It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way. — Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.
Yesterday’s match was not a Tale of Two Halves; if you were going to make that analogy it was more like a Tale of Three Thirds with Wigan dominating the first 60 minutes, Arsenal getting a glimmer of hope through some brilliant play at the 60th minute, cutting Wigan apart for 20 minutes and then pouring salt on the wound at the death.
So, I didn’t see it as a Tale of Two Halves, rather, to borrow one of the other major themes from Dickens’ novel, it was Arsenal resurrected. There is no question, Arsenal were dead for 60 minutes. The only question left to be answered was how far down Wigan was going to bury them.
In that first 60 minutes, Wigan dominated play by denying Arsenal space to work their intricate passes. It is a strategy that has worked so well for clubs earlier in the season and Wigan was so good at it that even Arsenal’s saviour, Arshavin, was essentially marked out of the game for 60 minutes. Credit to Steve Bruce and his Wigan team, they put in the kind of hard work and industry that usually guarantees a point against Arsenal; and they did it relatively cleanly.
In fact, in the first half it was Arsenal who were more guilty of dirty play. With Gael Clichy out, a very young, very inexperienced Kieran Gibbs was thrust in to battle and had the exact type of game one would expect; inconsistent. At the end of the day, though, it wasn’t the sloppy headers and brilliant clearances (he nearly cost us on several occassions; he certainly saved us on several occassions) that people will be talking about, it will be the yellow card.
I don’t know what Alan Wiley saw that caused him to produce just a yellow but it was a straight red in my book. Gibbs was the last man, had Valencia on his back and rightly headed the ball back to the keeper. The problem was that he didn’t put enough power into the header. Valencia recognized the error and essentially swam over Gibbs, got in front, and then when he felt Gibbs’ inevitable contact, went straight to ground. I’m not saying Gibbs didn’t foul Valencia, rather, just searching for a reason why he didn’t get a red card. Maybe it was the contact by Valencia or the ease with which he went to ground but something caused Wiley to just produce a yellow.
Had he sent Gibbs off, the game, and Arsenal’s season, would have been very different. Imagine the next few games with Silvestre at left back and Song in the center, that’s what would have happened had Gibbs gotten the straight red that most people felt he deserved.
As it was, the ensuing free kick hit the woodwork and rather than burying Arsenal completely, and if you count the let off of getting just a yellow it very well could have been the moment of the season. Rather than going into the half down 2 (or 3) goals and down a man, Arsenal were just down one goal.
After 10 minutes of the second half, Arsenal still looked like a dead team. Wenger had abandoned the 4-2-3-1 in favor of a more defensive formation with Cesc providing the cover for the Arsenal cover. Moving Cesc back actually opened things up a bit for Arshavin and Walcott but I honestly didn’t think they were going to slice open Wigan at any point in those 10 minutes. Any chances that Arsenal made inevitably went to Bendtner who’s profligacy of late ensured that headers were more likely to go out of touch than to find the back of the net.
Of course, it’s always at our lowest moments, when the patient seems most beyond repair that this Arsenal team seems to be “recalled to life.” And so it was that Fabianski’s free kick was flicked on by Bendtner, fell to Theo, who expertly dribbled past his man and passed to Arshavin. Arshavin was hauled down, but rather than roll around looking for a penalty, he kept playing, and flicked a lovely little pass to Theo who plumb put the ball in the side netting.
Arshavin. How wrong I have been about him. As he was engineering his escape from dreadful racists Zenit I admit that I made the mistake of underestimating this guy’s character. I kinda felt like he was just another example of spoiled footballers, when in reality he just wanted to get a chance to play at the top level. And while I don’t want to rush out and buy him a Valentine’s card just yet, I really do love his work rate, his desire to win, and all the positive things he says about the club. And though I complained about the tranfer fee, I’m admitting now that £15m is looking like another Arsene Wenger bargain because this guy has the ability to lift a team from the ashes, like he did yesterday. No matter how much I want to give Man of the Match to Song, I have to give it to Arshavin. That first goal was just so crucial to pulling Arsenal out of the muck.
After that first goal, the conclusion was always inevitable: Arsenal weren’t the same, dead, team that Wigan was eating for lunch. They were alive with sparkle and flair.
Just as the equalizer lifted the team, Arsene went for the jugular and threw Adebayor and van Persie on.Those two immediately opened Wigan up and provided a huge lift. Though it was Silvestre who was the beneficiary of a set play between Arshavin and Cesc, it was the threat of Ade and van Persie who made Wigan tremble. And though most people will point to horrible defending, in the end, Ade provided link play that led to the final two goals.
4-1 to the Arsenal and most pundits are claiming that the score-line flattered Arsenal, but I’m not so sure. I think that this Arsenal team will always fight back and though they might not link up perfectly, and passes might go astray, they will never take their foot off the pedal like they did against Man City back in November.
I just read a wonderfully frank interview with Arsene Wenger in which he talks about the character of this team and speaks about the mistakes he made this year and last. It’s hard to pull just one or two quotes about but I do want to leave you with just a few thoughts. First, Wenger points at Rome as the turning point of this season, saying
When I look at that match, we are away from home and missed the first penalty. We had kids taking the penalties, yet still managed to win. There is a key moment in all stories and Rome was ours.
We were not losing before, but we weren’t convincing. Since Rome, we are scoring again and we are better linking up as a team.
In a way, that quote exemplifies Saturday’s match as well: they were down a goal, Djourou was taken off injured, they had a mere child playing at left back, and yet, they still managed to win. 4-1 flattering? not for this Arsenal team.
And finally, in case anyone questions what Arsene is doing (I’m guilty of this) , whether he has “lost the plot” and for all those people who publicly called for Arsene Wenger to be fired I just want you to know that Wenger’s response is
I am not running after personal glory. Everything I do is for the club, the players and the supporters.
It’s not that he’s inflexible, it’s that he just deeply believes in these players. It’s not that he’s unaware of what’s going on, it’s that he wants players like Song and Djourou to grow and make a name for themselves. It’s not that this Arsenal team sucked in those first 60 minutes, it’s just that they hadn’t quite clicked yet.
But when they did click, it was a sight to behold.
4-1 to the Arsenal, and next up is Villareal on Wendnesday who are potentially going to be without midfield dynamo Marcos Senna. Right now? Even if they do get Senna back, I’m not worried. After all, this is an Arsenal team that has been to the edge and just blindly lept into that void. What’s come out is remarkable, and deserves crediteven if they don’t win anything.
Which they will.