Walcott shows plenty to look forward to in new leading role

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The Independent Online

Theo Walcott got what he had been waiting for last night, as Arsène Wenger picked him up front. It would be wrong to call it an early Christmas present, as Walcott had earned this with 10 goals already so far this season. And because, unlike a gift, he rewarded the bestower, scoring the final goal and ending what might have been a minor psychodrama.

Santi Cazorla was the star of last night but Walcott did play well. And with 10 minutes left he took Cazorla's pass, shuffled inside Kaspars Gorkss and finished into the bottom corner to make it 5-2 and end the game.

He certainly did enough to justify his selection and to earn the support of the fans, who have not always adored him but do appreciate him, the travelling 2,067 imploring Wenger to "sign him up" throughout the second half. They know that the club cannot do without his pace or his directness or his goals. He is Arsenal's top goalscorer and might wonder why it took so long for him to get the chance he got here last night.

Playing up front is what Walcott has always wanted. It is one of the main reasons for him not signing a new deal. Centre-forward is where Walcott sees his future, and if it is not at Arsenal it may have to be elsewhere.

Walcott must have been delighted, then, when he heard about his role. It certainly made some sense. Last Tuesday night at Valley Parade, Wenger played Gervinho up front, as he had done earlier this season. The result, losing to Bradford in the League Cup, was one of the worst results of the Wenger era.

It was at the Madejski Stadium, that Walcott scored that hat-trick in the 7-5 win in the same competition in October. Wenger may be too scientific to base decisions on that sort of detail, but Walcott cannot have forgotten it as he started to play with all 10 team-mates behind him.

Walcott's style as a striker is fairly traditional. He plays off the shoulder of the last defender, waiting, crouching and sprinting into space.

But Walcott almost suffered in the first half from the quality and intricacy of Arsenal's play. With a midfield that good there is a temptation to keep the ball, build slowly, wait for the overlap and then cut through the opposition. No one could question Arsenal's approach – they went 4-0 up within an hour – but it was not necessarily to Walcott's benefit.

Walcott was always looking for that perfect pass in behind but only once in the first half did he get what he was looking for. After 20 minutes Cazorla produced one of many moments of trademark technical brilliance, a cushioned first-time chip over the Reading defence and on to Walcott's run with no one near him. It was the same position as Walcott's first goal in the League Cup. He decided to go to the near post but Adam Federici got enough on it to turn it wide.

In the second half, with more space, Walcott was better provided for. Five minutes after the restart he made that run inside the left-back, was found by Jack Wilshere and shot beyond Federici, only to see Jay Mariappa hook it off the line. Thirteen minutes later Wilshere played the same ball and Walcott this time shot straight at Federici. If that had worried him, it need not have. That same position, with 10 minutes left, brought his goal and an end to Arsenal's brief panic.

Before then, though, Walcott had not always looked quite as assertive in front of goal as he might. Podolski was able to muscle Walcott off the ball before he scored the first, while Walcott could not challenge in the air for some particularly inviting crosses from Bacary Sagna. It is not Walcott's fault that he is not built like Olivier Giroud. And he worked well in his old wing areas too, crossing to Kieran Gibbs whose header set up Cazorla's second goal. Perhaps the aggression and the selfishness will come in time.

But Walcott certainly has other attributes which an elite striker needs. And perhaps he will now have more chances to display them.