It was not just the result, but the manner of it which caught the eye. When Wigan Athletic beat Manchester United in midweek for the first time in the club's history all agreed, Sir Alex Ferguson included, that the victory was fully merited.
Wigan kept and passed the ball better than their exalted neighbours, they had more shots, more corners and fewer bookings. "In the first 20 minutes we had 73 per cent of the ball," said Roberto Martinez proudly.
Given United had won all 14 previous meetings, each of which had come in the last seven years, that Wigan's players were confident enough to retain the ball so well was an achievement in itself. It was not a one-off either, Wigan had 50 per cent of possession at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, when two erroneous offside decisions undid them at Chelsea, and will seek to match Arsenal for possession at the Emirates tomorrow night.
This, said Martinez when he spoke in Manchester this week, was the realisation of a goal he set himself when he returned to Wigan as manager in 2009. "When I arrived at Wigan we had not beaten any of the top four and there was a mental block, a lack of belief that we were allowed to beat them. When you are playing the biggest teams, going to Stamford Bridge or the Emirates, playing Manchester United, you need to be yourself. The opposition will have real quality and will have the ball for long periods, but that does not mean you do not be yourself when you get the ball." It is advice which might be followed by Aston Villa at Old Trafford today, as well as Wigan tomorrow.
"Arrogance" is the word Martinez uses, though "self-belief" might be a more accurate definition. It means, he added, having the confidence to ignore the League table, to reject the old philosophy of keeping the score down, taking the top teams on instead.
"Away from home, convincing players they can beat top teams has been a target," said Martinez, "not just stopping the opposition, but playing yourself too. We went to White Hart Lane and won last year but it was a bit more of a well-organised performance and play on the counterattack. Liverpool this season and Stamford Bridge were completely different. I was really pleased because just as sometimes your position in the table gives you belief and confidence, sometimes it can stop you doing things.
"There is a real feeling [among clubs now] of being brave, of trying to win the game, not settling for damage limitation, which you saw a few years back. That is a sign the league is developing. For me the Premier League is the best in the world because of the different styles of football, anyone can beat anyone on their day."
One benchmark to judge how the League's strength has developed is Wednesday's Champions' League semi-final between Chelsea and Barcelona. Martinez, a Catalan by birth but now much Anglicised, said: "La Liga has the two best clubs in the world, but third is 23 points behind. I prefer the Premier League.
"If Chelsea win, we [the Premier League] would earn a lot of respect. It is possible. Chelsea, with the experience they have in their ranks, can make it very difficult for Barcelona at Stamford Bridge. I expect Chelsea to impose themselves on Barcelona and not many teams will do that. But realistically they need a two-goal lead because playing the second leg in the Nou Camp is a disadvantage."
Before following that match as an interested observer, Martinez must first try and outwit Arsène Wenger, a manager he regards as a role model "not because he is also a foreigner, but because of his philosophy. Sometimes we feel we have to spend big money to buy trophies but there is another way which is investing in characters and good young players. He has been a master at doing that.''
Fulham, Newcastle, Blackburn and Wolves make up the rest of Wigan's run-in and Martinez, whose team survived with a last-day victory at Stoke a year ago, expects the relegation issue to go to the final day again.
"Everyone can win games, even Wolves, look at the fight they showed against Arsenal. No one enjoys relegation scraps, and we've been there for a long time, but my team plays with no fear and I enjoy that. When I came to Wigan [as a player] in 1995 the dream was to get a new stadium and to get into the Premier League. Now we're playing teams like Manchester United. That's a real source of pride."
Martinez is too modest to add that now Wigan are beating Manchester United that pride is even greater.
Manchester United v Aston Villa is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 4pm; Arsenal v Wigan is on Sky Sports 1 tomorrow, kick-off 8pm
Turning the tables
17 Sept 2011, Blackburn 4-3 Arsenal Two own goals from the Gunners.
23 Oct 2011, QPR 1-0 Chelsea Didier Drogba and Jose Bosingwa sent off.
31 Dec 2011, Man Utd 2-3 Blackburn Late mistake by keeper David De Gea.
1 Jan 2012, Sunderland 1-0 Man City Ji Dong-won's late goal looks offside.
4 Jan 2012, Newcastle 3-0 Man Utd Back to back league defeats for United.
31 Jan 2012, Everton 1-0 Man City Darron Gibson, ex-United, fires home.
11 Feb 2012, Everton 2-0 Chelsea Merseysiders win emphatically again.
3 March 2012, West Brom 1-0 Chelsea Andre Villas-Boas is sacked next day.
11 March 2012, Swansea 1-0 Man City Luke Moore scores with 10 minutes left.
21 March 2012, QPR 3-2 Liverpool Visitors throw away two-goal lead in last 15 minutes.
24 March 2012, Liverpool 1-2 Wigan Captain Gary Caldwell scores winner.
31 March 2012, Man City 3-3 Sunderland Two goals in final five minutes earn City a fortuitous draw.
31 March, QPR 2 Arsenal 1 Samba Diakité scores against the run of play.
11 April 2012, Wigan 1-0 Man Utd Relegation strugglers win comfortably.
Alex HorlockReuse content