The frustration for Wigan Athletic is that even as the door finally closed on them last night, as it did firmly in the second half, they did have their foot in it and a brief chance to escape.
There was an 18-minute period at the start of the second half, before they were washed away into the Championship, when they might have won this game. It would have been an astonishing escape, an unlikely triumph, but that has been the story of Wigan’s eight years in the Premier League. That was the story of their FA Cup run, after all.
The fact that it might have ended other than how it did is testament itself to the effort and commitment of their exhausted players. Roberto Martinez said he could not have been prouder of his players and they somehow dragged themselves into a competitive position.
Even here, running on empty, playing the league’s form team, who were fitter and faster and better, Wigan began the second half level. Callum McManaman went down in the box, Arouna Kone shot at Wojciech Szczesny, Shaun Maloney blazed over and James McCarthy had a goal disallowed for offside. Martinez said that if Kone had scored his chance he “guaranteed” Wigan would have won the game and while that is bold and unknowable, the Emirates crowd certainly would not have made it easy for Arsenal.
Any of those might have gone differently, and they might have woken up this morning on 38 points and anticipating Sunday. But they did not and so Wigan will not. Sunday, now, will be a homecoming for the cup winners but a goodbye to the Premier League too.
They did remarkably to get this far, to get level with Arsenal at the break, to get into the Premier League and then to stay here for eight good years. But ultimately they left themselves with too much to do. For Wigan to stay up required imagination, energy, resourcefulness and good fortune. Last night, in the second half, three days after their greatest ever day, they finally seemed to run out.
This game, of course, was not a play-off, even if it felt like one. It was the 37 game of a league season and had Wigan beaten Swansea City at home last Tuesday night then they would not have needed to win last night to stay alive. Even before then there were home defeats to Fulham and Sunderland and home draws with Southampton and Queens Park Rangers. Martinez said this was their most consistent season but they did not seem to find their form quickly enough.
Wigan have always flirted with ludicrously slim margins, looking in previous years as if they were playing chicken with the drop. They have started slowly but then found their rhythm at the last viable moment. This year, with two big games at Wembley as well, they did not have the resources or the energy to change course. Three days after an exhausting cup final, chasing Manchester City all over the Wembley pitch, this would have been their greatest escape yet.
The nerves and the fatigue told from the start.
James McCarthy and Jordi Gomez, two of the imaginative architects of Saturday’s cup triumph, gifted away possession in the first 10 minutes. Gomez’s slip set up the attack which brought the corner from which Wigan conceded, the concentration required to mark Arsenal’s one forward seemingly beyond them.
It was immediately clear which team had last played 10 days before, and which game had lost one draining game and won another in that period. There was almost nothing in Wigan’s legs, and so few of their moves that won them the cup were coming off. Callum McManaman could not get past Kieran Gibbs like he did Gael Clichy while there was no burst left in the legs of wingbacks James McArthur or Roger Espinoza. Wigan were hitting passes in front of themselves, wishing they had more in the tank.
Arsenal’s players looked far fitter and stronger, as well they might. Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey were able to break challenges at will while Wigan just did not have the legs to get near Tomas Rosicky and Santi Cazorla in midfield.
They could have easily wilted under the weight of Arsenal’s pace and the noise of the crowd but they did not, and just hung in the game. They did not have the pace they did on Saturday so they played with their brains first, keeping their shape in defence, playing offside and conserving energy in possession.
The waves of Arsenal attacks started to slow down. Wigan had to be cannier but they were, Shaun Maloney twice winning free-kicks from Mikel Arteta 25 yards out. The first time Gomez’s kick hit the wall so the next time Maloney took it himself, from just further out than his famous Loftus Road equaliser. Maloney produced the same result. Like McCarthy, Kone, McManaman and others, Maloney has no business playing in the Championship next year and might well be off this summer.
So Wigan, drained, desperate and on opposition territory, were level at the break. The crowd were turning and one more goal could have given them a crucial lead. From there, victory, 38 points and a chance to clamber over Aston Villa and do it all again next season. But it did not happen. This time, even more so than ever before, Wigan needed to be lucky and perfect but their chances did not go in, and then Arsenal’s did. This evening, finally, gravity reasserted itself.