Arsenal’s Capital One Cup victory over Reading on Tuesday night was so bizarre that it’s very difficult to deduce anything meaningful from it. It was just one of those ridiculously weird games of football that come around once in a blue moon. If that had happened over at the park with some mates, you’d probably end up just playing first to ten and then all go home.
Amongst the comments about how crazy the whole episode was, it seemed that the most talked about issue in the aftermath of the game was again the unresolved contract issues surrounding Theo Walcott. From the moment he raced through on goal just before half-time he was excellent, scoring two or three goals depending on whether you credit him with the one which went over the line (thankfully Carl Jenkinson smashed in the rebound and spared us another tedious debate about goal-line technology) and creating others.
There is undoubtedly a stand-off at the moment between club and player. He has been removed from all marketing material in the club shop, which is a very rare move with regards to an existing squad member, and has been restricted to a place on the substitutes bench unless in the Capital One Cup. On the flip side, Walcott has publicly stated that his refusal to sign a new contract is because he wants to play as a striker rather than being money related.
And while it is easy to be cynical in the modern world of football, I do genuinely believe him. From the first time I saw him play for Southampton and throughout his career at Arsenal I have been in no doubt that he is naturally an “off-the-shoulder” striker, in the mode of a young Michael Owen. When he is at his best, he makes brilliantly timed runs in behind the defence and, while his finishing was erratic a couple of years ago, he is now extremely clinical. Looking at things the other way around, he is clearly not a winger as he lacks a trick to beat a man and often chooses the wrong final pass or cross, although less so now than he used to. Simplify his game to that of a goal scorer and he is instantly a better player.
Stan Collymore was having a fervent debate on Twitter during the Reading game, questioning how anybody could doubt whether Walcott is a striker, and insisting he should be given his chance. But then take a step back and consider the logic behind this argument. Man plays on the right side of attacking three and produces a man of the match display, scoring and creating goals. Whenever used this season, admittedly sporadically, he has produced similarly effective performances from this position. People therefore conclude he should be moved to another position. Seems strange, no?
Therein lies the problem facing Walcott and Arsène Wenger. Arsenal do not play with an off-the-shoulder striker and neither do they play with natural wingers, so the debate is pointless. I understand Walcott’s frustration to an extent, in that he obviously always considered himself as a striker and wants to play there. But unless he realises that he is perfectly suited to the role he occupies currently at Arsenal, then he will undoubtedly leave in the summer when his contract expires. And considering he is unlikely to command a striking berth at any of the top four clubs, he will have to take a step backwards to achieve his dream.
In Arsenal’s possession based system, the focus is on the central attacking player (which we can assume is Olivier Giroud for now at least) is to act as a pivot for the others to play off. Given that Arsenal attempt to create the majority of their chances from central areas, the importance of this central player to link up play and create space with intelligent movement is increased. Neither of those are Walcott’s strengths and in truth he would struggle to perform in that manner effectively.
What has been noticeable about Giroud is his willingness to drop into slightly deeper areas and create room for others to drift into, more so than Robin van Persie did. As van Persie got used to his role as the most advanced player, he tended to stay further and further up the pitch to maximise his effectiveness in and around the penalty area. Giroud is quite different and Walcott himself has in fact benefitted from this already. His goal against West Ham, whereby Giroud dropped deep and played a surging Walcott in behind the defence, was typical of this. In the previous Capital One Cup game against Coventry, the two also worked together in the same manner and to the same effect.
Despite the protestations of him and others, Walcott currently plays in the position he is most suited to in the Arsenal system. I still think he is in the best place for his development and, should he realise that he can be extremely effective from this wider position, he could become an extremely important player for Arsenal this season and in the future.
Unfortunately, this leaves Wenger stuck somewhere between the proverbial rock and hard place. It will be a blow to lose him but it is, to a large extent, out of his hands. Unless Walcott loses his stubbornness over his desire to play as a striker, there is not much the manager can do, as it would be to the detriment of his team to utilise him in Giroud’s role.
There seem to be a succession of watershed moments with regards to Walcott’s future currently and Saturday is likely to be another. Having played so well on Tuesday night, he would be expected to start, but if not then the likelihood of player and club reconciling their differences will look further apart than ever. If he does start in his usual position and performs well then he may just start to be convinced again that his future remains at Arsenal.