A bit of grit
The 8-0 demolition of Stoke that I envisaged did not quite materialise. Then again, neither did my frequent daydream of Arsene Wenger dancing the watusi on Tony Pulis’ face. But if I could choose another, more realistic scenario in which to beat Stoke (that is to say, a scenario whereby Ryan Shawcross doesn’t become impaled on Pulis’ baseball cap) a 1-0 win via a jammy deflection would be my next choice.
To see Tony Pulis, to borrow from his own lexicon, “moaning like a drain” after the final whistle was incredibly sweet. For a football club that pushes the “it’s a man’s game” agenda, nobody whinges more about perceived injustice than that miserable pack of cunnies.
Like Glen Whelan seven days before him, Michael Owen avoided deserved F.A. censure for his Audley Harrison lite effort on Mikel Arteta’s ribs. Then again, banning Michael Owen for three games would be akin to the FBI putting Genghis Khan on their most wanted list. Though I fancy Stuart Pearce might genuinely enquire about Khan’s availability for the England U-21s.
Pressing Stoke’s sour grapes into sweet celebratory wine was most satisfying, but in a more mature, level headed, footballing context, seeing some valour in the Arsenal performance was pleasing. Jack Wilshere’s determination to let former footballer Michael Owen know the score was gratifying, if not surprising. But it was Theo Walcott that left me feeling pleasantly surprised in this respect.
Andy Wilkinson rather embodies the Orcs’ shit-kicking approach and he left Walcott with a few cuts and bruises, in lieu of any technical defensive ability. Even a year ago, I think Walcott would have shied away in the face of this kind of “physical examination.” But he didn’t. In fact he used the sense of injustice as inspiration to impose himself on the game.
The run that, again, caused Wilkinson to take Walcott down, leading to Podolski’s match winning free kick, was one borne entirely of anger. Minutes earlier, Wilkinson had gauged Theo’s eye. Once he had mopped the wound, Walcott indignantly hurled his towel to the ground and immediately wanted the ball again. Not only did he respond with a snarl, but he channelled it correctly. He focused his energy on beating his opponent with the ball.
It’s a fine line between that sort of needle and petulance, but it’s one that Cesc Fabregas so brilliantly towed time and again. (Incidentally, I thoroughly recommend this article about Fabregas’ time at Arsenal). Arsene Wenger spoke about Theo “becoming a man” this season; let’s hope that involves this assertive streak developing.
Speaking of Walcott’s development, his burgeoning partnership with Olivier Giroud has been a feature of 2013. Michael Cox rather pre-empted my intention for a good deal of this column when he wrote about their prominent interplay. Walcott is a player that has often been accused of lacking a football brain and I can’t pretend it’s a charge I have always defended him against.
Yet I have always felt good players develop good partnerships because they recognise their teammates’ qualities as well as their own. Walcott has been able to strike up many complimentary relationships in the last few years. I have to confess I was slightly dubious as to his much vaunted supply line to van Persie, largely because I think van Persie’s movement makes him a simple striker to service.
But Walcott has also formed good combinations with Eboue (before Eboue settled into his role of full time court jester), Fabregas, Adebayor and in the Theo van Nasregas quartet that briefly threatened to win prizes. Walcott may be a speed merchant, but adroitness in using one’s qualities is not always guaranteed. Carlton Cole, for instance, has all the physical qualities to be a good target man, but he has little or no idea how to use his natural gifts.
Walcott knows that his pace is his biggest ally, but he’s learning how and when to use it. Playing off of Giroud and running in behind him to capitalise on his hold up play has been a useful way of playing to his strengths. I wrote back in September that Giroud’s acclimatisation would hinge as much on his teammates understanding his strengths, as him attuning to theirs. I remarked back then,
“Giroud’s teammates will realise quickly that there is profit to be had from one of his colleagues staying close by him. He challenges for a lot of aerial duels and, even when he doesn’t win them, Giroud often prevents the defender from making an emphatic clearance.”
His colleagues have seemingly learned this. Not only due to Giroud’s aerial play though, the subtlety in his lay-offs- especially when he whips out the sand wedge and lofts a ball over the top of an opposing defence- has been seized upon regularly in the last month. When Giroud had the ball with his back to goal against Swansea, Wilshere knew to keep running because a layoff was likely. Likewise, as he protected the ball in the Liverpool penalty area, Walcott knew to run towards him before whipping home an equaliser.
To add to the equation upfront, we’re about to get Gervinho back. As I typed that sentence, I could practically hear the snorting. I understand that to a degree. The Ivorian lost his way badly prior to the African Nations Cup (culminating in three consecutive games as an unused sub over Christmas). But I read with interest this piece by Jonathan Wilson, in which he states that Gervinho is very much a confidence player.
That probably explains why Wenger has been so keen to tell any journalist with a Dictaphone that he’s been the best player at the AFCON. As much as he’s regarded as a punchline at the moment, Gervinho is not without his qualities. His biggest problem may be, as I touched on earlier, knowledge of how and when to use his attributes. It can be very difficult when your card is marked with fans, but given that he is so clearly a confidence player, I hope (rather vainly I suspect) that the supporters don’t unwittingly present him with a bigger obstacle.
He’s started both of his seasons in England well enough to suggest that there’s a good player there. It doesn’t benefit anyone to expend spleen or mirth at him now. Whilst I wouldn’t say that Giroud’s blossoming has solely been the result of a few Bootleg Beatles chants, the understanding afforded him for some iffy form early in his Arsenal career is slowly being rewarded.
My Vital Arsenal colleague Amos wrote this piece back in 2011, which still holds a lot of water. As much as we complain about clubs detaching supporters from the team, we’re actually complicit in this divorce ourselves. We’ll need Gervinho before long; a figurative arm around the shoulder from the crowd might just benefit us all. LD.
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