Theo Walcott’s epiphany, 10 years after first arriving at the club and at the grand old age of 27, that he is a winger not a striker inspired Arsenal to a Champions League victory over Basel and, coming just three days after a fine victory over Chelsea, has raised levels of positivity at the Emirates to new levels.
Arsene Wenger’s team, who beat deadly rivals Chelsea 3-0 at the weekend with one of their best performances in years, rose to their manager’s challenge to follow it up with an equally unequivocal display in the Champions League, easing past their Swiss opponents to make it eight games unbeaten in all competitions. Walcott, who for the best part of a decade has been telling everyone who would listen that he would rather been a centre-forward, was the inspiration – just as he was at the weekend.
This time he scored twice inside the first-half hour, taking his total to four (including three in a row in all competitions) after finally accepting he may never earn the striking role he craves and vowing instead to concentrate on what he does best on the right-hand touchline.
By all accounts his decision came as a surprise, not least to Wenger who feared the England player – left out of his country’s Euro 2016 squad after a frustrating season last year – didn’t have the defensive determination to track back, as the modern game requires. Walcott, however, has proved the Frenchman wrong. Against Basel he was good at both ends, in fact he was good wherever he went, and gave his team the best start.
His first goal came after only six minutes, and was superbly worked. Santi Cazorla’s perfect through-ball sent Sanchez scampering away down the left and his dinked cross was headed home by Walcott on the run – having started his sprint more than 40 yards from goal.
The second arrived 20 minutes later, this time Walcott out-stripping his full-back down the right flank, moving into the penalty area and shooting across keeper Tomas Vaclik.
THEO WALCOTT!!! 2-0 ARSENAL!!! pic.twitter.com/a0v19COGvV— Weekly AFC (@WeeklyAFC) September 28, 2016
His performance delighted Wenger, who hinted pre-match Walcott’s decision to come to terms with himself, rather than his position, was key in his obvious development this season.
“Theo Walcott’s best position is when he is committed like on Saturday against Chelsea, it does not matter where he plays,” he said. “It is sometimes important to express the talent of a player. He can play on the flank or up front.”
Even so, you suspect Theo’s decision to settle for a place on the wing could be crucial in his career, having had to cope with rumours that he could be sold to West Ham this summer after such a disappointing year to that point.
He earned a standing ovation from the Emirates crowd when substituted after 70 minutes and was happy with his night, saying: “We were very professional today. The intensity was there from the start. I am working hard, enjoying my football. I just try to improve everyday.”
The only disappointment for the Arsenal faithful was that in a game their team dominated they missed so many opportunities to extend the lead. Mesut Ozil was guilty of over-elaboration in his finishing, particularly when he wafted a shot wide when clean through in the first-half and then volleyed into the side netting when found by Alexis Sanchez unmarked.
Sanchez, too, could have had a hat-trick – in fact he could have had five or six – but either found goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik in fine form.
On this occasion that lack of a ruthless streak didn’t matter but it might do in future in the Premier League – even at Burnley on Sunday – and that’s one learning point which Wenger may well take away from the night. More important, however, is that this result built on the feelgood factor created by Saturday’s win over Chelsea and added to the point won at Paris St Germain as Arsenal bid to reach the knockout stages.
Basel, who were largely kept at bay in a less frenetic second-half with the exception of two efforts from Birkir Bjarnason, are no mugs; they have claimed some pretty big English scalps in the past, including Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United, so this was a meaningful victory.
Ospina 6, Bellerin 7, Mustafi 7, Koscielny 7, Monreal 7 (Gibbs 75; 6), Xhaka 7, Cazorla 7, Walcott 8 (Oxlade-Chambrerlain 70; 6), Ozil 7 (Elneny 70; 6), Iwobi 7, Sanchez 8
Vaclik 8, Lang 5, Suchy 6, T Xhaka 6, Balanta 5, Traore 5, Bjarnason 7 (Delgado 79; 6), Zuffi 6 (Elyounoussi 70; 6), Fransson 6, Doumbia 6 (Sporar 57; 6), Steffen 5
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