Saturday, December 3, 2022

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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