Arsenal forward Theo Walcott repays Arsene Wenger's striking faith
Arsenal manager finally grants 23-year-old his wish by playing him up front after League Cup calamity
The Madejski Stadium
Monday 17 December 2012
Theo Walcott got what he had been waiting for tonight, 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. The Arsenal support have not always adored Walcott but they do appreciate him, the travelling 2,067 imploring Wenger to "sign him up" throughout the second half.
They know that they cannot do without his pace or his directness or his goals. He is Arsenal's top goal-scorer in all competitions 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 to do. It is one of the main reasons for him not signing a new deal. Centre-forward is where Walcott sees his footballing 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 Bradford, Wenger played Gervinho up front, as he had done earlier this season. The result was one of the worst performances and results of the Wenger era in the League Cup defeat. Not entirely Gervinho's fault, but not an unconnected fact. With Olivier Giroud, a much more competent striker, on his way back from injury, there were not many alternatives. 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.
Walcott's style as a striker is fairly traditional. He plays off the shoulder of the last defender, waiting, crouching and sprinting into space when the style comes. England have not produced many like him since Michael Owen. 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 forwards, wait for the overlap and then cut through the opposition. No one could possibly 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 with his right foot 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 5-7. 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. It prompted the first demands from the away fans to their manager to keep Walcott at Arsenal. 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 have done. There is a sense he is sometimes too diffident on the pitch, taking his admirable off-field politeness into the game with him. It is not a criticism anyone would make of Wilshere.
Of course, it is not Walcott's fault that he is not built like 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.
However, Walcott certainly has other attributes which an elite striker needs. And perhaps he will now have more chances to display them.
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