The effects of Walcott alone versus partnered with Giroud
Most devout Premier League followers know two things with absolute certainty about Arsenal. First, the side is incessantly riddled with injuries, often forcing the Frenchman Arsene Wenger to get creative with his team sheets. More on this in a moment. Additionally, those who follow Arsenal know that it is always quite the cliché — a Tale of Two Halves (of the season).
Sometimes the side starts strong out of the gate, looking promising and in control of things, only to lose the plot for one reason or another in the New Year. If that scenario isn’t in play, its most likely that the Gunners start slow and timid, like a young, shaky-legged boy approaching the girl he fancies. And when that happens (for at least the last ten years or so), the boy is helplessly strung along all school year until the final, sad realisation that his feelings aren’t reciprocated as his muse proceeds to stick gum in his hair in front of all his mates.
The latter situation is where the Gunners currently find themselves. The injury bug paid an early visit this year, sidelining Welbeck, Wilshire, Sanchez, Cazorla, Coquelin, and just about every other warm body in a red shirt with white sleeves. This has left a rather short list of attacking options for the gaffer to work with. The latest tactics have been to either employ Theo Walcott as a lone striker, letting him run around mad, or partner him with Olivier Giroud for some extra oomph. So while the season may be a tale of two halves, one may sit down to watch a game and make an assumption based on which of the two attacking setups Wenger elects to use.
Leaving aside the obvious discussion about how two strikers are more aggressive than one, there are some interesting effects that can be observed when comparing the two tactics. The first, and most salient effect, is that when Walcott is paired next to the Handsome French Bloke, Giroud spends far more time with his brow furrowed and his hands in the air. Olivier is a striker who thrives on service, and he’s visibly frustrated when he doesn’t get picked out.
However, as frustrated as Giroud may get at times, the two strikers may well benefit from sharing the attacking burden. When Walcott is alone up front, he is tasked with pressing the back line and stretching the pitch. This is something asked of all pacey forwards, but with Walcott’s relative lack of ball security and lower defensive work rate, he almost becomes a bit of a probe when left on his own.
Watching Theo play as a lone forward will produce a game with many long balls in an attempt to find the speedster, always looking to get in behind, as he often does successfully. But then what? He either has the ball at his feet for a considerable amount of time as he waits for the attack to catch up, or he is forced to have a go from, what is usually, an unfavourable angle. This leads to numerous broken down attacks and even more groans from the Arsenal faithful.
Reference the chart of Walcott’s take-ons against Bournemouth. A 50 percent success rate isn’t as effectual as you would like your lone striker to be when taking on defenders. One cannot discount the Bournemouth game as a fluke either as Theo is sitting at 1.3 unsuccessful dribbles and 1.2 successful dribbles per 90 minutes on the season. What’s more is that the successful take-ons occurred in the open field where Walcott had more room to operate. Note that his three unsuccessful attempts were all located in roughly the same spot, near the midline right against the touchline. This illustrates Walcott’s inability to carry the attack forward with his feet from an outlet position.
Recognizing this pattern, Arsene has opted for a two man attack over the last few games. Indeed, pairing Giroud with Walcott gives the attack a fresh new look. The two players have very different and distinct play styles. Anyone who’s seen Giroud chase down a driven through ball is reminded of a goose flying against gale-force winds. That being said, Olivier is a much bigger and stronger forward than speedy Theo. When working together, the two can actually be very complimentary.
While the two are in together up front, Arsenal now have both a runner to press the line and a garrison to hold up play. There is no question that Giroud is one of the better talents in the air. The added option to hoof the ball up to him to chest down to feet provides a forward pressure release that often yields better results than sending Theo to the corners. Additionally, Giroud is more apt to come back to the ball and facilitate the intricate play that Arsenal is known for. His ability to play with his back to goal invites secondary runs into the box, something that Theo happens to be very good at.
In the game against Bournemouth, all of Arsenal’s chances that were created originated in the final third. This is a far cry from the long ball tactic typically employed when Theo plays up front alone. This suggests that Arsenal are comfortable playing a much tighter game when Olivier is in the mix.
That’s not to say that the Gunners had made a point to avoid long balls. Of the 17 long balls completed, 10 of them found their way to Giroud as he made himself available on the right. As the image above shows, Walcott only received 6 while stationed on the left side of the pitch. It is clear that the long balls functioned as much more of a pressure release for Giroud to have some hold up play than they were for creating scoring chances.
So while Theo’s game plan may not change too much, his success levels do. The numbers game comes into play as there’s obviously another striker to mark up top. However, the starting points for Theo’s runs can change when Giroud helps the rest of the attack get forward. Walcott can now move off the ball much more efficiently and use his pace in a far more devastating fashion. He can time his runs off the broad shoulder of Giroud, or make a delayed run into the box to get on the end of an Ozil cross that was born out of a recycled pass from the Frenchman.
Giroud’s care in possession is clearly illustrated by his numbers against Bournemouth. Only attempting two take-ons shows that he is patient with the ball at his feet, providing a counterbalance to Theo’s fast-paced style of play. The Frenchman’s passing stats are even more telling. Of his 18 completed passes, only four of them were truly forward. Giroud’s willingness to usher the attack forward by playing with his back to goal has proven to be a vital part of Arsenal’s winning formula.
The Arsenal attack is at its finest when Giroud is utilising his size, winning balls in the air and playing with his back to goal. He is much more responsible in possession than Walcott, and adds options with his intricate flicks and smartly recycled balls. These options benefit Theo, as he is freed up to focus on timing smarter runs instead of worrying about beating a defender to a long ball, only to be forced back or pressured into a wild shot.
So while Giroud is sometimes staring at the midfielders with his hands on his hips, it should not be taken as selfishness. Like all strikers, he wants to be in on goal as much as possible. However, as he made clear with his assist to Ozil against Bournemouth, Olivier finds enjoyment out of uncovering the goals in others as well. It is easy to predict that there will be more to come for Walcott as this attack pairing finds new life.