Thursday, April 25, 2024

Can Theo Walcott dance to Arsenal’s new tune?

When Arsenal hit a good spell of form, notable trends emerge in the scorelines which invite inference. In 2013-14, Arsenal led the Premier League for much of the season. Injuries to Ramsey, Walcott and Özil and Olivier Giroud’s personal crisis saw the screws come loose and the Gunners’ title bid careered off course. Between August 2013 and February 1st, 2014, Arsenal won 11 of their games by a scoreline of 2-0. It revealed much of Arsenal’s controlled, contained style.

With the aforementioned players off form or unavailable, Arsenal only managed a solitary 2-0 win between February 2nd and the season’s conclusion- on the final day at Carrow Road. A 2-0 victory was the perfect encapsulation of Wenger’s game plan bearing fruit. When the team were destabilised in the spring, it became elusive. Since Boxing Day, Arsenal have won six games by a scoreline of two goals to one. Given Arsenal’s reliance on Ramsey’s goals, Giroud’s hold up play and Özil’s assists last season, Arsene Wenger has sought to vary the team’s attacking threat.

He has succeeded in that respect, with 20 different players finding the net. In each of the last two campaigns, Wenger has looked to surrender possession in favour of control. The formula has not quite settled yet. With the likes of Welbeck and Alexis on board and with Chamberlain fit for longer periods this season, the manager believes he has the personnel in attack required to play this controlled brand of football. That we are dizzyingly fond of conceding when two goals to the good (Crystal Palace, Leicester, West Ham and QPR x 2) signposts that some refinery is required.

This leads us to the current predicament of Theo Walcott. Walcott has played just 49 minutes of Arsenal’s last six games. It has led many to ponder his relative Siberia. Is Wenger making a statement over Theo’s impending contract negotiations? It could be that he is preparing for life without Walcott (and I covered why his renewal will be such a political hot potato back in December), but I think the reasons to be more ‘footballistic’ than that.

The problem for Walcott is that he is becoming a very specific type of player for a very specific type of situation, which simply has not arisen much lately. His technical shortcomings can render him ineffective against deep, well organised defences. Here, the superior dribbling ability of Oxlade-Chamberlain is preferable. His defensive weakness makes him an inferior candidate when the team are protecting a lead. Theo has not really ironed out either weakness during his time at Arsenal, though, in fairness to him, he has not really had the chance to in the last year because of injury.

Last week I appeared on the Arsenal America podcast with Tim from 7amkickoff who explained, that, whilst Arsenal are content to cede possession, players that can dribble are more ideally suited to the starting line-up. Having less of the ball puts pressure on you to be effective when you do have it. Players such as Alexis, Chamberlain and Rosicky are good at carrying the ball and relieving pressure on their midfield and defence and at committing opposing defences. Welbeck meanwhile, has a good work rate and is economical in possession.

Walcott is a player that relies more greatly on service from others, which can occasionally render him a passenger. Wenger recently explained, tellingly in Walcott’s case, “When you have the ball in the modern game you have to attack, when you don’t have the ball you have to defend. All the players who can’t do that, cannot play.” Being happy to surrender possession has defensive consequences. For a start, the team has to be more structured and disciplined and, again, this hardly plays to Theo’s strengths.

He is also unfortunate that the midfield balance has been disrupted so considerably of late. The likes of Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Mathieu Flamini and Mikel Arteta have been simultaneously unavailable. The midfield has, by necessity, taken on a distinctly attacking bent, with Cazorla and Mesut Özil often present together in the midfield three. Ergo, Arsenal’s front three have needed to become more rigid and more structured.

Alexis has suffered a drought of sorts because he does not have the same freedom to move inside. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s only recent goal came from a central midfield position against Monaco. Danny Welbeck’s solitary goal in 2015 arrived whilst playing as a centre forward. (Obviously, there is a caveat here that both players have had their injury issues recently). Again, dangerous player though he is, when you talk about ‘structure’ and ‘discipline’, the words ‘Theo’ and ‘Walcott’ appear next to them only as antonyms.

In the aftermath of the victory at Old Trafford, Mesut Özil revealed that, “We concentrated on our work off the ball”, which would explain why Walcott was not called for from the bench. That omission may have hurt Theo most of all. Much was made of Wenger’s decision to start Welbeck through the centre as a decision informed by psychology. But it’s more likely that Wenger thought United’s defence would leave spaces and were susceptible to swift combination play and runs in behind. Nacho Monreal’s goal was the proof in that particular pudding.

Chamberlain, Alexis and Welbeck constitutes a ‘nippy’ front three capable of exploiting space in behind. Alexis and Chamberlain were able to commit United’s wing backs with their dribbling. Chamberlain attempted 5 take ons, successfully completing four of them. In deference to this threat, van Gaal brought on Carrick and Jones at half time and moved to a more conventional back four shape. Wenger opted for a front three with pace and movement and still did not think Theo Walcott to be one of his three best options to achieve this strategy. Walcott is a player that moves without the ball, in this Arsenal side, players that can move with it and chase back when they do not have it are needed.

Walcott was partly responsible for Tottenham’s winning goal back in February, as his lack of defensive awareness saw Bentaleb afforded time and space to pick out Harry Kane. Three days later, he was on the score sheet against Leicester, but he attempted only 9 passes in his 73 minutes on the pitch, hitting the target with 6 of them. As the Foxes rallied in the second half, Walcott was once again a bystander. As Lukas Podolski discovered to his cost, scoring a goal does not mean your job is done.

With a more varied goal threat (even Ramsey’s goals have not been enormously missed) and other rapid forwards to choose from, Walcott’s shortcomings are becoming more difficult to overlook. There is also the thorny question as to whether he can play in the same side as Alexis Sanchez. They have only started together once, against Leicester in February. Walcott has substituted Alexis twice, which suggests that Wenger sees the former as an understudy for the latter. They are both similar sorts of player, with the Chilean far superior. To play both constitutes a technical risk unless you play one of them centrally, or else have them rotate a kind of false 9 role.

In fairness to Walcott, his cruciate ligament injury has cost him the chance to really work on his weaknesses over the last twelve months, or to find a blend with some of his newer teammates. At this stage of the season, the manager will be much less inclined to experiment or to try to create new bonds in the team with results such a valuable currency. The team spent much of the first half of the season searching for chemistry and Arsene is not likely to create instability with signs of fomentation at hand.

However, Walcott is going to have to prove that he can groove to a new tune, or else he will remain in a sealed envelope marked ‘Plan B.’

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto

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