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Dec 29, 2010

Arsenal miss chance at Wigan

In going from jubilation to irritation in the space of 50 hours, Arsenal contrived to sum up their season in the space of two games. They can surge ahead and they can stumble, they can offer endless entertainment of both the right and wrong variety and can be deemed gloriously or infuriatingly flawed.  But in a title race of enthralling imperfection, the side that makes the fewest mistakes would appear to be the likeliest winner.

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A boring ruthlessness is anathema to Arsenal, but that counts against them on evenings such as this. When they were a goal up and had a one-man advantage against a Wigan team deprived of their best player, the prime example of self-destruction appeared to be Charles N'Zogbia's head-butt on Jack Wilshere.  

Then that perception was radically altered. Sebastien Squillaci's own goal, the latest of the many set-piece concessions that have pockmarked Arsenal's season, highlighted age-old concerns about the back four. The manner of it reopened the questions about mental strength that Monday's win over Chelsea appeared to have answered. And the loss of two points while many of their premier players languished on the bench left Arsene Wenger open to accusations; of taking Wigan lightly, arguably, and of displaying an excessive amount of faith in his squad players.  

The gruelling programme is a legitimate explanation. "I had to change because we play again Saturday and again Wednesday and next Saturday," said Wenger, after retaining only three of the conquerors of Chelsea. "We cannot always play with the same team." Yet the side who most resembled Wenger's for much of the match were Wigan; N'Zogbia, Hugo Rodallega and Tom Cleverley form as inventive a front three as there is in the lower half of the league.

They broke with pace and verve. As Wenger said: "They scored from two set-pieces." That simple fact does not reflect the style of Wigan's play, however. Ben Watson's precise penalty was expertly converted, but awarded after N'Zogbia's was elegantly weaving his way through the Arsenal defence, albeit at express pace, when he was caught by Laurent Koscielny's heel.  

Their second goal was more direct. Under pressure from Gary Caldwell, Squillaci headed over his own line after Rodallega had redirected Watson's corner back into the six-yard box. It came three minutes after N'Zogbia had floored Wilshere and three before Wenger substituted his substitute. "I felt Jack was becoming a bit controversial," he said. His replacement, Samir Nasri, struck a free kick that hit Cleverley on the arm. "Nasri is adamant it is 100 percent penalty," said Wenger, who missed the incident.  

His side had gone had gone from disjointed to destructive in the space of six minutes just before half-time, when Andrey Arshavin and Nicklas Bendtner scored. The Russian has the title of Arsenal's greatest enigma but, while Wenger remains one of the game's great modernisers, it seemed old-fashioned psychology spurred Arshavin into form. Given a watching brief for the win over Chelsea, it was possible to detect a bruised ego in his response on his recall. 

 

He scored a goal of acrobatic accuracy, a swivelling volley that was struck with enough power to prevent Ali Al Habsi from making a second save after the Omani parried Bendtner's shot into his path.  

Another significant contribution followed soon after. Arshavin's direct dribbling preceded a deft, outside-of-the-boot pass that gave Bendtner the chance to power between Caldwell and Antolin Alcaraz and prod his shot past Al Habsi.  

And that should have been that. But, as Wenger admitted: "In the second half, we didn't do enough." Wigan, in comparison, stepped up their efforts. "In the manner the game went we needed a real reaction with character, with passion and with understanding what the game needs," said Roberto Martinez. "In the second half, we beat Arsenal 1-0 with 10 men and that speaks volumes."  

It has been a profitable Christmas for his side, with the sole blight being N'Zogbia's dismissal and three-match ban. "You cannot accept that kind of reaction," Martinez added. "Football is a team game. The reaction of the players probably got Charles out of jail. It is something we will deal with internally."  

The Spaniard concluded: "Football is a game of errors and a game of mistakes and it is how you react." He was talking about this match but, as an explanation of the battle at the Premier League summit, it sufficed. Arsenal, once again, are looking for a reaction.  

MAN OF THE MATCH: Hugo Rodallega - His pace and movement troubled Arsenal throughout. The Colombian doesn't always score enough goals but he enables Wigan to play a brand of football that is unusual among relegation strugglers.  

WIGAN VERDICT: Martinez's men began impressively and ended excellently. Apart from a dip in performance levels at the end of the first half, the sole blight was N'Zogbia's dismissal. It leaves a small squad that lacks goalscorers looking stretched in a busy week. Newcastle, Sunday's visitors to the DW Stadium, may be especially relieved that their former player will be suspended.  

ARSENAL VERDICT: The lead they gained was undeserved, but it should have been retained. Defensive frailty remains a concern but it would not have mattered had Arsenal been more fluent after the break. Nasri and Theo Walcott, late replacements, perhaps could have been brought on earlier.

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