At the weekend, Stoke City were kind enough to roll over and have their tummy tickled, as is their want when visiting Islington, but once again it is the quality (or lack of it?) of our strikers that remains the focus of attention.
Both missed chances the other would have scored and both scored goals the other wouldn’t have. Both did some things very well and some things very poorly. Both are clearly demonstrating the slight tentativeness that suggests a slight lack of confidence. And both are guilty of, in their own way, trying too hard to prove their long term eligibility for the role of first choice Arsenal striker.
All of which has a hint of irony given the chalk and cheese nature of their on-field attributes, career progressions and personalities.
In the end it was barely relevant given our total domination against an insipid Stoke side in the middle of an identity crisis (trying to leap from Neanderthal to Renaissance football in two years is easier said than done). But there is no doubt that Arsenals extraordinarily bad chance conversion ratio is a major concern.
It was amusing revisiting the game via Match of the Day, to hear Ian Wright giving a brief and incredibly matter of fact striker’s movement masterclass. It seemed to him that he was saying the most obvious things in the world. He was equally matter fact when discussing a missed chance…
“I would have scored that.”
“Even now?” Came back Shearer.
“Even now, and with a fused ankle.”
And the thing is, you know he’s right. Anyone who scored 30 goals a season ahead of a midfield of Jensen, Hillier, a young, unpolished Ray Parlour and a largely off his nut Merse, knows the value of clinical finishing. It’s almost a shame that Wright’s brilliance was a fusion of prior rejection, instinct, inspiration, imagination and emotion, because the uniqueness of that package is pretty much impossible to pass on.
As excellently described by Rob Smyth in The Guardian, the variety and unexpected nature of Wrighty’s goals is incredibly unique, and not likely to be replicated in an Arsenal shirt anytime soon. In the same way Henry will never be able to bestow his physical gifts on the young charges he is trying to inspire in our youth set-up, Wright arrived at Highbury with an internal ‘spark’ born out of unique circumstances, that just cannot be passed on.
While it’s nice to reminisce (and perhaps torture oneself attempting to calculate just how many we would have scored on Saturday with either of the great men leading the line), it does nothing to address the current conundrum.
Watching the game, it seemed almost ludicrous that we only scored twice, and both strikers have received a continuation of prior criticism, and with some justification.
Walcott has freely admitted that his finishing needs to seriously sharpen up, which is hard to argue with, but despite remaining unconvincing to the majority, he has retained the manager’s confidence as a centre-forward option. And some of the stats back this up. With 11 goals in his last 11 starts (in the Premier League) and a chance conversion rate of 20% over the last four years (the same as Henry’s last four at the club), there is no doubt that he remains a potent goal threat.
The counter-argument of course is that much of this success has been achieved on the right flank, making those trademark late runs from deep between full-back and centre-half. Indeed, it has also been pointed out that his career successes against big teams tends to be in that role too. The prevailing wind in the blogosphere and main media outlets is that this proves he isn’t a centre-forward.
But, of course, we can count on the fingers on two hands how many times he has started up front…and his record there isn’t at all shabby, although it often has been against mid-table clubs.
The fact is, statistically, we just don’t know if Theo is a striker or not. The eye-test is inconclusive, and while his stature limits his capacity as a target man, many of the other criticisms levelled at him as a front man seem to be based as much on bias as fact.
His movement is frequently criticised, with the suggestion that he doesn’t know how to play the centre forward role (often the same dullards who spent years claiming an irredeemable lack of footballing intelligence). While it is clear that he needs to develop his ability to make initial dummy movements to throw defenders of the scent, particularly when the ball is in wide areas, otherwise he takes up great positions (or ‘good little pockets’ as Wenger calls them).
Combined with his criticism of Walcott and Giroud’s finishing, Ian Wright also highlighted examples of Theo’s movement not exploited by team mates. For me, this is just as much of a problem as his own deficiencies, for both club and country.
While Theo still has his pace, if you play him in he’s not going to get caught, and as discussed, his finishing ratio really isn’t bad. Against Stoke, the midfield regularly failed to exploit opportunities to play him in. Even Özil, whose delicious lofted pass created the chance for Walcott’s very well taken opener, is not primarily an exponent of slide rule through balls. His creative genius lies in the unexpected – unusual angles and non-conventional choices. And with someone as lightning quick as Theo up front, sometimes the obvious pass is actually the most effective. The perfect execution of the measured through ball is something that has been absent since Fabregas departed for his Catalan false homecoming, and no one has missed that more than Walcott, regardless of whether out wide or up top.
With 3 years of Giroud as potent but pace-less pivot, and the nimble but not express RVP before him, this squad has not had real pace at centre forward since Adebayor when he was still actually putting the effort in, back in 2008. Apart from Theo, Tomas Rosicky is the only survivor in terms of first team regulars then or now. This squad just had the opportunity to adjust to real pace up front. We saw a hint of how this could work when Danny Welbeck came into the team last Autumn, but that was in a side largely shorn of Ramsey and Özil through injury, and before either Coquelin or Cazorla had cemented central midfield roles. And Welbeck, despite a myriad of qualities, just doesn’t have the same selfish goal-hunger that Theo does.
Before his injury, I was all for giving Welbeck a run at centre-forward to see if he could really make the position his own, but in his absence, it is a straight choice between Walcott and Giroud. If the manager intends to keep a midfield of Coquelin, Cazorla, Özil, Ramsey and Sanchez, for me it seems obvious that Walcott up top has to be the choice, at least as a starting option. That isn’t to denigrate Giroud, who is an underrated footballer, but pace centrally and movement into the channels just creates so many more options for this team, and prevents the over-compression of our midfield, which is where the greatest concentration of talent is in our squad.
This is the time to give Theo a run up front and an opportunity to claim the position. Encourage him to run the channels more (particularly the right hand side), and get his team-mates to take more risks with trying to play him in. Despite some early season misses, he is the best finisher in our squad. Allow everyone to get used to pace up-front, because ultimately, even if you agree with the media tagline that Arsenal’s problems are all up front, the club won’t be looking to bring in anyone less mobile than Giroud. If it doesn’t work, we still have Giroud to bring on, who tends to do well coming off the bench with a point to prove.
Even in the worst case scenario, it’s perfect preparation for the subsequent arrival of almost any of our striking targets, and particularly the most probable, which is Alexandre Lacazette.
We know where we are as a team with Olivier Giroud up front. That’s very good, but not quite good enough. Given Walcott’s record against the opposition we have coming up (and the lack of pace in their back lines) it seems an ideal time to find out if Theo can be the man.