An intelligent and hard-working performance from Wigan saw them claim a famous victory over Arsenal at the Emirates and put more valuable distance between themselves and the relegation places. Franco Di Santo and Jordi Gomez scored within a minute of one another to stake Wigan to a two goal lead, and despite Thomas Vermaelen scoring yet another goal, Arsenal were unable to exert enough control at home to complete their comeback.
After Wigan’s impressive 1-0 victory over leaders Manchester United during midweek, Roberto Martinez retained the 5-4-1 system and all but one of his starters from Wednesday. The only change occurred in midfield, where Jordi Gomez replaced Shaun Maloney. Gomez started on the right side of midfield, so Victor Moses was switched to the left. The back five remained the same, with Maynor Figueroa, Gary Caldwell, and Antolin Alcaraz flanked by Jean Beausejour and Emmerson Boyce, while Franco Di Santo persisted up front, despite having not scored a league goal since November.
Arsene Wenger also made only one change to the team that comfortably beat Wolverhampton. Tomas Rosicky replaced Aaron Ramsey as the attacking midfielder. Laurent Koscielny’s ongoing suspension meant that Johan Djourou partnered Thomas Vermaelen in central defense, and Yossi Benayoun retained his place on the left wing, so Gervinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain started on the bench.
Arsenal started the game brightly, penning Wigan back for the first five minutes. Thomas Vermaelen was constantly driving forward from centerback, and he shot narrowly wide before Ali Al-Habsi was called upon to tip Yossi Benayoun’s header over the bar. But when the resulting Arsenal corner failed to beat the first man and Bacary Sagna’s headed pass was intercepted, Wigan broke quickly, creating a 4 v 2 situation. Victor Moses played Gomez down the left flank and Andre Santos was unable to stop him from crossing to an unmarked Franco Di Santo. Szczesny came out of goal to close down the angle and got a piece of the shot, but Di Santo beat Benayoun to the loose ball to end his scoring drought and give Wigan a shock lead. A stunned Emirates then watched Mikel Arteta, who had been struggling with an injury for a few minutes, leave the field and head straight up the tunnel, leaving the Gunners with 10 men momentarily. Wigan immediately punished Arsenal’s distraction, as Moses beat Bacary Sagna with a brilliant swivel and fired the ball into the six yard box. Both Arsenal centerbacks, distracted by the movement of Franco Di Santo, failed to cut out the cross, and when Szczesny failed to gather cleanly, Jordi Gomez turned the ball in to double Wigan’s lead.
Aaron Ramsey came on for Arteta after the goal, and Arsenal set about getting themselves back into the game. Wigan, much like AC Milan in the Champions League first leg, denied Arsenal space in the center of the pitch. Their back five pinched in tightly and the central midfield duo of James McArthur and James McCarthy dropped deep in front of them, leaving very little space for Robin Van Persie and Arsenal’s central midfielders to work in. On Arsenal’s right flank, Wigan did a tremendous job of neutralizing Theo Walcott. The extra centerback meant Beausejour could mark Walcott tightly without worrying about runs behind him, and Walcott was effectively a spectator, only completing 25 passes and finishing the game without a single shot on target, key pass, or successful dribble. In addition, Victor Moses’s pace and skill on the ball meant that Bacary Sagna had to be wary of coming too far forward, so Walcott was even more isolated. On the other side, Yossi Benayoun’s natural inclination is to drift infield onto his right foot, so Wigan were rarely stretched on that side. Even when Andre Santos, a natural left footer went forward, he preferred to come inside and take players on instead of hugging the touchline and providing width. Able to get forward but struggling to penetrate Wigan’s defense, Arsenal resorted to hurling crosses into the box, which Wigan dealt with fairly comfortably. However, Arsenal pulled a goal back when Tomas Rosicky, who did an exceptional job of turning on the ball and attacking the Wigan defense in the first half, gave Moses the slip and put a great ball into the box for Vermaelen, once again in an advanced position, to head past Al-Habsi.
Wigan reacted well to Arsenal scoring, and managed to provide enough attacking threat to keep Arsenal from pinning them back into their own half. Because Di Santo often dropped all the way back onto Arsenal’s holding midfielder, Wigan couldn’t use him as a target man to bypass Arsenal’s pressure. Instead, they usually attacked down their left through Victor Moses, who was able to consistently dribble past Arsenal defenders, especially the usually solid Sagna. Once Wigan got forward, Beausejour could advance in support of Moses, forcing Walcott back and negating Arsenal’s ability to counter quickly. On the other flank, Jordi Gomez moved in toward the center, letting McCarthy and McArthur sit in front of the Wigan central defenders, and leaving Emmerson Boyce to provide width on the right. As Arsenal committed more and more players forward, Wigan had more opportunities to break. Their best chances in the second half came when Moses got behind Arsenal’s defense, but Szczesny was able to deny him on both occasions.
Despite Moses’s profligacy in front of goal, Arsenal were unable to capitalize and score an equalizing goal, and the loss of Mikel Arteta had an obvious effect on their play. In possession, Arteta’s range of passing and decision making allows Arsenal to play at an extremely high tempo, keeping the defense off balance and making it easier to penetrate through passing or dribbling. When Aaron Ramsey replaced him, Arsenal immediately became more ponderous in possession. While there is no question about Ramsey’s technical ability, he takes three or four touches when Arteta would take one or two, allowing defenders to recover around the ball. In addition, Arteta works extremely hard to make sure he is in a position that provides balance to the team, which is especially important with how many players Arsenal commit forward in attack. Since Ramsey usually plays in attacking midfield, the role that Rosicky was filling, Arsenal were often left open after losing the ball, especially after Vermaelen had moved forward. Alex Song was forced into holding in midfield and became visibly frustrated at his teammates when he was unable to join in attack. As the game progressed and Arsenal became more and more desperate, they began to overelaborate on the ball and force the ball forward. Apart from one occasion when Walcott got in behind their defense, Wigan looked comfortable for the last quarter hour of the match. Roberto Martinez made the intelligent decision to bring on Conor Sammon for Di Santo, and his ability to hold the ball up ensured that Arsenal never exerted enough pressure to find a late equalizer.
Roberto Martinez once again deserves great credit for the way his team are playing at the business end of the season. While Arsenal mistakes and misfortune contributed to both goals, his team were extremely solid defensively and caused the home side numerous problems going forward. Wigan are close to securing top flight survival, and on the basis of their recent performances, they will be a credit to the division next year. For Arsenal, yet another disappointing loss means that the battle for third place and automatic qualification to the Champions League is once again on. They will have to recover from this defeat, and perhaps more importantly, the loss of Arteta before a critical match against Chelsea this weekend.