Monday, November 21, 2011

Roberto Martinez, Insurgent Leader, Or: Why Wigan Played Guerrilla Football Last Year

Roberto Martinez plays guerrilla football. Sure, he seems a decent guy – mild-mannered and well-behaved on the sidelines – but underneath beats the heart of Che Guevera. The Latics have been in trouble every season they have played in the Premier League. Yet, once more, Martinez’s Latics narrowly escaped relegation last year, returning to the DW Stadium to play another day.

This is nothing short of miraculous, say some. The Swiss Ramble, a blog on football finances, put Wigan’s and Martinez’s challenges and achievements like this: “Given their substantial financial disadvantages, Wigan’s ability to survive in the Premier League is a minor modern miracle.”

Divine intervention is difficult to quantify, and so it is hard to know what role it plays in Wigan’s outcomes. A look at how Martinez’s club scored goals last season is easier, and reveals a particular – and some might say peculiar – style of play.

How peculiar? Consider this. For the Premier League as a whole, on average, teams scored 1.4 goals per match last year. More than 70% of these came from open play. That means teams scored roughly 1 goal per team per match this way. In contrast, a scant 6.3% goals came from free kicks. Here’s another way to think about that free kick number – teams needed to play 28 matches before once finding the net this way. If you’re counting on free kicks, good luck.

But Wigan under Martinez isn’t your average club. Data from Opta Sports show that fewer than half of Wigan’s goals (45%) last season came from open play. Statistically, that is far less than one goal per game. In fact, Wigan relied so little on open play goals, they went an astonishing 21 matches without scoring a single goal from anything resembling a patient build-up last year. Wigan supporters, instead, were treated to an exceptional display of fast breaks and free kicks. Compared to your average team, Wigan scored twice as many goals from fast break opportunities. And here’s the kicker: they also managed almost four times as many goals from free kicks as other teams (3.7 is the actual multiple).

These numbers are too odd to be coincidental. It seems Robert Martinez’s men had a simple strategy, but one that resembled no one else’s: they laid in wait for their opponents to lose the ball one too many times and then rallied the troops to punish them on the counter attack.

And they must have been practicing those accurate free kicks every chance they had, while corners did not seem to be part of the practice regimen (or they just didn’t bother to try too hard and move upfield on corners because they didn’t want to be caught on the counter themselves).

All sounds like a bit like insurgent warfare, doesn’t it? Lie in wait, and use your sharpshooters when given the chance.

Aggressively courted by Aston Villa to take on their vacant manager position during this off-season, Martinez declined, apparently out of loyalty to his current club: “Over the last two years the chairman has been very supportive to me and loyal, and now I feel I need to be loyal and supportive back to him. I haven't finished my job at Wigan Athletic; there is much work still to be done.” Sounds like the words of a man who has a cause, and is on the march. I am curious whether the Latics' luck will finally run out this year - the good news is that they have a leader who doesn't mind fighting the good fight with the weapons he has.