Theo Walcott won't leave the Madejski Stadium Monday night as the toast of Arsenal—that honor will fall to three-goal hero Santi Cazorla—but he will leave Reading feeling completely justified that he does indeed have a future at the North London club.
The England international has endured a rough three-month spell by anybody's standards in terms of contract breakdowns and disagreements about his playing position, but with a strong and complete performance against an otherwise poor Reading side, Walcott proved just why he's worth keeping this season.
He finished the night with the game-clinching goal (not that the result was in doubt, anyway) but it was his movement off the ball and his involvement in the match that would have most delighted manager Arsene Wenger, who had seemingly dared the Englishman to prove his worth by playing him up front as the lone striker just weeks before the transfer window will open.
With French striker Olivier Giroud relegated to the bench in favor of Walcott, the 23-year-old showed that he was more than just an athletic winger who had a little bit of pace; he embodied the clinical striker that the Gunners have been missing at the top of their attack this season.
On the ball or off it, Walcott was active and involved. He combined well with Lukas Podolski on the left throughout the first half; he allowed Santi Cazorla freedom to operate in behind, with the three goals scored by the Spanish international all a product of the striker's movement and involvement.
Yes, striker. After Monday, it's pretty safe to call him that.
Against the Royals, we saw that Walcott brings a unique skill set to Arsenal's attack—a skill set that can lead to a plethora of attacking chances for the Gunners.
What he brings to the top of an attack is unique to few players in the Premier League at the moment that, if used correctly, can prove to be a truly deadly force. For Arsenal, for England—the point remains the same. If he stands at the top of the attack, defenses will sit further back and thus give more space to the midfield in behind Walcott to operate as well as the wingers outside of Walcott.
Let's unpack that idea a bit more and see how the 23-year-old's movement proved to be so decisive and game-changing for the Gunners against Reading.
Once Wenger had opted for the England international at the top of the attack, it was clear that Reading were going to sit back and not allow him to get in behind.
There was one moment in attack when the Royals defense was caught high and Walcott was allowed in behind, and it took a great save from Adam Federici to prevent the England international from finding the back of the net.
From that moment on, it was clear that his pace and acceleration would be too deadly if allowed that kind of freedom to operate, so the Royals' back four sat further and further back as Walcott pushed further and further up the pitch.
That high starting point of the attack allowed the likes of Podolski, Cazorla and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain—who played around Walcott—great freedom to operate effectively.
Take a look at the goals Arsenal netted during the match.
On the first goal to Podolski, we see Walcott at the top of the attack and attracting two (almost three) defenders to him. That allows Kieran Gibbs freedom to work down the left flank, from where his cross in for the German international Podolski to score off in the box.
And had Podolski not timed his run so well, the 23-year-old Walcott was right there also to meet the cross and get an attempt on goal also.
On Cazorla's first goal (Arsenal's second goal) we can see Walcott pushing high into the box of Reading whilst the ball is out on the wing with Podolski—forcing two Reading defenders to sit back in the box to mark him and, in the process, allowing great space around them.
As the cross comes in, the England international then drops to the top of the box—taking defenders with him and creating a space between the two central defenders. On cue comes Cazorla with the head and suddenly the Gunners have doubled their lead.
He didn't even touch the ball in either goal, but his movement and ability to set up defensive back lines where it best helps Arsenal was key on both occasions.
Even when he did get the ball at his feet for his goal, it was still the run that he made across the field—attracting the two defenders—that allowed Cazorla the time to weigh up the situation well and play the correct ball across the field to him.
The finish itself was excellent, but again, it was all the movement and involvement across the field that created the space and opportunity—and that's what Walcott did perfectly all match. You could neatly go as far to say that it is something he does far better than Giroud, who has yet to get on the same page with the likes of Cazorla and Jack Wilshere in midfield.
So whilst he didn't net the three goals of Cazorla and didn't try the 100 passes that Mikel Arteta attempted, there is no doubt that after watching him Monday, Theo Walcott can still play a huge and important role to the Gunners attack this season.
He won't be an out-and-out striker like Luis Suarez, nor will he be the target man that someone like Andy Carroll is to West Ham this year.
What he can and hopefully will be is a man who forces defenses to hesitate and play cautiously about letting him get in behind and, in doing so, create great space in behind for the strong midfield that Arsenal have to work their magic.
Wilshere, Arteta, Cazorla, Podolski, Oxlade-Chamberlain—they are all world-class players who have proven this season that they can open up teams with their incisive passing and direction. If Walcott can create even more space and time for those around him to operate, then it's definitely worth playing him at the top of the attack on a more frequent basis.
And it's probably worth giving him a new contract also.
What did you make of Theo Walcott's performance vs. Reading?
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