Tactics Column: Theo Walcott is Arsenal’s striker on the wing

Tactics Column: Theo Walcott is Arsenal’s striker on the wing

Speed has always been the greatest virtue of Theo Walcott’s game but waiting for the rest of his game to catch up, has required a large dose of patience. During one training session for England, before the 2010 World Cup, coach Fabio Capello halted training every time Theo Walcott made a run inside. Walcott did it out of habit; for Arsenal, allowed the freedom to get into positions where he could be most dangerous. For Capello it was different. He felt that Walcott’s pace would be less useful where space was was most congested on the pitch and each time he darted infield, Capello would instantly blow his whistle.

In his book, Theo: Growing Up Fast, Walcott admitted that he was “confused” by Capello’s instructions; that curbing those instincts was not his game. He has always been destined for, in his head, to play upfront and when he signed for Arsenal, and given the chance to develop under the tutelage of Theirry Henry, the design was set in motion. Arsene Wenger has always promised his winger that a striking berth would only be a matter of time and despite encouraging words in public, he has quietly been waiting for the right moment. And that moment might have arrived on Saturday when Arsenal defeated Tottenham Hotspur 5-2, in the North London Derby.

Theo Walcott was instrumental in Arsenal’s demolition of their closest rivals. Every time he received the ball out wide, his delivery was threatening even if didn’t always find his target and his directness, whether taking on the full-back or drifting inside, encapsulated the urgency of Arsenal’s play. And at the end of the match, he was given his chance to lead the line and duly delivered with a goal of his own. Wenger praised the increasing maturity of Theo Walcott’s all-round game: “He is a different type of player, he can play up front and he can also play up front with Giroud. He has found a good mixture of positional play on the wing now, and he is difficult to stop.”

As always though, Wenger was quick to add a caveat and that Walcott is only as good as his team-mates around him. “He finished as a centre forward [against Tottenham] and scored a goal,” Wenger told Arsenal.com. “But when you play with the midfield we have – Wilshere, Cazorla, Arteta – they will find you in any position if you move well.”

And that’s the key point to Theo Walcott playing well, whether it’s up front or on the flanks. Walcott must be indebted to some degree, the role Bacary Sagna has played liberating him and in a sense, allowing him to play as a striker. It’s the same job Kieran Gibbs did earlier in the season when playing with Lukas Podolski. Their energy getting up the pitch and their tactical-nous, gives the freedom to the wide players – who are like strikers in Arsene’s system – to move with freedom. Certainly, one only has to look at how Podolski’s fortunes have fared while Gibbs has been absent.

Of course, Walcott’s improved maturity has had just as much part to play to play in his recent good performances. His touch is full of confidence now: just re-watch his control in the build up to Arsenal’s fourth against Tottenham. And his movement is less predictable and a much maligned part of his game, his dribbling, looks more purposeful. Theo Walcott has scored nine goals now, including three against Reading without the same security behind him – but that game, characterised by abandon, makes it difficult to draw too many judgements from.

It’s apt that Wenger points to the important of his team-mates when evaluating Walcott’s credentials to play as a centre-forward because as a poacher, which is what his style would translate to if he makes that move, it depends entirely on the support he has behind him. Ultimately, that would be the main sticking point too, if he was to play as a number 9 regularly. Because not many teams play with a poacher these days and as such, central strikers need to possess other all-round skills if they are to survive there. Wenger indicates that Walcott doesn’t yet have those skills – to hold up play and bring others in the game – and one wonders whether he ever will. In this formation, the 4-2-3-1, Walcott is unlikely to get the chance to lead the line from the start but there is scope he will in a 4-4-2with Olivier Giroud or Podolski.

Nevertheless, Arsenal-Tottenham, showed the burgeoning relationship he has with Giroud and looking at where he mainly touched the ball, one can say Walcott was essentially playing as a striker – albeit one very wide. He was the highest player on the pitch and with the team’s centre-forward also acting as a pivot; it allows him to feed off Giroud’s knock-downs, as he did for Cazorla’s goal. Walcott’s crossing is more intelligent now too and looks like a result of work on the training ground.

Ultimately, though, Walcott might have to accept Capello was right, even if he doesn’t quite understand. The limited space on the field these days mean his pace might be more deadly, starting wide. If Arsenal pass the ball well, then room will always be created for him to run into, more so than where the space is more congested centrally.

Walcott’s role model might be Thierry Henry or Michael Owen and he might look at Javier Hernandez as the type of player he’d like to be. But a more realistic archetype of what type of player he could become might be goalscoring wide-forwards such as Cristiano Ronaldo or David Villa. It’s as Sir Alex Ferguson once said: “When forwards attack from wide to inside, they are far more dangerous. It’s funny when I see centre-forwards starting off in the middle against their markers and then going away from goal. Strikers going inside are far more dangerous, I think. When Henry played as a striker, and sometimes when Wayne [Rooney] does, they try to escape and create space by drifting from the centre to wide positions, when that actually makes them less dangerous.” Walcott would do well to heed to such words of wisdom.

Competition: win a DVD signed by Robert Pires

Competition: win a DVD signed by Robert Pires

Last week, Robert Pires was in the Armoury to sign copies of the new ‘Arsenal Greatest Premier League Games’ DVD.

The DVD brings together the very best Arsenal action from the Premier League era, with more than 60 matches from the past 20 years featured across three discs, including the title successes of 1997/98 and 2001/02 and the unforgettable 2003/04 ‘Invincibles’ season.

‘Arsenal Greatest Premier League Games’ is on sale now in all official Club stores, priced at £15 and we’ve got an exclusive copy signed by Robert Pires himself to give away. To be in with a chance of winning, just answer this question:

Robert Pires scored his first Arsenal goal against a) Sp*rs b) Sunderland c) Lazio

Answers to competition@arseblog.com before 7am on Wednesday 21st, November. Winner announced on Wednesday morning’s blog.

Basking like a basking basker from Baskersville

Basking like a basking basker from Baskersville

Morning all.

Still basking? If not, why not? It’s a Monday. Sure it’s grey and rainy (at least it is here) but the warm glow that accompanies a victory like that lasts a long time. Well, at least until midweek when we’ve got another game to contend with.

In the meantime though, there’s some enjoyable back-slappery going on in the wake of the spud pummelling and at the heart of all things good on Saturday was Santi Cazorla. The little Spaniard stepped up when we needed him. It’s fair to say he found some of his early season form again but he did it in a game that really mattered, and that’s also hugely encouraging.

He’s drawn praise this morning from Jack Wilshere, who said:

He was different class. His touch, his vision is a joke. He’s a dream to play with. He never gives the ball away and he’s creative, he’s busy around the pitch,  he’s a joy to play with.

It’s great to have him in the team. A lot of people Jamie Redknapp said they didn’t know about him before, but I’ve heard of him for a few years now. He’s a great player and when you’ve got someone like that in your team, who’s going to bring you in, you just want to get out there.

I don’t think we can underestimate how much good players enjoy playing with other good players. Guys they can trust 100%, give the ball to in tight areas and know they’ll find a way to make the next pass more often than not, and players who can produce and who see the game in its entirety. Nearly 50% of all Cazorla’s passes on Saturday came in the final third of the pitch, and I don’t think it’s coincidence that such a stat occurred in a game in which we’ve scored five goals.

Interestingly, Cazorla and Wilshere traded only 11 passes between them on Saturday (compared with 34 Cazorla and Arteta), which suggests Jack was doing a lot of work in midfield – most of which seemed to entail being fouled by Sandro every couple of minutes. But he did important work in there which allowed Arteta to dictate the game far more than he did against Fulham. Once again he was the hub of the team, completing 97 of 109 passes, so it was quite funny to hear him dismissed on Match of the Day as ‘quiet’. Yes, Cazorla caught the eye but he couldn’t have done it without his compatriot.

[As a small aside regarding Match of the Day, how toe-curling were Hansen and Redknapp, especially when placed either side of the annoyingly likeable Vincent Kompany? The fawning, jokey 'banter' was just appalling and the Man City captain looked kind of embarrassed to be there. That said, Kompany referred to Arsenal as the best team City have played this season, which is interesting, and his dismissal of Twitchy's claim Sp*rs would finish above us was amusing].

Anyway, back to people who we don’t want to see shot into space with their limbs partially removed, and this time it’s Cazorla himself talking about what went down on Saturday and, in particular, his relationship with Jack Wilshere.

Jack has a quality that everyone knows about, and he is a crucial player for us. Every day, he gets better and playing with him gets easier every day, as he improves his level and finds his fitness again.

We have to be patient but he will keep on improving. I am starting to understand Jack a little bit more but that is the same with all of my team-mates. We are getting better with every game.

The part about ‘understanding’ is worth noting too. Not just from Cazorla’s point of view, but from Wilshere’s too. He’s come back into a team very different from the last one he played in. He’d never played a single minute with Arteta, obviously the new arrivals Podolski and Giroud too, and there is going to be a period of adaptation. Relationships on the pitch don’t often happen just like that, for the most part it takes time playing together and working on the training ground and over the next while, all going well, we’ll see how Jack develops as well those around him too.

I know that some will suggest the midfield trio of Arteta, Wilshere and Cazorla lacks something physically, and that’s fair comment, I guess. But from a technical point of view it looks very, very good indeed and the more they play together the better they’ll be. There is the worry that there’s too much of the burden on Arteta who isn’t in the first flush of youth to be fair to him, but I think when Wilshere is 100% comfortable in the team and physically back to his best he can take the load off a bit.

One final point from Saturday. While everyone is talking about Theo Walcott and his contract, with the manager saying he won’t be allowed leave in January whatever happens, I’m baffled again as to why there’s such a lack of focus on Bacary Sagna’s situation. I understand why the journalists want to ask about Theo, but Sagna’s consistency and solidity are a contributory factor to Walcott’s form, not to mention how important he is for this team.

Why are we not securing one of our best players with a new deal? Why are we in a situation where he’s got just 18 months left on his contract? If there were concerns about how he’d cope after two leg breaks in one season then surely they’ve been put to one side by now. I like Carl Jenkinson, I think he’s got a very bright future, but I really hope we sort things out with Sagna and he’s not the next player to make up the shortfall in income. Come on Arsenal, sign him up. Quickly.

Right then, that’s yer lot for this Monday. Please continue your basking. Till tomorrow.