Arsenal’s Theo Walcott has pleaded with his manager Arsene Wenger to play him as a striker instead of winger and, in Saturday’s North London derby against Tottenham Hotspur, he got his long-awaited opportunity – well, for about ten minutes.
Nonetheless, he scored Arsenal’s final goal in the 5-2 thriller with the ease and technique of a player in fine confidence and form.
Walcott is now the Gunners’ top goalscorer with 9 goals across all competitions and that’s from his usual position on the right flank. But if Walcott were to be granted his wish and be utilized in a central role as an out-and-out striker, would he be as effective and what kind of threat would he pose to the opposition?
Walcott’s greatest asset has always been his pace – he is one of the fastest players in the Premier League and, now that he’s learned how best to use it, he’s wreaking more and more havoc.
With England, under Fabio Capello, Walcott was discouraged from coming inside from the flank – England wanted a wide-man who could put in crosses, which Walcott, in the past, has drawn criticism for his poor vision and crossing accuracy.
But for Arsenal, he is given the freedom to play as an inside forward, in fact, his trademark goal has now become just that – beating the defender on pace, dragging inside, dropping his shoulder and firing low into the bottom left corner of the net.
If he were to play centrally, he would find much less space available to run into – his pace would be less dangerous and, positionally, he might find himself less effective.
The lack of congestion on the wings is what he’s always exploited. In fact, oftentimes recognized strikers like Henry, van Persie, even Rooney, will venture out wide to receive the ball, dragging confused centre-backs with them in an effort to find that space to maneuver.
If Walcott does graduate to the role of central striker, whether at Arsenal or elsewhere, he would likely be a poacher – his ability to hold the ball up is, whilst improving, still not good enough and he is hardly a target-man. His dribbling has improved but I’m still not convinced he has enough technical ability to turn defenders the way that van Persie or Henry might.
Ultimately, Walcott relies on the service, like all forwards, from his teammates – even as a winger he needs that perfectly weighted pass to run on to or ball over the top that makes his pace so dangerous.
I’m inclined to suggest Walcott could make a half-decent striker but I think he’ll find he’s more dangerous on the wing and he can affect the game better from that position. He's not really a winger or a striker, he is and will probably always be an inside forward.
image: © Ronnie Macdonald