Victory through harmony.
It may be the club’s motto, but it also applies to two of our most exciting yet divisive players.
Mesut Ozil and Theo Walcott have the potential to be one of the most devastating combinations in world football.
However, first they need to learn (or relearn) how to play together.
On Ozil’s debut away at Sunderland in 2013, the pairing were electric. To quote the Daily Mail, “Theo Walcott should have gorged himself with a feast of first-half goals principally provided by Ozil’s service.”
On that day, time after time Ozil played Walcott in behind and only some great goalkeeping and some uncharacteristically poor finishing prevented Theo walking away with the match ball in hand and another hat trick to his name.
In total they have started a miserly eight games together. Of those, three have come since Walcott’s return from injury, and have seen the Englishman score two goals. They have also been games which have seen Ozil collect goals and assists at will, including assisting Walcott for the winner against Leicester. In summary, when they start together, Arsenal are pretty successful.
But they could be even more successful.
Theo Walcott offers pace and directness unmatched elsewhere in this Arsenal side. For all talk of Alexis’ quality or the Ox’s improvement, neither of them can compete with Walcott when it comes to pure speed and ability to either get to the byline or burst into the box.
Alexis in particular is far more similar to Gareth Bale, preferring to roam horizontally across the pitch in search of a shooting opportunity. The Ox has the power and desire to run more vertically, but he has yet to fully master his touch and put together the burst past a player and the end product of shot or cross in the same move with any consistency.
No, at the current stage of his development Walcott is in a league of one.
The boys are back in town
We saw that for 20 minutes on Wednesday, as he was prepared to take players on, with both fleetness of foot and deft touches. Patrick van Aanholt must surely have been remembering the previous 70 minutes facing Jack Wilshere with significantly more fondness.
If you’re anything like me, you probably put Wenger’s recent comments pertaining to both Jack and Theo’s sharpness down to an excuse not to change a winning team, or a defence of players not on top of their game. Yet both demonstrated over the last week or two, following his assertions that they were finally up to speed, that they really are back on a different, and competitive, level.
In Theo’s case that meant that he had seemingly rediscovered a confidence which has looked so sorely lacking in recent weeks, a delicacy of touch which allowed him to push the ball beyond his man but not out for a goal kick, and the positive intent to make runs both with and without the ball.
It meant that when he has been introduced, he has made a difference – with the goal at United and increasing both tempo and number of shots (!) against Sunderland. He turned in the kind of performances in those cameos to match the vigour with which the Arsenal fan base have been baying for his introduction when games aren’t going to plan.
Apparently there’s no irony in people thinking he’s rubbish and we need to sell him, yet desperately singing his name when we need a goal.
It is a measure of how low on confidence and sharpness Theo has been in recent weeks that these recent games are the first real occasions when he has delivered on that demand from the stand. Indeed, many have forgotten what he is capable of and are surprised when he does deliver.
They should not be.
An able substitute
What is truly slightly more surprising however, is that against both Sunderland and Swansea, it was not Ozil who repeatedly picked out Walcott’s runs with expert vision. Instead, that responsibility fell to Aaron Ramsey.
We’ve all seen the images which do the rounds on Twitter, detailing “what Ozil saw” compared to “what the rest of us saw” and over time they have morphed from being done in awe, to being done in mockery, to being done in awe again.
Yet there have now been three games where Walcott has got back to making his incisive runs along the touchline or on the diagonal into the box with some consistency, and Ozil has yet to find him.
Pleasingly, Ramsey has picked up the baton.
Of all his many skills, I wouldn’t have placed his long range chance creation near the top of the list, but he has found Theo with more regularity than any of his teammates. He continues to blossom into a world-class midfielder with the refinement of each tool in his toolbox.
When any of our midfielders are able to connect with Theo, we are instantly playing a different ball game. Teams cannot simply pack the midfield, assuming we will narrow the park and play horizontally in front of them.
Walcott’s availability means full backs are scared to leave him wide and unmarked while the whole defence is scared to leave space in behind. It creates holes in defences for our more tippy-tippy players to weave their magic.
However, to maximise the use of his unique skill set, we have to pick him out with the right passes too, as Ramsey has shown.
Ozil’s legendary vision hasn’t yet found Theo’s wavelength again. When he does though, teams are in for a scare.
An excellent time to find it would be the FA Cup Final, Mesut.
It may make all the difference.