Arsenal ended their miserable run at Old Trafford when they defeated the Red Devils on Monday in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. While Manchester United have had several problems in this season, they have managed to keep themselves in the race for the top four despite not having great performances throughout the season. Also, Manchester United’s great form against Gunners, coupled with the Gunners’ inability to perform in big games, meant that the Red Devils would still start as the favorites in the clash.
However, as things turned out, the Gunners won 2-1 thanks to goals from Nacho Monreal and Danny Welbeck, which is a huge moment in this season as they look to retain their FA Cup title. The only disappointment from the game was the hamstring injury to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who skipped past three players to provide a delightful assist to Monreal. The injury is likely to keep him out for four weeks which is a big blow for the young Englishman, who has been one of the more consistent performers for the Gunners.
As cameras zoomed towards the bench preparing to substitute Chamberlain, it looked like there could be a double substitution with both Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott. However, Arsene Wenger opted to bring only Ramsey and a frustrated Walcott returned to the bench. Since Arsenal scored within the next 10 minutes through Danny Welbeck, there was no need for Walcott to be brought on and he cut a forlorn figure on the bench throughout the game.
Walcott was extremely influential for the Gunners before his anterior cruciate ligament injury but since his return, he has been unable to establish himself as a starter for the team. Though Chamberlain’s emergence has contributed to that, the fact is that he has not looked at his best in the games that he has played. Also, he has always been a player who does not involve himself much in the build-up play and most of his good work is in the final third.
The Rise of Hector Bellerin
At the start of the season, Bellerin was expected to probably play in the Capital One Cup and maybe a couple of appearances in other competitions. However, due to the long term injuries suffered by Mathieu Debuchy and the indifferent form of Calum Chambers at right back, Bellerin has been able to establish himself as a quality right back, starting numerous games in both Premier League as well as the Champions League. After an error-strewn performance against Borussia Dortmund, it was unexpected that the full back could make such a marked improvement in this season.
However, while Bellerin provides a great attacking threat on the right flank with his over-lapping runs, his defensive positioning is still suspect. This has been one of the reasons why Wenger has preferred to use Chamberlain or Welbeck on the right wing since they are aware of their defensive responsibilities so that Bellerin is not too exposed. It is also one of the main reasons why Wenger has been reluctant to use Walcott on right wing since it might lead to the opposition exploiting that flank.
Alexis Sanchez’s impact on the left flank
One of the other reasons apart from Bellerin’s rise which has contributed to Wenger not opting for Walcott is the stupendous form of Alexis Sanchez. In previous seasons, while Arsenal were overly dependent on Walcott’s pace to get behind defenses, the signings of Welbeck and Sanchez has meant that Arsenal have an array of wide players blessed with speed. Sanchez has had a fantastic first season for the Gunners and despite a small dip in form in the last few weeks, he remains Arsenal’s most potent attacking threat.
Also, his tendency to cut in from the left flank as well as come deep to collect the ball in midfield means that at times, the width needs to be provided on the other flank. Wenger has always preferred a midfielder on one flank with a more traditional winger on the other and in this case, Sanchez acts like an extra midfielder on several occasions, helping the Gunners create an overload in midfield. However, it means that on the other side, the winger needs to stay wide so that the team is not too narrow and have enough variety in their play.
In this season, Sanchez and Oxlade-Chamberlain have dovetailed excellently and the Englishman has tended to come infield only when Sanchez is out wide and the duo have developed an excellent partnership with regard to their off-the-ball movements. However, Walcott is a different type of player to Chamberlain and while he can beat Left-backs on the outside, he does prefer to exploit the space between the centre back and left back. Also, in the few games that he has played, he has tended to drift infield far too much which has meant that the play is more narrow and even Giroud is forced out-wide to compensate for Walcott’s movement.
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Walcott’s touch was not the best when he initially played against Hull City in the FA Cup but he did show signs of improvement against Brighton, Aston Villa and Leicester City. Though he did score against Villa and Leicester, he still looked short of his devastating best. With Chamberlain’s enforced absence opening up a slot, it could be the opportunity that he has been waiting for.
The next game for the Gunners is against West Ham at home and while Welbeck could be preferred at right flank, Walcott is also a viable option considering he is almost certain to start against Monaco in mid-week. In order to overturn a 3-1 lead in the next leg in France, the Gunners need to have the England international who has a habit of scoring in several big games in the past. Considering that, it would be important for the Gunners to have Walcott in good touch and match-sharpness.
Walcott’s Contract Situation
Also, at this stage of the season, with plenty of players tiring due to the rigors of the season, it is important that Wenger does rotate the team so as to keep themselves fresh for the run-in. The fight for the top four is even tougher this season with as many as five teams competing for two slots and with the Gunners in the FA Cup as well as the Champions League (though that could change soon), it is vital that Arsenal can get the best out of Walcott as soon as possible.
Another worrying aspect with regard to the English winger is that he has only one more year left on his contract after this season and though he has not been an integral part of the squad this season, the Gunners would not like to sell him in the summer. However, his contract renewal is a very tricky aspect for the Gunners. When he signed his new deal in 2013 after protracted negotiations, he ensured he was amongst the top paid players in the team. However, considering he has been out for more than a year due to injuries as well as failing to justify his huge wages so far, it is difficult for the Gunners to further increase his wages to make it on par with Ozil or Sanchez.
Walcott has his task cut out in order to prove to the manager as well as the Gunners’ hierarchy that he is worthy of another big money contract. If the former Southampton winger can raise his level and start performing consistently, then it would be difficult for the Gunners to resist offering him a new contract. With vital games coming up for the Gunners would need their biggest players to step up and perform. While Walcott might not have been the most important player in the last two seasons, he certainly has the ability and Wenger will hope that the England international can perform at his best to help achieve Arsenal’s goals.