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.
In addition, Walcott’s worth to Arsenal is also due to need. Olivier Giroud is the Gunners’ only other viable striker at the moment. Walcott’s pace contrasts well with Giroud’s strength and aerial ability. The two combined brilliantly after Giroud was inserted in the second half against Newcastle; and the possibility of playing them together must surely tempt Arsene Wenger into reverting back to his two-striker system.
Doubters will say that Reading’s defending has been shambolic and that Alan Pardew’s side were wounded and tired at the Emirates Stadium. While both these claims are true, Walcott still must be praised for doing what he is supposed to do as a frontman, especially when considering that the position is new to him. He can still get better. He needs to improve his distribution on the break; several times on Saturday, Walcott wasted dangerous counter-attacks by making the wrong pass or waiting too late to play in a teammate. However, on the whole, Walcott has been a revelation playing through the middle.
For months, the British media has been reporting on Arsene Wenger’s wish to add to his striking corps in January. Names such as Fernando Llorente, David Villa, Demba Ba, and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar have been linked with moves to the Emirates Stadium; although Wenger’s plans may change given recent developments. The time, effort, and money spent on chasing after transfer targets should be utilized to sign Walcott to a long-term contract by the end of month. Arsenal have found their new striker.