13 January 2016

Campbell's made Ox all but obsolete. Will he lay waste to Walcott next?

So we traded three points in hand thanks to a stoppage-time equaliser, leaving Anfield with just one point. Still, the signs, I'd say, are positive. Ask Chelsea, Man City, Liverpool, and Tottenham how they feel about dropping points at home. I know that we were moments away for seizing all three, but let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Speaking of which, it seems about time to recognize
one such player whom we very nearly discarded and have to be counting our blessings to have kept: Joel Campbell. In his first full season with Arsenal, he's started to make an impression, enough of one to consign Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to a bit part. He's this season's Coquelin. He's a poor-man's Alexis. If Theo Walcott hasn't sat up and taken notice, he'll be sitting a lot more often in the future.

Just a few months ago, the man was a running joke, threatening to set a record for loan-spells. Fast-forward to the middle of a heated Prem campaign in which Arsenal sit top of the table, and Joel Campbell might very make himself indispensable. He gets Wengerball, yet he plays with a chip on his shoulder without getting chippy. He tracks back. He links up. He hustles. At a risk of throwing down a gauntlet, he does everything Walcott doesn't. It's a bad sign indeed when Walcott's most-noticeable contribution on the night was to cough up the ball just outside the area, à la Oxlade. Aside from that, he was largely invisible, even as the game opened up when Liverpool desperately chased an equaliser. In Walcott's ideal world, that is the ideal situation: an injury-depleted defense exposed on counters because players are pressing forward, creating space behind for him to run into. Still, even with that situation, Walcott couldn't find a way through to contribute. There's a role for him at Arsenal, but it may not be the one he wants. More on that in a moment.

As for Joel, he brings to the squad the same kind of verve and hustle that we saw last season from Coquelin. Like le Coq, he's eager, bound, and determined to prove that he belongs once and for all. While his pedigree hardly reads like that of most players in the starting XI of a squad fighting to win the Prem, sometimes, you have to look past the pedigree and look at performance. With each passing week, he gets ever-more confident, setting aside the tentative, risk-averse play that, paradoxically, undermines performance. In recent weeks, he's shown confidence bordering on cheek—witness his little heel-flick to himself against Sunderland, followed shortly thereafter by some deft dribbling and bodywork in the corner (somewhere around the 78th minute, for those inclined to investigate). Against Liverpool, the stakes were higher as we twice fought back from deficits and then defended a narrow lead, but his touch and his vision were still there.

To assist Ramsey, Joel collected the ball with a deft touch, deking two defenders. His angled pass in for Ramsey was sublime even if it left a bit of work for Ramsey to finish it. It wasn't long before he showed that this one was no fluke. Fast-forward just a minutes past Giroud's goal to make it 2-2. Campbell collects the ball just inside the area. He dances over the ball but ultimately stands still. Defenders fall for each little deke. Stillness. Speed. Walcott makes a run and Campbell threads an inch-perfect pass for him, and Walcott crosses. Ramsey just misses getting a cleat on it, and Giroud can't quite bundle it home. If he does, we're hailing Walcott for assisting on the go-ahead goal. Pity.

Campbell's timing and vision on the ball there and elsewhere suggest (but don't quite prove) that the man is ready for a regular role. He's already pushed past Oxlade-Chamberlain as first-choice on one wing. With Alexis due to return by the weekend, can Campbell pust past Walcott, giving us two fiesty, diminutive inverted wingers to play either side of Giroud? On the strength of his recent performances, I'm ready to say yes—and that brings us back to Walcott's role.

Walcott, as I've wondered, is worryingly one-dimensional. If a defense parks that bus, he's almost useless. He thrives on finding space behind the defense to run into, but few Prem teams allow that. Even when our opponents are chasing the game, Walcott's pace isn't enough to make him a consistent threat. If his first touch lets him down, if his shot isn't slotted just right, if the defender can recover...this is not the same as saying he has no role. It's more question of whether he's willing to accept the role that suits the squad best. He and Giroud offer almost perfectly complementary skill-sets. Walcott is fast but easily muscled off the ball; Giroud is slow but almost immovable. Between the two, Giroud is far more likely to accept what I'm about to propose.

Walcott and Giroud should share the centre-forward role.

Depending on who we're facing, one should start, wearing out defenders as is his wont for the first hour or so, after which the other comes on to batter and abuse those defenders in an entirely different way. It's worked to great effect at other times. The only real question is whether Walcott, he of the newly-inked contract, the one that makes him one of our highest-paid players, is willing to platoon with a "lesser" player such as Giroud. If he's not willing to play that role, well, his soup is cooked.

Campbell's served notice. We're in the middle of one of best chances that we've seen in a while to win the Prem. If Campbell continues to play at this level—if he continues to improve—well, Walcott has some serious soul-searching to do. Does he want to lead the line, week in and week out, at some smaller club; or is he willing to share the load, depending on whom we face? It's the kind of conundrum this club hasn't often faced—a selection-dilemma driven more by a plethora rather than a dearth of options.

Let the best man win.