Story of a Game: Wigan
Warning: this post contains tactical analysis.
So most of us are pretty happy with the point at Wigan, and rightly so. Any away point is a good one and the performance that went with it was decent. Wigan were the stronger team, of that there isn’t much doubt, though not quite as strong as the MOTD highlights would suggest. Most of their chances came from mistakes along our backline, and it’s to our credit that we didn’t concede after the penalty. We had chances of our own, and attempted more passes during the course of the game (though we completed marginally less) – we’ve got every right to come away happy with a point.
So why did the game go the way it did? Why were Wigan the stronger, more dangerous team? For this, I’m going to attempt to use chalkboards, those wonderful tools at the Guardian that map our games.
The biggest tactical difference between Wigan and Norwich was the area of the pitch in which they pressed the ball, in which they attempted to tackle the opposition. Norwich played a high line, something frequently commented on and that had the appearance of exposing Tierney and Russell Martin. Yet they wouldn’t have been exposed if Wigan themselves hadn’t played a high pressing game.
The two heatmaps above show the locations of the pitch that Norwich and Wigan attempted tackles. It’s immediately evident that Wigan were tackling much higher on the pitch, forcing mistakes and not giving our defenders time on the ball to pick a pass. This is demonstrated in the first goal, where De Laet was pressured, and a few minutes later when Whitbread dithered on the ball and had his pocket picked. The Wigan midfield and attack had instructions to work high up the pitch which, combined with the Norwich high line, had the potential to cause problems.
This can be further seen in individual tackling chalkboards from Moses and Di Santo.
Both Moses and Di Santo attempted ten or more tackles during the course of the game (and Di Santo was taken off after an hour or so). Moses was more successful in the challenge, but the key thing is they both attempted more tackles than any Norwich player. Our highest in this regard is Crofts with 8. Compare this with the chalkboard below…
Grant Holt attempted just 6 tackles and was only successful with 1. It is fair to say that Holt was slower to get into the game but came more alive in the second half, and put in a good shift. I would imagine, though, that his chalkboard for the same stat in the Championship would be much higher. He’s a player that harasses defenders and puts in challenges. If Norwich want to press higher up the pitch and lessen the pressure on the defence, players such as Holt, Morison and others will need to put their foot on the ball more and not sit back. Again, Moses and Di Santo put in more challenges than every Norwich player. It is this pressing that let Moses be such a dangerous player, and it something Norwich will need to address. It’s almost a cliché to say it, but you don’t get as much time in this division – our defenders will need to be quicker with distribution or our midfield will need to help our more.
Fox and Watson
Talking of the midfield, it’s interesting to compare the two players who made their respective teams tick. While most would recognise that Fox didn’t have the best game of his career, he was still effective, sent out more passes than any other Norwich player and directed a lot of our play. His Wigan counterpart was Ben Watson, who scored their goal.
The chalkboard above shows all the passes from Ben Watson. 68 were attempted with 54 being complete. In comparison, Fox made 63 with 50 being complete. So far, so similar. Both made their team tick, and the two players together were the biggest passers in the game. The difference lies in tackles and interceptions – the moments in the game where Watson or Fox broke up play and retrieved possession from the other team. Watson made 7 tackles and won all of them. Fox did 2. Watson intercepted the ball 4 times. Fox just the once.
Both players are integral to the performance of their team but once criticism of Fox from certain angles last year (not me) was that he didn’t put his foot on the ball enough. Crofts was the tackler, Fox was the passer. As Watson is showing, to be that metronome in the middle of the park in the Premier League, the game has to include both. It was from Watson that Wigan’s direction came, and with him getting his foot on the ball more, and further up the pitch, he was able to set off his teammates and control the game. If Norwich want to have more chances in future, their midfield will need to help out more, get more tackles in and start more attacks.
All in all this was a good performance away from home in our first match of the season. Things will come; players will get into their groove, Holt will become more of a hassle, new signings will bed in and the team will develop. There can be no snap judgements after just one game. But for this one game, the reasons for Wigans slight edge over Norwich is pretty clear; a tactical plan that pressed our defence into making errors, won the ball up the pitch and run by a midfielder that won the ball frequently and spread it around.