Today’s opponents are coming into today’s game off the back of a rich vein of form. They’ve lost 2 of the last 11 games in a run which included a victories at Liverpool, (morally) at Chelsea, hosting United and at Arsenal. What is more remarkable is that this form isn’t propelling the team towards the title. Infact they’ve just soared to the relatively dizzy heights of 16th. Yep, Wigan are certainly an unstoppable force at the moment, and not before time too. Up until the last few weeks they were certain bankers for the drop in a (perhaps typical season) which promised nothing but the Championship, including a run of 8 straight losses. However Martinez has rallied the troops and tweaked the formation, and the Spaniard deserves a lot of credit for the upturn in form and bringing out the best of his players.
Similarly we’re experiencing a nice bit of form too. 5 wins and a draw from the last 9 has given us genuine top 10 aspirations and the confidence to achieving it too. A top 10 finish is obviously pales in signicifance compared to Wigan’s agenda but we also have hit form at a good time and judging from Aaron Hughes’ comments on Cottage Talk yesterday and the shifts we’ve put in recently we are still motivated to finish a high a place in the league as we can.
Team news for us is both good and bad; I’ll deliver the good news first. Pogrebnyak and Andy Johnson return from injury, meaning that we could have a genuine striker on the pitch for the first time since Pogrebnyak went off injured half an hour in to the Norwich game. Not that we struggled, and Dempsey did marvellously filling in up front, but I’d suggest that we’d rather Pogrebnyak played than didn’t. However Kelly joins Sidwell and Grygera on the injury list which may mean the excellent Hughes-Hangeland partnership may be broken up to allow Hughes to fill in at right back. As for our opponents they welcome back Maloney who of course scored scored that excellent winner against Manchester United not so long ago.
Wigan’s revival has been based on a significant change in tactics. Martinez has shifted his formation to a 3-5-2/3-4-3 from the 4-2-3-1 he was using previously. This has considerably shored up the Wigan defense which was a huge liability, especially considering they barely score (33 goals in 34 league games), but also allows them to play their attractive and adventerous attacking football. It was a risk, but one that has undoutably paid off.
However like all defensive systems there are chinks in the armour which we can exploit. The first key facet to our play will be width, something we’ve (perhaps suprisingly, it’s been a while since we’ve played with genuinely impressive width) used very successfully over the past few games. Wigan are very compact defensively, even using the extra wide men to make it a back 5 at times, which means that there is space on the flanks to use, whether it’d be a) for the wingers or b) the full backs (which is why I think we’ll miss Kelly a fair bit), and I expect Riise to get a lot of joy especially if Frei plays who will further occupy the wingback more centrally and allow Riise more space, and I suspect he will.
Secondly, and this was something pointed out to me by ZonalMarking.net (a fantastic tactical website), the Wigan defenders are very aggressive and don’t mind coming way out of position in order to stay tight or step out infront of strikers. However they will leave gaps behind them, and we can get joy from taking advantage of this, so I think a Dempsey – Pogrebnyak set up will be very favourable (Dempsey coming short with Pogrebnyak running in behind, the defenders will have to leave one) and plenty of midfield runners who may escaped unmarked from Wigan’s midfield who are in general very un-defensive; the trio of Gomez, Mcarthy and McArthurt that played against Arsenal are all offensively minded players.
We will need to be careful of Wigan’s counter attack and to concede an early goal will be fatal because then Wigan will just shut up shop and will be exceptionally hard to break down with 5 at the back.
I think we will have a bit too much for Wigan today however. Their opponents were fairly flawed and lethargic in their approach in their remarkable win but we have a spring in our step and we will know not to underestimate them.
My Prediction: Fulham 2 – 1 Wigan