There seems to be a sentiment among the Arsenal team, evident from the conversation and the larger discourse that surrounds the club, that this has to be the season. This has to be the campaign where Arsene Wenger’s carefully assembled gang comes of age, when they overcome their high spending rivals to the league title. Perhaps for the first time since Arsenal moved to Emirates, they are now genuine title contenders. This balloon of optimism was pricked when the transfer window closed, the bang of which was heard across social media as Arsenal fans wailed at Wenger’s parsimony yet again. The fans wanted another marquee signing, a striker who could bang in the chances Mesut Özil and Santi Cazorla produce on a fairly regular basis. While it is up for debate whether the strikers in the team can score enough to win the league, it should not have come as a great surprise that Wenger did not sign another striker.
Arsenal currently have on the roster three players who want that central striker role – Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck. In a formation that allows for only one centre forward, it is clear that there will be intense competition among these three. If Arsenal had signed Karim Benzema or Edinson Cavani, as the fans had hoped, one of the current three would have to inevitably sidelined. Wenger’s decision (or inability, depending on to whom you listen to) not to sign a striker is an incredible statement of confidence in his three strikers. More than an assertion that these three can lead the line, this vote of confidence is a challenge to Giroud, Walcott and Welbeck to repay the trust he has invested in them and to grab this one opportunity with every limb. The only way Arsenal would have signed a striker was if Wenger decided to let one of the three go. As it was obvious that none of them were leaving, it was equally obvious that nobody was coming in.
The two fit strikers have rather credible cases to make themselves. Giroud scored 19 goals in 39 appearances last season, a decent return for a top level striker. Walcott, in his last eleven starts, has scored as many goals. The problem fans have with the current strikers is that none of them can be counted on to perform in big games, and are not crème de la crème players who can produce something when things are not going Arsenal’s way. It is at such big moments that the weaknesses of these two strikers come out. Giroud’s lack of pace and propensity to miss the occassional sitter splits opinion among the fan base. Walcott’s searing pace is neutralised in games where there is no space to run into and the striker has to use his physical strength to create an opening. The strikers that Arsenal fans dreamt of in the window were those who combined the qualities of Giroud and Walcott into a single body, and they were not wrong to hope for such a complete forward. If only they could have a baby.
The lack of incoming strikers during the window is perhaps most significant for the future of Danny Welbeck in an Arsenal shirt. Out of action at least until Christmas, the Manchester-born striker would definitely have been on the way out had Wenger signed another striker. Welbeck is a player who has arguably not received as many opportunities as he could have, mostly because of injury concerns. He has pace to burn and can also help out in holding the ball and with aerial presence. In that sense, he combines many of the qualities present separately in Giroud and Walcott, though nobody would argue he is good enough as the strikers who were touted to join the Gunners. Nevertheless, he remains an untapped potential in an area of the pitch where the team could use his attributes. However, as he is sidelined for half the season, the fans are partly justified in wondering why Wenger has not brought in a replacement in a crucial season.
Notwithstanding the fact that Giroud and Walcott are yet to impose themselves this season, the squad has exuded a guarded confidence about the team’s chances, often coming out in support of the strikers. Despite an “average” start to the season, they continue to imply that a full bloom of footballing genius is just around the corner.
Wenger is clearly gambling in hoping that the trust he has placed on his three strikers will spur them on to great things, but it is a wager that could very possibly hinder the team from achieving its full potential. The games against Stoke City and Dinamo Zagreb presented evidence for how this gamble could go wrong. A flat Stoke side allowed Arsenal to create at will, which meant that the strikers managed to score despite missing easier chances. The away game in Croatia, in contrast, definitely lent credence to the calls for an accomplished striker who could start ahead of Giroud. Not only did Giroud get himself sent off in ridiculous fashion, he failed to put the ball in from a few feet out. Neither game increased the stature of these two players in the eyes of the fans, despite the fact that they scored three goals in two games.
The Emirates can be a very fickle place, easily susceptible to mood swings when things aren’t going the way they hoped it would. A pallid gloom seems to descend upon the crowd when Arsenal find it difficult to break a defence down or deal with debilitating counter attacks. They are full of throat and vigour when slick one-twos create chances, but a morose bunch when the ball refuses to go into the opposition box. The morbid hush that settles upon the home crowd inevitably affects the performance of the team. As Jake Butland did his best impression of Gandalf before Balrog, and Walcott missed when it seemed easier to score, this familiar eerie feeling descended upon the stadium. Walcott, and Giroud towards the end of the game, managed to rescue the situation before the disgruntlement escalated into full blown annoyance, but the game was a warning to Wenger that he needs to get his strikers in form sooner rather than later. If they do not, they would be letting the whole team down. Their time is now.
Guest Author: Aju Basil James