05 November 2014

Why on Earth didn't Walcott come on against Anderlecht?

Like many of you, I'm still struggling to make sense of Tuesday's result. How is it that we could squander a three-goal lead, at home, the one of the weakest clubs to make it into the Champions League, one that had scored just two goals in three matches? Yes, we can point to complacency after racing out to a two-goal lead by halftime and pad it with a third shortly thereafter, and we can deride individual players for their desire to pursue individual stats rather than collective goals, but those are issues that should have been addressed at halftime. Up 2-0, we should have salted this one away with a substitution or two, not to mention a few tactical adjustments as well. As we sift through the remains of a win that could have been (clever rhyme, that), one question persists: where was Walcott?

We saw him warming up. We lusted after his return. More than that, we needed him—not so much for what he could achieve on offense as for what he could achieve for our defense. Hear me out.

Up 2-0 at halftime, Arsène should have sensed that this was in a game in hand. Instead, for whatever reason, he went after the two in the bush. Victory was all but assured, but something prevented Arsène from feeling satisfied. We went into the second half with the same XI (sans Arteta, injured and replaced by Flamini) and with largely the same tactics. Why? Well, for one, the only defender on the bench was Bellerin, a situation that begs its own questions. Even then, though, why didn't we see Walcott come on in order to support a different defensive strategy?

Walcott flourishes in a wide-open, counter-attacking match. He's fast. Rather than pinning Anderlecht back only to come away empty-handed and to occasionally deal with counter-attacks (something that we struggled with from early on), why not defend the lead by removing someone like Alexis, bringing on Bellerin, and defending with something more like a 5-4-1? With Gibbs, Monreal, Mertesacker, Chambers, and Bellerin in defense, and with Flamini, Ramsey, Cazorla, and Ox in the midfield, we'd have a stolid defense, one that Anderlecht could not have pierced. Flamini and Ramsey could do the dirtier work in the centre of the pitch while Cazorla and Ox could threaten on the wings. More to the point, though, all nine of these players could sit back and defend. This is not parking the bus, necessarily, as we're doing more than merely setting up two banks of four around he area. There's more than enough quality on the pitch to recycle possession, albeit not so high up the pitch. In fact, there would have been little need for any save Ox or Cazorla to get into the attacking third, which brings us to Walcott.

We're up 2-0. Anderlecht need a goal. At a risk of erasing Ox's goal, why press forward? Discretion is the better part of valor, after all. Let Anderlecht chase the game. Meanwhile, Walcott can prowl around the edges of the defense, waiting for a clearanace from or a through-ball to spring him in behind Anderlecht's over-eager defense. He's in on goal. Maybe he scores. The strategic lift—not to mention the emotional one—sends such a surge through the entire squad that there'd be no stopping us. With an early lead, we should have sat back a bit, still controlling possession but with an eye towards unleashing the pace we have. It's something we haven't seen much of, given how tetchy so many of our fixtures have been of late. With that early cushion, we might have treated the second half as a dress-rehearsal for some tactical variety against tougher opponents.

The ramifications stretch beyond this match. What point is there, after all, in having the pace of Walcott or Welbeck or Alexis, or of having the passing-perspicacity of Özil or Wilshere or Ramsey, if we're not playing to those strengths? If we can draw out the defenders in matches against Man City or Chelsea and hit them hard on counters, so much the better. Against Anderlecht, we might rue the two points dropped. It might be more accurate to rue the rehearsal we didn't have for future fixtures.

We could have and should have won 2-0. A third goal might have come through Walcott getting behind Anderlecht's defense but agaisnt the run of play as Anderlecht pressed forward and exposed themselves. Instead, it was us who continued to press forward and expose ourselves, even after conceding the first and second goals, with the third as icing on the cake.

Meh. So it goes. Lessons listed but likely unlearned.