have trouble breaking this packed center if their build-up is slow and predictable. I believe the key point here is a direct winger running at this narrow and congested defence through the flanks. Wenger might call for Oxlade Chamberlain on the right flank and ask him to utilize the space behind Espinoza. Theo Walcott can also threaten with direct runs but he needs to stay wide and try to exploit the area between Espinoza and the left sided centerback Scharner. Walcott’s usual trick of making an off the ball killer run behind the left back will probably not work here because there is an extra CB covering the left side. The good thing is that Wigan also do need a win. Unlike the FA Cup final where they had no pressure, they have to open up a bit rather than keeping a tight game and going for extra time. Arsenal should look to stretch the three centerbacks laterally with Podolski drifting to the left and overloading Wigan’s right by combining with Gibbs and Cazorla.
Espinoza Caught High Up the Pitch
The image above captures an instance where the left wing back Espinoza is caught somewhat high up the pitch and running back. David Silva has received the ball on the right wing, and the center-back Scharner has pushed up towards the left back position to cover for Espinoza. This is a key point for Arsenal. The Wigan wingbacks, especially Espinoza, push forward and play quite high up the pitch, leaving the area behind them often exposed. Arsenal should look to find the wide man (hopefully Walcott stays wide if he is given the role) in this area quickly and create a one-on-one with the covering center-back. In short, the area behind Espinoza is a key weakness of Wigan! This is where they conceded on the counterattack against West Bromwich as well.
This is a game where Arsenal need to follow the template of the Swansea away game, press early, retreat into shape, do not give the opposition any chances and be clinical themselves The first goal is very important. Wigan need a win as well, so they will be more open compared to the FA Cup final, and this openness might be what relegates them!