Should Arsenal's Theo Walcott be played as a winger or striker under Wenger?
The playing position of Arsenal’s Theo Walcott has been something which has somewhat baffled the football world for several years. When players tend to make positional transitions; from centre-half to centre-midfield for example, the switch more often than not remains permanent throughout the career of the player concerned.
With Walcott, this has not been the case. Ever since bursting onto the scene with Southampton in 2005; which earned him a subsequent move to Arsenal, and of course making it on the plane to feature as the pacey wonder-kid winger for England at the 2006 World Cup, he has constantly flipped from winger to forward and back again throughout his career.
So, of the two positions he occupies, which really is his best at this stage of his career?
Still at the age of 27, Walcott hasn’t got to the point in his career where his blistering pace will begin to decline, and he may still have a lot to offer in that position. His speed allows him to escape his full-back, and he has the strength and creativity to hold off his man and provide crosses as service to the forwards.
If he opts to cut inside, he has a strong eye for goal and his pace allows him to wreak havoc. His tendency to do just this may have been what first prompted the player to consider himself more of a striker, though a career of 55 goals in 236 Premier League games may not be as prolific as Arsenal fans would wish.
Walcott endured a slow start to his Arsenal career, but it was in international colours in September 2008 where the then-youngster announced himself to the world, scoring a hat-trick for England against Croatia in Zagreb.
The hosts had never lost a home qualifier before, but then they had never faced the Arsenal man before either. Walcott featured on the right-wing that night, but his exploits in front of a goal were a sign of what was to come.
The 2010/11 and 2012/13 seasons were Walcott’s best in an Arsenal shirt. In the former, he finished with nine goals in the top flight with 13 in all competitions, and 14 goals and 12 assists in 32 Premier League games in the latter.
These were the seasons which really sparked the debate as to whether Walcott should play as a forward rather than a winger, but like many talents at Arsenal, he has been susceptible to long-term injuries over the years and his rich veins of goal-scoring form have been somewhat disrupted.
He missed most of the 2013/14 campaign with an abdominal injury and then a rupture to his anterior cruciate ligament, thus missing the 2014 World Cup. He has featured less in the last three campaigns, scoring five times in the Premier League in all of them, but when given a run of games, he has proven in the past that he is not only adept at assisting, but scoring goals.
However, having only hit double figures in the Premier League once, he needs to prove his fitness if he is to be an option for Arsene Wenger as a forward, as injuries are what is holding the player back from fulfilling his potential in a forward role.
He has all the attributes to play as a striker, including the strength, pace, technique and movement, but the statistics show little return due to the amount of time he has spent on the side-lines. His pace will only be with him for so long now, so perhaps making the gradual transition from a winger to a forward may benefit the player and keep him playing at the highest level later in his career.
Though, in order to do that, he has to be match fit and firing in order to score goals for Arsenal, because as a forward that is what he will ultimately be judged on, rather than his spark from the wing, which his pace so often brings.
Given his susceptibility to injury, an impact winger has often been the role occupied by Walcott, but with the club in need of a striker with a little more flair, it would do no harm to try Walcott in a forward role again, and Wenger has even gone as far as comparing the current Number 14 at Arsenal to the mercurial Thierry Henry to demonstrate but a little of the gaffer’s faith in him, but the goals return must come.
For that, he needs luck on his side to avoid being plagued by injury, because regular minutes and matches are paramount for maximising his goal-scoring potential. He was overlooked as a winger in Roy Hodgson’s final Euro 2016 squad it is worth noting, so at least at international level his powers may be fading with younger stars coming into the international fold.
Goals may well be his only solution on that front, and it may just be the way to save his Arsenal career. However. if playing as a forward is his best position given the rewards reaped on the few occasions he has occupied it, he must get a run of games in the role and score enough goals to show Arsene Wenger he needs to be played there permanently.
If he cannot prove his fitness, or the goals simply do not come, a bit-part role as a winger may be his Arsenal tag for the remainder of his career at the Emirates, and perhaps even thereafter. He has played both roles well, but he now has to maximise his potential in one of them or face fading into obscurity.
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