In this week’s Arsecast Extra (from 29’45) James and Andrew discussed the prospect of Arsenal making no further additions to the squad following the capture of Petr Cech. I agreed with their prognosis that any further signings were likely to be opportunistic, a culmination of market forces aligning to put a purebred in the window. In many respects, Cech was a signing of this ilk. Had he not become available via convenient circumstances, I think Wenger would have gone into next season with Szczesny and Ospina without losing much sleep.
We can but speculate about Arsenal’s ongoing transfer activity, but I reckon if you had Arsene Wenger’s full confidence and you asked him who his next signing was likely to be, he probably wouldn’t know at this stage. As the players drift back for pre-season, he will however, have a clear vision of how to improve his squad using existing clay. Some players will improve organically throughout next season (indeed, some may decline too) and it will be a triumph of circumstance as much as planning, as is the case in any good team. I doubt Wenger would have predicted that Bellerin, Monreal and Coquelin would render Debuchy, Gibbs and Arteta spectators come the season’s conclusion last summer.
As the players are put through their paces at London Colney in the next month, he will have certain objectives in mind for his team to improve on last season. Uppermost in his mind is likely to be Arsenal’s attack. At the end of the last two seasons, the manager has identified greater firepower as the focal point of improvement. This year, Wenger outlined his desire for another 10-15 goals. I think he’d be interested in acquiring these via external means were a blue sky scenario to unfold on the market. But it’s also not unreasonable to suggest that this deficit could be made up with existing options. Theo Walcott being fit and available for a whole season ought to yield that sort of return, assuming he signs a new contract.
Of course failure to break into the team was as much of a barrier for Theo contributing more goals last season as his fitness, which is a situation he would have to negotiate. He seems to be convincing the manager that he can be a viable option as a centre forward. A couple of seasons ago, I felt Wenger’s soundbites on the issue were purely placatory. Now he sounds more convinced and starting Theo as a central striker in an FA Cup Final ahead of Olivier Giroud is an action that anchors those words. Personally, I am not sure Walcott will ever be the go-to striker in the system that Arsenal play, but a few seasons back, I was sceptical that he could even be an option there.
I would be happy for him to continue to erode my scepticism. It’s true that Walcott is a fairly one dimensional striker (he has pace, speed and velocity). But in truth, so is Olivier Giroud insofar as a centre-half has a pretty good idea of what to expect coming up against him. Giroud’s main asset is his strength and I would argue that strength is more difficult to counter than pace as a centre half. If you’re facing a pacey striker, you navigate the game so that you’re not caught in a foot race with him and so that you don’t leave space to exploit in behind you. It’s more difficult to find an aversion tactic where brute strength is concerned.
Giroud is an ‘enabler’ in an attacking sense; his soft feet around the area help the team to score more goals. However, Walcott’s presence can act as an enabling tool too, but in a different way, as he showed during the Cup Final. I certainly think Villa’s centre halves would have been quicker to try and block Alexis’ ripsnorter were it not for the spatial anxiety Theo’s presence caused. In any case, in Giroud, Welbeck and Walcott and possibly Alexis, Arsenal have very different options for the centre forward role and variety is a good attribute to have in your attacking arsenal.
I think that Giroud will remain first choice and Alexis certainly will, so the reality is, Arsene’s focus will be on the right side of attack. Effectively, Danny Welbeck, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott will fight it out for that berth, with the caveat that Welbeck and Walcott can also fill in at centre forward when required. Wenger can toss a gauntlet at the feet of his English wide boys, the competition between the three of them spurring them on to contribute more. With Alexis absent for the first few games, there will be greater opportunity for them to impress. I suspect that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain represents Wenger’s preferred choice at this stage, but he will press The Ox to increase his numbers in terms of goals and assists.
As an adept ball carrier and dribbler, he already adds directness and width to Arsenal’s attack, which means that his attacking contribution, like Giroud, goes beyond the raw numbers. He offers attributes not reflected in the Gunners’ other attacking options. However, the manager will challenge him to improve on his basic data. More goals, more assists. Welbeck is another player who is tactically intelligent, as Chamberlain is. He knows to stretch the pitch for Arsenal from wide positions and he contributes defensively. But like Chamberlain, his challenge is to keep the number crunchers busier in the goal and assist columns.
Theo is slightly different in that his numbers are always good, but his technique, defensive contribution and tactical intelligence are not as well rounded as his competitors. The presence of Alexis Sanchez on the left also complicates things for Theo, there’s only really room for one speedster with questionable distribution on the flanks. The manager may be mulling over the option of playing Theo or Alexis as a false 9. Potentially, Walcott and Alexis could rotate the false 9 role, gravitating towards the midfield to link up play, leaving the spare part further advanced from the right, looking to play on the shoulder of the defence. (Welbeck could fulfil either role in that combination).
I think the manager might be mulling over a “handover” from Santi Cazorla to Jack Wilshere in Arsenal’s engine room, with the Spaniard likely to return home in the next 12 months. As a ball carrier, Wilshere’s inclusion would lend itself more to this kind of setup. With a dummy centre forward moving towards the midfield, Wilshere could use him as a decoy and a sounding board to carry the ball towards goal. If you station the pace of Walcott or Welbeck on the right, centre halves would be less inclined to follow the decoy striker into more withdrawn areas. I would not envisage this system being used on anything other than a ‘Plan B’ basis, but it’s an option the manager might consider whilst he has time with his team over pre season.
If at least 2 of Welbeck, Chamberlain and Walcott can increase their contribution in the necessary areas, Arsenal could move closer to Wenger’s goal target. All three players saw injury reduce their ability to make that kind of contribution, but all three can still improve in one way or another to help the team become a more potent attacking force. If “the Shad effect” can assist them towards a cleaner bill of health next season, the competition ought to act as a motivating agent to find that extra edge to their game.
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