Sir Alex Ferguson predicted Wigan could beat Arsenal.
They’ve got to get a goal, of course, but if they do they’ll beat Arsenal. They are playing really well. They should easily be in the middle of the table, rather than down at the bottom, but at times they can’t get a goal. If we had been playing any other team but Wigan the other night, we would have been all right because it is unusual for a team to keep possession against us the way they did. They’ve got some good players there with great energy. Victor Moses is more than dangerous…
A lot of people showed their displeasure towards these comments in a variety of ways that were largely uncomplimentary towards the United manager. However, what these fans didn’t realize was that such denigrating statements take nothing away from SAF but do betray a misplaced arrogance or inability to appreciate the finer details of the game on the part of those who make such comments.
With few words Fergie showed the kind of insight that differentiates the truly knowledgeable from us mere enthusiasts. The key points he made were regarding Wigan’s ability to hold the ball and their inability to score goals.
The latter point was sorted out for the visitors by Arsenal’s willingness to gift chances/goals to the opposition. Perhaps the Gunners were not tight enough because they didn’t expect much of an attacking threat from Wigan? In any case the defensive efforts were once again not up to scratch with a number of players making avoidable mistakes.
The first goal was the classic routine of corner for the Gunners, goal for the opponents. You could argue Arsenal don’t concede that many goals on the break these days but they still concede plenty of chances in every game. These chances don’t always result in shots or goals but that doesn’t mean the defending is good. For instance, in this case the pass from Gomez might have been weaker or could have hit Santos’ foot. The deflection off Szczesny could have gone away from goal. Any such small detail could have prevented Wigan from taking the lead. Indeed, something similar happens in every game. But that is exactly the problem. When it happens in every game you are going to concede a few. The rub of the green won’t go Arsenal’s way every time. That’s the reason we see so many freakish-looking goals being conceded by the Gunners and hardly any other team in the League.
If you look at it individually there are a number of probable mistakes. Sagna’s header was weak, Theo didn’t attack the ball while the Wigan player showed more desire to win it, Benayoun was asleep on the edge of the box and didn’t read the danger, Arteta pulled up at the wrong time, Santos didn’t have to go wide so soon, and Szczesny should have stayed upright and made himself big instead of going at an angle and with his feet. None of these is a major blunder in itself. When you put them all together though, you get comical or horrific defending depending on the colour of your glasses.
To make matters worse the second came soon after. Walcott lost the ball around the halfway line. Without Arteta on the pitch Arsenal didn’t have sufficient cover in the middle even though Benayoun did try to drop in there. Wigan played the ball around nicely before Moses worked an opening through a quick turn and a burst of acceleration. Sagna was caught out but it’s hard to blame him as he was in a 1-v-2 for a moment, which created some space for the Wigan winger.
It’s hard to explain how Djourou and Vermaelen both managed to miss a simple square ball. Both should have done better. Szczesny tried to pounce on the loose ball but Gomez got to it first. Again it’s worth noting that Benayoun was caught ball watching in the box while Gomez snuck in from behind him in classic poacher fashion. This was another case of a number of small errors combining to form a catastrophe.
On a positive note, the Gunners responded brilliantly to the two goals and for the next 15-20 minutes the Wigan goal was under serious pressure. The number of chances were still limited but you could sense a goal coming. With the visitors crowding the centre the opportunities were all coming from the wide areas and there was no surprise when the goal came from one such cross. Rosicky’s ball was whipped in at pace and at a good height. Vermaelen did what he does best in the opposition box.
Sadly, Arsenal could not sustain this pressure. An injury to Moses held the game up and the Gunners lost their momentum. There were suggestions the injury was a clever ruse to slow the game down. If so, it worked. Subsequently the visitors used every trick in the book to slow the tempo and eat up time but one can’t really blame them for that. The ref too was very lenient with time-wasting and a lot of physical challenges but again that can’t really be an excuse.
The worrying fact was that Arsenal produced very little in the second half. According to Wenger the side ran out of petrol, which is disappointing to say the least. In my opinion, more than running out of petrol, Arsenal ran out of ideas. Tactically, the gunners didn’t know how to control the game. Arsenal had to find a balance between patience and aggression, incision and control. They failed. Wigan created more chances on the break and could easily have added to their two goals whereas Al-Habsi was hardly tested. There were five minutes added at the end but you couldn’t see Arsenal scoring even if it had been ten.
I thought there were a number of small tactical details that affected Arsenal’s game.
In the first half Benayoun came inside quite often and got on the end of some crosses. In the second period he stayed closer to the touchline on the left. This seemed like an instruction from Arsene, as if he wanted to greater width. The introduction of Gervinho for Benayoun added further credence to this theory. To an extent this was understandable as Arsenal were having a tough time against the crowded centre and there were vast open spaces on the left in the first half. But by moving Benayoun away Arsene took out the only other body that was supporting RvP. Rosicky rarely got into advanced positions in the box and Walcott was completely ineffective in those areas. This made it easier for Wigan to defend.
The substitution of Benayoun ahead of Theo, who probably had his worst game of the season, was baffling, Arsene’s lack of trust in his reserve strikers glaring. The team could have used a player like Chamakh with his physical and aerial presence but the boss clearly doesn’t trust him enough. Of course, there is no point introducing a player who has been out of form and favour for a while. But that does lead to other questions about squad depth that I don’t want to dwell upon at this moment.
The Gunners did try to play the crossing game against a deep-lying and narrow defence. In some ways it was their plan B. But the execution left a lot to be desired. For instance, hardly any ball was played in the channel between the defenders and the goalkeeper. Rarely was a player attacking the back post. Fluidity is one of Arsenal’s big attacking strengths but they need a balance between certain predetermined plays and on-pitch spur of the moment creativity. For now it seems the players have to figure it all out on the pitch. They need to know area to cross the ball into, there have to be corresponding runs, and others have to form a shape around the box so that the pressure can be sustained. Still, as there are signs of work being done, there are some positives to take from this effort.
The lack of composure and control was hard to take. Arteta was clearly missed. Some might suggest even Mertesacker’s presence would have helped. But the players on the pitch need to know better. After the Milan game Arsene had said the players rushed things a bit.
I felt that we rushed our game a little in the final [third] and were not patient enough in our build-up. We wanted to give the decisive ball too early and you have to be guided by the way you want to play until the last minute in these games, be calm and composed.
The bungled one-two between RvP and Rosicky that finished with Little Mozart ballooning the ball over the goal comes to mind. It wasn’t the only instance but does serve as a perfect example of a lack of composure at a vital moment.
Finally, the inability of the players to link well in advanced areas was troubling. They all seemed to be trying but on different wavelengths. There were too many individual moments rather than quality combinations. All season there has been a lack of consistent combination play in the attacking areas that involves four or five players but in the second half of this game it was completely invisible.
To be fair, Wigan must also be complimented for their performance, time-wasting and other tricks notwithstanding. The way they retained possession, particularly in the second half, must have been extremely frustrating for the Gunners and probably induced some of their incoherent, rushed attacks which resulted in a relatively easy time for Wigan at the back. Again, it was a small but crucial point that Fergie had mentioned before the game.
At the end I must say the result wasn’t that surprising. The current run has been commendable but not completely convincing. The final four games will all be a stern test. There are a lot of questions that the Gunners have to answer on the pitch.
Szczesny: Should probably have done better for both goals, especially the first. If he’d stayed big Di Santo, who had not scored for a long while, might have panicked and missed or the deflection might have gone in a different direction. But I am not a fan of blaming the goalkeeper for such goals. There were other bigger culprits. Did make a couple of good saves.
Sagna: Found Moses to be a handful. But work rate on the flank was again excellent. Crossing wasn’t extraordinary but did hit some useful areas.
Djourou: Stats show he won all his tackles (3/3) and duels (5/5), and had the highest pass accuracy (95%) but his role in the second goal is at least questionable. He was at the near post and should have dealt with the cross better. Interestingly, Di Santo was marking Djourou for the Arsenal corner that resulted in the first goal. The striker got forward to score but the defender didn’t get back in time. Nevertheless, I don’t blame him for that completely as he would rightly expect the others players to provide better cover when he’s gone up for a corner.
Vermaelen: Wigan’s system meant that he had a lot of time and space. Did push forward often and almost played as an extra midfielder. Also got into the box frequently and took his goal well. No fault for the first goal but what was he doing on the second? Went with the attacker but just added to the confusion.
Santos: Had the most touches and, surprisingly, the most shots only one of which was on target. Missed two good chances, one he created himself while the other was probably meant for Vermaelen. Defensively he wasn’t convincing. The ball went through him for the assist to the first goal. Also had other shaky moments at the back like the time he botched a clearance which allowed Moses to get in behind.
The defenders didn’t have that much to do but their performances, especially those of the full-backs, weren’t very enjoyable. To be fair they did have to cover vast spaces and the structural problems, combined with poor awareness and decision making, often left them exposed.
Song: Very poor. Interestingly, stats say he won all four tackles but was only 5/21 on ground duels. Moses and others went past him with ease. His passing wasn’t that great but most disappointing was his decision making. Should have shown greater composure in front of the defence and held his ground more often but he tried to do too much. It’s a tough balance to achieve and one can only hope this was a result of being in the learning phase of his dual role.
Arteta: Wasn’t there on the pitch long enough but does deserve some blame for the first goal. He was on the edge of the box when the corner came in. Put his hand up and called for a sub just as it was cleared out. He should have assessed his situation earlier as he was a vital part of the defence just outside the Wigan box. More is expected from such an experienced player. If he’d gone out before the corner Arsenal might have put someone else there who’d have tracked Gomez and might have prevented the pass in the first place.
Rosicky: Probably the best Arsenal player on the pitch, especially in the first half. Deserved his assist and more. But lost influence in the second half. Also that missed opportunity in the 26th minute showed his lack of composure at a key moment. More is needed from a player in that position but for this game he doesn’t deserve criticism.
Ramsey: Extraordinary work rate. Played nine minutes less than the others but still had the second highest touches and by far the highest number of attempted and completed passes. Was playing deeper than usual to compensate for the loss of Arteta and did a decent job as he didn’t lose the ball as often as he does in attacking areas. But he wasn’t able to link the players as well as Arteta does and defensively he just didn’t get into good enough positions on a number of occasions, especially when Song pushed forward.
The midfield had a lot of time and space and considering that it must be said their overall output wasn’t at the required level. Once the momentum was lost late in the first half they should have controlled the game better and guided the attacks with guile and nous rather than rushing forward at every little opportunity.
Walcott: Forgettable. Should have come off at half time or the hour mark at the latest. He wasn’t getting into the game at all. The chaotic midfield exposed his limitations rather than getting the best out of him.
RvP: Tried hard. Can’t really blame him. Deserves applause despite the result.
Benayoun: Won a couple of headers and hit the target. Was also getting involved with the play in and around the box in the first half. Couldn’t do much out wide in the second. Before the opening goal, he went to sleep on the edge of the box and noticed the danger really late. Should have done much better, more so considering his experience level.
Subs: Oxlade-Chamberlain made a few forward bursts but just lost possession at the end of most of those. Gervinho was ineffective and inefficient.
Wenger: A lot of the problems are long standing and keep resurfacing time and again. But we can also see some effort being put in. Substitutions were strange to say the least. Wasn’t able to guide or inspire the players in the second half.Follow @goonerdesi