Tactics Column: Theo Walcott selection epitomises Arsenal’s philosophy

Tactics Column: Theo Walcott selection epitomises Arsenal’s philosophy

Two minutes before half-time, Theo Walcott received the ball with his back to goal. In close attendance and breathing right down his neck was Reading’s imposing centre-back, Kasper Gorkss. He bumped Walcott once. No response. He tried to bump him again but this time, Walcott was too swift and he quickly spun away from Gorkss and spread the ball wide. The move was only a minor moment in the grand act that was Theo Walcott getting his chance up front but if Arsene Wenger did have one reservation about using him in that position; it was Walcott’s ability to hold the ball up. He was reassured here.

The deployment of Theo Walcott centrally has been a long time coming. Some may read it as a bargaining act to persuade Walcott to sign a new contract with the club but Wenger says he had seen enough in training to convince him it was the right move. Not only that though, he had seen enough in the recent games to suggest that Walcott was the type of striker, in theory, Arsenal needed.

Gervinho had his chance to stake his claim in the humiliating penalty shoot-out defeat to Bradford City but fluffed his lines in front of goal while Arsenal’s performance in the 2-0 win ove rWest Brom was impressive; they still had to earn their goals through penalties. Wenger wanted to build on what was good in that game and as such, the decision to use Walcott as a number 9 against Reading was emblematic of his team’s philosophy. They would play their game – “focus on the quality of our football,” was Wenger’s comments after the 5-2 win. “The game is based on movement and technical quality and that demands freedom of initiative.”

As such, Walcott was as much a decoy as the player who would get onto the end of passes. Because behind him, was a quintet of technical excellence, five players who would move the ball about and revel in the space Walcott created by playing as high up the pitch as possible. Indeed, Walcott’s movement was excellent, always on his toes and looking to spin past his marker. He got behind on numerous occasions too, thriving on the chance to use his pace.

Of course,Reading’s approach also helped play into Arsenal’s hands. They started well, looking to engage Arsenal’s centre-backs by using two strikers – just as Bradford did to much success – and looking to commit midfielders beyond. For the first 10 minutes, it caused Arsenal’s backline a bit of problem and indeed, Reading should have scored when Pavel Pogrebnyak got through but decided to square it instead. But there was a flipside and Reading manager, Brian McDermott, can be accused of being a little naïve here. His 4-4-2 never really pressed Arsenal – and they couldn’t such was Arsenal’s fluency – but nor did they look to defend deep. They did a mixture and neither at times, lending to a disorganised display.

That’s not to take anything away from Arsenal who were brilliant apart from a ten minute spell halfway through the second-half where they conceded two goals. The decision not to start Olivier Giroud was almost symbolic because it meant Arsenal wouldn’t be tempted to hit the ball long without being penetrative. Instead, they were forced to focus on a technical game which wasn’t always accurate – which is where Giroud may have benefited the team due to his ability to protect the ball and as such, the team attempted a number of unsuccessful through-balls for Walcott. Wenger didn’t mind that much as long as it remained with them in the middle of the pitch, where they could work their opponents around. (In the first fifteen minutes, when passes between the midfield in particularly went astray, he couldn’t stay on his seat, moaning constantly to his assistant, Steve Bould). Arsenal’s fourth goal was a perfect illustration of the plan working exactly as Wenger would have intended it to, The Gunners shifting the ball from left to right and then back again and with four left footed passes, the ball was in the back of the net, the final one being the tap-in by Santi Cazorla (who completed his hat-trick).

Cazorla was magnificent last night and as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain mentioned, the team has “been working on getting him and Jack [Wilshere] in behind the lines, between the defence and the midfield and picking up little pockets of space”. That was achieved, as mentioned earlier, by Walcott stretching play horizontally but also, by the wide men who started high up the pitch at beginning of the build up, then roamed infield when the ball was played forwards and the full-backs supported. Mikel Arteta was the reference point to build attacks around, allowing Wilshere in particular, to push forward and Cazorla to roam. The number of men Arsenal could get into the box was a reflection of Arsenal’s positive approach and paradoxically, it may seem, it helped their crossing game because the pass and move allowed the midfielders to burst into the box naturally.

When Theo Walcott scored the fifth, it was the fitting ending. Vindication of the decision to finally start him up front but for Wenger, it was also vindication of keeping faith, when others doubted, in his way of playing.

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Reading 2-5 Arsenal: [Insert Santi - Xmas headline here]

Reading 2-5 Arsenal: [Insert Santi - Xmas headline here]

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Well, that was a bit more like it. Another 5-2 win, a game in which we looked sparkling and comfortable, then Arsenaled ourselves a bit before finishing with a flourish to make the game safe.

The big surprise was Arsene Wenger playing Theo Walcott as the central striker, flanked by Podolski and Oxlade-Chamberlain, and although he fluffed his lines in the first half, missing a very presentable chance, it seemed to work overall. Both players outside him performed extremely well, which obviously helped. Oxlade-Chamberlain looked direct and pacier than he has all season, while Podolski chipped in with a goal and two assists as he played 90 minutes in the Premier League for the first time.

The man at the centre of it all though was Santi Cazorla. The midfield trio bossed the game, the understanding looks to be growing game by game with them, and when he’s given the kind of freedom a poor Reading team gave him he’s got the quality to produce. He fully deserved the first hat-trick of his career and could have scored more but for some good goalkeeping. The fact that Federici made a string of excellent saves and still let in 5 tells you how bad things are for Reading, but it would be somewhat churlish to focus on how poor they were.

Clearly one win doesn’t mean all our problems are solved but we took the three points we needed with some style, even despite a second half wobble. It might have been ‘only’ Reading but it was ‘only’ Bradford in the cup last week, ‘only’ Norwich and Swansea and so on. And there was much to be encouraged about in last night’s performance. As I mentioned, I thought the two wide men played extremely well, Podolski’s opener was taken very nicely indeed, cushioning Gibbs cross before smashing home from close range.

The German then turned provider, bursting down the left hand side and putting in a cross which Cazorla, the smallest man on the pitch, had to stoop to head home (see this brilliant pic by Stuart MacFarlane). His reaction to scoring with his head was hilarious, and it wasn’t long before he got his second. A Walcott cross was headed back into the daaaaaaaanger zone by Kieran Gibbs. The Spaniard took a touch, swiveled and bounced home Arsenal’s third.

We could have scored the fourth through Oxlade-Chamberlain but his low shot was saved. He then fired wide after another direct run through the Reading midfield and the home side were forced to hook the ball away from almost on the goal line after another Federici save. But it was coming and again it was beautiful build up play by Arsenal, Podolski fired in a low cross from the left hand side and Cazorla tucked it away with ease at the back post for his hat-trick.

At which point it should have been done and dusted but hey, this is Arsenal and individual mistakes are our bag, baby. First Kieran Gibbs misplaced a pass into Jack Wilshere, Reading robbed it, our central defenders were found wanting and and Le Fondre rounded Szczesny to pull one back. And when Podolski played Kebe onside it was 4-2 a couple of moments later. Both goals were entirely due to careless and lack of concentration and I have to admit I got a little scared. It’s not like we haven’t seen it before or anything and again that self-destruct button came very close to being pushed properly. But we rallied and made the game safe when Walcott got the fifth after more brilliance from Cazorla.

Afterwards, the manager said:

The target was to win in a convincing way. At 4-0 we had bit of a wobbly period, but overall it was important to go out and play and give the right answer on the pitch tonight. I don’t want to talk too much, we need now to go from strength to strength.

While Jack Wilshere said:

We saw the old Arsenal tonight in some patches. We still have to tighten up defensively, we gave a few sloppy goals away. We had to bounce back and we’ve a tough game next week away at Wigan. We need to get three points there and slowly climb up the league and push on.

The defensive stuff, well, I don’t really see any need to focus on that this morning. We know we’re brittle, and we know we’re capable of conceding at any time. There’s little point saying we need to work on that because it’s so blindingly obvious, but even so it didn’t take much away from the overall win and just how enjoyable it was to see Arsenal play like that again. The directness, pace and movement that have been missing from our game all returned and it was a joy to watch at times.

Not least because of Santi Cazorla whose performance was right out of the top drawer. It’s nights like last night that give you some hope, that with the right recruitment in January we could really kick on a bit, and the Spaniard will be right at the heart of it. The goals were fantastic and all of them came from close range, a real poacher. El zorro, if you will. But the footwork, the movement, the skill, sublime. There was a moment in the second half when he bamboozled the Reading defence as he weaved his way into their area. Unfortunately he bamboozled his teammates too and his lay-off was cleared, but he is just a joy to watch. He loves playing football and I love watching him.

As for Walcott up front, it looked ok at times but I’m not sure it’s really something for the long-term, especially when you consider the contract situation which was highlighted again last night. In one sense there’s little he can say when put on the spot by Sky after the game, but ‘It’s a long process and it’ll take a long time but I’m sure something will be sorted soon’, is so far beyond contradictory it’s ridiculous. Especially when standing beside a young man who is about to show that when there’s a will on both sides it doesn’t take long at all.

I don’t think he was played there to convince him that’s his position in the future, I just don’t see a player of his type as a central striker in this system. He doesn’t have the strength necessary to combat the meaner defences, and I suspect it was down to Giroud not being fully fit more than anything. That said, he did pretty well and if it’s an option we can use until we can bring in another striker in January then I’m fine with that. And let’s not ignore the fact that Walcott is hardly suffering when played out wide anyway, and to my mind that’s still his best position.

Anyway, it was just what we needed and we can go into Saturday’s game with Wigan with a bit more confidence now. Consistency is the key though, so as quickly as we try and put a bad result behind us we have to do the same with this one, get our heads down and get focused on the next game.

Till tomorrow.