Wigan Athletic 1 Arsenal 4
With a long Easter weekend to ruminate over a truly gargantuan week in Arsenal's season, a 6am rise and a trip to the wounded lion of Wigan at the JJB Stadium did not provide any guarantees in terms of precious league points. The pervasive mood was one of cautious optimism as we boarded the coaches. Not after signing RedAction's Robert Pires tribute book in reception to be presented to him at the Emirates when Villarreal train there on Tuesday evening. I took the liberty of signing on behalf of our readers and members too here at Vital Arsenal.
We were left in the quite converse position of leaving a wind and rainswept London behind on the M6 for the comparitively sunnier climes of Lancashire, shirt sleeve weather in the North West? Possibly a first. Arsenal stuck with the formation that bore fruit against Citeh and Villarreal with Nicklas Bendtner furrowing alone plough upfront and Cesc Fabregas tucked in just behind him. It's not a system that has convinced me entirely and it was made to look entirely redundant in the opening 45 minutes as Wigan pressed and harried, whilst the failure of Walcott and Arshavin to support Bendtner left us with absolutely zero in the way of firepower in the final third. Wigan were the more impressive side and took the lead after 18 minutes, Ben Watson's outswinging corner was nodded down by Scharner, Sagna did not deal convincingly with the knockdown and Mido hooked the ball in from close range despite Fabianski's best efforts. Arsenal's pithy response was a Gibbs cross which was slightly too high for Bendtner to make a true connection with his head. But Bruce had clearly targeted Arsenal's left side, pitting the wiry Valencia against the rookie Gibbs, with Arshavin ofering little in the way of protection in front of him.
The Gunners worries were confounded when they lost yet another centre half, Johan Djourou hobbled off down in front of us with a knee injury that looked remarkably similar to Gallas'. Let's hope his prognosis is more encouraging than that of Gallas. Silvestre came on and Wigan exposed his nerves in controversial circumstances at the end of the first period. Figueroa hooked a long ball towards Luis Antonio Valencia, Silvestre showed a lack of calm that belied his immense experience allowing it to bounce over his head, Gibbs' attempted recovering header was undercooked and he hauled Valencia down as the Ecuadorian raced towards goal. A collective intake of breath in the away section as Wiley reached for his pocket, I certainly expected a red card and would not have complained one iota had it been produced, but a yellow was the result and a fortunate escape. It was a decision symptomatic of an official not long for this level of football, he made horrendous decisions all afternoon for both sides and Wiley has to be the most ironic surname ever. Having just finished thanking our lucky stars for one escape, the tunnel digging continued in ernest when Ben Watson curled his free kick against the inside of the post. The half time whistle went immediately after and the prevailing feeling was one of relief to only be a solitary goal behind and to have equlibrium in terms of players.
The Gunners had looked ridiculously toothless with one upfront in the first half, so Wenger pushed Walcott into a centre forward position to try and profit from Bendtner's scraps. However, the task might have escalated to improbable when a Bramble long ball again exposed Silvestre's poor decision making as he allowed the ball to bounce over his head yet again and Mido scented the panic, latching onto the up and under to head the ball over the advancing Fabianski. The ball huffed and puffed but did not have enough gumption to cross the line before Gibbs could send it into orbit. Mido was concussed in a collision with Fabianski and had to be replaced, the Latics had no recognised strikers on the bench to replicate his hard graft up top. It was yet another turning point that swung pendulously towards N5. The diference in approach from Arsenal was stark in the equaliser, Sagna's diagonal ball was flicked on by Bendtner, this time both Arshavin and Walcott were in the penalty area, Arshavin showed a beguiling shift of feet to tee up Walcott, who curved the ball past the advancing Kirkland. Both Adebayor and van Persie were already stripped on the sidelines and primed for action. A stark contrast in what Wigan could offer from the bench in terms of strikers.
However, despite the introduction of Adebayor and van Persie, it was the first of Arsenal's substitutes who provided an unlikely killer touch. Wigan lost their concentration from an Arsenal throw when Brown needlessly fouled Fabregas off the ball and was booked. As Brown contested the booking, Asrhavin took a quick throw into Fabregas, he was free to place a low ball into the area which Silvestre swept home for 2-1. A look of surprise mixed with delight swept across Silvestre's features, he even checked the linesman to ensure the goal had been given when there could have been absolutely no reason for it notto have been. Lactic acid crept into the limbs of the bealegured home side and the Gunners, with Adebayor providing a focal point, went on the rampage. Firstly when Cesc found Adebayor on the shoulder of Boyce, Ade tucked the ball back to Arshavin and his low drive clipped the inside of the post, van Persie drove the rebound home but was correctly flagged offside.
But the linesman was not the only one who was flagging, as Wigan's resistance wentfrom fertile to futile. van Persie's simple pass set Adebayor away on the break as Wigan poured forwards, he played a poor ball to the onrushing Fabregas which was calmly collected and cut out by Koumas, yet he inexplicably passed straight to Arshavin on the edge of the area who blithely returned the ball with interest low and into Kirkland's net. The Russian had had an immesnely quiet game yet somehow found himself a key figure in all three goals. It is fair to say a number of turning points fell serendipitously our way yesterday, but if you're pontificating key differences between the Arsenal of late 2008 compared to that of early 2009, you cannot look much further than that. Arshavin was as anonymous as I have seen him in an Arsenal shirt yesterday yet still produced those moments the team could not in the autumn. A glorious fourth was added in injury time and there was no more deserving goalscorer than Alex Song, who was perhaps the only Arsenal player who performed for the whole ninety minutes yesterday. Interestingly, he appears to have adopted the bandaged hand motif worn by Flamini last season and his performance carried those hallmarks of tenacity and economy in possession. His new found joie de vivre was displayed in the way he took his goal. Cesc played a simple pass into the path of Song's metronomic run, he wriggled past Scharner and Boyce before firing a low shot into Kirkland's far corner. Song really looks as though he has found his place in this Arsenal side, the quality has been evident on fits and starts for some time, but finally, it looks as though Song Billongs!
In the end, looking through the prism of a 4-1 final scoreline somewhat distorts the lens of this match. Wigan were very good value for their lead at half time and could easily have found themselves a further goal and a further man ahead at the interval. Mido going off meant there was nobody to hold the ball up for them and that obviously had an effect on their industrious midfield, whose legs would have been tiring anyway. The firepower we were able to bring off the bench at the time Mido went off was a psychological blow to the hosts, Adebayor, van Persie and the lethal Silvestre (who simply never misses from that range) were able to cut swathes through Wigan. But it could so easily have been a different story had Gibbs got his marching orders and had Mido finished the game with his jaw in its socket. Silvestre's nerves with high balls are a real worry with a confrontation with Didier Drogba looming ominously and Villarreal certainly will not be troubled by the way we played in the first half. Our first half displays are a worry of late, whilst Arsenal's fitness levels often see them through games late on, sides like Villarreal and Chelsea will punish that kind of lethargy, the boys really need to start focussing much earlier in games. A lone striker only really works if it is Adebayor upfront alone but even so I am not too taken by this system and would hope that both van Persie and Adebayor line up on Wednesday. There are fine margins in football games and most of those hairline calls fell for us yesterday, we will need to take that rabbit's foot with us into the next week.LD.