So, Theo Walcott wants to be a winger again, huh?
Excuse me for a moment.
*walks away from laptop, turns to face the kitchen wall, and then proceeds to smash my face against it repeatedly*
Where was I?
Oh yeah, Walcott.
At a time when the position of striker at Arsenal has never been more available for someone to claim as their own, Theo has decided that he’d rather be known as a winger. Again.
It seems as if the timing of his announcements are equal to the timing of his runs behind a back line; rather sub-optimal.
It seems like a bizarre thing to say, that he wants to focus on being a right-winger, when all he has said over the last three years is that he wants to play as a striker. He’ll never have a better chance of getting regular game-time up front for Arsenal than he does right now, yet he seems to be volunteering himself out of the equation.
Why would he do this?
There are two plausible theories, one of which is easy to understand and the other is a far more complex issue.
The former can be extrapolated from his performances so far in pre-season. He looks horribly short in confidence, rushing shots and passes when given multiple options to choose from. He might just be thinking that he’s not up to the standard required and is dropping himself before he thinks he’ll be dropped.
If it is this, then this is only a short-term issue that would correct itself once he scored a goal or two and regained some faith in his own ability.
However, this theory has one vital flaw, as it implies that Walcott has a natural position and skill set to fall back on as he tries to get some form back. But, does he?
This is where the latter theory comes into play, as this problem may actually stem from how we’ve utilised Walcott as a player ever since we bought him in 2006.
When Walcott arrived at Arsenal, he was a striker. Nothing more, nothing less. He was agile, a decent dribbler, instinctive finisher and, most of all, lightning quick. It was impossible to watch him play and not think that Michael Owen had somehow found a way of reversing the ageing process.
But just like Owen, you couldn’t play Theo up top by himself. He needed a partner to play off, someone to hold the ball up for him, someone to drag central defenders out of the way to make room for him to run in to. But we had thought of that ahead of time.
In the same transfer window that we bought Walcott, we bought a chap by the name of Emmanuel Adebayor. You may remember him.
For the first ten years of Arsene Wenger’s tenure, Arsenal played two up front. The plan for Walcott was to play as the furthest forward striker, a la Thierry Henry, and it made perfect sense. If one of Adebayor, Eduardo or Robin van Persie was able could adapt to play a little deeper, then Theo would have been a nightmare to mark.
But then 2008 happened, and everything changed.
First, Mathieu Flamini left the club, which meant we were forced to play Cesc Fabregas as a number 10 to cover his defensive shortcomings. Then, Eduardo’s leg was broken into more pieces than a jigsaw puzzle, leaving Arsenal short of numbers up front. As a result, we couldn’t play 4-4-2 as much as we wanted to, and started playing 4-1-4-1 a lot more than normal, leaving chances for Walcott to play up front at a premium.
This continued throughout 2009, when Adebayor and van Persie were monopolising the striker positions between themselves, and Fabregas became virtually undroppable.
Eventually, at the start of the 2009/10 season, Arsenal went to 4-2-3-1 full-time, with the intention of playing a strong, target-man style striker up front. In other words, not Theo Walcott. (Or Andrei Arshavin, for that matter. He was never a winger. Sigh.)
We now had a very square puzzle piece, and only one place to put him in, which was the round hole out on the right wing. It was the equivalent of asking a trained electrician to fix the hole in your roof; they could probably do it given enough time, but they wouldn’t be the first person you asked to do it.
We weren’t just asking a player to learn a new position, we were asking him to completely change the way he played. Since he was a boy, he was taught to play high up the pitch and off the shoulders of defenders. Now he was being asked to beat a defender with the ball, instead of with movement without the ball.
Walcott is best deployed by getting players to pass the ball ahead of him, yet we spent the bulk of his developmental years passing the ball to his feet, in a position that he didn’t feel comfortable in. Now, we’re asking to forget all he learnt whilst isolated on the wing and contribute to the play through the middle again.
It’s no wonder the bloke looks confused!
Any time he isn’t given time to think on the ball, he’s great. Our best thirty minutes of attacking football last year had him playing centre-forward with Mesut Özil, Alexis Sanchez and Santi Cazorla causing havoc around him. It was pass and move, pass and move.
With that sort of calibre of player around him, he’s fine. When he’s playing a pre-season friendly with players who are not of that ilk, he struggles.
At 27 years of age, time is not on Walcott’s side as he attempts to nail down a place in Arsenal’s starting XI.
There’s no doubt that he knows this as much as anyone. But with Wenger’s desire to play Aaron Ramsey out wide just so he gets game-time, Walcott’s best chance, and perhaps last chance, is to focus on being was he was always destined to be; a striker.