By Richard Clarke
The Arsenal team at Wigan on Saturday will be the exception that proves Arsène Wenger's rule.
The Frenchman used squad players and youngsters against Manchester City on Tuesday night. Their ‘impressive defeat' seems to have stiffened the manager's resolve to use a similar sort of side at Olympiacos next week.
For the Premier League, however, Arsenal will be almost always at their best.
History suggests it is wise move. Wenger has never beaten a Roberto Martinez side at the DW Stadium and, last season, he overshuffled his pack in this game. Admittedly it was one of those festive fixtures trickily sandwiched between Christmas and New Year, but the manager made eight changes, omitting Robin van Persie and Alex Song entirely.
Arsenal battled back after conceding a debatable penalty but Wigan snatched a 2-2 draw in the dying minutes having been reduced to 10 men. It was a disappointing point as victory would have lifted them level with Manchester United at the top. But it was immeasurably better than the three dropped the previous April when Arsenal let slip a 2-0 lead in the last 10 minutes. Arsenal's title challenge had been dying before that, Charles N'Zogbia's late goal delivered the fatal blow.
"Wigan are not [formalities]," admitted Wenger at Friday's press conference. "They came back twice [last season] and showed spirit and quality. Their pitch has always been quite difficult in winter but let's hope this time it will be alright.
"Wigan are a good team. They play good football so it's always a difficult game for us. They are playing at home and are a dangerous side there.
"They have always had good players in the last three or four years. Many of them have gone away now but they have replaced them this season and look like they are coming back with a bit more confidence.
"We just need to focus on our performance and try to win the game. In the League we are on a good run and we want to continue that. It's important that we respond well. A successful season is based on how much a team can respond to a disappointment and how quickly you can come back and win a game. That's what is at stake."
With a third of the Premier League season gone, Arsenal are a win away from the Champions League places. And, despite repeated questioning on the back of their fine recent form, the manager will look no further than the top four right now.
A settled squad is helping while Tuesday's toe-to-toe affair against a much-changed but still mighty Manchester City side suggested the talent pool extends for a few more fathoms.
Wenger can pick from the squad that drew with Fulham last Saturday - minus Abou Diaby (hamstring). But that Carling Cup defeat can only be seen as a positive addition to the season. The likes of Frimpong, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Miquel and Coquelin must be X per cent more confident. The likes of Yossi Benayoun, Sebastien Squillaci, Ju-Young Park and Lukasz Fabianski are X per cent more prepared by getting a game under their belts.
Wigan would be bottom but for that injury-time win at Sunderland last weekend. Martinez is a manager moulded in the image of Wenger - controlled, classy, articulate - but he has had to be pragmatic this season after a poor start.
"Roberto has managed to play with style and has always found a solution," said the Arsenal manager. "Recently he has gone to a more defensive approach, which you can understand.
"They play with five at the back and I expect them to do that against us. That means we face a team who will be determined to defend well. So the quality of our movement, the pace of our passing and stopping the counter-attack will be important.
"I am not too fearful for them [going down] because they always look like they will recover. And they have had two good results recently.
"It has always been a committed game and a good game up there. They play football, they try to pass the ball out from the back. They try to play the Spanish way.
"For us of course the three points are the target, no matter who we play. We dropped two points against Fulham and it is important we get back to winning habits."
In all honestly, that draw was probably more disappointing than the defeat to Manchester City. But it was the Carling Cup tie that actually ended a 10-game unbeaten run which included eight wins.
In itself, Tuesday was not a harmful loss. And going down at Olympiacos is even less of an issue as Arsenal have already secured top spot in Champions League Group F.
However, there is no such thing as an unimportant defeat and an overall loss of momentum would be a blow to Wenger right now. Arsenal have repaired their season in past two months and you sense that ‘roll' helped them come from behind at Norwich, Chelsea and Bolton while turning one point into three against Sunderland and Stoke.
It is telling that this season Wenger's side are statistically the best in the League at gaining a result from a losing position. It smacks of experience, professionalism and team-spirit.
You could argue that sums up the requirement at Wigan - the unfashionable fixture that has unpicked Arsenal's title challenge in recent seasons.
Arsenal: Wilshere (ankle), Gibbs (stomach), Jenkinson (back), Diaby (hamstring), Sagna (ankle), Ryo (ankle).
Wigan: Kirkland (back), Alcaraz (suspended)
Referee: M Clattenburg
• Wigan have had a player sent off in their last two games against Arsenal
• Arsenal have taken five points out of their last 12 in this fixture.
• Arsenal have won all nine League and Cup games between the two sides in North London.
• Robin van Persie has 13 goals this Premier League goals this season, the Wigan team have 12.
Copyright 2023 The Arsenal Football Club Limited. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.