Premier League analysis: different strokes for the title race and Wigan
22:12, 11 Apr 2012
Miguel Delaney analyses the effects of the night's game on the newly-open title race and why exactly Wigan are so different to the team which started the season
The top tilts...
The big question: does this breathe new life at the title race? At the very least, it’s not dead just yet.
To a certain extent, though, tonight’s results were a consequence of the gap that had opened at the weekend.
Because, by Sunday evening, City had reached tipping point. With many declaring the Premier League decided and Mario Balotelli insane, it really didn’t seem like it could get any worse.
As such, the pressure was off against West Brom. And Roberto Mancini’s side certainly played like that straight from the off. Suddenly, efforts were coming off for the likes of Sergio Aguero in a way that hadn't happened since the early days of the season.
By contrast, United played like a team that thought the title was already won: flat, complacent and devoid of intensity and edge. Indeed, they also set up like that. Alex Ferguson arranged his team in an odd way and it appeared a mistake to remove Paul Scholes when the title wasn’t mathematically secure.
The stats about the midfielder’s effect on United’s season are well known. Against Blackburn, for example – with Scholes in the team – United played 642 passes. Tonight, it was just 376. What’s more, with Scholes on the pitch, United concede every 184 minutes. Without him, it’s every 54. And they were illustrated in nature as well as numbers tonight. United simply couldn’t get a hold of the game against Wigan. Worse, they couldn’t even get the ball away from their box. No-one was able to alleviate the pressure from the admirable Wigan pressing.
To a certain extent, too, this incredible eight-game winning run also reached a tipping point. United didn't play with the kind of intensity that fired it and that was probably because of the gap it had brought.
What this result might do, though, is restore United’s edge. Towards the end of the game they were playing and acting like a team that knew the league was back in the balance.
But, most important of all, it might alter the momentum. Should City beat Norwich at Carrow Road on Saturday morning, the gap will be back down to two points before United host Villa on Sunday.
The only tricky issue for those hoping for a few more thrills to the title race again is that City’s fixture is much more difficult.
But, at the very least, so is United’s challenge now. In that, tonight might have been hugely important psychologically. After so much upheaval, it will calm City but worry the leaders.
In saying all that, though, evidence beyond the five-point gap suggests United will still clinch this title. You have to back to 1991-92 to find an occasion when a Ferguson team has lost such a lead with so little games to play.
What’s more, they have a history of bouncing back from such upsets so late in the season. On 1 May last year, they lost to Arsenal away only to immediately beat Chelsea at home. In 2007-08, they even lost 2-1 to title rivals Chelsea with just two games remaining.
City still have a lot to do. But, at least, it’s not quite as much as before. And they are a few reasons for hope.
... but the bottom shakes
The second big question: how are Wigan such a different outfit to the team that was so meek for the majority of the season... and that for the second campaign in a row.
Previously, they were seen as a side who played nice football but who were an exceedingly soft touch. Now, they’ve developed an impressively hard edge. It wasn’t just that they beat United that. It was that they bossed them. United weren’t allowed move. There was conviction and quality in everything Wigan did. To put it most bluntly, they looked like a side competing for a Champions League place.
But how does that happen? When this column interviewed Roberto Martinez at this exact point last year, he claimed it was a consequence of squad upheaval and the type of game he wants his teams to play. Because, while his approach already requires time to develop the necessary integration and understanding, the frequent sales Wigan must endure once they’ve got a team to that point mean they always have to learn anew. Eventually, though, it clicks.
“It’s a little bit about finding the right partnerships, finding the right context in the way you want to play,” said Martinez at the time. “But we had a very difficult start and that delayed the process. We had a lot of new faces, very, very young squad but talented... it’s a real shame that we haven’t got another 30 games to go because I think we would see the real measure of this squad but I feel we are ready now to play the way we are and get results.”
And the good news for Wigan is that they need no longer look at the perceived difficulty of fixtures. After all, they’ve just come through a spell that involved Liverpool and Chelsea away, United and Stoke at home. You wouldn’t have bet on the Wigan of August-January getting any more than a point. Instead, they gleaned nine from 12.
After a week in which all of their rivals other than QPR failed to pick up any points, it’s a sequence that has put them clear of the relegation zone. And, suddenly, you wouldn’t bet on them to be back in it any time soon with any degree of confidence.
Miguel Delaney is a European football journalist who writes for the Irish Examiner, the Evening Herald, ESPN, the London Independent and ourselves. In 2011, he was nominated for Irish sports journalist of the year.
Follow him @migueldelaney