4 Things We Learned from 3rd Round Weekend
Walcott is progressing at centre forward
Whilst I still don`t believe it to be his best position, Walcott had his most convincing game yet in the central striker`s position against Spurs. Tottenham played with two nominal strikers, but Walcott showed them simply laying tactical foundations isn`t sufficient to guarantee an attacking threat. Walcott looked stronger and braver in the duels (he had to be stretchered off because he ran 40 yards to close down a Spurs player with an already injured knee) and his movement was as good as it has ever been through the centre.
Walcott has been virtually playing as a striker for the last 12 months; it`s just that his starting position is from the right, where he avoids detection, running between full backs and centre halves and allowing Giroud to occupy the centre halves. But there was evidence on Saturday evening that Walcott`s movement from the centre can occupy defences as well. He took the Spurs defence away from an unmarked Santi Cazorla for the first goal and with a good selection of creative players behind him, Walcott as a centre forward might not be the last resort it would have been viewed as at the beginning of the season.
It probably helped Theo to have an impressive Serge Gnabry to his right, whose movement with and without the ball caused Tottenham problems in the first half. Gnabry also provides a physical presence and his probing invention complimented Walcott`s running. My only concern is that Theo can be a tad selfish when playing through the middle. He sometimes eschews the pass in favour of the shot. For two of Walcott`s better chances, he arguably had a more attractive passing option. I would put that down to Walcott`s desperation to prove himself as a centre forward. Spurs play quite an open game too, which will have suited Theo. But you have to think, for the time being at least, he is ahead of Lukas Podolski in the pecking order for a central berth in Giroud`s absence.
4-4-2 is being exposed in the modern game
Both Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur produced insipid performances bookmarked by creative struggles. The issue that both teams appeared to have was a lack of subtlety in the final third. It`s often said that playing a four man midfield will lose you the skirmish for possessive domination in midfield. Whilst there is stock in that theory, what United and Spurs found to their cost is that a prosaic 4-4-2 leaves the midfield and the forwards at too great a disconnect.
Neither side had a player willing to play between the lines of the opposition`s midfield and defence and feed their strikers. Though it`s true that Arsenal being down to ten men might have contributed to the impression, Spurs did not look even slightly threatening to Arsenal until Sherwood replaced Soldado with Chadli. Chadli was available to link the play in Arsenal`s third and, if anything, just ensure that attacks didn`t break down before they could gather any momentum. Denied a strike force of Rooney and van Persie, United struggle to make 4-4-2 work without Rooney dropping off of the front line. That Shinji Kagawa is still struggling to make an impression without the aforementioned strike force is worrying in the extreme for United.
The Japanese international ought to possess all of the attributes to mend such a weakness in United`s approach but the truth is, even Ferguson could not shoehorn him into United`s setup. Moyes has the look of a half decent geography teacher who has been promoted to Education Secretary, so perhaps it`s unrealistic to expect him to solve the problem of Kagawa any time soon. In the meantime, United desperately need a creative player to make Moyes` rather prosaic "4-42, feed the wingers and get crosses in" style.
Everybody is devaluing the F.A. Cup
Paul Lambert and Sam Allardyce were both rather blunt in their pre match assessments of the F.A. Cup. Both, perhaps poetically, suffered at the hands of Football League opposition. Villa were humbled at home to League One strugglers Sheffield United, whilst West Ham were given a humiliating 5-0 shoeing at Nottingham Forest. As a result, both managers have been criticised for banging a further nail in the coffin of the F.A. Cup.
Yet Villa only made 4 changes from their last Premier League game, one enforced due to an injury in the warm up. The worry for Sam Allardyce isn`t so much that a shadow side were utterly humped at the City Ground, it`s that his side looked so unmotivated. Despite Allardyce`s sheepish post match comments, in which he typically looked to shift the blame from himself, the Hammers were still able to field Matt Jarvis, Stewart Downing, Alou Diarra, Modibo Maiga and Ravel Morrison.
Hull City made 9 changes to their side, but largely escaped media censure because a) they won 2-0 at Middlesbrough and b) Steve Bruce was a little quieter about his intentions. Manchester United and Arsenal still made changes to their line ups despite playing Premier League opposition, but of course, they have the resources to do so. The television companies don`t help either with stupid kickoff times and the draw for the next round being conducted well before the current round has finished.
Ultimately, the F.A. Cup`s sheen will never be restored whilst more lucrative targets (Champions League qualification, Premier League survival) decide manager`s futures in football`s oak panelled boardrooms. However, you feel the scheduling of the Premier League also doesn`t help the F.A. Cup 3rd round weekend, with most sides playing 4 games in 9 days over the festive season. Christmas football is something of a tradition in England and a fine one it is too. However, I find it difficult to understand the obsession with playing on New Year`s Day. Most football fans aren`t really in any condition to enthuse over the January 1st match, the players are clearly exhausted by then and it infringes on the 3rd round, a staple weekend of the calendar. The August international friendly is soon to be confined to the past. Next season, that ought to give the Premier League an available midweek slot to relieve the New Year`s Day fixture of its arduous duties for good and alleviate the schedule, meaning managers feel more inclined to field more competitive sides.
The media`s addiction to outrage is making football soft
That there is even the slightest hint of a suggestion that Theo Walcott could face F.A. censure for reminding travelling Tottenham fans of the score is an exasperating sign o` the times. Arsene Wenger clearly became crabby with ITV`s line of questioning following his side`s consummate win over Spurs, so intent were they on working a controversial angle from a nothing incident. To accuse Walcott of "inciting" Tottenham fans is to relieve fully grown adults of their responsibility to govern their own emotions.
Even leaving aside the "they started it" argument, given the coins and vitriol Walcott received from the Spurs fans, if a man smiling and mockingly reminding you of the score causes you to lose control of your emotions then the problem is yours, not the player`s. We should not seek to pander to the emotionally incontinent in this way. As a society, we`re becoming more sensitive with each passing year. We are at a point now where people love to get offended and will seek offence in the most innocuous of incidents.
This sense of entitlement is fuelled by the media, ravenous for some kind of inflammatory angle. Hence, their language is intentionally deceptive and laden with innuendo. Thus, Walcott "aimed a gesture" at Spurs fans they say. It`s technically true that he did, but journalists are fully aware of the subconscious connotations of such conniving phraseology. The word "incitement" is weaved into paragraphs examining the incident. "Sticks and stones" is a nursery rhyme we teach children at playschool, yet it seems some fully grown men could do with a revision of that sentiment. Football has been sterilised quite enough without the need for us all to turn into delicate little flowers. LD.