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Arsenal stumble over finish line

Working under the most successful manager in the history of British football should be the ideal education for any young coach.

Alex Ferguson's triumphant Manchester United sides were always likely to produce a clutch of youthful coaches emerging from his considerable shadow, yet a curious trend is developing which suggests rubbing shoulders with the great man may not be a recipe for success.

With Bryan Robson's managerial career already over as he contemplates life as a glorified Old Trafford tour guide, his successor in the United engine room seemed destined to live up to his billing with a little more distinction.

Paul Ince and Mark Hughes showed signs that they could flourish after graduating under Fergie's legendary tutelage, yet Roy Keane appeared to be emerging as the most likely of the United old boys to become a genuine managerial giant as he quickly stumbled across success in his first job at Sunderland.

There was even talk that Keano could be the man to fill the great man's boots at United, but all such ideas can be banished after a week when the most unpredictable character in the game pulled off his latest disappearing act. Keane may well be an ex-manager for good now and the rest of Ferguson's fledglings are also under fire.

Few give Hughes much hope of starting next season as Manchester City manager unless he pulls off a few miracles in the second half of this campaign, while rumours sweeping through the game this weekend suggest Ince's time at Blackburn Rovers is almost up. Like Keane, his road back to the top may be long and improbable.

That leaves Steve Bruce, whose Wigan Athletic side came to the Emirates Stadium on this crisp December afternoon sitting neatly in a mid-table position they would quite happily settle for come May.

After bouncing back from the disappointment of relegation at Birmingham City and what he readily admitted was a period where he wondered whether management really was for him, Bruce has emerged as a coach with the ability to be more than a fleeting presence on the touchline.

Like former colleagues Keane, Robson and Hughes, Bruce has made a few howling mistakes in the transfer market in his time and his bad buys contributed to Birmingham's relegation a few years back, but he hung around long enough to learn from his mistakes.

By securing the Blues an instant return to the top flight and then keeping Wigan in the Premier League against the odds last season, Bruce's reputation leapt more than a few notches and his side's progress this season suggests he is now a boss to be reckoned with.

The reality that he will never be able to take Wigan too much further than the position they find themselves in right now is confirmed by the vast swathes of empty seats littering their JJB Stadium each weekend and there could not have been more than 500 Latics fans who bothered to make the trip to the Emirates Stadium for this game.

Quite simply, Wigan will always be a rugby league town and nothing Bruce or his team does will change that, yet those wearing the blue and white stripes every week are doing a fine job of enhancing their own reputations at a club where expectation is a word rarely muttered.

However, when your side features the defensive talents of Titus Bramble, limited ambition is justified. Poor old Titus has been on the receiving end of some horrendous stick down the years, so we will say that his mis-kicked clearance 16 minutes into this game was 'unfortunate'. In truth, it was another Bramble cock-up and Emmanuel Adebayor was on hand to pick up the pieces and open the scoring.

The opening goal should have been the spark to ignite Arsenal, but it was Wigan who dominated the rest of the first half as they targeted the Gunners' long-standing difficulties against set-plays. Cross after cross peppered Manuel Almunia's goal before the break and a defence with Johan Djourou at the heart rarely looked comfortable.

The Insider's last report from this venue inspired a heated discussion on the Soccernet message board, yet those who disagreed with the assessment provided of the 2-0 home defeat against Aston Villa were as misguided as Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger has been of late.

If Arsenal were serious title challengers, they would have moved through the gears and swept Wigan aside after scoring the first goal on home soil, but instead we were treated to an increasingly panicked second half display. As usual, they missed chances galore and their inability to play out a game is alarming.

Put it down to a lack of experience if you must, but after the shambles that was their final five minutes in the 4-4 draw against Tottenham Hotspur in October, they have discovered a panic button that is firmly pushed late on in games. Heskey could easily have drawn the sides level with his late header and in many ways, Arsenal deserved to be punished on another day when they declined to finish off an opponent.

"I suppose we can be happy about winning when we didn't play well," commented an ironic Arsene Wenger. "We didn't shoot ourselves in the foot when we could easily have done so at the end, but this was a nervy display. Our recent history means we are not good at the end of games and we have to work on this."

For his part, Wigan boss Bruce was full of praise for his troops. "We deserved something from the game and while everyone will focus on how badly Arsenal played, we should be pleased with the performance we put in," said Bruce, whose ability to handle the media is always so impressive.

"Our last visit to this stadium in the Carling Cup was not a great experience as we were thrashed by Arsenal's reserve side, so we have certainly made up for that this time. Anyone who watched that performance will agree we have the makings of a good team and I just hope I can keep them together."

The final whistle of this game was greeted with muted applause from Arsenal fans who realise this team are in need of a major overhaul in mentality and personnel to be successful.

Those few lonely Wigan fans heading back up the M1 probably went home the happier as Steve Bruce once again showed why he is the best of Fergie's protégés.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Chris Kirkland
The Wigan keeper was given a severe work out by Arsenal, but he stood up to the challenge and pulled off a string of saves to keep his side in the mix. His first half block from Adebayor was classy.

EBOUE NIGHTMARE: The Arsenal midfielder had to be taken off by Wenger in the closing stages as he continually gave the ball away and visibly cracked with the Arsenal fans jeering him. He was at fault for the late collapse against Tottenham a few weeks back and is clearly still suffering the after effects.

"It was sad the way the crowd reacted to him," said Wenger. "He is a sensitive boy and wants to do well for the team. I'm sure he will come back. On this occasion, I had to protect the team because he was becoming a danger to us."

HESKEY FUTURE: "I don't want to sell Emile because he is the main man in my team, but we may have to look at it if a mind blowing offer comes in next month," said Wigan boss Steve Bruce of his England striker. "Where could I go to replace him if he is sold? His contract is coming to an end in the summer, but I would rather keep him until then and get nothing because he could be vital to us staying in this league."

WIGAN VERDICT: Steve Bruce has put together a fine side and they are working to his well-honed game plan. He has plenty of quality in his ranks and they will be a good bet to claim a top ten finish this season.

ARSENAL VERDICT: Soccernet's Insider may not be popular with Arsenal fans again as this was the sort of display that confirms all the doubts stated in my previous article are justified. Nervous under set-plays, ready to crack as they clung onto a lead late on and guilty of missing chances galore, Wenger must know he has major problems on his hands.


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