Between April 4 and May 17, Arsene Wenger named the same starting XI for six consecutive league matches - the first time he’d ever done this with Arsenal.
That suggested the Gunners’ first team was set in stone with the FA Cup final on the horizon - but two starring performances on the final day of the campaign might have prompted a rethink.
On paper, Sunday's match against West Bromwich Albion was irrelevant. Third place was almost confirmed - Arsenal couldn't catch Manchester City in second place, they couldn't be overtaken by fourth-placed Manchester United. Yet a week ahead of the FA Cup final, with a nearly fully-fit squad, this game mattered. It was about competition for places, with various 'outsiders' trying to play their way into Wenger's team for this weekend’s Wembley meeting with Aston Villa. The motivation was obvious to see, with a tremendously fast start seeing Arsenal race into a 4-0 lead by half-time. They eventually won 4-1.
The star was obvious. Theo Walcott netted a superb hat-trick in a rare start in his favoured centre-forward position. The most impressive thing was the variety in his strikes, from a tremendous effort into the top corner, to a classic poacher's goal from practically on the goalline. Following a frustrating injury lay-off, this was the perfect way for Walcott to underline his credentials for a starting place at Wembley.
Walcott's cruel injury, sustained against Tottenham Hotspur in the opening match of last season's victorious FA Cup run, came at a particularly unfortunate time. He had previously starred in the second half away at Manchester City from an unusual left-sided position, then excelled up front in that Spurs game. He'd shown his versatility and tactical intelligence, but then was out of action for a year.
Walcott's performance against West Brom was notable for two reasons. First, he shot extremely frequently - having eight attempts in just 68 minutes on the pitch. One was off target, one was blocked, but the other six were all on target, with three finding the net.
Also encouraging, however, was that Walcott finished the game with a 100% pass completion rate, extremely rare for a centre forward.
In general, though, Walcott offers the opposite qualities to Olivier Giroud. The Frenchman is excellent at coming towards play, holding up the ball and feeding onrushing attacking midfielders with clever touches. He is also a useful target for crosses, either with his head or with quick finishes following runs towards the near post.
However, he lacks Walcott's raw pace, and few players in English football are so capable of getting in behind the opposition quickly, meaning Wenger's selection for this weekend will be based around tactics as much as form.
The other star of the 4-1 victory over West Brom was a player in a similar situation. Jack Wilshere has also missed much of the season through injury, and has been limited to substitute appearances upon his return. Like Walcott, he found the net with a stunning strike - voted Match of the Day's Goal of the Season later that day - and could prove crucial this weekend.
Arsenal's midfield combination in recent weeks has been Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla, offering the tenacity and the creativity needed from those deep midfield positions. Wilshere, on his day, is capable of both and also offers something different - he can fly forward into attack, receiving the ball on the half-turn and surging forward. This will be particularly important if Aston Villa press high up the pitch.
Like Walcott, Wilshere was keen to pull the trigger last weekend. He attempted three shots from a similar position:
His passing was good too. Wilshere gave the ball away a couple of times when trying to play penetrative passes into attack, but overall the England international’s confidence in possession was very familiar.
Wilshere might find it difficult to break into the team for Saturday, but he could still prove crucial. In last season's FA Cup final, he and Tomas Rosicky were brought on at half-time in extra-time, which proved crucial in upping the tempo and ensuring Arsenal dominated the latter period of the contest. Such energy could be useful again.
Whatever Wenger decides, it's obvious he has options - perhaps more than at any stage this season. Football is a squad game, and while the FA Cup final selection will inevitably leave a couple of players disappointed, Arsenal have great quality to introduce from the bench.
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