Wednesday, February 28, 2024

A Crèche Start

What I think will happen is that you will have more and more players coming out of the lower leagues who have had to fight their way through. Compare that with a player who has been educated here, who has had Champions League for 17 years, who has not known anything else. It’s not a dream, it’s normal for him. But if you play for a team in the lower leagues and watch Real Madrid or Barcelona on Wednesday nights you think: ‘I’d love to play in games like that.’

The words of Arsene Wenger earlier this week made for interesting reading. They sounded reflective and introspective, like a man subtly questioning the ‘crèche culture’ that he has created at Arsenal. (Thanks to @clivepafc for that term). During leaner years, a decade or so ago, Arsene unleashed ‘Project Youth’, a venture designed to circumnavigate financial manacles as the club chowed down on an unappealing porridge of stadium debt. Whilst the team managed to keep their necks above the high water line of 4th place, many of the young players that were meant to be the prologue for a bright new future fell away.

In the past, Arsene has been a shrewd seller of players. The likes of Henry, Vieira and even Ljungberg were allowed to leave with little resistance, as their value to the team collective began to pare down. Wenger had a keen eye for depreciation, spotting it just before the wrinkles became visible to other observers. But Arsene has always found it a little harder to let his chicks fly the coop. Players procured in their teenage years have found 3rd, 4th and 5th chances much easier to come by.

When I read the quote enlarged at the head of the article, my biases kicked in and my Theo-meter went doolalley. Walcott is often (harshly) seen as the poster boy for the Emirates era. He gives you just enough cause for belief, but disappoints you the instant you let your guard down. It’s fair to say that the worm of supporter opinion turned on Theo at the end of last season. His ‘contributions’ were serialised weekly in the form of comedy gifs.

Walcott comes across as a fairly oblivious character, which often multiplies one’s frustration with him. With the Gunners short on options at centre forward, Walcott recently announced that, after years of screaming for ice cream, he didn’t really want ice cream anymore. At the age of 27, he wanted to hit the reset button and move back to the right wing. You want to be angry, but you suspect that, much like a child that has daubed on the living room wall in crayon, he’s incapable of absorbing the gravity of his actions. It would be like shouting at a dog for licking its own balls.

I am fairly sure that Wenger only continues to tolerate Walcott because he thinks the market too unforgiving to replace him. Unless there is a significant intake of new attacking blood in the final weeks of the window *pauses till laughter subsides*, we are probably stuck with Theo Walcott for at least another season, so we might as well figure out how we can use him most effectively.

Legendary basketball coach John Wooden once said, “It is what you learn after you know it all that really counts,” and this is advice that Walcott should take very much to heart having taken in stints on the right, left and at the arrowhead of the Arsenal attack. Far be it from me to give Theo’s critical faculties too much credit, but I think there is a way that he can reignite his Arsenal career from the right wing.

In the pre-season friendly against Manchester City, Wenger trialled Alexis Sánchez in the number 9 role. This is an idea I explored earlier in the summer and it seems that Arsene is curious enough to give it another try. (Try curious?) I think Alexis has all of the attributes to be a top class number 9, but I doubt whether he has the self-discipline to stay in the final third and lead the line. With Walcott to the right of him, his tendency to wander is not as much of an issue.

When Walcott threatened to become a serviceable number 9 last autumn, I observed that he and Alexis played almost as a front two. Alexis’ superior physical and aerial attributes meant that he often moved infield to support Walcott and take on some of the hustle and bustle for him. Sanchez acted almost as a lubricant for Theo’s more penetrative qualities. I think this partnership can thrive with Alexis positioned centrally and Walcott stationed wide.

Walcott’s spell at centre forward last year saw Alexis enter a rich vein of scoring form. In the 2015 FA Cup Final, the 5-2 win over Leicester last September and the 3-0 victory against Manchester United a week later, Walcott enjoyed three of his best and most productive games in the number 9 position. Alexis notched 6 goals in that cluster of matches, as the dynamic between the pair blossomed as an unconventional front two.

Theo’s best movement tends to see him move from outside to in, swooping in from the flanks into the vessel of uncertainty between a full-back and centre half. Alexis would probably be something of a roving presence as a number 9, which would give Theo the perfect opportunity to scurry into the space that Sanchez vacates, as ably demonstrated by Walcott’s goal against Manchester City last week. The Chilean thrives on buddying up with more mobile teammates. He has forged connections with Walcott and Welbeck in a way that he hasn’t been able to with Olivier Giroud.

Wenger has publicly alluded to concerns over Walcott’s lack of defensive nous, which presents a flaw in this plan for certain matches; particularly away from home. A tighter midfield structure might allow for Theo’s defensive weaknesses or, you know, he could just work a little harder to amend them. If he truly sees himself as a wide forward now, maybe he will be more inclined to track runners. I think, on occasion, Walcott’s laziness on the flank was almost calculated, in order to strengthen his case as a centre forward.

All is not yet lost for Theo’s Arsenal career if he is intelligent enough to sense this opportunity and use his Chilean teammate as a launch pad. Even given Arsene’s avuncular affections for players that he has nurtured from their teenage years, I am convinced that Walcott remains an Arsenal player through happenstance only. But to quote John Wooden once more, “Things turn out best for the people that make the best of the way things turn out.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto 

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