Arsenal forward Theo Walcott’s future at the club hasn’t always been clear this season but after signing a new three-and-a-half-year contract to extend his stay at the Emirates, it seems the crux of the contractual wrangle, his desire to play up front and through the middle as a striker had been solved after getting an extended run in the side, but is the jury still out as to whether this is really his natural position?
The 23-year-old England international’s performance during the 2-1 defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge perfectly encapsulated both sides of the argument. In the first half, Walcott was caught offside three times trying to get on the last shoulder of the defender before latching on to a through ball from midfield only for the Chelsea back four to comfortably step up and leave him obsolete. However, after the break, with renewed purpose, Arsenal began to flood forward more and more, pushing Rafa Benitez’s side deeper and deeper into their own half and when collecting a lovely slide rule pass from Santi Cazorla, he dispatched his effort into the bottom corner past Petr Cech to give his side a lifeline in the 58th minute.
Many have argued that Walcott is only as good as the service he gets, which is the case with plenty of strikers; he’s a touch one-dimensional, relying on his pace more than most, but when faced with the whites of the goalkeeper’s eyes, he has developed an unnerving accuracy in front of goal and has become something of a clinical finisher in one-on-one situations. Is granting him a central striking role really the best move for Arsenal when they have the likes of Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski within the ranks, though? Or have the side slowly but surely started to adjust to their new main man up top?
Wenger told reporters after the 5-2 victory over Reading back in December: “Thierry (Henry) gives him advice, which is always important and Theo is a very intelligent boy.
“He understands very quickly when you tell him something and that’s why I think he can do very well in this position. I like what I have seen of Theo through the middle.
“It’s an interesting challenge (for him). I think he can take it on. He is now 23. I decided to play Henry at 23 through the middle because you have to learn a lot before.”
Walcott is currently the club’s top scorer this season with 17 goals across all competitions, including 10 in the Premier League, while delivering the healthy return of 11 assists. His hat-trick through the middle against Newcastle, plus another against Reading and the winner against Brighton point to a productive spell, while his shot accuracy of 63% is impressive. According to Opta, Walcott is currently contributing a goal or assist every 71.8 minutes of playing time, which compares favourably to his former team-mate, Manchester United striker Robin van Persie’s at 76.9. He is clearly playing with plenty of confidence now.
However, the club’s recent 5-1 victory over West Ham at home during a mad seven-minute spell during which they scored four goals showcased perhaps the team’s most balanced attack, with Lukas Podolski down the left, an increasingly at home Olivier Giroud through the middle and Walcott to the right of a front three but given the mandate to drift inside more than he used to when playing as a traditional winger.
It’s worth noting that excluding cup competitions, when it comes down to the nitty gritty of games against quality opposition, Walcott has a return of four goals in five games with two assists according to WhoScored as a striker. Contrast this with his record out wide, which has seen him score five goals and make four assists in eight games, with a further nine appearances as a substitute rendering two goals and one assist and it’s difficult to come down definitively on either side. It’s hard to say with any confidence that he’s serving the side more through the middle than he is out wide. He doesn’t appear to be hampered by getting involved in the final third from the flank as much as you may initially expect.
There is an element of obsession within the media regarding Walcott (I realise the irony that I’m now adding to it with this article), just as there is and will continue to be with Wayne Rooney. Only Walcott would come under such scrutiny for accepting a contract of £100k-per-week with many observers arguing that he’s not ‘worthy’ of such an amount, but that completely misses the point because at the moment he is the club’s most consistent attacking outlet, and regardless of money, he is doing an extremely good job this season.
It’s not that Walcott can’t play through the middle as a striker, he clearly can, it’s just that the overall quality of the side and variance of their play may be affected against better opposition when he does. He is a one-dimensional striker and when he plays up front, as Arsenal looked against Chelsea in the first half, the side lowers itself to adjust to his level by becoming more one-dimensional in the way they move the ball and look for gaps in the opposition. The tactic of playing him in behind might not always work, but when he comes off the flank with a more recognisable reference point like Giroud, he can do just as much damage.
The obvious counter-argument, as it always has been, is that Walcott’s pace necessitates teams playing deeper to try and stop him having an impact on games, so even when he’s not playing particularly well, he can have a telling impact on the shape and flow of a game. The West Ham game showed that Wenger has the option of shifting him about to devastating effect, though, and he will need to continue striking this balance depending on the opposition. He will always be a player that divides opinion, with his champions pointing to the most visceral of attributes – his acceleration – as proof that he has something to offer in a central role, while his detractors guffaw at every opportunity he wastes in and around the box as proof that they are right.
Without trying to sit on the fence too much, as the above statistics show, he can clearly contribute equally from both roles and it’s still too early to tell whether he will be a lasting success as a striker, with conclusive proof in short supply. Moreover, we shouldn’t let this positional question mark detract from the qualities he does bring to the side in what is shaping up to be a memorable season from a personal perspective for the player concerned.