Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Arsenal 2-0 FC Basel: Gunners shine as Walcott steals the show

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A first Champions League win of the season came off the back of our best 45 minutes of the season so far, and the scoreline in no way reflected how dominant Arsenal were in that first period.

The manager made two changes from the team that beat Chelsea as David Ospina came in for Petr Cech, while Granit Xhaka got a start ahead of the injured Francis Coquelin. Picking more or less the same team that had blitzed Diego Costa into a fury (haha) was a statement of intent, and that was reflected in performance.

We had 12 attempts on goal, 8 of them on target, and by the time the half had ended we should have been out of sight. Only some poor finishing and some very good goalkeeping from Tomas Vaclik kept the scoreline respectable, not to mention the football we played was scintillating at times.

The combination play, the speed of our passing, the ability to work the ball through the lines with pace, and the creativity throughout had the visitors rocking. Alexis missed a couple, Mesut Ozil missed a couple, Bellerin was denied, but Theo Walcott was the night’s decisive figure. His start to this season has been very good, and he brought it up another level last night.

The way he opened the scoring was almost a perfect illustration of how his game has changed. There was real desire to get on the end of an Alexis cross after he’d been set free down the left. The England man raced into the box and scored only the second headed goal of his Arsenal career to put us 1-0 up.

The second goal saw him work it through midfield with Bellerin before playing a one-two into the box with the Chilean. He looked up to see if there was a pass on, saw there wasn’t, then cracked in a fantastic shot off the far post. Life back on the right hand side is suiting him, he combined the goals with the hard-work of his previous performances, and this new iteration of Theo Walcott is a real pleasure to watch. I genuinely hope he keeps it up.

The second period wasn’t quite as exciting, with just the 7 attempts on goal and only 1 of those on target, but again when we did work chances they were good ones we should have scored. It’d churlish to complain about lack of efficiency in front of goal on a night when we played so well, but when Basel themselves missed a couple of good chances to score it shows you how tight the margins can be.

That said, I thought we controlled the game really well for the most part. A third goal might have allowed the manager to make changes a bit earlier – and perhaps different ones from those he did make – but we should take nothing away from what was a really superb performance at times.

For a while here I’ve worried about the kind of football we play. It’s seemed so far removed from the way Wenger’s teams normally operate, but I think we’re seeing a return to a style that feels quite familiar. The work-rate is up generally speaking, we’re playing very much on the front foot – proactively getting on top of the opposition rather than reactively trying to deal with what they throw at us – and the key thing for me right now is the speed at which we move the ball.

Not just how quickly we move it from one side of the pitch to the other, or forward from midfield, but the actual pace at which the players at hitting the ball to each other. That’s reminiscent of the best teams we’ve seen in the past and the way they look comfortable controlling possession at that speed is very encouraging.

The front three is mobile, quick and looks to be on the same wavelength; midfield is working and I thought having Xhaka deep and looking to thread the ball forward made a difference; Ozil is playing higher up the pitch and although his assists have ‘dried up’, for want of a better term, he looks like he’s really enjoying himself; and we look good at the back.

The last few games have been fun to watch and as much as results should always trump performances, it’s nice that we’re combining the two. Afterwards, Arsene Wenger said:

It was a game of top quality in the first half, the pace and technical quality of our movement. We created a lot of opportunities. I regret a bit we didn’t take enough of the chances we created, but it’s a good basis to have a thirst for more. It looks like we’re playing with full power and pace. Now it’s about continuing to improve. We know we can be better. That will be down to humility, starting tomorrow morning again and focusing on the next game.

And on Theo Walcott and whether his sit down chat with him has sparked this turnaround in form:

It is not the chat which makes you score goals. He assessed where he stands and then rectified what he had to add to his game. That’s down to him, 95 per cent down to him.

I have to say that first half was maybe the best I’ve seen Walcott play in a long, long time, and having been critical of him in the past he’s fully deserving of all the props when he’s playing like this. If he can stay injury free, and maintain this level of performance then he’s going to make a significant contribution this season. Fingers crossed.

Overall, the last few weeks have been very pleasing. The results have been good, the football is improving, and it feels like we’re building some nice momentum. I like the manager’s call for humility, that we can’t get ahead of ourselves, but the signs are very encouraging. We had to show last night that we could follow up the Chelsea win with a professional performance against Basel, and we did just that.

It sets us up nicely for Sunday and a trip to Burnley where we have to pass another little test. Away trips after midweek Champions League games are not always easy, but having done that already this season it’d show some real consistency if we could do it again.

Just a few things to get through this morning before we go. The Random Number Generator has picked the winners of the Ian Wright book competition, and the 10 people who win a signed copy of his new autobiography are: James Coxeter, Jon McClintock, Mark Daniels, Patricia Gatward, Lee Pethers, Trevor Craddock, Parmeet Kohli, Sean Twomey, Kris Taylor-Rush, and Marylene Needham.

Congrats to you, and I’ll be in touch to get your address details so we can get the books sent out.

Finally, when it comes to books, remember that Amy Lawrence and Stuart MacFarlane are going to be launching their book: ‘The Wenger RevolutionTwenty Years of Arsenal‘ at The Tollington tonight. I have my copy and it’s absolutely beautiful, definitely one you need for your collection. It kicks off from 5.30, so make sure you get down there to get one if you’re in the neighbourhood, and I think they have some prizes, signed copies and loads more going on.

Right, we’ll have more reaction to the Basel win over on Arseblog News throughout the day, I’ll be back tomorrow with an Arsecast. Until then, have a good one.

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