Theo Walcott in Central Role Critical for Remainder of Arsenal's Season

Tim Collins@@TimDCollinsFeatured ColumnistDecember 21, 2012

Theo Walcott scores in Arsenal's 5-2 win over Reading.
Theo Walcott scores in Arsenal's 5-2 win over Reading.Scott Heavey/Getty Images

In yesteryear, an Arsenal victory over a Premier League minnow would have been considered a mere formality, a simple tick-the-box exercise.

Now however, with the Gunners' current plight, such a victory yields a number of lessons moving forward.

The team's victory over bottom-of-the-table Reading on Monday night was notable for two main things.

Firstly, it was a welcome return to the winners list after the Capital One Cup disaster at Bradford.

Secondly, the game marked the return of a fluent, attacking Arsenal.

Before singing too many praises, it must be acknowledged that Reading are dreadfully out of sorts defensively. Yet, that didn't prevent a number of positive signs appearing for Arsene Wenger's side. 

One of those positive signs was the success of Theo Walcott in a central attacking role, and if Arsenal is to shrug off its dreadful start to the season, Walcott must be given the chance to shine in that position for the remainder of the campaign.

Although Santi Cazorla stole the show with a sublime performance that culminated in a hat-trick, Walcott's influence was profound. 

Long craving an opportunity to play through the middle, Walcott's electric presence clearly disturbed Reading's central defensive pairing of Adrian Mariappa and Kaspars Gorkss.

Coming off a hat-trick in his last visit to the Madejski Stadium, Walcott's timely and blistering runs from the shoulder of Reading's defense had the home side's back four completely out of shape.

For the first game in a long time, Arsenal looked dangerously fluent when moving forward.

With Walcott forcing Mariappa and Gorkss to track his searching runs, a huge hole was created between Reading's central defenders and its midfielders in Mikele Leigertwood and Jay Tabb. The vast, central space meant Cazorla and Jack Wilshere were afforded the time to do as they pleased.

With the home side's wider players drawn centrally to cover the space, the pacey Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lukas Podolski flanked Walcott beautifully by maintaining the side's width and explosiveness.

That blistering front-three combination perfectly complemented the Gunners' delightfully skillful, yet hardly athletic, midfield trio.

In stark contrast to the games against Sunderland, Stoke, QPR, Aston Villa and Swansea, Arsenal's off-the-ball movement was contagious. The ball rarely travelled backward with the team out of ideas.

This season, the arrival of Olivier Giroud as a central striker has given the Gunners an imposing aerial presence in the penalty area. However, the Frenchman isn't a hand-in-glove fit for the Londoners. His lack of pace has seen the play in front of him become stagnant at times, while his lack of guile with the ball at his feet has squandered chances and given possession away.

Gervinho has also been given a chance to lay his claims on the same position, with the results of the experiment being high on the list of frustrations for the club's fans.

Walcott, however, thrived in the middle of the attack.

The much-maligned player has been previously criticized for his decision-making and poor crossing ability from the right side. Yet, amid that scrutiny, his calm and composed finishing in front of goal has seemingly been overlooked.

His goal on Monday was a perfect example, as he completed two deft touches from Cazorla's pass before guiding the ball home with his nonpreferred left foot. 

Although it was a cool finish to seal the result, Walcott doesn't necessarily need to score game in, game out to have a significant impact. The ability of his blistering pace to disrupt the organization of the opposition's defensive unit can sometimes be enough to provide Arsenal with scoring chances.

Given the team's scoring struggles this season against the less fortunate clubs of English football, Walcott must be given the green light from Wenger to continue playing in the central attacking position.

The highly in-demand 23-year-old is in the middle of stalled contract negotiations, and while money may be an obstacle, it's very likely that his role in the side is a sticking point.

After the departures of Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Robin van Persie and Alex Song in recent times, Arsenal simply can't afford to let another elite talent slip through its grasp.

Consequently, Wenger must recognize the need to play Walcott through the middle. Not only may Arsenal's revival this season depend on it, but the future of the England international in North London may also be determined by the positional shift as well.


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