The problem with Theo Walcott's return for Arsenal…

Arsenal take on Manchester City at the Etihad this Saturday following midweek Champions League defeat to Napoli.

It was clear from the 2-0 defeat in Naples that Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger had one eye on the Gunners’ weekend fixture against a Manchester City side that had won all their home games so far this season, scoring 29 goals and conceding just two.

The team sheet in Naples as well as the substitutes gives an indication as to who will be lining up against the Citizens on Saturday and given that Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott played no part in the game, and Aaron Ramsey came on for Cazorla in the 68th minute, one would assume that those three players will start on Saturday.

Theo Walcott has returned from injury and has been used as a substitute by Wenger so far, presumably to build up his match fitness gradually and whilst it’s certainly a boost for the boss to have Arsenal top scorer from last term back in business it does throw up a few concerns when coupled with the fact that Bacary Sagna will miss Saturday’s clash through injury.

Carl Jenkinson did a decent enough job in midweek but the 21-year-old right back is still not completely confident and certainly lacks the experience and resolve of 30-year-old Sagna who has been and remains one of the finest fullbacks in the league if not the continent.

Walcott’s obvious qualities are his technique, which has improved every season since he arrived, his dribbling and confidence to take defenders on as well as the most obvious thing being his pace.

His finishing was immense for periods last season and those qualities drag defenders towards him which creates space for his teammates like Cazorla, Wilshere, Ozil and Giroud but - and it’s an important but – Walcott’s tendency to spend most of his time bombing up field leaves huge amounts of space in behind him and, when Sagna plays as right-back he spends a lot of the time occupying the flank where Walcott should be if he was more defensively inclined.

It’s not necessarily a criticism of Walcott it’s just the nature of his game – he’s not built to do the kind of job Ramsey and Mikel Arteta do or Giroud either. His pace is his danger but his hold-up play and his passing still often ends up with the Gunners losing possession and against a team like City this weekend that could be a big problem, especially without Sagna to do the dirty work in behind him.

Meanwhile, both Arteta and Mathieu Flamini played the majority of the game in midweek so they’ll be feeling that in their legs in the late stages of the game I would expect. It’s interesting incidentally that Arsenal’s improvements defensively as a team that doesn’t concede many goals has corresponded with the exact period that Walcott has been injured for. The likes of Giroud, Cazorla, Wilshere, Ramsey, Tomas Rosicky and Aaron Ramsey are very focused and committed to winning the ball back, hurrying and hassling the opponents, tracking back and hunting in packs but those are not the attributes I would particularly associate with Theo Walcott – as dangerous as he is going forward, he is often as useful as an ash tray on a motorbike when Arsenal are not in possession.

I’m not intending to do Walcott a disservice – I am a fan of his and Arsenal’s – but I do have concerns that the combination of Walcott and Jenkinson on that right flank is going to be where City have their best chances of taking the game. Jenkinson is keen and capable but he lacks experience and his decision-making is still shaky at times and Walcott does not often feel inclined to cover his mate behind him.

That pair could very well be dealing with their former teammates Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy on Saturday and the former especially happens to have found his form just in time for Arsenal’s visit and, furthermore, they’ll both be sharp as they was rested in midweek.

In his last three starts Nasri’s scored three goals for City and I would suspect he’ll get the nod from Manuel Pellegrini to start against his old club this weekend. If Walcott leaves Jenkinson to handle him and Clichy overlapping for 90 minutes, it’s going to be a long afternoon for the youngster and potentially a disaster waiting to happen for Arsenal.

Even if Nasri and Clichy don’t get on the score sheet themselves Arsenal know full well they’re both capable of picking out passes and crosses to find the forwards of which City have in abundance – Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo especially don’t need more than half a chance and if Walcott doesn’t keep hid defensive discipline its going to put Arsenal under massive amounts of pressure at the back.

If Per Mertesacker has to constantly come out wide to help Jenkinson deal with what Walcott ought to be handling on right side, that’ll leave Laurent Koscielny to handle whatever and whoever is in the goalmouth and that is a recipe for disaster.

Wenger doesn’t have much of choice in terms of right back – he could deploy either Nacho Monreal or Kieran Gibbs on the wrong side but I wouldn’t expect he’ll do so. The boss may have to rely on the experience and combative players like Arteta and Flamini to put out fires all afternoon which, if Walcott starts, I would expect they will have to do.

image: © Ronnie Macdonald

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