Editor’s note: this was written before the game with Crystal Palace.
The world of football is very like the world of arms manufacturing, and our beloved Arsenal is very like…well, like an arsenal. How, I hear you ask? (I have very good hearing). Well, let me tell you.
In the world of arms manufacturing, weapons are designed to do different things. Some weapons are designed with a very broad, general purpose in mind. The AK-47 is this weapon. It does everything. It doesn’t do any one thing better than other weapons – it hasn’t got the range of some, the rate of fire of others, and it’s not the most powerful or the most accurate or the most convenient gun on the market – but it does everything pretty well, which makes it perfect if you don’t know what situation you’re going to find yourself in. It’s the ultimate failsafe weapon.
Aaron Ramsey is an AK-47. He’s a generalist. You don’t put him on the pitch to do any one thing in particular, you put him on the pitch to do everything. He tackles, dribbles, passes, runs, creates, defends, crosses and shoots well, and so there’s rarely a situation where you don’t want him on the pitch. But (and this is to take nothing away from Ramsey’s ability) you wouldn’t say he was the best in the league, or even in the team, at any one thing. For example, you’d say that the best passer at Arsenal is either Cazorla or Arteta; the best creator is Özil; the best enforcer is Flamini; the best goalkeeper is Szczęsny; the best dencher is Frimpong. Ramsey is very good at everything, but he isn’t the best at anything.
Theo Walcott is not an AK-47. If you didn’t know what situation you were going to run into, and you could only take 11 weapons (the metaphor’s starting to fall apart here, but stay with me) you wouldn’t take Theo Walcott. Theo Walcott is a specialist weapon. He’s a sniper rifle. Now, a sniper rifle is only of use in a very limited set of circumstances. Unless you’re a long way away, and you’ve got time to aim, and your enemies aren’t protecting themselves against long-range fire, a sniper rifle is just a pain in the arse to carry around. But, when you are in those circumstances, the sniper rifle is the perfect weapon – nothing else can do the job as well.
Theo is like that. Theo does two things very well and one thing better than anyone else on the team, maybe even in the league: he assists, he scores, and he runs, fast, direct, past the fullback and into space. Sure, his defending and his passing have improved in recent seasons, but that’s not why he’s on the pitch. If he isn’t able to run, if he’s not going to be able to break past his fullbacks, Theo should be sat on the bench, writing more children’s books. Because of this, he’s not a player you want to see play in every game. Against Norwich, for example, Theo would not have been the right specialist, at least for the first half. The way Norwich sat deep in the early part of the game, and refused to get lured out, and defended, called for different types of specialists, specialists who could dance their way through the middle of the park with players on either side. Santi Cazorla, in other words (who I guess is going to be a silenced Walther PPK in this metaphor), which is why Cazorla was a good choice to start against Norwich.
Cazorla was also useful when he came on against Dortmund, but what Arsenal really needed on Tuesday was a metaphorical sniper rifle. Dortmund played fast, they played open, they pressed high, their fullbacks were aggressive and vulnerable, and those are the perfect circumstances in which to deploy a Theo Walcott. It’s just Arsenal’s bad luck that both Theo and Ox (who is more of a generalist but can deputise well in that position) were injured at the same time, following the sale of Gervinho in the summer – we suddenly found ourselves without a sniper rifle in our arsenal at the exact moment we needed one. We might not have won against Dortmund if Theo had been fit…but you can’t help but wonder.
The sad thing about specialist weapons is that eventually they become obsolete. Generalist weapons never go out of style. Initial design on the AK-47 began in 1946, according to Wikipedia, and it is still the weapon of choice in most of the world. There will always be a place for Aaron Ramsey at Arsenal, because like the AK-47 he can adapt to almost any situation. Specialist weapons, however, are always at risk of being replaced by a better alternative, or, worse, of a change of circumstances simply rendering them unnecessary. In the arms world, sniper rifles are still useful but they’re being outdone by drones, which have a longer range, can be computer controlled for greater accuracy, and limit risk for the user. In football (and, I know, the metaphor has now officially reached breaking point) wingers like Walcott are being phased out.
This is partly the result of the increasing use of the 4-2-3-1 formation over the last three or four seasons. With the 2 central midfielders free to cover for defenders when necessary, fullbacks are now able to fulfil a greater number of functions – they’ve become more generalised. Leighton Baines can do what Theo does nearly as well as Theo. With fullbacks now offering the a wide, pacey, attacking option, wingers have spent the past five years being replaced with a variety of alternatives, as managers try to find the best solution: you have the wide striker option (Danny Welbeck), the inverted winger (Arjen Robben), the two-footed trickster (Santi Cazorla), or all-of-the-above (Cristiano Ronaldo). If football keeps following this trend then Theo’s sniper rifle will find itself gone the same way as the tank, the longbow and the rapier – a delightful design, impressive to see used well, but not something you’d actually deploy in a combat situation.
But we’re not there yet. For the moment there is still a spot on the squad for a true specialist runner, an out-and-out quick-paced pelting-towards-the-goal sprinter. Even at the highest level many teams are still vulnerable to the Theo Walcotts of this world, as he proved in the second half of last season. New specialists may be encroaching on Theo’s turf, but he’s still a weapon that we need…for now.