Congratulations, Roberto Martinez! Not only did the 38 year old keep his Wigan team in the Premier League for an 8th straight year (the 4th for Martinez) but he's also now the latest young manager in the Premier League that is definitely destined for a big club. It's a list that has gained a few members this season (arbitrary cut off at age 45); Paul Lambert and Brendan Rodgers have joined the list, while Owen Coyle was struck off following Bolton's relegation. All three of this year's Must Have Young Managers have been linked with moves away; both Lambert and Martinez to Villa, Rodgers to Tottenham should Harry Redknapp leave, and, if Kenny Dalglish leaves, Martinez, Rodgers and Lambert are all apparently high up on the shortlist.
Martinez was a strong contender for the Aston Villa job last year, but decided to stay to Wigan because of loyalty to the club, where he first made his name in England, and because of loyalty to the chairman, Dave Whelan, who has repeatedly refused to fire Martinez this season, and in previous seasons, even when Wigan were languishing in the bottom three. After keeping Wigan in the Premier League, Martinez's stock has risen, and a move to a bigger club in the next few years is surely on the cards, but, it'd be disappointing if he left Wigan now.
After a 3-3 draw at home with Blackburn Rovers, and a run of one win in nine, Wigan were bottom of the league, with the third worst defensive record in the league. For their next fixture against Sunderland, Martinez played left back Maynor Figueroa in the middle, with David Jones and Ronnie Stam as wing backs, and Jordi Gomez as a sort of false nine. It worked; Wigan won, perhaps fortuitously, 2-1, and despite losing 4-0 to Arsenal the following weekend, they got five points of their next nine games, beating West Bromwich Albion away and drawing at home to Chelsea and Liverpool. The 3-4-3 that Martinez played then, though, was very different to what they played in the last three months of the season; it was very much like Martinez had shifted an extra defender into Wigan's defence, and Jones at wingback was neither very good in terms of defensive positioning, or very quick (Laurent Koscielny, playing at right back in Arsenal's 4-0 victory, provided one of the funnier moments of the season when he burst past Jones on the right side and then looked utterly confused as to what to do once in the final third). As such, Wigan often defended with a mass of bodies, looking very vulnerable on the counter attack when they were forced to attack.
Another poor run saw Wigan get one point out of seven matches at the beginning of the new year, and, on the last day of January, they were bottom, four points away from safety. Martinez, though, had made the final purchase that made his 3-4-3 work: Jean Beausejour. The Chilean had featured in Marcelo Bielsa's World Cup team, and, after impressing, made a move to Birmingham City. One gets the idea that Alex McLeish never really understood how to use him, and he didn't feature regularly under Chris Hughton. He was, though, perfect for Wigan. They now had a player who understood the wingback role that Jones hadn't, and a player who's attributes fit perfectly. Beausejour is an excellent crosser, and his deflected cross got Wigan a point at home to Everton at the beginning of their run of 28 points from their final 15 matches that saw them come out of the relegation zone.
Teams playing successfully with a back three is rare in the Premier League, but it saw Wigan become a much tighter unit at the back. two of the three centre backs, Antolin Alcaraz and Maynor Figueroa were good ball-players and mobile, and were able to spread out and help keep possession when Wigan had the ball, enabling Emmerson Boyce and Beausejour, the wing backs, to get forward. This gave a free role in attack to Wigan's two best players; Victor Moses, the diminutive winger who came into his own towards the end of the season, and Shaun Maloney. Maloney was the final piece in the puzzle; he was the intended replacement for Charles N'Zogbia, but had had injury problems and issues with re-adapting to the Premier League.
Wigan started to score goals and turn draws into wins; they beat Manchester United for the first time in the Premier League and went to the Emirates and beat Arsenal before stopping Newcastle's Champions League place momentum with a fantastic 4-0 thrashing of the Magpies. The revival was typical of Wigan's campaigns in the Premier League, but, it would've been impossible without Martinez. He's one of the more intelligent managers in the league, as his switch to a 3-4-3 indicates. He also has the ability to spot a player from an unfancied league; the midfield duo, James McCarthy and James McArthur came from Scotland, as did Maloney, while Beausejour and Moses originated in the Championship. He'd undoubtedly be an excellent manager for anyone of the clubs he was linked with, but, he'd also have to go through a season of transition, especially if he were to move to the McLeish ravaged Aston Villa. At Wigan, he wouldn't have to do that if they were able to, as expected, keep their best players.
The terrible start cannot be ignored, of course, but that seems to be down to Wigan once again losing their best players and having to rebuild a team. Not having Maloney until the end of the season hurt their ability to score, but even so, this campaign has been Wigan's strongest since 2008-09 when Wigan finished with 45 points, in 11th. That summer, they were unable to keep their best players, but this summer, they may. Victor Moses is probably not yet ready for a big move, while the other Wigan players might not be glamourous enough for transfers to bigger sides. With a team that doesn't leak as many goals, Martinez may be able to steer Wigan away from the relegation battle and closer towards midtable, and, perhaps, even an appearance in one of the two Cup finals. The attractive football his side plays is the type of football Martinez envisioned when he arrived at the club; having finally achieved that, it'd be sad to see him move on just as Wigan could be on the verge of reaching greater heights.