By Chris Harris
Arsenal turned frustration to elation with another late, late show at Emirates Stadium.
Arsène Wenger's side looked like drawing a blank for the first time in the Premier League this season, thanks to a resolute defensive display from Wigan. But not for the first time, Arsenal came good in the closing stages. And not for the first time, William Gallas was the catalyst.
The captain ventured forward to score a last-gasp equaliser against Manchester United at the start of the month and he made his presence felt in the opposition area once again, meeting Bacary Sagna's cross with a thumping header seven minutes from time. Tomas Rosicky grabbed a second from Nicklas Bendtner's pass to secure three vital points and send Arsenal three points clear at the top of the table following Manchester United's defeat at Bolton.
Poor Wigan. They led with 10 minutes to go at Emirates Stadium last season and lost; this would have hurt almost as much. For Arsenal, this was the perfect way to start a run of 12 games in just under six weeks. Their unbeaten run rolls on to 28 games in all competitions.
Wenger had known since the closing stages of the Reading game that Cesc Fabregas would be suspended for this fixture. Injuries to Alex Hleb (hamstring) and Mathieu Flamini (thigh) forced him to make a total of three changes from the side which started at the Madejski Stadium.
Denilson and Lassana Diarra, so impressive together in the Carling Cup, were given a chance to shine in the Premier League. Walcott, in blistering form for England Under-21s in midweek, came in for Hleb. Eduardo, one of the architects of England's downfall, had to settle for a place on the bench.
If the last international break seemed a particularly long one, that was probably down to the hoo-hah surrounding England and Steve McClaren. Arsenal beat Reading 12 days ago but it has been three long weeks since they stepped out at the Emirates against Manchester United. It was good to have them back.
Wigan, in theory, were the perfect opponents for an Arsenal side hoping to pick up where they left off before the break. The Latics have lost two managers since the summer and seven games in succession. The appointment of new boss Steve Bruce was only confirmed on Friday afternoon; he watched this game from the stands with Frank Barlow in temporary charge.
Arsenal started promisingly with Denilson, making his first league start, showing some good touches and Walcott playing with confidence. Indeed, the teenager was at the heart of much of Arsenal's best work throughout the half.
With 11 minutes gone Rosicky threaded a great ball through to Walcott in the left-hand channel. The striker sprinted to the byline and his cut-back was heading towards Emmanuel Adebayor when Titus Bramble hacked the ball clear. Five minutes later Diarra fired over from distance after Adebayor's knock-down. Then Walcott picked out Emmanuel Eboue inside the box with a clever return pass but the Ivorian's touch was far too heavy.
Wigan, like so many visiting teams, set out to frustrate Arsenal. Fielding a 4-1-4-1 formation with Denny Landzaat stationed in front of the back four and Marcus Bent ploughing a lone furrow up front, the Latics closed down space and pressed Arsenal hard. And when the chance arose they ventured forward to give the hosts a couple of scares.
One Jason Koumas corner skimmed off the head of the unmarked Paul Scharner and, later in the half, Bent soared above Kolo Toure to power a header just over from Emmerson Boyce's cross. Two let-offs for Arsenal and a stark reminder that they can't afford to switch off at the back.
Having said that, Manuel Almunia did not have a save to make before the break. The same cannot be said of Mike Pollitt, who produced a brilliant stop to deny Adebayor in the 21st minute. The Togo striker spun away from his marker 25 yards out and charged into the box, exchanging passes with the lively Walcott before forcing Pollitt to push his low effort past the post.
That chance lifted the home side and they piled on the pressure. Rosicky swerved a shot wide from just outside the box after a neat one-two with Denilson. Then Andreas Granqvist slid in to clear Eboue's whipped cross with Walcott lurking. Walcott himself curled another effort over the bar after a clever feint left him in space and the teenager followed that up with a burst to the byline and a tempting cut-back which Eboue could not convert. A first half of frustration was complete when Denilson's long-range effort deflected off Granqvist, looped over Pollitt's head and just cleared the crossbar.
Yet again, Arsenal would need to dig deep in the second half against stubborn opponents. But on this occasion they would have to do without the guile of the suspended Fabregas and the injured Hleb. In their absence, Walcott's pace looked the most potent weapon they had.
It took the hosts until the hour mark to really threaten again. Diarra picked the ball up from Almunia's throw and surged into Wigan territory. He exchanged passes with Rosicky and slipped the ball into Adebayor's path. As the Togo striker prepared to pull the trigger, Boyce slid in to dispossess him.
Too often promising build-up play foundered on the rocks of Wigan's defence and, as the minutes ticked by, anxiety grew. Wenger cut a frustrated figure on the edge of his technical area and groans rang out around the ground when Adebayor broke clear down the right but failed to pick out Walcott.
With 22 minutes left Wenger replaced Eboue with Eduardo but it was Adebayor who went close next with a vicious drive from 25 yards. Tempers flared after dangerous challenges on Denilson and Walcott; the latter was stretchered off with 10 minutes remaining but his injury is not as bad as first feared.
The game looked to be up for Arsenal but, with seven minutes remaining, the frustration was lifted. Sagna collected Bendtner's pass and curled a cross in from the right. Gallas, up from the back in a final throw of the dice, thumped a header past Pollitt. It was another vital intervention from the man who is enjoying a stellar second season in north London.
The relief was palpable and the points were secured shortly after. Bendtner slid the ball into Rosicky's path and the Czech fired his shot in off the post.
- Eboue 69
- Gallas Goal! Yellow Card
- Walcott 80
- Rosicky Goal!
- Eduardo 69
- Bendtner 80
- Scharner 90
- Granqvist Yellow Card
- Brown Yellow Card
- Olembe 69
- Bent Yellow Card
- Skoko 90
- Heskey 69 Yellow Card