05 October 2015

Walcott lays waste to Man U; is he the striker we've pined for?

No, he didn't score any goals in the 3-0 blitzing of Man U, but it's getting harder and harder to resist the notion that Theo Walcott can in fact lead the line. He delivered two assists, one to Özil and the other to Alexis, marking the fifth time in six starts that he's had in hand in Arsenal goals. Playing as our centre-forward, he's now claimed four goals and three assists against Stoke, Dinamo Zagreb, Olympiacos, Leicester, and Man U. I'll be first in line to admit that I've had my doubts about Theo through the middle, but he's laying waste to those doubts almost as quickly as he's laid waste to opposing defenses. The scary part of this is that he's still figuring out how best to play the role.

For years now, we've sought the heir to Henry, even latching on to the fact that Walcott and Henry have worn the same number (14) as evidence that Walcott would soon assume his place alongside Henry as a goal-scorer extraordinaire—but that comparison will always be unfair...until someone proves to be up to the task. It's more than a bit early to suggest that Walcott is rising to that challenge, but the early returns are tantalizing, to be sure. This season has offered him his first real chance to play through the middle, and, despite the steep learning curve, he's climbing fast and furious.

To be honest, though, Man U offered his first truly stern test. Stoke were without Shawcross or Adams and were still adjusting to life without Begovic, and Leicester play the kind of high line that suits Walcott just fine. On one hand, those circumstances might inflate our estimation of Walcott's performances. On the other, they offer him an impeccable chance at testing the waters. By all accounts, things are going swimmingly.

One concern I'd had is that he'd succumb to the tempation to be The Man, waiting around until the ball was played to him and taking any and all shots on offer. That's not been the case thus far. His movement has been revelatory; no longer does he merely linger along the edges of the defense in hopes of a through-ball. Instead, he's popping up here and there and everywhere, making dragging runs and holding up the ball for others, and it's little wonder that he's chipped in almost as many assists (3) as goals (4) to date. If anything, he's become more-generous and less selfish despite being handed that putative leading-role, the one that might otherwise allow him to treat and and all touches as invitations to shoot. His distribution, however, has been every bit as vital as has his finishing.

Instead of comparisons to Henry, the more-sensible one might be to Ian Wright (no slouch in his own day...). Walcott himself talked of the similarities between himself and dear old Wrighty:
He obviously scored so many goals and caused havoc for defenders. He wasn't the tallest man in the world but the amount of pressure he would put on defenders just scared them...I can learn from the runs he made, the pace he had in his game and his finishing. 
No one will ever mistake Walcott for the kind of target-man we've built our offense around, for better or for worse, over the last three seasons. Like Henry and Wright before him, though, Walcott offers us a chance to create a more-fluid, dynamic attack that plays to our strengths and skill-set. He has the mobility and intelligence to eviscerate a defense in any number of ways. He's just now starting to explore the myriad ways through which he can lay waste to defenses; instead of merely lingering alongside their left-back, he pops up all across their back line, stretching them out of shape and creating space behind for teammates like Alexis to run into.

At a broader level, we're starting to see the scales fall from the eyes of the entire squad. From as deep as our centre-backs, players are looking up the pitch for chances to send long passes. We're not seeing nearly as much as the slower, tiki-taka build-up from years past; instead, a more-typical sequence sees Coquelin disrupt an attack, with the ball landing at the feet of Ramsey, Cazorla, or Özil. They turn and look for a chance to thread that ball through—no longer just to the right flank, but almost anywhere across the front-line. For as much as Walcott has to learn about playing as a striker, his teammates have to learn (or relearn) how to pass to one like Walcott.

As each adjusts to the other, I have a feeling that we'll see more and more displays like this one against Man U in which Walcott has chances to get behind the defense, much as he's always done, but also in other ways, dragging and stretching defenses every which way. That fluidity dares any defense to stop it. We've now scored 10 goals in our last three outings. It's unlikely that we can continue at that rate, but with Walcott at the centre of things, we just might.