LONDON – With Arsenal’s two recognized strikers missing for Saturday’s FA Cup tie against North London rivals Tottenham, you would’ve expected an air of panic around the Emirates.
If there was an ounce of nervousness, that quickly dissipated.
From the start of Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Spurs, the Gunners new attack flourished as Theo Walcott was deployed as the lone forward with German teenager Serge Gnabry and Spaniard Santi Cazorla coming in off the wings.
On this showing, Arsenal should be fine if Olivier Giroud and Nicklas Bendtner are missing again in the future, as Walcott took the bull by the horns and put in a dominant forward display.
“I liked what he did today,” Arsene Wenger tole me after the game. “He has played before in that role, but today he added purpose, commitment and more decisiveness to his game. He had more of a fighting attitude. With that, he looks like he improves every time in that position. With that and the quality of the players behind him he can be dangerous in that position.”
Much has been made of Arsenal’s lack of depth this season, especially up front, but when it comes down to it they have a whole host of players who can interchange fluently between attack and midfield. Wenger was dubbed the ‘professor’ for a reason back when he arrived in England in the mid 90’s.
Arsenal’s current team are set up to only need one central striker, who can run in behind or hold the ball up and Walcott did that marvelously well. He timed his runs patiently to give Spurs’ center half pairing of Michael Dawson and Vlad Chiriches a torrid time on Saturday.
While those two were in a spin over who was marking Walcott, Gnabry and Cazorla slid off the wings secretively and that’s how the first goal came about. In the 31st minute Gnabry fed Cazorla to finish, after Walcott’s run took two Spurs defenders away. Gnabry excelled in supporting the excellent Walcott and Wenger was especially pleased with the 18-year-old German.
Although Wenger was reluctant to heap too much praise on his shoulder, just yet.
“Today again he has shown that he’s quality,” Wenger said. “He had a very good game. He is a very young boy but is very bright. He has a really good football brain. I’m a strong believer in Serge Gnabry because I integrated him last year at the beginning of the season. But let’s not make superstars with one game.”
Going back to Gnabry’s partner in crime, Walcott is regularly described as being “too quick for his own good” as his electric pace sometimes sees his body move before his brain has time to react. But in the 11th minute Walcott latched onto a central ball superbly, took it in his stride and balanced himself before hitting a low shot towards goal that Spurs’ Hugo Lloris had to tip wide. He looked at home as center forward.
Next, again from a central area, Walcott’s sweeping effort from the edge of the box was deflected wide as his deft-touch and composure was again on show. Walcott is no stranger to the central role, after seeing him star in that position for Southampton as a 16-year-old when he first burst on the scene, I can vouch for that. Even going back to his days in the youth team at Saints, many believed he would flourish centrally in the future.
On Saturday against Spurs he certainly did.
To go alongside Walcott’s first half attempts Gnabry and Cazorla also went close as the German youngster smashed an effort over the bar, then Cazorla’s curler just went wide of Lloris’ left hand post. Arsenal were rampant early on, as they bamboozled Spurs with their inter-changing trio of attackers.
Pace, ingenuity and composure was shown in abundance by Gnabry, Cazorla and Walcott.
After the break Walcott popped up on the right and Gnabry drifted inside to play centrally and the killer second goal came courtesy of Tomas Rosicky’s pressing on Spurs left back Danny Rose. Game over.
But with only a 2-0 score line sealing the Gunners passage into the FA Cup Fourth Round, Walcott alone could have easily had a hat trick as Arsenal spurned several gilt-edged chances as the game closed out. Throughout the course of the season, that wastefulness may cost them but for now their defense is holding firm, so one or two goals is enough to win them a game.
Late on Walcott fell awkwardly and had to be stretchered off with what looked like an injury to his left knee. As he left the field, he reminded Spurs’ fans of the score line (pictured, left) and then as he passed them in the stands, bottles and coins rained down on the England international.
“The doctor said to me that the coins were coming down over Walcott’s head and they had to protect him, that’s maybe why he did that,” Wenger said. “After that, it was not offensive what he did.”
On a more serious note, that’s two central strikers and a converted one (depending on the diagnosis of Walcott’s injury) down for Arsenal before they face Aston Villa on January 13 in their next Premier League game. That leaves only Gnabry and Lukas Podolski left at the moment, both of whom aren’t too comfortable in central roles and are much better suited out wide.
So does Wenger have to buy a new striker in January?
“We still had Podolski and Ozil on the bench today,” Wenger said. “Giroud was sick, he was not injured but was available if he wasn’t sick. So for the next game he should be available. Of course if you lose Theo for a longer period it is a problem. While Nicklas Bendtner is out for a month, but it could’ve been more so we got some good news on him. I am waiting to see who walks out there [new signings] and wants to knock at the door and come in, but honestly it is hard to find better than the players we have.”