Cristiano Ronaldo, Theo Walcott and the Rise of the Winger/Supporting Forward

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistJanuary 18, 2013

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 29:  Theo Walcott of Arsenal celebrates scoring their fourth goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Newcastle United at the Emirates Stadium on December 29, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Clive Mason/Getty Images

Theo Walcott's career trajectory could be set to take a similar route to Cristiano Ronaldo's. Both players firmly represent the rise of the winger/supporting forward hybrid, as the focal point of modern attacking football.

Anyone who's seen Walcott struggle with control, ball skills and sometimes even basic balance, will likely consider those two statements to be pure madness.

However, Arsenal fans had better hope there is some truth to both points. Reports from Sky Sports claim Walcott is set to sign a bumper new contract with the Gunners.

The deal will supposedly pay him around £100,000 per week, according to The Washington Post. That's a major investment in a player many would still consider frustratingly inconsistent.

It's the kind of financial outlay that immediately prompts the question, how can Arsenal get the most out of their investment? That's always a pertinent question where Walcott is concerned. Perhaps Ronaldo can provide the answer.

This season has offered yet more questions for the debate about whether Walcott belongs on the win, or through the middle. Using Ronaldo's development as a model could finally end the debate.

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Originally acquired to replace outgoing Manchester United star David Beckham, many expected Ronaldo to be a winger of equal wizardry. However, it soon became apparent that the ex-Sporting Lisbon forward was very inconsistent when tasked with operating as a true winger.

His delivery couldn't be trusted, and his over-elaborate step overs and excessive tricks, didn't always give markers fits. What did become clear as his United career progressed, was that Ronaldo shared many attributes with a true forward.

He had direct pace, intelligent movement, a thunderous shot and power in the air. The problem was finding the best way to consistently utilise those talents, without damaging the structure of the team.

The answer was simply to give Ronaldo more freedom. He was given more license to drift from the rigid confines of the wing and attack those areas where he could do the most damage.

Ronaldo redefined his position, almost inventing a new role. He was a winger in name only. That role possessed an inbuilt dichotomy that proved a nightmare for defenses. A player aligned wide who would occupy supporting areas, would in fact be the main thrust of his team's attack.

Instead, United's closest player to a traditional central striker, Wayne Rooney became the supporting foil for Ronaldo. This fluidity gave United an interchangeable attack that inspired three league titles and one UEFA Champions League trophy.

It has continued at Real Madrid, where Ronaldo has often started on the left but has remained his team's primary source of goals. Ronaldo's transformation should appeal to Arsene Wenger in his attempts to turn Walcott into a world class performer.

The two FA Cup fixtures against Swansea City, indicate how Walcott can be the game-changing winger/supporting forward hybrid Arsenal need. He started on the right in both games, but played more like an auxiliary striker.

He attacked wide areas, as well as making runs through the middle. Those who would chide him for his performance in the replay, would rather miss the point.

Walcott's finishing was wayward in Arsenal's 1-0 win, but his movement was excellent. Whether it was from the right, left or centrally, Walcott got into scoring positions. On another night, he would have keyed a more emphatic scoreline.

Playing four true midfielders against Swansea allowed Walcott and Olivier Giroud to act as a two-pronged attack. It's a nice combination and a smart deployment. Giroud has the strength to do the things Walcott can't.

His presence in the middle, allows Walcott the freedom to dart into various positions and threaten goal. That free range of movement makes Walcott the true focal point of Arsenal's strike force, from either flank. Walcott's staring position on the right also maintained the 4-5-1 balance Wenger likes in his formation.

This kind of deployment raises questions about the long-term roles of Lukas Podolski, Gervinho and Giroud. Rather than try and cultivate Walcott into a Nicolas Anelka, Thierry Henry clone, Wenger might be best served using Ronaldo as his template.

With no true standout striker to lead the attack, Wenger needs Walcott to be the free-roaming wide forward who will finish moves with a flourish. If he can, Walcott will finally become Arsenal's match winner and will also justify that hefty contract.

Arsenal don't need to find a striker to lead their line, they need their freshly signed winger/supporting forward hybrid to do it.


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