Tag Archives: Walcott

Wenger

Wherefore the English Core

At the onset of the season I penned a piece about how Arsène Wenger was building Arsenal’s “British Core”. Wenger had added Calum Chambers and Danny Welbeck to an exciting group of established English players like Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott, Kieran Gibbs, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain¹, and the Frenchman was bullish about the project bragging that he could see five Arsenal players forming the core of the English national team in the future. But here we are 3/4 of the way through the season and whether it’s injury or form, I have to admit that I can’t see any of these players making up the core of the English national team, yet. So, what happened?

The most obvious thing that happened this year is increased competition for places. Calum Chambers is a exciting young talent who can play as a fullback, center back, or defensive midfielder but has yet to really shine in any of those roles when given the chance. Chambers got handed the starting role in right back when Debuchy went down injured but quickly lost his starting spot to Hector Bellerin. The reason is simple: both Bellerin and Chambers have a tendency to get too far forward and to make defensive errors but Bellerin’s superior foot speed allows him to recover more quickly. And Bellerin is a converted winger, his class shows when he has the ball in attack. Chambers is a fine player, but Bellerin is simply superior.

Chambers also suffers a similar fate in center back and in the defensive midfield role. Mertesacker, one of the captains of the team, is going to start over Chambers at center back whenever the big German is healthy. And as for defensive midfield, Chambers got one start there and it was pretty disastrous. I would say that Coquelin gets the nod there. So, in a sense, the “problem” with Chambers is that he is a jack of all trades, yet master of none.

Danny Welbeck’s struggle to get into the starting lineup at Arsenal is very different. When Wenger made his “English core” remark, Welbz had just scored a brace for England against Slovenia. He was starting for Arsenal in his favored central role up front and things were looking good for the Englishman. But then he went down injured and Arsenal got Olivier Giroud back. Giroud has been playing well ever since and has kept Welbeck sidelined or shunted off to the wings where he’s less effective. Giroud has been in such fine form that I think most folks were surprised when Arsene handed the start to Danny Welbeck in the FA Cup quarter final against Man U. But Welbeck repaid Arsene for that chance and scored the winner with an industrious and well taken goal.

Welbeck, in many ways, symbolizes both the problem and the solution for these English players. The problem is that there is increased competition for places at Arsenal. There is nothing wrong with this, at all. Giroud may be in better form than Welbeck but what Welbeck needs to do is exactly what he did on Monday night against his former team: work his buns off and score goals. If he does that, there is no doubt that he will eventually win the starting spot from Giroud.

The other thing that Welbeck symbolizes is youth. Welbeck is 24, Giroud 28. If Welbeck takes a long-term view of his career, he will see that within 1-2 years he should be entering his prime, have more experience, and be starting regularly over Giroud. Now, I know that in our instant gratification society this seems an impossible ask but that is just the reality he is faced with.

Gibbs as well is facing rather stiff competition from Nacho Monreal. Monreal isn’t the most exciting player, he runs a bit like a duck, but Monreal is a model professional and a good example for his younger, English, counterpart, Gibbs. Monreal and Gibbs have essentially split the left back duties this season but Gibbs has youth on his side, Monreal is 29. If Gibbs just keeps plugging away and taking his chances when they come to him, he will surely get the starting role at Arsenal.

For some of the other English players, the story is a bit different. I’m talking specifically about Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott. Wenger bought Özil and Alexis for a combined £70m and both of those players bring an undeniable quality to the team and both of those players start in the role that Wilshere and Walcott fancy.

Let’s start with Walcott. All the signs were pointing to Walcott having a breakout season last year. And it was shaping up to be as well, but then he went down injured. It was yet another injury in a career which is marked by his time spent in the treatment room. That injury set his career back again and allowed for other players to come in and take his starting spot. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has better close control (dribbling) and similar speed. Ox also defends better than Walcott. And, as if that all wasn’t bad enough, Wenger bought Alexis this summer. Alexis does all those things better even than Ox and the only reason he hasn’t started much on the right is that Wenger prefers him on the left where he can cut in on his right foot.

But worse for Walcott is that Arsenal have adopted an all out pressing style. This doesn’t suit his game. He is young, and he could pick this habit up. In other words, he could learn to play more like Alexis. But until he does, I can’t see him getting many looks in.

The incredible thing is that Theo Walcott is only 25 years old and his next 4 years will probably be the best of his career (if he can avoid injury). I could see Arsenal selling him this summer because he doesn’t fit our style of play and have him go to some place like West Ham where they play the type of compact, long-ball that does suit him, and where he wouldn’t have to play the type of pressing game that he would at Arsenal³, and he could score 20 goals a season. That would leave many fans wondering “why didn’t Arsene get the best out of him” and “how come we didn’t adopt a playing style that suited him” or “why doesn’t Arsenal buy him back???”

See, this is the complicated thing about Wilshere and Walcott. It’s not always down to whether they are good players or not, they are both clearly good players. Most of the time, it’s actually down to whether the players fit your system or whether you can integrate their talents into your system. And like Walcott, I also worry about Wilshere.

Wilshere wears the number 10 and he is an exciting number 10 style English player. He is very direct, he likes to attack defenders square up, and he’s got great close control so he often gets by the defender. But the problem is that Arsenal have a veritable cornucopia of these types of players. Cazorla and Ozil both play ahead of Wilshere in the central attacking midfield role.

The other problem is that Jack hasn’t proved himself adaptable. He nominally plays a defensive midfield role for England but having watched him now for several years, he lacks the passing range and surety needed for a defensive midfielder. And despite his “tigerish” reputation, he is a terrible tackler, and doesn’t pay attention to his defensive duties at times, rather looking to start the attack.

I’d like to think that there is more to come from Wilshere. His career, like Walcott, has been cut short by injury². So, there is the hope that he will come back healthy and get a run of games. He’s also only 23 years old. Players get better at passing with age. If anyone can teach a player how to pass it’s Arsene Wenger and by the time Wilshere is 27 years old, I suspect he will be calmer and more reliable with his passing.

But even if he comes back healthy and even if he works tirelessly developing his game, he still faces stiff competition in a crowded midfield at Arsenal and might be tempted to take his game somewhere else.

Some of you will read what I’ve written and say that I’m worrying about an “implosion” of the English Core at Arsenal. Far from it. I see that the English core is being challenged and that the challenge is world class. Having players like Özil and Alexis on your team should make the others better, not worse.

What I’m suggesting then, is that this project is going to take a little more time than I think many fans (myself included) wanted or expected. I think a lot of people in England expect that a 20 year old player who has a few good games is going to be the next big name, but that’s not how this works. It takes time and hard work.

Chambers isn’t a bad player, he just needs to nail down where he wants to play. Gibbs isn’t a bad player, he just has an equal challenging him. Welbeck isn’t a bad player, he just needs to keep working hard and taking his chances when they are given to him. And Wilshere and Walcott face the most direct challenge and need to figure out where they fit at Arsenal, if they want to stay.

But all of these are young players, who have at least another World Cup in front of them. If they can rise to the challenge, Arsenal could still form the core of the English national team. Of a damn good English national team, I might add.

Qq

¹This isn’t meant to discount Chuba Akpom, Carl Jenkinson or other exciting academy players but rather at the time they weren’t really mentioned as part of an Arsenal core.
²It is absurd listening to Mourinho moan about how Hazard is kicked when Jack Wilshere has had his ankles routinely destroyed by every team on the planet for the last 4 years.
³Contrary to popular belief West Ham do not force their players to play much actual defense. They rely mainly on team shape to defend spaces and are less interested in tackling the ball away, intercepting, and other hallmarks of defensive play.

ramsey-cazorla

Citizen Kane finds his Rosebud in North London Derby

Bacon. The belly of the beast. I need bacon. Bacon and brioche French toast.

I’ve been laid up all week with a chest cold. The kind of cold where the rales in my lungs sound like the last sips of a milkshake. I deserve bacon.

Football is a lot like bacon. Streaky bacon. There are layers of white meat, which most of you would call “fat”, and layers of dark meat. The dark meat is the space occupied by the defenders. The white meat is the free space.

Most people who buy bacon look for as meaty a slab of bacon as possible. This is obvious eating. Not me. I like a lot of white meat on my bacon. I don’t eat bacon every day. I want lots of space. Space is where the flavor lives.

Football is all about the white meat. It’s a game of space. Creating space, closing space, controlling space, controlling the white meat, making your bacon as fatty as possible. 

Arsenal opened the scoring against Tottenham by picking a piece of streaky bacon that was full of white meat. Giroud did well to collect a ball deep in midfield, then Welbeck sizzled past Rose, from there, the amount of space between keeper and the Arsenal three forwards was mouthwatering.

Welbeck hit a great dragback into the red meat, and Giroud hit a one time pass/shot that fell to Özil. Özil, who is slicker than bacon grease, popped in a goal of the season candidate.

From there out, Arsenal looked to pack the bacon in. In fact, Arsenal’s bacon resembled all red meat at times, with just space conceded down the wings. Take British rashers, pile them into pancakes, pour over sticky syrup, bacon pancakes that’s what Arsenal tried to make.

It would have worked too. In theory, packing in the defense leaves the whole hog to run into. But Arsenal struggled to exploit Tottenham’s back fat and instead resembled at times a lower table team, desperately holding on to a 1-0 lead.

At half time I cut my brioche. I wanted it to dry out a bit before I made the French toast. Worryingly Kyle Martino and the other Kyle were on TV singing Arsenal’s praises. But Arsenal only had two shots in the first half. It looked like the same game plan as against Man City but in terms of executing the counter attack swiftly, Arsenal looked like they were running in cold treacle rather than warm syrup.

It wasn’t that Spurs were much better. They kept flying into tackles and missing completely. Arsenal were gifted numerous chances to exploit Spurs spaces.

It was more that Arsenal looked like a team whose attack hadn’t played together much. Özil kept finding fatty places to run into but Cazorla couldn’t find him. Giroud kept flicking, and flicking, and flicking, and flicking, on to Welbeck but Welbeck was rarely in the fatty places where Giroud thought he should be.

Meanwhile, Arsenal were doing everything right defensively. They were frustrating Spurs, forcing them into long range shots. Long range shots that kept producing corners.

 

You would think that corners would be difficult to score from and they are. The amount of space available to exploit is exceptionally small but because the ball is so close to goal, any amount of space is deadly. It was at the moment that I was singing one-nil to the Arsenal that Spurs scored.

Corner. Ospina gets a hand on the ball and pushes it toward the far post. Coquelin leaves the far post in order to try to head clear the ball that Ospina palmed away. Ramsey realizes he’s been napping, and Harry Kane, Citizen Kane, the most dangerous man in the publishing business, ghosts in behind Ramsey to score an easy goal.

It was shambolic defending from Ramsey. Gunnerblog blamed Ospina but I think the diminutive keeper did his best to get to the ball. If Ramsey is at all aware of the white meat he’s giving up, Kane doesn’t get a foot on that ball.

Spurs were sizzling and spitting from that point on. In the first 55 minutes, Spurs took just the one shot from prime areas. In the last 40 minutes, they took three. They were getting into dangerous positions, exploiting the Arsenal spaces well and getting in great crosses.

But it was a moment of madness from Walcott which proved Arsenal’s downfall. In theory, Walcott was brought on to exploit space behind Spurs as they went forward in search of a goal: they play high up the pitch, Arsenal counter by putting on their fastest player. But Walcott. But Walcott had 6. Walcott had 6 touches. 6 touches. 6 touches in 20 minutes. And Walcott played a Podolski on the throw in. A throw in. A throw in. Walcott on the throw in. Bentaleb in so much space and time. Almost like a free kick. Walcott on the throw in. Walcott not closing space on the throw in. A throw in.

Walcott switched off. Koscielny didn’t challenge. Bentaleb puts in a decent cross. Kane overpowered Koscielny. Kane looped a header into the far corner. Ospina had no chance.

Arsenal’s problem throughout the match was a lack of fluency in the counter attack. It’s one thing to sit back and soak up pressure but quite another to string together the necessary passes to counter attack efficiently. Efficiency is the key to this defense first approach that Arsenal have been rolling out the last couple of weeks. And Arsenal simply lacked it.

Cazorla and Ramsey were outplayed by the Spurs midfield duo of Mason and Benteleb. They were forced into turnovers and couldn’t get the ball forward to Walcott who had a pittance with just 6 touches.

Walcott touches via whoscored.com

Walcott touches via whoscored.com

In the end, we saw one of the truths of football: no matter how well drilled your defense, you need an efficient counter attacking unit in order to play on the counter. Tomas Rosicky couldn’t save Arsenal, Theo Walcott couldn’t save Arsenal. Harry Kane may have gotten his start at Arsenal but he was always a Spurs fan. And with two goals against Arsenal in the North London Derby, he had his Rosebud.

Qq

 

Cazorla-Hull-Final

Let’s Talk About Santi

By Emile Donovan

The Beginning is the End of the Beginning

On May 14, 2014, in the seventieth minute of Arsenal’s match against Wigan Athletic, Santi Cazorla received a lofted ball near the left hand touchline, 70 yards from the Wigan goal. He killed the ball stone dead with a flick of his left boot and probed forward before knocking it back inside to Mikel Arteta. Receiving a return pass, Cazorla pushed into a cul-de-sac just past the half-way line as three Wigan defenders converged on the diminutive Spaniard, cutting off all possible passing lanes.

The ball rolled forward gently as Cazorla waited. Waited for a moment, for a sign, for any kind of movement, any shift in weight or flaw in the positioning of his markers. He was caught in a corner, up against the ropes, and like a counter-attacking boxer who needs a punch to counter-punch, he needed a shift in conditions in order to make something happen.

Aaron Ramsey, who had been dancing with the touchline five yards ahead of Santi, made a darting run in behind the defence that his marker failed to track. Quick as a flash, Cazorla stroked a weighted pass between two of the three markers that sliced through their zone like a laser blade through a soft Camembert. Freed from his shackles, Ramsey greedily bounded into 40 yards of vacant pasture like a sexy Welsh retriever zeroing in on a fallen duck. He finished stylishly past the Wigan ‘keeper, the final flourish of a comprehensive 4-1 victory that consigned the Lactics to relegation.

This was Santi Cazola’s fourth assist of the game. Garnering four assists is such a rare event that Santi was reportedly presented with a gold-encrusted GIF of the “Help me help you” scene from Jerry Maguire after the game—probably by Olivier Giroud, though this is unconfirmed. Certainly, however, Cazorla’s performance hinted that Arsenal had turned a new leaf. After a purgatorial 2012-13 that saw Alex Song hold his hand up as its star creative midfielder, Arsenal once again had a true playmaker directing traffic from behind the striker. The rebuilding process had begun, and in Santi, we had a defined, refined, top-class architect. And boy, did we need one.

Before, I Was Afraid, I Was Petrified…

It’s easy to forget what terrible shape Arsenal were in at the start of the 2012-13 season. Remember, this was a team reeling from the loss of van Persie, whose roles as talisman, captain, top scorer and (by orders of magnitude) best player left a sizeable void in the team. Van Persie’s mutiny left Arsenal woefully light going forward, when coupled with the failure to adequately replace Cesc Fabregas. At the time of Cazorla’s arrival, competition for the front four positions consisted of Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski, Gervinho, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Tomas Rosicky and Cazorla: three of that number hadn’t played a single minute of Premier League football, one was an injury-ravaged veteran, one was 19 years old, and one was, well, Gervinho. Arsenal desperately needed their new signings – and particularly Cazorla, who was intended as the focal point of the team going forward – to bed in quickly. And bed in they did.

Cazorla might have shamed a duck taking its first swim, such was the rapidity with which he took to English football. Diminutive, stocky and not especially athletic, Santi resembled a graceful Spanish prince training to follow his dream of becoming a department store Santa Claus. But this lack of physicality provided no impediment to imposing himself on the English game. From the beginning his close control was magical, his feet dancing him out of danger as though he were some magical midget sired by Houdini and raised by MacGyver. Cazorla’s agility and skill, his range of passing, his exceptional spacial awareness, his two-footedness and his long-awaited ability (and willingness) to shoot from distance made him a fan favourite and a vital component of the team. His first season saw him break double figures in both goals and assists, voted Arsenal’s player of the season and ranked by Bloomberg as the tenth-best footballer on earth. At £15 million-odd, Santi looked an unconditional steal: a serious playmaker just below elite-level who could run a game from behind the striker in a manner not seen since Cesc left. The future, both for Cazorla and for Arsenal, looked bright.

You Sold Bale, We Signed…

It was never the plan for Arsenal to buy Mesut Özil. The pursuits of Higuain and Suarez testify that, while the attack was a priority, a finisher was vastly preferable to another creator. But when Real Madrid spent £80 million and had to balance the books, Arsenal were always going to be in for their offering—regardless of the sacrificial lamb. That’s how big transfers work when you’re rich, but not “let’s-spend-£50m-on-Sideshow-Bob-hey-does-that-count-as-a-charitable-donation” rich: you wait for big players to become available, rather than paying over the odds to persuade a club to sell them. It’s transfer opportunism, and sometimes you end up with something glamorously delectable, but not quite what you need, like a starving tramp presented with a charcuterie and goat’s cheese platter.

Despite the superfluousness of a luxury attacking midfielder in a team bulging with them, there was understandable elation when Arsenal bought Özil, and at the time there was an obvious way to fit him into the team as well. Pushing Cazorla onto the left flank with license to cut inside allowed Özil to flourish in the middle, as well as dividing creative responsibility between the two technicians. With Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain sharing the right flank and Giroud in the middle toiling endlessly like a tittie mag passed between the pubescent members of a 9th-grade football team, there seemed to be clear and defined roles for all Arsenal’s attacking players to live up to their potential.

In theory, at least. In reality, things panned out a little differently. A shift in the tactical zeitgeist re-emphasizing speed and power and directness in attack rendered Wenger’s tiki-taka-tinged possession style somewhat obsolete and easy to counter. Özil struggled in his first season, offering glimmers of brilliance which grew more and more rare as the season progressed. Giroud, through no fault of his own, ran out of gas halfway through the season. Theo Walcott—the one Arsenal attacker who really threatened to break into superstardom—tore his ACL early in the season. And lost in this hodgepodge of underachieving stars, exhausted workhorses and felled thoroughbreds, was Santi Cazorla.

His importance in the side diminished, Cazorla endured an ineffectual 2013-14, aside from his orgiastic free kick against Hull in the FA Cup Final. Sharing the creative burden with Özil was a nice idea, but in practice it caused Arsenal’s play to become slow and laboured, and Cazorla’s personal numbers in the league—four goals, seven assists—spoke of a playmaker whose play had been taken from him. Just 18 months after his arrival, Cazorla, like Lukas Podolski, gave off an aura of expendability.

In The Summertime

When they added Alexis and Danny Welbeck, Arsenal renovated their attack and also virtually destroyed the careers of several senior and junior players. There is, for instance, no way back in for Lukas Podolski, nor Tomas Rosicky, nor—in all likelihood—Joel Campbell. This isn’t to say that they can’t contribute, but they certainly can’t contribute on a level that justifies their wages. I think that, had Arsenal received viable offers for any of these players in August, they would’ve been out the door faster than you could say “Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateapokaiwhenuakitanatahu“. And prior to December 2014, I think Santi Cazorla’s name could be added to that list too.

At the start of September it was difficult to see how Cazorla fitted into an Arsenal first XI. With Alexis, Welbeck and Özil all guaranteed starting berths, Walcott on his way back, Wenger intent on shoehorning Wilshere into an advanced position and Oxlade-Chamberlain needing minutes to take his game to the next level, Cazorla seemed stuck in “Samir Nasri Limbo”, as a luxury playmaking dribbler who should really be the hub of his team, but who finds himself making up the attacking numbers in a team not geared around his talents. Even when Özil was ruled out for three months with a serious injury, reinstating Cazorla into his preferred position, the little Spaniard failed to fire. Until, that is, November 26 rolled around—and the old Santi Cazorla was reborn.

Guess Who’s Back

In the four matches before Arsenal played Dortmund at the Emirates, Santi Cazorla’s average Whoscored.com rating was 6.8; in the six matches since, that rating has ballooned to an average rating of 8.27. Cazorla has three goals and five assists this season; all three goals and four of the five assists have come in those six matches. He has the fourth-highest overall performance score in the Premier League, largely influenced by the five league games in his period. In short, Santi’s back—the question is, what does that mean for the future?

In theory, a fully fit Arsenal attack—the footballing equivalent of Bigfoot dancing a waltz with the Loch Ness Monster on Saturday Night Live—could be seen as early as mid-January. With Özil and Walcott on the way to full recovery, it leaves Arsene Wenger with something of a pickle—and not an altogether desirable one. Does he persevere with Cazorla in the middle, leaving out the most expensive signing in Arsenal’s history? Does he move Cazorla out to the left again, trusting that Santi’s form will compensate for the fact that this move hasn’t worked in the past? If Özil walks back into the central attacking position, as I strongly believe he will, this leaves Cazorla fighting with Alexis, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Welbeck for a position on one of the flanks; where does Santi lie in that pecking order?

Tim Stillman indirectly addressed this quandary in a column for Arseblog where he opined that Theo Walcott may not be as valuable to the side as he once was. Personally, I disagree: before his ACL tear Theo was the one Arsenal attacker besides Özil who looked to be breaking into “elite” territory. Arsenal has invested too much time and effort into developing Walcott as a player, and his qualities are too extreme to simply cast aside, despite Alexis’s and Welbeck’s speed mitigating the damage felt by his absence.

Personally, I think Arsenal’s first-choice front four consists of Alexis, Özil, Walcott and Giroud. Regrettably, this would consign Cazorla back to a bench role, but even in spite of his form it’s difficult to see how Santi fits into the current Arsenal team with everybody fit. He is too good a player, and too fiscally valuable, to ride the bench—and, like it or not, a purge is coming to clean out the Arsenal attack.

I’d love to see Santi Cazorla stay and see out his career at Arsenal, I really would. But he doesn’t really make sense. And, with a value of £15 million and only two or three of his best years left in him, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see him go, sooner rather than later.

@emiledonovan