When we first saw glimpses of this fleet-footed young man, it was as a striker. He was a centre-forward in the Michael Owen mould: all pace and smart finishing. Now, after a seven-year apprenticeship on the wing, it seems as if he is finally returning to where he started.
Arsene Wenger has long insisted that the plan was for Walcott to become a forward. Even when he was playing as part of a midfield four, Wenger insisted that he saw in Walcott all the attributes requiring to play up top.
The logic of playing him wide has been two-fold: first of all, it had an obvious benefit for the team. Walcott’s speed makes him a threat to any full-back, and deploying him wide allows Arsenal to stretch the game.
The primary intention, however, was to benefit the development of Walcott himself. Wenger was acutely conscious of the fact that Thierry Henry spent the early part of his career playing wide and is on record as believing strongly in the benefits of such a grounding in the game.
In Philippe Auclair’s book "Thierry Henry: Lonely At The Top," he writes:
I remember a conversation I had with Arsene Wenger shortly after Samir Nasri had been brought from Marseille in the summer of 2008.
“It’s sometimes a good idea,” he told me, “to deploy a player who has a future in the middle of the park on the flank. He gets used to using the ball in smaller space, as the touch line effectively divides the space that’s available to him by two; when you move the same player to the middle, he breathes more easily and can exploit space better.
We’re now beginning to see the benefit of that experience. Walcott’s game has evolved dramatically, particularly in the last few months. His movement off the ball and close control have improved significantly, and the most noticeable advancement has been in his finishing.
In front of goal, Walcott has become lethal. He has 14 goals already this season and is on course for this to be his best-ever goalscoring campaign.
It’s worth noting that the majority of those goals came while playing wide. Walcott is obsessed by becoming a striker, but needs to realise he doesn’t need to be the man in in the middle to earn that title. Arsenal’s fluid formation actually includes three attackers, and often it is the men ostensibly playing on the wing who find themselves with presentable opportunities in front of goal.
The role of a forward has evolved significantly since Walcott’s emergence in 2006. The likes of Michael Owen have faded from the game, and striker’s are required to be multi-faceted and versatile. Players like David Villa and Wayne Rooney often find themselves asked to play from a position on the flank, and it doesn’t seem to inhibit their game.
Wherever his starting position, there can be little doubt that Walcott is turning into the striker he always threatened to be. Whether he starts through the middle or wide, his evolution in to a goalscorer is progressing at pace.