Will it be 4-4-2, 4-3-3 or 3-5-2 for Latics?

Harry Lyon latches on to a Walter Stanley (third from right) cross. Carl Davenport lurks for any rebounds.  Photo courtesy of WiganWorld.

Harry Lyon latches on to a Walter Stanley (third from right) cross. Carl Davenport lurks for any rebounds.
Photo courtesy of WiganWorld.

In the mid 1960’s Allan Brown’s Wigan Athletic team played the kind of football fans liked to watch. There were two excellent wingers, Les Campbell and Walter Stanley, who would put over a stream of tantalizing crosses for the twin strikers to feed on. No wonder that Latics scored 121 goals in the 1964-65 season, when they won the Cheshire County League. Harry Lyon led the scoring with 67 goals in all competitions.

Football was an attacking game in those days, with 4-2-4 prevalent.

Then came England’s World Cup victory in 1966. Alf Ramsey’s team played without wingers, the ‘wingless wonders’ . They packed the midfield with four players, leaving just Geoff Hurst and Roger Hunt up front. With the rugged Nobby Stiles playing the role of  ball winner in front of a back four marshaled by the superb Bobby Moore, England were a very difficult team to play against. Ramsey’s success was based on solid defence, but he also had a superb midfield general and match winner in Bobby Charlton to help generate goals. 4-4-2 was to become the norm for years to come.

Fads come and go, especially football formations. Putting labels on formations is always tricky, as would be the case in Paul Jewell’s side that won promotion to the Premier League in 2005. Dave Whelan had forked out what was a lot of money at the time for twin strikers who would both score more than 20 goals that season.The names of Nathan Ellington and Jason Roberts are etched into the history of the club.

They were fed from the right wing by Gary Teale, as Campbell and Stanley had supplied Lyon and Davenport some forty years before. However, on the left flank was converted centre forward Lee McCulloch. McCulloch could not in any way be called a winger – his role was to bolster the midfield and ghost in at the far post to poach goals, with the opposition defence being occupied in coping with ‘The Duke’ and ‘JR’. The formation they played was usually referred to as 4-4-2, but it could be argued that 4-3-3 was a better descriptor.

Wingers are back in fashion in modern football, although they are expected to play their part in defensive duties too. But many managers shun the idea of playing with twin strikers, preferring to deploy a lone centre forward with support coming through from midfield. Up against two central defenders the lone centre forward has a difficult job. He is not only expected to hold-up the ball when he is almost always outnumbered, but also to score goals. Inevitably the goalscoring ratio of the modern centre forward, in terms of goals per game, has dropped over the years.

In terms of holding up the ball Marc-Antoine Fortune is the best centre forward that Latics currently have. However, his goalscoring ratio for Latics is low even for a modern day lone centre forward – a meagre 1 per 10 games. Although Fortune’s career average is higher – almost 1 in 5 – it is bettered by those of Andy Delort (1 in 3.4) and Oriel Riera (1 in 4). How much longer will Rosler continue to play Fortune at the expense of the other two?

If one trawls the social media and fan forums there are lots of supporters who advocate the kind of attacking approach that uses two wingers with two central strikers. Many refer to it as playing 4-4-2 although it is probably more akin to the older 4-2-4. Over these pasts weeks several fans have advocated starting lineups that include Callum McManaman and James McClean on the wings and Delort and Riera as twin strikers. It brings back memories of the days of Allan Brown.

But it is something that is unlikely under Uwe Rosler or any manager who might succeed him. Most prefer the security of a packed midfield rather than risk putting too many players far forward. Were Rosler to suddenly have a paradigm shift and choose such an attacking formation the reality on the pitch would be something different, with players having to drop back to help a beleaguered midfield?

Some managers like to stick to a set formation and recruit players who can fit into it. Rosler is not one of those. His players are expected to adapt to whatever formation he decides upon, which in turn can often depend on the opposition his team is to face. Having a set formation has its advantages. Roles are clearly defined and players can slot seamlessly into the system. However, it also makes it easier for the opposition to plan their strategy well in advance.

So far this season we have seen formations that can be broadly labeled as 3-5-2, 4-3-3 and 4-4-2. In recent games Rosler has operated a modified 4-4-2. He has deployed three central midfield players, with Roger Espinoza playing further forward than the other two. He has used Don Cowie in right midfield to provide cover for the attacking runs of James Tavernier from the full back position. Fortune has played the target man role with Callum McManaman in a more fluid attacking role.

From time to time Rosler has used a 4-3-3 system with two genuine wingers in McManaman and McClean. The formation offers balance, together with a direct threat to the opposition defence coming from both sides of the pitch. However, both McManaman and McClean need to see a lot of the ball to be effective and this has not always happened. An alternative would be to use Shaun Maloney and Martyn Waghorn in wide positions, with a tendency to move inside. Both have been more consistent goalscorers than McManaman and McClean.

There are those who do not like the 3-5-2 system. They say that it often reverts to 5-3-2 with the wing backs not supporting the forwards. But when properly put into practice it can yield good results. Moreover the squad is well stocked with good quality central defenders and Rosler has lots of options when choosing a back three. He has the aerial power of Leon Barnett and Thomas Rogne to counter those teams who rely on route one football. In Emmerson Boyce and Ivan Ramis he has players who have proved themselves to be as good as any central defender in the division.

Some players thrive more in some tactical formations more than others. James Perch is a solid and dependable right back who has worked hard when pressed into action as a wing back. His attacking play has undergone a significant improvement over the last year. Perch is a fine athlete with good lungs, as evidenced by goals he has scored through getting into positions where he would not have been expected to show up. However, Tavernier has more to offer going forward. His delivery is so often of real quality. But he needs to work hard on the defensive aspects of his game.

One recalls the promise of Ronnie Stam going forward, but he just did not have enough defensively, even as a wing back. At this stage Tavernier looks a good possibility as a wing back or as an attacking option at full back later in a game. Perch remains the best option at right full back.

With three games in less than a week Rosler has already made it known that he will be rotating his squad for the away games at Brighton tomorrow and Bolton on Friday. Delort and Rogne made appearances for the development squad last week and are likely to feature in at least one match. It is to be hoped that Maloney‘s goal against Fulham will help to kick-start his season, which has been disappointing up to this point. Waghorn was a key element of Rosler’s system last season, but has seen little action up to this point. Riera too has seen little playing time over recent weeks and is overdue to return.

Latics have looked at their best this season when they have been able to deliver the high pressing game that the manager espouses. The ability to do that seems to outweigh the tactical formation he chooses to adopt.

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Is Latics’ squad lacking in quality?

 

Some say that results in pre-season matches are not important. But then again, a 2-1 loss at Rochdale was hard for Wigan Athletic supporters to swallow, let alone a 4-1 drubbing in Dusseldorf yesterday.

Latics’ worst ever pre-season performance will surely be that of five decades ago, when fourth division Southport smashed non-league Wigan 10-2. My father told me at the time that friendly matches can produce strange results and do not really have much bearing on the season to follow. Strangely enough the same two teams met again four days later at Springfield Park and Latics went on to win 3-0. In the event it turned out to be a mediocre season for Latics, who finished in mid-table in the Cheshire League. That 10-2 scoreline proved to be an indicator of defensive weakness as Latics were to concede 82 goals in 42 league matches.

Following the 2-1 win over Besiktas, thanks largely to Ali Al-Habsi’s brilliance, we seemed to be looking forward to a good season ahead. Granted there were concerns over the departures of two of Latics’ most creative players – Jordi Gomez and Jean Beausejour – but Uwe Rosler had been moving shrewdly in the transfer market and was building up a stronger squad. Most fans have now accepted that Dave Whelan is not going to wave his cheque book around in the way he did to get Latics into the Premier League last time. Austerity has not yet set in, but stringent financial management is the order of the day at the club.

Rosler is used to working under tight budgets, through his experience with his previous clubs. He will bring in a mixture of youth and experience. The experienced Andrew Taylor and Don Cowie have played in the Premier League and been part of a Championship division winning team. James Tavernier and AaronTaylor-Sinclair are clearly the kind of youngsters who have the potential to develop into quality players. The 19 year old loanee, Emyr Huws , is an exciting young player who can play in the creative midfield role that Gomez used to enjoy. A good central striker at an affordable price is something that hardly exists in modern day English football, but Rosler has done well to bring in Oriel Riera from Osasuna. Riera scored 13 goals in La Liga last season for a team that was relegated, making an interesting comparison with Arouna Kone who scored 15 for Levante before arriving at Wigan.

In order to sign another central striker Rosler will need to raise funds by selling off one of his assets. Stories of Latics courting another goalkeeper might seem far-fetched, but both Ali Al-Habsi and Scott Carson are likely to be transfer targets for other clubs. A possible scenario is for one of them to be sold, with the exciting, but inexperienced, Lee Nicholls once more sent out on loan.

Rosler’s squad is not yet complete. We can expect more incomings and possibly outgoings over the coming weeks. But when the squad is finally completed will there be sufficient quality there to mount a serious challenge for promotion?

After playing for ten clubs in six countries in over a decade, Jean Beausejour has gone home to Chile. He will play in Santiago for Colo-Colo, the country’s historically most successful club. When Roberto Martinez signed him from Birmingham City in January 2012, Latics were struggling. Moreover fans were disappointed with Martinez’ lack of activity in that January transfer window. However, the arrival of a specialist left wing back blew fresh air into Latics’ play, helping them to produce the best quality of football and the best results in their history over the next three months. He was the missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle that Martinez was putting together. A team player, he was solid in defence. When Latics had the ball he was always available, hugging the touchline, stretching the opposition defence. He rarely lost the ball and had a few tricks up his sleeve with quick footwork. Beausejour is probably the best crosser of a ball who ever played for Latics, although some more senior supporters might also cite Walter Stanley whose sublime crosses helped Harry Lyon become a household name in Wigan.

Last season was not a good one for the Chilean, except for a memorable goal in the World Cup finals. Beausejour was frequently played at left back, rather than his natural wing back position. Like Gomez, he is another player who never got the recognition that he probably deserved from sections of the DW crowd.

During that late season rally in 2011-2012 and the FA Cup run in 2012-13, Latics beat the top teams in the country on merit, through playing quality football. The stats show that in winning the FA Cup final they committed only 5 fouls, compared with their opponents 11. Is it possible that they will ever be able to raise their football to that level ever again?

Since then lots of quality players have left the club. However, Emmerson Boyce, Shaun Maloney and James McArthur still remain. They are the pillars upon which Rosler will build this season’s team. Boyce is getting no younger, but at centre back he still has years ahead of him. The fitness of the two Scots will be of paramount importance and Rosler is nurturing them very carefully through the pre-season physical conditioning programme. Moreover the skilful Ben Watson and Chris McCann are making good progress in their recuperation from major injuries.

On the tactical front Rosler continues to demand the high tempo, high pressing style that he espouses. They did it for half an hour at Dusseldorf, but once again could not keep it going. It remains to be seen whether Rosler will ever enjoy that level of intensity he seeks from the players at his disposal.

In the meantime Rosler will scour the loan market to complete his squad. Maybe even that additional central striker will be a loan player? A return for Nick Powell continues to be touted by the media.

The name of Grant Holt continues to pop up in the social media and fan forums, the comments usually being derogatory. If no other club is willing to take the player off the club’s hands will Rosler be able to turn him into an asset? Would Holt be able to fit into Rosler’s style of play if he could regain full fitness?

Holt has proved in the past that he can deliver the goods by scoring key goals that win matches, but last season was one he will want to forget. During the reign of Owen Coyle he was used in a similar way that Bolton used Kevin Davies for so many years, a human battering ram posing a physical threat to the defence. That probably did Holt no favours and moreover it led to defenders constantly launching long balls in his direction. Given Rosler’s preferred style of play Holt would not be a regular starter, even if fully fit. However, he could have a role to play as an impact substitute.

Providing his ventures in the transfer market go well over the coming weeks, Rosler will have a squad good enough to challenge for promotion. Enough quality players remain, but the moot point is whether they can they stay fit.

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A trip to Moss Rose

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Mauro Boselli’s rocket shot at Bournemouth on Tuesday was eventful in more ways than one. Once more he showed the kind of clinical finishing that Latics have desperately lacked in the Premier League this season. The big question is whether he will ever be able to show such finishing in the Premier League. Roberto Martinez has been reluctant to put him in there, but has the time come for a change of heart? In any event, Boselli’s goal was enough to beat Bournemouth and set up a fascinating match at Macclesfield.

Macclesfield Town is a special name for those Wigan Athletic supporters who remember the club’s non-league era. My first sight of the ‘Silkmen’ was at Springfield Park in autumn of 1961, when the reigning Cheshire County League champions were visiting. Latics had only just got back into the league, at the expense of Wigan Rovers, after being relegated in 1947. However, they had finished in second place in the Lancashire Combination and were holding their own in the Cheshire League.This match proved to be a rude awakening for Wigan. Macc’s silver-haired player-manager, Frank Bowyer, led his team to a 4-1 rout. Macclesfield were to finish second and Wigan fifth at the end of the season.

Macclesfield proved to be formidable opponents for Wigan over the next couple of decades. A visit to their Moss Rose ground was to be feared and Latics often came unstuck there. One exception was a Boxing Day fixture on a snow-bound pitch in 1964 when Carl Davenport’s volley was the difference between the two sides. That was the season when Harry Lyon scored his 66 goals and Latics won the league, Macc finishing second. Both Wigan and Macclesfield joined the newly created Northern Premier League in 1968, each club winning the championship twice before Wigan got elected into the Football League 10 years later.

The fortunes of the clubs have differed greatly since those days. Wigan are in their eighth season in the Premier League and Macclesfield back in the Conference after 15 years in the Football League. There are people who knock Wigan Athletic’s success, but the reality is that Latics are four divisions above their old rivals. A remarkable achievement.

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Twin strikers at Wigan Athletic — a trip down memory lane

1964-65 : Wigan Athletic 3 Oswestry 0. Harry Lyon gets on to a Walter Stanley cross as Carl Davenport lurks menacingly. Allan Brown looks on from midfield (photo from Wigan World). 

In the late 1970s, my Dad and I would typically go out for a beer on Friday nights. We would rarely discuss things like politics or the weather, preferring to focus our conversations on Wigan Athletic’s progress in the Cheshire League. Among our discussions would be recollections of trips to watch Latics in exotic places like Stalybridge, Mossley and Oswestry. We lived in the south of Wigan, rugby league territory, so the pubs around us were steeped in that kind of nostalgia. One of those was ‘The Waterwheel’, run by ex-Great Britain rugby player, John Stopford. In his heyday in the early 1960s Stopford had been a lightning-fast winger for Swinton. Although he never played for Wigan RLFC, Stopford would draw rugby enthusiasts to his pub. We mostly avoided such places, preferring to walk further afield to pubs that were more salubrious for Wigan Athletic supporters.

One rainy night we succumbed, and tried ‘The Waterwheel’. Upon opening the door and the sight of the scrum surrounding the bar we started to think twice about it. There were some burly men there, faces like boxers, some with arms in slings. We were just about to walk out when my Dad said “Look it’s Harry Lyon over there.” It was indeed my hero from my teenage years. Chatting with Harry was easy. He just made you feel comfortable talking with him. Although he had left the club a decade before you could tell that Wigan Athletic was his first love. He said that it was a wonderful feeling running down the tunnel at the start of a game at Springfield Park, with some 3,000 people urging you on.

Harry Lyon was a great favourite with the fans, Wiganers not only appreciating his incredible goalscoring record, but also loving his commitment on the pitch. I asked him who was the best manager he had worked under – he had 5 during his time at the club from 1962-1968 — his reply was Allan Brown. Brown caused waves in the non-league world in 1964 when he took over at Wigan as player/manager, hiring a swath of full time professionals in a semi-professional league. After training, Brown would sometimes take his players to the town centre restaurant where my mother worked. I would be thrilled when she would bring home players’ autographs, usually written on the backs of serviettes.

Brown’s teams played an attacking 4-2-4 with the manager orchestrating from the centre of midfield. Carl Davenport was Lyon’s striking partner in Brown’s first year. Like Lyon he was an excellent header of the ball. I recall going to the Anchor Ground – aptly named at the time, a real quagmire of a pitch – to watch Latics play Darwen in a cup match. My Dad would recall for many years how Davenport had risen so high that his head was well over the height of the crossbar as he put the ball in the opponents net. Although Davenport was often referred to as an inside forward in those days, he was in reality a twin striker with Lyon. No teams found it easy to cope with the two of them. That season Harry Lyon scored 67 goals!

However, when I asked Harry who was the best striking partner he had played with he immediately retorted: Bert Llewellyn. Unlike Carl Davenport, Bert Llewellyn was only 5 feet 4 inches tall. A headed goal was a rarity, but after joining Latics in the summer of 1965, he scored 49 goals in 39 league appearances over the course of the season. Llewellyn was far from an elegant player, but was a natural goalscorer, sniffing around the penalty box for deflections, toe-poking and scrambling the ball into the back of the net. In his four years at Springfield Park, Llewellyn scored 140 goals in 185 appearances in all competitions. Remarkably, he outscored Lyon in his time at the club. Check out this wonderful article on This Northern Soul on Bert Llewellyn.

Since that era there have been lots of twin striking partnerships at Wigan Athletic. What a pity that wonderful pairing of Jason Roberts and Nathan Ellington was broken up when Latics reached the Premier League. How refreshing that Robert Martinez has adjusted his tactical system to play with two big strikers this season. The interplay between Arouna Kone and Franco Di Santo is a joy to watch. It is almost like turning back the clock.

We would love to hear from our readers – which has been your favourite striking partnership at Wigan Athletic?

From Harry to Hugo — What happened to goalscoring?

Goalscoring

Match day at Springfield Park, early sixties. The smell of meat pies and the familiar marching band music before kick off. Standing in the paddock ready to hear the clip-clopping of the boots as the players emerge from the tunnel. That familiar smell of oil of wintergreen. There must be two thousand here today. The excitement is buliding up: will it be Harry Lyon or Peter Higham at centre forward today? It was a cause for debate between me and my Dad at the time. The to-become-legendary Harry had arrived from Burscough and the classy Peter Higham’s place was now threatened. Which one was our manager, Johnny Ball, going to pick? Higham was a fine centre forward, leading his line with determination and skill, his “league” experience showing through. Lyon was a raw recruit from a tiny club on the railway route to Southport. “Leading the line” was not his great strength. Scoring goals was what Lyon was all about. Ball tried something different for a little while by playing Higham at number 9 and Lyon on the left wing. I can remember Harry scoring a header from that position: a cross to the far post and there he was, having drifted in from the wing. The experiment did not last long. Strikers in those days relied on service from the wings and Lyon could not provide that for Higham . Besides he was wasted there. He was to get a Lyon’s share of goals – 68 in one season – so many of them coming from the crosses from wingers like Walter Stanley.

Times have indeed changed. Latics were in the Cheshire League then, after having left the Lancashire Combination with its “big boot” approach. We would deride teams like Chorley for playing “kick and rush”. Latics were more sophisticated than that: they tried to play good football (although not always succeeding). Alf Ramsey was to step in and win the World Cup for England with his 4-4-2 system: the wingless wonders. The winger became a dying breed, wide midfielders becoming the norm. The game became more defensive worldwide and the number of goals per game in the old First Division dropped.

So what’s new? Well the Latics are now in their seventh season in the Premier League. Hugo Rodallega is our most recognized centre forward. He has scored 22 goals in 89 appearances for the Latics and rumour tells us that Arsenal now want him. But he only scores one goal every four games, a far cry from the days of Harry Lyon. Yes the game has changed since Harry’s time but shouldn’t our centre forwards be scoring more? Jason Scotland couldn’t score goals for Latics, neither could Mauro Boselli, despite their previous successes in other leagues. Henri Camara could but then he lost it. Even the legendary Emile Heskey only scored 15 goals in 82 appearances for us. Why can’t our centre forwards score more goals? Are they not good enough or are they not getting the service they need?

The role of the lone central striker is not much fun. You have two giant and speedy centre halves ready to crunch you as soon as you get the ball. You have to be super-fit and resilient. You have to ”lead the line”, holding the ball up for teammates. Then when you are wiped out from doing that you are expected to score goals too! Latics’ tactics are not dissimilar to those of Barcelona. Even David Villa plays on the left wing sometimes, as does Hugo. But Barcelona score around three goals per game in a pretty strong league. Villa scores a few, whether he plays centrally or wide. So why can’t Rodallega (or Sammon or Di Santo) get more goals? Is the most important aspect of the role of the Latics centre forward to score goals or to lead the line? Di Santo is pretty good at the latter, but one never expects him to score. Sammon poses more of a goal threat but is raw and does not have the Argentinian’s ball skills. Rodallega can do both, but so many times he looks a forlorn figure.

Unlike Lyon, Rodallega is unlikely to get lovely crosses from wingers to get goals (don’t get me wrong, Harry also scored a lot of goals by getting in where it hurts). The wingers are there to turn inside and shoot. The overlapping full back is the better bet. Boyce’s passing and crossing has hugely improved since Martinez took over. Figueroa too can put in a nice cross. What a beauty he put in for Rodallega at Stoke last season! If you put more men forward you have more chance of scoring. However, when you have a porous defence you need to hold back your midfielders for protection. Look at Barcelona – they do not have the best defenders around, but their defensive record is excellent. I read a statistic recently that their right back, Dani Alves, spent more time last season in the opponents’ half of the field than his own. I doubt that will be the case with Boyce and Figueroa. So how do Barcelona defend so well? They defend from the front, often pressing defenders in their own half. They attack and defend as a block. Their movement is fantastic. Every time one of their players has the ball there is a player in space, ready to receive it. They retain the ball and by about sixty minutes the opposing team is tiring from chasing it. They also have players like Xavi and Iniesta who can put in that defence-splitting pass, something we sadly lack. The hope is that players like McCarthy and Diame will eventually have the poise and confidence to do this. Maybe David Jones? If not then I cannot see Rodallega or whoever plays centre forward getting a better goal ratio.

The Martinez project remains a work in progress. He has changed the approach and shows great long-term vision for the club. Latics players have clearly learned something about “movement” (aka “running off the ball”). Hopefully they will mature this season and really get it together as a unit. There has been so much promise but we have lacked consistency in the delivery. Oh for that telling pass or cross for the centre forward!