Why Theo Walcott Is Arsenal's Most Important Player
Olivier Giroud has started the 2013-14 season in fine form, and new signing Mesut Ozil has already made an impact. But their performances cannot obscure the fact that Arsenal's most important player is Theo Walcott.
The 3-1 win over Stoke City to take the Gunners to the top of the English Premier League provided the perfect example why. Without Walcott, Arsenal did not have the pace and movement to get behind Stoke's rugged defence.
That is why the Gunners were pedestrian for large portions of their encounter with The Potters. Their performance highlighted what is missing most from manager Arsene Wenger's squad, namely, pace.
This version of Arsenal simply doesn't have it. Walcott is the only player capable and willing to stretch a defence. He plays a direct game, based on quickly and decisively exploiting gaps in a back four.
Those qualities are what add an end product to Arsenal's attractive, thoughtful possession play. Walcott prevents teams from simply crowding out Wenger's army of playmakers and denying them space to play fluidly, as Stoke did.
What has made Walcott a better player is that he has finally learned to mix his runs. He no longer just attacks the gap between a full-back and central defender, although that remains his most dangerous run.
Walcott has become more adept at drifting across the front of a defence and darting between both centre-backs. But no matter how he varies his movement, it is the direct pace of it that is Walcott and Arsenal's most dangerous attribute.
Although it has been a slow start to the season for Walcott in terms of goals, with just one netted so far, he has still been Arsenal's best attacking outlet.
Had his finishing been better against Sunderland, Walcott would have claimed the hat-trick his speedy movement merited. Walcott has routinely provided the vital outlet ball for Arsenal's litany of midfield schemers.
Unfortunately, no other player offers such an outlet. Against Stoke, Serge Gnabry deputized for Walcott. Despite being a fleet-footed player in his own right, Gnabry likes to drop a little deeper and play a more methodical game.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain displays a similar trait, despite boasting ample pace. Only raw youngster Ryo Miyaichi is as direct as Walcott. But he resembles a more natural winger, rather than the devilish supporting forward Walcott has become.
Combining game-breaking pace with intelligent movement is the essence of Wenger's quick-strike philosophy. It has been the hallmark of his best teams.
Nicolas Anelka and Marc Overmars were the lightning-fast duo who sprinted Arsenal to a double in 1997/98. Later it was Thierry Henry and to a lesser extent Sylvain Wiltord, who gave Arsenal the speed to get behind any opposition.
In his current squad, only Walcott provides that capability. His absence causes a troubling clash of styles for those that remain.
A midfield built to let the technical guile of players like Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey flourish, needs runners to pass to.
Walcott is the lightning bolt Wenger's band of creators need to attack their clever supply. Without that complementary dynamic, this Arsenal team soon looks sluggish and one-paced.
New signing Mesut Ozil is the perfect example of this dynamic. Wenger recently rightly compared Ozil's potential influence to that of the legendary Dennis Bergkamp, according to The Daily Telegraph's Jason Burt:
Dennis was maybe more prolific. Dennis was first a striker but he created as well. But Dennis’s evolution through his career was an adaptation to his physical qualities. When he couldn’t score any more he became a great provider.
I think Özil, at the start, has more a midfielder’s mentality and Dennis, at the start, had more a striker’s mentality. But he [Özil] can score, yes.
But a key part of Bergkamp's evolution was how Wenger surrounded him with pace and intelligent movement. The cerebral forward had a host of speedy runners to connect with.
One of the main concerns about Arsenal adding Ozil is: Who will Europe's assist king be assisting? Without Walcott's runs to aim for, Ozil is reduced to short-range exchanges in compact areas.
Of course, the mercurial playmaker is still talented enough to succeed at this type of combination play. But it does not represent what can be his most valuable contributions to Arsenal.
Ozil is at his best when he is able to thread passes through defensive gaps to connect with speedy runners from multiple angles.
In essence, the Germany international needs Walcott as much as Walcott needs him. Because while Ozil will make Arsenal more competitive, in the title race, their chances of actually securing major prizes will depend on the health and form of Walcott.
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