Theo in the Middle

Theo Walcott wallpaper

Arsenal ran out comfortable 3-0 winners in yesterdays FA Community Shield. Manchester City, their weakened and disinterested opponents, were brushed aside with relative ease and, though any conclusions drawn from the result would be as tangible as a sub-Saharan mirage, the promising signs were there for Arsenal. Aaron Ramsey looked confident and hungry. Alexis Sanchez showed flashes of his pace, power and intelligent running. Olivier Giroud scored a lovely goal. Yaya Sanogo decided not to bang in four goals in the first half again, instead he was content with providing a sharp assist. With Mesut Ozil yet to return, and Calum Chambers looking increasingly assured at centre back, there’s no reason to think that Arsene Wenger’s side won’t get better as the season proper progresses. But with all the fanfare over the acquisition of Sanchez, another Arsenal attacking midfielder/winger/potential striker has been forced out of the forefront of the supporter’s minds. Theo Walcott injured his knee in January and because of his extended time on the treatment table it’s been easy to forget that the young Englishman was really coming into own; he played 13 games for Arsenal last season, but scored 5 goals and assisted 4 in that short spell, quite remarkable numbers. Remember the extended saga that surrounded Walcott’s desire to play through the middle, how he argued for his worth as a central striker, and how he excelled so well when his wish was granted by the manager? On the surface it seems like Wenger has again indulged his love for purchasing unnecessary but nifty attacking midfielders in buying Sanchez, but most leading football voices have been quick to calmly explain that Wenger has hopes of using the Chilean as a central striker, a swerving, dynamic goal-scoring probe, and a vastly differing option up front from last season’s first choice Giroud. Fine, everyone said in response, the last winger-turned-striker worked out just fine, that Henry bloke. But where does this leave Theo?

Let’s think about the logistics of the potential set up for Wenger’s attack. There are two players who seem close to undroppable; Ozil and Ramsay. Ozil, despite his rough start in England, is still the record signing, not to mention a sublimely intelligent footballer, always making the right pass, slipping in between defenders looking for the perfect icy moment to wither the opposition with a deadly stroke of his, what is sure to be perfectly manicured, if a little pallid, foot. He is the footballing equivalent of a perfect, frail and menacing Peter Lorre utterance (and the resemblance, I suspect, is not coincidental). Ramsay is the most improved player in the league over the last two seasons, a young man suddenly exploding through the apparent limits of his potential. One imagines how different Arsenal’s season might have been last year had Ramsay stayed healthy for the whole campaign. He scored a goal of almost playful ease in the Community Shield, chopping the ball over the leg of the City defender before rifling home from close range. He is as potent a goal threat as Man City’s own central midfield goal-machine Yaya Toure, albeit using vastly different methods to score. Ozil and Ramsay are two players near certain to be picked in the first XI. Just quietly, here’s Ramsay’s goal from yesterday.

Giroud, despite sour rumblings from a lot of the Arsenal supporters, as well as the media, seems to be a favourite of Wenger’s. And to the Frenchman’s credit, though he may not be the top class striker many think Arsenal need, he has his good points. Obviously his size and strength make him an ideal target man, holding up play and laying off to the bevy of quick wingers salivating up and down the flanks. He isn’t blessed with any pace to speak of, but he has exceptionally quick feet and good reactions, able to tiki and taka in the attacking third with the best of them. He is a perfect pivot around which Wilshere, Ramsay, Rosicky, Sanchez et al can intermingle. The two wonderful team goals Arsenal scored last season spring to mind as evidence of his technical proficiency and deft link up play in tight areas. There is a suspicion that the dislike he has garnered from the faithful masses stems from his utter disimilarity to Thierry Henry; he is not a player who can create his own chances all that often or who will astound with spectacular strikes and length-of-the-field runs, despite his cracker of a goal in the Community Shield. However, he is a gifted finisher, is fairly good in the air and is an incredibly hard worker. If the only alternatives to Giroud are Yaya Sanogo and the Sanchez experiment, it’s difficult to see Wenger not opting for the Frenchman as his first choice striker.

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When Theo Walcott returns to action in, as is anticipated, the end of August, he will be lucky to find a spot available for him in the starting line up. Sanchez will ride the wave of momentum into the remaining spot in the attack and will, according to most reports, be the first choice when Wenger needs an anti-Giroud striking alternative. There have been other voices arguing that Wenger will use Sanchez, rather than as a vaguely drifting winger, as a sort of secondary striker playing in tandem with Giroud, sending him in with an explicit brief to hang off Giroud’s shoulder, ready to be the first to pounce on knockdowns and lay-offs. Sanchez played a similar role to great effect with Chile at the World Cup, proving very effective when operating centrally and with a co-striker. Additionally, Joel Campbell is primed to finally break into the first team at Arsenal as well this season, making opportunities more scarce. It’s a nice problem for Wenger to have and no doubt the Arsenal attack will be one of the most exciting to watch next season with all these savvy operators. Unfortunately for him, Walcott seems to be at the very bottom of the pile, certainly in terms of fitness, and it’s hard not to feel sorry for him, posting images with Sanchez, insisting that the duo will form an effective partnership next season. It may turn out to be more a seizing than a sharing of attacking prominence.

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