Arsenal 1 Wigan Athletic 2: Giant-killers

Any concerns about the bubble being burst were laid to rest in emphatic fashion last night as Latics emerged from a traditionally nightmarish fixture with three points of gold and another famous scalp.

The scoreboard beggared belief after eight minutes of football, during which Franco Di Santo capped off a flowing breakaway and Jordi Gomez stabbed home a Victor Moses cross at the second attempt. Given the club’s dreadful record at the Emirates — no goals scored there since 2007, plenty conceded — this was a sight for sore eyes.

There is much to appreciate about Arsene Wenger, his teams, and his team’s form of late, but there was a dangerous air of arrogance evident in those opening passages of play. When asked about Wigan’s attacking threat a day earlier, the Frenchman err-ed and ahh-ed before mentioning Victor Moses, Emmerson Boyce and Maynor Figueroa. While inadvertently picking out three of Wigan’s top performers on the night, his response implied that he had not watched much of Wigan lately. Figueroa, of course, has been playing as a left-sided centre-back, while Boyce, an excellent defender, has not been a key contributor in attack. And Victor Moses — well, they clearly hadn’t watched enough of his recent play, because he ran rings around them all night.

Whether it was lack of homework or not, when James McCarthy nipped in to initiate a counter-attack on six minutes of play, it was clear Arsenal had committed too many men forward. The midfielder fed Victor Moses, who played Jordi Gomez into space. The Spaniard, back in the team after Shaun Maloney picked up a knee injury in training, threaded the ball into Franco Di Santo’s path, who poked at Arsenal keeper Szechzny, watched the ball balloon over him, then volleyed into the back of the net.

Moments later, with Latics’ first real possession of the match, patient build-up saw Victor Moses superbly spin past Bacary Sagna, drive a low cross into the box towards James McArthur. As with the first goal, the Scotsman’s first effort was blocked, but this time his teammate Gomez was ready to pounce, making it 2-0 after eight minutes of football.

Arsenal were shell-shocked, but quickly regained the initiative, with Tomas Rosicky looking particularly lively. Ali Al-Habsi made a superb flying save from a looping Yossi Benayoun header after sustained pressure. In the 20th minute, Rosicky shed his marker to deliver a beautifully balanced cross onto the on-running Vermaelen’s head. Al-Habsi was paralyzed, but there was little he could do such was the power behind the header.

The next stretch of play was crucial to the match as Arsenal piled on the pressure, urged to shoot on sight by their crowd. First, Van Persie struck a venomous shot straight at Al-Habsi from outside the box. Next, Johan Djorou went a fraction wide with a volleyed effort following a penalty box mixup. The key moment, however, came after James McCarthy — only seconds back on the pitch after receiving treatment for a knock — cheaply gifted Arsenal possession. With Rosicky and Van Persie bearing down on Caldwell and Al-Habsi things looked grim. But the Arsenal men fluffed their lines, not realizing it would be their best chance to equalize for the rest of the evening.

Wigan had a half chance on the stroke of half-time, with Jordi Gomez ballooning a shot from outside the box, but looked relieved to make it through the tunnel with their advantage intact.

The second half was a different beast. Arsenal dominated possession but Wigan defended exceptionally well and created three or four excellent goal-scoring opportunities. Victor Moses, who had already outwitted Bacary Sagna for the second goal, this time out-muscled him, barging into the box only to slam his effort straight at Szechzny. Minutes later, the Nigerian was barreling toward goal following a Maynor Figueroa long-throw, only to rush his shot at the Polish keeper. James McArthur, whose supply of energy and industry is bottomless, broke from his own box to release Moses down the left wing. The winger picked his head up this time, lofting a delightful far-post cross for Jordi Gomez, who mishit with his right boot.

Conor Sammon came on to replace the heroic Franco Di Santo, while Mo Diame relieved Jordi Gomez with about 10 minutes to go. Both subs made excellent contributions, injecting freshness of mind and body, providing relief for their tiring teammates. The big Senegalese midfielder might have added his name to the scoresheet in injury time after skillful dribbling opened up some space at the top of the box, but his left-footed strike failed to trouble Szechzny.

The final whistle predictably started a round of boos at the Emirates, but this was another terrific achievement for the Latics.

The Good:

We have gone from a team that needs 20 chances against weak opposition to score a goal, to a team that only needs one or two against a big team. It’s all down to confidence and a bit of luck. No one knows better than us — having spent most of the season in the relegation zone — that those two go hand-in-hand. It’s a been a pleasure and privilege to watch them come together against the biggest, most talented and most expensively assembled clubs in the land in recent weeks. The commentator assigned to the Manchester United match pointed out that Wigan’s entire starting XI costthe club  less than United’s Spanish goalkeeper David De Gea.

It’s now four wins out of five, including Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United. The 2-1 loss against Chelsea famously involved two offside goals. This is quite simply the best run of results and performances Wigan Athletic has seen at this level.

The defending had been absolutely terrific. Maynor Figueroa played the perfect match yesterday. Caldwell and Alcaraz were outstanding. Boyce and Beausejour plugged the wings. McCarthy and McArthur put in their usual shift. Di Santo works as hard for the team as any striker in the league.

No injuries or suspensions. Arsenal fouled us more than we fouled them.

The Bad:

Ironically — save for the goals — the first half was one of our weaker performances for a while. Understandable, playing away against an in-form Arsenal side. But the passing was at times sloppy, and we rode our luck in the period after Vermaelen’s goal.

Conclusions:

If you’d told me we’d get 6 points from 9 against Chelsea (away), Man United (home) and Arsenal (away) — with each of these clubs under pressure to get results for the title or a Champions League place — I wouldn’t have known how to respond. All the frustration from good performances earlier in the season that went without reward has been channeled into these characters wearing Wigan shirts. Their focus, determination, and talent is a delight to watch. Hard to imagine a prouder moment as a Latics supporter.

That said, we’re not quite there yet. The league table looks rosy, with Wolves pretty much already down and Blackburn six points behind, an inferior goal difference, and Chelsea and Spurs away in two of their last four matches. QPR also have a very difficult run-in against Chelsea, Spurs, Stoke and Man City — but like us, have produced results against the big teams that they have struggled to obtain against weaker opposition. Bolton may escape, with six winnable games to play, though they will have to improve dramatically. We face in-form sides Fulham and Newcastle, before a big one away at Blackburn, and Wolves on the final day of the season. Based of our rivals’ fixtures, three more points should do it. But there are surely a few more twists and turns to come. Lets hope Roberto’s men can maintain their superb form for another unforgettable end-of-season flourish.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 9 — Made one amazing save from a Benayoun header, and several more important blocks throughout the game. Missed a punch for one scary moment in the second half, but the man is in inspirational form. He gives his the defense and team confidence from the back.

Antolin Alcaraz: 9 — Classy, strong defender in the best form of his Wigan career.

Gary Caldwell: 9 — Did what no one else in the league has been able to do this season — kept Van Persie quiet. The Dutch striker, in jaw-dropping form of late, was limited to a couple shots from outside the box.

Maynor Figueroa: 9.5 — Hard to single out a man of the match in such a team performance, but if there is one it was him. Five or six breathtaking sliding challenges, all perfectly timed, to deny Arsenal goal-scoring opportunities. Excellent in possession, and cool as you like bringing the ball out of defense. Even managed to contribute what might have been an assist for a third goal from a long throw-in. We’re docking 0.5 points for the dangerous challenge on Theo Walcott in the second half that might have led to a red card, if a foul had been given.

Emmerson Boyce: 9 — Fantastic defensive performance. In truth, the wing-backs ended up playing more as traditional full-backs in this match. Boycey’s tackling and work-rate was great.

Jean Beausejour: 9 — Looked less comfortable in possession than usual, but did some amazing defending, keeping Theo Walcott under control most of the match. Showed he can defend.

James McArthur: 8.5 — A bulldog in midfield. Was everywhere.

James McCarthy: 8.5 — Started the attack that led to the first goal. Made one mistake that could have proven costly, but put his usual hard-working but shift in, with a touch of class in his passing here or there.

Jordi Gomez: 9 — Many were concerned when Shaun Maloney’s absence was confirmed, but the Spaniard responded by setting up Di Santo for the first goal, and scoring the second himself. Squandered a real chance in the second half, but made a crucial contribution.

Victor Moses: 9 — Ran rings around Arsenal, as he had done to Manchester United and Chelsea before that. Finishing still needs a bit of work, although his cross for the second goal was great, as was the lofted ball he played Jordi in the second half.

Franco Di Santo: 9 — Very pleased for the Argentine, who finally got the goal his effort and skill deserved. Brilliant target man play, rarely loses the ball. Rodallega is going to have a hard time breaking back into this lineup.

Roberto Martinez: 10 — When things were looking very grim indeed, towards the end of 2011, our manager decided to temporarily scrap his beloved 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 for a wing-back system that can look like a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-3 depending on the players on the pitch. It immediately produced improved performances, most of which ended frustratingly in draws. But he stuck to it, brought in a player who truly specializes in that wing-back position, and has enjoyed the amazing improvement since. Roberto said we would beat Manchester United this season, that we would shed that “mental block” against the big teams. He was right.

Subs:

Conor Sammon: 8 — Great sub appearance, running around like a madman but also looking a useful outlet up front.

Mo Diame: 9 — Really enjoyed his 10 minutes on the pitch, skipping and dancing past Arsenal players as though they were training cones. Might have done better with an injury time effort — or might have walked it to the corner flag to ease our nerves! — but he is one hell of a useful substitute to bring on.

Arsenal – Wigan: Gooners preview the match for us

* in an effort to mix things up a bit, we’ve invited a couple Arsenal supporters to contribute a match preview from their point of view. For a traditional preview from Jakarta Jack of the Amigos, please click here.

Tony Marzelli

It’s been a crazy week for the Gunners; two big wins, both could have been by more but somehow made my breakfast come up. In my time as an Arsenal supporter I feel there has been a transformation in how I perceive not only the club but also football in general.  Even in the days of the untouchables season or in the run to the Champions League final, I have never hyper-focused on an end of a season in this way, match-to-match.  In the aftermath of the Gunners hammering of the mercenaries in baby blue, I stopped singing long enough to return my shirt to my torso and thought to myself, “Wait, who are we playing next?”  I got the same feeling after the lackluster pounding of Wolves. Maybe this is a new feeling because third has never meant so much, maybe I was younger, more fearless, or maybe we had the likes of certain Henrys, Bergkamps, Pires’, and Campbells’ to carry us through?  But who is up now?  Oh right, Wigan.

I have always been a fan of Wigan.  Or least, lets put it this way: I have always been a fan of the Roberto Martinez’s Wigan.  With all the Hughes’, Pardews’ and Rednapp’s to occupy the hate compartment in my brain, why take anything out on a man with so much swagger?  Look at this season alone.  The January Beasejour move and the resurgences of Maloney, Moses, Alcaraz.  It’s a fun team for the neutral.  However, neutral the Lactics are not this Monday.  You don’t have to be a seasoned Gunner to say this season has had its hills, valleys, and that crazy pit in return of the Jedi.  We are undoubtedly playing the best we have all season, and in my opinion the best in sometime.

If Wigan’s game plan is to do exactly as they did against Chelsea and United one could hardly argue.  Or should they?  Or January blips against Fulham and Swansea showed our vulnerability — which also showed against Wolves last week: a lack of attacking cohesion and killer instinct to finish the opposition off early.  Against United and Chelsea, the Latics brought the game to them.  They will probably need to adopt a more patient tactic against Arsenal.  Every associated with Arsenal is expecting a win on Monday. It will be important for Wigan to show Arsenal respect, while also frustrating them.

I would love to “dance with Koscielny” on Monday but because he couldn’t wait six hours to commit a late tackle, it will be the one and only Johan Djourou starting alongside the Verminator.  I think many Gunners would rather see videos of him learning how to not ball-watch than discussing who has the best music taste in the squad, and touring the locker room. But enough of that — the doc has told me to be less negative — and I promised. He is growing and has much to prove and could be a weak spot for the Gunners.  He lacks confidence and gets skittish on the ball, though his defending is improving.   Second, and perhaps more obvious, is the Brazilian-ness of our Brazilian left back.  Andre Santos can’t defend.  He doesn’t want to.  But he does bring a great attacking presence and threat.  The Lactics should look to play crosses deep to that left of the penalty area as Santos has had trouble finding his positioning in those situations. Kevin Doyle for Wolves showed this before a marvelous save by Szczesny on Wednesday.  Wigan will need to be patient and take their chances when presented because if they do try to play Arsenal straight up, and the game becomes open, RVP will slice into them faster than a Mitt Romney speech at Berkeley.

There’s no hiding it.  Robin Van Persie is the lifeblood of this club at the moment. It will take constant concentration of the Caldwell-Alcaraz-Figueroa axis to deal with the clever Dutchman.  He loses his mark so effortlessly and it only takes once.  I can praise RVP all day…maybe the rest of my life, but there is more to this club on Monday.  One notable contributor to the recent form is the resurgence of Tomas Rosicky.  Tommy was flawless against Spurs, a maniac against Milan, and an absolute handful for City.  He showed up Na$ri and tirelessly kept the Gunners high pressure on the City defense.  Rosicky unfortunately did not play against Wolves, and I see that as a much needed rest, a chance for Ramsey to get his confidence back in a central role, and the Welsh captain did everything needed to beat a poor Wolves side. Gunners will be hoping to see Rosicky in that advanced central midfield role Monday.  With likes of Gervihno to possibly return for a start on the left and Walcott to keep his place on the right, the Lactics will have their hands full.

The partnership of Song and Arteta has been a true stroke of genius by Arsene Wenger.  However, with Song’s recent run of assists and wandering higher up the pitch it’s obvious the baby-dreaded monster sometimes gets caught out. This was evident against QPR when there was no cover for (as Arseblog.com so rightly puts it) “Bambi on Ice” Thomas Vermaelen. Don’t get me wrong — his vision and precision for a defensive midfielder is sublime but his offensive play and awful backheels can land the squad in awkward positions.  Arteta has also been a rock the squad so badly needed this season.  Yes his hair is immaculate, but this can hardly be the account for his vision and rocket of a right boot.  He is a very consistent footballer and for the exception of the City and Villa strikes he remains the silent hero connecting the team one guapo pass at a time.  Song and Arteta are the backbone of the system and if Wigan are to break and if there is a gorgeous hair magnet attached to Al Habsi, Wigan could have a chance. Arsenal will be focused on moving the ball quickly and precisely, tiring the Lactics.

It would be silly for one to say that I wasn’t the slightest jealous Balotelli got to touch Song’s leg, however violent it may have been (maybe that’s all it was, just a friendly gesture), but even more inane is to say Wigan does not have a chance on Monday.  They will indeed be up for the challenge. Losses to Blackburn and QPR will lift the Lactics. The Gunners will need to keep the mindset they had against Milan and City.  Not be complacent, and do what they do best: attack, attack, attack until it is said and done. In the meantime, a weekend of FA Cup derbies to get us through.  There truly just isn’t enough beer.

* you can follow Tony on Twitter at whitethrash3

Mike Provenza

Wigan at home has been a positive fixture for Arsenal over the last few years.  This year’s meeting is more interesting than years past, however, because A) both teams are at their most confident and are playing their best football of the season; and B) unlike many clubs in the EPL at the moment, both have something vital to play for.  From an Arsenal perspective, there is reason to be confident.  As I mentioned, Arse are playing very well as of late.  While the continued excellence of RVP, the outstanding play of Szczesny, the resurrection of Tomas Rosicky’s ghost, and the solidity of the Song-Arteta midfield axis have all contributed to this run of form, I see the biggest difference coming in two areas.  First, goals are starting to come from people other than RVP.  As great as he’s been, it seemed like he was papering over the cracks for much of the year as no one else could find the net.  Now that goals are beginning to come from Walcott, Arteta, and random defenders as well, we seem much more resilient to a bad day for RVP.  Second and most important, the back four are playing well together and have become a solid unit.  The individual players have been good enough all year, but the unit did not begin to play well together until recently, which I think has coincided with the outstanding run.

This leads back to the match because there seems to be a good chance that Gibbs will miss out, which I think would be our main area of concern.  Andre Santos is a strange player, in that he is a defender who seems to have little experience defending.  If Santos plays, Wigan’s recently-excellent wing play could exploit this, and I think we could see lots of crosses coming in from Arsenal’s left (and “lots of crosses” often leads to “lots of goals and poor defending”).  Still, I think Arsenal should have enough to get by Wigan tomorrow.  As the Amigos mention in their preview, Wigan should be more fatigued than Arsenal.  Also, Wigan’s confidence will likely lead to them playing more open football, leaving space for Arsenal to play in.  Typically Arsenal can out-attack attack-minded teams from lower down the table.  Besides, Wigan can’t possibly beat Arsenal, Man United, and Chelsea (by rights) in a row can they?

 

Arsenal – Wigan Athletic: Beware of euphoria

Wigan Athletic travel to Arsenal on Monday on a euphoric high after two performances that have confounded their critics. There have been many among the Wigan Athletic faithful who have doubted the capability within Roberto Martinez’s squad. There was talk of several players not being up to Premier League standard. The last two games have proved that this is not the case. The display against Chelsea was excellent, being robbed of a deserved win by two offside goals. Latics were the better team on the day — hard to believe they could reach such a level after the frustrating season we have been through.

Wigan Athletic were also the better team at the DW Stadium on Wednesday and their performance was such that Manchester United rarely looked like scoring. The quality of Latics’ football in that game was way beyond anything we have seen from them before in the Premier League. The stats reveal Latics having 13 attempts on goal, Manchester United 9. Wigan Athletic had 55% of possession with 7 corners, compared with 3 from the visitors. Latics commited 8 fouls, United 14. One yellow card for Wigan two for United. As has become the Premier League norm when a little club plays a top four team,  Latics had to deal with adverse refereeing decisions, which would have broken the backs of many teams. A rare headed goal from Victor Moses was disallowed by a linesman who focused on the protesting De Gea. Caldwell, stood in front of the Spaniard, did nothing against the rules but the goal was annulled. In the 60th minute Jonny Evans made a tackle that would have been a yellow card 99% of the time, but the referee decided it wasn’t. Maybe his decision was influenced by the yellow card he had given the same player earlier? It is not the first time Evans has escaped like this against Latics.

We have an appalling away record against Arsenal. It has been a history largely of capitulation. Arsenal have won 8 of their last 9 games and are in 3rd place. Can Wigan Athletic summon up the psychological and physical fortitude to make a go of it on Monday?

The matches against Chelsea and Man U must have taken their toll. Moreover they are almost certainly going to have an unsympathetic referee and a hostile crowd of 65,000 to deal with. The referee will be Andre Mariner, who famously allowed that Blackburn goal to stand after Morten Gamst Pedersen ran the ball in from a corner. If the goal hadn’t stood, by the way, we would have a 6-point cushion over Blackburn — all the difference in the world. Let’s be fair though – it is not only Latics who have suffered from refereeing decisions – other teams near the bottom of the table have to deal with the same thing. But sometimes one irrationally thinks that the Premier League does not want unglamorous clubs like Wigan Athletic in its ranks.

However, relegation continues to threaten. A good result at Arsenal would be a fantastic boost – a walloping could set us back to where we were before. Worse still would be injuries or suspensions. During Roberto Martinez’s reign he has never been afforded the opportunity to play a settled team, particularly in defence. Alcaraz, Caldwell and Figueroa have been superb over the past few games – to lose one of them would throw a spanner in the works that we don’t need. The defensive cohesion of a back three used to playing together is paramount. I hate to say it, but a damage limitation approach if things go awry against Arsenal might be the way to go. Particularly given the favorable results of direct rivals Blackburn and QPR yesterday.

On the team front it looks like Hugo Rodallega is going to miss out again through injury. Franco Di Santo was superb in his ball-holding skills against Man U but Rodallega remains the best goalscoring centre forward we have. Let’s hope he will be back soon. Having a settled team is a big plus for Latics. The question is whether they are going to have the collective energy and mental fortitude to make this an even contest. There were some severely tired legs towards the end of the Manchester United contest. We need to beware of the euphoria that has followed the defeat of the league champions, hope that we can continue with the positive approach that we have seen recently, but not be surprised if our players are not quite ready for a game against another top five team. Let’s hope for a good result against Arsenal but also look ahead at the remaining fixtures, which are more easily winnable. Let’s keep the faith!