This piece originally appeared on SpursStatMan.com.
Tottenham must have been tearing their hair out when they looked at the season’s fixtures and saw that they would be travelling to Wigan at the end of April. After all, from late February on the Latics usually play like a combination of Brazil 1970, the Netherlands 1974 and Barcelona 2011, amassing points at a title-winning rate and rescuing themselves from almost certain relegation.
This season hasn’t really followed that template. While both teams’ stereotypes mean it would hardly be a shock if Tottenham somehow lost at the DW, the Lilywhites are huge favourites against a side that has yet to find its mojo in 2012-13. It will not be a walk in the park, however. If three points are to be won they will not have been taken easily.
Last season’s late switch to a variant of 3-4-3 bamboozled opponents, saved Roberto Martínez’s men from the drop and arguably decided the destination of the Premier League title, but the system has had less success this year. There have been mitigating circumstances – injuries have robbed them of key players throughout the season – but there is no escaping the fact that Wigan are often, to put it bluntly, shockingly bad.
They have long been the benchmark when it comes to farcical slapstick defending, even by the Premier League’s increasingly worrying standard. This is perhaps because Martínez exclusively uses a style of coaching geared towards developing individual skills such as ball-retention good decision-making. In a sense, what Martínez practices is youth coaching for first teamers, and as a means of maximising transfer revenues, that works for Wigan.
Where Martínez falls down, and why his side struggle, is that this individual coaching appears not to be accompanied by any sort of collective drilling or defensive work. This is a grievous oversight – particularly when managing a club with such minuscule resources. There is a feeling that on their day Wigan can beat any opponent, but on most days they will only defeat themselves.
That said, André Villas-Boas must hope that the Latics put in one of their more underwhelming showings as their 3-4-3 has the potential to cause his 4-2-3-1 significant problems from a number of situations.
Primarily, Wigan’s strength is on the left flank: Jean Beausejour is extremely effective in his über-attacking wing-back role and, on average, creates two chances per game, more than any of his teammates. With Tottenham’s recent lack of width a real issue and Aaron Lennon apparently unfit to start, Beausejour could prove a pivotal player in the outcome of the game simply by hugging the touchline and playing vertically.
In addition to his strength in open play, Beausejour and Jordi Gómez can each deliver a mean set piece and Wigan will fancy their chances to score from dead balls. In Paul Scharner and Gary Caldwell they have two defenders who regularly cause mayhem in their own box but pose a threat when attacking deliveries of real quality.
Another worry for Spurs is Shaun Maloney. While the Scot is not going to win any Ballons d’Or, he has footballing intelligence and regularly spots and exploits space. With Scott Parker and Mousa Dembélé likely to press Jordi Gómez and James McCarthy in midfield, gaps will open up between Tottenham’s first and second bands and Maloney will look to use them. On the right, Callum McManaman has a similar role but tends to stay wider than Maloney.
The two will cause problems if given time on the ball. Ominously for Spurs, there is no easy solution: even if the space available to Maloney and McManaman is closed off by the use of a high defensive line, Wigan’s passers in midfield are good enough to spring the offside trap with direct through-balls and send livewire forward Arouna Koné through on goal.
One way to combat this problem would be to begin the match using a similar 4-3-3 system to the one that saw the tables turn in Spurs’ favour last weekend. Tom Huddlestone has made an excellent impact in his recent substitute appearances against Everton and Manchester City and playing him in the space in front of the defence would give structural stability to the side.
Additionally, Huddlestone would also give Spurs a greater ability to execute fast attacking transitions, something that would cause Wigan huge problems. They are famously naïve and will gladly throw everyone bar a couple of centre-backs forward. With so much space available in behind, Huddlestone’s ability to play accurate long passes for Gareth Bale, Clint Dempsey and Emmanuel Adebayor to chase could prove decisive.
Unfortunately, AVB seems likely to begin with Huddlestone benched and begin with the tried and tested 4-2-3-1. Neutrals will probably be pleased as the two managers throw caution to the wind and instruct their simply to score more goals than they concede.
The good news for Spurs is that even with the 4-2-3-1 they will have the tactical advantage at the attacking end of the pitch. As any tactics nerd worth his salt knows, a back three like Wigan’s does well when faced with an orthodox front two – two of the centre-backs mark a man, the free one marks space – but it tends to fare less well against a lone striker, when at least one of the centre-backs is left redundant.
To conclude, the match will likely be a frenetic and stressful affair as both teams attack each other’s exposed defences. Nonetheless, Tottenham’s superior quality coupled with Wigan’s unparalleled capacity for self-destruction should decide the game in Spurs’ favour.