With United looming, it must be asked: Who, what, is this Arsenal?
The question comes up every couple of weeks. "What do you think of Arsenal
Fans like the Premier League race to resemble the mass charge in the early furlongs of the Grand National so long as they have a firm hold on their own ride, but in Arsenal they are wrestling an unpredictable beast. A lackluster loss to Chelsea, followed by a strong display to beat West Ham United; a gangrenous week in which a narrow victory over Queens Park Rangers was barely better than defeats to Norwich and Schalke, then the brilliant madness of this week's 7-5 League Cup win against Reading. Who, what, is this Arsenal?
"I don't know yet." This was Arsene Wenger's response to the question of Theo Walcott's ability to recover from Tuesday's 120 minutes of cup soccer in time to start against Manchester United at Old Trafford on Saturday, but it might equally apply here. After losing to Schalke, assistant manager Steve Bould suggested the team was short of confidence, but could not put a finger on why. Wenger said the fluctuations in his side's performances were "difficult to explain." He had previously suggested that his team's strength, in this season unlike last, would be to share the burden of scoring goals, but the lack of a clinical talisman exposes a lack of certainty over where everyone plays best, as well as how to blend them to Arsenal's best advantage.
This is, of course, most obvious in the center forward role vacated by Robin van Persie, who will line up against his former club for the first time on Saturday having scored seven goals in nine Premier League appearances for Manchester United. The injured Ivorian forward Gervinho is Arsenal's top scorer so far this season with three goals in seven league matches; Olivier Giroud has scored once in six. Against Reading, Marouane Chamakh was making his first start since January, and only his second appearance off the bench this season. He is so much a forgotten man that his brace raised eyebrows rather than his chances of starting against United. Instead it is Walcott, who scored a hat trick, who is being talked up as the central player Arsenal needs.
"He was superb," was Wenger's verdict Tuesday evening. Walcott has always hoped to follow in Thierry Henry's footsteps and shift from the wings to the center, but while the striker who now plays for the New York Red Bulls will always be regarded as a genius, Walcott has struggled to shake off the suggestion that he does not have a "footballing brain." Pace in abundance, but too often unable to make the right decision once he has sped past defenders. That's the script, though Walcott's first against Reading scored a thick red line through it. Outpacing his marker to collect a through ball from Andrey Arshavin, he chipped it over the outrushing goalkeeper as if it was no more important than lobbing an apple core into the bin. Arsenal was 4-0 down and about to be booed off the pitch for halftime.
"The positions on the flanks are changing," Wenger said. "You need to do a lot of defending. [Walcott] should be dedicated more to offensive work. He has good pace, makes excellent, intelligent runs, and what has changed with Theo is he's become a very good finisher."
With contract negotiations with Walcott, whose current deal ends next summer, having stalled, the manager also made sure to praise the positional sense that Walcott has started to show. "He knows where to be in a box for the rebounds," Wenger said. "I like that, because that's a quality of strikers that you cannot give to anybody. You either feel it, or you don't. Yes, he has the qualities to play as a striker."
Should we read that last sentence as an equivocation or take it as Wenger being typically sanguine? Perhaps he will return to one of his other options -- at the start of the season, Lukas Podolski started up front against Sunderland, but Arsenal drew a blank. No one besides Santi Cazorla really boosted his reputation that day, however, and now that Podolski is accustomed to life in the Premier League he may also get the chance to audition for a central role. Playing just off the front at FC Köln last season, he scored 18 of the club's 39 goals and set up a further nine (having created at least 100 chances for other players).
Perhaps the manager feels that the instrumental difference is to be made further back. Having played for over an hour against QPR last week, Jack Wilshere is expected to start at Old Trafford. With one eye on the 8-2 thrashing that Arsenal suffered in the same stadium last season and the other on the six-point gap that already separates the two sides, Wenger has been keen to point out that his team will look very different this time around; he hopes Wilshere's continued return will be crucial. If there is one area of the pitch in which Arsenal fans will be happy to make comparisons, it is in midfield, where Wilshere will play alongside the excellent Cazorla and Mikel Arteta.
"If we do well in this game," said Wenger, "we can come closer to Manchester United, and we'll have played mainly all the big teams away from home." Arsenal has beaten Liverpool at Anfield and drawn with Manchester City at the Etihad this season. It has won away to United just twice in 10 years, however, and with sharply contrasting performances.
In 2006, with Arsenal trailing United and in danger of being written off as contenders before the end of September, Wenger's team nearly played the home team off the park, as Emmanuel Adebayor (another striker burdened by questions over his consistency and comparisons to a departed hero), linked up perfectly with his midfield to score the winner.
In 2002, Wenger's team won the title there. It was the kind of gritty, battling 1-0 win -- Ray Parlour, Edu and Patrick Vieira in a snarling contest with Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and Juan Sebastian Veron -- that is anathema to this week's League Cup exploits. Though with Arsenal, who can be sure that that makes it less likely now?