A dank afternoon in Wigan, where Arsene Wenger stood bedraggled under a December deluge, was once the type of setting in which Arsenal were notorious for losing. The fact that they prevailed, not prettily but by virtue of a highly dubious penalty, attested to the club's piecemeal process of reviving their stuttering season.
On Saturday they had risen as high as third in the Premier League, rather mocking the claims of crisis that assailed Wenger in the wake of the home defeat to Swansea. Theo Walcott thrived in his new-found centre-forward's berth, Jack Wilshere looked suitably rejuvenated after signing a fresh contract, and Mikel Arteta was lethal from 12 yards to ensure that Christmas at Arsenal would not be as gloom-filled as feared.
Again, though, the victory threatened to be eclipsed by a controversial penalty decision. Where Arsenal's recent win against West Bromwich was set in train by Santi Cazorla's infamous dive, their success here hinged upon referee Jon Moss gesturing to the spot when Walcott went to ground under the most minimal contact from Jean Beausejour.
Arteta duly lashed home the decisive goal, condemning Wigan to a third straight Christmas in the bottom three. Manager Roberto Martinez could scarcely conceal his anger, alleging that Walcott had "bought" the penalty.
"I've seen the replay and when I saw it live it looked very, very soft," he said. "If there's contact or not, it's difficult to tell - it has to be a contact where it stops you staying on your feet, and from completing the attacking move. If there's any contact, then I doubt that it's enough to bring the player down. The player has real experience and he knew that a penalty would change the game and would give them real hope of the three points. I thought he bought the penalty."
It had been a bizarre refereeing display, marked not just by disputes over whether or not Walcott dived but also by his refusal to allow Franco di Santo back on the pitch for five minutes while the striker was ordered to remove an earring. There were also howls of protest when Moss refused to grant Wigan a penalty of their own, with strong late appeals for handball against Thomas Vermaelen and Kieran Gibbs. But Arsenal would not be denied, shaking off the rancour of the past month by recording a third straight league victory for the first time since March.
Wenger was not about to exaggerate that achievement, stressing: "It's good enough but it's not enough. We want more. We had to show nerve and we did it."
Nerve was combined with obduracy, as Arsenal found the type of efficient if unspectacular display that has eluded them. Where they put five past Reading with characteristic flamboyance, they found a more economical route to victory yesterday. "It was a very different game," Wenger admitted. "We didn't find the same fluency. This was a win much more because we wanted the win rather than because we dominated." Seldom was a truer word uttered by the Frenchman. Arsenal had looked limited in the first half, especially when Arouna Kone hared past Per Mertesacker, setting up a one-on-one with the goalkeeper from which Wigan should have profited. Arteta, aided and abetted by Walcott, exacted a cruel revenge.
Wigan Athletic (3-5-2): Al Habsi; Stam, Figueroa, Boyce; Beausejour, Maloney (Gomez 89), McArthur, McCarthy, Jones; Di Santo (McManaman 76), Kone. Subs: Pollitt (g), Caldwell, Boselli, Fyvie, Golobart. Booked: Maloney.
Arsenal (4-3-3): Szczesny, Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs, Arteta, Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain (Ramsey 75), Cazorla (Koscielny 90), Podolski (Coquelin 79), Walcott. Subs Mannone, Arshavin, Jenkinson, Gervinho.
Referee Jon Moss (W Yorkshire).