Wigan was the centre of football's tactical universe on Saturday, as Roberto Martinez once again eschewed convention to send his team out in what we presumed was a 3-4-3 formation against Arsenal.
But with James McCarthy pushing forward into his more natural midfield areas, there were times it looked more like 2-5-3, or even 2-1-4-3. There were times nobody had a clue what it was, but it seemed to be working.
Wigan flooded the midfield and starved Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere and Lukas Podolski of space and time on the ball. They doubled up on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain down Arsenal's right, and Theo Walcott was given little ammunition leading Arsenal's line.
Most of all, they pressed. They pressed like their lives depended on it.
Arsenal 'giving the ball away' - or Wigan taking it away from them? Very impressive German-style pressing from the Latics so far.— Philippe Auclair (@PhilippeAuclair) December 22, 2012
For an hour, Martinez's men had their opponents flummoxed. Arsenal were largely neutralized, and it was Wigan who wasted the best chance to go ahead—Arouna Kone slicing a woeful shot after being sent through by Franco Di Santo.
Wigan's formation was working. It was still working when Walcott burst into the Wigan box, surrounded by blue shirts ready to stop him. But Walcott got on the wrong side of Jean Beausejour, the Arsenal player fell, and the result was a penalty which Mikel Arteta calmly stroked home.
You can't legislate for moments like that. Beausejour's nudge was naive, and his team paid the fullest price. All that hard work and application cut down by the single moment when concentration dipped.
Perhaps tiredness was a factor. Only Reading have conceded more second-half goals than Wigan this season, which we might conclude is a result of their intense work rate and heavy legs setting in. (Infostrada stat, as quoted by Eurosport-Yahoo!)
But to their credit, Wigan showed no sign of being broken and showed great heart in pushing for an equalizer. They had the better of the remaining 30 minutes and came close through Kone and James McArthur.
As we entered added time, Arsenal were hanging on. It certainly didn't look like we were watching a team in the bottom three against one through to the last 16 of the Champions League.
Martinez's team can count themselves very unlucky to have lost. Arsenal deserve credit for getting the job done, but Arsene Wenger will surely concede his team were stifled as an attacking force for most of the encounter.
Wigan fans should emerge optimistic for their team's Premier League survival. And they should maintain complete faith in Martinez's bold tactical blueprint.
Martinez is the rare Premier League manager who likes three at the back. He likes it so much that he's used it in all but three of their 18 games in the league and completely ignored the dominant 4-2-3-1 that prevails these days in England.
Wigan's set-up would be more at home in Italy's Serie A, where teams like Napoli and Juventus use three at the back as their default setting. We've seen Manchester City try it in England, but only as an alternative and not with great success.
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