In the build-up to last night’s match between Stoke and Wigan at the Britannia, Stoke’s manager Tony Pulis described their opponents as a ‘bogey team’. The reasoning was understandable considering Stoke had failed to beat Wigan, a side generally fighting relegation, in eight attempts. Clearly the disparity in styles was giving Wigan an advantage.
Nevertheless, Pulis’ decision to play a 3-5-2 system against Wigan still came as a surprise. Stoke’s manager is not known for tactical flexibility and his only notable changes to his team’s shape in recent years has been to gradually withdraw a striker, initially into an advance midfield role and this season into a third central midfielder. The change to a 3-5-2 had two primary aims: to combat Wigan’s wing backs and to have a partner for Peter Crouch up front. This second point was particularly important – this season Crouch has often become isolated due to Jonathan Walters being moved from an advanced midfield position to the right wing, but against Wigan the two players worked well together and constantly looked to link up.
In the first half Wigan appeared confused by the change in their opponents shape having expected Stoke’s usual 4-5-1 system and the home side were able to edge a scrappy contest. However after half time Wigan adjusted to the challenge and took control of the game. Without playing particularly well they were able to exploit Stoke’s discomfort with the formation and salvaged a draw. Stoke’s problems were threefold – defensively they were unsure how to defend the flanks, the wing backs seemed unsure of their positioning and the midfield once again played too flat.
Defending wide areas is always a challenge for a back three. The outside centre backs have to be strong positionally, knowing when to move wide and when to remain tight to their defensive partners. Both Robert Huth and Geoff Cameron have played at full back and should therefore be accustomed to defending wider areas, but neither appeared comfortable either side of Ryan Shawcross. Cameron in particular was often caught in two minds as to whether to engage his opponent out wide or stay in a central position. Even in the first half, when Stoke were largely on top, Wigan’s attackers found time to either deliver crosses from the left flank if Cameron stayed narrow, or make runs into the left channel between Cameron and Shawcross when the former pulled wide.
This problem was confounded by the positioning of Stoke’s wing backs. Neither Matthew Etherington on the left nor Dean Whitehead on the right were sure of their roles, with neither offering an attacking threat nor adequate defensive coverage. Etherington was largely spared of defensive duties as Wigan’s attacks primarily came down their left flank, but was still reluctant to get forward and offer a wide attacking threat. Whitehead was arguably too aggressive with his positioning, with Wigan constantly exploiting the space behind him until Andy Wilkinson was introduced in a right full back position midway through the second half.
Finally Stoke once again failed to tier their midfield appropriately, with Charlie Adam, Steven N’Zonzi and Glenn Whelan all playing in a broadly horizontal line just as they do in Stoke’s customary 4-5-1 system. The three players have all the qualities to form an effective midfield trio – N’Zonzi is strong defensively, Whelan provides energy and Adam has an excellent range of passing. Yet they play far too flat, offering no depth to Stoke’s midfield both in attack and defence. This was particularly evident against Wigan with Shaun Maloney and Roger Espinoza constantly finding space between the lines of defence and midfield. With Stoke having effectively a flat five across midfield Wigan found it far too easy to bypass half of Stoke’s team with vertical passes into their forwards.
Overall this was an interesting move from Pulis. In many ways mirroring Wigan’s 3-5-2 removes many of their advantages by offering like-for-like on the flanks and in midfield, and is arguably the reason why so many Serie A teams have now adopted the formation. Yet what is also important is the necessary experience within such a system – Wigan have now used it for over twelve months and their players are entirely comfortable within it, while Manchester City have demonstrated that it takes more than good players to make the formation work. Finally it also demonstrates how tactically aware Wigan are as a team. Their forwards had far too much movement for Stoke’s defence, and the likes of Espinoza and Maloney were quick to exploit Stoke’s weakness at right back.