A refreshing change in formation for Wigan Athletic

In the summer of 2014 Uwe Rosler was a popular man with Latics followers. The German had taken over in early December with Wigan Athletic lying in the depths of the Championship table. Rosler went on to take them to 5th place and the FA Cup semi-final. They were narrowly defeated by QPR in the Championship playoffs and by Arsenal at Wembley. Although a section of the fanbase had not been happy with his squad rotation policy he produced the results and repaired the damage caused during Owen Coyle’s awful tenure.

The adage “Managers are judged on results” rang true for Rosler. Latics had been one of the bookmakers’ favourites for promotion but by mid-November the German had been sacked as they had slid down the table.

Leam Richardson too is popular with Latics fans. He worked wonders in helping the club avoid relegation last season and his newly assembled squad, with 15 new signings, has made an impressive start to the season. But three midweek home defeats, with the players looking “flat” had led to questions about whether he was too set in his ways, rigidly sticking to his favoured 4-2-3-1 system, not rotating his squad sufficiently to keep players fresh, making substitutions too late in the game, as fixture were piling-up.

If there was one factor that led to Uwe Rosler’s downfall it would be in making too many new signings over the summer, when he already had a strong squad. Richardson’s case differs in that he only had five contracted players when summer recruitment started. However, he now has a big squad which is going to need careful management in ensuring that fringe players do not get disenchanted through lack of game time.

Richardson took a major step forward in the Burton Albion game on Saturday when he brought in Curtis Tilt and Stephen Humphys and gave a League 1 debut to Jason Kerr. Fan concerns about the depth of quality of the squad soon diminished as all three players made fine contributions.

But the real surprise was a switch away from 4-2-3-1 to a 3-4-1-2 formation. Kerr was employed as a right centre back, a role in which he enjoyed great success in St Johnstone’s run to win both the Scottish Cup and the Scottish League Cup last season. Jack Whatmough looked very comfortable in the centre of the back three, with the experienced Tilt to his left. Max Power played a deep midfield role with Tom Bayliss more advanced. James McClean looked so at home at left wing back, a position he occupies for the Republic of Ireland. Tendayi Darikwa looked so much better back on the right- hand side and was afforded more freedom in the wing back role. The new formation allowed Richardson to play twin strikers in Humphrys and Charlie Wyke. Humphrys is a talented player who has spent too much time on the bench with only one central striker being employed in 4-2-3-1. Will Keane has looked somewhat jaded in recent games. The return of Thelo Aasgaard from injury will provide Richardson with a back-up in that number 10/creative central midfield role.

With Latics a goal up and Burton down to ten men after 15 minutes it is hard to evaluate the success of the new formation. But credit must go to Richardson for his willingness to go against his own previous orthodoxy. It was noticeable that there was less of a gap in the centre of the field and there was so much less long ball than we have been seeing so frequently. The formation helped to facilitate a more possession-based build up.  

3-4-1-2 offers differing opportunities to players than 4-2-3-1. Callum Lang was suspended and did not play. Lang nominally plays on the right flank but is not a conventional winger. He is a key player because of his willingness to run at opposition defences and he is always a candidate for scoring a goal. His ideal position is open to conjecture, but he would surely be comfortable in the front two of a 3-4-1-2 system.

Richardson has made a response to critics who have had concerns about the rigidity of his tactical outlook. He has shown himself to be a great motivator of his players and is a fine ambassador for the club, discreet in his comments, showing a dignity that is not the norm in football club managers. It was heartening to see him make this change.

Roberto Martinez made the switch to 3-4-3 in the middle of the 2009-10 season when relegation was imminent. It led to the most successful set of results in Wigan’s league history. It also paved the way to winning the FA Cup. Despite those successes there are Latics fans who do not favour a system with three at the back.

In the Cook/Richardson era Latics flitted with systems playing three at the back, but it could never really compete with the 4-2-3-1. Let’s hope that Richardson will give his new system enough time to evaluate it.  Another criticism Richardson has faced has been a lack of a Plan B. Getting his players accustomed to a change in shape, either from game to game, or within a game, would be a major step forward in his development as a manager.

The likelihood is that 4-2-3-1 will continue to be the modus operandi for Richardson, but one hopes that he will keep an open mind towards changes in shape. One way of looking at things is to decide on a system and look at how well players fit into it. Another way is to look at the individual talent in the squad and devise a system that can get the best out of them in their entirety.

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