A brief look at how two of Arsenal’s best players need each other before they can consistently look like the world class players they are.
Moments of individual brilliance live long in the memory and light up football matches. Think Thierry Henry at the Bernabeu. Think Andrei Arshavin at Anfield. Think Dennis Bergkamp at St. James’ Park.
Part of the reason Messi and Ronaldo are universally respected as two of the greatest players of all time is their ability to single-handedly win games for their respective teams with these types of moments. Both have played in some quality teams, no doubt, but it is their ability to make the difference with those brilliant moments which mean they will go down in the history books.
There are also a handful of footballers capable of enough moments of individual brilliance to elevate a team of average players to unlikely levels. The obvious example of the former would be Gareth Bale’s nigh on impossible feat of carrying Sp*rs up to, and briefly past, the brink of Champions League qualification. (Never again.)
Lean on me
Over the last decade, we have seen Arsenal teams built around standout players – Henry, Fabregas, Van Persie and now Sanchez have all at various stages of their careers been relied on to produce these moments that matter, commonly with decent but unspectacular teammates surrounding them.
And yet for all that individual brilliance, sometimes the best partnerships can be just as important – after all, as the saying goes, “players win games, but teams win championships”. Certainly those capable of almost carrying a team single-handedly still recognise the benefits of a quality partnership – you only have to think of the way Thierry Henry eulogises about Dennis Bergkamp, or Ronaldo’s reaction to Özil’s departure from Real Madrid.
A pair of players with perfectly complementing skills can be even more devastating since it is that much harder to mark (or kick, if you’re Stoke) them out of a game. Certainly it’s little surprise that Cesc Fabregas has flourished so far this season on the back of a consistent partnership with Diego Costa – if you have a player with great vision, then logic dictates that they need a runner with the quality of movement to create opportunities to use that vision.
Over the top
Arsenal’s best runner by some distance, both in terms of speed and timing of runs, is Theo Walcott. It has long been a frustration of mine that we don’t see enough balls over the top for him to run onto, particularly from our various right backs when they are hemmed in against the touch line and instead choose a considerably riskier short pass. How often do we see Arsenal undone by a hopeful, yet simple ball over the top?
Coming from such a wide position it gives Theo significantly more time and space to play with, before worrying about a sweeping goalkeeper. And accompanied by a similarly pacey forward line, there’s a good chance he’d also have support up with him and the best chance of turning a potentially hopeful pass into a decisive result. Certainly Walcott’s finishing has improved in leaps and bounds over the last few seasons and I have no doubts that a fit Walcott with the right supply will score a minimum of 20 goals each year. In 2012/13 he scored 21 goals in 31 starts, and in 2013/14 a further 6 in 13, that’s 0.61 goals per game, a better than 1 in 2 ratio.
Even in his obviously rusty state in Sunday’s game against Hull, Theo still got onto the end of at least chances beyond the final defender. In the 25th minute, Cazorla played a delicious pass over the top in the left channel and Walcott’s shot was saved just in front of the onrushing Sanchez. It was Cazorla again in the 66th minute who played Walcott in with a defence splitting pass, but this time Theo’s flicked shot flashed wide of the post. And shortly before his withdrawal, he was again played in down the middle, this time a long aerial ball from Coquelin which he just couldn’t quite bring under his spell under pressure from Harper. A sign of things to come, when you are prepared to play balls past the last defender for a player of Walcott’s quality. Now who do we know who has an eye for a run and the execution levels to pick it out?
Can I assist you?
Between September 2009 and September 2014, the leader of the assists chart in Europe’s top five leagues was of course none other than Arsenal’s much maligned midfielder, Mesut Özil, with 69 assists. That’s ahead of Lionel Messi (66), Cesc Fabregas (60), Eden Hazard (52) and Franck Ribery (52). No other players even broke the 50 assists mark. Little surprise then that Ronaldo was quoted as being “angry” on Özil’s departure to North London’s finest.
So what do you get if you put together a world-class assister, and a world-class speedster finisher? Well that’s the tantalising million pound question – since Özil’s deadline day arrival in September 2013, the pair have only started five games together.
On Özil’s debut at Sunderland, many will recall Walcott’s profligacy when presented with 3 golden chances, which cost him a hat-trick of Özil-assisted goals. The pair started one more game together – Marseille away in the Champion’s League which saw Walcott connect with an Özil through ball as early as the 5th minute, being fouled all the way – before Walcott picked up an abdominal injury that kept him out until December.
Walcott returned and in his first start converted an Özil assist in the 6-3 carnage at the Etihad, followed by a bore-draw at home to Chel$ki. The fifth and final game both started was a 3-1 boxing day win over West Ham, before Özil injured his shoulder and was not to return until after Theo’s season-ending cruciate injury in the super-satisfying NLD.
So it is then, that we come into this weekend for the first time in over a year with Özil and Walcott available together – I for one am rubbing by hands together in anticipation. Let the games begin.
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