If, as expected, Arsenal complete the signing of Jamie Vardy, they’ll get the striker Theo Walcott should have been last season. Signing Leicester City’s leading goalscorer will give the Gunners the pace to strike instantly on the break and play the game best suited to manager Arsene Wenger’s current squad.
It’s an inspired move by Wenger to trigger Vardy’s £20 million release clause, as reported by Stuart James of the Guardian:
Twitter: Understand that Arsenal have triggered the release clause in Jamie Vardy’s contract. Leicester still determined to keep hold of him. (@StuartJamesGNM)
The move was also confirmed by BBC Sport’s David Ornstein:
Twitter: Arsenal have triggered Jamie Vardy release clause & in talks with Leicester to sign the striker. Story broken by @StuartJamesGNM #AFC #LCFC (@bbcsport_david)
The Gunners are wisely moving quickly to wrap up what would be the signing of the summer. James Benge of the Evening Standard has reported how Arsenal want the transfer completed by the time Vardy leaves for England’s UEFA Euro 2016 campaign on Monday.
Vardy to Arsenal makes perfect sense because he can revive the formula Wenger was counting on last season, a formula dependent on Walcott finally making the grade as a central striker.
Since news of Vardy to Arsenal broke, it’s been astonishing to see the number of people questioning whether the 29-year-old will fit Wenger’s style of play.
It’s not only an unimaginative question, but a pointless one. The Gunners have already proved they can play to the strengths of a centre-forward who thrives striking on the break.
They did it in their best games of the 2014/15 season and their signature moments of the 2015/16 campaign. Those moments included the 4-0 win over Aston Villa in 2015’s FA Cup final. They also included the 5-2 away win over Vardy’s Leicester last September and the 3-0 trouncing of Manchester United at the Emirates Stadium in early October.
The one constant of these results was Walcott’s presence as the team’s striker in place of target man Olivier Giroud. With Walcott speeding through the middle, the Gunners were committed to creating chances from fewer passes thanks to the converted winger’s defence-stretching pace.
The perfect illustration of Walcott-led Arsenal at their best came in a 2-0 home win over Stoke City in September. A sliding tackle from midfield enforcer Francis Coquelin gave Ozil possession in his own half. The German took one look and lifted a delightful, left-footed long ball over the top of the Stoke defence, which Walcott raced to meet before turning into the net.
One tackle, one pass, one goal. It happened just that quick.
The rapid-fire, lethal attack not only showed how Walcott is supposed to work as a centre-forward, but also why Arsenal’s game will suit Vardy. There’s no difference between that goal and the first of Vardy’s brace at Sunderland in April.
This time, N’Golo Kante won the ball, before fellow midfielder Danny Drinkwater lifted a long pass over the top and into the inside left channel for Vardy. The latter’s pace sent him clear and he finished astutely across the goalkeeper.
It was a goal reminiscent of Gunners great Thierry Henry. Remember him? Good, then you should know how well Wenger’s teams can play to pace on the break.
The Frenchman wanted that approach to define his title-chasing squad last season, but two factors conspired to scupper his grand design.
First, Walcott didn’t deliver after his long-awaited move into the middle. Inconsistencies, questionable work rate and injuries produced a middling return in front of goal. He scored a mere five Premier League goals, per WhoScored.com.
Yet, Walcott’s woes were just as much about how he played when he was on the pitch. He didn’t make enough of the right runs to take advantage of his pace, often dropping short when he should have been spinning in-behind.
Walcott also didn’t work the last line as much as he should, pressing defenders and staying on the edge of the offside rule to always be ready to break beyond and meet an expertly weighted through pass.
Fortunately, those are the things that made Vardy a 24-goal star with the Foxes. They are also the qualities Wenger’s platoon of pass-masters will exploit more often at Arsenal.
But it wasn’t just Walcott’s struggles that wrecked Wenger’s intended ‘kill-by-counter’ tactic in 2015/16. Losing Alexis Sanchez for two months due to injury also didn’t help.
How can you play on the break without your two quickest forwards?
Of course, there are those who doubt ceding the ball and playing on the break is in the makeup of a manager whose teams have traditionally brought death by 1,000 intricate and patient passes.
Again though, this view ignores recent history. Mail Online’s Sam Cunningham detailed how successful this Arsenal side has been playing without the ball, following one of the Gunners most notable wins last season:
In their surprise win against Bayern Munich, which has kept their Champions League hopes alive, Arsenal had a paltry 27 per cent possession. The 3-0 demolition of Manchester United at the start of October saw them with just 38 per cent of the ball.
In victory in the Community Shield against Chelsea they had a mere 43 per cent. In this calendar year, Arsenal have recorded 11 victories against teams when they have had less than 50 per cent possession, including against Tottenham and Liverpool.
Arsenal couldn’t maintain the strategy in 2015/16 season because Walcott couldn’t play like Vardy. Now Wenger has the perfect weapon for a tactical approach he knows better than people think.