Monday, 28 September 2015

Arsenal v Man Utd: Is Theo Walcott maturing into a striker?

Premier League: Arsenal v Manchester United

On the day Anthony Martial's status exploded as the teenager became a luxury-priced prospect for Manchester United, and Arsenal's vain summer search for an elite striker ended in disappointment, it was easy to reach the conclusion that the pool of established, talented forwards at the north London club was worryingly dry.
Both clubs had an easy £50m or so to spend on central strikers, and the best they could apparently come up with between them was a kid with a handful of goals to his name so far.
While Martial has been a revelation for United, a turbo-charged and cool-headed game-changer in terms of his impact on the team so far, Arsene Wenger was left examining internal solutions.
For Arsenal, who spent most of the transfer window like a teenager agonisingly watching the telephone to see if Karim Benzema's number would flash up, this was particularly frustrating.
Ever since the most prolific striker in their history, Thierry Henry, opined last April that Arsenal couldn't win the Premier League title without an upgrade in that department, the pressure to improve cranked up. "I'm afraid they need a top, top quality striker to win this league again," he said.

A tale of two strikers

Olivier GiroudTheo Walcott
Minutes played (2015 Premier League)
Shots on target
Sprints/90 mins
It was pretty clear, as far as Henry was concerned, that his compatriot Olivier Giroud was not in that "top, top quality" bracket.
It is telling that Theo Walcott was not really a major part of that conversation. At the time he was kicking his heels, mostly on the bench, trying to maintain the right mixture of patience and determination to take a chance when it came having spent a year recovering from a cruciate ligament injury.
More or less all of 2014 was spent rehabilitating, and changing his perspective as he became a father. Arsenal's first choice centre-forward? It was his ambition but it felt like a long shot.
Right now, ahead of a compelling challenge between Arsenal and Manchester United this weekend at the Emirates, the position feels like Walcott's for the taking. He has had to wait a long time to press his case. As he says: "I'll play anywhere, but the manager started playing me up front slowly."
Olivier Giroud
Opportunities are now knocking. Wenger's inability to sign anyone in the last transfer window pushed Walcott up the pecking order, which appears to have been advanced even more by Giroud having a difficult time of it lately.
The Frenchman was jeered when he missed some chances for the national team, and sent off in Arsenal's defeat by Dinamo Zagreb in the Champions League, and Walcott looks to have eased in front. Giroud was the starter for the first two games of the Premier League campaign. But since then Walcott has started five of the last six Premier League and Champions League fixtures.
Former Arsenal striker Ian Wright recently called for Walcott to be given "a genuine run of games up there… let him prove he can do it".
He has responded by chipping in with regular goals and assists. His chance conversion still needs to improve, but 12 from 13 Premier League starts is not to be sniffed at. Once he got that unexpected berth to lead the line at the FA Cup final, in which he opened the scoring against Aston Villa, this was always going to be a key season.
His confident body language suggests he feels he belongs up front now and welcomes the responsibility. He also possesses a coolness of character which means he doesn't look affected if he misses a chance, and just concentrates on waiting for the next one.
Can he be the answer? It is still too early to say, but one thing that is clearly different about this campaign is Wenger's attitude towards a player he has worked on for almost a decade. For the first time the manager regards Walcott purely as a central striker.
Every minute of this season he has played so far has been in that role, not at all on the right flank he occupied for a long time, where he could sometimes get lost.

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