Arsenal 4-1 Wigan Athletic: Halfway to Go

Before the start of play today, I insisted that if Arsenal could not beat Wigan at home and a suddenly-safe Newcastle away, then the Champions League was probably not deserved anyway. Six points will see us into the top four once again, and after today we are halfway home. Works for me.

Anyone who saw the FA Cup Final knew that the Latics had expended everything they had in the tank to bring that trophy home - they were there for the taking, and it looked like Arsenal might have put them away early on. The Gunners' passing and movement were crisp and on point, and the visitors struggled to deal with it at times.

On the whole, Arsenal struggled to convert that first-half domination into the sort of lead that would have made this a more comfortable outing. The Gunners were more clinical early on though. Santi Cazorla gave the first warning with a header from Theo Walcott's cross that flashed just wide, but soon after we had the lead we so desperately craved.

Here's the thing - Wigan Athletic are going down for a multitude of reasons, ranging from poor defensive organization to a rash of injuries to plain old bad luck. But, I would argue that more than anything, they've been relegated due to Roberto Martinez's bizarre decision to bench the excellent Ali Al-Habsi in favor of the on-loan Joel Robles.

Let's not mince words - Robles is an absolute clown, a fact that is obvious to anyone that knows their goalkeepers. Sure, he is capable of astonishing saves in a vacuum. The trouble is that managers fall in love with this capability but fail to weigh it properly against their inability to do the basics (see also: Manuel Almunia, Lukasz Fabianski and Vito Mannone).

Arsenal won a corner, and it was looped in towards the near post. That was unquestionably Robles' ball to deal with, but he hesitated and ended up staying on his line. The Wigan defense will get blamed for letting this go, but they backed off because they assumed that their keeper would claim it. He didn't, it got nodded on, and the unmarked Lukas Podolski was there for the easy tap-in header.

Psychologically, going down a goal in a match of this magnitude is devastating for a side like Wigan. Typically, there will be one of two reactions - a ferocious springing to life or a long period where heads drop and the vulnerability to further goals is there. Wigan showed the latter, and frankly it is as frustrating as ever that Arsenal didn't kill this off right then and there.

That's not to say that there weren't chances. Kieran Gibbs and Aaron Ramsey just missed getting on the end of inviting crosses, and had either of those went in this would likely have been over. The visitors did fight back though, and Laurent Kosicelny had to be sharp with a flying kung-fu clearance to prevent Arouna Kone from going in clean on goal.

Wigan were making it more of a contest, but it was still the home side who should have extended their lead in the 39th minute. The fantastic Santi Cazorla sent in a cross, but it was sadly Koscielny on the end of it. You'd like to think that any of our attacking players would have buried that chance, but the Frenchman could only poke it wide.

Still, we had the lead, it was almost halftime, and we've made a practice of closing these games out in the last few weeks anyway. But, oh, what's that? Riiiiiight, Mike Dean was the referee! How could we have forgotten?

The Latics made one of their rare forays upfield, but Mikel Arteta seemed to have ended the danger with a fair shoulder-to-shoulder challenge on Shaun Maloney. Some variation of that play happens roughly 50 or 60 times per match, but somehow Dean found something wrong with this one. Don't get me wrong, I don't have my tinfoil hat on - I don't think there's anything sinister or corrupt here. He's just a godawful referee.

Maloney took the kick himself, and of course it ended up in our net. It wasn't even all that good of a free kick, but there were several problems there. First, the setup of the wall was horrendous. I'd have liked to see five in the wall in that close, instead of four. Second, the two ends of the wall have to be taller guys who won't shy away from taking one to the skull. That is the most likely place for the shooter to aim at, and when you have someone like Podolski there who's going to duck out of the way, you make it that much harder on yourself. This is the kind of detail that a young keeper like Wojceich Szczesny is more likely to neglect, never mind the fact that he should have saved it anyway. 

Goals in the last minute of a half are just killers, and the fact that it was so preventable makes it that much more frustrating. How typically Arsenal to concede in that way, in that time. Wigan could have easily kicked on from there to make it difficult for us, but to be fair the Gunners came out in the second half and dominated the rest of the way. It's too bad that Arsene has made "mental strength" an overused cliche, because the side really did show it today.

However, it so easily could have been 2-1 to Wigan early doors in the second half. A slick series of passes between Callum McManaman and Roger Espinoza got Arouna Kone in alone (Bacary Sagna nowhere to be found, as bloody usual at this point). Szczesny was off his line in a flash though, and excellently blocked at the Ivorian's feet. That was a massive save from the Pole, as he showed both sides of his Jekyll-and-Hyde play either side of the interval.

Kone followed that up by fizzing a shot wide of the post, and that seemed to finally jolt the home side back into action. Walcott destroyed his marker down the right wing and played it into Cazorla in the area. Robles saved the first shot, and did better to also keep the rebound out as well.

The Spanish keeper would soon revert back to form though, and his manager will have plenty of time to rue his selection in the coming months. Arsenal had gotten much joy down Wigan's right wing all game, and it was no different here. Cazorla had switched wings, and was played in by Sagna. The low cross came in, and while Wigan's defense might have done better, there was no excuse for Robles to slide in feet-first there. Frankly, the only reason to do so is to avoid any serious contact, and that will usually result in the ball nestling in your net. Sure enough, Theo bravely got stuck in and tapped it home.

Wigan supporters must be galled at the thought that they'd be up 1-0 at this point if Al-Habsi were in net. I know I would be.

They'll be that much more so at how tissue-paper soft the third goal was all around. A clearance from one of their defenders only made it as far as just outside the area, and Wigan's right-sided defender shied away from a collision with the awesome colossus that is Cazorla. Sorry, but if I were on a team fighting for Premier League life, I'd have put the guy on his ass and then laughed at him. Anyway, Giant Colossus Cazorla headed it to the onrushing Podolski, who was in alone on Robles. For some reason, the keeper came out part-way and then stood there, jumping in place as the Medium Sized German dinked it over him. Again, a desperate goalie for a desperate team has to dive at his feet there. If you take the penalty kick, so be it.

The result was never in question from that point on, but Ramsey added some gloss to the scoreline a few minutes later thanks to yet more questionable goalkeeping from Robles (I don't do ratings for opponents but that was a 2 or a 3 if I've ever seen one). A 2-v-2 break saw Ramsey storm down the left wing, and cut in on goal. The Welshman made a big show of playing for the pass, and Robles bit hard on the fake. That left the short side open, and Ramsey duly obliged to make it 4-1.

Arsenal could do as they wished from that point on, the points well and truly safe by then. I suppose this wouldn't be one of my match reports without some bitching about the substitutions, so here you go - why on earth did Jack Wilshere come into this game at 4-1 when he needs to have surgery in the offseason? Why risk it? What is the benefit? Why not get some minutes for a guy like Carl Jenkinson? I will never understand, I guess. I don't want to be too negative on a happy occasion, so I'll leave it at that.

So, here we are. One match left to go, against a surely-disinterested Newcastle United side that officially maintained their Premier League status this past weekend. Given our huge advantage in goal difference, even a draw will ensure that St. Totteringham's Day comes around once again (assuming our nearest and dearest see off a dreadful Sunderland side that is also now safe in the top flight). This shouldn't be that hard. Oh, and wishful thinking perhaps, but if we win by two goals and Chelsea doesn't beat Everton, we finish third.

Wouldn't that be nice?

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 7, Gibbs 7, Koscielny 8, Mertesacker 7, Sagna 6, Arteta 7 (Vermaelen N/A), Ramsey 7, Cazorla 8, Rosicky 7 (Wilshere 7), Walcott 8, Podolski 8 (Oxlade-Chamberlain 7)

Man of the Match:  Some will stump for Podolski, and it's hard to argue. I will do just that though - Santi Cazorla was the man who made everything happen for us.