Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Why Theo Walcott’s performance against Newcastle repaid Wenger’s faith in him

On Inside The Formation we'll look at an individual player's performance and analyse their input into the game. Today Joss Bennett looks at Theo Walcott's performance against Newcastle.

Constantly in the spotlight – usually immediately following another apparently disappointing display,or used as an example for why Wenger’s faith in young players simply hasn’t been rewarding – Theo Walcott has once again silenced critics with several superb performances in the last few weeks.

As I’ve mentioned in this column before (and therefore won’t go on about it and bore you all to death), talk of Walcott’s best attributes being most fitting for a striker rather than a winger, is tiring and only partially true.

Alan Hansen, along with other pundits, has claimed Walcott ‘lacks a footballing brain’. Again, this is not necessarily true. I won’t deny the frustrating aspects of Walcott’s game that lead to him wasting a high percentage of ‘big chances’ (8/11, or 73% according to Whoscored*).

However, it is important to recognise that his superb off the ball movement (the principle reason he’s had so many chances) is not just down to his pace, but his intelligence.

While his pace clearly helps, it takes an intelligent player to read the play as well as he does and provide movement in the final third, that in turn creates space for team-mates as the opposition defence is forced deeper, unless playing a ludicrous offside trap.

It is not Walcott’s prerogative to run with the ball. If you’re as quick as he is, there is going to be very few players who can catch up with you once you get behind them. Perhaps, however, rare flashes of dribbling brilliance – against the likes of AC Milan and Liverpool in the Champions League have led to people expecting him to do it again and again.

As the excellent Michael Cox of Zonal Marking argues, Walcott is not bad by any means, but “since 2006, many have been waiting for the next Ronaldo”.

Indeed, against Newcastle – undoubtedly one of Arsenal’s biggest games of the season, with just one point now separating us from third, and Spurs – Walcott did exactly what Wenger was expecting of him. The England winger showed how dangerous he can be when he gets space behind the full-back as early as the third minute; his low cross inches away from being turned in by Van Persie.

This was to be a recurring theme during the game. With Newcastle defending narrowly, and in numbers, there was limited space in central areas behind the defence, meaning Walcott was found in wide areas far more often than normal – linking up well with Bacary Sagna and attempting eight crosses (completing two) himself, as well as grabbing an assist 50 seconds after Newcastle’s opener**. In fact, Walcott was so good in the first half that Alan Pardew was forced to bring on James Perch at half-time in an attempt to quell his influence on the game.

Walcott continued to terrorize the Newcastle back-line in the second half, taking three shots overall (although only one was on target), along with five key passes (more than any other Arsenal player) and one successful dribble attempt**. In addition to this, it was Walcott’s cross that ultimately led to Thomas Vermaelen’s 94th minute winner.

Despite, as I mentioned before, dribbling not being Walcott’s forte (averaging just 1.2 per game in the Premier League, compared to Oxlade-Chamberlain’s 2.1 per game, despite playing a third of the games**), the much-maligned forward had several encouraging moments as he took on his man and attempted an early cross. This is something we have rarely seen from Walcott this season, who - despite criticism in the papers and in the stands – appears to have the full backing of his captain, for whom 11 of his last 13 assists have been for***.

Walcott’s fine performances in recent weeks have proved that, at the still relatively young age of 23, he is more than capable of performing in the big games. For the second Premier League home game in a row, the young pretender – given the famous Number 14 shirt at the start of the 2008-09 season – was given far too much space on the wing, and for the second time in a row, he punished the opposition.

Theo’s role in Arsenal’s late come-back and surge for 3rd place this season has seen him climb to near the top of the assist charts, with only Emmanuel Adebayor (10) and Antonio Valencia (9) having more assists from open play this season***.

In a superb performance from Arsenal, despite setbacks in the form of a goal-line clearance, and some surprisingly below-par finishing from Van Persie, one of the biggest positives to take from the game is a new belief that Arsenal can win games without their Dutch talisman. It was an excellent team display, surprisingly led by Theo Walcott and Mikel Arteta that now has Tottenham really starting to sweat at the prospect of The Arsenal overtaking them.

*OPTA statistics from March 6 2012.
**OPTA statistics courtesy of whoscored.com
***OPTA statistics provided by @Orbinho on twitter.


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.



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