Theo Gets Lucky… Three Times!!!

After a two-week break for Arsenal Station due to illness, I return to my blogging duties at the best of times. After our satisfactory result/disappointing performance at Liverpool last weekend, Arsenal needed to put in a quality performance. Of course, there are huge issues still surrounding the squad, but a 6-nil victory, no matter the opposition, can only give the team confidence going forward. (Highlights, as usual, are in the sidebar to the right).

The first word out of anyone’s mouth when discussing yesterday’s match has to be “Theo.” Obviously, the headline is a jibe at those “pundits” who seem to find joy in criticizing Walcott. He was fantastic yesterday, doing all the things in one performance that we have only too often seen sporadically. Of course, he used his pace to its full effect effectively torturing, if not demoralizing, Stephen Crainey. But, as we have all become painfully aware, pace alone does not a footballer make. Yesterday, Theo used his speed to get in behind the defense on occasions too numerous to recall. Even more importantly, he made good decisions and played good balls when he found himself in advanced positions.

His performance wasn’t perfect, as Alan Hansen will gladly remind us. However, all three goals were extremely well-taken, especially the last two goals. The first came from a classic Arsenal-style combination from Rosicky to Arshavin and finally to Walcott who slotted home at the far post. The second saw Walcott take the ball with his back to goal in the box and use his turn to get the extra half-yard of space he needed to once again slot home at the far post. The third goal, however, was truly fantastic. Taking a pass from Rosicky on the run while sandwiched between two Blackpool defenders, Walcott darted between them into the box drawing another defender on the way before a perfectly-placed shot with his left foot. Walcott’s passing was, on the whole, excellent as well. Did he play every ball perfectly? Of course not. Does anyone? No. So Alan Hansen go fuck off.

In order to keep developing, Theo simply needs minutes. He has to play. Arsene’s overly-protective handling of Walcott, or more precisely the expectations surrounding Walcott, surely must be at an end. At 21 years old, his development must now come on the pitch. The moment of truth will come when van Persie and Bendtner are fully healthy. Will Theo, by then, have earned his place in the starting XI?

On his home debut, Chamakh’s performance was somewhat of a mixed bag. He could easily have had a hat-trick yesterday had his finishing been less profligate. I mean, the miss on the ball from Arshavin with an open net was probably harder to miss than to score. Still, his run drew the penalty and sending-off which condemned Blackpool and he got his first goal for the club with the kind of goal Arsene hoped to get out of him regularly when he signed the Moroccan. A quality header off a van Persie corner sealed the scoreline.

However, one cannot help but wonder what will happen when van Persie is ready to come back into the starting XI. Will he be moved wide left? Surely Arsene did not buy a tall centre-forward to play him out wide. Yet, van Persie’s best form last year, at the start of the season, came with him in a central role spearheading the 4-3-3. What use is a 4-3-3 if you have three centre-forwards as your top three, i.e. RvP-Chamakh-Bendtner? Will personnel force Arsene to abandon the 4-3-3? That would seem unlikely as he, and the side, have become relatively comfortable with the formation. It will be interesting to see how Wenger manipulates both his formation and his players to accomodate an overload of central strikers very similar to the overabundance of central midfielders the club has had in recent years.

Just going around the lineup, almost everyone had a better performance than last week at Anfield. Arshavin seemed much more lively, involved, and interested. Diaby and Wilshere were more solid. The return of Song, though wasted as a CB, was also a welcome development, as was the return of van Persie and Cesc as late substitutes. The one man who really built on his performance last week was Tomas Rosicky.

Rosicky had given Arsenal a boost when he was brought on last week and earned himself a place in the starting XI for the match against Blackpool. He was involved in almost every one of Arsenal’s most threatening moves. Rosicky is beginning to look like the player we thought we were getting four years ago. His injury situation of the last three years has become damn near comical, but he looks ready for his first long run of matches in years. If only his body will hold up…

Of course, not much of the big picture can be judged on a match at home against the top relegation candidate, especially when they are reduced to ten men for much of the match. Still, you can only beat the team in front of you and Arsenal did that mightily yesterday. Questions remain about whether Arsene will be able to secure another CB and a new keeper before the window closes in 9 days, but, for now, we can at least enjoy yesterday’s result and, perhaps finally, the emergence of Theo Walcott as a real first-XI regular.


Arsenal Rely Too Much on Samir Nasri

Obviously the title is a swipe at those “pundits” whose favorite criticism of Arsenal for the past two or three months was that Arsenal relied too much on Cesc Fabregas. As if it’s a bad thing to have Fabregas playing the best football of his career. I said it a hundred times in the last few months but, in no way, do Arsenal rely on Fabregas in the way that United over-rely on Wayne Rooney, especially considering that the club’s second leading goalscorer behind Rooney is the other team… own goals!! That is pathetic. Even Chelsea look just better than average when Drogba isn’t on top-form, as witnessed over the last 4-6 weeks.

Arsenal showed up to play last night and they hit the bricks running, playing some of the quickest and deftest football of the season in the first half. And all without Fabregas. Samir Nasri gave a glimpse of what Arsenal’s post-Fabregas-era might look like. He took control of the Burnley match after the skipper went off and picked right up where he left off. His hold-up play, distribution, vision, and sheer industry was just magnificent. The goal itself was beyond magnificent. It was absolutely stunning. It really says something about the depth of this side that despite a number of significant injuries they continue to not only win but win in their usual style.

Nicklas Bendtner shrugged off the criticism of a few days ago from nearly all corners to give Arsenal a 2-nil lead within the first half-hour. Like I said after the weekend, Bendtner had just had “one of those days” against Burnley and the most encouraging thing about his performance was how he didn’t let either his performance at the weekend or the criticism of it affect his self-confidence. That is a sign of a growing maturity on Bendtner’s part. He has been criticized for his cockiness, but that is exactly what allowed him to step back on the pitch only 3 days after the events against Burnley and score a hat-trick in the most important European match of the season so far.

This Arsenal side continues to go from strength to strength. The freak events of the first leg were responded to with an emphatic performance to overcome a first-leg deficit in Europe for the first time since 1978. Belief and confidence continues to grow throughout the side and their is a commitment and togetherness that we haven’t seen in a while, certainly not at all last season. We are through to the Quarterfinals of the Champions League and four straight wins find us 2 points off the top of the Premier League. We are still very much alive in both competitions and no one questions whether or not this Arsenal side have the desire and the talent. Now we have the opportunity to finally turn it into silverware.


There Is An Air About This Side Now

Arsenal did the business yesterday, 3-1 at the Emirates. Though it could very easily have 6 or 7-1. Needing to win by four goals to go clear at the top of the table, Arsenal created more than enough chances to accomplish that feat. The only problem was that most of those chances fell to Nicklas Bendtner, who had one of the most shocking matches in terms of finishing I’ve seen in a long, long time.

It’s a bit harsh to criticize Bendtner as he took it in stride and consistently got himself into great scoring positions all afternoon. Perhaps more importantly, the crowd stayed behind him even when he came off with a thin 2-1 lead. It was a stark contrast to the reception Emmanuel Eboue received last year after a similarly tough match. It seems that this season the supporters have far more belief in the side and are more predisposed to support the team no matter what as we are only two points off the top.

The star of the afternoon was Theo Walcott. Before the match, I wrote that Theo needed to brush off the criticism he’d received midweek and not try as hard as he did against Egypt to have a “big game.” Well, he did that. He could’ve easily had four assists to add to his goal. He used his pace intelligently (take that, Waddle!) throughout the entire match and more importantly the midfield was looking for and finding him.

Theo consistently got in behind the defense and, even more encouraging, consistently delivered quality final balls into the box from wide positions. I don’t remember a better all-around performance from Theo. It was a sharp rebuke to the harsh criticisms he endured following a disappointing match in mid-week for England.

People seem to forget that he is not even 21 and his action has been limited all season due to being overworked during the summer when he played for the U-21s. As he said in his post-match interview, physically, he feels as if his season is just starting. A dangerous, pacy Theo Walcott flying down the right gives Arsenal back a dimension which they had been missing with Theo out injured for most of the season.

I’d also like to point out the performance of Samir Nasri. Having been similarly affected by injuries this season, Nasri is also beginning to hit his stride. His assist on the first goal was sublime and, after Fabregas came off, he played well down the middle. There were some tense moments when Burnley equalized, but the side grabbed the match by the scruff of the neck and Theo broke the deadlock with a smartly-taken left-footed shot just inside the box.

The return of Arshavin was equally encouraging. Today, we saw what we have been missing with Arshavin and Walcott out. If we are to make a serious challenge, we need Arshavin and Theo back to full-fitness and firing on all cylinders.

Fabregas came off with a bit of a hamstring problem, though he was already getting ready to come off when he scored the opener. Wenger says he will undergo a late fitness test before the match on Tuesday. Obviously, we will need Cesc to have our best chance at going through to the next round of the Champions League. He didn’t look particularly hurt and it appears that the substitution was more precautionary than anything. I would expect to see Cesc starting on Tuesday night.

After having most of the side away for the entire week and playing against a Burnley side that was not similarly affected by the international fixtures, we once again showed mental strength after the equalizer. The win sets us up well for the visit of Porto on Tuesday night. We have built some momentum here and need to keep it going. Getting through to the quarterfinals of the Champions League would only add to this side’s growing confidence.

The sense of confidence and belief growing within the side is almost palpable. There is an air about them when they are on the pitch in difficult circumstances during a match. You feel that they will find a way to get the job done. Now we must overcome the slight deficit against Porto and keep our march towards the League and Champions League trophies.