For many, the performance of Arsenal in tonight’s match against Wigan will recall a sense of déjà vu. In April of this year, Arsenal, despite being 2 nil up against Wigan, threw the game away with some lacklustre defending allowing Wigan to score three second half goals. That signalled the end of Arsenal’s title challenge and leaving many fans disillusioned.
Despite being stronger this season, the Arsenal’s annoying habit of throwing games away still crops up from time to time, most bitterly against the likes of Spurs at the Emirates a month ago. It’s not unfair to say that the team swings like a giant pendulum, thoroughly out performing champions Chelsea one day, then struggling against teams fighting relegation, such as Wigan. It’s terminally frustrating and something title winning teams don’t do.
Takling points will revolved around Wenger’s introduction of eight new players into the starting line-up. It was inevitable that certain players would not be available, such as Fabregas who missed out through suspension. Van Persie and Song were left at home and a bunch of fringe players brought in to give some first choice players a rest. Bendtner unusually started up front with Chamakh and Arshavin, while Diaby, Rosicky and Denilson got the nod in the middle, and Eboue and Squiallaci coming in at the back. Many will say, not without justification, that so many new faces were a bridge too far for Arsenal. I sympathise because I felt that a strong performance against Wigan would partly banish the demons of that torrid game back in April.
It certainly was a hodge-podge Arsenal performance for the first half an hour, as a fairly ordinary Wigan side seemed intent on pressurising Arsenal, particularly at the back. Both Squillaci and Koscielny were caught out and Arsenal was lucky to escape unpunished. However, after Wigan converted a dubious penalty (not much contact and outside the area), Arsenal came back to life, with the maligned of late Arshavin scoring with a magnificent volley, and providing a crucial pass to Bendtner, who managed calmly stoke the ball into the bottom right corner. Arsenal looked in a good position to go on and kill the game, with several good chances falling to both Chamakh and Arshavin.
Arsenal dominated possession for the majority of the second half with Jack Wilshere in particular making some incisive passes and forward runs, but the team were unable to convert their dominance into tangible points. The game turned ugly, with N’Zogbia, in a moment of insanity, head butting Jack Wilshere and earning a red card for his troubles. This was the key turning point of the game, with Arsenal being unable to capitalise on their numerical advantage and a fired up Wigan eager to force their way back into the game.
Some sloppy defending allowed Wigan a crucial corner, with a perfect back post cross allowing Rodallega to head back across goal, forcing Squiallaci to head the ball into the back of his own net. Fabianski was perhaps guilty of being drawn out from his line, leaving the goalmouth wide open for Wigan to nick a drawn result. The referee missed two crucial penalty calls for Arsenal, one for an arguable foul on Walcott, and a blatant handball in the Wigan penalty box. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that Arsenal should have killed this tie off long before.
Many will talk about the squad rotation, but two issues I would like bring up. Firstly, Arsenal’s inability to defend set pieces and corners is still worrying. This isn’t a recent trend, but something that stretches back seasons and is a continual source of frustration. I believe Arsenal are guilty of conceding more goals than any other premier league team from these plays this season. While there has been some improvement in defence this season, we’re still a centre-back away from a perfect team. Questions over why the centre back pairing was rotated after the Chelsea win remain to be answered.
Secondly, something that I feel is important but not often discussed is Wenger’s use of substitutes. He seems to me entirely reactive rather than proactive with the use of his attacking weapons. He only introduced his second half subs after Wigan equalised last night and I believe it’s a trend that has occurred throughout the season (another pertinent example is the bizarre substituting of Nasri for Van Persie late in the Spurs game). I’m no premier league manager but even I could see that Wigan began to gain ascendency in the ten minutes before the goal. Why were Nasri and Walcott introduced when this became obvious? At least this might have been the elixir to pin back Wigan.
You may disagree with me on that final point, but the fact remains that we’re on the back foot again despite the heroics at the Emirates against Chelsea. The team now find themselves in third and face two tricky encounters in the next seven days against Birmingham and Manchester City. I hope the pendulum will swing in our favour for these encounters.
“Hot and cold Arsenal again capitulates to late Wigan pressure” is a guest post by Darragh Murray.