Not too long ago, Theo Walcott was roundly mocked for suggesting the current Arsenal squad had an attack to rival that of 2003-04’s Invincibles. However, after Walcott scored as a revamped Arsenal attack saw off Brighton in the fourth round of the FA Cup, it’s easy to see what he was driving at.
Arsenal don’t have an individual whose gifts or garlands can match Thierry Henry or Dennis Bergkamp. However, they do have an abundance of attackers from the tier below those fabled figures. The stars may not shine so brightly, but the spread of talent is greater.
It’s easy to forget that 2003-04 saw the likes of Quincy Owusu-Abeyie, Michal Papadopulos, Jeremie Aliadiere and Jerome Thomas all make first team appearances. It’s difficult to imagine any of those players getting a game in the present day — the depth of quality Arsenal possess at present is arguably superior.
When you look at what Walcott actually said, it’s clear he couched his statement with the appropriate caveats. He knows this Arsenal squad has a way to go before it can be put in to direct comparison with the Invincibles and his words were not deserving of the hyperbolic headlines they produced.
“When I came, it was Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg, Bergkamp, Thierry and Jose Reyes — that’s some attacking force as well. I think this squad probably does beat it, but we need to prove it first,” he said.
“When we go and achieve a little bit more than winning the FA Cup, then I think we can stand up and say this is the best attacking line up we’ve ever had.”
Walcott recognises that squads are measured by trophy hauls rather than depth of personnel. However, Arsene Wenger seems to agree with the assertion about the strength of the current crop. Speaking after the Brighton game, he conceded he had “never” enjoyed such a multitude of offensive options.
The FA Cup tie on the south coast was a great illustration of the remarkable array of attackers at Wenger’s disposal. He was able to leave out the trio of Alexis Sanchez, Santi Cazorla and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, replacing them with Walcott, record signing Mesut Ozil and eventual man of the match Tomas Rosicky. It’s a level of depth that becomes all the more remarkable when you consider that Danny Welbeck, Serge Gnabry and Jack Wilshere did not even make the match day squad.
The sheer variety of forwards available to Wenger probably goes some way towards explaining Joel Campbell’s imminent departure. The Costa Rica international is set to sign a six-month loan deal with Villarreal as part of the transfer that will bring Gabriel Paulista to London. Campbell becomes the third striker to leave Arsenal on loan this January, following Lukas Podolski and Yaya Sanogo in making a temporary move to secure more regular playing time.
It’s difficult to envisage Campbell coming back. In the case of Sanogo, Wenger was adamant that he would have to move on loan to a Premier League club in order to gain experience that could benefit him at Arsenal. He made no such decree for Campbell, who appears to have been discarded as a makeweight to begin the fourth loan spell of a nomadic career. It may prove to be for the best — he’s at an age where he needs to play and that opportunity does not appear forthcoming at Arsenal.
In his stead, Chuba Akpom will make a play for first team involvement. The young centre forward made a lively substitute appearance at Brighton; the latest in a string of cameos designed to convince him to extend a contract which currently expires in June. Wenger may also have plans for Gnabry. The German winger has been absent for the best part of year, but is now in full training and getting close to a competitive return.
Once Gnabry comes back, he will provide another weapon for Wenger’s growing armoury. Keeping all those players happy won’t be easy, but that’s the sort of problem a manager relishes.
Wenger knows he can afford to tailor his selection to each individual game, selecting the forwards with the attributes that will prove most threatening to the opposition. With Arsenal competing on three fronts, Wenger will be hugely grateful for the plethora of permutations available to him.