Before we begin, let’s all take a moment to appreciate THAT goal Giroud scored last night. A moment to remember the inventive finish, as he fell backwards almost in slow motion while hooking the Ball over his shoulder. The lack of certainty about whether it was going to go in, or go over the bar, how time almost froze as the ball looped lazily into the top corner. The fear that always comes when you witness a goal like that, that it was too beautiful and too precious to be allowed, that it would be chalked off for offside. The jubilation as you realise that no, there was no flag from the linesman, that the goal stands, and you just witnessed something special, and that you will not forget this anytime soon.
After taking that moment, let’s also rewind to the passage of play just before the finish, the passage of play that in fact made that goal so memorable. Red Star Belgrade was once a titan (or at least a generously sized giant) of European football, reaching the top tier competition’s finals numerous times, playing good football, and generally having a reputation for being as far from pushovers as possible. The 90s and their attendant inundation of European football with cash ever since left the Serbian side in the lurch, and they are, quite frankly, not going to cause any of the top tier clubs in Europe to clutch their pearls in alarm anymore.
Of course, you wouldn’t have thought that, given how Arsenal played last evening, with the Serbians having the better chances to score till the 81st minute. And the problem was, even after Rodic’s sending off, you wouldn’t have bet a lot on the Gunners scoring because their football till then could only be described as, and I’m being very kind here, turgid.
All that changed with 84:09 on the clock, when Theo Walcott passed the ball to Jack Wilshere in front of the Red Star box (this pass was also not an easy one, played with his heel in the air). Wilshere controlled it with his back to goal, and passed it to Reiss Nelson on the right. Nelson played it back to Jack, again with his back to goal, and with opponents around him on three sides. Undeterred by this state of affairs, the young Englishman executed a sumptuous little turn, leaving the three defenders bamboozled and out of the game, and pushed towards goal, laying the ball off to Walcott on the edge of the box. The former Southampton man then pulled two defenders out of position and played the ball back to Wilshere near the penalty spot, surrounded by Belgrade players, who flicked the ball back to Walcott first time into the air, following which Theo headed it back towards the centre of the box where Giroud proceeded to do his thing.
That little passage of play encompassed everything Wengerball has always supposed to be: quick, incisive, beautiful, skilful, clever. Four years ago to the day, if I’m not mistaken, Wilshere and Giroud combined to score one of the most breathtaking goals any of us had ever seen. It all came down to Wilshere’s ability to drive past players, his one-touch ability, and the vision of Giroud. And this proved to be the foundation of the goal against Belgrade as well, with Wilshere’s turn on a dime away from three opponents creating all sorts of havoc in their defence.
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago how Arsenal were missing someone who could move up the gears like that, who can accelerate play from midfield and into the final third, how we were missing someone like Kevin De Bruyne. I still don’t think we have anyone with the artistry of the Belgian, even when Santi Cazorla is fully fit, and Wilshere isn’t going to reach that level anytime soon, but he does have the raw attributes to do something like that. And that is something we need in central midfield, desperately.
We needed it last evening, when it took Wilshere to have to drop deep and far away from his left inside forward/attacking midfielder role, to finally add a spark, and we needed it even more desperately last Saturday against Watford, when a toilsome Arsenal performance was rewarded with two late goals from the Hornets (one admittedly because of a terrible dive, but still).
In that game, Wenger was readying to bring Wilshere on, till an injury to Koscielny caused him to send on Rob Holding instead. This may have seemed like the logical thing to do, perhaps, swapping like for like, but it was arguably one of the worst Tactical decisions I’ve ever seen. Arsenal had been rubbish all evening anyway, getting the goal from a corner, and creating few other good chances. But after Deeney’s equaliser, Watford had seized the initiative, and were rampaging through our midfield and at the defence time and time again. It was essential that we win this game, to try and take advantage of the points dropped by the other teams, and so we needed to take control of the game, so that we could try and score again.
And so, the obvious tactical change should have been to switch to a back four, which was possible since we had four defenders on the pitch, and add a body to midfield to exert some more control there and take the fight to the home side. Wilshere would have been perfect for this role, as he would have not only been an additional presence in the middle of the park, but could have also helped spark our attacking play, much like he proceeded to do on Thursday evening.
Unfortunately, Wenger in his wisdom decided to stick rather than twist, and if you were a betting woman or man, you would be forgiven for thinking that this tactical change that wasn’t, will come back to haunt us at the end of the season.