Arsene likes wide men who wander.
When you look at the players who have featured on the wings for our long-serving manager, there is always significant license to roam no matter the chosen formation. Wiltord, Overmars, Pires, Ljungberg, Reyes, Nasri.
Walcott and Welbeck.
It’s an illustrious list of players with varying styles.
What they all have in common though is a willingness to wander and an eye for goal.
The manager’s philosophy is one of selflessness, of the sum of the parts being greater than the whole. It means that the team is not set up purely to service the centre forward, unlike a number of our rivals’ teams, and it also means there is greater responsibility on the wide men to support and indeed interchange with their central partners.
It’s why there’s no Aguero or Costa or Sturridge or van Persie (or Kane) in this side – everyone pitches in.
It’s also why Thierry Henry is still underrated in some quarters, simply because he gave so much more to the team than just his goals – he delivered them on a plate for others too.
Both Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck have made little secret of their desire to play through the middle.
For Walcott, you suspect it’s his desire to emulate his hero, whose presence he can’t avoid since it runs right through the club from London Colney through to the Emirates and even into the Sky studio.
For Welbeck, it’s more likely to stem from his days at United playing second fiddle to a series of more idolised teammates, without getting enough appreciation for the selfless job he does.
The part that both have missed is that in this Arsenal set up, a centre forward is no more the star of the show than any of the ‘supporting‘ cast members.
Alexis has nineteen goals this season from an ostensibly wide position, despite a relatively dry patch recently. Admittedly many of those goals came during Giroud’s absence through injury, but the Chilean was hardly playing centre forward himself in most of those games.
He has shown both Theo and Danny that goals are there to be had from wide if you are prepared to work hard and get into the right positions. In fact, I would argue that from open play our wide men are almost more likely to score than the central striker, by virtue of the way Arsenal play.
From afar, Giroud can look like the sun around which the other planets are revolving, and often he is the player making the final pass through to the eventual goalscorer, or at the least clearing space for them to arrive in the right place at the right time.
Certainly the manager seems to back this approach. Arsene Wenger has made it clear that rarely will Welbeck or Walcott be selected in the central position as first choice.
To me it’s clear why.
Na Na Na Naaaa
Giroud provides both a physical presence to retain possession and a deftness of touch which belies his physique. They are qualities that neither Walcott nor Welbeck possess, and unlike his English colleagues, Oli is never going to start anywhere other than centre forward, despite his willingness to track back and cover his wingmen.
Indeed, Arsene rarely takes his big man out of the firing line, other than when the need to rest him makes it unavoidable. We rarely look like the same team without him either.
Welbeck was lauded after the FA Cup game at Old Trafford, but it’s hard to look past that primarily being because of the emotional connection. He’d probably be the first to admit that his overall performance itself wasn’t as strong as he’d have liked, particularly in the first half.
When Giroud came on in that game, it was instantly clear the extra dimension his height and strength give us in getting out of our own half, and getting the team onto the front foot again. It meant we were able to launch counter attacks with greater ease, but also to relieve the pressure on our defence for longer at a time when we expected to come under increasing pressure.
You can make an argument for adding an additional option up front – I don’t believe either of our pretenders are able to provide a comparative level of physicality which is more or less mandatory in the Premier League – Welbeck has more physicality than Walcott, but equally Theo’s finishing is far superior to Danny’s at this stage.
Neither of them have the full package needed to excel as a central striker on a regular basis.
So where does that leave them?
Four for two?
Well, first of all it means that they have to accept that they will be playing the majority of games from wide, and it also means they need to recognise that that’s not detrimental to their game, in this Arsenal line up at least.
Walcott was our top scorer from wide a couple of years ago, and, as already mentioned, Alexis has shown that starting position doesn’t have to be an obstacle – indeed it can be an advantage.
More importantly though, it leaves them in a position where they are competing with each other, as well as Alexis and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for those two wide places. Four players for two positions sounds like a lot, but in reality it’s not so different from Monreal, Gibbs, Debuchy, Bellerin and Chambers all competing for two full back slots.
In fact, you could argue it’s less competition in the attacking positions because the need to rotate your attack is both more necessary because of the amount of games and more desirable to target the weaknesses of the opposition. Add in that the Ox is also earmarked for a move to midfield at some point and that Giroud can’t play every game, and suddenly it doesn’t look like quite such a conundrum.
Throw in Arsenal’s injury jinx which says that roughly 50%* of our players are out at any given time and all of sudden it looks like a pretty well balanced squad.
*may not be factually correct
Compare and contrast
The best part for me when you look at Welbeck and Walcott is that they’re both still very young, and they have quite contrasting playing styles.
Walcott is all about the timing of his runs, and the clinical finish at the end. He’s not a player who is going to produce miracles running from deep or coming short for the ball in the build up, but the things which he does well, he does very well.
There’s room for improvement – he doesn’t need to defend all the time, but he does need to be able to defend when it’s necessary according to the situation of the game.
That’s where Welbeck really excels. He is able to adapt his game to the situation at that point in the match, so that if we are defending a single goal lead he tucks into a midfield five and works tirelessly. He has greater strength and physicality than Theo but a bit less pace.
He is a much more balanced player, but, as a result, finds it hard to hit the same heights that Walcott is capable of. In the biggest games, I still have doubts over whether Danny will ever be the man who can make a big difference, but of course I’m happy to be proven wrong!
In Arsene we trust
What it comes down to is if we believe the manager can make the right selections for the right games.
Just three defeats in 2015 suggests he’s getting it more right than not. You sense a slight reluctance to send Theo into high pressure games at the moment since he hasn’t really had any kind of run of games or indeed picked up any kind of form since his return from injury.
With Welbeck, you know what you’re going to get, even if it is less spectacular than you could potentially get from Walcott. The beauty of this season is that Arsene hasn’t had to risk throwing Theo into those kind of games because he has Danny as an option.
It’s the beauty of a strong squad.
With a proper pre-season behind him, you would hope that Walcott could be a much more integral part of this Arsenal team. We’ve fallen into the trap before of writing off players off the back of injuries – think of Aaron Ramsey for example.
While Walcott has his frustrating characteristics, he has also shown in the not so distant past his value to the team.
Remember how we all idolised him as he was carried off against Spurs last year? It’s no coincidence that when games haven’t been going perfectly in the last couple of months that it’s Walcott’s name the crowd at the Emirates are baying for.
In a week where he has had to come out to end speculation about his future, it’s become apparent how far Walcott’s stock has fallen away from the stadium, yet it has turned out to be based on media speculation.
Let’s put aside the business of signing that supposedly troublesome contract so that we can get on with the business of demolishing our opposition instead of fighting among ourselves!
In Theo and Danny we have two excellent wide men who complement each other, and we’re going to need both for the run in.
First of all though, don’t get broken playing for England!