Wigan 2-3 Sunderland: Sunderland exploit Wigan weaknesses
Wigan succumbed to Sunderland in a five-goal thriller at the DW.
Wigan boss Roberto Martinez fielded much the same side as their draw away at Fulham. Jordi Gomez came in for David Jones, and Ronnie Stam replaced Ivan Ramis, meaning Emmerson Boyce moved into the centre. Franco Di Santo was supported by Gomez and Shaun Maloney up front, with the two James McCarthy and MacArthur playing as the double pivot in front of Wigan’s regular three-man defence.
Sunderland made one change to the side that beat West Ham 3-0, with winger James McClean dropping out of the side in favour of new signing Alfred N’Diaye, who anchored the midfield. As a result, Sunderland’s shape changed somewhat: instead of their regular 4-4-1-1 with Stephane Sessegnon playing just off Steven Fletcher in the centre and two holders in midfield, N’Diaye sat deep and allowed Sebastian Larsson and David Vaughan to link with Fletcher. Adam Johnson was on the left flank, rather than his favoured right.
Much like Southampton against Chelsea a few days ago, much of this game was decided by the contrasting games of both sides’ wide players. Wigan’s three-man defence is naturally weak against formations which play a full-back and a winger (such as the regular 4-4-2, a 4-2-3-1, or the 4-1-4-1 Sunderland played here today) unless they also play two wingers to track the opposition full-backs, such as in a 3-4-3. The issue is that although a wing-back can afford to be more adventurous than a full-back and thus dominate him in a one-on-one clash, a winger can aid his full-back in defence and create two-on-one situations in attack. With Wigan playing a 3-4-3, but crucially a narrow variant that could more accurately be described as a 3-4-2-1, with Gomez and Maloney in central attacking midfield positions, Sunderland had the opportunity to attack down the flanks at Wigan’s vulnerable wing-backs.
It was Wigan who made the first breakthrough, however. With neither Adam Johnson nor Stephane Sessegnon particularly diligent in their defensive duties, the task on the Wigan full-backs in an attacking sense was easier than it could otherwise have been. Sessegnon in particular was loathe to do his defensive duties, and drifted inside to try and get on the ball more. While this had the effect of restoring parity of numbers in central midfield to four on four, it also meant that the numbers on the flank he vacated was now also equal. The aforementioned advantage wing-backs have on full-backs was noticeable as Beausejour was able to get to near the by-line and get the cross in. It evaded everyone to come back to Ronnie Stam on the opposite flank, whose cross-shot deflected off David Vaughan and in. Sunderland’s reply was out of nowhere; James McCarthy handled Seb Larsson’s freekick in the area, and Craig Gardner hammered home the resulting penalty.
Sunderland stretch Wigan defence
Soon, however, the game began to settle down and Sunderland began to use their advantage on the wings to good effect. First, Alfred N’Diaye make a powerful run down the left flank – unsurprisingly, where the space had become available – and crossed for Fletcher to volley in his own rebound. Though Wigan had the majority of possession, Sunderland’s intelligent use of their players forced a constant threat to the home goal throughout. With Craig Gardner left one-on-one with Beausejour on the right flank, on the left Adam Johnson took a different approach. He played high, on occasions in advance of his striker Steven Fletcher, and wide on the left, forcing Ronnie Stam backwards and giving Jack Colback plenty of space to move into. It was unsurprising that 45% of Sunderland’s attacks came down the left, as the Colback-Johnson combinating overwhelmed Stam. Johnson’s positioning was a real problem for the Dutchman: does he track him, and leave his side without right-sided width in attack, or does he let the right-sided centre-back Emmerson Boyce deal with him? In the end, he did the former, and Wigan often looked narrow in their forays forward.
Sunderland’s last goal was as out of nowhere as their first, with Fletcher flicking on a Sebastian Larsson freekick and putting away the returned pass with a fine left-footed finish. With Sunderland 3-1 up at the end of the first half, it was natural that they would sit deeper in the second. As Wigan began to dominate possession to an even greater extent, Sunderland’s use of Johnson as a counterattacking outlet and Fletcher’s willingness to come deep to link up with his midfielders mean that they could pull around Wigan’s defence. Martinez threw on two more strikers and a midfielder in an attempt to convert the possession they had, but apart from Angelo Henriquez’s headed consolation there were never many serious threats to the away side’s goal.
It was a match either side could have won, but it eventually went to Sunderland because they made better use of their strengths and due to the clinical finishing of Fletcher. Both sides had an advantage in different areas of the pitch – the home side in the centre, the away side on the flanks – but whilst both teams has roughly half their shots miss the target, Sunderland’s on target shots were of far higher quality. It was another reminder of just how much of a difference an in-form striker can make to a team after Demba Ba single-handedly managed to improve Chelsea’s attack.
Wigan will be disappointed with the result, but on any other day they might have nicked it. The impending return of Antolin Alcaraz will surely improve their leaky defence, but they will hope Arouna Kone’s return from the African Cup Of Nations is swift.