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Every now and again, Theo Walcott gives us a glimpse of his capabilities.

Last weekend, in Arsenal’s 2-0 home win over Stoke, he brought down a Mesut Ozil ball with the most efficient of first touches, and then, as the Stoke defence started to close in, casually stroked the ball home for Arsenal’s opener.

Why Arsenal should persist with Theo Walcott up frontIn the midweek, too, he latched onto a pass from Alexis Sanchez, outpacing the Dinamo Zagreb defence as he did so, before side-footing his finish into the bottom right-hand corner.

In both cases, Walcott showed off his most impressive attributes. There was the clever movement, used to make an elusive run in behind, as well as the searing pace to take him away from the would-be tacklers. There were also the two smart strikes at goal, the second of which, in the visit to Dinamo Zagreb, brought back memories of Thierry Henry, such was the slickness with which it was dispatched.

Henry, of course, is one of Walcott’s footballing idols and, on this occasion, that was plain to see. The problem for the now 26-year-old is that this kind of efficiency, this kind of ruthless finishing which made Henry arguably the greatest player of the Premier League era, is only a part of Walcott’s armoury on an inconsistent basis.

It’s something for which he shows an aptitude occasionally, but at other times it seems to desert him like an unruly dog let off its leash. Against Stoke, for instance, Walcott’s supremely confident opener was interspersed with some extremely untidy shooting. He missed an early chance from within the 6-yard box, following a rebound off the post, and then, even less assuredly, failed to capitalise upon a perfect cross from Hector Bellerin, punching his header over the bar in unconvincing fashion.

When you see Walcott slide the ball home with such precision, as he did against Dinamo Zagreb, and then compare it to some of his sloppier moments, it’s tempting to think that the sloppiness must just be a mere aberration. But unfortunately for Walcott, the statistical evidence goes against him in this regard.

So far this Premier League season, Walcott has missed six clear-cut chances, more than any other player in the division. According to Sky Sports, that’s one misfire every 32.3 minutes, and when viewed in conjunction with the previous campaign, where he missed eight clear-cut chances at a rate of one every 55.1 minutes, it’s clear that he often forgets his shooting boots on match day.

To put those figures into perspective, the next worst throughout 2014-15, on a misses-to-minutes basis, was Crystal Palace forward Glenn Murray, who missed one clear-cut chance for every 108.3 minutes played. To say Walcott was wasteful would therefore be an understatement, and as someone who offers little other than goals as a centre-forward – he averages a lowly 12.5 passes per 90 minutes this season – it’s no wonder why his place in the side is constantly questioned.

But then again, these points can also be easily countered. To touch firstly on the finishing, it may be fair to suggest that Walcott wastes a proportionately high number of his clear-cut opportunities, but equally, it’s important to note that there’s a silver-lining present here. Indeed, the fact that Walcott gets into the position to score so frequently, courtesy of his clever movement, is highly impressive, and these aren’t just your garden variety shots from outside the box either, they are genuine article, clear-cut chances, the type from which a decent striker should be expecting to score.

Throw in the fact that Olivier Giroud has missed five clear-cut opportunities this season, only one fewer than Walcott, and it becomes apparent that the Englishman isn’t alone in terms of spurning chances for Arsene Wenger. Alexis has also missed four straightforward chances to score in the opening five league matches, and given that he found the back of the net 16 times last season, the lack of accuracy in front of goal, as it stands, has become something of a squad-wide problem for the Gunners.

So Walcott, in relative terms, hasn’t been dramatically more profligate than his teammates, but what about his build-up play? Whereas the likes of Giroud and Alexis facilitate the process of chance creation, by way of their slick technical skills and sheer inventiveness, Walcott just sits on the shoulder of the last defender. If they have all been imprecise in front of goal, then surely those who offer a little bit more, in respect to their all-round capabilities, should be given preference in the starting XI.

Yet while that makes sense, at least on the surface, it isn’t really that simple. Sure, Walcott hardly passes the ball, but in an Arsenal side which features the likes of Ozil and Santi Cazorla, not to mention Aaron Ramsey drifting infield from the right and Alexis often dropping deep as well, does he really need to contribute to the team’s possession game?

Probably not. The case can be made either way, of course, but there’s a feeling that Arsenal are too often guilty of playing in front of the opposition defence. This is especially prevalent when Giroud is on the pitch, as he likes to drop deep and exchange short passes with his teammates. In direct contrast, Walcott will rarely drop off the front line, instead aiming to challenge the back four with his sharp movement and incessant pace.

These things make Walcott a persistent threat in behind, and in an Arsenal side packed with a blend of artistry and technical proficiency, he operates as a unique threat to those he comes up against. He becomes a counterpoint to the more intricate aspects of Arsenal’s play, offering the kind of directness that can occasionally be lacking from their attractive attacking moves.

Moreover, Walcott’s more immediate threat, that sheer speed that he possesses, also provides an indirect benefit to the Gunners. It’s one that goes against the thought that he can’t contribute against a deep-sitting defence, and although, in those instances, the lack of space in behind can present a problem for him, it’s not entirely correct. Against both Stoke and Newcastle, for instance, he was able to scorch in, retrieve the rebound – after the ball had bounced off either the goalkeeper or the upright – and fire at goal. This is something Giroud will rarely offer, and additionally, as Walcott showed against Stoke, defences need to be keenly aware of his positioning when they do open themselves up, as his pace can facilitate an instant impact on the break.

More importantly, though, it’s also worth noting that his combination of speed and movement often force the opposition defence to take up a deeper position than usual. This can, in turn, clear a space in between the lines for Ozil and Co. to work their magic, and a great example of this came last season, in the FA Cup final, against Aston Villa. Here, Tim Sherwood’s midfield group continued to press high up the pitch, even as the defence dropped off to deal with the threat of Walcott. The final result was a huge gulf between the lines, and one which allowed Arsenal’s creators to thrive in an emphatic 4-0 victory.

The England international also opened the scoring that day, and with time to develop his craft as a No 9, the possibility exists that he might be able to do so more frequently for the Gunners. After all, Arsenal have created more chances than any other side in the Premier League this season, with 89, and crucial to that total has been the inventive pairing of Cazorla and Ozil, who have generated a staggering 43 chances between them.

Clearly, there is nothing wrong with the service, and as illustrated by his ability to latch onto those passes, Walcott moves well enough to take advantage of such opportunities. He just needs to finish better, and speaking after the Stoke match, Wenger expressed his belief that Walcott can, in fact, do just that.

“You become an instinctive finisher once you have a bag of goals behind you,” the Frenchman said. “Theo needs a few more goals to do that a little bit more spontaneously.”

Following Walcott’s pristine finish in Croatia, he has now scored four goals from his last three outings, including a brace for England in their recent match against San Marino. Whether that constitutes the “bag of goals” to which Wenger was referring remains to be seen, but at the very least, his confidence in front of goal should be returning.

Add in the backing of his Arsenal teammates – Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has “no doubt Theo can play up front” – together with Giroud’s red card against Dinamo Zagreb, and Walcott should now receive a run of starts to prove that he can become the club’s main man up top.

His first chance to impress will come this weekend, in what should be a hotly-contested London derby against Chelsea. His movement and pace have always offered a series of subtle benefits for Arsenal, now it’s time for him to provide a steady stream of goals as well.

Originally published at licencetoroam.net

Post written by Will Stratmann, Twitter: @willstratmann
for Licence to Roam, Blog: licencetoroam.net, Twitter: @licencetoroam

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