22 April 2016

Brilliant Bellerín, scintillating Sánchez...woeful Walcott?

We waltzed to a comfy win over West Brom, but they sit comfortably above relegation, so it's hard to take much of meaning from the result. Still, there's something stirring in the Arsenal squad, and it might be just enough to secure a top-three finish even after a shambolic second half of the season saw us slip from the top of the table. With four matches to play, we're two points above Man City (who look like they're focusing on the Champions League, four above Man U, and five below Tottenham. Driving this little resurgence has been the superb play of Héctor Bellerín and Alexis Sánchez. The former was the only Gunner named in the PFA team of the year. The latter has erupted for five goals and three assists in his last six appearances. With the two of them rampaging on the right, we might still salvage a third-place finish.

Let's get the bad news out of the way first. Theo Walcott came on in the 85th minute to replace Alexis. It should have been an innocuous substitution, what with the game well in hand and another fixture coming on Sunday. What's the harm? Let the Chilean rest a bit. Instead, Walcott was booed even before he stepped on the pitch. The attitude towards him has become so toxic that one has to wonder whether we'll see him make another appearance. Those in attendance seem to have made up their minds, and for a player short on confidence at the best of times, hearing the boos even before he's had a chance to banjanx anything just isn't the kind of reverse-psychology motivation he's going to respond to. He's become a scapegoat for a lot of the frustrations in this season. Whether that's fair or not is an open question. Another open question is whether there's a place for him the squad.

Contrast that against the performances of late from Alexis on the right. For as orgasmic as he was on the left in his first season, he stagnated there this time through, and moving him to the right seems to have rejuvenated him. Despite being hampered by injuries and indifferent form, he's now our joint-leading scorer after his brace against West Brom—the fourth straight match in which he's scored, the sixth straight in which he's scored or assisted, and the eighth out of nine in which he's scored or assisted. That's about as purple a patch as anyone can have without being subjected to accusations of doping, diving, or other duplicities. The contrast between his productivity and Walcott's profligacy is stark. Alexis has seized Walcott's mantle—that of the speedster who's also a really nice guy—and run away with it in the nicest possible way.

Still, I always like to look past the scorers to find the straw that stirs the drink. It has to be Héctor Bellerín, and not just because he was the only Gunner named to that PFA team of the year. Without diminishing his achievement, it's a bit laughable that Mesut Özil, two assists from matching Thierry Henry's 20, wasn't also named. For the record, Henry was assisting the likes of Bergkamp, Pirès,  Ljungberg, and Wiltord in a season in which we scored 85 goals. Özil is assisting Alexis, yes, but also the likes of Giroud, Iwobi,Walcott, and Campbell in a season in which we might score 70, But I digress.

Bellerín was brilliant. He was everywhere, just as he's been so often this season. Against West Brom, he was useful in negating what little threat the Baggies offered going forward, but he was lethal going forward for himself. Time and time again, he bombed up the pitch, sluicing through Pulis's vaunted defense to create chances for himself and others. That defense, already preoccupied with the threat Alexis posed, couldn't cope with the overload that Bellerín brought to bear. Even if we admit that the two were exploiting a diffident defense, there's a potent combination. With Bellerín attacking down the flanks, Alexis has more freedom to roam, as evinced by his first goal when he collected Ramsey's pass in the centre of the pitch and scored.

Twice inside of five minutes, Bellerín eviscerated the Baggies' defense well enough to find himself through on goal. Were it not for his lofty ambitions, he might have put both chances on frame instead of into the cheap seats. That said, his ability to get forward (and track back) have been sorely missing in recent seasons, a situation exacerbated by Sagna's declining pace and Walcott's waning will to defend.

In short, the Bellerín-Alexis pairing looks like it could be a stroke of genius. Pity that it wasn't discovered a bit earlier....