Having signed a new contract with Arsenal last week, Theo Walcott's immediate future looks secure.
Injuries permitting, the 20-year-old has already established himself as a regular presence in the Gunners team and has looked dangerous on the many occasions he has played.
He has progressed steadily, if unspectacularly, since arriving in North London in January 2006.
Having watched him on Sunday in his team’s disappointing defeat to rivals Chelsea, however, I couldn’t shake off one question that the England international’s performance kept bringing to mind:
Would Theo Walcott be more successful if moved to Arsenal’s left wing?
This is not a criticism of Walcott’s play on the right wing, as he has done fine in that position. For Arsenal he has provided a reasonable threat, crossed the ball with decent consistency, and scored a solid number of goals from an acceptable number of chances.
He’s done fine.
But then that is the problem—for someone of Walcott’s talent, doing "fine" should not be, well, fine.
He has the talent to be world class, and that has been evident ever since the day he first stole the headlines at boyhood club Southampton. His international hat trick against Croatia—in Zagreb—heightened expectations for the youngster, but also demonstrated conclusively that he had the ability and mentality to eventually reach them.
But between the highlights for club and country, there have been many quiet periods. Yes, the expectations on his young shoulders have been astronomical, but few would argue he has progressed as quickly as the majority hoped he would.
For this reason, a switch to the left wing might be profitable for the youngster, in a similar manner to that of another right-footed player at Aston Villa—Ashley Young.
Young has scored 18 goals from 84 games for the Midlands club, a respectable total (even if a fair proportion of those have come from free kicks). But he also provides the majority of his team’s assists and is the main wide threat who creates space for the likes of Gareth Barry in the midfield, or Gabriel Agbonlahor up front.
In golf, players rarely hit the ball straight—they either fade it (left-to-right), or draw it (right-to-left). Either way, the strategy is simple—if you fade it, aim at the left hand side of the fairway, and vice versa for the draw. That way, you maximise the amount of fairway at your disposal.
Putting Young out on the left is the equivalent of aiming right of the fairway and expecting a draw. The options and percentages are much better.
For Walcott, moving to the left side could achieve a similar feat. While decent with his left foot, the way he attempted to take his chances against Chelsea—using the outside of his right boot in preference to his left—on Sunday demonstrate that he is far more comfortable using his right.
When stationed on the right, then, this leads him to move the ball toward the corner flag, forcing him out wide and into crossing positions that Arsenal are not tactically set up to profit from.
If he were on the left, his natural preference for his right foot would drag him across the pitch and toward the box—in fact, the whole pitch would be his to roam.
This tactic has worked for him in the past and could work again.
If, in the process, he picked up more confidence and capability in his left foot, then so much the better.
The similarities with Thierry Henry—whose No. 14 shirt the young Englishman inherited upon his departure—should not be overlooked. Henry prefers cutting in from the left, even though he is naturally right-footed—and does so with great success.
While Henry is one of the game’s very best players, there is no reason Walcott could not perform a similar role equally effectively—he already appears to have all the attributes required.
If he were successful, it might also allow the likes of Samir Nasri to enjoy a more central role—where their technical excellence and passing range might be used more effectively. It might also give Fabio Capello reason to select Walcott regularly for England in that position.
Arsene Wenger has stated that, in the long term, he sees Walcott being played through the middle, alongside or just behind the main striker. This makes sense. But until he is ready to fulfil that role, deploying him in a similar way to Young or Henry might be eminently sensible.
With two meaningless games left for Arsenal in this Premiership campaign, perhaps Arsene Wenger will consider experimenting—to the extent that we might see Walcott get an opportunity to explore life on the other side of the pitch.
After all, there would be nothing to lose—but possibly something to gain.