Arsenal’s flankers, Alex Iwobi and Theo Walcott, have been showing a lot of promise as of late. The sort of promise that makes you nervous at what could go invariably wrong, and excited at what could be the making of something special.
You could say that both players have a point to prove. The young inexperienced yet talented Nigerian will have to show that he can cut it with the big boys week-in week-out, that he can withstand the demands of the modern game and not follow the long list of academy show ponies who made it into the first team only to eventually be discarded.
As for Theo, form and fitness tend to be his downfall. In seasons previous, when Walcott managed one, it was generally at the expense of the other. He would come into form, then suffer injury, or he’d maintain his fitness, only for his form to abandon him. The success of his season will hinge on whether he can marry the two. Positively speaking, it’s a case of “so far so good” as far as both flankers are concerned.
Already this season Iwobi has shown his creativity and spark amassing three assists to his name, only Alexis is ahead of him in this regard. His movement inside, his ball-control, passing, pace and intelligence are all the traits Wenger craves in a wide playmaker. The assist against Hull which put his opposite flanker through on goal somewhat typifies Iwobi’s game and what is so impressive about him.
On the other flank, the Englishman is the top scorer at the club, finding the net on eight occasions. His brace at the weekend, along with goals against Liverpool, Hull, Chelsea and Basel haven’t convinced all the doubters, but are a welcome reminder of the obvious skillset Walcott possesses. The same goal which highlights Iwobi’s ability does the same for his teammate. Pace to move from two defenders, good movement to run in behind and a knack to find the net with a delicate chip finish into the corner. Again, the sort of qualities required for a winger at the top level. Yet before we get ahead of ourselves, something within us demands a degree of caution when it comes to the Englishman.
A subliminal reluctance overcomes us when evaluating Theo Walcott. It’s almost as if we wasted all our hope and expectancy on him when he was younger, now we’ve got nothing left to give. Even if he were to do something incredible we’d still tell ourselves, “he can’t do it every week,” or “he’ll get injured soon enough.” Rather than celebrate the two goals he scored, we’ll shake our head at the other chances he missed. We refrain from any over excitement because we’ve been let down before. I’m not saying it’s unjustified, it’s probably not. Too often have we got our hopes up with him in the past only for them to be crushed by injury or dismal performances. It is up to the man himself to ultimately prove his critics wrong and in so doing, prove his manager right for the faith he’s placed in him over the last decade.
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It would be easy to contemplate what could happen in the upcoming months, good or bad for both Iwobi and Walcott. Yet it is their current form which you cannot help but enjoy. To their benefit, Wenger instructs his sides to play in such a way that allows both players to express their best attributes.
It’s no secret that Wenger has always sought to have a balanced pairing on the flanks. In his mind, one of the flankers must contribute toward the build-up, link with the midfielders and striker and have the quality to maintain Arsenal’s flow in possession whilst posing an attacking threat of their own. Not only must they create chances and partake in the possession battle, but they’re also expected to take players on, relentlessly run the channels and score goals for the team. This position could be classed somewhere between a wide playmaker and a conventional winger.
It is because of this playmaking ingredient that Wenger has trialled a number of central midfielders out wide. All of Ramsey, Wilshere, Cazorla and even Ozil have played on the flank in the past with the aim of providing extra quality to the midfield. Unfortunately, what this gains in possession it loses in attack. Arsenal would pass the ball to death and fail to find that clinical edge required to unlock defences. As a result, none of these tactical adjustments was completely convincing and often drew criticism from the fans. Arsene turned to other solutions.
All in all, too much playmaker slows us down, too much winger concedes the ball. Wenger longs for a player with the technical attributes of an attacking midfielder, and the components of an out and out winger.
More traditional wingers have been selected for experimentation. Joel Campbell briefly impressed in this role last season, but for whatever reason the manager remained unconvinced. Playing Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain in this position sometimes seems like fitting a square-peg into a round hole. He is great on the counter as he showed against Swansea late on. Yet, although Wenger still aspires to see his technical qualities advanced (hence his comments about playing the Ox in midfield), he looks more of a conventional winger and sometimes struggles to keep up with the interplay. It was interesting to see Wenger select him midweek, along with Gibbs at left back. This may have had something to do with the sort of counter attacking football Wenger expected to play when Arsenal went a goal to the good.
All in all, too much playmaker slows us down, too much winger concedes the ball. Wenger longs for a player with the technical attributes of an attacking midfielder, and the components of an out and out winger. And part of the reason why the young Nigerian is so exciting, is that he may be the solution to Wenger’s problem.
To counter balance the wide playmaker, the other flanker must contrast in style. Wenger likes this player to be fast, direct, dangerous in his movement and clinical in the final third. In terms of his role, the flanker blends together both the conventional winger and the inside forward. He is required to remain wide, track back to defend, perform one-twos with the striker, deliver threatening crosses, and directly take on the defence. Interestingly, aside from the obvious goal scoring success Walcott has had so far, you could argue it has been his defensive contribution which has shone brightest. Having completed 14 tackles and 6 interceptions this season, Walcott has already surpassed his tackle count from last year. Thus demonstrating a renaissance in his work-rate, which is paying off in attack also.
Both Iwobi and Walcott have thrived in their respective roles. What impresses me most however is how natural these players fit into these roles, and how threatening they look when it works. The chemistry building across the front three, four if you include Ozil, at times looks frightening.
Iwobi enjoys mixing it up with the midfield players. He has the quality to cut the lines, the movement to make space and the vision to find it. Quite often, while Monreal pushes up the left, the Nigerian will drift inside and with his back to goal, he will receive the ball as if playing as a No.10. It is from this position that he has looked his most dangerous.
The tactic which goes some way in explaining their form is quite simple; create an area which is compact, then quickly spread the ball to an area with space.
The tactic which goes some way in explaining their form is quite simple; create an area which is compact, then quickly spread the ball to an area with space. Unsurprisingly, given their qualities, this takes place most frequently from the left flank to the right flank. The way Arsenal line-up lends itself to this system.
On the left, we have a highly technical left-back who is capable of through balls and precise passing. Iwobi, the wide playmaker/conventional winger will inter-change with the midfielders and drift inside for the ball. As the Nigerian comes from the left inside, central players can move from inside out left. Cazorla, Ozil and Alexis all drift left involving themselves in possession and creating a concentrated and compact area. If it wasn’t for their good ball control and quick intelligence this concentrated area would benefit the defence. Instead Arsenal’s superior ability to move the ball quick in tight areas gives them the impetus to stretch or cut through their opponents.
Because this tactic draws attackers and defenders into one concentrated zone on the pitch, by way of implication, it frees up space on the opposite flank. All the space that’s sacrificed on the left, is offloaded to the right. And who better to offer that space too, than the quickest partnership in the league, potentially in world football.
Speedsters Theo Walcott and Hector Bellerin are almost unmatched in terms of pace. And although the Spaniard has shown an ability to pass well off his good foot, his and Walcott’s more threatening strengths lie not in their passing, but in their dribbling. Space is the very thing you would aim to deprive them of, yet this tactic directly seeks to bless them with it.
As the concentrated zone attracts players, Walcott and Bellerin patiently wait out wide awaiting the ball to break to their flank. When the ball comes their way, they are granted enough space to perform one-twos or run in behind the defence attacking in a very direct manner.
Each flank poses a threat of its own. The intricate left will try to break down the defence with its quick passing, continuous movement and superior ball-playing ability. The right, when afforded the space, will take on the defence directly using lightning pace and through balls in behind.
Although each flank contrasts in style both are benefitted by the threat of the other. Mostly because of the dilemma it poses the defence. Do they press the concentrated zone in the hope of winning back the ball and run the risk of being exposed on the right flank? Or do they drop deep, allow the technical experts time on the ball at the potential expense of being cut apart? Failure to defend this well, amounts to the result Chelsea, Watford and Basel suffered when we played them.
This tactic is currently serving us well, and in some ways explains why Iwobi and Walcott have been so impressive. Arsenal are similar to that of a boxer. We find our range with the jab, full of passing and moving. We bring the winger inside and see how the defence will respond. If the opposition keep their distance, and hold their hands up so to speak, we bide our time and use our technique to pick them off. If they take the bait however, and come out swinging, we line them up with the haymaker, move the ball out to the right and directly charge toward the opponent’s goal hoping to land a KO. It is a tactical case of jab with the left flank, and hook with the right. And so far, it seems to be working. Here’s hoping it continues.
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