08 April 2014

Yes, Everton mauled us but also offer a dossier on Wigan...

Still suffering the lingering after-effects of the Everton loss? The news to follow is by turns good and bad, depending largely on your sense of the glass and how well it contains liquids. For those of the half-empty variety, Everton did to us what Wigan will do again. For those of the half-full variety, what Everton did offers a peek into what Wigan will try but can't quite pull off. Yes, Wigan slumped its way out of the Prem last season, getting relegated when we beat them 4-1 last May, but they also are the defending FA Cup Champs, having beaten Man City on a last-minute goal. Whether these results stoke their desire for revenge or boost their confidence is for them to assess. More crucially, they remind us not to saunter on in to the match on Saturday, knowing also that they still play a style similar to although less flashy than Everton. After all, Roberto Martinez was at the Latics helm last season...

Martinez has since moved on, of course, but his brand of football carries on. Even if the Latics don't quite have the same quality that Everton does, the lessons remains, and while we're licking our wounds and sizing up our prospects, we'd do well to treat the Everton match as a primer for what we'll face on Saturday. I don't buy for a minute the idea that the match is eminently winnable; for one, the difference between the Prem's lowest four or five clubs and the Championship's highest four or five is not that great. If anything, those vying for promotion might be more dangerous to face than those slouching towards relegation. Under Uwe Rösler, they've begun a slow but inexorable climb back to the top of the Championship. Second, we're hardly in the kind of form to be calling any shots or throwing our weight around (just in case you hadn't been paying attention). And if you still aren't convinced, do keep in mind that they beat Man City at the Etihad to get to the semifinal.

So what are to look for on Saturday? Well, look to see a lot of pressing up the pitch. Nervous yet? Their midfield will likely buzz around to try to disrupt our passing, create turnovers, and hit on a quick counter. They don't seem inclined or able to control possession, but this tempo seems to offset the disadvantage they face in the possession game. As such, we can try to control the game and set the pace, but as Man City learned, having the ball nearly 70% of the time may not be enough to beat the Latics.

As to formation, they play a nominal 4-2-3-1 that ends up closer to a 5-4-1 as their attacking midfielders (such as they are) dropping deep to play defense. There's not a lot of pace in that back five, which partly explains why those attacking midfielders drop back. For contrast, our wide midfielders frequently end the match with an average field position somewhere around 30 yards from the opposition's goal, with our wide defenders' position comfortably higher than midfield—a very forward and aggressive position. Wigan's attacking midfielders seem to hover at or around midfield while those wide defenders rarely seem to venture very far from their own penalty-box.

The risk this then poses is one we should be all too familiar with. Should be. With our wide defenders pressing up the pitch, we leave ourselves vulnerable to counter-attacks. While Wigan may lack the kind of finishers that Everton had, we'd do well to mind those flanks so as not to get caught out as we so often have. This is not only the kind of attack Wigan seem to favor, it's also the very same that has been our own undoing time and time again. Whereas we should have focused on Lukaku (and failed), Wigan are a much more egalitarian side, which is both a polite way of saying they lack that one dynamic scorer/creator and a more direct way of saying that they have a longer list of players who can chip in with a goal when needed. Without knowing who will pop up, it's a bit harder to know whom to shut down.

For as much as we might licked our chops once Wigan had again knocked off Man City, we know now that winning this match, as well as the final, are non-negotiables. When this draw was announced in early March, we might have assumed that would be a cake-walk. Now, however, the stakes have grown immeasurably, it seems, as many Gooners see this as a match on whose outcome the entire fate of our club depends. There's a bit of melodramatic exaggeration to that, but the Everton loss has thrown us for a bit of a loop. If that result can shake us out of our doldrums, tactical, emotional, or otherwise, so much the better. If there was gnashing of teeth and rending of garments on Sunday, I don't want to see the reaction (mine included) if we crash out of the Cup on Saturday.

If we can treat Wigan as Everton II, remembering that their set-up and style are still much the same as they were under Martinez, we should come out on top. I hope.