Theo Walcott’sAi??most important contribution to this Arsenal side is not in width, but in stretching the pitch vertically.

Theo Walcott - Arsenal - vertical space vs. width

With his pace and finishing, Walcott is an essential element of Arsenal’s plan.

During Theo Walcottai??i??s absence, those commenting on Arsenal have often said that they lack width in attack. While this statement is not necessarily true, due to the width provided by the fullbacks and Mesut Ozilai??i??s drifting wide to give Arsenal another body wide if needed, many miss the fact that the most important aspect of Theo Walcottai??i??s game is not his ability to occupy space horizontally, but his ability to stretch the pitch vertically.

The Merits of Playing a High Defensive Line

When defending, the goal of the side is to limit the amount of space in which their opponent can operate. One of the most common ways to limit the space is by playing a high line. By playing a high line, you compress the playing area, by taking the area behind the back line away from the side in possession. One of the most famous sides to utilize a high line was Arrigo Sacchiai??i??s AC Milan. They played a 4-4-2 with a high line, and Sacchi demanded his team to have the front 2 and the back line separated by 25 meters. This mean that AC Milan removed the area behind the back line, crowded the next 25 meters with 10 defenders, constantly pressing their opposition, and conceded that area between the opponentai??i??s goal and their defensive front line. So compressed the pitch, gave themselves a small area where they can press and win the ball back, and have conceded the area of the pitch that is least likely to score goals from.

Nowadays, the side that most closely resembles Sacchiai??i??s Milan is Jurgen Kloppai??i??s Borussia Dortmund, and their style was on full display in their Champions League match against Arsenal. Contrary to a popular overgeneralization, a team can play a 4-4-2 quite successfully in the modern game. You just have to do as Dortmund do and AC Milan did. You have to keep the side compact, particularly when it comes to the midfield and back line. That eliminate the space in between the midfield and back line. So even if one is theoretically outnumbered in the center of midfield, the attacking side is forced to play in front of two banks of 4. Given Dortmund’s unique combination of energy, athleticism, and the organized nature of their pressing, they can dominate the game without the ball like few other teams in the world.

How Borussia Dortmund’s High Line and Compact Shape Succeeded Against Arsenal

Against Arsenal, they played a high line to eliminate the space between the midfield line and the back line. This allowed them to defend Arsenalai??i??s strength in attack well and reduced the distance they had to travel to the goal, when they won the ball. Gegenpressing is their best defensive and offensive weapon. This system forced Arsenalai??i??s creative players, like Mesut Ozil to have to drop deep in front of the midfield line in order to receive the ball. When the ball was played into Olivier Giroud or into a midfielder positioned between the midfield and defensive line, Dortmund defenders did not have to travel far to win the ball back. And paraphrasing Johan Cruyff, even a below-average defender becomes a great defender if the area he has to defend is small.

Dortmund's high line enhanced their ability to close down the space quickly and effectively caused Arsenal plenty of problems in their Champions League match. Team shape from UEFA.com

Dortmund’s high line enhanced their ability to close down the space quickly and effectively caused Arsenal plenty of problems in their Champions League match. [Team shape from UEFA.com]

An effective way to beat a high line is to get in behind them, and due to changes in the offside rule in the past 20 years, it is much easier to get behind a high line now than it was when Sacchiai??i??s Milan dominated the footballing world. The key is the timing and, more importantly, the pace of the runs. Unfortunately for Arsenal, Olivier Giroudai??i??s one deficit as a center forward is his lack of pace. When he got even or behind the Dortmund line, he still had plenty of space between him and the goal, and his lack of pace gave Dortmund defenders the ability to cut Giroud off and either win possession or hold up Arsenalai??i??s progression to the goal. This led to Arsenal struggling to create chances, especially in the first half. It is in this type of a game that Ai??Theo Walcott would have likely proved invaluable.

Arsenal’s Best Solution Against a High Line: Theo Walcott

Theo Walcott has a lot of flaws in his game. He is not a particularly penetrative dribble; he often picks the wrong pass or the wrong type of pass; his defensive work rate can leave one wanting. However, his combination of pace and finishing ability is a special skillset that no other Arsenal player offers. This makes him a constant threat to get behind the back line and threaten the goalkeeper. Also, unlike many of Arsenalai??i??s other options to play on the right side, Walcott tends to stay high up the pitch. This makes him an obvious threat to the back line. For a team playing with a high line, the obviousness of the threat poses a dilemma.

The opponent could keep their high line and maybe keep their left back in a deep position to cover his slower left-sided center back. If they do this, then they risk Walcott beating the high line and finding himself in on goal. Even the best back line often becomes a scrambling chaotic mess when chasing the play from behind.Ai?? If they hedge, by keeping their left back in a reserved position, then they may eliminate some of Walcottai??i??s threat, but for many sides, including a side like Borussia Dortmund, that tactic lowers the left backai??i??s ability to provide needed width when the wide left attacker cuts inside. Ultimately, in this scenario, Theo Walcottai??i??s ability to stretch the pitch vertically gives Arsenal greater goal scoring potential and helps to blunt the opponentai??i??s attack.

Another option for Arsenalai??i??s opponent is to position the back line further back. This gives Walcott less space behind the line to run into, allows the goalkeeper to play the role of sweeper keeper without having to come out as far, and shortens the distance the back line needs to travel to get into the proper defensive positions for the secondary phase of play. If the opponentai??i??s midfield lines do not move back with the back line, Arsenal have been presented with their best possible outcome. With players like Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla, Mesut Ozil, etc., the increased space between the midfield lines and the back line plays right into Arsenalai??i??s hands. Now their most creative players have space to operate and devastate. Also, due to Walcottai??i??s positioning high on the right, he serves as a pressure release valve, which allows Arsenal to keep possession and transition into attack quickly. If the opponent attempt to win the ball back, while keeping their back line deep, Walcott can find help in plenty of space, offering Arsenal a quality outlet. Much like an outlet pass in basketball, an outlet ball to Walcott quickly transitions the side into the attacking half of the pitch, and it takes the defenders it bypasses out of the play. So, even if Theo Walcott does not score a goal, his presence can make the game easier for his teammates, and make Arsenal more effective in attack.

If Arsenalai??i??s opponent moves the midfield lines backs to eliminate that space in front of the back line, then they increase the distance between the midfield and the attacking front. When Arsenalai??i??s opponent wins the ball back, they have a lowered ability to link the defensive block with the attacking front. At the very least, the transition from defense to attack will be slower. This gives Arsenal more time to get into the proper defensive positions and/or win back the ball. If the attacking front has to adopt a deeper position, so to link up with the defensive block, they increase the distance they need to travel to get into goal scoring positions. Not only does that make it harder to score a goal any time they won possession, having to run that longer distance every time their side transitions from defense into attack can wear down over the course of a match. Once again, Theo Walcott may not score goals or tally any assists, but in this scenario, the opponentai??i??s reaction to Walcottai??i??s ability to stretch the field makes Arsenal more effective in defense.

Conclusion

In a vacuum, no one would consider Theo Walcott in the same league as many of his teammates when it comes to football IQ and technical ability. His deficits prevent him from being an ideal option against a deep defending outfit. However, Walcottai??i??s unique combination of pace and finishing makes him a unique and important component of Arsenalai??i??s system, especially when playing sides like Borussia Dortmund. This makes him a key to their success, against the best opposition, and makes it imperative that he returns to match fitness as soon as possible.

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