A trip to Wembley is always a memorable experience but from the very outset this one felt a bit different.
Two years ago when City lifted the FA Cup it felt as though the biggest hurdle had already been cleared with the 1-0 victory against Manchester United in the semi-final. This year it was Chelsea who were vanquished in the last four, with Wigan Athletic and Roberto Martinez awaiting Roberto Mancini and the Manchester City squad in the final at the home of English football. Again, it would seem that the hardest part had already been accomplished as tens-of-thousands of City supporters made their way south; City were huge favourites to lift the trophy. Wigan were in a relegation scrap – again – were decimated by injury and before the weekend’s events, Wigan had failed to even score a goal in the seven previous encounters. City, apparently, only had to turn up to win. The only problem was the fact that City didn’t turn up at all.
That run, and the history books, belied the true situation – Wigan are a team that cause City problems as the league encounter just a month ago indicated. The result that day – a 1-0 victory to City at the Etihad with the only goal scored late on by Carlos Tévez – glossed over the problems the Blues seem to have against Martinez’ different team. No other coach in the Premier League plays the way he does with a back three and it seems Mancini is yet to find a suitable method of dealing with it.
A more insipid turn-out would be difficult to find in a season oft-punctuated by below-par performances however the team have been set up. This was much more than a case of skill over will, however. It’s not without irony that Wigan were the team to deny Mancini his 2nd FA Cup during his tenure as the Blues’ boss – and his 19th cup win as player and coach – playing a fluid 3412 formation similar to which the City manager had tried to implement this season with little-to-no success. Martinez has nothing like the squad of Mancini but tactically, in these 90 minutes of football, showed himself to be infinitely superior to the man who delivered the FA Cup in 2011 ending City’s near-35-year barren spell.
Wigan moved the ball so freely throughout the entire game, and devastated City in wide areas of the pitch. The tendency Mancini has of playing inverted wide players (not exactly wingers in the old or modern sense of the term, more like inside forwards) in the three ahead of Yaya Toure and Gareth Barry – David Silva and Samir Nasri on the right and left respectively – leaves City extremely narrow and full-backs exposed. In a game that City were expected to dominate, this shouldn’t prove to be a problem but when conceding possession so frequently it proved to be the ultimate downfall. A recurring criticism from fans this season is a lack of width, often coupled together with an incorrect assertion that is the reason Edin Džeko hasn’t fired as well as he can. He never played with wingers at Wolfsburg, but I digress. The unexpected reality of the game saw City squeezed by Wigan’s high line without ever trying to counter it with the obvious pace of Sergio Agüero in behind.
Honduran international Roger Espinoza (who rarely played in a similar role during his four years at Sporting Kansas City) was made to look incredible by a combination of the space afforded to him by a lack of protection in front of Pablo Zabaleta and Arouna Koné dropping in front of him when City were in possession. Koné worked tirelessly and ran Vincent Kompany ragged, dragging him out of position creating gaps for Maloney to create and general uncertainty in City’s back line. On the opposing side of the pitch, Callum McManaman was outstanding against one of City’s more consistent performers this season, Gael Clichy. Again exposed by Nasri’s attacking tendencies, Clichy struggled all afternoon against McManaman who had the beating of his man on just about every occasion. With the exception of 10 minutes or so at the start of each half, Wigan were well on top. City looked flustered, unable to cope with highly-functioning Wigan and looked as though they believed the game was won before putting their boots on.
All credit goes to Wigan Athletic and their exceptionally tactically astute manager, Roberto Martinez. Football is about romance and dreams, and what’s more romantic than a massive underdog lifting the cup at the end of the match?
Congratulations to the supporters of Wigan, to Dave Whelan who took his local club from the depths to an FA Cup win, and to Roberto Martinez for bettering his opponent on the day. Here’s #ToTheDream.