Wins - three of them. Remarkable scenes in North London as Arsenal gather nine points from a possible nine. This last installment of the phenomenal three win trilogy was the hardest-earned by some distance and while it was not quite a laboured crawl over the proverbial line, it was hardly a stroll. Not a classic game but a nice result to take into the Christmas period, especially with the West Ham game, previously scheduled on Boxing Day, being postponed until January.
The main talking point going into the game was the continued use of Theo Walcott up front, after his strong performance against Reading. The idea was clear: Wigan play a high defensive line, Walcott’s pace would allow him to exploit that. He completed just seven passes in the whole 90 minutes which, in itself, is no bad thing. During Euro 2012 the popular stat going around was Mario Gomez’s only having the ball for around 40 seconds for the whole tournament, yet scoring three times. But with the nine other outfield players Germany had, they did not have great need for a back-to-goal centre forward, until the Italy game, when he was subbed off at half time.
The latter scenario is the one in which Arsenal now find themselves. In the vast majority of games they need their centre forward to drop deep and enable their build-up play, especially as they are still coming together as a team. As Arsenal moved to being more direct in the second half, Walcott saw more of the ball, having a good chance saved and hitting another over. His showing at the Madejski Stadium does not disguise the fact that they still need a striker in January, but it also dictated that he can be used there in some games.
As for struggling against pressing, the reasons were the same as they have struggled against it in other games. They are not wholly comfortable as a unit, which is to be expected, and so do not have the classic pace in passing in movement that is such a key facet of ‘Wengerball’. They were extremely poor in the first half but as stated above, they looked to be more direct and play wider in the second and it paid off, as they looked a lot better for it. This could act as a way of subverting the problems they have found against high-pressing teams.
This renewed approach in the second half freed Oxlade-Chamberlain and allowed him to show his talents. He has had an inconsistent season but of late he has relocated some of the form that won his so many admirers last term. Encouraging from the 19-year-old, but words of caution will not go amiss where he is concerned at this stage.
Due to the fact that they had one fit centre back, Wigan chose to play James McCarthy as a libero (much to my delight), and he did extremely well there. He sat with the defenders when Arsenal had the ball and roamed forward when Wigan had possession, retaining his usual role of being the team’s central creator. His relative success there, following on from Daniele De Rossi’s deployment in a similar role for Italy in the group encounter with Spain, could see the resurrection of the forgotten role.
Arsenal’s midfield seems to be too open. Since returning, Jack Wilshere has played further forward than Abou Diaby - who sat next to the Spaniard - had done before his injury, meaning Arsenal have shifted from a 2-1 in midfield to a 1-2, but one in which the two are so advanced they leave a large amount of space behind them, feeding Arteta to the sharks somewhat. A defensive midfielder more physical and with greater ability to cover ground is also of the essence in January; one who can play both instead of and alongside Arteta.
Wilshere adds the ‘bite’ and ‘nastiness’ that the Arsenal have missed across the team over the last few years, but his occasionally rash nature, coupled with his not being the best tackler has earned him something of a reputation among oppositions to being a target to get cards. Wigan’s absolute determination to get him booked for what was a very, very soft incident spoke to a referee who was influenced by his pre-formed judgements and a set of players under the impression that they could get him sent off. Something of which to be wary.
Following Tottenham’s draw with Stoke, Arsenal are up to third, pending the results of Chelsea’s two games in hand. On one level this emphasises just how poor the Premier League is, but also that the Arsenal ‘crisis’ was ridiculously overstated. A big January, for which the club seem to be counting down the days, and there will be no problems in the league. Now, movement to a squad that can compete on fronts, we hope. Until then, with 30 points already gained, Arsenal only need 10 more until the ‘magical 40 points’ that usually dictates Premier League survival.
It was a scrappy win, but another three points and going into Christmas in third place, there is not much to be displeased with there.