West Bromwich Albion retained their lofty league position after a 2-1 victory at Wigan Athletic kept Steve Clarke’s men amongst the European places.
A first-half header from midfielder James Morrison and a Steven Caldwell own goal put the visitors in the ascendency as the first half closed.
Arouna Kona pulled a goal back for Wigan on the stroke of half-time but the Baggies’ perfectly executed game plan helped them record their first away victory of the campaign to move fifth in the table.
Roberto Martinez’s men were the more dominant side in the first period but struggled to transform their monopoly on possession into clear goalscoring opportunities. In the end the home team succumbed to a lesson in the transition between defence and attack.
Here The FA’s Peter Glynn looks at the story of two sides with two different game plans.
Away from the limelight of the Premier League’s big clubs are many noteworthy stories.
And Wigan Athletic’s continuing existence in English football’s top tier since 2005-06 is one case in point.
It would be wrong to ignore the survival scares of recent seasons, yet Roberto Martinez continues to protect the Latics’ top-flight status using a brand of football unaffected by anxiety or fear.
Although they share a pitch with the town’s rugby club, this is a side dedicated to the finer arts of possession football.
And it is a philosophy which brings its rewards, with the Latics taking all three points from last week’s trip to Tottenham.
Whatever adversity appears there is an unwillingness to change approach. For many football purists this represents success in its own right.
In contrast, West Bromwich Albion’s recent top-flight history has been more turbulent.
However, since Steve Clarke’s arrival at the beginning on the season, another quiet success story is emerging.
It will take Clarke some time to match the ongoing achievement of Martinez, but he has made an impressive start to the season with six wins and two draws in 11 games.
As a result Clarke’s men are enjoying esteemed company amongst the league’s European places.
Much of West Brom’s success has been built on solid foundations, a defensive diligence and a willingness to attack quickly and powerfully.
This transition from defence to attack is quickly becoming the Baggies’ defining characteristic.
Given Clarke, who arrived at the Hawthorns this summer from Liverpool, is a former a graduate of Jose Mourinho’s school of coaching, it is no surprise West Brom play well on the counter-attack.
The Real Madrid coach is famed for his obsession with the reaction to the changeover of possession something the Scot witnessed at first hand during their time at Chelsea.
Here’s a practice from The Future Game looking at quick counter-attacking play from the defensive half:
Counter attacking from deep (17-21)
Defensive solidarity and swift counter-attacking proved successful for this act. West Brom’s increasingly defining characteristics proving too difficult for the home-side to break down. The visitors’ game plan clearly had the opposition in mind.
Wigan’s Spanish manager does nothing to diminish the stereotype about his countrymen’s obsession with possession. The Latics set-up to dominate use of the ball, playing through the three thirds of the pitch looking to pick open the opposition’s back line with crafty and incisive one-touch play.
In response, West Brom were pragmatic but effective.
Out of possession Steve Clarke’s men formed two rigid defensive which Martinez’s men failed to penetrate. With minimal space between the two defensive lines, Martinez’s front three – Kone, Shaun Maloney and Franco Di Santo – were suffocated of space.
Attempts to play intricately in such tight spaces played into the hands of Albion’s defensive midfield duo of Youssouf Mulumbu and Claudio Yacob.
Strategically placed to screen any passes going into Wigan’s front players the pair pounced on countless loose touches and second-balls.
Here’s a practice from The Future Game focusing on the midfield unit remaining compact when defending:
Midfield unit remaining compact (12-16)
With space increasingly rare in central areas, Wigan altered their approach to a wider perspective. Wigan midfielder Ben Watson was effective in administering numerous accurate long switches of play to the home side’s wide-men Emerson Boyce and Jean Beausejour.
In response, West Brom simply stuck to the task. The visitors’ regimental movement successful in cutting off the supply line from wide areas.
Wigan committed men forward but became increasingly ineffective at creating clear-cut chances, while West Brom revelled in the opportunity to exploit the vacant spaces when possession changed hands.
The tireless running of forwards Romelu Lukaku and Shane Long allowed Clarke’s men to play into the channels down the side of Wigan’s back three, a welcome release to mounting pressure from the hosts.
The visitors’ ability to move quickly and powerfully from defence to attack proved the deciding factor in the destination of the points.
With Mulumbu and Yacob anchoring the central of midfield, West Brom’s widemen James Morrison and Chris Brunt were afforded the freedom to join the attack when the ball broke forward.
And it was the Baggies’ widemen who combined to give the visitors the lead.
Wigan will rue their inability to close Brunt down on West Brom’s left. The Northern Irishman needs only a yard of space to wrap his left-foot around the ball and his expert delivery found Morrison, who had come in off his perch on the right flank, to head home inside the six-yard box.
The goal underlined the importance of having players with specialist delivery techniques in any side.
Here’s a Future Game crossing practice for young players:
Crossing and finishing (17-21)
In tight games the first goal can prove to be pivotal and although the opening strike was plundered very much against the run of play, the scoreline soon doubled.
This time the incision came down Albion’s right-flank. Billy Jones’ tenacity and willingness was rewarded after his low cross was diverted past Ali Al Habsi by Caldwell.
At this juncture Wigan could be afforded a sense of injustice. Martinez’s men had retained the ball more effectively than their opponents, demonstrating a more fluid attacking strategy and greater imagination in possession, yet were behind by two goals.
The lead allowed Clarke’s men to remain compact behind the ball, without the need of committing too many players forward.
Although the arrears were reduced moments later through Kone’s close range finish, Wigan’s ineffectiveness in fashioning clear chances chimed with important discussions in the modern game.
Is possession football effective if it doesn’t lead to chances on goal and ultimately goals? Martinez would say the approach is part of his and the club’s identity and the Latics are undoubtedly easy on the eye.
But as the game wore on West Brom were comfortable in nullifying Wigan’s threat. There was a need for greater imagination, movement and variety in attacking approach.
Laudable as their play is, Martinez must despair at beating Tottenham away one week and losing at home the next.
The FA’s Future Game document encourages coaches to predict and prepare for the trends and changes in the modern game.
With teams defending deeper and in greater numbers a challenge for all coaches is to develop players adept at unpicking the lock of amassed defensive ranks.
Having players who can mix their attacking styles between patient build-up and quick counter-attacking will be crucial too.
Here’s a Future Game practice to help players develop their creative play around the box:
Breaking the block (17-21)
Key points for grassroots coaches:
- How much time do you dedicate to defending during your coaching practices or syllabus? Successful game plans often come from solid defensive foundations
- Design practices which focus on the ‘transition’ from defence to attack and vice versa. Players need to respond quickly to the different states of the game
- If the modern game points towards teams deploying more players behind the ball – what type of skills will attacking players of the future need to counter this strategy?
Peter Glynn, 29, is the Editorial Manager at St. George's Park and editor of The Boot Room, The FA's Coaching Magazine. Peter has been with The Football Association for 5 years and holds the UEFA B Licence and The FA Youth Awards 1 and 2.
The Future Game Tactics Column takes a weekly look at the evolution of the modern game, linking to practices from The FA's Future Game philosophy and providing advice and tips for grassroots coaches.
For more information about The FA’s Future Game philosophy click here