Walcott played on Monday at Reading and Arsenal won with a convincing 5-2 score. Many people thought the move to play Walcott upfront was related to his contract extension. They thought it might be a move by Wenger to appease Walcott so he would sign the new contract offered. But Wenger rejected that suggestion by saying he took the decision based on what he saw and tried in training. He might not say the whole story behind it but analyzing Arsenal previous Premier League matches, we would understand why playing Walcott upfront is the inevitable move by Wenger.
This is not a comprehensive and in-depth post about football tactics since I’m not capable to do it. This is a simple common sense analysis based on a few graphics of player average positions from whoscored.com.
Let’s start from their 5-2 win of Sp*rs and end it with another 5-2 win of Reading. I excluded the last Champions League and Capital One Cup matches by intention. Check the Arsenal player average positions, especially the forwards on these seven graphics below.
1. Arsenal vs Tottenham
Giroud played as CF flanked by Podolski and Walcott. Look at Walcott average position (he’s so farther into the enemy territory compared to the rest) and compare it with Podolski who played more like a left midfielder. You can compare it again with Bale (11) who played closer to Defoe (18). Giroud average position was also closer to Wilshere and Cazorla than Walcott. Mind you that 43% of Sp*rs 7 shots came from their left flank though Walcott managed to keep Naughton (16) and Verthongen (5) busy at their left flank too. Arsenal finally won after the Adebayor sent off. Against 10 men, Arsenal have more space to exploit than the first twenty minutes when they struggled to create chances.
2. Arsenal vs Montpellier
Giroud played upfront flanked by Podolski and Chamberlain. Walcott was injured. Again Giroud average position was not farther upfront than Cazorla. Giroud setup Wilshere (knocking down the ball from the air) and Podolski (beautiful one touch lob ball) for their goals and here are Wenger words after the game:
You always know with Olivier that you will get a guy who fights for the team. Technically it was not one of his best games, but after matches when you measure his performance it is [often] decisive.
He had two assists here. Defensively he is always very reliable.
Giroud is good when he plays completely on the offside line.
Sometimes when he doesn’t get the ball enough he wants to come deep. That is not his game.
When he is a target man and uses his link-up play, he is fantastic because he can win in the air, he can score with his feet and can be a complete striker.
He still has some work to do, but he is getting better.
Wenger’s advice of playing completely on the offside line might not be heard clearly by Giroud as proven in his next few games.
3. Aston Villa vs Arsenal
Giroud again played upfront with Chambo and Podolski. Wilshere didn’t start (replaced by Ramsey). The average positions are almost similar to the previous game and so are the attempts on goal. No change of Giroud average position despite of Wenger’s advice of playing on the offside line.
4. Everton vs Arsenal
Walcott played again in this game, surprisingly started as left winger (and scored his goal from that position) instead of his usual right winger position. Ramsey played as right winger but from the average position it’s clear that he tended to play inside. Giroud again started as CF but ended up as not the furthest upfront. The difference in average position of him and Jelavic (7) as CF from both teams is so obvious. From the above graphic it was as if Giroud played as second striker to Walcott. And the lack of width in Arsenal play in this game is so obvious. Ramsey kept going inside and Vermaelen was so comfortable at his own half as if Arsenal were playing with three center backs.
5. Arsenal vs Swansea
Giroud didn’t start this time (injured) and he was replaced by Gervinho. Gervinho supposed to play at the center but he ended up played more to the left flank, seizing Podolski territory. Walcott interestingly played not farther upfront than his previous two games (Tottenham and Everton). From this graphic it looks like no one wanted to play center upfront. Arsenal stretched the game but no one inside the box to convert the chances. Swansea attempted more shots than Arsenal and caught Arsenal twice in their three shots from counter attacks. Sucker punches hurt the flat Arsenal in this game.
6. Arsenal vs WBA
Giroud returned as CF in this game. His average position is so close to Cazorla that you barely could see his number in above graphic. Gervinho as left winger and Chambo as right winger. Although Arsenal played much much better in this match than previous matches (more attempts on goal), two of the goals came from penalties. And for the first time after a long long time Arsenal managed to shoot after a counterattack. From the average positions, except Giroud who still refused to play farther upfront, the distances between players are better. No coincidence Arsenal played their best football here since the 5-2 win over Tottenham.
7. Reading vs Arsenal
5 goals, 26 attempts on goal, 4 shots from counterattacks, Walcott played upfront. Looking at the the average position graphic, it’s clear why Arsenal played their best football at Reading. Walcott played so farther upfront than Giroud ever managed and it was followed by Chamberlain and Podolski. Arsenal stretched the game vertically and horizontally better than any of their previous games resulted in Cazorla (playing with free role) scoring a hat-trick.
Walcott stretched Reading team vertically so Arsenal could had 4 shots from counterattacks while they have none at previous 6 matches (except one against WBA). It was like the Arsenal of The Invincible again. Arsenal were also playing with better width with four goals from left flank crosses.
No longer Arsenal players packed in the middle of the pitch because Walcott movement pulled Reading defenders away, provided more space between the lines for Cazorla and Wilshere. Chamberlain said they have been working on this in the training and eventually it was implemented successfully in this game (Gibbs and Podolski each contributed with two assists).
Arsenal play better with Walcott upfront, that’s a fact at least based on these seven games. It’s not because Walcott is a better striker than Giroud, but because he made the whole team playing better with more width and vertical space. Giroud should listen to Wenger’s advice: plays completely on the offside line. With the competition provided by Walcott, surely he will heed the advice of the wise and play like that sooner than later. He can hold up the ball better than Walcott, he has more options with his height and he has scored more goals than Walcott in a competition season. Of course Walcott has more pace than him, but Giroud has also proven that his diagonal run from the offside line could be intelligent like the one (where he missed the target) at Liverpool.
So based on the last few games and I’m sure Wenger also has read these average positions stats (and probably more stats and videos), Wenger might have it enough with Giroud and finally played Walcott upfront to show Giroud how stretching the game vertically will only benefit our game. We can only hope Walcott continues his good performance in the next match against Wigan and eventually signs his new contract (it’s never about the money, isn’t it?). And if he refuses to sign it, hopefully Giroud could perform what Walcott did and I believe he’s capable to. He just needs to restrain his urge to come deep to get the ball. It’s not his game, as Wenger said. Just listen to the boss and you’ll be fine. As proven by many stars made by Le Boss.