He went to the 2006 World Cup as a teenager but came back without getting on the pitch. Let’s just forget Euro 2008. They didn’t take him to the 2010 World Cup. So it’s now, in 2012, over six years after his debut for the senior side that Theo Walcott is finally seeing some action in the major tournaments for his country.
He came on for the final few minutes against France. It was so late that it left many wondering why even bother? Given that his younger Arsenal teammate Oxlade-Chamberlain was picked to start in that game some might even have feared another disappointing international tournament was in the offing for Walcott as he’d be further down the pecking order.
Well, it’s all changed in 30 odd minutes. Roy Hodgson needed an inspiration and he turned to Theo just after the hour mark. Milner, whose tired challenge had conceded the free-kick which led to Sweden’s second goal, was taken off and Walcott came in on the right.
He scored with his second touch. Then he set up the winner with a penetrating run and a useful dink that made it a commendable assist. He might even have had another assist late in the game from a counter-attack but Gerard could only hit the Keeper after stealing the chance off Oxlade-Chamberlain’s boots. In all, Walcott completed all 7 of his passes, created 2 excellent chances, picked up one assist, while also having time to make an interception and a clearance.
The point here is not to say that Theo will be the next big thing, nor is it to claim that he’s finally arrived at the big stage. There is really nothing to be gained by going down those paths. The idea is to establish that the guy deserves more respect. Simple as that.
I was on twitter during the game and there were my thoughts,
The Walcott I see has a lot of limitations/weaknesses. But he also has a few qualities worth appreciating. Speed is the obvious one but I also feel there is a degree of honesty about his work. It might not always work out for him but you can see he is trying. How far he will go we don’t know. But should we simply slag him incessantly? And that’s when his net output in terms of goals and assists is very comparable to a player like Bale who is constantly hyped up. Even many Arsenal fans fail to see that the Tottenham man is not really superior as far as effectiveness and impact on games/results goes.
And we aren’t even talking about someone like James Milner right now. Granted he’s a completely different type of a player, but is his net output that much more? Do a few crosses and the defensive work make up for completely lack of creativity? Or is it more a case that with Milner few expect any sort of a tangible creative performance so the “balance” that he brings to the side is deemed sufficient?
People sometimes forget that Walcott gets into excellent positions because of his skills. And the expectations from him have been formed because he can do things few others can. So if say a Danny Wellbeck is running with the ball, Mellberg can catch up and tackle him. It looks like a great tackle but doesn’t look so bad on part of the striker, which is correct. On the other hand, Theo has the pace to get past his defender and so it’s all on him. But as Arsene has often said, it’s much harder to get it right when someone’s going that fast. He will miscontrol the ball, or over hit a cross, or leave the ball behind at times. So what? How many players are scoring more and assisting more? And he’s only 23 with a number of injury-plagued years behind him.
Now I don’t want this to become a post defending Walcott or championing his cause. As mentioned earlier, he has his weaknesses. He probably is the least technically adept first-team player at the club. But as long as he’s working hard and has the manager’s trust the least he deserves is some respect and then perhaps some encouragement when so many lazy pundits in the media are just waiting to get on his case. Think about it.
The game in itself was entertaining but more like an end-to-end Premier League game between ‘very average’ teams. There wasn’t much else worth discussing from an Arsenal point of view.
Moving on, the other game in the group had some interesting parallels with many Arsenal games. France dominated possession but Ukraine defended efficiently in the first half. The co-hosts played a relatively high line but inside their own half. Their midfield formed the first line of defence around the centre line with their back four lining up just 10 odd yards behind. Shevchenko and Voronin were used further up the pitch and were always looking for opportunities to break forward if possession was regained in that area. The following snapshot gives a rough idea of the areas I’m talking about.
Blokhin’s side lost their attacking thrust as their talented wingers were stuck with defensive duties for most of the first half but I want to talk about the way France played.
Often, Arsenal face teams who adopt similar defensive tactics and it leads to some frustrating moments when the Gunners can’t break them down. One feels Arsenal are just not doing enough creatively . We hear complaints about the lack of width, or quality of crosses, or lack of bodies in the box, and so on. To a large extent France had similar problems. And just like the Gunners, Blanc’s side also seemed to prefer one flank over the other, only in their case it was the left.
Les Bleus didn’t create many quality chances in the first half. A lot of their play was in front of the defence rather than in behind. Arsene might have said they lacked sharpness! It was similar to their problems against England who had a different defensive tactic but again one we have seen from teams facing Arsenal – the deep and narrow defence or the parked bus.
In this game Ukraine took more chances in the second half and that allowed the men in blue to take the lead on a counter. One thing they did do differently was that Ribery stayed up even when the opposing full-back pushed up.
The two players you see on the far side of the picture are Cabaye and Clichy. Ribery is just outside the frame on the top right. This is something the Gunners don’t do very well IMO. The wide players get sucked back and deep far more than they should. And this limits the counter-attacking opportunities. But of course, the quality of the opposition also matters. Ukraine didn’t show the technical, physical, or creative abilities that would demand more bodies in defence.
After Cabaye won the ball he was able to find Ribery with ease and the goal resulted from a fairly simple run and easy passes. Tymoschuk got sucked wide and it left a big gap in front of the defence that Benzema exploited. Menez finished with composure but it wasn’t a tough ask.
There are similarities in defence as well. France have only allowed 2 shots on target as against, say, England’s 15! Most Gooners know Wenger’s side don’t allow too many shots either. The sample size is too small to judge whether Blanc has created a better defensive system with a very similar possession based tactical system but there is a slight difference.
Les Blues have started with a dedicated defensive midfield player in Alou Diarra. A while back Dave Seager wrote a very interesting post with some thoughts on the role of an anchor midfielder. The Marseille man performed a very disciplined role in front of the defence (although it wasn’t exactly as described in that article). Interestingly, much of his movement was horizontal rather than vertical.
As you can see he made tackles on both sides of the pitch and even centrally. Succeeding with 7 of 8 attempts was obviously impressive. The black triangle shows the lone foul he committed, the green diamond is an interception, and the line on the edge of the box is a block.
Diarra moved across the pitch to protect the defenders and cover for the wide attackers when they didn’t track back. Since Ribery spent a lot of time higher up the pitch and bulk of France’s moves originated from that side, his defensive work is also concentrated on that flank.
Essentially, his job was to read the game, slow it down but applying pressure on the player’s breaking forward, winning the ball back, dropping into the back line when needed, and keeping things simple with his passing. It was a no-nonsense job of sitting in front of the defence with a clear defensive focus. And he did it really well.
Arsenal have a different approach. The midfield has a more fluid triangle and the players tend to interchange positions frequently. They are also more liberal with their moves up the field or into the channels. But this is a relatively newer approach that’s been evolved over the last couple of years. In 2008-09 or 09-10, the Gunners had a dedicated defensive midfielder. Wenger probably added greater defensive responsibility on another player probably because of the number of counter-attacks that Arsenal conceded in those days. Nowadays Arsenal play with two supposedly deep-lying midfielders. But due to the dynamic nature of the midfield, at times the defence is exposed as none of the two are in a position to cover. Song has received some criticism this season, unfairly in my opinion, because of his involvement in attacks which has led to the perception that he tends to neglect his defensive duties. I don’t think he neglects the job but that he doesn’t always read the danger as well as someone else, who is solely focussed for such signs, might.
The performances of Diarra do offer a template of the role that could protect the Arsenal back line while allowing the possession based system to flourish. But we must not forget that France haven’t really been tested in the tournament yet. We will get a better idea of the strengths and weaknesses of this approach in the coming games. The tactic will be seen as a success if Les Bleus can go all the way. If not, we will get a chance to see when and why it fails. It’s certainly one to keep an eye on.
On Thursday, Spain beat Ireland without breaking a sweat. With due respect to the Irish, that was a bit like watching Barcelona cruise to a win over a team like Wolves in second gear. It was such a lopsided encounter that there is little to be gained from analyzing it in detail.
In the other match, Italy again threw away a one goal lead as Croatia snatched a 1-1 draw. Their 3-5-2 received some praise after the draw against Spain but I’m far from convinced. Prandelli wants to create a team that can find the balance between attack and defence but I don’t think he’s reached close just yet. There is an interesting tactical debate possible here, particularly given the changes made by Croatia, but I’m more interested in the individual mistakes that have cost Italy. They’ve also reminded me of Arsenal in that at times they seem to switch off. Both the goals they’ve conceded in the tournament thus far have come when their defensive players have been slow to react.
Obviously, this isn’t a problem limited to the Gunners and it seems the best approach could be to limit the number of times the ball reaches the defence. This is an area where Wenger’s team can do a better but they’ll probably have to look at France, or Spain, more than Italy. Holland were another side that excelled at protecting the back four in the World Cup but they’ve struggled in this tournament even when many of the players are the same. It’s just very difficult to be consistent at the highest level.
None of the games in the final round is a dead rubber and that will make the next four days even more enjoyable. The Gunners are not playing but whenever I watch closely there are patterns in the play that take me back to some of the other Arsenal game. It’s bringing me back to life, a bit like those video games where you’re about to die but find some potions that add health or life! Does that make any sense?