Wigan 3 (Watson 80, Bramble 89, N’Zogbia 90) Arsenal 2 (Walcott 41, Silvestre 48)(Premiership)
It has been a fine season. These players have exceeded expectations time and time again, defying the injuries, the pundits writing them off, and even the fans claiming the title challenge was over. That we were still in the race with four games to go was a remarkable achievement. There can be no doubt that the mental strength Wenger attributes to them is present in abundance.
But those impressive feats do not excuse the complacency and sheer laziness on display today, in a game that could have brought us right back into the title race after Chelsea’s defeat to Spurs yesterday. Two goals to the good, and with the opportunity of drawing within three points of the leaders, we simply stopped playing, stopped putting in challenges and invited Wigan back into the game.
About an hour in, there were various rumblings on Twitter, concerns that we were coasting far too much, and references made to the West Ham game, where we cruised to a 2-0 lead before letting a single goal change the complexion of the match. On that day, we dropped two daft points, and while accidents like that can happen, the important thing is to learn from them. Wenger should have stressed not to take the foot off the pedal. Coast when you’re three goals to the good, but 2-0 is not a safe scoreline. How many times do we have to be taught that lesson?
With ten minutes to go, Wigan scored the goal that set the wheels in motion. Despite having seven defenders in the box, no-one picked up Ben Watson, who slotted past a blocked off Fabianski. From that moment, an equaliser was inevitable, especially given the lack of any kind of reaction from us. Nasri cleared one off the line, but even that close escape only delayed proceedings.
When the equaliser came, it was another goalkeeping howler. Almunia was ruled out of the game with a ‘wrist injury’, a suspicious tale made all the more so by Wenger’s pre-match assertion that while the injury was minor, Fabianski would play the rest of the games. In other words, even a fit Almunia will not feature again.
But every time the Spaniard misses a game, his place in the side is secured yet further by the ineptitude of his competition. I’ve defended Fabianski for ages – I think he is a fantastic shot stopper, and when his composure improves he could be a fine keeper – but time and time again he betrays the faith shown in him with basic errors. Early on, he flapped at a corner, and in the 89th minute he dropped another routine catch on Titus Bramble’s head, and the ball dribbled over the line.
The equaliser finally killed our flagging title hopes, so in a way, the Wigan winner made little difference other than to highlight how comprehensively we’d thrown the game away. Credit to N’Zogbia, whose finish was unstoppable, but the defence collectively invited him inside on his left foot, which was naive in the extreme.
Wigan fought to the end, and they deserve praise for that, but in reality we gifted them the points with a performance so lacking in effort, drive and passion that you would have thought we had nothing left to play for. For me, the main culprit was Diaby, who was appalling in the centre of midfield, giving the ball away on countless occasions, and requiring far too much time on the ball. And this was against a Wigan side hardly snapping at his heels.
But in truth, everyone took their foot off the gas once Silvestre’s header had doubled the lead given by Walcott’s neat touch and finish in the first half. The likes of Rosicky, who worked so hard early on, drifted out of the game, and the only energy was supplied by Eastmond, who was trying to prove his worth, and Campbell, who was justifying the award of the armband at the back. Around him, Silvestre, Clichy and Sagna all responded to his rallying cry on occasions, but those moments were few and far between.
It is tempting to solely blame the players, to believe that Wenger reminded them of West Ham, and tried to stress that the game wasn’t won until we were a few goals to the good. The manager’s post-match fury suggested as much. But his own substitutions sent the message that Wigan were a beaten side.
Eboue’s introduction seemed reasonable, given his defensive abilities, but why was Fran Merida brought on in the final ten minutes? It is apparent that the young Spaniard is leaving in the summer, so what was this, a farewell appearance? If we’re at the final game of the season and we have nothing to play for, then fine, but this was just after Wigan had gotten themselves back into a critical match. With no other defensive players available, surely Van Persie should have been called on to re-establish momentum?
Whatever the reasons, it was a truly bizarre decision, and Merida did nothing to justify his place on the pitch. Van Persie was belatedly brought on at 2-2, but by then all fight had gone from the team.
I am a staunch defender of these players – regular readers can attest to that – but even I found myself unable to find positives from the match. If the players come out against City next weekend and react in a positive way, then perhaps this debacle can be pushed to the backs of our minds, but any repeat of the kind of complacency shown today will simply not be acceptable.
This sort of performance could tarnish the impression many have of the season, and too many strides have been taken to allow that to happen. Three matches to go. No excuses.