Inability to break Birmingham’s compactness frustrates Wigan

A laborious Wigan Athletic hosted Birmingham City in a fiercely contested Championship affair that ended 1-1. The visitors defended well to protect their lead until late on, but substitute Craig Davies snatched the equaliser for The Latics. Birmingham showed some good foundations of an effective away side, whereas Wigan showed good tactical flexibility that might see them through the season.

Wigan came into the match with hopes of securing a consecutive home win after defeating a lacklustre Blackburn side 3-0 at the weekend, in which The Latics performed well for the duration of the game, and boss Caldwell would have been most impressed by how his side took control defensively. However, such is the diversity of the league that Birmingham posed very different question’s to Caldwell’s men. Looking to build on their 2-1 away win at Leeds, Gary Rowett’s side proved a tougher nut to crack.

From the first whistle, it was clear to see that Birmingham had come to defend. Defending in a compact 4-1-4-1 shape, the visitors didn’t afford Wigan much space in the centre of the pitch. Wigan’s strategy to counter this was questionable, though, and they made themselves easy to defend against due to the predictability of their patterns of play and lack of tempo changes when circulating the ball. The Latics fielded a back three, so naturally found space to the sides of striker Clayton Donaldson when circulating the ball, even when Donaldson was joined by midfielder Davis during the press.

Common prob
Wigan often lacked presence in central areas, leading to stagnant build-up play.
Unlike his right-sided counterpart Morgan, Warnock more often than not used his initiative to drive into the empty space in front of him in the left half space to progress the ball up the field. However, Warnock lacked options ahead of him and was forced to pass wide to makeshift wing-back Perkins early in the build up.
Due to Birmingham’s good spacing and shifting towards the ball, coupled with the lack of Wigan presence behind the opposition midfield, Perkins was restricted to either playing the ball back to the nearest centre back or infield to Power or Powell, who would bounce the ball back into defence due to being pressured. Nick Powell often occupied the same passing lane as Max Power and would have been more effective if deployed higher up the pitch, but Birmingham were very content with shifting from side-to-side and pressing the ball carrier, and Wigan’s switches of play were largely ineffective. Yanic Wildschut was Wigan’s most prominent outlet early on in the match, drifting into wide left areas and using his strong 1v1 ability to get the better of Spector.

Using an up-back-through mechanism can create space in central areas.
Wigan needed more presence behind the opposition midfield line, and this could have been achieved by sacrificing a centre back and bringing on Jacobs as a number 10. Wigan’s early build-up play would not have suffered from losing a defender as Birmingham only really pressed the back line with one player, rarely with two, and Max Power could support the defence to progress play. Moving Nick Powell higher up the pitch would provide numerous benefits for Wigan. Firstly, this would enable Wigan to play through their opponents rather than around them, moving the ball into areas that would increase chance creation. This could have been done against Birmingham by using Gilbey and Powell in an up-back-through mechanism to create space in the centre, which may have proved fruitful if combined with an overload on Birmingham’s defensive midfield space. Birmingham played a zonal marking system with man-orientation, which meant that overloading Kieftenbeld’s zone would have caused problems. Second of all, having Powell higher up the pitch would provide more support for Grigg, and his presence between the lines could occupy defenders to free up the likes of Wildschut and Gilbey more often. Thirdly, Powell moving higher up the pitch would afford more space and time to Max Power in deeper areas, who could then find players in front of him more effectively. One of the greatest benefits of Powell playing higher would be the increased level of connectedness in the team: Powell could drift wide to support the wing-backs and combine with either Wildschut or Gilbey to provide an overload when the ball is in wide areas, and switches of play would be more easily executed.

Keeping a back three and utilising Powell (circled) higher up provides more options for the ball carrier, potential overload situations, and allows for easier switches of play.
Nick Powell has the potential to be a dynamic player but his positioning is often questionable. In early build up against Birmingham he would often provide a very similar passing option as Power, which in turn reduced the space for either of them receiving the ball and restricted Wigan moving the ball into key advanced areas. Powell is more effective further up the pitch due to his ability on the ball in tight spaces, which reflected in Wigan’s equaliser, where he played in Grigg, who crossed to Davies for the goal.

goalCaldwell stuck to a three-man defence, though, and his decision to bring on Craig Davies rescued a point for the home side. As the game went on and Birmingham began to sat deeper, Wigan pushed for an equaliser but also looked quite fatigued. For a five minute spell, Wigan were playing in a 3-1-2-4 shape, with Powell joining Grigg up front, Wildschut and Jacobs playing extremely high and wide, and Power sitting behind Gilbey & MacDonald. This shape meant that Wigan were able to sustain pressure on Birmingham’s defence due to having better spacing and thus a faster, more effective circulation was possible, but the away side still closed important spaces. Wigan’s tiredness showed as their midfield struggled to continuously support attacks, which led to Caldwell changing strategy. Ultimately, the introduction of Davies meant both of Birmingham’s centre back were simultaneously occupied for the first time in the match, which led to the sub sneaking in at the back post to score a deserved goal.

Birmingham had taken a controversial lead on the stroke of half time, which was surprising as not only did they have very little possession, but their deep shape and compactness meant that they rarely had an outlet when they won the ball back, so struggled to keep the ball well. However, when they opened up their shape and countered quickly, they were effective, hitting the woodwork twice. Their lead was controversial, though, as Donaldson appeared to be offside before winning a penalty from Bogdan. Not only that, but Davis, who scored from the rebound, had encroached in the box before the penalty had been taken. That is not to take away from Birmingham’s display, mind, as they defended very well for the majority of the match. They largely restricted Wigan to play in wide areas and forced them to use crosses as a means of creating chances, which proved ineffective as Wigan lacked numbers in high areas and Grigg was not all that successful in the air. Their defensive strategy may not prevail against teams with superior movement, though.

Despite Grigg’s impressive hold-up play (for his physical stature), he is often outnumbered and isolated when receiving the ball, and a main focus point for Wigan will be the need to work on finding players in space behind the opposition midfield to improve their chance creation, as opposed to relying on the dribbling ability of Wildschut and using crossing from deep as a strategy.