Manchester City is Walcott's striker exam

With the news today that Olivier Giroud may not return from injury in time for Arsenal’s clash with Manchester City on Sunday, Theo Walcott may be selected to lead the line for the Gunners.

Giroud suffered a large gash to his knee in Arsenal’s 2-2 FA Cup draw with Swansea City last weekend and will undergo fitness tests to assess whether he will feature at all in the showdown at the Emirates.

With Gervinho on international duty with Ivory Coast at the African Cup of Nations, manager Arsene Wenger will likely start Walcott through the middle with Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the flanks.

Walcott scored a hat-trick in Arsenal’s 7-3 victory over Newcastle last month and late goal against Reading from the central forward position but failed to make the score-sheet from that position against either Southampton or Wigan in the Premier League.

He is the Gunners’ top scorer with 14 goals in all competitions but, should he start through the middle against City on Sunday, he will face his first real examination.

His hat-trick last month was against an injury-strewn and heavily fatigued Newcastle team that fell apart in the second half after a solid and admirable performance that saw them level at 3-3 with just over 20 minutes left on the clock.

With all due respect to the Englishman, who has been in fine form so far this season, Manchester City will not give him the amount of time, space and opportunities that Newcastle or Reading did.

City boss Roberto Mancini has the likes of Vincent Kompany, Pablo Zabaleta, Gael Clichy, Joleon Lescott and Aleksander Kolarov available for selection in defence, along with youngsters Matija Nastasic and Karim Rekik.

Mancini’s back four will be well-briefed on Walcott’s pace and instructed not let him get in behind them. He will find it even more difficult than he has in previous fixtures to hold the ball up and could find himself easily out-muscled and hassled off the ball. He simply cannot afford to be wasteful and selfish in possession.

He will have to improve his work rate if Arsenal are to have even a chance at winning the game – it really does depend on the ‘striker’ as Arsenal will desperately need to rely on an outlet up front that can relieve them of the pressure City will undoubtedly put on their back four.

Walcott is not the target man that Giroud is but he’s going to have to find some way of holding the ball up and bringing his teammates in to the attacking movement. At the very least, he needs to retain possession for the Gunners or they’ll be in for a very long and arduous afternoon.

Walcott may find some joy if he drops a little deeper as Yaya Toure is away at the African Cup of Nations and, subsequently, City might leave some gaps in between the defence and midfield, where Santi Cazorla will look to operate.

However, Gareth Barry will likely be tasked with marking the Spanish maestro out the game. If Walcott’s smart he’ll drop deep to exploit that space.

That, however, is not his comfort-zone – he likes to hang on the shoulder of last man awaiting a dink over the top or a through ball weighted to perfection. He’s not going to get many of those and, unless he adapts his game, it’ll be a quiet and frustrating afternoon for him and his team.

If he does get in behind the City back-four he's still going to have to beat Joe Hart - he's going to have to be clinical, efficient, and composed in front of goal - he's not going to receive any gifts from his England teammate.

If he succeeds, he'll cement his reputation and future as a striker but, should he have one of his anonymous performances, he'll be exposed as a pretentious winger. In many ways, this game can make or break his career.

image: © Ronnie Macdonald

Register for MANCHESTER CITY team updates

Register for ARSENAL team updates

Register for HITC Sport - Daily Dispatch