Arsenal’s record on the opening day of the season leaves something to be desired.
In fact, since we moved to the Emirates we have won just four games in ten attempts, drawn a further four and lost two. The maths isn’t complicated here, giving us a win ratio of 40%. Aston Villa are something of a bogey team in this fixture, having secured a draw in the first ever Premier League game at our new stadium and consigning us to a 3-1 defeat again in 2013.
But there is another statistic I stumbled upon this week which was quite eye-opening:
Arsenal’s win ratio since that opening day of 2013 is 90% – when Theo Walcott starts.
Admittedly in that period, the Arsenal striker has had stretches of time out with injury, but we are still talking about a sample of 20 games – no small number. Of those games, we won 18, drew one (a 0-0 bore draw with Chelsea) and lost one (the 6-3 carnage at the Etihad).
Over that same period, Arsenal’s overall win ratio is 62%. So have we stumbled across the answer to all of Arsene Wenger’s problems in the aftermath of last weekend’s dispiriting and dismal efforts against West Ham?
Of course, it does come with the caveat of context – is it mere coincidence that Walcott has started those games? Could it be that Walcott’s starts have typically come against lesser opposition, against whom you would naturally expect Arsenal to perform better?
It is impossible to do a truly objective analysis, but in those 20 games, Walcott scored 13 goals and provided a further two assists – hardly the form of a player being carried by the team. He also scored at least one of those goals against each of Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Spurs and Manchester City over that period. Walcott can actually be at his most effective against the biggest teams.
Greater than the sum of the parts
Walcott is not the perfect footballer by any stretch of the imagination. He has yet to develop into the kind of player who can influence a game for extended periods of time, but equally that is something that was also true of Robin van Persie in both his best season for us and his title-winning season with Manchester United. After all, it doesn’t matter if you do nothing for 85 minutes of a game if you come alive to deliver the critical blow when it matters.
I wrote recently about how Theo is the best finisher at the club, in my humble opinion, and he finished last season with a shot accuracy of 75% and a conversion rate of 25%. He is unrivalled in this Arsenal team in his ability to close out a chance.
But in games where he hasn’t scored, particularly ones where we are chasing the game, it’s easy to watch Walcott and think that he doesn’t offer enough, that he is simply hovering and waiting for others to deliver his chances on a plate. However, even when he is doing nothing other than standing on the touchline, the threat that he poses changes the way the opposition play.
He can stretch teams both vertically and horizontally, depending on the zones in which he chooses to operate, and this liberates the other forwards and the onrushing midfield to play with a bit more space. Given Arsenal’s disposition toward short passing and interplay, this is an invaluable asset. It’s rare to hear a pundit comment on how a move from Walcott out wide creates the space for a Ramsey goal, but it doesn’t make it any less important.
For all Theo’s strengths, at the top level we need him to deliver regularly. Part of that comes with understanding, and it was a source of great frustration last weekend that we didn’t make the most of his skills. When you have pace, you cannot play yourself in behind – you need someone to pay attention to your runs and pick you out. With Walcott’s speed, it doesn’t even need to be that accurate a pass.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain tried one through ball when Theo was in acres of space, but he miscued it horribly. It led to a counter-attack and he subsequently kept his passing very simple, but the likes of Mesut Özil and Santi Cazorla missed opportunity after opportunity to play Walcott in behind West Ham’s back four when the forward was making some dangerous runs.
It’s easy to say that the space wasn’t there, particularly in light of us having to chase the game, but it’s simply not true. Olivier Giroud may not be lightning, but he’s also not a slouch – he showed a number of times in the first half that there was space to run off the back of the centre backs and work the channels.
Even in the second half, he made a powerful run down the wing, checked to allow his colleagues to catch up with him, and then played an inviting cross straight across the six yard box. And of course, James Tomkins had been on a booking for the best part of an hour after bringing the Ox down – he must have been unable to believe his luck to see Arsenal continue to play the short passing football while Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain were waiting on the wings to drive at or beyond him.
There is also the small matter of a point made most excellently on this week’s Daily Cannon podcast: the most bizarre part of the West Ham debacle was that Walcott was selected for the Community Shield against a big, bulky Chelsea defence, yet against an almost identical – and let’s face it, inferior – West Ham back line, he was not. When he did finally arrive to torment them, we were too ensconced in our sterile passing game, and didn’t make full use of his pace.
As we roll up to Selhurst Park at the weekend, I only hope that we select and make better use of a player who has become something of a lucky charm for us. He can score 20 or even 30 goals for us this season, but for him to do that we have to pick him in the first place.
The most points any team has ever had in the Premier League is 95, achieved by Chelsea in 2004-05. Recent history suggests that if we start Theo for every game this season, we could end up with 100.*
Come on Arsene, make the right call.
*This comment is tongue in cheek. I’m Theo’s biggest fan, but if you think I genuinely believe starting him guarantees us three points 90% of the time, I’m worried for you! We should still play him more, though…