With four matches still to play in February, including the thrilling prospect of tomorrow’s Champions League last-16 tie against Barcelona, many speculated that Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger might begin to dig deeper into his squad players. However, during Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers, the jewels in Arsenal’s crown, Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas, both started and made huge impacts, with Van Persie scoring both goals.
Despite the duo’s exploits in helping tear Wolves to shreds, it was young, English prodigy Theo Walcott who was most crucial that afternoon. He has come into his own this season, starting the Gunners’ last seven league matches, compared to just 12 starts throughout his last Premier League campaign.
His sprinting and timing of runs was impeccable against Wolves. Arsenal’s second goal was as much down to the opportunistic Walcott as it was to the quick thinking of Fabregas, who toed a looping ball over the top of a sleeping Wolves defence, leaving Walcott to run free in devastating fashion. He then looked up and played in Van Persie for an uncomplicated finish from 18 yards out.
It was the sheer ease of the counter-attack which was so stunning. When Wolves made a rare foray into Arsenal’s final third, Bacary Sagna wrestled the ball back and slipped a close pass to Johan Djourou. The Swiss international tapped it to Jack Wilshere, whose quick thinking then brought in Alex Song. With a first time pass, Song laid the ball to Fabregas, who instinctively hooked it over for the rapid Walcott to run onto. He was away. It was as simple as that. The presence of mind to feed Van Persie with his first touch made the goal even more special. When you consider that this goal came 16 seconds after a Wayne Hennessey goal kick, the ruthless nature of this attack glows brightly.
It shows that having an attractive passing side does not mean you have to pinball pass around the penalty area for 90 minutes. In reality, Arsenal could have had six or seven if they were more clinical such as during their second goal. The goal showed that they can still utilise their creative players like Wilshere and Fabregas whilst camped in their own half.
Wilshere and Walcott were at the axis of a similar goal which Arsenal scored at Shakhtar Donetsk earlier this season. After a disappointing corner from the Ukrainian side, Arsenal’s yellow away shirts began to explode forward from their own box. The two young Englishmen played a quick one-two and again Walcott was in full flight. He needed just one touch before his ice cool finish from 20 yards out. He took his goal with a relaxed roll into the bottom corner, showing the technical wizardry of Dennis Bergkamp or Thierry Henry. In the second leg of last season’s Champions League quarter-final with Barcelona, Walcott’s tearing run from deep and decisive pass across the six yard box was also key to Nicklas Bendtner’s goal.
This is how they can get the better of the Spaniards. Arsenal are a beautiful footballing side at their majestic best, but Barcelona are the masters of tika-taka football. La Liga’s leading side play with a sheer love of having the football at their feet, effortlessly stroking it around the turf. With the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi in their ranks, they categorically do not lose the ball. Walcott and his teammates look unlikely to succeed playing a silky, passing game and trying to open up pockets around the pitch whilst using the ball.
It was the rugged determination of Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan which defeated the Catalans in the semi-final of 2010’s competition. The Italian side were down to ten men and kept their heads high, soaking up Barcelona’s aggressive pressure like a sponge. Of course, Arsenal will not combat Pep Guardiola’s men by placing bodies behind the ball. That is not the Arsenal way. Wenger’s side should only take note of Inter’s gameplan.
Against Wolves, albeit a wholly different task to the daunting feat of beating Barcelona, Arsenal showed that they can carve out goals from any position on the pitch, whether on the offensive or not. The Carling Cup finalists should avoid the perfect goal attempts on Wednesday night. Walcott’s motoring runs from deep are where the English side should look to create opportunities.
Much like their Arsenal counterparts, Barcelona centre-backs Gerard Pique and Carles Pique are ball playing defenders. They like to join attacks in the final third, and are therefore in danger of using a high, defensive line. Wenger should tailor this to his own side’s advantage. With a clinical, in-form striker such as Van Persie, and expertly timed passing from the likes of Fabregas and Wilshere whilst sitting deep, Arsenal’s counter-attacking can be the undoing of the Spanish giants.
The imperious Barcelona have recently embarked on a record-breaking 16 wins in a row in La Liga, which highlights what formidable opponents they will be at the Emirates on Wednesday night. Plus, Wenger will be fully aware of Barcelona’s prowess after his side was knocked out of this competition last year by the La Liga title holders. However, their draw at the weekend with Sporting Gijon caused a minor earthquake of media outcry and shock. The Nou Camp side still reside in top spot with a five point cushion over bitter rivals Real Madrid, who they brutally slayed 5-0 earlier this season.
This Champions League campaign could be the making of Walcott. A player so maligned by rival supporters, yet fiercely praised by his own club’s patient fans, he has been a creative force for the Gunners this season, with seven goals and seven assists. He is of course not the finished article just yet, shown by Saturday’s embarrassing miss after Wilshere’s cunning ball had cut out every Wolves player on the pitch including Hennessey. Walcott then calmly placed the ball the wrong side of the post. The empty goalmouth was seemingly stretching to a tantalising size.
If he can prove to the stubborn doubters that he is the real deal, Barcelona in the Champions League seems to be the perfect stage. We have already seen Gareth Bale single-handedly gun down a European powerhouse on two separate occasions this season. Can Walcott now emulate the feats of his fellow Southampton academy graduate?