x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Arsenal hopeful against Wigan, rivals with nuisance value

They, too, can be accused of failing to turn pretty football into goals and can frustrate with a reluctance to field two out-and-out strikers.

Charles N'Zogbia, left, and Hugo Rodallega have combined well for Wigan Athletic. Peter Byrne / PA Wire
Charles N'Zogbia, left, and Hugo Rodallega have combined well for Wigan Athletic. Peter Byrne / PA Wire

Arsenal come face to face today with the side who are both their imitators and their irritants.

Wigan Athletic share their fondness for 4-2-3-1, for technical talents and a more progressive style of play. They, too, can be accused of failing to turn pretty football into goals and frustrate the traditionalists among their support with a reluctance to field two out-and-out strikers.

But they have a new-found nuisance value for Arsenal. Last season's title challenge reached a definitive conclusion at the DW Stadium, Wigan staging a memorable comeback to win 3-2. Last month, a second Latics fightback deprived Arsene Wenger's side of two more points as they drew 2-2.

To witness Wigan then might provoke a sense of surprise that they have spent the majority of the season in the relegation zone. There are reasons, however, that explain why their Premier League status is imperilled. A small club's sixth season defying the odds might prove its last.

Roberto Martinez's side have rallied after their abject start, where 10 unanswered goals were conceded in their first two matches.

The defence has proved more doughty, with clean sheets at White Hart Lane and Goodison Park proving particular coups. But transferring draws into wins has proved problematic; 10 of their last 20 league games have finished level.

"We have had a very consistent period and I feel that consistency is not far away from getting wins," Martinez said.

"That's the difference between the bottom eight in the Premier League and the top 10."

A concern, however, is that Martinez's relentless positivity is yet to be justified. Wigan are in a transitional phase that has seemed to last the whole of his 18-month reign.

When Charles N'Zogbia, Hugo Rodallega and Tom Cleverley combine with skill and speed, they are capable of a delightful brand of football, but their idealism cannot camouflage the lack of strength in depth and a need for pragmatism.

The failure of the club record signing Mauro Boselli, who was loaned to Genoa last week, and the enduring inability of Franco di Santo to score means Rodallega is the sole specialist striker with a league goal to his name; indeed, he has contributed 35 per cent of Wigan's league-low total of 19, and only Carlos Tevez has a higher percentage of any other team's goals.

With Cleverley, Victor Moses and James McCarthy all sidelined, Martinez's bench is an anonymous assembly. Nor is there any great likelihood of additions this month with their prime concern being to keep their three major assets; N'Zogbia, Rodallega and left-back Maynor Figueroa.

That Sunderland, long-term suitors of N'Zogbia, are newly wealthy after the sale of Darren Bent, is especially ominous.

Yet Wigan have forged an unusual identity as an unofficial feeder club. The 2009 sales of Wilson Palacios to Tottenham and Antonio Valencia to Manchester United showed the value of enabling able players to acclimatise to the Premier League.

Given former manager Steve Bruce's contacts in Latin America and Martinez's nationality, it is little surprise many are Spanish speakers.

It has proven an effective model, yet it is a reason why Wigan's is a precarious position. Go down and values will plummet.

Besides their most coveted trio, it is hard to envisage Antolin Alcaraz or Mohamed Diame staying for long in the Championship.

As Cleverley and goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi are only on loan anyway, it would mean Wigan were effectively starting from scratch at the lower level.

Their predicament is not caused by results against Arsenal but by a frequent failure to beat their neighbours at the foot of the table, with the exception of Wolves.

But the danger is that Wigan's day out in the salubrious surroundings of the Emirates Stadium is not their last visit for quite some time.


7pm Abu Dhabi Sports 3