Tactics Column: On Theo Walcott and Arsenal’s passivity

Tactics Column: On Theo Walcott and Arsenal’s passivity

At the end of Arsenal’s 7-3 win, it didn’t feel like a 7-3 win. It was exhilarating yes, for the sheer surprise, and goals that were delivered in fast-food fashion. But chaotic? End-to-end? Not even close. If anything, the real anomaly was that Arsenal didn’t dominate – Newcastle United accrued 56% of the possession – and as such, that probably was a factor in reaching such an outlying result. And Arsenal were refreshingly clinical: they attempted 16 shots, got 10 on target and scored 7 of them. (A statistic which is likely to have gone unnoticed, but is a good indication of how “controlled” the match was, was that there were only four blocks in the whole game: two each for Fabricio Coloccini and Laurent Koscienly).

The game was more cat-and-mouse if anything, without the Tom and Jerry frolics. Indeed, doing a goal-by-goal analysis reveals a subconscious pattern, one that characterised the game before Olivier Giroud effectively decided the encounter on the 84th minute to make it 5-3. Arsenal’s first three goals were scored from transitions, when Newcastle had to quickly regroup but The Gunners punished. Theo Walcott’s opener started from a clearance by Koscielny and Arsenal exploited Newcastle’s high-line; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s goal originated from a poor Newcastle throw-in which Arsenal pounce upon and quickly worked the ball to the other side while the third saw Jack Wilshere nick possession in the final third and burst into the space. All three of Newcastle’s goal broadly followed one theme – that they all came from Bacary Sagna’s side. It’s not necessarily that he was the weak-link although he gave away the free-kick which Newcastle scored their first from and beaten easily by Gabriel Obertan for the second. For the third, he might have closed down the cross quicker but that was generally Arsenal’s problem for much of the game – if you can call it that, because they soaked up Newcastle’s pressure pretty well although it was evident that it wasn’t how they wanted to play the game.

Arsenal dropped off very deep in their half in the first-half and let the Magpies pass the ball without posing that much threat. Alan Pardew’s side seemingly lapped up the respect given to them and preceded to stroke it about leisurely not contemplating that they might have missed a trick not going more direct, especially as Arsenal were without Per Mertesacker. Two headed chances from corner-kicks, when Newcastle were forced to cross, saw Demba Ba head unmarked over in the first period. It was after the restart that Arsenal did up the tempo in their closing down although their philosophy this season is to press when the circumstance dictates it. So, with instructions fresh in their mind, they pushed Newcastle back early in in the second-half and got their two goals but when Newcastle grew comfortable again stroking the ball about, Arsenal fell back and allowed Newcastle a way back in. Goals allowed Arsenal an escape route and they emphatically delivered. Arsene Wenger explained Arsenal’s passivity in the first-half and their subsequent adjustment in the second: “I believe it was tactical reasons and psychological reasons. “But we changed that second half. We suffered for big parts in the game, especially in the first half when I felt we played with the handbrake, we were a bit nervous, not free of the chest. We had problems to win the ball back from them. Every time they came back but we kept going and in the end of course it became easy, but it was a difficult game for us.”

Theo Walcott will naturally take all the plaudits for his hat-trick although for good or for bad, the analysis after the game seems to be less about his goals and more about his suitability to the team. It’s clear Arsenal need an “offside-line” striker as Wenger recommended Giroud play as one, to give the midfielders space, not to mention the goals. But in the second game in a row in which Arsenal managed less possession than their opponents (49% v Wigan) and Theo Walcott attempting only 23 passes, it’s understandable the club being linked to Demba Ba. But of course, with so much of Arsenal’s play going through their midfielders, perhaps they are a side which can afford to play with a striker with the sole remit of getting goals. Walcott has certainly been decisive in his actions in the past three games. Indeed, what this win against Newcastle showed was as Wenger has been saying all this time: that this team needs time to gel and gain an understanding. “People have been very impatient with us,” he says. “We have rebuilt the team and we started well and after that we stuttered. Now we have come back. We had to rebuild the team and we have done it. It demands some understanding. How good we are will be decided in the next four or five months. It is not over yet, be patient. We can be better.”

The final say will of course, be of Walcott (although I’d like to make a little mention of Kosicelny who had a very good game, making 11 clearances in the process). His display was not only about goals but a victory for spontaneity (Walcott’s natural inclination is to peel in the space between the full-back and the centre-back), the vindication of Wenger’s mantra of playing with the “handbrake off.”

The last good blog of the year and a small Spanish town

The last good blog of the year and a small Spanish town

Good morning,

it’s an odd Monday given that tonight is New Year’s Eve and we’ve got a game against Southampton tomorrow. We don’t seem to have much in the way of team news for that particular game but it didn’t look as if we picked up any problems against Newcastle so fingers crossed we go into the game with the same relatively clean bill of health.

The fact that we played on Saturday means there’s bound to be some measure of rotation although it must be tempting for the manager to stick with the same side that so comprehensively beat Pardew’s team (hahaha). Olivier Giroud’s two goals will surely have given him some pause for thought but Walcott’s hat-trick will surely mean another start up front, this time against his former club.

And it’s interesting, as reports come in that Demba Ba is tickling Chelsea’s fancy, that Arsene Wenger has compared the two, saying:

He is a similar type to Giroud and you will see Giroud develop into that kind of player.

Which, I suppose, rules us out of a move for him, which is disappointing in one way and understandable in another. If we do add another striker – and I sincerely hope we do – then perhaps adding a bit of variety to the squad is the way to go. That said, Ba is a very impressive player and would add a lot to our squad, but he’s not the only striker in the world and I’m told we do have our eyes trained on a couple of players.

What I also hope is that Theo Walcott’s recent performance doesn’t mean we turn around and say our striking deficiency is sorted. If Saturday’s game against Newcastle showed us anything it’s that with two or three decent additions this squad would be hugely improved and far more competitive. The win was fantastic, the goals were great, but let’s not forget it’s the same group if players that couldn’t perform against the likes of Swansea, Norwich or Manchester United.

There are issues with squad depth which have to be addressed and a couple of decent performances from a guy with 6 months left on his contract doesn’t change that. And of course there is that elephant in the room every time Walcott is discussed. I have no desire to go over it again but making the assumption that he’s going to stay would be a dangerous one and we have to work around that.

And it’s not just up front other, with Johan Djourou seemingly on his way out of the club we may well need a signing, or a promotion (Ignasi Miquel), at the back to prevent more Squillaci when we inevitably pick up some injuries, and a midfielder with some physical presence wouldn’t go amiss either. Arsene said he was going to be busy, let’s hope that’s the case. The window opens tomorrow, we ought be to queuing overnight like those mad people who take tents and deckchairs to get the first bargains of the January sales.

Other than that it’s pretty quiet but as it’s the end of another calendar year it’s normal to look back and pick some moments that stood out. While it hasn’t exactly been vintage, on reflection there are some that are etched in my brain.

Sagna’s header – at 2-0 down against Sp*rs his ‘fuck you, I am not losing this game’ header signaled a turnaround in the game, and in our season, and was the start of:

Sp*rs hilarious collapse – we’ll mind the gap all right, mind it right in your stupid faces. It went right to the wire though and we saw:

Kieran Gibbs late tackle – against West Brom on the final day of the season which led to:

Arsene Wenger clinging to Pat Rice – desperation, fear, anxiety, helplessness, all the things we were feeling watching that game.

Pat’s farewell lift – it was only right and proper that a man who had given so much to the club got to go out on a day when we managed to qualify for the Champions League. 3rd place is not a trophy but it felt good that day, nobody can deny it.

What else? Arteta’s goal against Man City at the end of a great performance last season which showed that if this team could find consistency they’re a match for anyone on their day? The long awaited return of Jack Wilshere? Per’s first goal for the club as we beat Sp*rs 5-2, again?! The signing of Santi Cazorla?

What stood out for you? Have a yap about in the arses, and while there have been moments we want to forget, above all else it’s worth remembering the good times, the beers you had with your mates, and all the good things that being a supporter of this club brings.

Whatever you do tonight, have fun, and I wish you and yours a very happy, peaceful and successful 2013. Until next year!

Arsenal 7-3 Newcastle: The best, and a bit of the worst, of Arsenal

Arsenal 7-3 Newcastle: The best, and a bit of the worst, of Arsenal

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It’s difficult to analyse a game as crazy as that in any coherent way so I’m going to go at it goal by goal. This could take a while!

1-0 (Walcott): The only player on our team who could have scored that goal. His run was fantastic, the pass from Podolski was perfect (unlike others which were more like cruise missiles), and the finish was pure Thierry. It was very much a showcase of the best of Theo’s qualities.

And without wishing to be churlish in any way, we saw the other side of him when he fluffed a good chance when clean through and after a brilliant break from a corner (best) his pass to play in Cazorla when we had an overlap was awful (worst). That Newcastle scored almost immediately made it quite frustrating, we could have been out of sight.

1-1 (Demba Ba): No arguing with the award of the free kick, you can definitely argue with Wilshere’s attempt to get out of the way of it. I love Jack but he’s no Olivier Giroud, a smack in the face won’t make that much difference to him. I think he’ll be braver next time.

2-1 (Oxlade-Chamberlain): Podolski won a good header from a Newcastle throw, Cazorla played it across the edge of the box for Oxlade-Chamberlain and his low shot fizzed into the bottom corner. He’s been threatening to do that for a couple of games now and his shooting from distance is going to be a real asset for us.

At this point we got another glimpse of bad Theo, with Podolski free on the left and Cazorla just inside him he went it alone and the attempt on goal was always going wide. Made more frustrating by the fact Newcastle scored almost straight away.

2-2 (Marveaux): Kieran Gibbs is getting some of the flack for this as the ball was tapped in at the back post from a position you’d expect the left back to cover. However, he was dragged into the centre, covering a free man, and Jack Wilshere really should have tried to get back to get in front of Marveaux, especially as he saw Gibbs go with the other man. Avoidable.

3-2 (Podolski): Jack then made up for it with a driving run into the box and a clipped cross which Coloccini could only head back across goal and Podolski was there to nut it home from close range.

3-3 (Demba Ba): This time there’s no defending Gibbs. He was aware that Ba was behind him, switched off for a second and the Newcastle man showed exactly why we should looking at triggering his release clause. Poor defending, great forward play and props to Marveaux for the pass with the outside of his foot which was sublime.

4-3 (Walcott): Like Wilshere before him, Gibbs made up for his error by creating the fourth. I thought he was very good going forward yesterday, Newcastle’s right back got a roasting all game long, and when Podolski missed the ball good Theo was there to take it, swivel and smash it into the top corner.

5-3 (Giroud): The Frenchman came on for Oxlade-Chamberlain and his cameo was superb. Walcott’s cross was brilliant – from the right, bent in perfectly for a centre-forward! eh? eh?! – and his diving header went between Krul’s legs.

6-3 (Giroud): His second came after good Theo ran with the ball, bad Theo lost it off his shins after a stumble, Giroud picked it up and spanked it home with his right foot. A quality finish with his wrong foot.

7-3 (Walcott): All good Theo this one. After a short free kick with Wilshere he took on two Newcastle players, breezed past them into the box, got fouled, should have been awarded a penalty, got up, and then dinked a quite beautiful finish past Krul for his hat-trick. Lovely.

And there was even time for us to score the long yearned for eighth goal but Giroud’s left footed effort came back off the bar from close range. It was a topsy-turvy, crazy game, the kind which we seem to be more and more involved in these days. Some of the scorelines from the last few seasons have been weird, this one was right up there, but it was enjoyable. How can scoring seven goals not be?

I think there are worries defensively, the ease with which we conceded the goals and the fact they seemed to always respond to us going ahead was a bit alarming. I also wonder how the game would have ended up if Newcastle hadn’t tired in the last 15-20 minutes. We certainly had fresher legs having not played in midweek and I think that made a difference, but that we were able to be so ruthless and take advantage of that is most definitely a positive.

It’s impossible to argue with most of what we did as an attacking force but better play in certain situations would have meant this was a game on which we took a stronger hold. That’s something we shouldn’t ignore, but seven goals are seven goals and when they go in against a team managed by The Creepy Uncle then it’s very enjoyable indeed. I thought Giroud’s goals were great and what can I say about Theo Walcott?

Before I start, I’ll just season these delicious words from yesterday. Om nom nom. Tasty. He scored a very good hat-trick, provided a fabulous assist for Giroud and credit to him for that. I’m a bit like Gunnerblog though, the performance is tempered by everything else that’s going on with him. Afterwards Arsene said that his desire to keep Walcott at the club is the same as it ever was. If he’d scored a hat-trick, or had one of ‘those’ games, he wants him to stay.

And I don’t doubt that. It’s all well and good singing ‘Sign him up’, but the club have been trying to do that for well over 18 months now. That he hasn’t signed is entirely down to Theo and more specifically his agent. What Arsenal offer is good enough for Jack Wilshere, it’s good enough for Lukas Podolski, good enough for Santi Cazorla, but it’s not good enough for Theo Walcott and I think it’s a real shame. I strongly believe he’s being badly advised, that the issue is money, and nothing more than that, and decisions are being made with pound signs in mind rather than his football career.

And unless there’s a change in the outlook from that side of things I think the outcome is inevitable and we all know what that is. Arsenal can offer more, and have offered more, but other interested parties have the benefit of deeper pockets and the fact that a Bosman signing-on fee paid over the course of a contract can bulk up a weekly wage considerably. If Theo really wanted to stay at Arsenal he wouldn’t be a poor man by any means. And here we are.

Anyway, if it’s a bitter-sweet end to a blog post then there’s not much we can do about it. I’d much rather that that bitter-bitter or bitter-philcollins, so it’s good to look on the bright side.

Next up Southampton on New Year’s day and hopefully we can make it 5 wins in a row. Till tomorrow.


Arsenal v Newcastle – live blog

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Newcastle preview : Walcott unconvincing up top as yet

Newcastle preview : Walcott unconvincing up top as yet

Football is back! It seems like an age since our last game, mostly due to the festitivies and what not, and today is an opportunity to keep the run we’re on going.

We’ve won our three last Premier League games, something we hadn’t achieved this season until the win last week. Today, with an almost fully fit squad, and playing a team that went the distance with United just a few days ago, there’s a good chance to make that four.

In terms of the team itself it’s hard to see where he’ll make changes. Personally, I’d have a fit again Olivier Giroud starting up front with Walcott pushed out right at the expense of Oxlade-Chamberlain, but given everything the manager has been saying about Theo up front I’m not sure he’s going to do that. I have to admit I find this sudden deployment of Walcott as a forward a bit worrying, especially given the transfer window is about to open and we need a striker.

If I were being ultra-cynical I’d think it was a cost-saving exercise but I am told we’re looking at striking options, one from the land of Cazorla in particular, so maybe I’m just being a bit of a curmudgeon. Either way, I’m not sure I’m 100% with Arsene when he makes Walcott/Henry comparisons:

I like the signs that I have seen. If you look at my statements, I always said that one day he would play through the middle and it grew in his brain.

He is now 23. I decided to play Thierry Henry at 23 through the middle because you have to learn a lot before. The fact that you play in other positions as well helps your technique.

Leaving aside the fact that Henry was 22 when thrust into the striker’s position at Arsenal, I don’t think the two situations can be equated. I’m not going to suggest that Walcott will never make it in this position for Arsenal – much like one famous poster of emails declared on his website about Henry – but I don’t think there’s any comparison between the two players in terms of their ability and technique. Henry was fast, skilful, aware, a brilliant finisher, had vision and the ability to execute the passes he needed to, and one of the best players in the world season after season. Theo is fast and his finishing is hit and miss.

It’s interesting, in one sense, that Henry had the luxury, if you’ll call it that, of playing in a forward two, which I think would suit Walcott a lot better than the single striker role. But football has changed, you need more than pace to play up front these days, and I maintain it’s not a role which Walcott is suited for or which gets the best out of him. The two recent performances up front were really nothing special. Reading were hopeless and it was Cazorla who did most of the business there, at Wigan he was pretty much anonymous.

Maybe I’m banging on about this too much and it comes across as a ‘thing’ against Walcott but I didn’t see much to be particularly encouraged about, especially when he’s leading us on a merry dance with regards his contract. If he committed to the club and signed a new deal then by all means try and mould him into a centre-forward if he really thinks he can play there, but now it just seems like a least worst option because there wasn’t much else he could do.

Now he’s got Giroud fit again, the transfer window opening, and we shouldn’t be that lacking in the future. If he wants to squeeze everything he can out of Walcott before he goes (or should something radically change and he signs) then he should play him where’s he’s most effective – on the right hand side. Starting today. Please note that if he does start up front and does well, I’m a fan of my own words. They’re delicious.

As for the rest of it, we need to take advantage of the fact that Newcastle may have some tired legs after their midweek exploits and come at them hard and fast. We’ve had a full week since we last played, we should be well rested and well and truly up for this. The midfield trio will make things tick and hopefully will create the chances that those in the more forward positions will convert, but we’ve got to be wary of them as an attacking threat.

Wenger said at his press conference that he wasn’t going to sign Demba Ba, but the question was loaded given the fact we play them today. There wasn’t much else he could say. With a £7m release clause it’d be silly if we weren’t considering a move, not least because he’s a fairly proven Premier League goalscorer. And that’s something we’ve got to be cautious of today. It means discipline at the back, and no silly mistakes, and I think if we can avoid that then we have enough about us to win this game today.

In other news, congratulations to Pat Rice who was awarded an MBE yesterday. Whatever you think of the honours list it’s a nice thing that the fantastic service he gave to the club has been recognised. And he’s so gonna rock the Palace in shorts and Roy Orbison’s shades.

And speculation regarding transfer targets is increasing as Wenger says he envisages being ‘busy’ in the transfer market. Lots of names thrown about, nothing that I’m gonna touch till the window opens though. Then we’ll see what’s what.

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Until then, have a good Saturday. Here’s to three points later and Pardew punching the ref in the mouth with his mutant headed rage. Come on you reds!