By Chris Harris
Three goals, a clean sheet and another stirring performance. Arsenal's Carling Cup kids are in the last eight of the competition and, on this evidence, they will take some stopping.
As expected Wigan provided a sterner test than Sheffield United but, ultimately, they were undone by three top-class strikes. Jay Simpson celebrated his first Arsenal start by scoring either side of the break and Carlos Vela added an exquisite chip to finish off the Latics.
The margin of victory would have been greater but for the heroics of Chris Kirkland. The Wigan keeper defied an injury to thwart Aaron Ramsey, Kieran Gibbs and Vela - twice - as Arsenal piled on the pressure. There are some big guns left in the Carling Cup but none of them will fancy facing the young Gunners on this form.
As ever, Wenger gave his Premier League regulars a break in this competition but, more significantly he did made one change from the side which hit Sheffield United for six in the Third Round. Nicklas Bendtner was rested amid a busy period for the Danish striker and in stepped Simpson. He has a bit of previous at Emirates Stadium of course - the bustling striker hit a hat-trick here in last season's Youth Cup.
The Blades were blunted with some ease six weeks ago but Wigan would present a bigger problem. Johan Djourou and company only had to deal with a half-fit James Beattie in their last Carling Cup outing; now the Arsenal back four were up against one of the top flight's hottest properties in Amr Zaki.
It was evident from the start that Arsenal would not find life quite as easy as they had done six weeks ago. Wigan, muscular and determined, pinned the young Gunners back in their own half during the opening exchanges. Lukasz Fabianski, usually so assured, misjudged one attempted punch and one intended catch as the visitors enjoyed an early spell of pressure.
But once Arsenal got to grips with their opponents and picked up the tempo of their own play, the pendulum swung and the chances flowed. Unfortunately, Kirkland was in irrepressible form. He stood up well to keep out Vela after 13 minutes when the Mexican surged onto Ramsey's through-ball and attempted to jink past the Wigan keeper. Seconds later Simpson sounded a warning of what was to come with a vicious shot against the top of the crossbar.
Even Kirkland couldn't get near that but he soon racked up the saves as Arsenal took charge. Vela's clever diagonal pass picked out Gibbs on the left and he advanced before shooting too close to the Wigan keeper. Then Ramsey curled a sumptuous 30-yard free-kick towards the top corner only to see Kirkland fly across his goal to keep the ball out. Vela, taking plenty of physical punishment from the visitors' back four, found space to swing a decent effort at goal but Kirkland saved Wigan once again. It was exhilarating, but increasingly frustrating for Arsenal.
Wigan reminded all and sundry of their own threat when Mario Melchiot picked out Daniel de Ridder just inside the box and the Dutchman forced a smart save from Fabianski. Indeed, De Ridder and Antonio Valencia were getting plenty of joy on Arsenal's left flank where Gibbs' attacking instincts were occasionally exploited. Jason Koumas also went close as Arsenal were temporarily checked.
They were soon back on the front foot, and how. Jack Wilshere, showing strength and style in equal measure, found a gaping hole in the centre of Wigan's defence and weighted a perfect through-ball for Simpson. The 19-year-old raced onto it and poked the ball past Kirkland. One-nil to the Arsenal, and a fair reflection of a compelling first half.
The second half was no less watchable. Wigan began to take more risks - they had to - and Arsenal's midfield quartet continued to find space and probe for openings.
Fran Merida, who seems to do everything with a touch of class, almost deceived Kirkland with a swerving left-foot shot 11 minutes after the break. The Wigan keeper was forced to change direction and grabbed the ball at the second attempt. Ramsey was the next to delight the home fans, snaking through the middle and prodding the ball through for Gibbs to hit a powerful effort straight at Kirkland.
The warning signs were there for Wigan and, in the 65th minute, Arsenal's second arrived on the counter-attack. Fabianksi started it with a firm punch out of defence and Vela burst past Emmerson Boyce on the left touchline before haring in on goal. As the angle narrowed the Mexican had the wherewithal to look up and cut the ball back for Simpson, who slotted past Kirkland.
Five minutes later, Vela was rewarded for his selflessness with an exquisite strike of his own. This time Djourou led the charge from defence and slid the ball through for Vela. The teenager's pace bought him a yard on Titus Bramble and, as the defender slid in, Vela chipped the ball over a helpless Kirkland.
Wenger brought on Amaury Bischoff for his Arsenal debut while Henri Lansbury and Rui Fonte also got a taste of the action in the closing stages. The hosts could have had more but Fabianski stole the show in the final moments with an incredible double save to deny De Ridder and Zaki.
Arsenal's first-teamers admired it all from their seats just behind the substitutes bench. It looks like they will have a job on their hands to keep their places.
- Wilshere 77
- Ramsey Yellow Card
- Vela 84 Goal!
- Simpson 77 Goal! Goal!
- Fonte 84
- Bischoff 77
- Lansbury 77
- Koumas 58
- Cattermole 68
- Camara 58
- Brown 68