The emergence of Theo Walcott as a center forward should bring an end to Arsenal’s search for a striker in the transfer market. Walcott, whose hat-trick and overall performance led Arsenal to a 7-3 victory over Newcastle, has appeared reborn since Arsene Wenger shifted him inside.
The first tally on a wild day at the Emirates Stadium came courtesy of Walcott’s accurate finish on the break. Thierry Henry was watching from a luxury box, surely admiring the 23-year old Englishman’s poise as he curled a low strike around Newcastle keeper Tim Krul. It was certainly a goal reminiscent of Arsenal’s old number 14; however, the similarities between the two stretch even deeper than a shirt number. Henry, known as a winger in his time at Juventus, was converted by Arsene Wenger to a central striker and achieved great success in North London. Walcott may be in the process of making the same transformation.
Walcott’s second on the way to the hat-trick was another surprisingly calm finish. After Lukas Podolski completely missed Kieran Gibbs’ cross, Walcott took his time place the ball in the top of the net as Alan Pardew’s men swarmed to block the effort. Theo capped his terrific day with a, dare I say it, Lionel Messi-esque goal. Walcott, often criticized for his lack of dribbling skills, danced around a couple of defenders before being hacked down by Gabriel Obertan in the box. Instead of rolling around on the carpet, Walcott jumped up and popped the ball over Krul.
Walcott’s finishing, once a heavily scrutinized aspect of his game, has vastly improved since his hat-trick against Reading in the League Cup in October. In his last ten appearances in all competitions, Walcott has ten goals. To put that figure in perspective, Robin van Persie has six goals in his last ten matches; Demba Ba (who has been linked with a move to the Gunners) also has six; and Luis Suarez has five. Of his 14 goals this season, 6 have come in the 80th minute or later, indicating that he preys on opposing defenders as they tire.
Arsene Wenger, perhaps encouraged by Walcott’s newfound ruthlessness in front of goal, has only recently begun experimenting with Theo at the top of his 4-2-3-1 formation. Walcott has often spoke of his desire to play through the middle, and he has rewarded Wenger for granting his wish by scoring a goal against Reading last week and three against the Magpies on Saturday.
Walcott is almost infinitely more valuable to Arsenal as striker than as a winger. Inconsistent wide midfielders with pace are never a rare commodity, while quick center forwards who can score are always difficult to find. Walcott’s joy on the right flank usually occurred when he exploited the space between the right-back and the nearest center-back. As a central striker, Walcott has more gaps to exploit and more freedom to make penetrating runs. Given this new role, Walcott should never disappear for long periods of matches like he did sometimes when playing out wide.