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Wonderful Wigan stun awful Arsenal

Arsenal 1 Wigan 2

Vermaelen 21; Di Santo 7, Gomez 8

Wigan proved that last week’s win over Manchester United was no one-hit wonder as they punched two holes in Arsenal‘s fragile defence in the space of a minute and deservedly held on to record a crucial win which lifts them five points clear of the relegation zone. Defeat left Arsenal five points clear of both Spurs and Newcastle, but having now played a game more, as they missed a golden opportunity to tighten their stranglehold on the third automatic Champions League spot.

Arsene Wenger made just one change to the side which strolled to a 3-0 win at Wolves last Wednesday, with Tomas Rosicky replacing Aaron Ramsey in midfield.

Szczesny

Sagna – Djourou– Vermaelen – Santos

Song – Arteta

Walcott – Rosicky – Benayoun

van Persie

At the DW Stadium in December, two goals in a minute set Arsenal on their way to a 4-0 victory, their biggest away win of the season.

Wigan’s dream start

Rosicky enjoyed a bright and inventive first half (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

The game started much as expected, with Arsenal laying siege to the Wigan goal. Thomas Vermaelen dragged an early sighter from 25 yards wide. Mikel Arteta fired a free kick into the defensive wall. Bacary Sagna‘s cross set up Yossi Benayoun for a header which Ali Al Habsi acrobatically turned over.

But Wigan, who have been in good form in recent weeks, had not come merely to make up the numbers and stunned the home crowd with two rapid-fire goals. Arsenal’s resultant corner was easily dealt with, Jordi Gomez sprinted up the left and found Franco Di Santo in the middle, who coolly clipped the ball past Wojciech Szczesny and tapped into the empty net. Barely 90 seconds later Victor Moses‘ mazy dribble and cross resulted in a goalmouth scramble. Szczesny was unable to secure the ball as Gomez challenged, and the Wigan midfielder prodded home.

Stunned, Arsenal had to take off the injured Arteta and replace him with Aaron Ramsey. They sprang forward in numbers, forcing Wigan back deep into their own half as they took up residence on the edge of the visitors’ area. With Tomas Rosicky particularly active and purposeful as he floated all over the pitch, Al Habsi produced a stunning save to tip over another Benayoun header from the Czech midfielder’s cross. Andre Santos, a constantly marauding presence down the left flank, saw a decent effort blocked.

Vermaelen headed his sixth goal of the season (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

An Arsenal goal was coming, and it came as little surprise that Rosicky was the architect. Popping up on the right, his floated cross was met near the penalty spot by Thomas Vermaelen with a powerful header to halve the deficit.

Arsenal pressed on in search of an equaliser. Robin van Persie tested Al Habsi with a rising long-range drive. Johan Djourou flashed a low volley inches wide. Rosicky stole the ball in midfield but ended up dragging a shot over after van Persie’s return pass was slightly behind him.

The visitors continued to threaten sporadically, with the pace and directness of Moses and Jean Beausejour complementing the hard-working Di Santo. They continued to work energetically all over the field, and as the pace of Arsenal’s passing and movement repeatedly stalled when faced with a massed, well-organised defence, they succeeded in denying them any more clear-cut opportunities before half-time.

Wigan barely break sweat in closing out the win

Arsenal started the second half much better, with their speed of thought and movement noticeably accelerated. But Wigan served due notice of their continuing threat on the counter, as Moses twice came close to restoring a two-goal cushion. First he squeezed past Sagna again – this time with strength rather than pace – forcing a smart reaction stop from Szczesny. Then Djourou and Santos between them made a mess of a ball over the top and the winger opted for the early shot, but straight at the Arsenal keeper.

Undeterred, Arsene Wenger’s side continued to pile forward, with leading goalscorer van Persie frequently looking to turn provider. A corner by the Dutchman was header over under pressure by Vermaelen. Santos took a neat pass and shot just wide. A cute reverse pass set up Sagna to cross, but Ramsey’s looping header sailed harmlessly over.

Oxlade-Chamberlain's late introduction was not enough (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Gervinho arrived in place of Benayoun, but the additional injection of the Ivorian’s pace had negligible effect. If anything, Wigan looked the more likely to score as Arsenal again began to fade. From another break Moses – who else? – galloped forward to cross, but Gomez could not keep his volley down. Nonetheless, the momentum had shifted, with the visitors clearly winning the battle in midfield.

With 16 minutes left and seemingly running out of ideas, Arsenal made their final substitution. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came on for Djourou, with Song slotting into the back four. Although with both Song and Vermaelen frequently advancing ahead of the midfield, Arsenal’s formation at times looked more like a 2-5-3. But no matter how many men they threw forward, they never seriously threatened Wigan’s goal and, though never entirely comfortable, the visitors were rarely troubled in closing out a well-deserved victory. After their brief early flurry, Arsenal had created nothing of any consequence whatsoever.

Despite the surprise defeat, Arsenal remain in pole position for third spot. But having retaken the initiative after their wins over Manchester City and Wolves, they have once again opened the door and given their closest rivals hope.

Post-match reaction and analysis

Arsene Wenger expressed his disappointment at his team’s defending and a lacklustre second half performance:

We made it difficult for ourselves because we had quite a good start but we defended horrendously for the first and second goals.

I felt in the first half we had enough chances to come back to 2-2, but the second half we dropped our level, lost our team play, our cohesion and tried too much individually. There was not enough petrol left in the tank any more. [Wigan] defended well.

He said the initial diagnosis on Arteta looked quite serious:

It is an ankle problem. It looks quite a serious one. We have to scan it tomorrow, it is too early to say tonight. But it doesn’t look a little ankle sprain. It is a serious one.

He also commented that recent results which have gone against the so-called big clubs underline the strength in depth of the Premier League:

Everyone is in the same situation. You could see with Tottenham against Norwich, Manchester United at Wigan, us against Wigan. You have to realise that every game is a decisive moment for everybody.

And he stressed the importance of Saturday’s game at home to Chelsea:

It is a massive and vital game for us. We need to recover from the massive disappointment of tonight first, then prepare mentally for the next one.

It is difficult to identify the root cause of such a flat performance as this, other than to note that Wigan out-fought Arsenal in practically every part of the pitch. Undoubtedly the early loss of Mikel Arteta destabilised Arsenal in the key midfield area, with Aaron Ramsey an ineffective replacement. Alex Song, one of Arsenal’s more consistent performers over the past three months, had one of those games where he constantly looked leaden-footed and a yard off the pace, and made a negligible contribution in possession too. Theo Walcott struggled against a defence happy to sit deep against him, and only Tomas Rosicky and Yossi Benayoun emerged with any real credit. Robin van Persie cut a forlorn and isolated figure up front, a reflection of Wigan’s industry and success in cutting off his supply lines.

Where Arsenal have improved the most since January is at the back, but here they looked uncertain and poorly disciplined. Although Thomas Vermaelen impressed at both ends of the pitch, Johan Djourou continues to represent a significant downgrade on Laurent Koscielny, who will at least be available again for the weekend after completing his two-match suspension. The usually rock-solid Bacary Sagna was given a torrid dime by Victor Moses, although his crossing was often Arsenal’s best source of attacking menace. And while Andre Santos is undoubtedly a genuine threat with the ball at his feet, his lethargy in tracking back and poor positional discipline too often drags his fellow defenders and midfielders out of position, opening up gaps which an intelligent team such as Wigan can – and frequently did – exploit. For me, Kieran Gibbs remains by far the more solid option at left-back.

Is the fact that Arsenal’s only two league defeats since the end of January have come against relegation-threatened sides a sign of complacency? Perhaps. Certainly this season they have struggled against teams in the bottom six, losing to Blackburn, QPR, Wigan and drawing with Wolves and Bolton. The good news is that none of their remaining four games is against a bottom-six side, with Saturday’s home game against Chelsea to be followed by encounters with Stoke, West Brom and Norwich, all of whom are safely ensconced in mid-table. With their destiny in their own hands, Arsenal have the ability to win all four of these games, with ten points enough to guarantee third. It is not a question of ability now – it is simply one of desire. Arsenal need to show more than they did tonight, but they have proven several times already this season that they can do just that. The question is: how much do they really want it now?

Arsenal man of the match: Tomas Rosicky. Faded in the last half hour, but was consistently Arsenal’s most creative and energetic player.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

3 Responses to Wonderful Wigan stun awful Arsenal

  1. James says:

    I know how you feel 😦

  2. Pingback: Arsenal draw creates three-horse race for third « The armchair sports fan

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