Tactics Column: Walcott stakes his claim while Cazorla masterful once again

In the not too distant past, Arsene Wenger spoke about a striker he signed in his second season in charge at AS Monaco, the Argentine Ramon Diaz. In training, he would say Diaz was so focused on his finishing that “every time he missed a chance, he went absolutely mad. I said to him ‘calm down’ He said to me: ‘Boss, I played 8 years in Italy; I had one, maximum two chances per game. I knew if I missed one, my game was over.’ That’s a little bit [similar] to the Premier League. You do not get 10 chances. You do not get five. You get one or two and you have to put them away.”

It’s this anecdote that Wenger chose to repeat last season, on the eve of the summer transfer window, seemingly throwing the gauntlet to his strikers to be more clinical. Arsenal’s riposte in the next match, against Leicester City, was positive, shooting on goal 24 times, though they could only manage a 1-1 draw. The next day, Wenger splashed out £16m on Danny Welbeck.

This transfer window Wenger has been a little more forgiving, pinning his hopes on his current two strikers, plus midfielders to get the goals required. Both Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud got on the scoresheet in Arsenal’s 2-0 win over the weekend, but perhaps more notable is the amount of big chances that were missed.

Wenger however, is not unduly worried. He believes that finishing is a learned skill; it’s the “easiest [thing] to improve. We created chances – you cannot do that in training but in training you can work a lot on the finishing and improve that,” he once said. Instead the focus post-match was on two things: the amount of chances Arsenal created, and that with greater belief, goalscoring will come easier to Giroud and Walcott.

It’s an interesting issue and a perverse way of looking at the battle between the two strikers might be that it boils down to who misses less. Because, if Arsenal will always create chances, it doesn’t matter so much how many they score but who develops quicker over the season to put enough of them away.

Theo Walott’s missed chances suggest that he’s better placed to be more prolific purely because of the persistence he has to get into dangerous areas. Giroud is a fighter, a more rounded player than given credit for and although he has added more dexterity to his finishing – the scissor-kick against Crystal Palace for example – it’s still alarming the lack of variety there is to his movement.

The quick dart to the near post is still his modus operandi while a close second is the angled run to the left side of penalty area – similar to the chance he missed after coming on, dragging a shot wide of the near post. He’s also not as much of an aerial threat crosses as he should be, which again might boil down to his movement. He tends to hang back just off his marker for headers instead of attacking the six-yard box.

The final point is an important one when appraising Giroud and Walcott because it was suggested that Walcott doesn’t suit deep-lying defences, as shown by his displays against Chelsea in the Community Shield and Newcastle United, but Giroud’s target-man presence does. Yet the Stoke game illustrated what Walcott does well is stretch defences, creating space in between for the midfielders to play.

Giroud does something similar in that he’s a wall to bounce passes off yet, and though he’s a tough competitor to play against, defenders generally want the game in front of them and don’t want to constantly be on the turn and facing their own goal. Walcott makes them do that and while he’s still adjusting to the role, it will be interesting to see how this develops. Certainly, the Chelsea centre-backs and indeed, Aston Villa in the FA Cup seemed to be scared of him, dropping off and in turn, opening the space in front for Arsenal to play. Given Chelsea’s vulnerabilities in defensive midfield this season, it may be worth exploring the deployment of Walcott up front to force pressure on Matic/Mikel and Fabregas to track Arsenal’s creative players.

Going back to the 2-0 win over Stoke, it seemed Arsenal’s midfielders appreciated having someone up top who could get onto the end of passes and they rarely looked to play it long – as they tend to do when Giroud is on the pitch. On the one hand that was partly down to Stoke’s tactics as they barely pressed Arsenal, instead looking to sit back with 10-men behind the ball, inviting The Gunners on to them.

On the other hand, however, Arsenal’s fluency was breathtaking in the first-half, cutting open the Stoke defence with ease, particularly in the first fifteen minutes. Theo Walcott missed his best chance, skying his effort off-balance over the bar after Alexis had a header tipped onto the post.

There were 7 shots in that period and as Arsenal failed to finish their openings, anxiety (typically) seemed to seep into the stadium and creep onto the pitch. But as I said to my friend at the game at the time, invariably there would be a lull and it would be all about how Arsenal come out from it. Thankfully, things came together perfectly for the opening goal, from the tackle by Francis Coquelin to the pass from Mesut Ozil, and then, what Walcott was waiting for all game, the defence pushing up. His touch was superb and the finish more like what we expected from the striker.

When Giroud added the second late in the game, it highlighted the stark differences between the way the two players operate with Walcott a more persistent, perpetual buzz around the opposition backline while Giroud will battle for loose balls and tend to drop off to link-up play. Yet, despite their differences, it’s not unrealistic for Wenger to feel he can rotate the two players without altering much the way Arsenal play because they have a facilitating effect on the team.

In a way, they’re both a decoy and an outlet to the team’s passing at the same time, occupying defences and creating space for the four behind. Indeed, behind that line of creative players, Coquelin sandwiches and protects them, and after the game, Santi Cazorla went out of his way to praise the holding midfielder, saying he’s “one the best in world in his position.”

Bafflingly, Coquelin divides the fanbase, though for me, it’s been a joy to see the way he has improved. There’s so much hidden dexterity to his play. Still, I believe when Arsenal play badly, he’s scapegoated a bit in that he’s blamed for not offering enough in terms of ball-circulation and penetration when poor positional play is often the problem (as was the case especially against West Ham and Newcastle United). That was much improved in this game, with Santi Cazorla the man-of-the-match for the way he drifted into pockets of space to the side of Coquelin and in between the wingers.

In the first-half, Cazorla tended operate more in his normal play-making role but tended to favour the right where Aaron Ramsey hugged the touchline better and dovetailed well with Hector Bellerin. In that sense, the formation was closer to a 4-1-4-1 with Ozil preferring the left side. In the second-half, Wenger opted for a switch, moving Cazorla to the other side and asking Ramsey to tuck in a bit. The result was a more disjointed half as Arsenal lacked Cazorla’s presence in the centre.

The by-product though, was that he was more involved higher up the pitch, linking up with Ozil and Alexis in particular. The gist of the reshuffle from Wenger seemed to revolve around optimising Arsenal’s efficiency by putting Alexis, Arsenal’s best finisher normally, closer to goal, and have Cazorla covering. At the end of the game,

Cazorla created 7 chances to Ozil’s 8, but as 7amKickOff points out in his “By the Numbers” blog, his tended to be of higher quality. His masterful performance also ensured that there was only one talking point at the end of the match as the other positional debate, Ramsey v Cazorla never was allowed to gain any traction. When Ozil was taken off, Ramsey instantly moved to the centre, expecting to receive instructions to assume his place in his absence, but was quickly told to stay back wide. Cazorla took the reigns and delivered the cross for the second goal to wrap up the win.

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