We could say it was in the air: we were struggling to score, some players looked a bit tired and concerns started to emerge from the back of our brains.
Then, with one week to go before the FA Cup Final and a very, very last chance to impress, every single player was outstanding – bar David Ospina.
Theo Walcott scored a hat-trick, Jack Wilshere looked superb in midfield, Santi Cazorla found his inspiration back and even Aaron Ramsey – whose place in the team looked strongly in doubt because of his teammates’ fantastic displays – managed to hit the post twice during his cameo and made a claim for a starting berth.
I can’t help thinking that many of our players were not giving it all against Swansea and Sunderland, perhaps unconsciously worried to pick an injury or aware that third place was secured; it doesn’t really matter whether it was more unconscious or deliberate, the difference was huge.
Thunderbolts and straight-to-the-top-corner rockets apart, I finally saw the hunger and desire to score that went missing in the past two home games; we were sharp, quick and determined to make damages in the final third, each player really wanting to make a final point and give the manager some food for thought.
It’s a win- win situation, then. Everyone’s happy.
Well, not exactly: there was still a big loser and that was Olivier Giroud: he sat on the bench to get some rest ahead of the final only to witness his main rival, Theo Walcott, grab a hat-trick in half an hour and become the hero of the day.
When you are a striker carrying an eight-game goal drought and regularly get some stick from pundits and own fans, you definitely don’t want to see your direct competitor steal the show like Theo Walcott did against West Bromwich Albion.
Does that mean that the Frenchman will start from the bench at Wembley? I don’t know, only Arsène knows and I feel he still has some doubts about it.
Managers love to repeat how much they like having those selection headaches but I don’t buy it: if it contains the word ache, it can’t be that pleasant.
Personally, I feel it would be incredibly hard to leave Theo Walcott out of the starting eleven after such a display: he made the most of the chance he was given so he deserves to lead our front line against Aston Villa; he finally managed to do what, in my opinion, our main striker should do: destabilize the opponent’s defensive unit and run behind his marker to dictate a pass from either Mesut Özil, Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere or Aaron Ramsey.
As fellow writer Omar highlighted in his excellent blog on Tuesday, the presence of Theo Walcott upfront prevents defenders from staying in their areas because our striker moves across the line and can make a run in the box anywhere, anytime.
Having Olivier Giroud there means we can always throw a long ball towards him and run to his one-time touches (if he gets any) but also allows defenders to regroup around him and close spaces around the box.
I reckon a sharp Olivier Giroud can be a nightmare for any defender but if the Frenchman is not having a great day, the whole team suffers and we are virtually unable to create chances.
I wouldn’t take that risk on Saturday.
What is really good on starting Theo Walcott and throwing Olivier Giroud on is that the Frenchman always has a huge impact when coming on: his presence reassures our midfielders and immediately attracts defenders, with a not negligible advantage that a fresh Olivier Giroud is very hard to contain for a defender feeling some fatigue.
Games like the FA Cup semifinal against Reading or the one against Everton at Goodison Park showed how much the Frenchman can turn a game around, while Theo Walcott had plenty of chances coming off the bench but rarely made any tangible difference.
You might object that our usual set-up, featuring Olivier Giroud upfront, brought us many points and the Frenchman returned eighteen goals in only twenty-six starts; that’s true, but last year’s final showed everyone how much impact a substitute can have: we looked desperate and we were lacking presence in the final third, then Yaya Sanogo came in and suddenly we found what we didn’t have before.
I’m afraid Theo Walcott wouldn’t have the same effect from the bench but could be devastating if handed a start – like he was against West Brom.
Finally, our Plan A could prove to be the ideal Plan B.