The build-up to Arsenal’s League Cup third round clash with Coventry City has been dominated by talk of Theo Walcott’s contractual situation. If his words are to be taken at face value, which is admittedly a problematic line to take with footballers, then the point of contention appears to be over his positioning. Whilst money probably does play some factor, this is an issue that Walcott has harked on about since his arrival in North London.
Although I sympathise with his sentiment to an extent, Walcott’s hopes and dreams have not evolved as the same pace that football has changed. Again this week, as he has done on numerous occasions, he has expressed his wishes to play as a striker in the ‘Thierry Henry role’ for Arsenal. Aside from the fact that he lacks some of the individual qualities which made Henry the player he was, even the Frenchman himself would not be able to perform that same role in the current Arsenal system, it simply does not exist.
The requirements have developed beyond the skill set that Walcott possesses, meaning he is ultimately unsuitable for the role
Unfortunately for Walcott, he is a player for the wrong generation. He will have grown up watching Henry and Michael Owen dominate as speedy strikers in an era when a variation of 4-4-2 was the favoured formation. They achieved it in very different ways – Henry loved to drift out to the left and explode with pace at the defence, whilst Owen was most dangerous when playing on the shoulder of the last defender – but they provided the blueprint for what Walcott thought he could become.
However, the preferred system in England has changed since then and the duty of the striker has changed with it. With most teams now preferring to operate using various systems based around a single forward, the responsibilities of the most advanced player have increased. The requirements have developed beyond the skill set that Walcott possesses, meaning he is ultimately unsuitable for the role. He can be a very clinical finisher, that cannot be questioned, but there are greater demands on a striker nowadays than simply their ability to put the ball in the back of the net.
Arsène Wenger seemingly favours either Olivier Giroud or Gervinho for the role currently, with both capable of performing in the position but in two very different ways. The Ivorian likes to vacate the central area often, which suits Lukas Podolski who prefers to drift into these gaps. Against Both Southampton and Manchester City, he dropped into the left and right channels to participate in the approach play, as well as showing a willingness to take players on. Walcott’s link-up play and positional intelligence are often poor, therefore it is hard to fathom that he would as effective as Gervinho with his overall contribution.
Giroud provides a completely different and more traditional alternative, as the focal attacking point in the system. Although he has yet to score his first goal in English football, his movement has been impressive and directly contributed to goals against Montpellier and Liverpool. His diagonal run to occupy the Liverpool defence and create space for Lukas Podolski to open the scoring at Anfield was highly intelligent. Again, this type of clever off-the-ball movement is not a characteristic that Walcott has displayed to date.
For Walcott’s demands to be met, the Gunners would have to use him in a 4-4-2 system to maximise his talents. However there is a reason why this style has predominantly disappeared, as three-man midfields favour the possession based football we often see today. There is scope for utilising this system in certain circumstances though and it can only be beneficial for a team to have different tactical options in their armoury. Roberto Mancini is causing issues with his current tinkering at Manchester City but in the long-run it should make them a stronger unit.
Walcott’s grumblings may be slightly misguided but testing him in this different system may prove worthwhile
If Wenger still harbours intentions of using Walcott in this manner - it is almost certain that was his plan when the youngster was signed from Southampton - then tonight’s game with Coventry would provide the perfect situation to test this alternative. Arsenal has often been accused of lacking a ‘Plan B’ and their tactical inflexibility has contributed to this. Walcott’s grumblings may be slightly misguided but testing him in this different system may prove worthwhile.
We will know more when Arsenal’s team is announced but my instinct tells me that Walcott will not get what he desires. Wenger is a strong advocate of using one base system and making minor tweaks, as he believes it encourages the players to feel most comfortable and make fewer mistakes. I also suspect that he may wish to use this opportunity to give Giroud more game-time in the position that he is expected to occupy in the long-run. If so, expect to see Walcott start on the right in the position he has become accustomed to in the red and white shirt.
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