The rain was coming down in biblical proportions, the players looked like they were running in treacle, the passes were slow, the pitch was bumpy, Arsenal looked disinterested for long periods, and Wigan fought tooth and nail but Arsenal managed to take all three points at the DW stadium thanks to a well-taken Mikel Arteta penalty.
It was raining so hard prior to the match that many wondered if the game wouldn’t be canceled and judging by the empty seats in the stands, many Wigan fans stayed home regardless. Arsenal’s away support, however, was there in numbers and whereas Roberto Martinez’ men had to toil in the rain in relative silence*, the Arsenal enjoyed a full atmosphere boisterously filled with holiday cheer.
As you would expect on a cold and wet day in the Northwest, there was no room in the Arsenal end for those who weren’t there to support. And so, when two men tried to unfurl an anti-Wenger banner in the Arsenal end, a scuffle broke out and several Arsenal fans were ejected.
If only the Arsenal players showed as much fight as the fans. Arsenal started the game well enough and within 11 minutes already had two shots on goal. It was shaping up to be the kind of game where the opposition keeper plays out of his skin but after the second save Wigan closed up shop in the middle of the pitch and cut off service to Cazorla. The problem for me is that Arsenal never looked too bothered to try to get back into the game.
Before the match, Cazorla opined that perhaps the Premier League needed a winter break and right from kickoff looked as if he had already taken the week off. It wasn’t entirely his fault, all the Arsenal men looked sluggish except the lively Jack Wilshere who was covered in mud within minutes.
Wilshere was both putting himself about and was the target of reciprocal fouls and for the third game in a row it was apparent that the opposition targeted him for rotational fouling. Wigan kicked Wilshere repeatedly in the first half but it would be the Arsenal man who picked up the game’s first yellow. He was dispossessed in midfield by Shaun Maloney and went in hard but fair to win the ball back. Referee Jon Moss took several tense moments to sort out which card to produce but in the end it was just a yellow.
It was a terrible call by Moss. Replays showed that Wilshere won the ball and went in just one footed. Was there a little malice in the challenge? Perhaps, but that’s to be expected when a player of his caliber is kicked for 40 minutes. It was hardly a reckless challenge, however, and if that card is the standard for yellow cards I dare say more players should be getting yellows.
Wigan’s formation meant that Arsenal would struggle in midfield with possession. The Latics always had an extra man in midfield and given the bonus of being allowed to foul constantly, kept Arsenal quiet. That said, Arsenal’s lack of movement compounded the problem of the Wigan formation and effectively meant that Arsenal were forced into a lot of one-on-one situations. It happened far too often that one of Arsenal’s fullbacks would try to take the ball out of the defense, only to find himself hemmed in by two Wigan players and with the only option a square pass into a midfielder who had a defender shadowing him.
The water-logged pitch gave Wigan another advantage as the ball looked like it was crawling rather than Arsenal’s usual quick passing. More than once I felt nervous when Arsenal passed back to the keeper because I kept thinking that the Wigan forward would get to the ball first. That extra fraction of a second gave Wigan time to close space and pressure the Arsenal players in midfield.
The stats bear this out and Arsenal ended up actually conceding possession and completing fewer passes than the Latics. More worrying, though, was that Arsenal never really fought to get back into the game. Save for the 5 minutes after Wilshere’s yellow card, the other 9 outfield players often looked like they were trying to run away from the ball rather than to it.
Arsenal didn’t win any of the key “hustle” stats that I keep, except aerial duels. The Gunners’ tackling was mostly absent, interceptions were dead even, and Wigan even outdribbled Arsenal. It really looked like a lack of application on Arsenal’s part. Like they just weren’t moving to make themselves open to receive passes and weren’t trying to win the ball back in midfield. I lost count of how many times I saw Arteta or Wilshere surrounded by 4 Wigan players and no one to pass to. So, he was forced to try to create something out of nothing. Inevitably, the player was dispossessed and Wilshere led all players with 4.
As I said from the start, this is partially down to the fact that Wigan played a 3-5-2. That five-man midfield is usually countered by playing wide and getting into the space around the three defenders. It looked like Arsenal employed this tactic in the second half and the interplay between Ox and Sagna down that right side picked up significantly after the break.
Sagna finished the game as Arsenal’s leading passer in the final third, Ox got 2 of 3 dribbles right in the second, and Walcott’s only completed pass in the entire second half happened in that same area when he exchanged passes with Cazorla, creating the chaos which led to the foul and penalty. It looked like Wenger singled that area of the pitch out to focus Arsenal’s attack.
Arteta put away the goal and Arsene made the rally signal, imploring his team to park the Wengerbus. One-by-one, Wenger removed creative players and put on central mids and defenders. Arsenal ended the game playing what looked like a 5-4-1 and you have to wonder if Wenger had been given a fourth sub whether he would have removed Theo Walcott. Whatever you think of the tactic it worked. There were a few moments where Wigan threatened as time ran down and Martinez felt aggrieved that his side weren’t awarded a penalty for what looked like a Gibbs handball but in the end, Arsenal did just enough to hold on to all three points.
*Except that fucking drum.