Goal: Arteta (60, pen)
Arsenal Line-Up (4-3-3). Szczesny (GK), Sagna (RB), Vermaalen (CB), Mertesacker (CB), Gibbs (LB), Wilshere (CM) Arteta (CM), Cazorla (CM), Podolski (LF), Oxlade-Chamberlain (RF), Walcott (CF).
Arsenal got all three points after a cagey affair at the DW stadium and achieved three consecutive Premiere League victories for the first time this season. In terms of the quality of the performance, this was far from a stellar display from Arsenal, but at the moment nothing but three points matters to build some confidence and momentum.
Arsene Wenger had the same starting line-up that ripped Reading apart five days ago with their slick passing and movement, but Wigan had done their homework much better than their fellow strugglers. Suffering from a deep injury crisis with centerbacks Alcaraz and Caldwell unavailable, Roberto Martinez placed McCarthy at the tip of a three-centerback formation (3-5-2) and gave him the licence to move up the pitch to help their build-up when Wigan gained possession. The midfielder, though initially uncomfortable at this hybrid role, did a decent job, especially by effectively squeezing the space that Cazorla usually thrives. The Spaniard, for the first time this season, had zero attempts on goal all game long. He did not have a particularly bad game, yet he was far from his usual self pulling all the strings. The Wigan midfield and front two also pressed quite effectively, especially in the first half, and did not allow Arsenal to settle into their usual passing game.
The main Arsenal threat on the day was Oxlade-Chamberlain at the right wing, who had a very energetic and aggressive performance (Podolski on the left was completely lethargic, almost on strike). It was the promising teenager who had their first chance in the 8th minute. When a clever Cazorla flick gave Arteta the keys of the vast space that was Wigan’s midfield, the Spaniard pushed forward to release Oxlade on the right edge of the box, but the winger’s venomous shot was saved by Al Habsi at the near post.
Wigan, though, were passing the ball quite well despite the somewhat heavy surface, and they almost took the lead shortly after the 20th minute when Di Santo picked Kone’s run behind Mertesacker. The Ivorian left the big German for dead with his pace, yet he shot terribly wide when facing only Szczesny. Wigan had the tidier build-up, but their forward moves were usually wasted by the two most terrible wingbacks I have seen in the same team, Stam on the right, and Beausejour on the left. Stam, in particular, easily found space on the right due to Podolski not tracking him properly, but his delivery failed him time and time again.
The second half started with Oxlade Chamberlain seemingly having received clear instructions to attack Beausejour on Wigan’s left, and he did that brilliantly. First, he skinned Wigan’s left wingback, but his low dangerous cross was cut out by Boyce. Minutes later, when Oxlade was played behind Beausejour by Cazorla, he delivered a precise cutback to Walcott, but the “contract-rebel-striker-wanna-be” underlined what separates him from top-class poachers with his tame shot, which was saved by Al Habsi. Arsenal’s pressure down Wigan’s left finally paid off when Cazorla slipped Walcott behind Beausejour on the right edge of the box. The Chilean should have stood off since Figueora was covering, but he made contact from behind with his leg tangling with Walcott’s. Arteta was cool as a cucumber from the spot, sending Al Habsi the wrong way.
After falling behind, Wigan started attacking with more numbers, yet their lack of quality up-front was telling. There were only two occasions when Szczesny was troubled. First, Kone cut inside Mertesacker from Wigan’s left, and driled a low shot denied by the Polish goalkeeper. Around the 70th minute, after a delightful Wigan build-up, Jones fired a missile from outside the box that missed Szczesny’s left post by a small margin.
In the last 15 minutes, Arsene Wenger replaced Oxlade with Ramsey and Podolski with Coquelin, and shifted Cazorla to wide left in order to neutralize Wigan’s dominance in the middle of the park. The move was useful as Wigan found it harder to carry the ball forward, but Arsenal also lost their outlets to keep the ball in Wigan’s half, since Walcott was completely useless in that regard. In the dying minutes, Arsenal closed the game without too much fuss and won massive 3 points which moved them above Spurs to third place (though Chelsea have two games in hand).
One final remark on Walcott playing as the central striker. After his acceptable and almost promising performance against Reading, Walcott’s display today reminded all the aspects of his game that makes him quite unsuitable for the role (see the above dashboard which shows how little he was involved). His supporters say that his pace and finishing ability is enough reason that he should play as the central striker. Yet, his pace is neutralized with deep and physical defences especially when Arsenal play at home. Finishing ability, on the other hand, is not only about how well you finish when you break behind defenders with the ball fully under your control. Finishing is mostly about sweeping home cutbacks under pressure, throwing yourself at the end of a low and hard cross into the 6 yard box, or holding off challenges with a defender on your back to turn and shoot from the edge of the box. Moreover, Walcott does not have the mental and physical tenacity to hold the ball up front to provide relief to the team on less than perfect weather/pitch conditions against tougher opposition. This is not to say that he should not be deployed there occasionally, when there are no other options (Giroud was ill today). But in the longer term, if he stays with the club, Walcott needs to go back to the right wing where he is most useful to the team, and Wenger must buy a proper “real’ striker.