Monday, 12 September 2011

Theo Walcott’s performance against Swansea epitomised his inconsistent form this season

Inside The Formation is a new feature on for the 2011/12 season. We'll be asking a writer to look at an individual player's performance and analyse their input into the game. Joss Bennett looks at Theo Walcott's role against Swansea.

Theodore James Walcott is a conundrum many Arsenal fans have found difficult to understand so far this season – signed as a hot prospect at just 16 from Southampton, he was very much a striker as he used his blistering pace to get in behind lower league defences and score goals.

Conversely to Thierry Henry, however, Arsene Wenger decided to convert Walcott into a winger, where his role has since developed into more of a secondary striker, or ‘wide forward’ – making diagonal runs from a wide-right position in behind Robin van Persie who acts as a “False 9” and drops back to link up play and encourage runs in behind him from the wide forwards.

But for one reason or another, Walcott has never quite found his feet on a consistent basis. Despite a difficult start to the season with a call up to the England world cup squad pointing the media spotlight firmly on the 16 year old, he got off to a good start with Arsenal, grabbing seven assists (something he’s only matched once since) in the 2006/07 season in just 13 starts. He continued his fine form into the next season, getting six goals and five assists from 17 starts.

Then the injuries began, and Walcott made only 16 premier league starts in the following season and got only five goals for the Gunners. The 2009/10 season was another campaign of ups and downs – his cameo off the bench against Barcelona helped Arsenal come back from 2-0 down at the Emirates, but he got just three goals and two assists in the league.

Finally, last season appeared to be a breakthrough for Walcott with 26 appearances in all competitions and 13 goals and 11 assists*. But once again, Walcott has faltered and his 2011/12 season so far has been one of disappointment and, once again, inconsistency. He has two goals from as many games in the Champions League but has frustrated supporters in the league.

And Walcott’s last premier league performance for Arsenal epitomised his inconsistency - no offence to Swansea, but it really isn’t the sort of team Walcott should be struggling against.

Walcott was bright in the first half – he was unlucky to see good movement and a neat finish lead to nothing as Steven Caulker cleared his effort of the line and a nice bit of skill on the edge of the box ultimately led to Arshavin’s winning goal, though I’m not sure Walcott can claim an assist for it, it would be harsh to completely rule out his part in the goal.

But in the second half, Walcott made just seven successful passes (less than half of what he managed in the first half)** and became more direct – attempting (and unsurprisingly failing to find his target with) two crosses from outside the box compared to just one, from inside the box, in the first half.

The chalkboard below shows his first and second half passes – displaying on the one hand, some neat build up play and passes to more creative players in the centre, and on the other; short, simple passes backwards or sideways and his two crosses.

by Guardian Chalkboards

One area in which Walcott did impress, however, was his tracking back. Although he made no tackles in the defensive third of the pitch, he did win three (out of five contested) tackles in his own half and won five (out of ten contested) overall.

That was more than double his opposite number fo Swansea, Nathan Dyer and also Scott Sinclair on Swansea’s left wing**. Swansea managed just four crosses from the left against Arsenal – all of which were unsuccessful – and Walcott has to take some credit for this, while Andrei Arshavin, despite an impressive offensive performance, once again frustrated by not tracking back and Swansea managed 12 crosses from their right side, with three finding their target.**

Below is a chalkboard showing all of Walcott’s contested tackles against Swansea:
by Guardian Chalkboards

To me, it seems that summer signing Gervinho is the perfect wing partner for Walcott – the Ivorian is comfortable on either flank and encourages regular swapping (see Walcott’s goal in the second leg of the Champions League play-off against Udinese), while Arshavin likes to have a fully free role and drifts everywhere bar the right flank, somewhat pinning Walcott to the right touchline.

Regardless of who he’s playing with, Theo Walcott must work hard to improve aspects of his game that he’s struggled with for most of his Arsenal career, namely crossing and decision-making in order to eventually improve on his consistency and hold down a regular starting spot for Arsenal and England.

At the moment, it seems unlikely Wenger will favour him over Van Persie up front, so Walcott must settle on the flank and really give the manager something to think about.

*Goals/Assists statistics from ESPN ** Statistics from Guardian Chalkboards

Joss Bennett is co-editor and head writer of Arsenal blog Arsenal Report - a site for all Gooners interested in tactics, stats and the inner workings of the club. You can follow him on twitter and his read is work at Arsenal Report.

Follow Ashburton Grove on Twitter, chatting Arsenal throughout the day. To receive the blog everyday you can subscribe via e-mail or take the RSS feed to your favourite reader.

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