Match Report: Mikel Arteta leaves Roberto Martinez feeling down on his luck as Arsenal narrowly win at Wigan
Wigan Athletic 0 Arsenal 1
Arsenal supporters spotting the club's chief executive, Ivan Gazidis, as they poured out of Wigan North Western station yesterday made no secret of what they wanted for Christmas. "Sign a striker," he was urged. Arsène Wenger is trying to persuade one to put pen to paper – a lad called Theo Walcott, whom he is now using in that role after perversely refusing to play him at all earlier in the season, which has contributed to the current stand-off with the club.
Yesterday Walcott missed his two chances to add to a neat goal scored at Reading last Monday, but he worked hard and won the admittedly soft penalty that decided the game. "I believe in his potential in that position," Wenger said. "He had not much service but his runs are good, his movement is good and his finishing is efficient."
Wenger gave justifiable credit to Wigan after a sixth defeat in eight games left them stuck in the bottom three. They felt hard done by over two crucial penalty decisions, Roberto Martinez calling Arsenal's "very, very soft" and claiming that in added time Kieran Gibbs was guilty of "a clear handball".
All in all, the Wigan manager was "very proud" of his team after a performance which "should give us great belief, because in the final third we're missing a little bit of confidence." That was perfectly exposed midway through the first half when Arouna Koné was sent clear of a labouring Per Mertesacker – having one of his worst games for Arsenal – only to pull his shot well wide of the far post.
In other areas of the pitch the home side did better, notably midfield, where Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla found themselves effectively being man-marked and given neither the time nor space they crave.
Having begun the game with their familiar three centre-halves, Wigan quickly realised it was not going to work and James McCarthy was moved from the middle of the back three to pick up Cazorla, while David Jones stuck almost as close to Wilshere. Similarly, Jean Beausejour, usually a wing-back, was forced to play deeper on the left to mark Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. It meant that Wigan had two highly adventurous full-backs contributing to an open game of surprisingly few clear chances.
Ronnie Stam and Franco Di Santo often threatened down the right, where Gibbs's positional sense can often be lax; but Koné was not sharp enough and Martinez is now hoping for great things from the 18 year-old Manchester United loanee Angelo Henrique, "an out-and-out finisher". Apart from one occasion when Koné wriggled inside to force a smart save from Wojciech Szczesny, the best effort was by Jones, clipping a pass from Maloney just wide. The home supporters, remarkably loyal in what is becoming another season of tribulation, did not enjoy the performance of the referee, Jon Moss, who apart from the penalty decisions was involved in one of the oddest cameos of the season. Near the end, with Wigan pressing for an equalising goal, he insisted that Di Santo went to the touchline to remove an earring – which, according to Wigan, the player was not actually wearing – and refused to let him back on for a good four minutes until the ball was out of play.
By that point the locals must have felt it was going to be one of those days. In the game's most decisive moment, just before the hour, Walcott collected a return pass from Cazorla and was homing in on goal when receiving no more than a nudge from Beausejour.
Mikel Arteta, who recently converted two penalties against West Bromwich, calmly knocked in another one. A few minutes earlier Ali Al Habsi, on his 100th appearance, had made his third good save in keeping out Walcott after a cut-back from Oxlade-Chamberlain, but for the rest of the game Arsenal were a little slack, the feeling growing that they could throw victory away.
Maynor Figueroa's deflected shot went straight to Szczesny, who then saved from Koné; James McArthur hit one of Beausejour's many crosses wide; and in added time there were two huge shouts for penalties, the clearest being against Gibbs, who moved an arm that was then struck by a shot from the substitute Jordi Gomez.
For once Wenger was able to reflect on old-fashioned virtues having seen Arsenal through to press their claim for a Champions' League place: "It was good because it was more determination than domination."
Wigan (4-1-3-2): Al Habsi; Stam, Boyce, Figueroa, Beausejour; McCarthy; McArthur, Jones, Maloney (Gomez, 89); Di Santo (McManaman, 76), Koné.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs; Arteta, Wilshere; Oxlade-Chamberlain (Ramsey, 75), Cazorla (Koscielny, 90) Podolski (Coquelin, 79); Walcott.
Referee: Jon Moss.
Man of the match: Al Habsi (Wigan)
Match rating: 6/10
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