The anterior cruciate ligament injury to Theo Walcott has dealt a significant blow to Arsenal’s Premier League title hopes. The winger’s recent form suggested he was set to be one of their key players as the Gunners looked to end their long wait for silverware. However, his loss needn’t be a knockout punch. Arsenal are understandably reeling, but they can recover.
Arsene Wenger’s first response will surely be to look at internal solutions. When it comes to filling the void on the right wing, there are plenty of options. Already this season, the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla, Mesut Ozil and Serge Gnabry have lined up in that position.
Of those, teenager Gnabry looks best placed to act as cover for Walcott. He started Arsenal’s last game against Tottenham on the right wing and was superb. While he is not quite as quick as his English team-mate, he is stocky, muscular and appears to already have the “football brain” it took Walcott several years to develop.
However, at just 18, Gnabry cannot be expected to play every game between now and May.
No matter: Arsenal have a replica on the way back from injury. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has finally returned to training after having suffered a similar injury to Walcott.
Oxlade-Chamberlain has played for just a matter of minutes this season, but his return and the emergence of Gnabry should ensure that Arsenal have plenty of cover on the right-hand side. It may take him some time to get up to speed, but once he does, he will have the potential prize of a World Cup place to motivate him.
Despite the pair's promise, the unfortunate truth is that neither Gnabry nor Oxlade-Chamberlain offer the same goal threat as Walcott. Despite missing a significant chunk of the season with an abdominal injury, Walcott is already Arsenal’s third top goalscorer behind Ramsey and Olivier Giroud.
One way of offsetting his absence could be to reintroduce Lukas Podolski to the starting line-up. Podolski’s explosive finishing could help compensate for Walcott’s absence from the Arsenal attack. In the past, Wenger has appeared loath to start both Podolski and Walcott on the flanks, as both players tend to end up playing more like second strikers.
With Walcott out, Wenger might be tempted to reshuffle his midfield by playing Cazorla from the right and allowing Podolski to cut in from the left. The German international has a good understanding with Giroud and could feed off the Frenchman’s intelligent lay-offs.
The final option for Wenger would be to venture into the transfer market. With Nicklas Bendtner also on the sidelines, adding a goalscorer to the squad would be a significant boost.
However, finding a player with the ability to improve Arsenal’s squad in the January transfer window is notoriously difficult. A report by Ed Malyon of Mirror Football suggests that Arsenal have been linked with Atletico Madrid’s Diego Costa, but prising him away from Spain halfway through a title challenge would be laced with problems.
Wenger might feel that in a fit Podolski and Oxlade-Chamberlain, he already has the players capable of filling in for Walcott. It’s a challenge, but one they have the talent to meet.