By Richard Clarke
Arsenal suffered a blow in their bid to secure third place in the Premier League when they went down 2-1 to Wigan at Emirates Stadium on Monday night.
The damage was done early – Franco Di Santo stabbed home the first on seven minutes and Jordi Gomez snaffled another seconds later.
Thomas Vermaelen headed the home side back into the game midway through the first half but, despite persistence and pressure, Wigan held firm to secure their first ever win at Arsenal.
Victor Moses was excellent up front and Ali Al-Habsi made a major contribution in goal. Wenger's men had all the energy of recent games but not the edge.
However, that combination, so irresistible in that past two months, had created a cushion. Despite this home loss - only their third in the Premier League this season - Arsenal are still five points clear of Tottenham and Newcastle. However, the latter pair now have a game in hand.
This result has opened the door ajar but Wenger’s men still have the capability of slamming it shut.
The manager made one change from the side that had brushed aside Wolves last Wednesday night. Tomas Rosicky came in for Aaron Ramsey in central midfield. With a run of nine wins in their last 10 games, there seemed little need for alteration.
Wigan, however, had form themselves. Since the end of January they had more than doubled their season’s tally and forced their way out of the bottom three.
In their last two games they had unluckily lost at Chelsea while chasing a victory and actually pulled off a big win against Manchester United last time out.
If they won this evening it could not be classed a surprise; Arsenal had been amply forewarned.
Not that it started that way. In fact, the home side began well.
Vermaelen fired wide and Yossi Benayoun saw his header tipped over by Al-Habsi.
Then lightning struck.
In the seventh minute, Robin van Persie’s corner was cleared and then Bacary Sagna’s return header was stolen. Wigan fled forward down the left and Gomez fed Di Santo in the middle. Szczesny raced out to the edge of the area but his trailing leg only diverted the ball high into the air. Di Santo retained his poise to convert into the gaping net.
Within a minute it was 2-0. Moses darted in from the left and found James McCarthy at the near post. His shot rebounded for Gomez to convert from close range. It was a scruffy goal but priceless for Wigan.
Just after the second went in, Mikel Arteta went off. The Spaniard had been limping since the early minutes and Ramsey’s introduction was inevitable.
Emirates had been very good for Arsenal this season. Only Manchester United had won a Premier League game there since Wenger properly formed his side at the end of the summer transfer window.
However, at this point, frowns were everywhere.
Al-Habsi turned over an expert header from Benayoun and Van Persie began to threaten.
By the midway point, Arsenal had a grip on the game – and they soon found a goal.
Rosicky weaved himself into space on the right and curled a cross to the near post. Vermaelen thundered in a header – his sixth goal of an impressive season.
Arsenal had now warmed to the task and their pursuit was intense.
Van Persie stung the hands of Al-Habsi, Johan Djourou fired inches wide and an off-balance Rosicky had an effort over the bar.
However, Wigan were still ominous on the counter with Moses starting to shine. Seven minutes from the break he set up to Di Santo, unmarked on the left, to fire dangerously across the area.
Then, with the final act of the half, Emmerson Boyce robbed Ramsey and Gomez fired over.
Arsenal went into the break half-full of hope and half-full of concern.
With the first act of the second period, Santos saw a shot blocked and, after the ball was returned to him, nearly set up Van Persie.
Arsenal had Wigan penned back in the opening eight minutes but, when the visitors broke free, it was nearly decisive.
The impressive Moses muscled off Sagna, no mean feat, before forcing a fine save from Szczesny.
Then just before the hour, the same Wigan striker bundled his way clear only to produce a tame shot the Arsenal keeper.
The game was becoming end to end. Despite their vulnerability, Arsenal were trying to impose themselves, with Santos the most obvious example. He might have turned in Van Persie’s cutback. Before that, Vermaelen nodded a corner over the bar.
After Moses set up Gomez to fire over, Wenger made his final change – Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for Djourou. Gervinho had already replaced Benayoun.
The youngster slotted into midfield and Song retreated to centre-back. Arsenal’s plan and personnel were set for the remainder of the match – now they had to deliver.
The home side were now all hustle. But Wigan were like a wall through the centre of their defence. And when Arsenal did get down the flanks they could not deliver a telling cross.
The home side could not muster much in the final few minutes. Wigan had done their job efficiently and effectively.
It is no wonder they were clapped off by a significant section of the Arsenal supporters.
A disappointing night but nowhere near a decisive one.
- Vermaelen Goal!
- Djourou 74
- Sagna Yellow Card
- Andre Santos
- Song Yellow Card
- Benayoun 60
- Arteta 8
- van Persie (C)
- Gervinho 60
- Oxlade-Chamberlain 74
- Ramsey 8
- Al Habsi Yellow Card
- Caldwell Yellow Card
- Gomez 86 Goal!
- McArthur Yellow Card
- Di Santo 75 Goal!
- Diame 86
- Sammon 75