Arsenal have had one of their roughest weeks of this season having been eliminated from the FA Cup and also, outclassed at home by a superior team in Bayern Munich. Thankfully for Arsene Wenger, his team were spared more blushes against relegation battlers Aston Villa largely due to an inspiring performance from Santi Cazorla. The midfielder has been brilliant for the Gunners on many occasions this season but at times has also been anonymous or looked jaded in some of the games. Fortunately for Arsenal, he was in rousing form from the start of the game against Aston Villa, scoring just after 5 minutes and proving to be a threat throughout the game ultimately also scoring the winner.
It was interesting that Wenger opted to play him on the left instead of Germany international Lukas Podolski and it was Jack Wilshere who was playing in an advanced central midfield role. Wenger has shown a preference towards playing central attacking midfielders on the left flank in the past with Yossi Benayoun, Tomas Rosicky, Andrei Arshavin and Samir Nasri, all of whom are comfortable either on the wings or in a central role. With Cazorla playing on the left flank, it provides the Gunners more opportunity to establish their dominance in central midfield with the Spaniard often filling the space whenever Wilshere drifts to the flank or goes deeper to fetch the ball, thus providing an outlet for the left-footed talented midfielder.
The good thing about Cazorla playing on the wing is that despite drifting infield on several occasions, he did not neglect his defensive duties and provided decent cover to Nacho Monreal who was not having the best of games defensively. The duo have previously played together on the left at Malaga and do share a good understanding which was shown in the second goal scored by the talented Spaniard. However, this has not always been the case on the other flank which is the main point of discussion in this article.
Theo Walcott has had an impressive season by any standards, scoring 18 goals in all competitions this season and also having 11 assists to his name. He has been one of the best players this season but he also presents a problem which has to be solved by Arsene Wenger. Amidst fear of losing the promising England international on a free transfer, the Frenchman convinced the former Southampton forward by playing him in his favoured role as a central striker. Though he had a superb game against Newcastle United when he played as a central striker, he has not been entirely convincing with subdued performances against the likes of Southampton, Wigan (though he won the penalty), Manchester City and recently against Bayern Munich.
With his pace and movement off the ball, Walcott can get behind any defense in the world if the midfielders can thread a ball through the defense. However, with Arsenal playing a 4-2-3-1 formation or a variation of the 4-3-3 formation, if he plays in a central role, it is likely that he will be the lone striker. Defenders are aware of Walcott's electric pace and are not likely to step up or play a high line against him. The centre backs are more likely to keep a watch on him as well as the passes that help him breach the defense. Also, Walcott's runs off the ball when he has played as the central striker have lacked variety and his hold-up play also needs to improve. However, despite him needing to work on his game to develop into a lethal central striker in the mould of a Thierry Henry, he still provides a decent option as a second/third choice striker.
The bigger problem has been when Walcott has been used as a winger/wide forward in recent games, especially since signing his new contract. Wenger does not restrict the freedom of his attackers and all the attacking players are provided the license to drift infield or move outside and find space, which helps add variety to their play. The likes of Walcott and Podolski have scored plenty of goals making diagonal or central runs which have not been picked by the opposition. However, the wide forwards are still primarily wingers, who are given the license to make diagonal runs whenever appropriate which helps them score goals as well.
In recent games, Walcott has been drifting far too much inside, almost making it a skewed 4-4-2 with Bacary Sagna, left to take care of the right flank on his own. The French defender has been one of the best defenders for the Gunners but has unfortunately, suffered a dip in form this season and has also not been helped by Walcott's tendency to drift inside too much. Playing on the right wing, Walcott has not provided enough defensive cover to the right back which has resulted in many of the opposition's attacks down that side of the pitch, though Gibbs' impressive performances has also resulted in that happening.
Also, in a attacking context, though Walcott moving into central role to receive Giroud flick-ons is understandable, his off-the-ball runs are questionable with him mainly making a move towards the centre and not on the outside mostly. If he makes runs on the outside of the opponent's left back, it provides both the midfielders as well as Sagna an outlet which they have lacked at times. The model Walcott should be looking at is some of his own perfromances from last season where his runs enabled not only him to score goals but also allowed him to make several crucial assists to Robin Van Persie.
It is clear that Olivier Giroud is an intelligent striker who thrives on good understanding between forward players and Walcott needs to adapt to get the best out of both of them. Giroud's neat flicks and hold up play means Walcott can get goalscoring opportunities like the one he scored against Liverpool. Also, Walcott has assisted number of goals for Giroud and can continue to do so regularly. Theo Walcott looks to be committed to the cause and though his infield runs are designed to help him score more, it might be to the benefit of the team if he works on his all round game as a wide forward.
Wenger has been instrumental in developing many aspects of Walcott's game and from a raw youngster, who had poor decision making skills, he has developed into a lethal forward possessing the intelligence and the weapons to trouble the best of defenses. He is at a stage in his career where he is desperate to prove that he can play as a central striker. However, the experienced French manager must convince him to continue playing his natural game as winger till the transition to that of a central striker eventually happens.
With the game against Spurs coming up, it is even more important that this topic is brought up with Gareth Bale in the best form of his life. Walcott will need to show his defensive qualities and must show that he can be a match-winner in the big games. It will be an interesting challenge for the former Southampton lad but one he will be looking forward to especially after scoring three goals in the last two league appearances against Spurs.