By Tim Charlesworth
During the summer, I speculated on the Walcott v Giroud choice at number 9. Walcott seems to have got the upper hand in this selection battle, but Giroud is now scoring lots of goals, so it will be interesting to see who is selected against Bayern. In my summer article, I tried to look beyond the ‘who will score most goals’ question, as there didn’t seem to be a clear answer to this, and to see what other contributions the players made.
I suggested that Giroud brought a defensive advantage to the team. This is most obvious in his work defending corners and free kicks, where his aerial presence in the penalty area brings a clear advantage. Walcott does not bring this to the team. As the season goes on however, it is increasingly clear that Walcott does bring a threat ‘on the break’. With him in the team, we are more able to rapidly turn a defensive situation into an attacking one.
In days gone by, when watching Arsenal, I used to hope that the opposition would win a corner. This slightly bizarre hope, was all to do with Arsenal’s ability to counter-attack from deep. As soon as an Arsenal player picked up the ball, Viera, Bergkamp, Henry and Pires would surge forward, often assisted by torrents of Wiltord or Ljungberg. The opposition would have too many players committed forward for the corner, facing the wrong direction. By the time they turned, the wave of red shirts was gone. It was almost unfair on the other team. One minute they are in with a sniff of a goal, and next minute they are picking it out of their own net, with a somewhat bemused expression.
In modern parlance, this is called ‘being good in transition’, and wow, were they good at it! Our current team is beginning to remind me of these days. Sanchez, Ozil and Walcott, in particular, can be very dangerous in transition. We saw it against Manchester United, and we saw it again against Watford. Although Walcott didn’t score in either game, he seemed to be making dangerous runs in transition that defenders were obliged to cover, and were thus getting out of position, creating space for other Arsenal players to exploit.
One of the reasons we are seeing this danger in transition, is the increased amount of pace in the team. Sanchez and Walcott are conspicuously quick. Ozil is pretty fast too (albeit specializing in Bergkampesque ‘speed of brain’ rather than Henryesque ‘afterburner pace’).
The current team don’t quite do it the same way as the Viera-era teams. They are physically less overpowering than the Henry/Pires generation, but I think also a little faster and more skilful. So they seem to rely more on pace and trickery than the intimidating tidal wave of yesteryear. We’re not quite back to the old days, and our weakness at defending corners still means that I prefer Arsenal not to give corners away, but this is starting to look like a significant change in the way that Arsenal play.
I think that Coquelin is playing a part in this too. Flying forward creates gaps for the opposition to exploit if they can get the ball back. Because the Arsenal players feel confident in Coquelin’s ability to cover them, if they lose the ball, they feel they can run at the opposition with impunity. I think Gilberto and Petit played similar roles in the past. Cazorla is often the deep playmaker who unleashes the modern-day torrent.
So, to return to my original theme, the replacement of Giroud with Walcott obviously adds significantly to the aggregate pace of the team. Replacing Arteta with Coquelin has a similar effect. The use of Bellerin and Gabriel also contribute to the overall pace of the team (faster than Debuchy and Mertesacker). Overall, we can see a very significant increase in pace compared to the team of 12 months ago.
This increase in pace seems to be resulting in counter-attacking goals at the moment. We might expect opposition teams to adapt to this. The obvious response, is to defend with a ‘deep line’, especially when in possession. This means that we might see opposition defenders and midfielders reluctant to commit forward, fearful of Arsenal’s transition speed. Obviously, this blunts the effectiveness of opposition attacks, and thus we can see a defensive advantage which Walcott brings to the team and Giroud does not.
It is difficult to measure, but I sense that teams are already ‘standing off’ Arsenal because they are worried about Walcott’s pace. Those teams that fail to do so (e.g. Man U) are paying the price. I will be interested to see if Walcott and Gabriel start against Bayern. If they do (and I suspect they will), then we will have a very pacy team. Look out for the effects of this:
- Will Arsenal have the confidence to launch all out counter-attacks? If we do, we are relying on the pace of Le Coq, the Boss and Gabriel (and, to a lesser extent, the full backs)to cover counter-counters. Bayern have extremely quick and talented counter attackers (a different proposition to Man U or Watford)
- Will Bayern recognise this danger and sit deeper when in possession? If so, you may see Bayern attacks which peter out due to lack of support, or a lot of sideways and backwards passing (Guardiola teams like possession). Alternatively you might see Bayern players working to create their own opportunities. Players like Lewandowski are quite capable of doing so.
The Bayern game will be fascinating on a number of levels. It is a real chance for Arsenal to test out their newly-(re)discovered speed-based tactics against top class opposition. Arsenal will need to go for the win, especially if the game is level going into the last third. In this scenario, spectacular open play is likely. Hold your breath……….