Wigan were the Premier League’s feel-good team before this game: they had won 3 of their last 4 games, including victories against Liverpool, Stoke and the defending champions Manchester United, to boost their increasing chances of staying up. Arsenal themselves were also on a great run of form as they chased 3rd spot: apart from a shock 2-1 loss to QPR, Arsene Wenger’s team had won 9 out of their last 10 league games.
With both teams picking up points with such regularity, it wasn’t a surprise to see that both managers’ changes in their starting line-ups were enforced ones. Wigan made just one change from the team that beat United: Shaun Maloney, the player who scored the winning goal against United, was injured and replaced by Jordi Gomez in attack. As for Arsenal, Johan Djourou and Andre Santos came in for the suspended Laurent Koscielny and the injured Kieran Gibbs at centre-back and left-back respectively.
Wigan played their usual versatile, slanted hybrid formation with 3 centre-backs, 2 wingbacks, 2 central midfielders and 3 roving attackers upfront. On paper, Arsenal played their standard 4-2-3-1 formation, but on the field, it wasn’t really as such.
Both Yossi Benayoun and Theo Walcott didn’t provide width (more on that later), and instead sought to come inside. Add them to Arsenal’s central rotating trio of Alex Song, Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky, and Arsenal’s central midfield was flooded – as seen from the diagram above. Thus, Arsenal were expected to dominate the midfield – simply because of their technical and numerical advantage – and they definitely did that for most of the game.
Wigan however, raced into a 2 goal lead within just 8 minutes of play. Franco Di Santo scored the first through a quick counterattack from Arsenal’s corner for his first goal in 17 games, and Gomez doubled his team’s advantage a minute later after some excellent work from Victor Moses coupled with Arsenal’s inability to properly clear the ball.
There were other reasons for Arsenal being 0-2 down of course, but one common factor in the concession of both goals was Benayoun. The Israel captain was one of Arsenal’s last few men back, and he was slow to realise the danger at the start of Wigan’s counterattack leading to the goal (perhaps distracted by the limping Arteta). By the time he did, Di Santo was already in the clear. Although plenty of his teammates were also at fault for Wigan’s second goal – Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny failed to hold onto the shot and his defenders couldn’t clear the ball – Benayoun was responsible for failing to track Gomez who had ran past him and poked in a goal.
Benayoun did make a positive impact on the game though. After going 2-0 up, Wigan themselves seemed surprised at their lead and proceeded to sit back and defend, as their players retreated and formed two defensive banks, one of 4 midfield players and one of 5 defenders. A shocked Arsenal looked to get on the scoresheet themselves, but they couldn’t find a way through a congested central midfield. Their best chances came via crosses into the box: 2 Benayoun headers stretched Wigan’s goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi to make fine saves, and they managed to pull a goal back through Thomas Vermaelen’s super header from Rosicky’s cross.
When a side’s best goalscoring opportunities are arriving from wide play, one would expect that side to continue sending crosses in and/or stretch the play horizontally as much as possible. Yet Arsenal didn’t do either to any great effect. Granted, the likes of Bacary Sagna, Rosicky and Robin Van Persie all attempted 7 or more crosses each, but out of those 3 players, only Sagna is a proper wide player. The problem was that when Rosicky and/or Van Persie crossed the ball, Arsenal didn’t have enough players in the box to attack those crosses.
What was particularly frustrating and puzzling was Walcott’s continuing insistence on drifting into a central striking position. Arsenal needed width badly, and their right winger left most of the right flank to his right-back Sagna. Walcott was utterly anonymous and attempted only 2 crosses compared to Sagna’s 8. If he thought he was better off as a striker, then he was wrong because he was terribly ineffective upfront: just a single off-target shot. He made 0 successful dribbles and 0 key passes, statistics which summed up exactly what a poor game he had.
It’s impossible to ascertain with 100% accuracy the reason for Walcott’s baffling positioning, Walcott or his manager? Did Wenger instruct Walcott to play centrally, or did Walcott himself choose to play there? Either way, it’s both men’s fault for not correcting it – and they did have the whole game to do so as Walcott’s central position was obvious even before Wigan opened the scoring – and the England winger kept at it throughout the 95 minutes to unfruitful effect.
On the other flank, Benayoun could hardly be expected to provide proper width as he’s a central playmaker, but was played in a nominal left wing role and hence often came infield to combine with Rosicky. He did almost have 2 goals to his name with those headers mentioned before, but his overall gameplay wasn’t as productive.
Though Walcott was mostly absent on the right flank, at least Sagna advanced forward to bombard Wigan’s penalty box with crosses. As Benayoun came infield, Santos didn’t cross as many times as Sagna did (1 successful cross out of 2 tries), but did have some attacking impetus. The left-back had 5 shots (all of which were off-target though), 1 key pass and 4 successful dribbles. The only issue was that he wasn’t doing these from wide positions, but central ones, when Arsenal could really do with some width and crosses.
Arsenal’s lack of threat out wide was even more puzzling considering that Wigan’s wide midfielders Moses and Gomez were primarily a striker and a playmaker respectively, and weren’t naturally defensive.
In attack however, they both had good games. Gomez grabbed a goal while Moses picked up where he left off in his last match against United: strong tricky and direct dribbling. Starting on the left this time, he again made 5 successful dribbles – double his average per league game (2.5). One small moment of dribbling magic resulted in Gomez’s goal, but Moses was really an all-round threat: 2 shots on target and 2 key passes, the joint-highest for his team in both statistical categories. He had a great chance to put Wigan 3-1 ahead in the 58th minute when Arsenal were caught out from a throw-in, but Szczesny made a comfortable save.
At 21-years-old, Moses remains a great prospect and if there’s one area of his game that needs improvement it’s his shooting and finishing skills. For a player of his talent, he should be scoring more than 4 goals in 32 starts.
Arsenal kept pushing for an equaliser after their first goal, exemplified by goalscorer Vermelen’s constant surges up the field from his centre-back position (which actually further exacerbated the problem of Arsenal’s congested centre). Wigan couldn’t get out of their own half because more often than not, none of their 11 players were in Arsenal’s half to receive the ball – Di Santo regularly dropped into midfield to provide even more defensive cover. Upon the start of the second-half however, they couldn’t press Wigan like they did in the first, and failed to create any real chances to equalise.
Wenger tried to change things around by substituting Benayoun for Gervinho and later took Djourou off for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as Song slotted into defence. Gervinho, as usual, made a few promising runs which were ultimately unproductive. In the middle, Oxlade-Chamberlain added some much needed drive with Rosicky tiring, but Arsenal still couldn’t force their way through the middle.
Rosicky was undoubtedly Arsenal’s best player of the night as he probed Wigan’s defence from all angles possible – including providing the cross for Vermaelen’s goal. However, he wasn’t helped by Areta’s early 9th minute departure due to injury, and his midfield partner Aaron Ramsey had zero impact on the game. An indication of their inability to create chances from the centre is Song’s 0% success from his 4 attempted through-balls – Song always threads his through-balls from a central position.
Martinez then made his own usual changes: big targetman Connor Sammon on for the hardworking Di Santo and strong midfield spoiler Mohamed Diame for Gomez. Sammon in particular once again did a fantastic job in helping Wigan hold onto their lead by chasing down opposition players, holding up the ball and making intelligent runs.
Just as they did in their win over United, Wigan’s players worked extremely hard. Central midfielders James McArthur and James McCarthy both put in another excellent shift despite being mostly outnumbered in the middle of the pitch. McCarthy was a lot more disciplined in this game as he held his position, allowing McArthur to support the attackers when necessary. Jean Beausejour was similarly more cautious in this game, possibly wary of Walcott’s pace, and didn’t advance forward as much as he did against United.
Again, Wigan’s team effort shone throughout the game, and was backed up by their tackling statistics. Only one Wigan player (Moses) made more than 3 tackles, but as a team, they made a total of 26 tackles – the top team in the league for average number of tackles per game, Sunderland, only average 21.9. Additionally, Wigan’s total number of interceptions from this game counted at 20. Comparing it to Aston Villa, who average 19.9 interceptions per game and are the top team in the league for this statistic, Wigan put in a very strong defensive shift.
Wigan’s win puts them 5 points above the drop zone with 4 games to go (although Bolton, who occupy 18th place, have 2 games in hand). 2 of their final 4 games include matches against fellow relegation rivals Blackburn and Wolves, the two teams at the bottom of the table. With Martinez’s men in this kind of inspiring form at the closing stages of the season, it looks likely that the Lactics will survive another year.
Arsenal’s loss is a minor setback to their claims for 3rd spot, but with Spurs struggling as well, Wenger will not lose too much hope. His team’s loss stemmed strictly from their inability to create chances, and it was likely that they would’ve created more had they played with more width.