independent

Friday 18 April 2014

When the question is easy, Walcott has the answer

THE goalkeeper was poorly positioned, the winger's pace took him away from the defender down the left wing and from a spot between the 18-yard box and sideline, 16-year-old Theo Walcott conjured up a superb lob with his left foot to score the winning goal.

That was seven years ago for Southampton against Luton Town as Walcott showed the speed and poise that made him such hot property as well as the characteristic that remains both his greatest weakness and strength. That is, when a question has only one possible answer, Walcott will usually come up with the goods.

If a cross is the only option, his delivery can be superb, as it was for Olivier Giroud's first goal against Newcastle. When it's obvious that he should shoot, Walcott's finishing – so often a source of unfair criticism – rarely lets him down, which is what gave him his first two goals on Saturday. When he knows he has the freedom to dribble at tired players, he is capable of the sort of moment that rounded off his hat-trick or launched his career at Arsenal with a famous Champions League run against Liverpool at Anfield.

The problem for Walcott comes when the question posed has multiple-choice answers. Do you a) pass; b) dribble; c) shoot; d) hold the ball up and bring team-mates into the game?

Centre-forwards at every level face this type of question several times per game and the best ones make the right decision most often. Even with four goals in the past three games he has started as a striker, there hasn't been enough to show that Walcott is capable of being in their company.

The finish for his first goal had echoes of Thierry Henry, but the initial run owed more to the good luck of having Davide Santon at left-back than any good judgment on Walcott's part. Had he been kept onside by one of the centre-backs standing nearby, the bending of Walcott's run would have been worthy of praise; as it was, it didn't deserve to be rewarded.

Five minutes before half-time, at a point when Arsenal were 1-0 up but under pressure, Walcott broke away and was faced with the dilemma of whether to pass early to Santi Cazorla; commit the defender and then put his team-mate through or try to run on himself. His answer was to play a pass that was intercepted and, rather than being 2-0 up, Arsenal were level at the interval.

There were similar incidents in the second half when Cazorla and Lukas Podolski, in particular, were dismayed as Walcott ignored their calls for the ball before giving it away or shooting poorly. It seems odd to quibble with the performance of a centre-forward who has scored a hat-trick with three superb finishes but, for all the praise lavished on him by Arsene Wenger in the aftermath, the manager's response to them going 4-3 ahead was significant.

At that point, Wenger replaced Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain with Giroud who came on to score twice as the main striker while Walcott was switched to the wing. It was a move that spoke of a lack of trust in Walcott's ability to take the pressure off his defence and was born out of incidents against Wigan the previous week as Arsenal toiled to hang on to a 1-0 lead.

Pressure

Late on, as the ball was cleared to Walcott, he was being tightly marked by a Wigan defender near the halfway line and was, again, faced with a few options and no obvious correct answer.

The first was to take hold of the ball and bring team-mates into play; the second was to relieve pressure on his defence by controlling the ball and trying to win a free-kick or throw-in; the third was to throw a dummy and hope that the defender bought it.

In that instance, Walcott chose the third option, the defender intercepted and, from a position where Arsenal should have been in good possession and able to push out, instead they were faced with another Wigan attack. If such a scenario happened at Old Trafford, it's easy to imagine Nemanja Vidic grabbing the perpetrator by the neck in the dressing-room afterwards.

On Saturday, Wenger's switch allowed Walcott to showcase his crossing ability with the assist for Giroud and then cut in from the wing to round off his hat-trick.

Walcott's dream seems to be emulating Henry, but if Wenger can convince him to stay and become a goalscoring winger in the manner of Robert Pires or Freddie Ljungberg, both he and Arsenal would be better off.

Central defenders certainly fear pace but if speed of foot was all that was required to play up front, Djibril Cisse would be playing for Barcelona. Instead, as he was yesterday, he gets replaced at half-time by Shaun Derry.

Convincing Walcott to sign a new deal would provide a significant step in diminishing Arsenal's reputation as a feeder club and, from a psychological point of view, it's vital for the club that he stays. Yet, even allowing for hat-tricks in 7-3 wins, the suspicion remains that Wenger is unconvinced about his long-term position as a centre-forward.

Like the situations where Walcott usually struggles, there doesn't seem to be an obvious answer.

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