By Richard Clarke
You could forgive any Arsenal fan for taking a ‘rain-check’ at Wigan on Saturday.
A lunchtime kick-off in Lancashire means many of the travelling supporters will begin their bleary-eyed journey in the dark of a deep midwinter’s morning.
The game is being televised, money is tight before Christmas and the demands of the final Saturday ahead the festivities normally hit football’s attendances.
But, as they have done for many years, Arsenal have asked for the biggest allocation of tickets, 4,600, and sold the lot.
Official records are not kept on these matters but, if the memory of the Box Office employee who looks after away ticketing is correct, the Club have sold out every Premier League away game for at least eight years.
“Absolutely, full credit to them,” said Arsène Wenger when that statistic was put to him.
“We know we always have a big support away from home and they have been fantastic everywhere. We are very proud and very grateful for having that. It’s a big strength and I must say that this season, away from home, the team have been quite consistent.
“In fact we feel more that our home fans have not really got what we wanted to give them. That’s the target for the New Year - that we continue and improve our away record, and to especially focus on our home record in the second part of the season.”
Arsenal have had a good week. The 5-2 victory at Reading on Monday saw them display something approaching Wenger’s trademark fluency in front of another 2,500 visiting fans. On Wednesday, the manager secured five British players on long-term contracts.
Thursday’s Champions League draw could have been kinder but at least they are in there and the tie against Bayern Munich is couple of months away.
The more immediate issue is Wigan away; a game in which victory would put Arsenal third when the full-time whistle blows.
Of course that is a misleading statement given that home victories by Chelsea and Tottenham later the same weekend would see Wenger’s men revert to fifth for the crucial watershed at Christmas. But it does show that, despite everything, Arsenal are in touch with the first target of their season - fourth place.
The postponement of the Boxing Day game with West Ham means Arsenal’s next three games are against teams struggling for points – Wigan, Newcastle and Southampton. The manager feels the free-scoring, free-flowing victory at the Madejski represents a turn in form.
“The positive for me was that we played the football we want to play - based on movement and technical quality,” he said. “It’s a good basis to go on from there and show the same qualities again at Wigan.
“The only negative is we conceded two goals. It was at a time where we thought maybe the game was over but that’s what we have to learn - to keep our focus for 90 minutes.”
Wenger reported no new injury concerns from midweek so only Andre Santos, Abou Diaby and Lukasz Fabianski are on the treatment table right now.
Wigan dropped into the relegation zone for the first time this season after their defeat at Norwich last Saturday. They have picked up only four points from their last seven games, collecting the joint-second leakiest defence and goal-shy attack in the process.
Roberto Martinez has fashioned a multi-national squad who can look disjointed at times but can also be an incisive footballing side. Wins at West Ham and Tottenham this season show that they can pull off surprises when their game comes together.
“Wigan are a team who always have good technical quality, play good football, try to put you under pressure with the quality of their game and have a history of always creating good results against good teams,” said Wenger.
“That means our concentration will be very important. I believe the two teams will play football, so it’s important that we focus and concentrate on the quality of the game we played [on Monday] night at Reading and try to repeat that.
“If you look at the Wigan names - Di Santo, Kone, Figueroa, McCarthy, McArthur - they have quality players. We remember last year, they had players like Rodallega and Moses. So they always have good players and, as I said, technically they are a good side.”
Perhaps that 'peak-trough' nature is a product of their recruitment policy. Martinez has just signed his second Honduran, this time from the MLS, to add to players from Oman, Barbados, Chile and Paraguay. In the development squad they even have a Somalian.
“Wigan have gone to countries where nobody else goes,” said Wenger. “It’s shrewd and intelligent. They say ‘if we go to France, Germany, we face Arsenal, Man City, so let’s go to countries where nobody goes’. There must be a good player in every country and usually they find him. They have done that very well.”
When Wenger first came to Arsenal, he also picked up ‘jewels’ with his knowledge of market as yet largely untapped by the Premier League - France.
Everything has changed in the last 16 years, not least the technical ability in Britain. Hence the quintet of contracts this week.
But that is about the future. The present is Wigan, Newcastle and Southampton.
None of the teams chasing the leading Manchester pair have looked entirely convincing. But, on Monday, perhaps Wenger’s men regained some of the confidence lost in the defeat at Bradford.
And, even though the manager wanted to play the West Ham game, its postponement gives his side a handy rest in a busy period.
So therefore, an opportunity presents itself over Christmas. Nine points out of nine would surely put Arsenal in the top four at the start of 2013.
If you add on the wins over West Brom and Reading that would be five on the spin in the Premier League - the type of run that was crucial in securing Champions League football last season.
There is massive danger in ‘counting chickens’ in this type of thinking of course. But right now, the hope is there.
Of course, that is the very commodity which ensures Arsenal’s away day sell-outs and will get that 4,600 out of bed early on Saturday morning.
For that, they deserve the utmost credit.
Happy Christmas... here’s hoping for a successful 2013.
Arsenal: Santos (muscle), Fabianski (ankle), Diaby (thigh)
Wigan: Caldwell (doubt - hamstring), Alcaraz (doubt - groin), Ramis (hamstring), Lopez (hamstring), McCarthy (ankle), Crusat (knee), Ryo (ankle, ineligible) Watson (broken leg).
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