In a week where crushing disappointment was followed by elation, in what has already been a season of remarkable ups and downs, the continued evolution of our front line is an undoubted positive.
Of course a key component in this is the spectacular return to form of Alexis Sanchez, with 6 goals and an assist (as well as a couple of ‘pre-assists’) in his last 3 games. Last season’s exploits and his fantastic attitude were enough to leave us feeling confident that match-winning feats were only just around the corner, and so it has proved.
What has been even more encouraging, and less predictable, has not only been Özil’s increased end product, but more importantly for this side, the fast-forward development of Theo Walcott as a central striker. I’ve mused on this subject before, but both the player’s apparent evolution and the team’s increasing awareness of how to maximise that mean the subject is worth re-visiting.
In terms of his goals this year, they have been exactly as one would predict. Outpacing the backlines of Stoke and Leicester and finishing coolly, and the ‘Henry-lite’ inside-left run and finish against Olympiakos. What has taken most Gooners by surprise in recent weeks has been his all-round game.
We’ve all seen plenty of games down the years where Theo has wandered around somewhat ineffectually waiting for the ball into the channels to run on to. We’ve all sighed at his seemingly futile attempts to battle defenders twice his size, and we’ve all probably shared the odd expletive at his reluctance to run when the team is out of possession.
He’s been the nice young boy on the wing with lightning speed and a slightly diffident attitude. Occasionally unstoppable, often frustrating.
But something has changed.
Before his vague pleas for a striking berth sounded like hopeful attempts at hubris from the schoolboy in the playground. He thinks he’d be really good there, but being pushed aside for bigger kids has resulted in that as a hope rather than an expectation.
This year it seems opportunity, maturity and attitude are shaping expectation.
Perhaps it is the perspective of fatherhood. Perhaps it is the natural development of confidence that comes with becoming a man. Perhaps it is a determination not waste any more time after injury showed just how short a career can be. But Theo WANTS to be the main man now, and the manager’s failure to convince Benzema to move to London in the summer has left a door open that Walcott seems determined to walk through.
This shift was noted by Amy Lawrence in her article for the BBC website, written before his excellent showing against Man Utd:
“His confident body language suggests he feels he belongs up front now and welcomes the responsibility. He also possesses a coolness of character which means he doesn’t look affected if he misses a chance, and just concentrates on waiting for the next one.”
That coolness has often been interpreted as a lack of passion, and perhaps to a certain degree it might be. But it is also illustrative of a re-discovered lack of anxiety. While he lacks Giroud’s demonstrative personality, he also thrives from an absence of the Frenchman’s tension.
When Giroud misses a couple of chances, he allows it to affect his game, and a bad first half is seldom followed by excellence after the interval. Walcott has somehow developed a detached confidence that allows him to recover from poor misses in the early going against Stoke to then score a brilliantly taken goal from a more difficult position.
He does miss chances that you feel he should score. But the statistics make it pretty clear that he’s no more guilty of this than all but the very best, and if you create opportunities for Theo, the team WILL score goals.
But it isn’t just a change in attitude that we are seeing.
He’s also applying more intelligence to his game. As per his interview on the Arsenal website in late September, he recognises that he can benefit his team-mates in rather different ways to Olivier Giroud. He talked about creating space for others (something he has always done well intermittently – his movement for Nasri’s winner against Man Utd as long ago as 2008 is testament to that), and in recent weeks he has been excellent in that regard. Even against Chelsea he stretched them on several occasions in each half, and against Leicester and Man Utd his movement both as target and decoy has been exemplary. He has also started to realise that his quickness and generally sound first touch allow him to receive the ball in little pockets of space, rather than having to unnecessarily battle against centre-halves who dwarf him. His contributions to both the second and third goals at the weekend were perfect illustrations of effective his pace and movement can be in other, less obvious areas.
Interestingly, this has also coincided with an increased willingness to be involved in physical duels and a greater realisation of how his lower centre of gravity can work to his advantage. Like many strikers, he struggled against the impressive physicality of Chris Smalling when 1-on-1, but aside from that, he has held his own impressively in recent games. Certainly the Theo Walcott of 2012 would probably not have been able to hold off and roll Robert Huth or be winning headers against Daley Blind.
The level of physical commitment and bravery in his performance against Manchester United was noted by Wenger in his post-match press conference. It was also something we hadn’t seen since his ill-fated start up-front against Spurs in the FA Cup in January 2014, when a hunger and determination to win the ball for his team cost him a year of his career. On Sunday he challenged defenders for long clearances, harried them when in possession, won the ball back in midfield on several occasions and forced De Gea to boot it into the stands more than once. It was a performance infused with the spirit of Alexis, and certainly suggested that he has fully mentally recovered from his previous injury.
A Theo Walcott playing with that kind of energy and determination could quickly see his status with the fanbase go from generally liked to hero. As September’s player of the Month on both dailycannon.com and Arsenal.com, it seems his efforts and improvement are not going unnoticed.
Alongside his increased awareness of how to play up front is the very exciting understanding forming with Özil and particularly Alexis. Given that the Chilean is a 100mph footballer, he is clearly enjoying the presence of another speed merchant who can be effective in wider areas as well as central ones. Early signs of this positional rotation between the two were evident in the FA Cup final, and they each seem to have a fundamental understanding of the movements the other wants to make.
As was amply demonstrated in Madrid, Mesut Özil is always grateful for synchronised runners, and his ability on the ball gives Walcott the confidence to keep making penetrating runs. Certainly the idea of a Walcott-Özil axis has always sounded a mouth watering prospect, and the evidence is there in cold black and white. In the 18 games they have started together, the pair have generated 18 goals and 13 assists. The sample size is small, but it seems likely that as they continue to develop their understanding, this ratio is just as likely to accelerate as regress.
So far, so exciting. But lest we prematurely decide that Theo is transforming into the mythical unicorn striker of yore, rendering all desires for Benzema, Cavani or Lacazette obsolete, it’s worth remembering that in footballing terms, the night is young. According to www.transfermarkt.co.uk, Walcott has started a grand total of 20 games as a centre-forward in his Arsenal career.
Ultimately, a striker will always be primarily judged on goals, and although it might be his all-round development that decides whether he can cement his current positions as first choice striker, it will be how often the ball finds that back of the net that will define his impact up front.
However, the current signs are promising. Particularly when one considers that in those 20 games at centre-forward over the last 4 seasons, Walcott has scored 12 goals and created 8 others, an impact ratio that we’d all settle for looking ahead.
The great luxury the manager has is knowing that depending on the team’s needs Theo can fulfil a role on both flanks and remain a goal threat due to his pace and movement. And indeed many think that he should return to a wider position if another striker can be found. Ultimately, the combination of transfer disappointments, Welbeck’s injury and Giroud’s struggles for form have finally given Theo Walcott the chance to prove himself as a striker that he has craved for years. He’s certainly making a good case.