With an abundance of central players, Arsène Wenger has been turning a blind eye to width so far this season.
The Arsenal manager has too many players who are either best in the middle, only any use in the middle, or – rightly or wrongly – think they are more useful in the middle.
It’s great that Arsenal players want the ball, and they want it in dangerous central areas, but that simply doesn’t help the team as a whole as there is such little variation in the side. How do we fix it?
He wants to play centrally but Wenger shouldn’t bend to his will. Newcastle, with ten men, highlighted all the flaws of the forward Arsenal recently awarded with a new contract. When he plays down the middle he is predictable.
If you push up high, Walcott will punish you with his pace. He nearly scored on Saturday when found by Héctor Bellerín in the first half. Trouble is, teams know that about him. If you sit deep you negate his biggest asset, and the reason to play him up front.
With the ball to feet and his back to goal Walcott’s game is frustrating; his first touch often leaves the ball under him, he is muscled off the ball fairly easily, and he isn’t technically good enough to turn and capitalise on a defender getting too tight to him.
Walcott’s biggest asset is his pace, and it is best utilised from out wide, where his movement is superbly timed and often undetected. From the middle, under the gaze of two (often burly) centre-halves, not so much. Such smart movement releases the Englishman to either end up through on goal, or in a position to cut the ball back for a teammate. He’s excellent at both things, so why not play him where he can utilise them the most?
The issue with playing so many midfielders is they all want the ball, and nobody is occupying defences with runs off the ball. Everyone is sucked into the middle and we become easy to defend against. Moving Walcott, the best goalscorer at the club, wide again would be the perfect solution.
As it stands, it currently seems like Alexis Sánchez will always be used out wide on the left, usually with Aaron Ramsey or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the opposite flank. Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain are both players who see themselves in the middle, and are often too busy joining in with play centrally to occupy defenders with runs from outside.
With his intelligence and powerful running, Alexis could be briefed to focus on playing without the ball. Arsenal have Mesut Özil, Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla who all want the ball centrally in build up. Last season Alexis excelled when the Gunners used the unselfish Danny Welbeck up front and didn’t have Mesut Özil in the number 10 role.
With Olivier Giroud up front and Özil in the side with Cazorla and Ramsey backing him up, Alexis isn’t needed on the ball anywhere but the final third. If Walcott doesn’t play wide, Alexis can make dangerous runs off the ball. It’ll stretch defences, it’ll allow Özil and Cazorla more time and space, and it’ll give them an option to pick out rather than having to play smart combinations to get out of tight spaces once again.
Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are fine footballers. Both actually have tools to play well off the ball: Ramsey’s intelligence puts him through on goal frequently, while Oxlade-Chamberlain has superb acceleration.
The trouble is both players feel they are more valuable to the team when they are joining in. When playing on the right, especially with Alexis on the left, they should make more intelligent runs off the ball. They won’t always receive a pass, but they’ll force defenders to react and Arsenal aren’t doing enough of that right now.
Unless Alexis changes his game, Arsenal’s stagnant midfield issue is only likely to continue with Ramsey or Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right.
The ideal solution really would be to have Walcott play from the right again. He is impossible to defend thanks to his smart movement and sharp pace, and works brilliantly in tandem with Giroud. When the Frenchman joined Arsenal, Walcott was trusted to be the main goalscorer – he can net 20 a season, but not from a central position.
Arsenal’s play relies on Giroud, the team have grown accustomed to having him to play off. Alexis Sánchez and Danny Welbeck both have the physique to play the centre-forward role in a way that he does, but Walcott doesn’t. It isn’t just about Theo getting used to the position, but the team getting used to having him there.
Wenger has drummed home the importance of “cohesion” all summer, so putting Walcott up front now only seems contradictory.
Arsenal need more players who are happy to play off the ball, and Walcott is the best at the club for that. Think Pedro under Pep Guardiola, Thomas Müller under Jupp Heynckes, Antoine Griezmann before his move to Atlético Madrid.
Walcott can be Arsenal’s chief goalscorer but he, and the team, need him to use his talents from a wider position. As long as the Gunners stop neglecting the importance of having players making themselves useful without the ball, the cutting edge of the team is unlikely to surface.