Tag Archives: Walcott

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.

photo (19)

Everton v. Arsenal Preview: who has the easier run in, plus how much injury hurt Arsenal

I was listening to the Guardian Podcast yesterday when the topic of the race for fourth place came up. Barry Glendenning laid out an argument, which I think is shared by many pundits, for why he wants Everton to beat Arsenal to fourth place. Now, I like Barry, I find him delightfully cantankerous, so I say that not to pick on him, he is a pundit and they are paid to have an opinion. Rather, Glendenning is just one example of many pundits who all seem to want the same thing: Everton to beat Arsenal to 4th place. The pundits all have their different reasons but they mostly come down to wanting to see some new blood in the Champions League. As they say, familiarity breeds contempt.

But for the first time in a long time there is very little between the two teams vying for the 4th Place Cup: Arsenal are on 64 points after 32 games (2ppg), Everton are on 60 points after 31 games (1.94ppg); Arsenal have a goal difference of +19, Everton +18; Arsenal’s leading scorer (Giroud) has 13 goals and 7 assists, Everton’s leading scorer (Lukaku) has 12 goals and 6 assists; and the list goes on*. Granted Arsenal should be doing better but we aren’t and I’ll get to that in a bit. The fact remains that despite our rather large differences in transfer and salary spending, both these teams have very similar records at the moment.

If you’ve been paying attention you will note that Everton are just 4 points behind Arsenal and with a game in hand. This has the pundits (and some rather strange Arsenal supporters) thinking that if Everton can beat Arsenal tomorrow, they will be within 1 point and might could pip Arsenal to the 4th Place Cup.

Arsenal’s final 5 games of the season, though, are against some of the easiest opposition you could hope to face: the relegation fodder and middle-teams who have nothing left to play for. And before you say “yes but Norwich are in a relegation battle, they will fight!” Of course they will fight, so will West Brom, and Allardyce loves to get one over on Wenger, and Hull might even be an FA Cup final preview. But you couldn’t ask for better opposition to play for the final 5 games of the season because these are some very weak teams. For example, Arsenal beat all 5 of them last season, except Norwich who are significantly worse this year than last.

Everton, on the other hand, play Man City, Man U, and Southampton along with Sunderland, Palace and Hull to finish the season off. I feel like Everton might get 11 points from those games whilst I am expecting Arsenal to take all 15. Arsenal should finish 5 points clear of Everton, even if the Toffees win tomorrow.

I don’t think anyone would disagree if I said that Everton do have a slight advantage tomorrow and a win for the Toffees wouldn’t be a far fetched result. I’m not predicting a win, loss, or draw (draw is the most likely result I come up with) but rather just stating what I think is the obvious: If you look at Arsenal’s injury record and current form (P10 W3 D4 L3), along with Everton’s lack of injuries, current form (P10 W6 D1 L3), and home advantage wouldn’t you offer up the draw before kickoff?

And injuries have hit Arsenal hard this season. Insanely hard.

Few predicted that Aaron Ramsey would be the stud that he was at the start of the season. In the first 18 game, Ramsey scored 8 League goals and added 6 assists. That’s good enough to make him Arsenal’s third best goal scorer and playmaker, despite missing the last 14 games. It is impossible to predict how many goals he would have scored or assists he would have laid on but 3 goals and 2 assists more wouldn’t have been at all unreasonable.

More than just goals, Arsenal also missed Ramsey’s work rate: his constant movement meant he was available for the ball and the result is that he led Arsenal in total passes and was third in passing percentage. His defensive work all through the midfield is another key indicator of his work rate, he was first in tackles per game.

Perhaps even more than Ramsey, Arsenal have missed Theo Walcott. It’s common among Arsenal fans to ridicule Walcott as “Unlucky Walcott” but the truth is that it’s been “unlucky Arsenal” to not have him. Last season, Walcott scored 21 goals and had 14 assists on 111 shots, 55 of which he got on target. And this season he was already off to a start that looked set to repeat the feats of last, 6 goals, 4 assists on 53 shots, 23 of which were on target. All in just 18 appearances!

Moreover, the whole team missed Walcott. All of Wenger’s great teams have been built on pace: Overmars and Henry had it in bags and their pace won Arsenal trophies. So, it makes sense that Wenger has groomed Walcott over the years to be the next wide player burning defenders on counters. He’s progressed nicely as a finisher despite what many think and he’s also the kind of play who has grown in terms of creating his own shot, contrary to what you read other places.

2013 2012 2011
SpG 2.944444 2.581395 1.931818
SoG % 52% 45% 45%

Walcott also offered players like Özil, Ramsey, and Wilshere a target man to send through behind the opposition defenses and I literally (literally figuratively) have lost track of the number of times I have heard people say that they wished Arsene had bought a player to do exactly that.

How much have Arsenal missed these two players? You can never really know how much a player would have contributed. But I really feel like Arsenal would be challenging for the title right now had both stayed healthy all year.

It’s a big game for both teams tomorrow and I expect they are going to give everything that they have to win. Arsenal might not have as much to give owing to injury but Ramsey will be on the bench and might even get a cameo at the end depending on the score. After that, Arsenal have to stay clear headed and try to win the double: both the FA and the 4th Place cups are still up for grabs.

Qq

*Even in the top 7 mini-league, both these teams are very similar: Arsenal have a -10 GD, and have earned 1.18 PPG and Everton have a -6 GD and have earned 1 PPG. After Sunday’s match that will change but Arsenal are done with top teams and Everton will have two more left to play.