So the mighty Gunners passed the latest ‘test’ of their credibility as title challengers. Seems like every game is called "Arsenal’s biggest test of the season so far", this game was given the moniker because we were missing arguably our two best players of the season so far – Cesc Fabregas through suspension and Alex Hleb through internationals robbing us of another key player. Add to this slight knocks to the Flamster and Diaby, Gilberto fatigued from his Brazil exploits and Robin still not fit enough for consideration, ahead of the defence the team took up a Carling Cup-esque look. The back five remained intact thankfully, and as expected Diarra and Denilson slotted into central midfield. Rosicky and Eboue took their places out wide and the only question remained as to who would partner Ade up-front: Eduardo or Theo? Both were impressive midweek for their national sides, but with Theo having an extra day’s rest I think that is why Le Boss plumped for him over the Crozilian.
We’ve never had an easy game against Wigan so those expecting a walkover were sadly mistaken, especially on the back of the international break. I was freezing my proverbial arsenal off in the north upper tier; it was bitingly cold as the wind seeped through the sides of the stadium. I had hoped that the players would warm me up with a fast start but as soon as the game kicked off, you kinda sensed that this was going to be an arduous afternoon, definitely no stroll in the park. Wigan came forward very early on; only 15 seconds were on the clock when some neat play eventually resulted in a Marcus Bent shot trickling through to Manuel Almunia. After I got home I saw the stat that we had a whopping 74% of the possession, but I have to say that whenever Wigan had their 26% they were very neat and tidy on the ball (when they weren’t hoofing it or wasting time), and I’m sure the boost of a new manager will see them rise out of the drop zone. Bent was then put through on 5 minutes and rolled the ball into the goal but had already been flagged for offside. Whenever an incident like this happens the natural instinct is to look at the opposing fans celebrations get royally deflated and then mock them, and we duly did that.
The next chance also fell to the opposition as our usual failings at set-pieces materialised. Paul Scharner was gifted a free header from a corner but he nodded it wide, a lucky break for The Arsenal. One thing has become clear this season – when we score early, we’re the best team in the world, as evidenced by the wins against Slavia Prague and Derby. Even when we grab the opener in the first-half, we’re pretty darn good, something we showed in our last game against Reading. But until that goal is scored, be prepared for a nervy ride as our chronic lapses in concentration often present the opposition with a chance to nick a goal, deserved or not. Although this syndrome has improved this season compared to last, it still exists like the Sword of Damocles hanging over our collective heads.
What’s that saying: you can take the boy out of the Scum, but you can’t take the Scum out of the boy? This was exactly the case when Michael Brown, formerly of Spuds persuasion, lunged into a late, late tackle on Captain Willy. It was pretty nasty and he deservedly got booked, much to the delight of the home faithful. A lot of people may consider football fans to be thick, but give some credit to us; we have good memories when it comes to those who previously represented our rivals.
That booking was about the only thing the ref got correct early on and I thought he had a shocker. Of course I am biased, but he didn’t give two clear obstructions down our left-wing in the first quarter of the match and refused to play advantage on numerous occasions. One time Rosicky was caught late but had managed to flick it wide to Clichy who was in acres of space. The ref, however, pulled play back for the free-kick, and then had the gall to stop us taking it quickly because he wanted to have a word to the defender. Ridiculous.
15 minutes in and I heard a brief rendition of "we are top of the league" chant from the Red section, I could only assume that Bolton had scored (which it turned out they had), but I really couldn’t be arsed getting my phone out in the freezing cold to find out, nor was I particularly bothered because any Man Utd slip-up would be useless unless we were to capitalise on it, something which had not looked likely up until that point.
On 20 minutes we finally clicked into gear. Some very shrewd link up play between Ade and Theo eventually saw the young Englishman produce some quick footwork and square the ball to his strike partner, whose low shot was pushed wide by the Wigan keeper. Had Ade placed his shot a yard wider it would have been one-nil. The pressure was beginning to build and the next effort of note from the home side fell to Denilson following some excellent one-touch passing. Square balls, flicks, lay-offs – the move had it all except the finish as the Brazilian sent his shot slightly over the bar from 20 yards. Theo again was involved in the next piece of positive play, he really seemed up for it. Receiving a ball at his feet from Eboue on the right-hand corner of the box, he turned and got clear from his man before squaring the ball back to Eboue who had carried on with his run. Inexplicably the Ivorian missed the ball with his left foot, it was almost as if the speed of the cross took him by surprise. The rebound fell to Diarra 30-yards out but he ballooned it.
Wigan were not just there to make up the numbers though. A cross came in from their right-hand side and Marcus Bent rose to meet it having got in between our two centre-halves. Luckily for us he headed it over, but it was close enough to make Almunia stretch. Having watched the highlights on TV, his header looked eerily similar to that of Thierry Henry’s winner against Man Utd last year, but fortunately it did not have the same end result.
As half-time dawned upon us we had another couple of attempts from the two youngest members of the side. The first one came on when Theo and Ade linked up again, this time the Togonator turned provider as Sagna’s scuffed cross found him on the right of the box. He could have shot but decided to square it to Theo, and his goalbound effort was blocked before it could trouble their keeper. The final effort of the half came from Denilson on the left, an area where we had a fair amount of joy in the first 45. Picking the ball up on near the touchline, he drove in and upon realising that no-one was going to close him down, decided to let rip. His shot took a wicked deflection and the ball looped agonisingly over the keeper and onto the top of the net. Still the deadlock was not broken as the ref blew for the end of the first period.
During the break the news filtered through that Man Utd were indeed losing away to Bolton, a team against whom they have had so much joy recently. I vividly remember them ripping Bolton to shreds at the Reebok last year and scoring three in the first fifteen minutes. Big Sam and the Fergler always did seem a bit too friendly for my liking as Bolton would seemingly lie down when United came to town but always raised their game for The Arsenal. But Big Sam is there no more and upon viewing the highlights, I and I’m sure many other Gooners were delighted to see Bolton duff up the Mancs just like they have done to us for so long. And for Fergie to come out and whine and moan about Bolton’s tactics and the ref "losing control" of the game is rich of him. The irony is delicious.
The second-half kicked off and to make the day easier you felt that we needed an early goal, or failing that we needed to build some momentum from the whistle. We didn’t though as Clichy gave the ball away on the halfway line and you knew that it was going to be another anxious 45, just hoping that eventually Wigan’s would tire themselves out and we could pounce. It looked like Le Boss had switched things around slightly with Theo moving to the left-wing and Rosicky coming infield to assume the half-striker position. If this was an attempt to increase our penetration down the flanks it did not work early on as we barely created anything for the first fifteen minutes of the half. When we did finally break clear it came through the middle. Diarra received throw from Almunia in his own half and cleverly turned away from his marker. With a bit of space to run into he exchanged passes with Rosicky and then slipped in Ade who had stayed onside. Just as he was about to pull the trigger he was tackled though and the danger cleared. Frustrating, but at least things had picked up.
Five minutes later Ade was once again clean through. Coming in from the right he was never likely to shoot and with only Theo in the box his options were limited. Eventually he got caught in two minds and rolled the ball across the face of goal whilst Theo had darted towards the near post. A minute later Sagna picked up the ball on the left touchline (remember he is a right-back, talk about total football eh?) and won a free-kick near the corner flag. Denilson floated it in to the near post and the keeper flapped, causing a bit of a scramble with Kolo bearing down but Wigan managed to clear. We came straight back at them though as Rosicky picked the ball up in his favoured no.10 position and had a crack but his effort was too high. You could definitely tell that he was enjoying it there and with Cesc and Alex out he had taken on the mantle of being the creative hub. The pressure was mounting on the away side, could they hold out for the last twenty minutes?
Never mind holding out, they made an attacking substitution as the returning Emile Heskey came on for midfielder Olembe. We retorted with our own offensive substation as Eduardo came on for the Jekyll and Hyde Eboue. The Crozilian received a decent amount of cheers, you sense that Gooners secretly enjoyed him making a mug of the English defenders last week. As soon as the subs were made Clichy made his trademark marauding run from left to centre and as the oceans parted for him and presented him with the perfect opportunity to shoot and find his first goal in the red and white, he dallied and the attack dissipated. Exasperated groans rang around the Grove.
Then came the incidents that I added extra fire to the boys as first Denilson was scythed down from behind by Bent on the halfway line. Tempers flared from both sides as Gallas and Heskey threw a few handbags. Initially I feared that our skipper would be shown red after raising his hands but instead it was yellows all round for Bent, Gallas and Heskey. Not long after that Heskey fouled Theo in the right corner which gained the ire of the home fans. Heskey’s foul was more clumsy than malicious I felt, but either way he is a beast of a man and Theo wasn’t getting up from that one. He hadn’t moved a muscle and was duly stretchered off but Arsene confirmed after the game that it was not as serious as it looked, although he is likely to miss the Sevilla game. Immediately he was replaced by Bendtner, who was fresh off grabbing another goal for his country in midweek. In between those two incidents, Ade had a good effort from 25-yards but it was always rising.
And then came the breakthrough, hallelujah! Gallas advanced and knocked it forward to Bendtner who stroked it wide to the onrushing Sagna. The French full-back’s cross was inch-perfect as he found his captain who had continued his run into the box. Like any good striker, Willy nipped in ahead of the defender and got his eyebrows to the ball, using the pace of the cross to glance it beyond the reach of the keeper. Cue pandemonium around The Emirates as the pendulum finally swung in Arsenal’s favour.
Wigan had no choice but to come out and play after that but their endeavours were fruitless. Two minutes after the goal and with people already leaving the stadium (it was 5pm on a Saturday, why leave early, the last trains aren’t until midnight!), Bendtner broke from his own half and had Ade ahead of him to his left and Rosicky steaming up on the right. He took the right option, opening his body to send the Czech maestro away. His first touch was perfect, taking the ball slightly away from goal thereby eluding the defender but keeping it close enough to still have a decent pop at goal without stretching. The keeper came out but there was nothing he could do as Rosicky sent it past him and in off the far post. Job done.
So a good win in the end, all the moreso given United’s unexpected defeat at Bolton. The performance was not great, but the key is not winning games when you’re on top form, it is winning games when you’re struggling to hit the heights. And this was exactly that. Last year we wouldn’t have won this game, hell we would have probably even conceded first and barely scraped a draw (ok I know that we DID actually come from behind to beat Wigan, but you get my point).
The back four and keeper were relatively untested barring a few aerial battles lost in the box, which I feel is something we will have to contend with for the rest of the season, it simply won’t go away. In midfield Diarra and Denilson did not look out of place at all, both fitted in seamlessly to the style of play which is the minimum you can expect from them given their talent. There were times when they were a bit sloppy in possession, but I guess you can put that down to rustiness as appearances have been few and far between for them this season. And even when they did lose possession they showed the required desire and commitment to win it back. Out wide Eboue was a powerful and strong runner as usual but his end product is still lacking at times. On the opposite flank Rosicky had his most influential game for the Club, which I guess is not surprising as without Cesc and Alex he was THE creative force in the side. I think maybe he feels slightly inhibited when the other two are on the pitch. Not inhibited in the Henry/Reyes sense, but the fact that all three share out the creative duties and because Cesc and Alex have played more games so far this season, they naturally take on more responsibility. Hopefully now Rosicky can get a decent run of games without the usual niggly injury cutting him down (touch wood) – and how we’ll need him in the next few weeks with Hleb out injured, sodding internationals. Up-front Ade gave his usual hard-working performance and was unlucky on a few occasions in front of goal, whilst Theo was a real bright spark in the first-half as everything good we did came through him. Hopefully he can recover from his knock soon.
As for the Top Gun I am split between the two goalscorers. In the end I think I’m gonna have to plump for the skipper, for it was he who – just like against United – had the wherewithal to go forward and support the attack when we needed it most. This last month has been his best in an Arsenal shirt with a lion-hearted performance at Anfield and goalscoring interventions against United and here against Wigan. His defending has been none too bad either! If he can continue this Captain Fantastic role and rally his troops to reach the same level then we might just be witnessing something very special indeed.