Theo Walcott last week went public with his desire to stay at Arsenal, despite doubts lingering over whether he will sign a new deal or leave in the summer when his current contract expires. However, Walcott has claimed that the sticking point in negotiations is not money-orientated but instead his aspiration to play as a central striker as opposed to on the flank where he is currently plying his trade. But is the notoriously inconsistent 23-year-old ready to make the step up?
I’ve written about the enigma that is Theo Walcott before, and the player’s desire, that perhaps could be construed as an ultimatum, to play through the middle poses more questions and, if anything, heaps more pressure on the player. Walcott is perhaps one of the most hotly debated players in Europe. Nobody can seem to decide if he is indeed the real deal, a waste of space, or still a promising youngster with the potential to improve further in the future.
Arsène Wenger evidently doesn’t believe that the former Southampton trainee is complete enough to play as a striker. Walcott’s inability with his back to goal is inevitably the main reason behind his reluctance to deploy the player centrally. He obviously doesn’t have the build or physique to be a target man and hold the ball up, but needs to develop his skills in terms of linking with his teammates, particularly runners from midfield who, in a team as free-flowing as Arsenal, will more often than not be looking to support the frontmen.
Wenger claims that Walcott’s finishing has improved significantly and that in front of goal he is now “absolutely amazing.” His brace against Coventry City in the Capital One Cup last Wednesday is perhaps evidence of this, although it is of course worth noting that Walcott’s goals came whilst he was deployed in his usual wide role. This position undoubtedly suits a player of Walcott’s attributes more than a central role. He’s most effective coming off the flank and exploiting the space between full-back and centre-half, a task he can perform better than others because of his explosive pace, and his aforementioned finishing ability means he can make a tangible contribution in the final third. His crossing can still be wayward but his multitude of assists for Robin van Persie last season suggests that his delivery has indeed improved.
The rise of Gervinho this season has also thrown a cat amongst the pigeons somewhat. The Ivorian was employed solely as a winger last campaign but has been given the chance to play centrally this time around, often switching with Lukas Podolski who starts on the left but tends to drift inside, more often than not to link up with Santi Cazorla with whom the German has already struck up an effective partnership. And there lies the difference between the players. Gervinho can also frustrate but his movement is more intelligent, or at least it causes the opposition more problems than Walcott who can be accused of being too predictable. With four goals already this season, Gervinho is obviously doing something right, and his strike against Chelsea was a perfect demonstration of what he can do; both in his ability to create space for himself and actually putting the ball in the net. One has to wonder whether Walcott possesses the savvy to have eked that half a yard the Ivorian did to create an opportunity. Despite Gervinho being a better fit for the role, Walcott will certainly be irked somewhat that his teammate has been converted into a central player before him.
But the fact is that Gervinho, Podolski and Walcott playing as a front three, constantly swapping positions in a flexible system, can potentially be devastating. Sophisticated movement can leave opposition defenders confused as to who they should pick up, thus giving Arsenal’s forwards perhaps a split-second head-start and, as we all well know, such margins, no matter how fine, can so often be what differentiates the winners from the losers.
Walcott still has a tendency to go missing. His last two appearances in the league, admittedly both from the bench, have epitomised this, with his contributions against Manchester City and Chelsea ranging from minimal to non-existent. Despite occasionally delivering in the big games, he, unsurprisingly, needs to do it more consistently, and impose himself with a greater authority. He simply isn’t cut out to be a top-level forward. Yet. But Walcott has certainly improved as a player, and if he continues to do so, he’ll eventually get his wish of playing as a centre-forward. His manager claims he simply has to be patient, and he could do a lot worse than listen to the advice of Arsène Wenger.
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