It may be fairly easy to forget the promise showed by Walcott and the promises offered by the club last season amid all the excitement of a new, world-class forward. Walcott used the striker issue as leverage during the contract saga of last season, going on to perform beyond anyone’s expectations and giving the club absolutely no choice but to tie him up; not quite for the long term, but that’s a different story altogether.
The problem now is that Gonzalo Higuain (or Wayne Rooney) will be Arsenal’s first-choice striker, relieved by Olivier Giroud, who had a fairly good season for his first time out in the Premier League. Walcott may get some game time as the team’s centre-forward, but the emphasis has really shifted away from what he can offer.
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The thing is, this likely abundance of forwards is only a good headache if Arsene Wenger knows how to rotate his options effectively. Walcott, despite not being in the class of Higuain, can still offer so much against teams who are willing to play. His pace and lack of technical proficiency becomes near useless when deployed against a team who are defending deep. In theory, his style of play should offer Arsenal a lot, but Walcott has never had the intelligence to use his pace in the way other more traditional wingers, such as Jesus Navas, do.
Walcott is a weapon any club would love to have when the game is open and there is plenty of space to run in behind the opposition defence. The concern here is whether Wenger looks at his options that way, or if he just chooses his strongest XI regardless of opposition.
Higuain is the calibre of player Arsenal have needed for a long time, certainly way before the club lost Robin van Persie to Manchester United. We’ll never know what could have been of Eduardo had he not suffered that injury, but following Thierry Henry’s departure, most were quick to assume that without a readymade replacement, Arsenal would struggle. Van Persie was excellent that season, so too was Emmanuel Adebayor. But it was cut short: van Persie picked up his annual injury and Adebayor only fancied it for one season.
Now, Arsenal could have a collection of forwards who are capable of combining for around 60 goals over a season, and that excludes the contribution of Lukas Podolski and the other midfielders. Higuain ticks the box as a forward who can fashion his own scoring chances, but he’ll more than benefit from Walcott’s delivery from the right flank. Anyone who thinks up Arsenal’s strongest XI after this summer’s business is over and done with is sure to pick Walcott on the right of the front three.
An option could be for Wenger to finally revert back to two strikers and fully exploit the wealth of options he could have. Walcott’s pace combined with Oliver Giroud could be a winning formula, while Lukas Podolski has seen his best scoring days as a centre-forward when paired with another. But in today’s game, a switch to 4-4-2 is seen as regressive. You can understand Wenger’s reasoning when he says it would expose the midfield and back four. Furthermore, the style of football Arsenal supporters want to see leans on the need for a five-man midfield, in whatever variation.
Walcott has a need and a desire to play as a striker – you can’t run away from that. But I wouldn’t necessarily say Wenger is set in his ways with Walcott on the flank. Much was expected of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain after his first season at Arsenal, but it’s clear that the youngster is still too raw to feature regularly in the starting XI. Walcott, for his shortcomings, does have the experience of playing each week.
If Higuain comes in, he’ll be by far Arsenal’s best striker and should be treated as such. He’ll figure in the high-profile games and take much of the scoring responsibility over the course of a season. Walcott may see himself as the next Henry or something in a similar mould, but I don’t think playing him centrally is the only way to appease him. Swap him over to the left side of attack permanently and watch his scoring numbers soar. Henry himself never really kept to the centre of the pitch when playing, while his time at Barcelona saw him as the left-sided attacker when Samuel Eto’o was preferred through the middle.
On paper, it’s the best way to make the most of Walcott’s scoring ability and potential without hampering Higuain or Giroud. Playing Walcott from the left could be another masterstroke by Wenger.
What will the addition of a new striker mean for Walcott?
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