It wasn’t long ago that Theo Walcott was considered Arsenal’s most dangerous weapon, his breathtaking speed offering The Gunners a straight line alternative to their triangle passing. Part of this potency was that there was an almost otherworldly quality about his presence on the football pitch; like an Olympic sprinter transported on the football field to receive the baton, or a linebacker haring down the line onto a long pass which terrified opponents. Criticisms about his lack of “football brain” though each season, proved to be more unsound as he became a key player for Arsenal.
Yet, every time Walcott’s importance grew, the unfortunate seemed to happen: he broke down, meaning Arsene Wenger had to recast the side without his unique skill-set. Last season, for a while, they went winger-less to cope in his absence. This season, with his gradual return from injury, it hasn’t been easy for Walcott to get back into the side. It’s not that he doesn’t fit anymore; it’s just that Arsenal have added other weapons to the mix. There are deep-lying dribblers (Santi Cazorla), penetrative runners (Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere), killer passers (Mesu Ozil), versatile strikers (Danny Welbeck), and some that do all of the above (Alexis Sanchez).
At times, it’s been a little difficult for Wenger to fit all of these attributes into one cohesive outlet, but against West Ham United on Saturday, Arsenal delivered a complete performance to prevail 3-0, with Walcott shunted almost to the periphery.
He did, however, almost make an immediate impact when on five minutes he was put through on goal by a clever flick by Oliver Giroud, but inexplicably dallied, and was tackled. On second glance, it was perhaps a foul and the excuse Walcott was looking for to exonerate him from the brainfart he suffered. There was another chance, midway through the first-half, which was kinder, giving Walcott time and space to think, yet he wasn’t able to get the ball out of his feet and shot tamely at the goalkeeper, Adrian.
For the rest of the half, there were sporadic moments of his express pace, the best of which saw him leave Aaron Creswell for dead on the touchline before he knocked the ball inside for Aaron Ramsey. The move continued and saw Mesut Ozil fire a shot which was parried by Adrian, and with the goal gaping, the ball fell for the England international but he slipped at the crucial moment and sliced wide.
If all that made a frustrating account of Walcott’s day, his second-half didn’t get any better because in 20 minutes, he only completed three passes. Granted, The Gunners were poor in that period, something that they need to iron out before the season ends, and certainly before the game against Monaco, but it’s a criticism that has been levelled at Walcott a lot in the past: that he doesn’t get involved enough in the build up.
Wenger’s comments, though, at the end of the game helps explains why Walcott was a little off-beat and why Arsenal played so well. The team knows each other better which wasn’t the case at the start of the season. Walcott has missed so much of the campaign, and needs a bit more time to realign himself with Arsenal’s players. As Wenger said after the game, “what is for sure is that they understand each other much better than six or seven months ago. That makes everybody more dangerous. Welbeck came this season, Walcott has been out for a year, Ozil has now adapted. I know that all these offensive players have the quality to deliver something special but for us it’s important that the team plays well.”
Indeed, let’s not forget that for the past few seasons, Walcott’s partnership with Bacary Sagna was a key feature of Arsenal’s attacks, with 37% of the play last season coming from that side compared to only 30% down the left. This season, it’s more even with 35% from the right and 32% from the left. Meanwhile, his main strength, providing an outlet by running in behind, has yet to be replicated in the squad.
Alexis Sanchez seems like the obvious candidate to assume that mantle but against West Ham and in recent games, he’s been more of a balancer in the front three, acting simultaneously as a creative force as well as a goalscoring one. Indeed, it’s envisaged once he subscribes more to the team’s creed instead of absolutelytryingtodofuckingdoingeverything as he did with Barcelona, he might be an even more effective player.
We saw glimpses of that against West Ham where Alexis combined neatly at times with Ozil and Ramsey but on the whole was more disciplined, stretching the pitch and then sometimes bursting into the box. Certainly, there was a slight change from the whole team, possibly in anticipation of the upcoming match against Monaco, where they were more patient and more probing instead of the gung-ho approach that proved costly in the first-leg.
Ramsey was a key part of that, and that, contrary to how he’s generally tried to play this season, is when he is at his best – being the playmaker by dropping deep to collect possession, prompting and probing with his passing and then bursting forward late in the box. He created the first goal in such a manner, injecting purpose to the attack with a pass round the corner to Ozil, which you could say, was the signal for Arsenal to up the ante. As Ozil and Giroud traded pass with each other, he burst forward into the box but just as he was about to run with the ball, possibly to the byline to cut it back, Giroud nicked the ball off him and blasted into the top corner.
The second goal similarly showed the telepathic understanding between the two when, from a throw-in, Ramsey called for Giroud to leave the ball. The Frenchman obliged, got the ball back from him, and then deftly returned the pass back to Ramsey which teed up the Welshman to finish home. The third goal was nearly as gorgeous, a 15-pass team move which ended with Mathieu Flamini slotting in at the back post.
After the game, Wenger said that the three goals were typical of the way Arsenal love to play. They practice them religiously on the training ground through small sided matches, rondos and one drill in particular called “play-throughs” – which I explained in the last blog – whereby the team lines as it would normally on a match day but without opponents, so that the players can memorise where team-mates are intuitively.
The ball is played from back to front with the aim looking to create triangles and moments of overloads – 2v1s, 3v2s – before a diagonal switch to the third man – which can be a full-back or a winger – though with Ramsey in the side, he generally provides the penetrative running. It can be such a deadly tactic because by committing runners between the lines, the opposition centre-backs are then provoked to come forward or else be swamped in the box. Arsenal did that all game, bumping passes off Giroud and then making runs beyond him.
For the first goal in particular, you can see how Cheikhou Kouyate is discombobulated by the passes played around, coming short to mark Giroud, but as quick as a flash, the ball is whizzed passed him, a blur of red shirts before him, and he is forced to just stand in space, helpless as the ball is whacked in by Giroud.
When it happened twice more, Kouyate knew just faced an imperious Arsenal performance.