Arsenal ended as deceptively comfortable-looking winners of a game that seriously threatened to bring their long unbeaten record in the Premier League to a shuddering halt.
Four goals in the last half-hour – the key one from the unlikely source of the substitute defender, Mikaël Silvestre – saw them safely home after they had been second best for much of the game. They might have stayed that way if their defender, Kieran Gibbs, had been sent off in the first half for bringing down Antonio Valencia as he ran at goal, rather than merely booked.
"I can't go along with the referee when he says that Antonio isn't in control of the situation," said the Wigan manager, Steve Bruce. "He's the fastest player on the field."
Wigan gave hints from the start that they were going to pose problems. Mido's flicked header gave Hugo Rodallega an opening from which he should have done more than pull his shot across goal, while Valencia got to the byline and was then a little too studious with his cross. Arsenal had not lost in the League for 17 matches, but it took them just over 17 minutes to fall behind in this one. Their problems began with Denilson's hand-ball, Mido's 40 yard free-kick was deflected over the bar and Ben Watson's corner found Emmerson Boyce beyond the far post.
Lukasz Fabianski, in the side for the injured Manuel Almunia, could not claim his header, nobody came to his rescue with a clearance and Mido launched himself to volley through the crowd of players on the goalline.
It was a bad half for Arsène Wenger's men, who suffered further disruption when Johan Djourou was stretchered off with a knee injury that could mean a long lay-off. It could and should have been worse when, deep in time added on, Gibbs blatantly brought down Valencia. A red card looked a certainty, but when the defender escaped with yellow his let-off was compounded when Watson's free-kick came off the inside of the post and stayed out.
"We might still have lost, but it was a big turning point in the game," said Bruce of Alan Wiley's decision.
Arsenal continued to live dangerously after the break. The threatening Mido beat Fabianski to get in a looping header which was cleared off the line by Gibbs – an extra affront to Wigan supporters who were convinced that he should not even have been on the field. It was a double blow for the home side, with Mido having to go off with a facial injury from his collision with the goalkeeper.
That was the moment when the tide began to turn. With Emmanuel Adebayor and Robin van Persie warming up on the touchline, it was Theo Walcott who made the breakthrough, firing home after Andrey Arshavin's incursion had produced a loose ball in the area. Silvestre, the former Manchester United stalwart, struck on 71 minutes, after Michael Brown had conceded a free-kick and been booked for a foul on Cesc Fabregas.
Wigan's defence fell apart in the last few minutes to allow further goals to Arshavin and Alex Song – the first of them from a comical blunder by Jason Koumas – but even Wenger conceded that it might have been very different if Gibbs had seen red.
"I was scared it might be red, but I hoped it would be yellow," said the Arsenal manager. "If we had gone down to 10 men, we would still have tried to win the game.
"It was great character and mental strength from such a young team."