There were no surprises in Arsene Wenger’s team selection and, thankfully, there were none on the pitch either. It wasn’t a perfect game from the Gunners but an eight minute spell of exceptional efficiency and clinical finishing settled the game midway through the second half.
It followed patterns that we’ve seen in many recent games so I won’t dwell on them. Arsenal controlled the opening exchanges and dictated the tempo early on. But they didn’t really convert that into quality chances and the goal came from an unexpected source, a corner. Wigan’s defending was terrible and will probably be identified as the chief reason of their troubles this season. In most other Arsenal games, I’ve seen such corners gobbled up by the Keeper or easily header clear by the defenders. Balls put in so close to the goal have rarely troubled the opponents leave alone result in goals.
In this game it came all the way to Podolski who was left unmarked. The German showed good composure even when the manner of scoring was not his speciality. How many headers has he scored in his entire career?
The hosts slowly relinquished control over the tie after the goal. Wigan started seeing a lot more of the ball in advanced territories from midway through the first half to the end. But Wenger’s team remained defensively compact and dealt with any danger. Szczesny was largely untroubled.
Only that one ball over the top of the defence comes to mind but Koscielny found a way to clear the threat.
I thought Arsenal were defending with a clear 4-1-4-1 shape which seemed a change from their usual approach as Arteta sat really deep in midfield just in front of the defence whereas the other midfielders formed a line a few yards in front of him.
The Spaniard’s positioning meant it was difficult for Wigan to build anything through the middle and Kone’s influence was minimized as he can drop deep to receive the ball and hold play while other join in.
The discipline of the four in front of him and structural integrity achieved through that also limited openings for Wigan to exploit. It’s worth noting that the visitors actually had more possession, played more passes, and had greater passing accuracy than the hosts, but they couldn’t create many chances.
Their goal came from a soft free-kick. I’m sure Arsene would have complained about it if points had been dropped. Maloney’s strike was superb but I was surprised Podolski didn’t jump. I’d think the wall needs greatest height at the far end where the goalkeeper would find it hardest to cover. Anyway, that’s one for the coaches to analyze.
Wigan came out with greater purpose in the second half as if their late equalizer had instilled genuine belief. Kone had their best chance early in the second period when a seemingly fortuitous one-two put him through. Szczesny did well to close the angle and made a convincing save.
Arsenal were not really getting control of the ball or territory in the second period but they started exploiting the space behind Wigan’s defence, particularly with attacks originating down the right side behind Espinoza.
First, Walcott fed Cazorla who couldn’t score with two good attempts, probably the only blot on his otherwise impeccable worksheet for the day. Then Rosicky played Theo in behind but he could not find enough power or precision with his shot after choosing to ignore Podolski’s run that was marked well by Boyce.
Soon after, the Gunners did take the lead. This time it was Cazorla making a run down the right. It’s worth noting the interchange of positions between the players as Theo had gone central with Podolski wide on the left. Arsenal played eight passes in the build-up to that goal and stretched the play horizontally before going vertical. Nonetheless, it was again terrible defending and goalkeeping that cost the visitors.
If that was bad defending, very little should be said about the mess they created for the third. Szczesny’s long ball was headed into the danger area by Alcaraz. Meanwhile, Scharner had dropped a good five yards deeper despite no Arsenal player making a run. Cazorla’s header was deftly cushioned but completely unchallenged. In the same manner, Podolski’s clip was predatory and superbly executed but way too easy for this level.
The fourth came from a simple ball down the left flank that caught the entire Wigan defence unawares. Espinoza played Ramsey onside. The Welshman’s finish was emphatic and brilliantly disguised.
The Gunners could then relax as the visitors had lost their appetite for the fight they were clearly losing.
All teams face the problem of balance. Wigan have troubled the Gunners when they’ve been able to defend deep for long periods. I was surprised they opened up so soon in this game. Playing it tight and throwing everything forward in the last 10 minutes would have been a much better tactic for them. Their confidence in the second half proved their undoing. Kone’s missed chance was also vital. At 1-2 up they could have reverted to a deep defence and might have shut the Gunners out as they did last season.
That Arsenal conceded was not a surprise, but I was impressed by the way they limited the visitors’ chances despite conceding possession. The team’s defensive shape and the choices made by individuals was commendable. As was the manner in which they covered for each other. There were times when I saw the likes of Gibbs and Walcott pop up deep in the Arsenal penalty box on the right side to make tackles and recoveries. A good defence has to be a team effort and the Gunners seem to be improving slowly but steadily.
Szczesny: Don’t know if the coaches will fault him for the shape and positioning of the wall. Good save from Kone. Distribution was average.
Sagna: Most of Arsenal’s threats came down the right and the Frenchman played a good unobtrusive supporting role as he was there to help but stayed out of the way of the creative players. Had very little to do defensively in the first half as Wigan focussed on the other flank. Received useful cover from teammates in the second.
Mertesacker: Made some important tackles around the edge of the box and his positioning was consistently good. His only mistake was probably the occasion he went to ground to make an interception near the centre line. It opened space up for Wigan and resulted in McCarthy’s goal that was just marginally off-side. Didn’t see as much of the ball as he usually does because the Gunners conceded possession.
Koscielny: Made a couple of big interventions in the box. Should probably have scored from the corner that fell to him invitingly. Steady game on the whole.
Gibbs: Did a good job on McManaman and kept Wigan’s most creative player quiet. Passing wasn’t as reliable as Arsene would want from his full-back and made a very limited contribution in the attacking areas.
The back five had a good game without being spectacular, but they didn’t really have to produce anything special. The team defended as a unit and they remained well protected for most of the game.
Arteta: Gave away some fouls, one of which resulted in the Wigan goal, but you could wonder if another referee would have called those. Passing was below par but it was his positioning and tendency to drop back into the defensive line which often plugged crucial holes and forced play away from the danger zones.
Rosicky: Showed good energy, particularly early on. Defensive contribution was noteworthy from a discipline point of view as he protected some central areas that Wigan seem to favour. The quick turn and through-ball for Walcott was the most eye-catching moment of the game for me.
Ramsey: Here, there, everywhere, and pretty effective. Saw a lot of the ball and made telling contributions at both ends of the pitch. Took his goal really well while constantly looking/faking to cut the ball back.
Cazorla: Four assists! And different ones too. I wonder if he’s ever picked up an assist with his head before. Was a constant source of inspiration for the Gunners that turned lethal once Wigan pushed up and lost control over their shape and distances. Defensive work rate on the left was also exceptional and he helped deal with McManaman (Is it a coincidence that Arsenal picked up three quick goals soon after the youngster was taken off?). MotM in my opinion.
Walcott: Picked his moments to move inside carefully and stayed wide often to exploit the space available. This Wigan defence, particularly in the second half, was perfect for him as they were wide open with huge gaps between the lines and individuals. Credit to him for using the opportunity as he linked well with Cazorla and Rosicky. Converted his chance without a fuss, even if there was an element of luck to it. Defensive contribution deserves a mention.
I thought the midfield deserves bulk of the credit for this win not only because of their contribution to the goals but also for their effort in front of the defence. A while back it wouldn’t have been hard to imagine this Wigan side playing one-twos and constantly exploiting the gaps in front and behind the defence. In this game the midfielders cut out almost any opportunity for the visitors to develop their combinations and thus left the back four with a very manageable task.
Podolski: Took both his goals really well to reaffirm his status as the best finisher at the club. Still far from his best in this role but the goals should help his confidence and that of his teammates. His horizontal movement was good and he often dropped back to add bodies in the middle.
Subs: They came on after the game was virtually over.
Wenger: Should be pleased with this win. The performance was far from ideal but it carries some encouraging trends forward. The team certainly looks much more balanced than it did at the start of the season. However, one big test still remains before any real plaudits can be handed out.Follow @goonerdesi