Theo Walcott & Arsenal’s Best Attack
As Arsenal forward Theo Walcott returned from a 12-month injury layoff in January, he praised his teammates’ collective attacking talent. Walcott, typically a measured interviewee, made what was for him a bold statement to the club’s Website.
After describing the qualities of newcomers Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck, Walcott identified other members of the Arsenal attack and said, “And the list goes on, that’s how good we are going forward. It’s a headache for the manager when you have that many great attacking options. When I came, it was Pires and Ljungberg, Bergkamp, Thierry and Reyes – that’s some attacking force as well. I think this squad probably does beat it, but we need to prove it first.”
Some observers took this as provocation and rejected the notion that Arsenal’s current attack is better than the legendary strikeforce of the early 2000’s. The more interesting twist is that Walcott’s assessment relegates him to a less vital role in the squad, a position likely to affect his contract negotiations.
It’s always problematic to compare statistics across sports campaigns; after all, field conditions, managerial decisions, injuries, the quality of opponents, training methods, team chemistry and turnover, and many other factors affect production. Still, this kind of analysis can be interesting and might help us weigh Walcott’s statement.
In the current Premier League campaign, Arsenal have scored 56 goals in 29 matches. That’s a rate of 1.93 goals per match, on pace for 73 league goals. This production would rank third among Arsenal’s past six league seasons and is far off the 2.29 goal-per-match pace set by the 2004-05 team, the most prolific of manager Arsène Wenger’s tenure with 87 goals.
Those numbers don’t support Walcott’s assertion–at least not to date.
Let’s also consider how broad the contributions have been, because that might indicate an overall level of talent in line with Walcott’s argument. Arsenal currently have the highest number of goalscorers in the league. Fifteen Gunners have scored, led by Alexis with 13 and Olivier Giroud with 11. Manchester City and Chelsea have each seen 13 players score.
In the record-setting 2004-05 league season, only 14 Arsenal players marked their names on the score sheet. Thierry Henry had the largest contribution, 25 goals. It’s also worth noting that the 2009-10 team’s 83 goals (2.18 per game) came from 18 players, the most broadly productive of Wenger’s Arsenal squads.
Walcott wasn’t performing a quantitative analysis, to be fair. He was looking at his teammates and their quality and drawing a conclusion about their potential potency. Forwards Alexis, Giroud, Welbeck, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Walcott himself; attacking midfielders Santi Cazorla, Mesut Özil, and Tomas Rosicky; and central midfielders Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere do, on paper, make up an awesome array of offensive talent.
In this context, the status and future of Walcott have become popular discussion points among Arsenal supporters. Tim Stillman has written some compelling pieces for Arseblog, most recently “Can Theo Walcott Dance to Arsenal’s New Tune,” examining the issues Walcott faces as he rejoins the team.
What seems clear is that Walcott is no longer an automatic starter, as he was, for example, in 2011-12, when he started 32 league games. His first appearance this season was in the 2-0 loss at Southampton on January 1. Including that match, Arsenal have played 10 league contests for which Walcott was available. He started just three of those matches and made five appearances as a substitute.
No one is suggesting that Walcott should have started all 10 of those matches; he had just returned from a major knee injury. And he did start two of the club’s four FA Cup matches, came on as a substitute in one other, and saw time in both Champions League matches against Monaco. This seems like a reasonable number of appearances in 11 weeks. (Appearance stats are from OptaSports via whoscored.com.)
The extent of those appearances has raised questions, though. Walcott has played a total of 514 minutes, while the team has run out for 1440 (16 matches) since his January 1 return.
Wenger has acknowledged his reluctance to use the England man. “I have been holding him back,” the manager told the Arsenal Website on March 13, “because he has been out for a long time and for the fact there is intense competition.”
That squares with Walcott’s own assessment of the talent around him, but it glosses over the issue of his fit with his new teammates and their revised style of play. With a mix of coordinated pressing and disciplined defending now expected of all 10 outfield players, Walcott’s primary assets of speed and finishing aren’t sufficient. (See Stillman’s aforementioned article and “We Need to Talk about Theo” and Anam Hassan’s “Tactics Column: Walcott on the Periphery, Ramsey, Giroud on Top Form” on Arseblog for deeper analyses.)
Indeed, the manager has hinted at this gap between Walcott’s skills and the enhanced expectations. “When you have the ball in the modern game you have to attack, when you don’t have the ball you have to defend,” Wenger said. “All the players who can’t do that, cannot play.”
In Alexis, Welbeck, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Giroud, and even Cazorla, who has displayed a defensive ability to go along with his eye-catching control and passing skills, Arsenal have a large contingent of players who meet those modern requirements. So as much as the multiple attacking options that Walcott identified have displaced him, the expectations of defensive contributions make him less essential to the team than he’s been since his breakthrough.
That makes the renewal of Walcott’s contract, which ends in June 2016, a tricky proposition.