Trouble on the Wings: What’s gone wrong with Theo & Ox?
After back-to-back FA Cups, there was mounting pressures on Arsenal to finally put together a full, 38-game run at the Premiership title. While many knew it was the talents of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez that compelled them to the cup titles, it would likely take some serious health and growth of the squad before they were legitimate contenders. And thus, in the midst of growing anxiousness following the singular signing of Petr Cech from Chelsea, there were two major predictions made about Arsenal and the elusive title-tilt:
A. Theo Walcott would be the perfect foil to Olivier Giroud and together would form the elusive 30+ goal striker that Arsenal has missed since Robin van Persie’s graceful exit.
B. And, in case you had missed the hype, adverts, and articles, 2015-2016 was supposed to be, unequivocally, The Year of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
22 games in, Arsenal currently sit in first on goal differential, Walcott has been relegated to an inverted winger role, and Oxlade-Chamberlain hasn’t just be disappointing, he’s been damagingly poor.
So, what has gone wrong for Theo & Ox?
Is it still a crisis if it happens every year? Arsenal + Injuries: Peas in a Pod
First and foremost, get your jokes out of the way about Arsenal DNA, the physio, and whatever recycled Jack Wilshere memes you have left over from 2014 — but how’s that quote go? Ah, that’s right: the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. If you translate John Steinbeck’s ageless text, you’ll read in between the lines — Alexis Sanchez couldn’t possibly stay healthy forever and iffy hamstrings will always be iffy no matter what.
Sanchez, who tweaked the hamstring on his body that once seemed immortal, was shelved immediately in November, forcing Walcott back into the Starting XI on a more permanent basis on the wing. Given Walcott’s desire to become the #1 striker at Arsenal, this was indeed a setback as he jumped back and forth between positions, never truly settling into form at either.
As for Oxlade-Chamberlain, it’s much of the same — unbridled optimistic curbed by a nagging injury and brimming overconfidence. Similarly to Joel Campbell, the man who never seemed comfortable in mere sub-role appearances, Oxlade-Chamberlain has struggled to put together a strong run of games thanks to (another) hamstring injury, growing expectations, and a desire to do too much on the pitch. While injuries can occasionally offer opportunities, just ask Campbell and Francis Coquelin, they can truly mangle Arsene Wenger’s plans without so much of an afterthought.
Theo’s Inverted World, His Straight-Forward Predictability, and the Emergence of Olivier Giroud
Let’s get something clear: Theo Walcott wants to play striker for Arsenal. In fact, many believe that Wenger’s promise to get Walcott minutes up front was a major reason why he re-upped his contract over the summer. The plan was simple: everyone stays healthy, Alexis and Aaron Ramsey would keep bossing the wings, and Walcott and Giroud would battle for the striker position.
Then, depending on the opposing play-style or game need, they’d be able to seamlessly swap their International stars up top. And, then, Giroud happened — perhaps on his best form ever in an Arsenal kit, it was suddenly impossible to omit his name from the Starting XI. As unreal of a complication this was for Walcott, the aforementioned injuries allowed him a consistent run as an inverted winger instead — a decision that has been more harmful than good for the Englishman.
While, yes, his skill-set allows for him to cut inside and unleash screamers like this one against Manchester City in December, it leads to over-dribbling, errors, and a predictable, straight-forward style that defenders can often harass with ease. The problem with Walcott as of now is that his desire to play striker often equates towards a far-more direct play than the situation calls for. It hardly matters where Walcott receives the ball now as he’s immediately looking to cut inside and shoot from distance instead of stretching the pitch, taking it to the end line, and making things happen as a deep playmaker.
It’s worth mentioning that this is not an issue for just Walcott as Alexis, Ramsey, and Oxlade-Chamberlain all suffer from the Cristiano-mindset at times as well — which ultimately just leads to that clunky, cluttered, and anemic offense that onlookers have come to loathe. When the narrowing of the pitch comes from both sides, almost everybody suffers other than Mesut Ozil, the Wizard of Wonder, and Giroud, Arsenal’s only offensive player with above-average ability with their head.
Falling for the Hype, the Battle with Joel Campbell, and Saving Defense For A Rainy Day: The Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain Story
Unless you happen to live under a rock, or have somehow missed every social media outlet from Arsenal, it should come to no surprise that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has no shortage of confidence. Whether it’s leading the YouTube watchers around a tour of the Emirates or berating Calum Chambers on Snapchat, it’s clear that Oxlade-Chamberlain has fallen for the same hype we had gone for over the summer. It’s an incredibly important stretch for him now as he needs to prove he can play a simpler, cerebral game instead of a flashy, but empty, one.
These days, everything with Oxlade-Chamerberlain moves through Route 1, in fact, it reminds me greatly of the situation Joel Campbell was in for quite some time. Surviving solely on stoppage time moments, Campbell would come on and be forced to try to immediately impact the game, which simply lead to frustration and loss of possession more than anything else. Now? Campbell has settled and become one of Arsenal’s most effective players over the last month or so — has the role swap rattled Oxlade-Chamberlain?
To me, the answer is both parts yes and no — he’s clearly feeling more pressure to reach those pre-season goals than ever before, but defense for wingers tends to more of an effort thing than anything. The number of times Oxlade-Chamberlain has cheeply given the ball away, been the source of an inconvenient deflection, or dribbled into a clear dead-end, is shocking. In order to improve that hasty offense, he’ll have to learn that there are two sides to every game, working harder to get back and support his full backs.
Afterthoughts on Afterthoughts
At the end of the day, the duo has struggled so much that Ian Wright said that Campbell is officially ahead of Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott in Wenger’s pecking order and it should come at no surprise. With Jack Wilshere, Tomas Rosicky, and Danny Welbeck back in the picture, Alexis Sanchez returning sooner rather than later, and Giroud and Campbell in the best forms of their lives, Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain are living dangerously on the edge.
Of course, the aforementioned injury bugs could bite at any time, but if they don’t get things right, they could be buried before they know it. And, it is certainly disappointing, but those pundits that predicted necessary and transcending seasons from Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain in order for Arsenal to make that title push were wrong — they’re on top more than halfway through the season with minimal contributions from both.
Maybe, then, we were just looking for goals and inspiration in the wrong place.