Mesut Özil goal unlocked the tension for Arsenal, says Theo Walcott

David Hytner
Theo Walcott celebrates with Mesut Özil after scoring Arsenal’s second goal against West Ham. ‘The nerves went away and we just relaxed,’ said the striker. Photograph: Ian Kington/AFP/Getty Images

This time, Theo Walcott did celebrate. When the Arsenal winger had scored the first equaliser at home to Manchester City on Sunday, it was the prompt for a curious non-outpouring of joy. Walcott just stood there and his team-mates did not rush towards him. It was psycho-analysed in an unforgiving way.

It was a different scene on Wednesday. Having tucked away his 19th goal of the season in all competitions to put Arsenal 2-0 up against West Ham United at the Emirates Stadium, Walcott let it all hang out. So did his team-mates. Arsenal would go on to secure a morale-boosting 3-0 win.

To Walcott, though, the release had come in the 58th minute, when Mesut Özil scored the opening goal. More than any other player, Özil has symbolised Arsenal’s fragility since the end of January but this was a moment to reignite self-belief. It was Özil who then set up Walcott’s goal.

“We had to get the first goal and when we got the first goal, the nerves went away and then we just relaxed and played our football,” Walcott said. “Hopefully, it is going to breed a bit more confidence going into the next few games in a busy April.

“It has been a challenging few weeks, to be honest, and the first half was tough – it is always going to be like that in any game when teams come and put so many players behind the ball. Everyone just needs to remember how good we are as a team, and as individuals. It is coming into motion. You saw some signs against Man City and more against West Ham.”

Arsène Wenger is fond of mentioning how “confidence goes quickly and comes back very slowly” and Özil has illustrated the point. The manager spoke on Wednesday about how Özil had been “hit hard” by the Champions League exit against Bayern Munich; how his focus had been scrambled.

Özil did not start any of Arsenal’s following five matches for a variety of reasons and, when he returned to the lineup against City, he endured a difficult afternoon – as did most of his team-mates. It was a nervous performance. But the 2-2 draw allowed Arsenal to restore a semblance of stability and it is plain they want to paint the West Ham game as a turning point. With City losing at Chelsea and Liverpool drawing at home to Bournemouth, the top four has come to look a lot closer for Arsenal.

“I wouldn’t say it was just the goal for Mesut against West Ham – you could see it was slowly starting to come for him,” Walcott said. “Goals always breed confidence in players but Mesut is a fantastic player. He has played for Real Madrid, he’s a World Cup winner and he’s been through a lot of ups and downs, so there is nothing he can’t come back from. He has put his head down, worked hard in training and the rewards showed against West Ham.”

Walcott is another player who has tended to attract criticism – even after he scores. “I don’t even bother looking at it,” he said. ‚“I only listen to people I want to listen to. Who are they? The manager and the people at this club – that’s all I care about. People can talk. It doesn’t bother me, at all. We got the win against West Ham and that is all that matters. We move on now to Crystal Palace on Monday night.”

Walcott was keen to emphasis the importance of the team’s sound defensive structure against West Ham. Previously, when the FA Cup wins over the non-league clubs Sutton United and Lincoln City were taken out of the equation, Arsenal had conceded 23 goals in eight matches. They are a long way from being out of the woods but, at last, the players can feel slightly more upbeat.

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