It hardly came as a bolt out of the blue, but Theo Walcott’s announcement that he will only sign a new contract if he is given a chance to shine in his favoured position will have raised a few eyebrows among the Arsenal fraternity.
At the centre of his convoluted contract negotiations, he revealed, is not a dispute over his wage structure, but instead his ambition to make Arsenal’s central striker berth his own. “I've been judged, with people saying it's all about money,” he said. “But it's never been about that. Playing up front is what is important to me – it's one of the main factors.”
Scoff all you like, but I think he has a valid point.
Walcott, for all his critics and perceived inconsistency, is one of Arsenal’s best players. He may not have the cunning of Mikel Arteta, the cuteness of Santi Cazorla or the conventional, bustling style of Olivier Giroud, but he is, to coin a staple English footballing term, lively.
Arguably the fastest footballer in Britain – although were they to relaunch this frankly awesome fastest footballer challenge I’d envisage Sylvain Distin and Kyle Walker giving him a run for his money – Walcott is also one of the most improved Premier League players around. Of course, training every day with so many technically gifted footballers will help, but more than that he has dedicated himself to honing new attributes over this past few years.
As a young footballer at Southampton, such was his athletic superiority over his contemporaries, Walcott was able to rely on his pace and little else besides. But that was never going to suffice in the big boy’s league.
His technical ability has so often come under scrutiny. Many accusations are levelled at him: that he wastes chances, gives the ball away too often and runs down the wing like a dog with a balloon. But watch him closely in even one entire match and you will realise how unfounded these accusations are, and how much more he has stored away in his locker.
For starters, his finishing, in one-on-one situations particularly, is crisp and nerveless. He has always had an eye for the net – it was his scoring feats at Saints that first attracted wider attention – and there is little doubt that when he uses instinct over theory he is clinical in front of goal. In each of the past two seasons, Walcott has notched double figures for the Gunners; not bad for a frustrated winger with the touch of a dog with a balloon.
But it’s his movement, his understanding of top level football’s tricks of the trade and his awareness of what’s around him that have come on leaps and bounds in recent times. This is why I believe he has many of the attributes to be a central striker.
I can understand Arsene Wenger’s reservations. Walcott is not built like an archetypal number nine. But neither are Michael Owen, Jermaine Defoe or Robbie Fowler, and each of them has excelled in this fast and furious Premier League era.
Another issue often highlighted is Walcott’s perceived inability to play with his back to goal. I don’t buy this one bit. You don’t want to get stuck in no-man’s land when you’re marking Walcott, which brings me to the two distinct strategies a full back can use to limit the damage a winger with his blistering pace can inflict. The first is to stand off him, allow him to have the ball and the immediate space he inhabits, but ensure you’re goal-side and are limiting the space in behind by jockeying him and showing him down the line.
This first tactic has served many an opposition full back well against Arsenal, but the second option, whereby a full back gets so tight that Walcott cannot control the ball in the first place, is the one that is most often deployed against him in the Premier League. The regularity of this second ploy has given Walcott much practice in mimicking the role of a ‘back-to-goal’ striker, as well as providing him with the most joy.
He tends to back-in well when marked tightly. He has the awareness to shift the ball either way around the corner, is happy playing the way he is facing when required, or as seen by his Thierry Henry-esque second goal in midweek against Coventry, he can swerve away from his marker, carry the ball into dangerous areas and finish devastatingly from the inside left channel.
Without labouring the scouting report-style analysis here, just imagine how lethal he could be playing off the shoulder of an ageing Rio Ferdinand, or John Terry, or Carles Puyol for that matter.
Scoff all you like, but I believe the new improved Theo Walcott is a readymade number nine in waiting. And, if as suggested it is a case of giving him a chance up top or losing him to a team that will, I think Arsene Wenger would be crazy not to indulge his asset’s ambition.
Click here to read more from Bet.Unibet Editor Ben Cove.