Stoke vs Wigan (Premier League)

29/01/13

Stoke host Wigan in what is not only a severe clash in playing style but also a classic ‘English’ system against an Italian-inspired 3-5-2. Stoke have lost 3 games in a row but still find themselves in 10th place thanks to their solid home form, having been unbeaten at the Britannia before defeat to Chelsea two matches ago. In contrast Wigan find themselves in the relegation places having won only once in 10 matches. Neither team has won since December.

Clash of styles

This may be the most diverse match-up in the league. Tony Pulis’ Stoke play a stereotypical ‘English’ style stemming from a 4-4-2 formation and based around feeding a target man with aerial balls from wide positions. In contrast Roberto Martinez advocates a patient passing style and has been inspired by the renaissance of the 3-5-2 formation in Serie A to implement the system in the Premier League. The formations also link themselves with a particular style of play – the 4-4-2 encourages direct passing to wingers and forwards, the 3-5-2 designed to over an even distribution of players across the pitch.

Probable line-ups.

Probable line-ups.

Both teams adhere to these principals well. Stoke have recently dropped a forward into midfield and now play a 4-5-1 system, but the principle of moving the ball forward quickly to a target man remains. Their aim is to control the space and dictate where the game is played, specifically as close to the opponent’s goals as possible. By contrast Wigan look to dominate possession, happy to sacrifice space in exchange for keeping hold of the ball.

In this regard there will be an obvious pattern of play. The majority of the game will be played in Wigan’s half, with Stoke attacking through direct passing and set pieces, and Wigan happy to patiently build from the back. Much will depend on which side benefits from this: Will Stoke be successful in creating chances for Peter Crouch, or will Wigan’s midfielders get enough time to find passes into their forwards?

Peter Crouch vs Wigan’s back three

In theory lone forwards should cause problems for three man defences as the two extra men for the defending side inevitably mean they are outnumbered elsewhere on the pitch. However the movement of Jordi Gomez between midfield and the forwards allows Wigan to compete in midfield and occupy opposing full backs, allowing their back three to provide defensive cover.

Crouch lacks the movement to trouble Wigan, although this would be difficult against two spare defenders anyway, so will look to simply compete in the air. Despite playing three centre backs, Wigan aren’t particular strong in the air, and they will be weakened by the long-term absence of Ivan Ramis to injury. Crouch should have success in the air, but unless attacking crosses in the penalty area he will need support from midfield. Last season Jonathan Walters provided this effectively, but this year finds himself relocated on the right wing. If Crouch and Stoke are to make the most of any aerial dominance they enjoy, Charlie Adam and Steven N’Zonzi will need to break forward from midfield.

Jordi Gomez and Shaun Maloney

Both Gomez and Maloney have extremely fluid roles in Wigan’s system. Both provide support to Franco Di Santo by finding space out wide and in front of the opposing defenders. Gomez will also drop deep to help Wigan compete against Stoke’s three centre midfielders which should deny the home side a numerical advantage in midfield.

However Stoke’s midfield trio defend in a relatively flat line, meaning there can often be space between the lines of defence and midfield. Glenn Whelan is the one to hold his position when N’Zonzi and Adam advance, so he will need to be wary of the space behind him. Given time and space, both Gomez and Maloney have the ability to find incisive passes behind the defence. On the plus side Wigan will be without the pace of Aruna Kone who is on international duty, meaning Stoke’s back four should be able to push higher up the pitch to squeeze the space in front of the defence.

Battle on the flanks

Whenever a 3-5-2 system comes up against a 4-4-2 variation the wings become a key battleground. Stoke effectively outnumber Wigan 2-to-1 on either flank and therefore have the potential to dominate the wide areas.

If Pulis wishes to be brave he could instruct his full backs to mark the opposing wing backs and allow his wingers to start high up the pitch, which would force their outside centre backs to move into wide positions, opening up space in the centre. Wigan’s outside centre backs Maynor Figueroa and Emmerson Boyce are both comfortable in wide positions and Crouch is not a mobile target man, so if Stoke succeed in stretching their opponent’s defence it would probably require midfield runners to take advantage. However if Stoke’s full backs do push forward in support of the wingers they will allow Gomez and Maloney to find space out wide.

Alternatively Wigan’s wing backs may occupy Stoke’s wingers, thus blunting their main source of attacking thrust from midfield. In this eventuality Stoke’s full backs will often find themselves free and will need to make use of the time and space they are allowed to provide crosses into Crouch.

With all 3-5-2 systems potentially weak on the flanks, and Stokes main source of attacking threat coming from wide areas, the outcome of this battle will go a long way to deciding the match.

Summary

Despite their league position Wigan are a tricky opponent for Stoke, who haven’t won a league meeting between the two in the last six attempts. Stoke’s main strengths are largely neutralised by Wigan – three centre backs provide cover for Crouch’s knock-downs or flick-ons, Gomez ensures there is no numerical advantage in midfield, and wing backs work hard to keep opposing wingers away from danger areas. As is so often the case when discussing 3-5-2 systems, the result is likely to be determined who wins the wing battles.

Related articles – Should Stoke drop Charlie Adam?

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