It’s funny how much a win can alter one’s perspective. Just eight days ago, nobody would have given us even a sniff of a chance against Arsenal, but a quick smash-and-grab job at the Stadium of Light offered hope that fortunes may be changing for Wigan Athletic. Despite being without their most experienced striker, the out-of-form and out-of-luck Hugo Rodallega, Latics scraped a 2-1 victory from the hands of a lacklustre Sunderland thanks to some dodgy defending on behalf of the Black Cats. Makes a change from our own usual defensive cock-ups, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, regular service resumed at a wet and windy DW Stadium this afternoon as any real possibility of an upset was quashed as early as the half hour mark. Wigan could not get away with more characteristically iffy defending, not against a team as good as Arsenal, and the Latics attack still obviously lacks a talisman.
Martinez stuck with the lineup that had won him four points in two games, with the likes of Crusat, Di Santo and McArthur on the bench to provide some attacking options should the need have arisen. Emmerson Boyce obviously wasn’t fit enough for a return to the squad, so Ronnie Stam would continue to cover on the right of defence for Wigan.
The first half can split into two segments: the first twenty-five minutes, during which Latics enjoyed most of the play, and the last twenty, in which Arsenal asserted some dominance. The main difference between the two spells was that the visitors managed to score, and both of Arsenal’s goals came within a two-minute period around the half-hour mark. They could probably have been avoided, but momentary defensive lapses ensured the Gunners went into half-time 2-0 to the good. They could also have added to their tally, but the visitors just failed to capitalise on the odd dodgy pass and fumbled clearance – most notably Gary Caldwell’s fluffed kick which rebounded off his other leg and trickled into Al Habsi’s waiting arms. A moment of fortune, but Wigan’s luck was about to run out.
It was surprising that Mikel Arteta’s long-range strike managed to evade each and every Latics defender to beat Al Habsi and hit the back of the net. Even more disappointing was Vermaelen’s headed goal just 120 seconds later, another soft goal that the home side could not afford to give away and a stark reminder of our failings this campaign. The game was effectively won there and then, but Wigan didn’t give up. They emerged from the half time break with renewed vigour as they set out to invoke a comeback comparable to that of last year.
As is usual for these situations, however, all-out Wigan attack more often than not leads to an even more open defence, and this was all too evident in the second half. Arsenal managed to double their first half scoreline first through Gervinho, who picked up the scraps of van Persie’s saved strike, then a breakaway effort from the aforementioned Dutch international.
Arsenal’s goals were punctuated by the odd moment of hope for Latics, but no shots on target in the second 45 represented an even worse return than the first. They did, however, show much more midfield fight and looked a darn sight more sprightly. Ronnie Stam managed to whip in a couple of decent crosses, but nobody was in the right position to nod them over the line.
Albert Crusat, making a late substitute appearance, also caused a couple of problems for the Arsenal defence and was responsible for the odd Wigan break from the halfway line. Once again, however, the finishing touch seemed to be lacking as Conor Sammon and Franco Di Santo found themselves with the monumental task of breaking down a European-quality defence as the sole striker.
In truth, Latics were dominated from the 25th minute to the game’s end, but then you’d kind of expect a team worth £50million, nay, £60million, to do so against a Wigan XI assembled on a relative shoestring. By that token, I suppose the hosts did well enough to keep it to four.
With Wigan back at the bottom of the table –always a likely outcome given Blackburn’s contest with Swansea–, next week’s game against with West Brom takes on extra significance. A win, though not essential just yet, would be extremely welcome indeed given the string of fixtures to come this December.