Friday, June 2, 2023

Every Dog Has Its Day

In recent weeks, a new look front three has elasticated Arsenal’s attacking game. Between Christmas and Easter, Arsenal’s attacks assumed the appearance of a beloved, ageing family pet, searching limply for a place to die. The Iwobi-Welbeck-Alexis triumvirate, ably backed up by a midfield platform of Coquelin and Elneny, is only three games old, but has already been written about, analysed and generally greeted like a dog in a pub.

Yet, as fans, we are quick to forget the victims of creative coups such as this one. For every excitable puppy that leaves the shelter with a new family, there are plenty of pooches left behind to wag their tails and make puppy dog eyes at the next batch of onlookers. Whilst not quite the runts of the litter, the merits of Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott have been debated ad infinitum during their Arsenal careers.

Both have been left behind to sniff one another’s bums at the pound, whilst the likes of Welbeck and Iwobi cavort in large green spaces. So what now for Giroud and Walcott? In the case of the former, you’ve the feeling that Arsene Wenger has been trying to banish the immaculately groomed Frenchman to the doorstep since he signed him in 2012. I remain unconvinced that Giroud was intended to be anything other than a solid backup option.

He made his Arsenal debut from the bench, with Lukas Podolski preferred in a central role. The German did not quite suit that position, allowing Giroud to become first choice by default. Default has been a theme of Olivier’s Arsenal career. Wenger spent the summer of 2013 forlornly chasing Gonzalo Higuain and Luis Suarez, Alexis Sanchez’s first three Arsenal appearances were as a centre forward, an experiment that manager also abandoned abruptly.

This season, Arsene has given Theo Walcott, and Danny Welbeck a run of games at centre forward. There was even the short lived Yaya Sanogo phase of early 2014. Wenger has invested a lot of time investigating alternatives to Giroud. I don’t think this is solely a judgement on Giroud’s quality so much as his style. Wenger prefers a more mobile striker to enable the type of pass and move football associated with his teams.

Welbeck and Iwobi have added athleticism and technique to the Gunners’ attack. Giroud’s presence demands a different style of football and, aged 29, he is not going to change now. We know well that he is subject to bouts of ineffectiveness and low scoring. It is true that Welbeck is not the most prolific in front of goal. But firstly, his running in the channels is suited to Wenger’s preference for a collective game.

Secondly, Arsene clearly believes that Welbeck is at a stage of his evolution where he can develop the bite to match his bark. Welbeck, like Walcott, is also the more mobile centre forward that brings the best from Alexis. Giroud has no onfield relationship with the hound loving Chilean. I don’t think Wenger will have any intention of taking Giroud to the vets in his favourite blanket. It is more likely that he hopes the Welbeck experiment will be successful enough to earn Giroud his rightful place as supersub / dependable back up option.

I imagine Giroud would be unlikely to agitate against such overtures. He has not audibly howled about being left out of the team in the past. He’s knocking 30 and will not attract the attentions of more glamorous suitors- certainly not as a first choice. Given Welbeck’s fitness issues and the nascent phase the current front three is in, there is no immediate need for him to throw in the towel. He’s maximised his career opportunities at Arsenal simply by hanging around. But he should make no mistake that the manager is making another concerted effort to minimise his role.

Theo Walcott seems to have been perpetually perched at a career crossroads since his teenage years. This time last year, Walcott’s role was reduced after a defensive aberration in an away defeat to Spurs. This season, the most flaccid of centre forward displays at Old Trafford has exhausted the manager’s patience. Walcott has been ushered through the dog flap once more having left one too many tightly coiled piles on Arsene’s cashmere rug.

Earlier in the season, Walcott was given an extended run in the centre forward position. He bounded like a Labrador in all action performances against Leicester City and Manchester United. Walcott looked bright eyed and bushy tailed and it seemed as though he would fulfil his self-proclaimed centre forward destiny. However, fitness once again impeded his progress. He was injured in a League Cup tie at Sheffield Wednesday, by the time he returned, everybody else was injured too.

So he was left to toil on the left wing, in a team almost entirely bereft of ball players. Walcott can be a frustrating player at the best of times, in unfavourable circumstances such as these, on the left and lacking service, you have a recipe for puppy chow. Whilst all players need favourable circumstances to thrive to some extent or other, you do expect rather more from someone that agitates for large contracts with such aplomb.

Diametrically opposed performances upfront in the league fixtures against Manchester United encapsulate his decline. From the dog’s bollocks to dog shit in four short months. His final product seems to have deserted him, with only 9 goals to speak of this season- and Walcott without end product is about as useful as an inflatable dartboard. It’s worth pointing out that Welbeck’s on ball involvement is almost as fitful as Walcott’s when he plays centre forward. Against Watford, he registered only 21 touches.

Yet Welbeck’s movement off the ball is worth another 50 passes. As a centre forward, Walcott was able to make a virtue of his extraneousness with smart off the ball movement as well. In fairness to Theo, he too might be able to flourish with the more mobile Iwobi and Elneny in the supporting cast and he will hope for the chance to show it before the end of the season. For now, Welbeck and Iwobi brim with the promise we hoped we would see from Walcott, which should give him cause for reflection. His place in the England squad is also not as sure as once it was.

Wenger’s patience appears to have expired with him again and this is far from his first spell in the doghouse. I honestly think that Arsenal would listen to a good offer for Theo. However, I doubt such an offer would be forthcoming given his generous salary. Arsenal also have more urgent squad surgery to do, in a summer where Euro 2016, the Copa América and the Olympic games are likely to interrupt the ringing of the tills in the transfer market.

Football is incredibly transient; the tactical demands of any team sit on shifting sands. Imagine if I had told you 18 months ago that Hector Bellerin, Francis Coquelin, Alex Iwobi, a midfielder from Basel, a defender from Villarreal and a goalkeeper from Chelsea would form the core of an Arsenal starting XI. Football is too ephemeral to write players like Giroud and Walcott off in perpetuity. But to prevent their Arsenal careers from drifting, both need to get the bit firmly back between their teeth.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto 

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