Arsene Wenger has compared the abilities of Walcott to Messi recently, stating the Arsenal man has ‘more’ to his game than the Argentinian. In particular Wenger mentioned Walcott has better movement off the ball than Messi leading me to the question; when is it best to start playing Walcott in attack?
An expansion of the question will be when will we know that the time is right. It probably will not be this season but what traits are we looking for this season to finally decide. He also has direct competition from young strikers at the club who unlike Walcott are playing in attack at the moment in some competition. (Vela and Bendtner, Van Persie, Eduardo and Adebayor are still young, while Barazite will look to push on as he is on loan). Obvious comparisons are to Thierry Henry and Micheal Owen but it is important not to compare too much to these players as he should develop to his strengths as opposed to how good is he at the exact moment.
Movement and Positioning
“When he takes the ball to his feet he’s like a Ferrari. But Theo is more a guy who has the timing to run off the ball and that is something that is difficult to find. We had Marc Overmars who was especially good at that and I’m a great, great lover of movement off the ball.” (Arsene Wenger)
Theo’s movement to get behind the defender especially is rated highly from Wenger but at the moment this is mainly tested on the wings. He will have a greater area of the pitch to work with and as a result a greater responsibility to get on the ball. At U21level for England, Walcott proved he was a class above the rest in attack but in the Premiership the game is faster, denying him the space. The tournament coming next summer could provide the step up for him to progress and stake a claim next season. What he may have against Thierry Henry is that he is more comfortable dribbling from the right (and equally good from the left) than the Frenchman who preffered the left and coming in.
“He is a man now in the fight, you feel he has much more power than a year ago, or six months ago. We do a bit of strengthening of the upper body but not weights, because I believe in football it’s more about coordination. Weights make you more rigid and coordination makes you more flexbile and Walcott is a guy who has natural power. He will naturally become a strong upper body player.” (Arsene Wenger, obviously)
One of the big improvements has been his balance and ability to shrug off defenders’ challenges. He is not scared to take players on as opposed to last season and has gained huge confidence to take on the defender again even if he was fouled previously.
Goals in the Champions League last season and this season confirmed his ability to place the ball as well as Thierry Henry and has more in his locker as shown by the hat-trick against Croatia. Has the composure but still needs to work on the technique.
Decision Making and Tactical Awareness
This is the area that he needs work on and what will ultimately determine the success of him as a central striker. The ability to know where to go in order to work with the team and then what to do with the ball once he has it. In the central area he must use the space and work with his team mates, whether making runs behind the defender or receiving the ball deep. Walcott needs to be aware of what’s around him especially in the Arsenal way where the midfielders must work with the strikers. His main asset, pace will not be required to be used as much and used at the correct moment. What other skills he can bring; like Thierry is that his ability to dribble can create opportunities for others adding to his scoring abilities.
We will try and look for improvements in these traits throughout this season and could get a chance up front in the Carling Cup. At the U21 Championships, which he will probably go to Walcott will get the chance to play up in attack and if he impresses can stake his claim as a forward next season. His footballing mind has been criticised as he relies heavily on his pace but if he can strike the right balance as he is starting to do this season he can become one of the best. If not, what Arsenal could have is still a potentially an exciting, explosive and dynamic winger.