For 45 minutes Arsenal again dominated possession and proceeds of a match without anything to show for it, a fingertip save by Cech away from a 1-0 deficit heading into halftime. They had come close on a few occasions, with Theo Walcott just missing out on the opener twice. Then, as they entered an extended stoppage time of 6 minutes, an incisive series of passes left Walcott free from 10 yards out. He side healed the ball toward the center of goal, where the Lincoln keeper was waiting to quash it, but unfortunately for the visitors, it careened off one of their defenders and buried itself in the far corner. Arsenal were ahead and would add four more as fourth tier Lincoln City tired, after becoming the first team in over a century to make it this far from so low. It was a gallant and inspired run, but would end in the same building where Arsenal suffered their worst loss just four days earlier. Three thoughts on a game that could ultimately be bad news for fans of the club:
1. Walcott Quietly Having a Quality Season
Theo Walcott will always split opinion, his penchant for goals offset by poor first touches, missed clear-cut chances and an inability or unwillingness to track back and help on the defensive side of the ball. And yet it is hard to argue with his offensive output this year, now standing at an impressive 17 goals in 29 appearances this season. However, playing predominantly on the wing, he has only chipped in 2 assists and his passing completion percentage of 75.6 is below par for a possession-based side like Arsenal. In addition, according to WhoScored.com, he has only mustered 0.5 key passes a game, 1.5 successful dribbles, 1 foul and been dispossessed 1.4 times.
One thing that is certain when it comes to Walcott is that he has an eye for goals, often the openers that can start Arsenal on the road to victory in games when others are not pulling their weight – or at least papering over the cracks elsewhere on the pitch. Just this season, he had the opener against Man City, settled the nerves with the first against Sutton in the last round of the FA Cup, had a hat trick in the destruction of Southampton earlier in the competition and gave the home side the lead before their capitulation to Bayern on Tuesday. In the past, he scored an important goal in the 5-3 comeback win against Chelsea a few years ago, the opener in Wenger’s sixth FA cup win over Aston Villa and many others on the road to his century of goals for the club (the 18th player to do so in red and white).
Given the reduced production from Sanchez in recent weeks, though he scored a relatively meaningless fourth with a nice solo run and finish from just outside the box, and Ozil, as well as the continued misfiring of Ramsey and Giroud, Walcott might just be the man to at least save the Top 4 for the Gunners. Ramsey, in particular, seems a shell of the player who was just a few seasons ago being touted as one of the best midfielders in the world. After an impressive European Cup this summer for Wales, some thought he would get back to his best, but the most memorable moments of his season so far have been the wry smiles he exhibits after another wasted opportunity. After spurning three good chances, Ramsey finally got on the score card with Arsenal’s fifth today, after almost flubbing a chance from two feet out, rounding the keeper and taking two needless touches before launching the ball into the back of the net from the line.
Giroud also chipped in with a goal of his own today in the 53rd minute, ending a barren spell of one goal in his last six games as Arsenal’s season has collapsed, though he too benefitted from a deflection off a Lincoln defender. One must wonder, in assessing the many mistakes Wenger has made along the road to the disaster this season has become, why Alexis Sanchez has been displaced through the middle, where he was tearing up defenses for the first half of the campaign.
2. Say it Ain’t So Wenger
Wenger claims he is ready to splash the cash this summer, if he is allowed to stay, and the feckless board and owner above seem increasingly willing to let him maligned us for yet another season of false hopes and withering dreams. It is hard to understand after over a decade of underperformance, but when you have an owner who seems more interested in profits than titles, is it any big surprise? Rumor has it that Ozil might even stay, for a bloated contract renewal that ignores the dramatic decline in his productivity in recent months, or his general penchant for disappearing in big games. A series of askew passes throughout the first half seemed to be a microcosm of his season, after increasing his goal output early on, the magic somehow lost in the haze of a team that seems as lost as it ever has under Wenger.
The truth is Arsenal need to shake things up and the only way to do so is to replace the man who is a veritable Emperor over the club, a position that exists nowhere else at the top level of the sport these days. Ever since David Dein left, Wenger has served as not only manager but head of scouting, signings and really of operations themselves. His inability to see beyond his myopic view suffers no real challenge as long as the power brokers of the team continue to say he will decide when he leaves, even as they tried to temper that stance by saying the decision will be made collectively once the season is over. Do we really believe them, or that they will finally display the nerve to take a chance on a new man to lead them forward?
Arsenal have 275 million pounds in the bank, turn a profit every year (except a few following the move to the Emirates) and can bank on that top 4 finish and an early exit from the knockout stage of the Champions League that generally starts a better run of results to secure that place for another year, even as that meager benchmark now seems in doubt this season. The most troubling aspect of another season of Wenger is that a fitting replacement could be waiting in the wings in Allegri, who has should be collecting his fourth Series A title come May, alongside a run to the finals of the Champions League two short seasons ago. Or a few other worthy candidates, which in my mind, should not include Benitez. We shall have to wait and see, but I won’t be surprised to be watching Wenger starring with a stupefied gaze on the touchline a year from now as another title charge ends in early despair.
3. Could Wenger Leave If He Adds a Seventh FA Cup
Unlike the last two runs to FA Cup glory, it looks like this one will have to pass through one of the top teams in the league, as Arsenal will most likely have to beat two of Man City, Tottenham, Chelsea and United if they are to add a seventh FA Cup to their hungry trophy case this year. If they do pull off that feat, might that be enough for the Frenchman to finally hang up his boots and leave the club in the able hands of a younger, hungrier manager? A Gooner can certainly dream. The reality, though, is that they seem unlikely to be able to beat any of those four, having already lost to Chelsea and Man City and drawn with both United and Tottenham this year. On the other hand, it is plausible that the first three might have bigger prizes in their minds as the semifinals approach. Chelsea should be on the cusp of celebrating a second title in three years, City possibly competing in the latter stages of the Champions League, United trying to move up to the Top 4 after suffering outside it since Ferguson left and Tottenham nervy with a chance to end their long run without any silverware.
Whatever the circumstance, Arsenal need to build on this victory, even against a clearly inferior side, though arguably one that has the kind of heart and verve the Gunners have lacked for over a decade now. Looking forward, Arsenal have five winnable games in their next six, starting with a trip to West Brom followed by games against West Ham (H), Crystal Palace (A), the goal-shy Boro (A) and Sunderland. Between the first two, Arsenal host City in a game that could have huge implications for their Top four ambitions, with a trip to White Hart Lane and a visit from United following the six-game stretch. Arsenal then head to Stoke for the penultimate game of the season before hosting a resurgent Everton at home to close their campaign. Given that tough run for their final four games, getting maximum points over the next six could be the difference between making it 21 straight seasons in the Top 4 for Wenger and having a tough time signing any top talent this summer. Of course, the end of that streak could mean the end of Wenger … tough choice, really.