What Does Theo Walcott Bring to Arsenal?
In some ways, it was most powerfully a symbolic victory. Having lost players like Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy, Emmanuel Adebayor, Alex Song and—perhaps most painfully—Robin van Persie, the mere fact that contract negotiations with a valuable player actually ended positively gives Arsenal a boost.
At the same time, the deal signalled the final flourish in securing a core group of young British players that Arsene Wenger clearly sees as the future of this rebuilt Arsenal side.
That in itself is significant. Arsenal have been floundering in the post-Invincibles era, not just in the sense of struggling to compete against the super-charged financial might that has since entered the Premier League, but also in terms of character.
The successive departures of influential, defining figures like Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Cesc Fabregas left something of a leadership vacuum in the dressing room. More subtle but equally pervasive and disruptive changes were occurring in the board room.
Arsenal, once perennial Premier League contenders now seemingly content to battle for fourth place, have been suffering a minor identity crisis.
One key to addressing that is Wenger's focus on producing a team of "local boys," as he told the Official Arsenal Magazine:
If you can get the right players into the squad at an early age, you can build a real team spirit. When people have grown up together, they have that fraction more togetherness when they are on the pitch than if you assemble players from all over the world. ... So it makes the team attitude a bit stronger.
Walcott, who joined Arsenal from Southampton at the age of 16, is a crucial part of that vision.
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So it is clear what Walcott means to the club symbolically. But in practical terms, what exactly does he bring to the team?
Walcott's most obvious attribute is pace. His ability to accelerate past defenders can recall Thierry Henry's fleetest form.
This is a potent weapon that must not be underestimated. Obviously, in direct terms, it results in a lot of created chances—as evidenced by Walcott's impressive tally of both goals and assists this season.
But perhaps the more important aspect of Walcott's pace is the danger which forces defenders to mark him closely high up the pitch.
This stretches the opposition, allowing more space for the Arsenal midfield—most crucially Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere—to drive forward and create scoring opportunities.
This season, finally given the chance to operate at least part of the time as a central striker, Walcott has proven there is more to his game than just pace.
Despite persistent doubts, he has shown repeatedly that he can indeed bring the goals—and what is most important, he can bring them when needed.
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In Arsenal's FA Cup tie at Brighton, Walcott came off the bench to score the winner and spare Arsenal a potential replay.
The deflected goal may have lacked the finesse of some his more memorable, Henry-esque efforts this season, but it more than made up for that in its import.
Last season, Arsenal were heavily reliant on Robin van Persie as a sure provider of goals. It is worth noting that Walcott's current form actually surpasses that of his former teammate—according to Opta stats analysed by EPL Index, Walcott is contributing a goal or assist every 71.8 minutes of playing time, to Van Persie's still amazing 76.9.
If Walcott can cement a reputation as a steady and reliable source of goals, he will prove invaluable to Arsenal.
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