Congratulations to Wigan for their FA Cup success. Regular readers know they’re one of my favourite teams from among the so-called smaller clubs. Martinez is an impressive young manager and his players have produced some entertaining, high quality football over the years. It’s good to see their work rewarded.
Cup ties are inherently of a knockout nature meaning both teams have to go for a win. But in the League it’s rare that both teams face an absolute must win situation and that too at the opposite ends of the table. You might argue that the Gunners would still have a chance of finishing in the top four if they didn’t win this one, but in my opinion the team that doesn’t win this game will see it’s League hopes crushed. For Wigan, that would mean relegation, while Arsenal will more than likely miss out on the coveted Champions League spot.
This is another game where the view you take is likely to depend on your mentality.
The Latics are renowned for their late comebacks to survive in the League (they’ve won the last two games of the previous two seasons) and a win at the Emirates (something they achieved last season) will give them a genuine chance of pulling it off again. One could argue the Cup win will lift them and the players will find extra energy and motivation. Momentum can be a strong positive force in football.
Someone else might say they’ll be tired and could suffer from a hangover of success and celebrations whereas the Gunners will come into this game feeling revitalized due to a noteworthy break in schedule.
I think we’ll see a committed game from both sides and any side-effects of Wigan’s weekend heroics will only be visible in the later stages of the game, if at all.
There is an interesting pattern to the games between the two sides. Apart from Arsenal’s 0-1 win earlier this season at the DW stadium, the Gunners have not won against Wigan by a single goal margin going back to 2009. Either Arsenal win big (1-4, 4-0, 3-0, 0-4) or they drop points. Wigan have won with scores of 3-2 and 1-2 in this period while also picking up a 2-2 draw. In other words, either Arsenal win relatively easily or they drop points, even lose the game.
The win in the reverse fixture bucked this trend somewhat and Arsenal’s recent tentative but resilient performances suggest that it could be another close encounter. Wenger will hope that his side can scrape together enough goals to win this one. He’ll want a clean sheet but I doubt he’ll get one.
It could be a question of who makes the least defensive mistakes and which side takes its chances. Arsenal’s problems against the Latics have generally resulted from individual or collective defensive weaknesses. Whether it’s counter-attacks like last season or set-pieces from an earlier time, the visitors will provide multiple offensive threats that have to be dealt with in a consistent and reliable manner.
Martinez has built a side that can retain possession and build attacks. That doesn’t mean they’re likely to match Arsenal’s possession or passing statistics but they will be able to pass it when they win the ball back. This gives them a chance to construct more meaningful attacks compared to the kick-and-hope outfits. It was visible in the FA Cup final when they spent a lot of time in front of their own penalty box but always looked a threat when going forward.
Kone is an intelligent striker who shows for the ball and can hold it or lay it off quickly. He makes useful runs into the channels and can get on the end of crosses or through-balls. The youngster McManaman provides guile and pace on the flank. I like the way he shifts his weight to trick defenders with numerous feints.
Martinez also seems to get the best out of Maloney who can cut inside and join the striker, particularly when McManaman goes in behind. Gomez is inconsistent but has an eye for goal. Espinoza has been a handy acquisition and adds to the threat from their left flank. Their midfielders are steady players who can occasionally step up and make a difference with shots from distance or on counter-attacks.
The Gunners will have a tough time defending their flanks on quick transitions and the full-backs will need a fair amount of support.
I find it hard to categorize Wigan defensively. They can have anywhere from 2 to 6 defenders in a line. 3 is the usual number, but when they drop back and the ball goes wide the defensive line can have as many as six players, thus cutting out spaces. Some of these players push up when the attack is through the middle and that way they have layers and covering players to protect the vital central areas. In such cases the gap between their lines is almost non-existent.
There are mistakes in their defence and Arsenal should get chances if they can play at a fast enough tempo but the Gunners will need greater lateral movement in front of the Wigan backline and more penetrating runs in behind. Otherwise it could again be a case of a lot of possession at one end and the dangerous chances at the other. An early goal for Arsenal can open the game up but it could also leave the Gunners in a tactically confused state, not knowing whether to push forward or step back.
Wenger has most of his players available. It’s tough to predict his choices for this game but I have a feeling it will be the same team that started against QPR with Gibbs coming in for Monreal. The Spaniard struggled against Townsend and it’s not difficult to imagine McManaman running rings around him. Hopefully, Gibbs will be fit. If nothing else, he has greater pace to recover.
Fabianski is fit again but I doubt Wenger will take Szczesny out of the starting line-up.
We might see,
Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Ramsey, Rosicky, Arteta – Walcott, Podolski, Cazorla.
I’d be tempted to find a place for Gervinho or Oxlade-Chamberlain because having a player who can dribble is useful against a deep-lying defence. But both those players bring their own set of weaknesses to the side and affect the balance. As I’ve noted before, there isn’t an obvious correct answer here and the result could vindicate a choice or make it look stupid.
Finding a way to use Podolski’s skills and getting him into scoring positions or areas where he can play penetrating one-twos could be vital.
This is probably not what you want to read but I expect the Gunners to drop points in at least one of their remaining two fixtures. Unless Wigan crumble, Arsenal will need two, maybe three, goals to win this game. They’ve not scored more than once in their last four fixtures…Follow @goonerdesi