Ahead of Saturday’s FA Cup Final, Paul Williams examines Theo Walcott’s chances of a place in the starting line up

Three days until Wembley, are you excited yet?

I may be alone in this regard, but bearing in mind that the semi final took place on 18th April, the final seems to have come around quickly.

Maybe I’ve just been too busy. Either that, it was waiting for Arsenal to score a goal towards the end of the season. Yeah, that made a couple of weeks disappear, didn’t it?

It’s this wait that concerns me.

Arsenal had dominated two home games in a row without being able to score. Against Sunderland, the introduction of Theo Walcott saw us, finally, really threatening to score, but ultimately fall short.

Theo, of course, started his first game in months on Sunday and scored a hat-trick. I think that’s what you call a statement.

Okay, it was the last game of the season, maybe West Brom weren’t too bothered. Then again, he opened the scoring after four minutes with a drive that any goalkeeper in the world would have struggled to save, regardless of how hard they tried.

I really enjoyed his second goal too. Using his patented ‘slip and bounce’ method, he took a couple of neat touches to evade the Baggies defence and slot the ball home.

In tapping home Santi Cazorla’s loose shot across goal, he showed good awareness and anticipation. In all three of his goals he showed almost all of the attributes that we want to see in an Arsenal centre forward.

The question for Arsène Wenger now becomes: is this the real Theo Walcott and, if so, will he turn up at Wembley?

I think it’s only natural to be tempted by the claims of the England international. Make no mistake, this Theo will terrorise Aston Villa and, almost certainly, deliver the FA Cup.

However, this Theo Walcott has only just popped his head above the parapet, with the manager only now trusting in him to deliver after the best part of 18 months out of the first team.

There is also the small matter of how Arsène’s first choice centre forward has responded to the challenge of Danny Welbeck this season.

Olivier Giroud returned from injury like a man with a point to prove. If the cup final was being played a month ago, I don’t think there would even be a debate about who should be playing up top. However, Giroud’s drop in form, with no goals in eight games and Walcott’s blistering display on Sunday has given the manager a decision to make.

Bearing in mind the backing Olivier has had from the manager since his arrival in north London, as well as the importance of his link up play to our game, it’s difficult to imagine Le Boss leaving him out. That said, I think there are a few factors which might just tip the balance in Theo’s favour. As follows:

  • Arsenal lack pace, width and the ability to stretch opposition defences when Theo is not on the pitch. This has been exacerbated by the recent unavailability of the Ox.
  • The deployment of Walcott up top gives Arsène the ability to field Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla, Mesut Özil AND Alexis in midfield without sacrificing the threat of Walcott running in behind.
  • That threat in behind gives Cazorla and Özil an inviting target to hit – and we know they can hit him.
  • Sunday saw the return of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to the first team picture. Up until this weekend, Theo was the game changing substitute. He can now be unleashed from the start, with the Ox available as someone to drive the game on, should it be necessary, late on.
  • His finishing. Whatever his faults, he is almost certainly the best finisher currently at the club.

Even those of you with with short term memory issues will recall that I have been quite vocal regarding Theo and his contract situation and probably consider this quite the volte-face. I think you have to divorce that situation from this game. Something we know from last year Arsène can do quite easily. My thinking here is rooted only what I think gives Arsenal the best chance of winning the cup final and for me, now, it’s a team which contains Theo Walcott.

I think it will give the Aston Villa defence more problems than they would have in facing Giroud. For a start, they won’t be able to press us, in the way that Manchester United did earlier this month. At least, such a press becomes a high risk strategy. Of course, Villa could easily just sit off us and not allow Theo any space in behind, but that – bearing in mind the quality of our midfield – is a high risk strategy in itself.

I’m not going to sit and here and say that I think the FA Cup Final hinges on whether Theo or Olivier starts the match. Giroud is clearly a very good footballer and has been integral to Arsenal’s good form this year and, er, Theo hasn’t.

Our build up play could easily suffer with Theo leading the line. I just think that Theo’s pace and movement gives an Arsenal team stacked with footballers, but not necessarily runners, an extra dimension, a bit of variation and a cutting edge.

That extra dimension could prove crucial come 7.30, Saturday night.