13 May 2013

Arsenal v. Wigan preview: Walcott to win it

There's been some cautionary talk in the lead-in to Tuesday's match with Wigan: they beat us last year at about this time and in similar circumstances, and they just slayed Man City in the FA Cup final, proving that they have some fight in them and can hang with the big boys as well as anyone. They're an odd combination, perhaps an historic one, as they might just be the first Prem team to win the FA Cup and be relegated in the same season. There's a schizoprenia to them: one part wounded animal, one part triumphant hero. We'd be wise not to overlook or underestimate them as these are three points we can't afford to drop as we did last year. We can't blithely count on them to show up complacent and hung-over after defeating Man City and driving home the last nail in the coffin of Mancini's tenure. Arrivederci, Roberto!

On that note, let's put the FA Cup in context. It was a glorious win for Wigan and for football itself as this tiny little team of the quaint, eight-figure market value dispatched one of the spending behemoths of the world. Without diminishing the accomplishment, Man City has fallen far short of its accomplishments from last year, crashing out of the Champions League's group stage, failing to win any domestic trophies, and falling 14 points lower while scoring 31 fewer goals than it did last year. This was a team ripe for the picking, and Wigan gladly seized the opportunity. Good on you, Wigan. May they make a "Hoosiers"-style movie out of your season.

Having said that, it's time to look to this game. Wigan comes in knowing that they need to win this and their next game against Aston Villa to stay up, but they also need Sunderland to lose at White Hart Lane (entirely possible) and Fulham to lose at Swansea (again, entirely possible). Setting aside Wigan's trip to the Emirates for the moment, if Villa draws with Wigan, Wigan's relegated. Even if Wigan wins their last two games, they still depend on favorable outcomes. Given the choice between beating their brains out over the next two weeks in order to qualify for another season of getting whipped versus enjoying the FA Cup, getting relegated, and doing the whipping in the Championship next year, I wonder if Wigan is ready to mail it in.

I don't want anyone who's actually playing for us on Tuesday thinking in these terms, though. I want them baying for blood and circling for the kill. Let's remember Wigan's sass in winning last April and give them a sound whipping. I'm tabbing Theo to have a break-through performance as it's a game in which he approaches the 10,000-minutes-played threshold, a talismanic number that seems to serve as a tipping-point for other strikers who, after crossing that same threshold, have seen dramatic surges in their goals-per-game. Without suggesting that Theo's in this class, we're talking about a doubling of the GPG for van Persie, Bale, Messi, and Ronaldo.

Walcott has netted in our last two matches, the win over QPR and the draw with Man U. In both cases, he did so inside of the first few minutes of the game. If Wigan offer up the same 3-5-2 that they used against Man City, they'll be sitting deep and conceding the wings, and it's therefore paramount that Walcott stay wide and resist the temptation to drift in early. If he stays on the wing instead of imitating a more-central role, he's better-positioned to exploit Wigan's three-man line. His pace on the wing can stretch Wigan's left-side, creating openings that he can exploit for his own shots or for lay-offs similar to the assist he had for Podolski against Norwich, peeling in from the flank to lay off to the top of the 18 as defenders collapsed to him. As Wigan's defenders will probably press high up on the pitch (this is a team that needs all three points; one point does them nothing), Theo should find plenty of space to run onto through-balls on counter-attacks. on top of these factors, they'll have two central midfielders playing out of position as the left- and right-back positions, further exposing them to aggressive work up those flanks. At the risk of getting too specific, I see him scoring one signature-goal early, receiving that through-ball wide and finishing with a curler to the far-post à la Thierry Henry and perhaps adding a second one, one that sees him work his way in from the flank and, instead of laying off to a teammate as he did against Norwich, keeping it and slotting home for himself.

Here, then, is my call for the XI:
  • Back line: Monreal-Koscielny-Mertesacker-Jenkinson
  • DM: Arteta-Ramey
  • AM: Cazorla-Rosický-Walcott
  • F: Podolski
With news out that Wilshere will undergo some "minor" ankle surgery, I'm more than happy to rest him when we can get away with it (read: against bottom-of-the-table teams), all the more so if it gives Rosický some time. Regular visitors will know that I'm a big fan of the Czech.

I hope I don't end up sounding too much like a scratched record, but we're due for an orgy of goals. We've grinded out our last few matches, and it's been since March 30th's 4-1 drubbing of Reading that we've truly had a chance to score for fun. Without denigrating Wigan or tarnishing their FA Cup glory, let's well and truly  soak them. I'm willing to forgo a clean-sheet if it means we net three or four goals. Let's get it done. It's high-time we scored early and scored often. 

Come on, you Gunners.