Wigan Athletic 3 – 2 Arsenal
0 – 1 Walcott (41)
0 – 2 Silvestre
1 – 2 Watson (80)
2 – 2 Bramble (88)
3 – 2 N‘Zogbia (90)
Sometimes excuses can be made for poor performances. For the defeat yesterday, there can be none. Arsène clearly stated the frustration:
When you are 2-0 up and you play for Arsenal Football Club I believe you would not use the injuries as an excuse when you lose the game
He could have been more succinct and said that a two-goal lead held by Arsenal should never be dropped. Such is the nature of football that they sometimes are but rarely can I remember one being surrendered so cheaply. Three goals conceded in the final ten minutes is a clear signal that confidence is gone. That is Arsène’s biggest problem and one which is hardest to resolve.
Perhaps it is not that difficult to understand either this or the defeat at Tottenham. Barcelona had ended a trophy challenge. Perhaps it was the comprehensive nature of the defeat in the second leg which affected the display at White Hart Lane. It was evident in the aftermath of that game that belief in winning the title had ebbed away. Perhaps that had not seeped back in sufficient quantities following Chelsea’s defeat at the same stadium.
Arsenal knew that a win was required and for eighty minutes, it was being achieved. Not comfortably but being achieved. As full-time was signalled, the whistle was not the only thing blown; a lead and title aspirations, no matter how vague, went with it.
Arsène’s post-match comments echoed those uttered after the defeat at White Hart Lane on Wednesday. They were about maturity, cohesion and their absence from the Arsenal performance, something else he has to address before the season’s forward steps are lost in a run of mediocrity and engulfed in negativity as the final games unfold.
That almost an entire first choice XI was missing from the starting line-up indicates why the performance was not as cohesive as it could have been. Yet the idea of the squad system is that injuries can be coped with. They have been until now. It is a testament to the strength of the squad that a title which was long gone pre-Christmas last year was still achievable with five games to go.
Culpability for the defeat is shared equally by the players. Nobody tracked Watson’s run for the Wigan opener; Fabianski was at fault for Bramble’s equaliser; three defenders were between N’Zogbia and the goal when he shot – not just ahead of him but directly in line and not one of them got close enough to make a tackle.
Prior to that, possession was ceded too readily to a Wigan side chasing victory for their survival. Surely that desire cannot have been overwhelming the desire to win the title. Not every player lacked it; Eastmond and Campbell were the notable exceptions whilst at times, Bendtner was so isolated that he could have played chess with Bramble rather than chasing the ball such was the paucity of support.
Yet a two goal lead was fashioned either side of half-time. Warning signs of a goal at either end had been given. Wigan had several good opportunities in the opening quarter of the game, missed through tame efforts on goal or through the pace of the ball beating the outstretched legs of the intended target.
Meanwhile Campbell headed wide and Bendtner scuffed a shot as he lost balance to remind the hosts that their spell of pressure was coming to an end. Gradually, the midfield triumvirate of Eastmond, Nasri and Diaby imposed themselves albeit not as forcefully as they could have done, especially in the case of Diaby. It was an infuriatingly inconsistent performance, sublime and lackadaisical in equal measure. One where the immense talent he possesses was submerged beneath mediocrity.
The breakthrough when it came was reminder of what the squad is capable of, especially in the case of Theo Walcott. Running onto a perfectly weighted pass, he ran into the area, smuggled the ball through a couple of half-hearted challenges and when it seemed the chance was lost, threaded the ball under the armpit of the advancing Kirkland. It left you wanting more from the England international, more on a regular basis.
The lead was doubled shortly after half-time when Silvestre headed home, the Wigan defensive errors a blueprint for those which Arsenal followed. With a two-goal advantage at a team fighting for their Premier League lives, the shutters should have come down with Wigan picked off on the counter-attack.
It did not happen. Defending in the formation employed starts at the forward line and yesterday afternoon that simply did not happen. Time and again, the defence was exposed through lack of application in defensive duties, not by one individual but by a collection. For this formation to be more successful, the players need to fully comprehend what is required of them.
Goalkeeping though is a serious issue. Fabianski is not a bad goalkeeper, simply not ready to be Arsenal’s Number One at this moment in time. His age is on his side but Wenger needs to act quickly. Almunia is a reliable Number Two, able to slot in when required. Neither is consistent enough to be Number One. With the Pole, I suspect that will come with time but he needs to play more often to get that consistency in his judgement. He should have punched the corner which he palmed on Bramble’s head; youthful impetuosity or supreme confidence led him to incorrectly believe the ball could be caught.
It is a crushing defeat in the sense that it was to a large extent, unexpected through the fixture and the two-goal lead. Talk, however, of finishing outside of the top four is lunacy; to some extent not finishing in the top three is likewise. Points advantage plus remaining fixtures for all involved should be enough to see Arsenal through. It is however must crushing for me in the capitulation in the final ten minutes, the lack of mental strength to pull through to a win when one was required.
Finally, ACLF has been nominated for best 2009-10 Best EPL Club Blog Award which you can vote for here.