Goals: Podolski (11), Maloney (45), Walcott (63), Podolski (68), Ramsey (71)
Arsenal Line-Up (4-3-3). Szczesny (GK), Sagna (RB), Koscielny (CB), Mertesacker (CB), Monreal (LB), Ramsey (CM) Arteta (CM), Rosicky (CM), Walcott (RF), Cazorla (LF), Podolski (CF).
Arsenal reclaimed the initiative in the race for a CL spot after beating Wigan in a game which was much more tense than the convincing scoreline suggests. The result meant that Wigan became the first club to be relegated in the same season they won the FA cup.
Arsenal Magnificent in the First 20 minutes
Arsenal had an excellent start to the game and played like a well-oiled machine. In my tactical preview of the game, I had mentioned the importance of stretching Wigan’s 3-centerback defence and identified Walcott’s crucial role to stay wide instead of coming narrow and looking for a killer run behind. Walcott did this excellently and looked menacing on the right wing exploiting the space behind Wigan’s left wing back Espinoza and left sided central defender Scharner. In the middle of the pitch, Arteta, Ramsey and Rosicky completely dominated the Wigan central midfield trio Gomes, McCarthy and Maloney as Cazorla provided a fourth central midfielder by coming inside from the wide left position. The chalkboard below compares the attacking action of the two sides in the first 20 minutes and illustrates Arsenal’s dominance. The Gunners took the lead in the 11th minute after Cazorla’s corner was headed in by Podolski with Wigan’s marking in the 6-yard box so shocking that it made clear why a decent team like them (but not The Orcs from Stoke or their footballing relatives from Sunderland) are relegated.
Arsenal Invite Wigan Back Into the Game
In recent weeks, a regular pattern that emerged in Arsenal games (against QPR and Fulham) is that Arsenal start playing with handbrakes on after taking the lead and allow the opposition to come back into the game. After the first 20 minute salvo, the home side retreated to their own half (without the press that allows them to get into a good defensive shape) when Wigan regained possession. Wigan, despite their exhaustion from the FA Cup final 3 days ago, sensed Arsenal’s ultra cautious approach and started putting together better moves. When they equalized, though, it was entirely due to the referee Mike Dean’s incredible invention of a dangerous freekick just in front of Arsenal’s box in the last minute of the half. Maloney, after running 40 yards with the ball, just threw himself to the ground as he was about to lose the ball to Arteta. The Scot’s free-kick was a beauty though and Wigan went to the dressing room with their tails and hopes up.
Tension Early in the Second Half, then Cazorla Takes Charge
Wigan started the second half brightly as Arsenal were pushed back with the visitors’ tidy passing and last gasp energy to avoid relegation. Szczesny made a brilliant save from Kone early in the half. Arsenal were able to defend their flanks reasonably well, but Wigan pressure was mounting with Arsenal dropping too deep in a period of the game where they were supposed to find a winner. As the crowd grew more nervous, Cazorla missed a good opportunity after good work by Walcott again on the right wing.
Arsenal then took the lead by exploiting Wigan’s defensively weak left flank again. The image below captures the build-up to Arsenal’s all important second goal and shows that weak spot, the space behind Espinoza and the left sided centerback Scharner as mentioned in my tactical preview. Cazorla taking the initiative is evident as he is making a run on the right wing despite being stationed (in theory) on the left wing (a trademark Wengeresque notion of positional fluidity that even some Arsenal fans fail to understand when they claim Cazorla is wasted on the wing). In the image, notice how Espinoza is trying to close down Sagna and leaving a huge space behind himself and Scharner, and how Wigan midfielders are not picking up Cazorla’s run. In the follow-up, Cazorla’s sublime low cross into the 6-yard box is turned in by Walcott.
After this crucial second Arsenal goal, Wigan seemed to lose all hope and Arsenal extended their lead by scoring two more goals in quick succession. Just like the first two goals, they were both set up by the majestic Cazorla. First, the Spaniard headed the ball onto the path of Podolski with Wigan defenders exhibiting less positional organization than a Sunday league team and the German lifted the ball over the advancing Robles for Arsenal’s third.
Only three minutes later, Arsenal’s width again pierced Wigan too easily. The image below captures the build-up to Arsenal’s fourth goal scored by Ramsey. Cazorla is about to release Ramsey behind throught the left flank. Notice how stretched Wigan are due to Arsenal’s width. Wigan’s right sided centerback Boyce is caught high up the pitch and trying to close down Cazorla on the far right side of the image. The right wingback McArthur has given up and is just jogging next to them. Alcaraz, the middle of Wigan’s three center-backs, is drawn all the way to the far right side and trying to play Ramsey offside. He is unaware that the left wingback Espinoza on this near side is playing everybody onside. Ramsey will break from that left flank with Cazorla’s ball and finish the move himself.
The man of the match was Cazorla who created all four goals, but I must say Walcott was damn impressive with his work rate and tactical discipline to stay wide. Now all Arsenal need to do is to beat Newcastle at St.James Park to claim a CL spot. It will not be easy, but their hugely impressive run of 7 wins and 2 draws in their last 9 league games says it can be done!