Injuries meant Arsenal had little alternative but to play Theo Walcott as a false No9 but the ploy worked perfectly
Curiously, at the end of it all, the team with two strikers ended up with nil and the team with no strikers finished up with two. It was Theo Walcott who made sure there was no dispute about who called the shots as he departed on a stretcher. All manner of items were flung in his direction from the away supporters massed in the Clock End as he was carried around the pitch. He held up two fingers (in a numeric rather than abusive way) with one hand, and formed a zero with the other. It's hard to imagine two more contrasting interpretations of the notion of going for it in the FA Cup. Tim Sherwood's forward-thinking approach involves a pair of authentic centre-forwards. Arsène Wenger didn't really have any.
What a clash of attacking ideology – Sherwood's preference for an old faithful 4-4-2, with Emmanuel Adebayor and Roberto Soldado in tandem, versus Wenger's ambiguously false nine. With Olivier Giroud poorly in bed, Niklas Bendtner awaiting diagnosis on his ankle, and Lukas Podolksi on the substitute's bench after an unconvincing struggle at centre‑forward against Cardiff three days ago, it was something of an emergency situation for Arsenal. Wenger felt compelled to experiment.
The response landed in his lap like a couple of belated Christmas presents. These were small packages. It was a gamble that there would be enough presence in a front line that had Walcott (seven inches shorter than the man who usually fills that role) sprinting around at the top, with three Diddy Men buzzing behind him. Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere and Serge Gnabry look as if they need to stand on tiptoes to have a conversation with Per Mertesacker. But their stature on a football pitch demanded the maximum attention. Tottenham, outmanned in midfield and outwitted by Arsenal's high tempo technique, could not cope.
Wenger's gameplan, by necessity, was all about little blurs of speed and swift passing moves. Tottenham's defence were unpicked a little too easily for comfort leaving Adebayor and Soldado largely isolated. The Spaniard managed to drive a couple of efforts wide. The Togolese was jeered on the occasions he was close to the action – but it was indicative of how Tottenham found it tricky to click that those moments were irregular, before fizzling out altogether.
Arsenal have been digging out results without playing with particular fluency and creativity lately. But they set about this emotionally charged Cup tie intent to dispel doubts about how they would fare without a target man. They recovered their velocity, their fluency, their mojo.
Before the game Sherwood had suggested Arsenal would be unnerved to see Adebayor's name on the team sheet. Tottenham's centre-halves, Michael Dawson and Vlad Chiriches, would have been forgiven for not quaking in their boots to find they were up against a lone Walcott. For all his insistence that he would like to play up front, his cameos so far have not added much fuel to that particular fire.
His movement and energy quickly unruffled Tottenham feathers. There was, to his great credit, he played with an attitude not normally associated with his game. He chased. The ball stuck to him. He played his team-mates in and kept Arsenal's attacking game ticking. He was also clearly keyed up to shoot on sight, and glimpsed a handful of chances in a bright early phase. Twice his willingness to shoot tested Hugo Lloris's reflexes, and on a number of other occasions he cracked chances just off target.
He was far from the only one to catch the eye. Gnabry was the second surprise package of this remodelled Arsenal attack. Wenger promoted the German in pre-season, making the decision to fast-track him to the first‑team squad.
What to do with him last summer was something of a conundrum. On one hand the temptation to loan him out with a view to regular football and enhanced development was tempting. On the other, there was a feeling he might be needed, and might well be ready to make an impact.
This was his fourth start of the season and Gnabry was strong, used the ball well, and was influential in turning Arsenal's dominance into a deserved lead. In the 31st minute he latched on to Bacary Sagna's pass, surged with a little power-charged boost into the danger zone and laid the ball into Cazorla's path. The Spaniard lashed the ball into the far corner across the face of Lloris's goal.
When Tomas Rosicky – another of Wenger's diminutive, technical creators – took the game further away from Tottenham with a finish of glossy finesse, Sherwood immediately substituted Soldado. It was tacit acknowledgement that his tactics faltered.
The only frustration for Wenger was Walcott's departure – adding to the list of ailing front men. He will have to hope any more improvising ends as well as this.