This article was first published on 18th December, before Theo Walcott’s hat-trick performance against Newcastle United.
“Playing up front is important. It’s one of the main factors for me. I signed as a striker. I’ve learnt my trade out on the wing”: Theo Walcott, September 2012.
The last time Theo Walcott played regularly as a striker, he scored three goals in three matches. At that time, he was 16-years-old and in a Southampton jersey.
In October 2006, while playing for England U-21 against Germany U-21, he came on in the 77th minute for Gabby Agbonlahor and slammed in two goals in the space of six minutes — as a striker. He had already signed for Arsenal at that point.
In has been six years and counting since then, but the debate hasn’t died down: can Theo Walcott play as a striker? Or should Gunners fans just ‘trust’ Arsene Wenger, cause he knows best? Today, this debate is the one big sticking point in Walcott renewing his Arsenal contract.
Under the extremely trusted Wenger, there has not been a set strike partnership for a long time. Emmanuel Adebayor, Marouane Chamakh, Eduardo, Robin van Persie and Nicklas Bendtner have all come and gone. Olivier Giroud has not troubled the English Premier League’s goalkeepers as much as he was expected to and Lukas Podolski has been deployed on the left.
Judging by Walcott’s performance (and goal) against Reading on Monday night, he is the only answer to Wenger’s problems. Moreover, by playing him through the middle, he kills two birds with one stone — have a zippy striker cause havoc with his pace up front and avoid the embarrassment of losing another player to contract issues.
Walcott has played on both flanks, scored goals, created assists and has had patches of miserable form too. But he never got his wish to play as a striker for a few games on the trot. Half-a-dozen years Walcott has been patient, and however inconsistent he is, he deserves a few chances. And with the situation Wenger is in, he needs to be open to experiments.
Walcott is actually not so bad up front. In the League Cup final in 2007 (yes, you have to go back in history to find a match he played as a striker) he played alongside Jeremie Aliadiere against Chelsea and scored in the 1-2 loss. In the same year, he scored a brace in Arsenal’s 7-0 romp against Slavia Prag while playing as striker with Adebayor.
There are surely other instances where he has played as striker, but those have gone unnoticed.
His record of 53 goals and 44 assists is a fair one for a winger who is just 23-years-old. But most quarters will say that he hasn’t realised his potential yet.
There have been complaints about his bad decision-making — usually going for a shot from a tight angle when a better option is available, showing a lack of composure in one-on-one situations and a habit of wasting a host of chances in big games.
He hasn’t scored a single header for Arsenal and has just just one tap-in according to a stat report on transfermarkt.co.uk. But he is lethal in the first 30 minutes and the last 30 minutes of a match, scoring 43 of his total 63 career goals in those time-frames. Maybe that’s too intricate a stat, but Arsenal could actually benefit from good starts and good ends to their matches.
Playing regularly in a favoured position will slowly cancel out Walcott’s mistakes — he is still very young and has a long time to develop.
If you see it from his side, his half-hearted performances could possibly be because he just doesn’t like playing out wide. He wants to be in the thick of the action and this has been a nagging issue since his arrival. In these last couple of seasons, there has been more attention to where Walcott is playing rather than the fact that he’s getting a match under his belt at all.
Imagine this — if Walcott breaks the offside trap, there’s no catching him. He loves taking on players, has a love for flair and can give Arsenal that little zing they’re missing. With a brilliant Santi Cazorla behind him, it is the perfect time to let him lead the line.
Wenger was quoted after the Reading game as saying: “It is not my decision – it is Theo’s decision as well (signing the contract). If it is my decision it is quickly done.”
Maybe signing the dotted line is not Wenger’s decision, but if it comes down to Walcott signing depending on where he plays, then it is certainly a decision that only the manager can make.
And there are worse things Wenger could do than playing Walcott up front.