Arsenal shattered by N'Zogbia magic
IN tribute to Arsene Wenger’s statement that great football is art, the front of one Arsenal fanzine on sale outside the stadium depicted their players framed like old masters. This week, however, has been The Scream.
Arsenal’s challenge for the title may have seemed improbable in August but, once it was up and running, nobody could see it disintegrating like this – beaten by Tottenham for the first time in the league since George Graham was running White Hart Lane and then conceding three times in the final 10 minutes to Wigan.
When he was a young manager at Nancy, Wenger used to feel physically sick after a defeat. Yesterday, he was content with ripping off his tie and for a moment it seemed he would throw his jacket to the floor before he thought better of it.
He has endured worse games – losing 6-1 at Old Trafford and surrendering a lead in the European Cup final spring to mind – but then his tormentors were Dwight Yorke and Samuel Eto’o, not Titus Bramble.
“I never thought this game was over because we were finding it difficult to keep the ball and create chances and, if you don’t do either, you are in trouble,” he reflected. “There was a lack of cohesion and discipline and I thought we would be made to pay for that.”
The payment was swift and sudden. Despite overcoming Chelsea and Liverpool here, Wigan last scored more than one goal in a game against Notts County in January while Arsenal had not lost after going two goals up since they were beaten at Villa Park by Dion Dublin and Julian Joachim in 1998.
Wigan’s first and third were wonderfully worked. The first was a beautiful pullback from the left side of the area by Victor Moses that Ben Watson, perhaps the outstanding player on either team, side-footed home from next to the penalty spot. The third was a driving run from Charles N’Zogbia, overflowing with purpose, that sent him past three defenders before he delivered a swerving shot that clattered in off a post.
A stadium that had spent most of the afternoon protesting against the referee’s supposed bias towards Arsenal or mimicking Wenger’s hand gestures was suddenly awash with disbelief.
However, it was Wigan’s equaliser that might have the deepest repercussions.
Because Manuel Almunia had injured his wrist at White Hart Lane, Lukasz Fabianski was given his first start in goal since his disastrous night at Porto’s Estadio do Dragao in February.
Samir Nasri had just cleared off the line when Fabianski more or less dropped N’Zogbia’s corner on to Bramble’s head. Emmanuel Eboue attempted a desperate clearance but the ball was already over the line.
In the Sky Television studio, Paul Merson described Fabianski as “useless” and predicted that Arsenal would not win another title until Wenger brought a worldclass goalkeeper – someone better than Almunia – to the Emirates Stadium, an arena that was supposed to transform Arsenal financially but which is still waiting for its first trophy.
Arsenal, it should be said, were without seven regular members of their starting line-up, although, Theo Walcott apart, they were rarely fluent.
Walcott had three opportunities, squaring the ball across the face of Chris Kirkland’s goal when he might have shot and then, just before the interval, cutting outside his marker, Steve Gohouri, and sending a shot whistling past the intersection of post and crossbar.
His goal was superbly consummated. A through-ball from Nicklas Bendtner that was the first really cutting pass Arsenal had produced saw Walcott advancing on Kirkland’s goal and, despite the attentions of two defenders, his finish underneath the keeper’s body was done with an icy precision.
On the touchline, Roberto Martinez steeled himself for the worst. “We have folded many, many times when we have conceded and we have been taught many painful lessons,” said the Wigan manager. “Not least in the 9-1 defeat by Spurs. Just into the second half, Watson has had a good appeal for a penalty, James McCarthy suffered a blow on his nose and was put out of action and then Mikael Silvestre goes up and scores their second from a corner.
I thought that was a blow too many.” That they were behind, that they recovered to seize victory against Arsenal, a few days after failing to overcome Portsmouth at home, made this a sweeter victory than the ones over Chelsea and Liverpool here. It was certainly the most unexpected.
“We’ve no chance,” said one grizzled fan in front of the press box before kick-off, adding for good measure during the interval: “It’s a question of how many now.” On the final whistle he was on his feet singing ‘You Are My Sunshine’ with all the rest.
Wigan Athletic (4-5-1): Kirkland; Melchiot, Gohouri, Bramble, Figueroa; N’Zogbia, McCarthy, Watson (Scharner, 90), Diame, Rodallega; Moreno (Moses, 62). Substitutes not used: Stojkovic (gk), Scotland, Gomez, Sinclair, Boyce.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Fabianski; Sagna, Campbell, Silvestre, Clichy; Diaby, Eastmond (Van Persie, 90); Walcott (Merida, 81), Nasri, Rosicky (Eboue 81); Bendtner. Substitutes not used: Mannone (gk), Vela, Traore, Henderson.
Referee: L Mason (Northampton).
Booked: Wigan Athletic Diame, Bramble; Arsenal Nasri. Weekend Soccer Action
Man of the match: Watson.