Tag Archives: Walcott

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

By Ronnie Macdonald from Chelmsford, United Kingdom (Simon Mignolet & Theo Walcott) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Naveen’s Tactical Column: Walcott With Width

Burnley have yet to win a match in the Premier League, primarily due to their inability to threaten their opponent’s goal. In the Championship, Burnley relied on the target man-poacher combination of Sam Vokes and Danny Ings. Both players had a goal scoring rate of 0.5 per 90 minutes, leading to both scoring over 20 goals, accounting for almost 57% of Burnley’s goals last season. While Ings returned from a one month injury stint against West Ham United, Vokes has not played a game this season, as he is recovering from his ACL rupture. This loss has made it quite difficult for Burnley to defend deep AND score on counter-attacks—the manner in which a side of their resources probably has to play to maximize the number of points they earn (unless your manager is Paco Jemez).

Burnley do not have a particularly quick back line, and they seem fully aware of this. While they operated more as a pressing side in the Championship, the greater technical ability and athleticism of the English Premier League has dissuaded them from making such a proactive defensive approach a staple of their play. To alleviate the potential problems of their perilous lack of pace, Burnley tend to defend rather close to their penalty box. This will probably persist against Arsenal, with the fullbacks tucking inside to form a narrow back four. By tucking in their fullbacks, they look to limit the amount of space between the fullbacks and the center backs. This has the particular benefit of reducing the effectiveness of runs through the half-space or diagonal runs through these back line gaps, which can be difficult to defend, due to the added uncertainty defenders face because of them¹.

With a desire to keep the back line narrow, the wingers have to track opponent fullbacks. If they do not, then overlapping runs by the opponent’s fullbacks could stretch the back line horizontally to undesirable levels for Burnley (or just lead to unmarked players in dangerous areas). This can force Burnley into a kind of 6-3-1 formation with a three composed of central midfielders, two more advanced, looking to win the ball, and one operating the space between the lines. From this shape, Burnley can find it difficult to effectively counter-attack their opponents.

Offensively, Burnley will look to play long balls for Danny Ings to run onto. In particular, they will look to hit rather long diagonal balls from the fullback position, especially from right-back Kieran Trippier. However, with the amount of attention they pay towards keeping things tight at the back, they will probably employ a cautious approach with respect to throwing men forward. And without their target man, Sam Vokes, their ability to make the most out of these long balls is greatly diminished.
While Burnley have mostly played like a typical “smaller” side, they have shown a willingness to switch to their Championship style, looking to control matches higher up the pitch with pressure. After going down 1-0, to Everton, in their last match, Burnley looked to defend high up the pitch, force turnovers, and pin Everton in their defensive third. This style of play helped them get an equalizer. This ability to switch styles does allow them an avenue to get back into a match if they concede the first goal. However, whether they employ such a proactive defensive style against Arsenal will remain a mystery until it actually happens.

A Potential Benefit of Theo Walcott’s Return

Theo Walcott brings plenty of valuable aspects as a wide forward. He has fantastic straight line speed; he shoots well and gets into good positions; he presents a threat to teams when Arsenal counter or play a more possession-based game near their opponent’s goal. He has gone from simple speed merchant to a rather important part of Arsenal’s attack.² Outside of his obvious attributes, he may also provide a subtler benefit to 2014/15 Arsenal—greater width in the attacking front and a willingness to play away from the ball.

With the likes of Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere, Alexis Sanchez, and Danny Welbeck, Arsenal have quite a few players who seem to prefer to operate left-of-center. Combine this with a couple more players who like to play with the ball at their feet moving towards the ball, in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Aaron Ramsey, and the left side of the pitch can become quite crowded in the final third.

Let us look at this passage of play in Arsenal’s victory against Sunderland. (starts at about the 51:50 mark if you want to pick up screens) Danny Welbeck wins the ball on Arsenal’s left side. After the ball gets played back, the ball is swung to the right side to Calum Chambers. Chambers receives the ball and then moves it centrally to Mikel Arteta. Arteta moves the ball to Santi Cazorla, and Arsenal begin to advance down the left. Cazorla passes the ball to Gibbs, who advances with Welbeck ahead of him on the wing, Sanchez in the left-side half space, Cazorla behind him, and Oxlade-Chamberlain in the center of the pitch. Gibbs passes the ball back to Cazorla. At this point, Arsenal have five attacking players close together against six defenders. More importantly, the lack of width up front means that Sunderland’s defenders can shade over to the left-side. They also have a better ability to see both the ball and potential runners, allowing them to better respond to potential runs made by Arsenal players.

Arsenal-Burnley
To be clear, the proximity of the Arsenal attackers to one another is not inherently a bad thing. As with anything, there exist benefits and costs with this allocation of resources. By shrinking the distance between the players, one does reduce the amount of space that a defense has to defend. However, having smaller distances between the players means the ball can move more quickly between them. Obviously, this requires an understanding among the players about how each will move and pass, and the ability to execute proper touches and quick passes in tight spaces. When it comes off, you get something wonderful like Borussia’s Dortmund’s first goal against St. Pauli in their recent DFB Pokal match³. However, Arsenal seem to lack that familiarity, and without Ozil, have fewer players that have that truly special combination of quickness in thought and technique to pull something off like that.4

What could help them take advantage of this clustering on the left is a player high on the right, looking to make that back post run/diagonal run behind the defensive line. Going back to that passage of play against Sunderland, note the position of Oxlade-Chamberlain in the center of the pitch. Imagine, instead of moving inside from the right into that position, that he stayed wide on the right and positioned himself a bit higher up the pitch. From this position, Oxlade-Chamberlain could catch the right side of Sunderland’s defense unaware of his presence. This could give Cazorla the option to clip a diagonal ball towards the far post 8-12 meters from goal for Oxlade-Chamberlain to latch onto. Even when the ball moves to Danny Welbeck, taking a wider position, about 12 meters from goal, would make Oxlade-Chamberlain a better target for a cross towards the back post. Instead, in the actual passage of play, he has to move from his central position to the back post to connect with the cross, stretch to try to control the ball, and finds himself outside of the penalty box with his back to goal.

At the same time, such positioning could incentivize Sunderland’s defenders on Arsenal’s right to position themselves further to the right in order to deal with the potential threat. If that kind of positioning allowed Oxlade-Chamberlain to pull that side of Sunderland defense away from their teammates, then a gap appears for someone, like Aaron Ramsey, to run into. With the Sunderland defensive front jogging back and focused on the ball, such a run from deep would likely go unmarked. He could then receive the ball, shoot or create a goal-scoring opportunity for someone else.

Ultimately, a player like Theo Walcott can be valuable to a side, not just because of his abilities, but his abilities relative to his teammates. While a player like Oxlade-Chamberlain wants to get on the ball, promoting his drifting towards the ball, a player like Theo Walcott seems more comfortable moving away from the ball to increase his chances of getting into a goal-scoring position. Arsenal, having so many players who want to have the ball at their feet, and with a lack of familiarity among the players could have a significant obstacle preventing them from taking turns moving away or towards the ball.5 Maybe, by removing one of those ball-players for a player who has a greater preference for playing off the ball, Arsenal may be able to increase the ability of their side to produce offensively, even if they potentially sacrifice some ability to control possession, giving them a more immediate solution to this particular spacing issue.

So even though Walcott may only make an appearance as a substitute on Saturday, his impact on how this side plays will be interesting to observe, as it could provide a glimpse of Arsenal’s potential this season.

¹A run through this gap could be picked up by the fullback, but by dragging the fullback away from his defensive zone, space opens up for a player to run into the space the fullback vacated or just outside of it. If the center back picks up the run, then a giant hole can appear in the center of the back line. Since the fullback and the center back probably recognize the problems that could ensue with either tracking the run, there may end up being a hesitancy to react. This lack of action could be exacerbated if the run comes from the weak side (the non-ball side) as it has a greater chance of catching the two off guard.
²(Pure Conjecture) Walcott’s contract ends at the end of the 15/16 season, so this season will probably see reports of Arsenal and Walcott negotiating some kind of extension. Last time, Walcott had quite a bit more leverage in the negotiations that seemed to prolong the talks between the two sides. This time, with Alexis Sanchez as a more than adequate option on the right, and with Arsenal possibly needing/looking into acquiring a player who could operate as a truer left-sided player (as I said in a previous footnote, someone like a Kevin Grosskreutz could provide quite a bit of value for Arsenal on the left), an attempt by Walcott to play hardball could lead to a potential move, in the summer of 2015, if he does not represent a “irreplaceable” player for Arsenal going forward.
³I think that Arsenal could use a “truer” left-sided player, and if they want to purchase someone who could make an immediate impact, it would be hard to find better players than the selfless Kevin Grosskreutz. He is the key to this move, with his quick pass into the interior to Reus, his perfect run, and then hitting a fantastic cutback through the small gap between two defenders to Shinji Kagawa.
4Condensing the attacking space also has the benefit of greater effectiveness in counter pressing. When the ball is lost, a side has plenty of players around the ball and in passing lanes to force a turnover. Essentially, by making their attacking space small, they make the space they have to defend small, when they lose the ball.
5This goes back to the idea of coordination under uncertainty. If I am not familiar with my teammates’ tendencies, then it becomes difficult for me to plan my actions and behave in a manner that best coordinates the efforts of my teammates and me. Under such uncertain conditions, it seems likely that I would default to the behaviors that I intrinsically prefer, because I do not have a good grasp of the extrinsic benefits and costs of my actions. When it comes to Arsenal, with such uncertainty in coordination, and an apparent intrinsic desire to have the ball at their feet, it makes sense that the space around the ball can become congested with Arsenal players.