20 May 2015

A scoreless draw? I blame Theo. And Norwich. And Sunderland.

We waltzed in and assumed that we would waylay Sunderland, forgetting for the evening that they only needed a point to stay up in the Prem. Between this match and their next one against Chelsea, the Black Cats had to figure that this might be their best chance at a point. After all, we sleep-walked through the loss to Swansea and stumbled out of Old Trafford with a draw and hardly look like the same squad that briefly rose to second place in the Prem. However, we seemed bound and determined to nibble around the edges of the Sunderland area, hoping against hope to find another pornogol of the kind Wilshere scored a season ago against Norwich—or, for that matter, the one Rosický scored against Sunderland. As with Swansea, we've reverted to some bad habits, namely, passing and passing and passing in the hopes that we can string together the perfect sequence of passes until the ball ends up in the back of the net. It just wasn't meant to be, not on this day.

We seemed to fall into one of three ruts, none of them leading towards the result we needed to keep alive our waning hopes of a second place finish. Most of our attacks came as we passed and dribbled around the edges of the box looking for that pornogol, while Sunderland packed five or six defenders into the box and arrayed another three or four outside. Giroud, wearing one, two, or even three of those defenders like just as many cheap suits, struggled with his first touch but still managed to come up with several gilt-edged chances, only for Pantilimon to make the save. Others, like Ramsey, Wilshere, and Özil, were more wasteful, either dilly-dallying on the ball or launching shots into the stands. Alexis and Bellerín were a bit better, forcing deflections, tough saves, and almost own-goals with their efforts.

However, the story of the night—at least for the first seventy minutes or so—was one all too familiar to Gooners. 75% possession. Spurned chances. A keeper who turns in a blinder. A frustrating result, made all the worse by the process. Then, as that infamous 70-minute mark approached, we saw our first sub, and the game seemed to take a dramatic turn for the better. Minutes after being introduced, Theo Walcott ran—where else?—behind Sunderland's back line before it could set up to gather Ramsey's brilliant through ball to dink Pantilimon. Ask Giroud and Özil why they didn't break in for a possible rebound.

A few chances and an almost own-goal later, it was Walcott again, this time turning provider for Tomáš Rosický, collecting his pass and turning it back to Rosický, who put his shot a bit wide. Walcott again turned up, this time taking a well-placed Giroud pass and stinging Pantilimon's hands from a tight angle; Pantilimon spilled it, but Giroud couldn't get to it before it was cleared. Again, minutes later, Theo sluiced through the Sunderland defense and fired fiercely only for Pantilimon to make the save (Ramsey just missing the rebound as he flew past).

By now, I hope you're seeing the trend. While we wasted 65 minutes or so on deft little dinks and flicks, Theo came on and in the space of 25 minutes drove straight into (and through) the teeth of a stubborn, obstinate defense and very nearly turned the game on its head. I don't mean to say that he was the only one on the pitch trying to win; he was, however, one of those most responsible for our best chances at winning. Almost everyone else looked weary, jaded, or resigned. Theo looked fresh, determined, and hungry. Could he have sustained that approach over a full ninety minutes? Perhaps. What might he have cone in 45 minutes instead of 25?

Walcott often gets singled out for being a bit one-dimensional, as if it's a sin to be direct instead of a dilettante-ish. Yes, Wilshere, Ramsey, Cazorla, Alexis, and Özil can scintillate with their passing and dribbling, but against when a side sets up as Sunderland did, all of the tiki-taka in the world will frequently fall short as it did against Swansea and again against Sunderland. It's no accident that so many of our best chances of the last three matches have come courtesy of Theo's pace  and ability to spring an attack before the opposition can set up behind the ball.

Hindsight is of course 20-20, and so the question "what if Theo had started at least one of the last three matches?" is a bit of a loaded one. We've scored just one goal while dropping seven points from nine. That one goal came through Theo's pace and directness. If he had been given more time in this or the other two matches, we might have seen him bag another goal or two. Or not. Either way, he's one of our most-lethal finishers, and it seems foolish to waste his talents in spot-duty when he can turn a game on its head in the blink of an eye. If he's still working his way back to fitness, that's one thing. If there's some other issue holding him back, we haven't heard much of it.

Ah, well. We've stumbled our way through three matches in a row now, and we can kiss second place good-bye. We now have to keep one wary eye on Man U, who cling to a glimmer of a ghost of a chance of overtaking us for third. More likely, though, we'll hold onto a third-place finish that should feel good but would be a bit tarnished by how we got it—we're backing our way into it rather than matching Man City blow for blow. Pity. A third-place finish, combined with winning the FA Cup, should feel like progress, however marginal, over past seasons. Here's hoping that Theo and the rest can secure that much...