What Playing Theo Walcott Through the Middle Means for Arsenal

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistDecember 18, 2012

Starting Theo Walcott as a central striker keyed Arsenal's 5-2 demolition of Reading. It helped ignite a possible return of the Gunners' flair and fluidity.

Arsene Wenger's decision to start Theo Walcott as his main striker was a bold move, but the effects were obvious.

Regular readers will know this author is not Walcott's most ardent admirer. The issue has never been his talent, which is considerable.

However, his effort has rarely matched it, regardless of his starting position. Against Reading, Walcott responded well to being offered a free role in attack.

That gave him the fluency to be the kind of quick and mobile attacker Arsenal need. Wenger's brand of football is a flowing mixture of speed and intelligence.

With a loose centre-forward leading the line, Arsenal's movement and passing reflected Wenger's best ideas about the game. It's felt like an eternity since Arsenal played with the verve and quality they displayed at the Madejski Stadium.

In fact, it wasn't so long ago. From an attacking perspective, Arsenal's most complete performance this season came at home to Southampton on September 15th.

That was a game the Gunners won 6-1. The key to it was the play of a false No. 9 and how that improved the flow of Arsenal's game.

On that day, it was Gervinho who occupied that role and scored a brace. His varied movement encouraged greater combination play from the midfield and supporting forwards.

Arsenal were quick and incisive, with Gervinho dovetailing well with Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla. A similar dynamic was present against Reading. Walcott replaced Gervinho and Jack Wilshere's energy and creativity was added to the mix.

Just like that, Arsenal were transformed from the static, ponderous side they have been lately. The plodding, clueless style of play was replaced with what many expect from Wenger's teams.

The Gunners were fast and bright. It started with Walcott and how he used his pace and movement to give Arsenal the initiative.

When watching Walcott, the first thing this author looks for is movement. Is he making any runs, and how varied are those runs? He provided emphatic answers against Reading.

Walcott was on the move from the start. He attacked every side of Reading's back line. Rarely staying in the middle for long, Walcott instead channeled his movement to link with the flow of play.

That's exactly what Arsenal need from their main forward. Walcott's pace will frighten any defense, and that keeps more people back, which gives more room for the midfield to work.

That's why Arsenal's passing improved. The player in possession always had an option. With Walcott taking defenders across the field, the midfield was free to rotate their movement.

As a result, Santi Cazorla was able to play more advanced than in recent weeks. Wilshere could make the kind of late-breaking runs that Arsenal need.

The result was five goals and the Arsenal of old. This was how Wenger's teams should always play.

It can only happen with an active speedster leading the forward line. Think back to Nicolas Anelka and Thierry Henry.

When Arsenal play a more static target man like Olivier Giroud, teams can find it easy to stay compact. Because Giroud will spend the majority of his time through the middle, teams can maintain a solid shape against Arsenal.

This shape becomes a compact wall Arsenal often find difficult to break down. The threat of game-stretching pace like Walcott's pulls that shape apart.

Reading's defense is certainly generous. It is also unlikely that Arsenal's next opponents, Wigan Athletic, will allow them as much width.

However, Walcott won't lose any pace between now and his next game. Granting him free rein again can let him terrorise the Latics with a similar range of movement.

Attacking with pace from various angles is the essence of Wenger's system. If he stays healthy and learns consistency, Walcott gives Arsenal greater potential to revive that system.


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