Tony Mowbray made wholesale tactical changes this week, after a disappointing away performance down in South Wales. There was only one change of personnel, and that was enforced - the suspended Corry Evans made way for returning Dennis Cirkin. However, in lieu of a 4-4-2 in which Alex Pritchard & Elliot Embleton would swap roles between a false 9 and attacking midfielder, Mowbray lined the lads up in a back three for the first time since the win against Reading - in which we were forced to abandon the formation due to injury. Cirkin slotted in at LCB, with the rest of the defence expectantly filling in around him & Embleton dropped into a midfield pairing alongside Dan Neil.
Since Mowbray has taken charge, we have lost very few midfield battles, arguably only twice: in the losses against Boro & Swansea. After an auspicious opening 15 minutes, we again started to lose this midfield battle. Neither Max Power nor Tom Naylor in Wigan’s midfeld were particularly effective, but Wigan’s defensive structure, physicality, direct style and proclivity to waste as much time as possible really dented the flow of our game. Neil & Embleton in midfield both struggled to impact the game well, with Wigan packing central areas. The main route to breaking down Boro was through one man - Patrick Roberts. Through the entirety of the first-half he tore apart Wigan’s left, be it James McClean, Curtis Tilt, or Naylor & Jack Whatmough moving over to cover - he was outstanding and created all our chances. Yet in general, we were quite stagnant and really missed Corry Evans’ keen ability to progress the ball and pick up positions in space between the opposition press.
The incident below was one of many occasions in which Wigan effectively cut our passing lanes and neither midfielder broke between the lines to collect the ball:
The central defenders' positioning was also far from ideal and thus forced Anthony Patterson long. On the day Whatmough, Tilt and Kerr won over 90% of aerial duels from long balls in this situation & Patterson’s passing stats are as follows:
The move for Roberts' disallowed goal proved how you can hurt Wigan, as all of their three central defenders all do not like being involved in congested penalty areas with the opposition playing around them. Mowbray changed things at half time, partly enforced by an injury to Lynden Gooch. However, his change was proactive, surprising and attacking. Aji Alese was largely ineffective from an attacking standpoint at LWB so was moved to central defence with Dennis Cirkin shifting to LB and Danny Batth & Luke O'Nien over a position. In midfield, Dan Neil took up a 6-role with a fluid 5 in front of him, this meant the team would be in either a 4-1-3-2 or 4-1-4-1 situation dependent. Amad was that spare midfielder off the ball and moved up more as a striker on it.
Wigan’s entire unit struggled to mark runners from deep for the rest of the game and their midfield was both outnumbered and outclassed by sheer technical ability. Midfield movement was inspired by this shift in tactic and Amad's role in midfield was as pleasant as it was surprising. Wigan looked shell-shocked by the change at first as we amped up the pressure.
In the first half, all potential damage was done by playing at pace, penetrating in behind the wing-backs and drawing Kerr or Tilt out of position. This typifies that and is excellent from a technical perspective. Once the ball was out wide and we actually had numerous able runners in the box, it was certain. One key weakness of Max Power in his time here was an inability to deal with midfield runners from deep and Embleton exposed just that. The second goal came from keen quick-thinking (O’Nien), brilliant technical ability (Pritchard) and pure desire (Cirkin).
All round, it was a vital performance and result to arrest a worrying potential slide, and hopefully with strikers’ potential returns just on the horizon, well-timed.