First off, how incredible were Arsenal on Monday? This is undoubtedly hyperbolic, but some of our play was reminiscent of the Invincibles; rapid attacking moves, shifting the ball from right to left and back again and with a clinical finish at the end. That is how Wenger made his name and achieved his successes during his early reign. Viera et all weren’t possession based players and, Bergkamp aside, we didn’t really have a single ‘playmaker’. Since 2005 Wenger’s changed his philosophy, going for a more ‘total football’ approach and shovelling playmakers into every area of the pitch and, although the football has been beautiful at times, it hasn’t paid off. When we play quickly we are lethal but when every player has an option two yards to your left its hard to find the incentive to increase the tempo – instead of trying to play the ball through a packed defence, why not just lay it off to him and see if he can do something? That, for me, has been the main ‘mental’ problem for Arsenal, all too often our players lack the drive to try and create something themselves and so instead of trying the incisive pass and risk being lambasted for losing possession, it was easier to simply knock it sideways. The only player that frequently plays the risky pass is Arshavin, and we’ve seen where that’s got him. Arsene needed a way to force Arsenal to rediscover that pace to their game, and at Reading he found it.
At first look, playing Walcott as a striker didn’t seem to have much of an effect. I myself criticized him for being relatively anonymous, although that was mainly because the commentary team were banging on about how it would be a ‘crisis’ if he didn’t sign a contract, despite him doing little to warrant such comments in the brief period the game had been running. As a brief sidebar, I swear Arsenal are the only team who, after scoring their first goal in a Premier League game, could have the commentators talk about the contract of a player that wasn’t even involved in the move, rather than the three or four players that were involved in creating the goal. Anyway, that isn’t really relevant, but the fact is that, on the face of it, Walcott appeared to do very little with the ball and his movement wasn’t exactly tearing the Reading defence apart.
What he did do, however, was allow Wenger to return to a system similar to the Invincibles. I found it interesting on twitter and various blogs just how many people referred to the formation as a 4-4-1-1 recently,not just in the Reading game, when in my mind it was still largely a 4-2-3-1. On reflection, however, they are absolutely right; it’s only a small change but it’s a definite reversion to Wenger’s old formation, with Bergkamp playing just off Henry and, although it had failed to impress before, Walcott’s inclusion made a far more dramatic difference then you might expect.
First off, whilst his movement wasn’t dragging the Reading defence all over the place or creating dynamic runs for through balls – save for the single one-on-one he missed – it made a huge difference having a mobile forward again. Think back to the first four goals, all of which were scored from crosses into the box…did you see Walcott in there for any of them? The answer is no, because most of the time he was drifting wide, allowing the wide men and the central midfielders to burst into the box and get into scoring positions. Giroud is an excellent frontman, in my opinion at least, and is good for building the play around, but his constant presence in the box deters others from making runs to join him, partly, I would guess, because of the recent no-crossing policy Wenger seemed to employ in the possession game. With Walcott constantly drifting wide, Podolski was far more dangerous and of course Cazorla had a much greater goal threat. This is again because of a reversion to the old Invicibles formation. Wenger knows that Walcott hasn’t got the build of a lone striker and so needs a striker partner, hence it being in my mind no coincidence that Cazorla was a much greater presence in the box than in prior games – Wenger pushed him forwards to support Walcott in a strike partnership reminiscent of Henry and Bergkamp, and it worked brilliantly.
Walcott also created space all around the pitch, not just in the box. His presence terrifies defenders who know that one mistake could see them stumbling after him as he speeds away through on goal. True, the one chance Walcott had to do this he didn’t finish but it was a warning sign that simply served to reinforce this terror. To deal with this the defence dropped deeper or even doubled up on Walcott, freeing up space for Cazorla and Wilshere to operate from deep. Admittedly this was also a tactical mistake by Reading – only playing two centre mids against a trio of Arteta, Wilshere and Cazorla is near suicidal - but in theory the move should work in most situations. In practice obviously, things may vary and, as every man and his dog seems eager to point out to us, it was only Reading, but the main problem we face against the ‘lesser’ teams is that if they press Arteta and Wilshere high up the pitch it’s hard for us to get our game going. Who’s going to press high when Walcott’s waiting to pounce? And even if they do press high and we do lose our possessional dominance, all it takes is one good pass and the Englishman’s away; the Invincibles weren’t a possession-based team and yet they are one of if not the best club side that’s ever existed.
And that’s the most important thing Walcott gives to this team – he makes us play like the Invincibles, he forces us to up the pace. Unlike with Giroud or Van Persie before him we can’t hit the ball up and expect it to stick, we can’t really work any sort of interplay through the middle at all as he’s not the sort of player to be the ‘one’ in the one-two; he’d rather be on the receiving end than threading a runner through. As such, we’re forced to spread the play wide more rather than all concentrating in the centre like we used to, not necessarily becoming a team that plays on the wings but definitely utilising the width on the pitch to increase space for our players and stretch the defence. We also have to play faster because we have no one to hold the ball up and slow play down; whereas Giroud can hold the ball and wait for others to arrive, with Walcott you need to get the ball forwards quickly or he’ll lose it. It’s a cunning way in which one of the player’s major weaknesses actually helps the team’s tempo. Theo also provides an incentive to get the ball forwards quickly. With Giroud or Van Persie in the side and early through ball wouldn’t be that deadly as they don’t have the pace to capitalise, but with Walcott up front the moment Cazorla or Wilshere or even Arteta pick the ball up they’ll be looking to see if they can release him. If they can’t they can simply lay it off to a team mate but if they can he’s away and there’s a good chance for a goal.
Reading this you may think I’m 100%, head-over-heels in love with Walcott as a striker and think we should quadruple his wages and guarantee him a starting berth every single game. Far from it. There are a myriad of problems with Walcott playing up front on his own, such as when we come up against situations where we need to hold on to the ball and be more possession based, or if we resort to aimless through balls to him the same way ‘lesser’ teams lump it up to a target man. There’s also the fact that Walcott’s not really clinical enough yet. However, the main reason I’m not overly worried about Theo’s contract situation, despite what I’ve said, is that we don’t need the striker to be Walcott. True, no one has quite the same blistering pace as him – I truly believe there isn’t a faster player in the world – and it is this reputation of being uncatchably quick that terrifies defenders and creates so much space for us, but really any fast, mobile centre forward would do the trick. Loic Remy, for example, seems like that sort of player and may be better suited for it, and I’m sure there are others – Joel Campbell might be able to do the job from what I’ve heard, although I’ve rarely seen him play. The main requirement for a club in terms of attacking options is variety and as long as we have someone that fits that role I’ll be happy. It’s the reason I’d rather us keep Walcott than sign Huntelaar or Llorente – both are big, immobile strikers and, although Huntelaar is more of a poacher than a traditional target man, they’re too similar to Giroud. There’s also the psychological effect of for once not selling a big name player – the mental issues caused by yet another ‘name’ player leaving could well have a greater effect than the loss of his ability. However, keeping Giroud and signing a more mobile, Van Persie-esque striker (not of the same quality obviously as I doubt we could afford that, but someone with his attributes), plus Walcott or a similarly nippy striker would leave us with, in my mind, a great variety of options.
That’s it for my overreactions. It was only one game after all, and one against the bottom club in the league. Drawing all these conclusions are ridiculous this early. Walcott could have had no effect on the way the team played on Monday and it was merely good games from Cazorla and Podolski that made it look like an entirely new system, rendering all this talk about his brand of striker obsolete, I don’t know. These are only theories about what effect he could have and, to be honest, these effects may not be entirely positive. Playing with a more complete striker like Van Persie, or bringing in someone like Lewandowski or Jovetic, could well yield better results without having to change our philosophy again and resort to a more counter-attacking side. I am simply excited about the pace Walcott brings to a side that often seems to lack incentive and dynamism, and of course a throwback to the Invincibles era I only vaguely remember – I was around 7 or 8 at the time – is every little boy’s dream. The truth is, Walcott is the closest I’ve seen at Arsenal to Thierry Henry since the Frenchman left for Barca and that just gets me giddy inside. That fifth goal against Reading, the touch and finish with ’14′ emblazoned on his back has done more to excite me about Arsenal than anything I’ve seen this season.
Until the real thing comes back on loan in January of course