Theo Walcott signed for Arsenal from Southampton in January, 2006. He was seen as the man who would eventually replace Arsenal legend Thierry Henry. Throughout his career he has had to bear the burden of high expectations; expectations of his countrymen, of becoming the next best thing to wear the English jersey; expectations of Gunner’s fan, of becoming the next ‘Titi’.
Shadow of Henry
People have inevitably compared him with Henry due to the apparent similarity they possess. Like Henry, he is blessed with Gazelle feet. In fact, Walcott has broken Henry’s 40-metre sprint time as he confirmed himself as the quickest player at the club. Their style of finishing has also been compared over and over again. He was even handed out the famous No.14 shirt, previously worn by Thierry Henry.
The only thing that he is criticized for at times is his consistency and final delivery. That will come with more experience; the most positive aspect of his game is that he improved massively last season. He was far more consistence and if not for his injury, he could have been Arsenal’s top scorer last season.
“I want to play up front”
During his early days in Newbury,Swindon Town and Southampton has played mainly as a striker. After switching to Arsenal, he has mostly played as a winger.
Recently Walcott has admitted he wants to play in a more central role next season. He was quoted saying
“I was signed as a striker and I want to play up front,”
“I think I have done my trade out on the wing. I think a lot of people forget that I’m not a winger. I see myself as a striker, although if I get played up front, it will take me a few games to get used to playing there again because I haven’t played there for about five years now.
“I think I have done a fairly good job on the wing for Arsenal and I will play anywhere for this team but, hopefully, the fans will start seeing me a bit more up front.”
Henry, like Walcott, started out as a winger as well. At Juventus, Henry was deployed on the wings. It was only after Arsene Wenger brought him to Highbury that he started to play as a striker. He transformed from a winger into one of the best forward of his times. Walcott seemingly wants to follow his footsteps.
What others have to say?
This not the first time that Walcott has urged his manager to play him through the middle, as a striker. In fact there are lots of people who think similarly.
Harry Redknapp his previous mentor, once said
“I think Theo will be better through the middle, as a striker. He can be like Thierry Henry, who started out wide but was far better as a central striker and became world class.
“A few years ago, Henry was the best player in the Premier League by a mile. He had great pace and I can see Theo one day becoming a world-class striker.”
Former Arsenal winger Perry Groves has backed Walcott as well.
“He’ll be better as a striker because when he plays upfront he’ll play instinctively,” Groves said. “He’s a player who is better playing off his instinct, and if you look at him he’s better when he hasn’t got time to think about his finishing.
“Playing out wide sometimes when he gets one-on-one with the full back and the full back stands him up he hasn’t got a trick. He’s not that sort of jinky player; he relies a lot on his pace. He’s learning his trade.
“His final ball has got better but I can see him ending up as a striker, maybe not next season because Robin Van Persie will play as the pivotal striker and you’ve got [Marouane] Chamakh coming in but if he’s still at Arsenal the season after I can see him ending up as a central striker.”
Wenger’s point of view
Even Wenger himself has backed him to play that role in media. A year ago he was quoted saying “He is very, very close to playing that striker role. He is more of a natural striker [than winger] as he likes to put the ball into the net himself. Theo is 21, give two more years to Theo and imagine what he will be.
“And don’t forget that when Thierry came here, he was a winger. When I first played him as a central striker, he said to me, ‘I can’t score goals’. In England, you are very impatient. Theo can be a prolific goal scorer as once he is a yard in front of the defender nobody can catch him.”
The Obstacle of 4-3-3
The main obstacle with playing Walcott through is middle is Arsenal’s current formation. During the days of Henry and Bergkamp, Wenger deployed a 4-4-2 formation. Nowadays, he uses a 4-3-3 / 4-2-3-1 formation. In this formation, the lone striker who plays up front should have a physical presence and be good in the air. Walcott sadly doesn’t fit the bill here. If Robin Van Persie and Chamakh remain fit, they will always be preferred in that role. Walcott would fit in perfectly as a supporting striker in a 4-4-2 formation, but for that Wenger has to change his tactics, which seems very unlikely. Walcott would most likely switch to a central role to boost his side’s counter-attacking options when they were ahead in a game, with a taller and more physical starting striker preferred.
I think Walcott can add a different dimension to Arsenal if he plays through the middle. He might never fulfill his potential playing as a winger. Once he plays as a striker, his game will rise to another level, and for all of this to happen, Arsene will have to change his tactics. I believe Van Persie and Walcott can form a deadly partnership. Imagining them together, reminds me of the by-gone era of Henry-Bergkamp partnership and the joys of watching it.
The Professor has to decide now, to bring back the 4-4-2, to unleash Theo as a striker. That will let a player do justice to his talents, a player who he himself believed, was destined to be special. Its time for another transformation. Its time to put the No.14, where it belongs to – at the top.
By Amlan Majumdar