Wigan followed up their impressive win over Manchester United with another impressive display at the Emirates.
Starting Line-Ups and Formations
Arsene Wenger still had Laurent Koscielny out through suspension, so Johann Djourou continued to deputize. Other than that, the line-up was pretty much the same, with Wenger using the lopsided 4-2-3-1 that has been the reason for their recent resurgence.
Wigan lined up in their now customary 3-4-3. The only change from the Manchester United win was that Jordi Gomez was in for Shaun Maloney. Despite returning to training, Hugo Rodallega was still not yet fit enough.
The first half started in dramatic fashion. Wigan took the lead as early as the seventh minute, and then doubled it in the space of a minute. By the twentieth minute, Arsenal had pulled one back. It seemed unthinkable that the remaining seventy minutes would not produce further goals. But the 1-2 score line at the end is probably vindictive of the fact that both teams simply could not keep up the high intensity they had started with.
The first goal came from a Wigan counter attack; from an Arsenal corner. Robin Van Persie’s corner was cleared, but only as far as Bacary Sagna. Sagna’s attempted header back into the danger area was however intercepted, and from that moment, Wigan had the upper hand (Thomas Vermaelen was up for the corner, meaning the backline was unbalanced. Sagna’s header misled the Arsenal midfield as they remained up, expecting to be supporting another attacking opportunity. On the other hand, Wigan were moving out of their defensive area, thus the intercept fell kindly for them as they were rushing out. Simply put, the stage for the counter attack was set in Wigan’s favour). The ball was played through Arsenal’s right hand channel (that Sagna had vacated in going for the header) and with Djourou being pulled out to try and cover that area, Franco Di Santo found himself with acres of space.
The second was down to poor defending on Arsenal’s part. But taking into account how close it came to Wigan’s first, it shows that Arsenal had not yet regrouped from Wigan’s shock opener.
Vermaelen responded for the Gunners, converting a Tomas Rosicky cross with his head (in open play!!). This was then followed by a flurry of saves by the Wigan goalkeeper, Ali Al Habsi, most notably from a Yossi Benayoun header. But Wigan saw out the first half. They then had a comfortable second to hold on for a famous win.
After going up, Wigan were subjected to what seemed an Arsenal onslaught. But they calmly sought to slow down Arsenal’s momentum by passing it amongst themselves with no real intention of going forward. They tracked back and where necessary, they resorted to niggling fouls on the Arsenal players. They even started time wasting tactics, kicking the ball away on numerous occasions long after the referee had blown his whistle. In one incident in the first half, they even had a player going down ‘injured’, with him receiving treatment for a long time on the pitch.
The biggest factor however that slowed down Arsenal’s momentum was the fifteen minute break at half time. Half time came at the wrong time for Arsenal, and what had looked an imminent comeback had to start from gear one all over again. Understandably so, Arsenal didn’t look the same after the break.
In the second half, Wigan knew they didn’t need to hurry, so they continued slowing it down through the time wasting tactics of the first half (this resulted in a booking for Al Habsi and five minutes of injury time despite their being no injuries of note and only four substitutions being made). Wigan kept possession well but not in the quick tiki-taka mode of FC Barcelona, but in a slow, confident fashion. Such was their resolve not to give possession away that they also resorted to short goal-kicks.
Wigan also reduced the space on the pitch by remaining compact. A line of four stayed put in front of the back three, making it difficult for Arsenal to penetrate.
Wigan also altered their formation slightly. Instead of Jordi Gomez remaining exclusively on the right, he was allowed the freedom to float centrally, then drift out wide when required (a 3-4-1-2′-ish formation, with the front two consisting of a center forward and a wide player). His central starting point meant that he regularly tracked Alexander Song. And with Franco Di Santo also falling back to pick up Song, it led to Wigan doubling up on the Cameroonian (thus Song’s reduced influence on the game). This tactic however freed up Andre Santos to attack from left back (he did have several chances to score) and Vermaelen to move further up as there was no pressure on the Arsenal center backs (Di Santo’s job).
Doubling up on Song, and reducing the space for Arsenal’s attacking players meant that Rosicky had to drop deep to receive the ball from Ramsey, and in turn, Van Persie had to drop deep to receive it from Rosicky. Without space, Theo Walcott had nowhere to run into, and without the Song option, long balls over the top to Walcott and/or Van Persie were non-existent.
The impact of Wigan reducing space upfront, at the expense of pressuring high up clearly told on the game statistics. Three of the four Arsenal defenders had exactly the same total number of shots on goal as Arsenal’s three farthest forward players (Johan Djourou (1), Thomas Vermaelen (3), Andre Santos (5) compared with Theo Walcott (2), Yossi Benayoun (3) and Robin Van Persie (4), a total of 9 in both cases).
Aaron Ramsey came on in Arteta’s place and played relatively well. He understood his role well, made neat short passes and rarely wasted possession. He performed the basics of the Arteta role quite well. (In fact, he had a total of 81 passess, the most of anyone on the pitch).
But with space reduced on the pitch, Arteta’s penetrating passes were missed. Most of Ramsey’s passes were sensible, short passes into feet, and were either sideways or backwards. What makes Arteta instrumental to the Arsenal cause is that alongside these sensible passes, he can produce one forward looking penetrating pass into space for his forwards. This was what Arsenal missed in a game like this.
Why Wenger took a whole seventy four minutes to bring on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, only he knows. But when he did bring him on, he put him in a central position rather than the usual wing position. Djourou came off with Song moving into the back four.
Putting the Ox centrally was probably so as to have him use his pace to penetrate from the middle. It would have been a good ploy had he left Song in the center. Ox had Ramsey alongside him, which was not ideal for him. Ramsey normally releases the ball early as opposed to Song (or indeed Arteta) who can at times hold the ball for a few more seconds, draw players towards them (thereby creating space), then releasing it to Ox who would now exploit the space created. But Ramsey passed it on quickly, meaning that Ox received it with no space to run into, thus, passing it on again. It didn’t play to Ox’s strengths of pace and running.
A loss, but not necessarily a significant one. The gap they had established between them and the chasing pack means that they could afford a slip up or two while still remaining in pole position for third spot. To be fair, the loss wasn’t down to them being outplayed; it was more down to them not turning up.
The major concern however will be Arteta’s injury. He, more than most has contributed to Arsenal’s relatively good campaign, and with Jack Wilshere still on the treatment table, it will be a huge blow to their squad.
They followed up their first three points against Manchester United with their first three points away to Arsenal. Their current form is great, twelve points out of a possible fifteen in a run that has seen them face Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and now Arsenal (the traditional ‘Big Four’), defeating three of them. From at a time looking dead and buried in the relegation dogfight, they are now pulling away; five points off eighteenth place. Keeping up this form will surely ensure that they avoid relegation, thus guaranteeing them another trip to The Emirates come next season.