Ahead of Monday night’s annual visit from the scousers, Arsene Wenger said that Arsenal must ‘play with good pace‘ to get a result.
Much to the disappointment of many filling the internet with their words (I plead guilty, your honour), this doesn’t just mean including all the team’s road-runners in the starting line-up, but rather refers to tempo and attitude.
We’ve all been watching this team long enough to know that when everyone is switched on and fully mentally alert, we can be a match for any team in the world. We also know that when this drops off, Arsenal can easily stumble into the sort of mediocre performance that loses at home to West Ham or Monaco, when the prize of victory should ensure greater focus.
That said, there is something to be said for questioning whether a bit more leg speed could add another level of attacking thrust to a team that can be pushed into endless ambitious interplay five or ten yards outside the opposition area.
A front three of Walcott, Sanchez and Oxlade-Chamberlain (or indeed plugging Welbeck into that triumvirate) would certainly give a lot of opposing back fours pause for thought. All are lightning quick, but each offers different qualities.
Walcott is raw pace, excellent late runs and a high standard of finishing.
Sanchez is an intoxicating combination of desire, work-rate, creativity and a constant goal threat from close in and from range.
The ox is the best in the squad at running at midfielders and full-backs from deep and getting into crossing positions, and is comfortable shooting from range off either foot.
Welbeck offers more obvious physicality, and is excellent running the channels and creating space for others.
So far, so sexy.
But, as ever, there is a second side to this coin. None of the above offers control. Sanchez and Oxlade-Chamberlain are fundamentally risk takers. As Wenger said himself about the Chilean:
“Alexis has that desire to go forward and provoke chaos in the defences because he has a go at you, to run at people and that creates danger.”
One could say much the same about The Ox, albeit not quite to the same level. In both cases, the desire to provoke can occasionally cause chaos in our own set up. In order to do the extraordinary as an individual, one has to risk failure, and when not quite at peak performance this can lead to both players relinquishing possession, and sometimes in dangerous areas.
The issue with Walcott is different and more fundamental. He simply isn’t a possession footballer. Some of his most effective performances have been in games where he barely touches the ball. His best work comes off the ball and with three touches or less in and around the penalty area. He is the team’s stiletto blade, offering the coup de grace after the heavy fighting has been done. He can’t offer control to the team, because he doesn’t spend that much time with the ball. What he does do, is provide the pace and mobility and latent threat that keeps defences five yards deeper, creating space for the plethora of midfielders to flourish in.
Welbeck is different again. He gets involved far more than Walcott, but to be blunt, his first touch and on the ball ability is not consistent enough to offer the same level of security in possession as some of his team-mates. Again, this is accentuated by the directness of his playing style and the speed at which he does things.
So we have four physically explosive options in the final third, all of whom offer potential incisiveness but at the cost of possession, composure and control.
Why is this so important?
Well, there are a few reasons. The first is a reflection of the current state of the modern game. With single striker formations and possession heavy packed midfields now the norm, even in domestic football, relinquishing the ball on a regular basis now invariably results in a longer wait and a lot more chasing to get it back than was the case a decade ago. And of course, when your opponents have the ball, there is a greater likelihood that they will score than you will.
Secondly, although there has been speculation about the decline in collective positioning and decision making in defenders, most are more competent in one-on-one defending than was the case in years past. It is a lot easier to defend individual endeavour than quick collective interplay (unless the individual is Lionel Messi), and against the best sides, balance in attacking style is key.
Other factors are more Arsenal specific. Despite the emergence of Le Coq and the discipline shown of late by Cazorla in particular, Arsenal have still been an overtly possession focused team for almost a decade, and as such are not built to win the ball back quickly and counter. A central midfield pairing of Vieira and Petit allows a team to play high risk football and regularly concede possession in creative endeavour and still feel secure. It would be fair to say that to ask our current options to provide the same level of security to their defence would be unrealistic.
There is also the fact that our most creative players, particularly Ozil, Cazorla and Ramsey, need to have a lot of the ball to have their greatest impact. Although capable of excellent passing, none are ‘Hollywood ball‘ spraying dynamos like Stephen Gerrard or word class quarter-backs like Pirlo, who prefer to look for the killer ball straight away and over distance.
The assumption has always been that Ozil, as assist-meister general, would profit most from the presence of dynamic running athletes, but that is to over-simplify his game. Sure, he is perfectly capable of well weighted through balls, but it isn’t his go to option like, say, Fabregas.
Ozil’s genius is less about picking out the obvious run perfectly a la Cesc, but rather his appreciation of space, his capacity to find the holes and play the unexpected pass. As a playmaker, he is odd, as he is increasingly becoming both runner and passer, and as such, benefits as much from the presence of Ramsey and Cazorla as from Theo and The Ox.
So as with all things, it is a case of balance, and educated guesses.
We all know that when Sanchez is our only speedster in the starting eleven, Arsenal struggle to stretch teams, lack width and can get bogged down in tippy-tappy hell. On the flip side, with Walcott and The Ox preferred to Giroud and Ramsey, not only can it sometimes be like playing with ten men, with a risk of regularly losing possession or missing passing opportunities, but there can be the exploration of quite a few blind alleys.
So what’s the solution?
Well, apart from the usual caveats about horses for courses, and form, for me it’s a two out of three job, as far as our front three is concerned. With no threat running in behind the opposition defence, whether out wide or centrally, we just become too easy to defend against for a well-drilled unit. The opposition can compress the pitch and limit the effectiveness of the likes of Ozil and Cazorla, as well as increasing the risk of them pinching the ball back off our deeper midfielders and breaking at our defence. Whether that is best served with Walcott or the Ox wide alongside Giroud or with Walcott or Welbeck up front remains to be seen over the course of the next few months, but for me, if Wenger wants to keep playing all his central midfielders at once, with Ramsey nominally on the right, pace at centre forward is vital. Giroud benefits more from width, so with him at centre-forward, I want a quick wide-man on the right, hopefully making low driven crosses to those near post runs.
Of course, a late signing could throw a massive curve ball into this discussion, and in all honesty, I think most fans would be happier if it did, though the aforementioned questions of who, and how much remain just relevant.