With the impending return of Theo Walcott from long term injury, Arsene Wenger will soon find himself with a number of decisions to make regarding selection in the Arsenal lineup. For the majority of the Premiership season thus far, the Arsenal front four has basically picked itself, not because of it’s great form, but because injuries have so depleted the options that Wenger had very little choice.
Until a few weeks ago, a front four of Danny Welbeck at striker, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Alexis Sanchez, and Santi Cazorla forming the three attacking midfielders behind the striker, was commonplace. Injuries to Olivier Giroud, Mesut Ozil, and Theo Walcott gave the manager little choice, especially when it has come to the center forward and wingers. Now though, with Giroud fit and seemingly in form, and Walcott nearing his return after a setback, choices must be made.
With Ozil still out at least a few more weeks, Cazorla seems the obvious choice to continue in the playmaker role beneath the striker. While Alexis has played there at times with success, Cazorla has been in good form in that role. Arsenal have shown the flexibility to rotate positions among the front three, meaning whether Wenger continues to prefer Cazorla in the middle or chooses to put Sanchez there from time to time, both can be expected to feature as frequently as possible.
Two other questions arise when it comes to how Arsenal will line up going forward. The return of Olivier Giroud to health and form has seen Welbeck pushed to the wing or a substitute’s role. One of the reasons Welbeck was unsettled at United was that he rarely featured in the center striker role, appearing far more often off the bench or on the wings. However, while starting from a wide position at Manchester United left Welbeck feeling marginalized and unhappy, at Arsenal he settling in nicely on the wings.
Consider the two images below. The first is Welbeck’s heatmap for United’s 3-0 loss to Manchester City last March.
In this case, Welbeck began the game as the left winger in a front three. Notice how nearly all of his touches come on the left side of the pitch, and how few of them there are. At United, Welbeck was regularly shunted to the wings like this, and was far from a focal point of the attack.
Next consider the following image of Welbeck’s heatmap in Arsenal’s 1-0 victory over West Brom this fall.
He again lines up on the left side as an attacking midfielder/winger, but notice how much more freedom he has in the Arsenal attack to move around the pitch. In fact, Cazorla, Alexis and Welbeck, the three attacking midfielders in this case, regularly rotated sides of the field, creating space and opportunities for each other. The match winner, scored by Welbeck, is a perfect example of this. Cazorla comes wide left to pick up the ball, creating space for Welbeck to drift into the middle, perfectly placed to head home Cazorla’s cross.
Welbeck has also shown since Giroud’s return that he excels at pushing forward and even towards the middle to join Giroud at times almost as a second striker. This has paid dividends in recent games with Arsenal scoring more frequently off of crosses, in part due to the seemingly obvious benefit of having anther body in the area. Welbeck’s willingness to push forward also creates that extra space in which Cazorla can operate, as Welbeck’s match winner against West Brom showed. Welbeck has also shown no lack of effort on the defensive side, something that Arsenal have lacked at times previously, and desperately need out of their wingers if they’re going to improve defensively as a team.
Another reason Welbeck excels on the wings at Arsenal is the style of play of Olivier Giroud. While Giroud often comes under criticism from Arsenal fans for many things he does, he undeniably excels at linking the Arsenal attack together, often with his back to goal. Giroud’s ability to win possession and quickly and accurately play the ball on to a teammate moving towards the goal creates chance after chance for players like Welbeck and Alexis to cut in from the wings for quality chances on goal. Not only does Giroud’s play create chances for himself and others, it also keeps players like Welbeck and Theo Walcott, both of whom would prefer to start centrally, happy starting on the wings, due to the fluidity of the front three or four and the space to cut inside and play centrally at times.
In addition to helping keep wide players happy, Giroud’s style as a striker seems to be a better fit for Arsenal’s tactical setup than Welbeck does. While Welbeck often does well facing the defense and attacking them head on, Giroud, as mentioned, tends to play more often with his back to goal. While Welbeck’s style puts pressure directly on the opposing defenders to stop him, it is less successful at bringing other players into the attack and tends to result in turnovers more frequently. Giroud meanwhile manages to hold the ball well, helping bring other players into the attack and help the team maintain possession as they go forward. While Welbeck is in many ways more dynamic as a striker than Giroud, Giroud manages to draw defenders towards him with his back to goal, allowing him to play midfielders or wide players into open space and creating chances.
Keeping players happy on the pitch is one thing. Keeping them happy off the pitch is an entirely different challenge. With Walcott back very soon, and Ozil in the not so distant future, Wenger may have a struggle on his hands to keep everyone happy. Given that it’s Arsenal, and someone is bound to get hurt right when another player comes back, perhaps Wenger has nothing to worry about. That said, if Giroud, Welbeck, Ozil, Cazorla, Chamberlain and Walcott are all healthy at the same time it creates a battle for minutes. Competition is good, and a title-contending squad depends on strong depth, but keeping all these players happy will be a struggle, and that’s ignoring players like Podolski, Campbell and Rosicky who can’t seem to get minutes even now.
Given that Walcott is nearing a return from major injury, expect Wenger to be cautious in introducing him to the lineup, unless of course injuries force him into a starting role. Once fully fit Walcott should have to earn his spot in the team, usually on the right wing. That would push Alexis to the left wing and Welbeck to the bench. Luckily for Wenger, of his forward players, only Giroud is limited to a single role. All of Welbeck, Alexis, Chamberlain, Cazorla, Ozil, and Walcott can play multiple roles, giving Wenger great flexibility, should he choose to use it, in picking the ideal XI for each matchup. If everyone can stay health, Wenger may have a headache on his hands, but in filing problems into “good problems” and “bad problems,” this problem would definitely fit the former category.
Given the upcoming business in the fixture list, finding minutes for everybody many not even be a problem. With a decent draw in the Champions League, the busy holiday fixture list coming up and the FA Cup beginning in January, it seems that the Arsenal attack may be getting fit just in time. Should Arsenal progress in the Champions League and FA Cup there may even be enough minutes to satisfy them all. If Arsenal are going to have any success this season, they’ll need all attackers healthy, and they’ll need Wenger to balance their minutes to keep them all happy.