Wigan vs. Arsenal: 6 Things We Learned
On paper, this ought to have been an entertaining display of end-to-end attacking football. As it turned out, it was a gritty, tense affair, and enormously out of character for both sides. Arsenal won't mind a bit, having emerged with three vital points to take them up to third in the table.
Over the next few slides we'll explore just what the match taught us about this Arsenal side.
Theo Walcott Has a Lot to Learn About Playing as a Striker
In his first Premier League start as a central striker against Reading, Theo Walcott scored an impressive goal off his weaker left foot. It built anticipation for future games that he could finally unlock the goalscoring potential both he and Arsene Wenger have long-insisted he has within him.
On the evidence of this game, he still has rather a lot to learn. Arsenal struggled to maintain possession, and needed Walcott to drop deep, show for the ball, and receive it with his back to goal. Unfortunately, that is a skill set he doesn't yet possess. His inability to hold the ball up meant that Arsenal couldn't get midfield runners beyond the striker.
Walcott's major contribution to the game was winning the penalty from which Mikel Arteta scored the winner, but tellingly that incisive run came from his more familiar position on the right hand side. Walcott undoubtedly has the pace and finishing finesse required to score goals, but needs a more rounded game to become Arsenal's regular centre-forward.
Mikel Arteta Showed His Leadership
Although Thomas Vermaelen wears the armband, there is a sense that Mikel Arteta is the true leader of this Arsenal side. One need only look at the importance of the goals he has scored this season to get a sense of the enormity of his contribution to the team.
He bundled home a crucial winner against QPR, scored both penalties in a vital game against West Brom, and kept his cool to secure the three points for Arsenal against Wigan. There was the ignominy of the penalty miss against Fulham, but the fact he has recovered from that to score his next three spot kicks if a measure of the man's character. Arteta remains one of the first names on Arsene Wenger's team sheet.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain Is Finding His Best Form
A month or so ago, Arsenal's Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain seemed to be suffering from 'second season syndrome'. He was one of the bright young things of English football in 2011/12, but seemed to be struggling to recreate that sparkling form in this campaign.
In recent weeks, however, the direct running and teasing crossing that Chamberlain became known for has returned. With Theo Walcott shifting inside, he has been able to reclaim that right-wing spot, and in this match he was consistently Arsenal's best outlet, getting the better of Jean Beausejour time after time.
The one area in which Oxlade-Chamberlain urgently needs to improve is in his goalscoring: he now has just one goal in his last 31 appearances. A player of his undoubtedly quality should be contributing to the score-sheet more regularly than that.
Francis Coquelin Could Be a Vital Squad Member
As Arsene Wenger sought to shut down the game, he turned to young Frenchman Francis Coquelin. The defensive midfielder has quietly become a regular member of the Arsenal match-day squad, and was in fact making his 17th appearance of a crucial season in his development.
Coquelin immediately got stuck in, winning a couple of important free-kicks and making two or three tidy challenges. Arsenal's customary midfield of Arteta, Wilshere and Cazorla is attacking by nature. Having the option of introducing the more conservative Coquelin allows Arsenal to tighten up in tense situations like this.
Jack Wilshere's Reputation Goes Before Him
Jack Wilshere is imbued with an irrepressible fighting spirit. It's as important to what he offers the team as his immaculate touch or penetrative passing. He is a fascinating combination of cultured European technique and English fighting spirit.
That fighting spirit, however, can occasionally land him in trouble. Against Wigan, he was booked for what looked in replays to be a perfectly good challenge.
Perhaps Wilshere is paying for the sins of his predecessor as the creative hub of England's midfield: Paul Scholes. Whatever the reason, he has to be careful not to respond to any provocation: referees are clearly watching him carefully.
Arsenal Are Still on Course for Champions League Qualification
Despite the problems at Arsenal — and there are many — they now sit in third place in the Premier League table. Granted, both Chelsea and Spurs have games in hand, but three consecutive league wins have seen the clouds over the Emirates lift a little.
I still expect Arsenal to be right in the race for those vital third and fourth spots. Whether or not that will be enough to satisfy an increasingly restless fan base remains to be seen.