Arsenal Hit By Wigan Sucker Punch
Wigan Athletic 2 – 2 Arsenal
1 – 0 Watson (18 pen)
1 – 1 Arshavin (38)
1 – 2 Bendtner (44)
2 – 2 Squillaci (81 og)
N’Zogbia sent off (77)
As the New Year beckoned, a dawning of a new Arsenal Age was heralded by a well-deserved victory over Chelsea on Monday night. As with all epochs, the transition into Champions stuttered in the immediate aftermath of the first step being taken. Arsene rang eight changes from the first game of this week and witnessed his charges come within ten minutes of gaining three valuable points.
The disappointment comes from the knowledge that those dropped are largely of Arsenal’s own making. Having emphatically crushed the myth of not being able to win big matches, Arsenal were unable to make Wigan truckle, the hosts recovering a point with a spirit which may yet serve them well in their fight against relegation.
For the opening half an hour, Arsenal were indecisive, uncohesive and generally out of sorts. The changes wrought evidence of a side that had not played together. Suspensions and long-term injuries cast their shadow over the starting line-up. Before a quarter of the match had passed, a deficit had to be retrieved.
Eboue in as left back was caught out of position, waiting on the edge of the Wigan area for a pass which never arrived. Having broken up an Arsenal attack, that space was quickly exploited by N’Zogbia who ran toward the Arsenal area, chaperoned by Koscielny. As Squillaci came to provide more pressure, a small opening emerged between the two centre backs, N’Zogbia went through it and theatrically threw himself to the ground.
In the first of his decisions which brought more questions of his aptitude to referee at this level, Lee Probert pointed to the spot. Replays clearly showed no contact with the Wigan player was made but exposed Koscielny’s naivety in flailing a leg in that situation.
Equally, the question must be asked as to why the Arsenal duo did not shepherd him away from the area. The younger of the French pair had positioned himself correctly to do so but between them, they did not apply enough pressure to force N’Zogbia towards the relative safety of the touch- or bye- lines. Whatever the case, Watson’s penalty was perfect, powerful and into a corner which Fabianski could do nothing to stop, despite guessing the direction correctly.
Arsenal’s cohesion sparked from Wilshere replacing the injured Diaby and paid almost immediate dividends. Having previously made two perfectly-timed interventions in his own area, Koscielny almost equalised, Al Habsi failed to hold Rosicky’s strike and with Koscielny poised to draw Arsenal level, Caldwell blocked maintaining his side’s lead.
The game changed through two moments of Arshavin magic. Infuriatingly inconsistent, the mercurial Russian brought Arsenal level with an acrobatic strike following Al Habsi’s save from Bendtner. Before the interval, he turned provider, forcing the Wigan defence onto the back foot, he found Bendtner who bundled his way through before calmly finishing. A not entirely deserved lead at half-time came as a result of a vastly improved end to the half.
For the second period, there was more controlled possession from the visitors, frustrating the hosts and reducing them to sporadic raids. Cleverly had the only real opportunity to bring equality to the proceedings but fired over.
Having scored an own goal in the recent Carling Cup encounter, Alcaraz tried to repeat the feat, heading into the side netting whilst Chamakh headed just wide. With twenty minutes to go, Wilshere chipped the ball into Arshavin’s stride but the Russian could not gain enough leverage to lift the ball over the advancing Al Habsi.
With the pressure deflating, life was breathed into the game once more. McArthur and N’Zogbia broke, exchanging passes before the French international saw his drive parried by Fabianski. Minutes later, the mists which descended over the Wigan player’s eyes matched the colour of the referee’s card, a situation entirely of the official’s making.
Incorrectly penalising Wilshere for a non-existent foul, the youngster and N’Zogbia exchanged words. As play moved up the pitch, the Frenchman butted Wilshere and was correctly dismissed. Yet his team-mates still refused to give up hope. With ten minutes to go, a deep corner was headed back across goal towards the waiting Caldwell; Squillaci intervened to with a header that sent the ball into the net instead of over the bar to safety.
The denouement came with more refereeing inconsistency. Nasri had been a late substitute following the equaliser. His freekick on the edge of the area was batted to safety off a Wigan arm in the same way that Cesc was penalised against Tottenham. This time, the official refused to award a penalty; it is impossible to fathom why. From his position, Probert had a clear view that the ball was diverted by a deliberate movement of the hand yet he chose to ignore that.
In the end though, the dropping of points is the fault of Arsenal, mistakes by officials only serve to distract from defensive failings. The equaliser was an appalling goal to concede. Squillaci was the wrong side of Caldwell in the final moments, a basic error by an experienced player, something which happens to often, not just to the Frenchman.
Even so, the year ends with Arsenal in third, two points off the top having played a game less than Manchester City but one more than United. It is a good position to be in but 2011 needs to see a consistent run put together if the promise is to materialise into reward.