Wednesday, April 17, 2024

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.”

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