Monday, we finally beat one of the big two during the past 24 months, and did it in convincing fashion – could we build on that result, take care of business, and keep the pressure squarely on the two Manchester sides?
The pre-match buzz was almost as interesting as the match itself. It was generally understood that Arsene would make changes from the lineup that started on Monday – three games in a seven-day period dictated that he would have to, and this fixture was the logical choice. As expected as changes were, I am not sure that many of us expected a full eight changes from Monday – when I saw the lineup, I was immediately worried. I had spent much of the afternoon defending Arsene on this site, insisting that he needed to rotate players with the stretch of matches we faced. But I doubted the wisdom of making so many changes at one time. A strong bench reassured me, even if I did harbor doubts as to whether Arsene would be proactive to use any of these players if we ran into early trouble.
We started poorly. The energy, intensity, pressure and work rate – aspects so impressive on Monday – were completely absent and we came out flat. Rodallega nearly punished us just a couple of minutes in, zipping right by Squillaci, only for Koscielny to make a covering tackle. N’Zogbia then fired a shot in that Fabianski had to save. Wigan pressed us, moved the ball well, and our much-changed side did not look up for this one. Our central midfield duo of Diaby and Denilson couldn’t get into the game, Eboue had a nightmare in Clichy’s spot, Koscielny and Squillaci were shaky at best, and Arshavin, Bendtner and Chamakh looked like they had never met, let alone played together.
Wigan were in control when Koscielny brought N’Zogbia down either inside of just outside the box, depending upon your view (or team colours). Referee Probert pointed to the spot, and Watson tucked the penalty away to give the home side a 1-0 lead. We had a chance to equalize when Al Habsi could not hold Rosicky’s shot, but Koscielny could not get to the loose ball quick enough. Shortly afterwards, Diaby was substituted, ostensibly for another injury. Jack came on for him, and we started to improve.
Wigan still looked more likely to score, but six minutes before the break, Al Habsi could only parry Bendtner’s shot into the path of Arshavin, who netted with a smart scissor kick. The goal immediately sparked us into life, and drained some of the same from Wigan. Five minutes later, Arshavin sprung Bendtner with a nice pass, and he slotted past Al Habsi to give us the lead. We should have been comfortable going into the break, but we once again lost concentration, and Fabianski had to save from Rodallega right before the halftime whistle.
I had hoped to see at least one change during the interval, but was not surprised to see none. We started the second half much better than the first and about 12 minutes in, Chamakh should have scored our third, but fluffed his header from point-blank range. A couple of minutes later Cleverly sent a long-range shot just over the bar. We had another chance to effectively wrap this up on 70 minutes, Al Habsi stood up well to block from Arshavin, after Wilshere’s chip would set the latter up. We had those two chances, but did not look particularly comfortable, and Wigan were creating chances of their own – from the moment Chamakh missed his header, I was hoping to see Theo come on, feeling we needed more to close this one out. To highlight this, N’Zogbia was put through one-on-one, but Fabianski bravely saved.
On 78 minutes, the former was stupidly dismissed after an absurd head-butt into Jack’s face. Surely we would kill this off – Wigan’s best player sent off, facing ten men, right? Wrong…Two minutes later, Wigan won a corner, which Rodallega headed to the far post, only for Squillaci to beat Caldwell to it – and head it into OUR net!!
Arsene, who sat on his hands and did nothing as Wigan gradually built second half momentum, predictably double-substituted, Arshavin and Jack making way for Theo and Samir. Unlike last year, there was little danger of losing this match – the moment Wigan equalized, they stopped trying to score and just tried to hang on for the final ten minutes. We had all of the ball, and spent plenty of time in their area, but our composure had long since left, and there was a rushed, panicked sense about our work.
There was another moment of controversy on 86 minutes, when a Samir free kick was clearly handled in the area by MacArthur. Probert gave nothing – tough luck. Sometimes we get those, sometimes we don’t. We should never have allowed ourselves to get into a situation where we needed that for the three points. Despite four minutes of stoppage time, there would be no more real chances, and no more goals.
So a lot of frustration and not much else after we squandered the good feelings and confidence from Monday. As much as I defended him during the afternoon, I think Arsene got this badly wrong with the excessive squad rotations. I completely agree that we need to try and get players rest for the upcoming matches and this was probably the best match to do this. But by voluntarily replacing seven players (and Cesc’s suspension) from Monday’s lineup, there was little chance we would replicate the form and effort from that match.
Some may say that we didn’t necessarily need that – that under-rates a Wigan side that are clearly better than their league position and fully deserved their point tonight. As sluggish as we were during the opening half hour, they were bright, aggressive, and targeted our weaknesses (Eboue, our vulnerable centre half pairing, and our listless central midfield pairing of Diaby and Denilson). We probably should have been down by more than one goal when Arshavin equalized. The saddest part of that, however, is that a better balanced side would certainly have started better, worked harder off the ball, and defended much smarter and better. And that would most likely have seen us home comfortably.
If Arsene made a big mistake by making so many changes to the starting eleven, then he compounded it greatly by bringing a strong bench and doing virtually nothing with it. The Jack for Diaby swap was injury enforced, and as Wigan built more and more momentum in the second half, he still did not bring anyone else on. Samir or Theo – who were both introduced in a too little-too late situation – after about 50 or so minutes would have helped pin Wigan back and give them more to worry about. By the time of N’Zogbia’s dismissal and their subsequent equalizer, the momentum had left us, we were doing nothing with the ball, and Wigan were clearly on top.
I thought the purpose of bringing such a strong bench would be to stem the bleeding in situations like this. Disappointingly – but not surprisingly – all substitutions were once again reactive in nature, and the final two were clearly too late. Sometimes I wonder why we bother to even bring substitutes with us…
Nobody played particularly well. Chamakh was, frankly, useless up front. Arshavin and Bendtner were the usual mixed bags of sublime and absurd. Eboue was a grease-fire at left back and our centre backs were little better. Denilson had a good second half alongside Jack – when paired with Diaby, our central midfield was pedestrian at best.
Actually, I retract my first sentence of this paragraph – Fabianski had a solid game. He was beaten only by a penalty and his own centre back. He made several good saves and kept us in it during that first half hour, right at the end of the first half, and when Wigan built a head of steam midway through the second half. He had a personal nightmare in last season’s fixture at the DW, so I was pleased to see him play much, much better today.
Every time I see the hapless Sebastian Squillaci, my opinion of him continues to go down. Today’s own goal is the latest in a catalogue of errors – situations where he has been beaten in the air, left for dead by an opposing forward, or panicked and cost us a goal. I am trying not to be too hard on the guy, as he was an emergency buy, as a fourth choice CB; but in the half season I have seen him, I think this is money that has been very poorly spent. He was advertised as experienced cover, but he has not shown that much of the former, and has, in my opinion, gotten steadily worse. I suppose Arsene rested Djourou with an eye on a big, powerful Birmingham side this weekend, but I think he should have probably risked him tonight.
Some would call all this hindsight – I disagree. I disagree because the moment the squad was announced with the eight changes, the alarm bells started ringing. I know on the board, just about all of us were worried – too many changes at once, too few of the players who performed so heroically on Monday. Many of us had a sense this would backfire and so it proved.
One point at Wigan may be an improvement on last season’s return, and we did not drop too far behind the Manchester sides. Fair enough – but we also dropped two points against a side not as strong as the sides those two played yesterday. Plus Chelsea and the Spuddies gained two point on us. Most damaging, however, is that we failed to build on Monday’s result. The vastly changed side showed a vastly changed attitude and work-ethic – and not for the better either. This was clearly two steps backwards, not forwards. A more balanced side, and we are probably level at the top and looking ahead to the trip to St Andrews and another chance to reach the summit.
Once again, when we really needed to win, we couldn’t. Will we ever get there?
The players will hear the stories about bottling it all over again; they will have to listen to them until they take to the pitch at St. Andrews. Arsene set them up for failure by naming the squad that he did and then doing nothing as the game started to slip away. In short, he played with fire, and we got burned.
So on to St Andrews…Nobody wins there these days – as Man United showed Tuesday night and Chelsea showed a few weeks back – so we will get anything but a free ride. We are still in touch with the top two, and a win in Birmingham will give us some forward momentum again. At some point, however, we need to build on the big wins and string a series of wins together. Yesterday was the perfect opportunity to do that, which makes the excessive squad rotation all the more frustrating. All is not lost, but I would argue that we still have too many questions unanswered – about consistency, about mental strength, about Arsene – and we should not have that many after such a huge win as we had on Monday. That was supposed to put some demons to rest – further results such as the one last night will relegate its significance to a simple three points, no more.
Make no mistake, we blew more than just two points last night…
Written by Oliver