There was a lovely moment of camaraderie as Olivier Giroud came on for Theo Walcott in the 75th minute of Arsenal’s comprehensive 3-0 win over Manchester United on Sunday.
As Walcott left the pitch to a standing ovation, Giroud grabbed his glistening head with both hands and held it firm for a second, as if clutching some delicate, priceless ornament.
This moment of solidarity was poignant not just because of the score, but the manner in which Arsenal tamed a United side that had been gaining momentum. After scoring three brilliant, Arsenal goals, they sat back and never looked like capitulating, nullifying everything United could throw at them with ease and looking dangerous with every counter.
Walcott was integral to all this; from his nimble-footed run past a struggling Daley Blind and perfect pass for Ozil’s goal (below), to the tireless work he put in in the second half to remain an outlet as United pushed on.
Despite Giroud’s appreciative gesture, there must’ve been a part of him wondering if this was the game that officially downgrades him to Arsenal’s second choice striker.
With so many attacking midfielders who can score 10+ goals a season, Arsenal’s priority in a front man is someone conducive to creativity, someone who is always moving, dragging defenders with him and making space in which the likes of Sanchez and Ozil can dance. In this game, Walcott pulled it off with graceful ease and looked a player who is sick of just having great potential, who finally looks ready to shed his aged cocoon and show us exactly how good he can be.
Having dusted him off and given him the chance to prove himself, Arsene Wenger will be thrilled with his performances so far. He seems to have lost that erratic reflex which made him such a frustrating player a couple of years ago. He is a better decision maker, knowing when to take his man on and risk losing the ball and when to hedge his bets and pass it on. Arsenal fans should be excited: if he can avoid injury, this looks like it will finally be the year where Walcott comes of age.
Before the game, BBC Football ran a poll: Who would you rather have in your team, Anthony Martial or Walcott?
They are similar players. They both tickle the waists of opposition defenders and give the linesmen a hard day at the office, gliding across the final third leaving a slipstream of space behind them wherever they run. Martial had a few promising moments in this game and continues to look a fantastic prospect.
But Walcott was artistic in his terrorism of United’s backline; always moving forward, always knowing where Sanchez and Ozil were, thinking not about his own name on the scoreboard, but how he can engineer chances for him team-mates. Martial was voted the most-desirable player and perhaps given his age that makes sense, but it is Walcott who influenced this game with the gait of an almost finished product.
Come next summer, perhaps it is inevitable that Arsenal fans will be expecting a new striker. But if Walcott continues to perform as he has been, it might just be a backup that they’re looking for.
Joseph Hobbs, Pundit Arena