Theo Walcott ready to take on Thierry Henry's role
When Theo Walcott became the most expensive 16 year-old in football history, the decision to join Arsenal rather than Chelsea or Liverpool was ultimately swayed by the chance to learn from his idol, Thierry Henry.
The dream was to emulate Henry’s remarkable transition from precocious winger to world-class striker and now, some five years on, Arsène Wenger has admitted that he is finally poised to trial Walcott in the centre of Arsenal’s attack.
“He is very, very close to playing that striker role,” said the Arsenal manager. “He is more of a natural striker [than winger] as he likes to put the ball into the net himself.”
With six goals in seven games, there has certainly been a marked improvement in Walcott’s finishing this season. Wenger attributes that to an added composure in front of goal, with Walcott staying behind after training throughout the summer to focus on improving his final ball.
The issue now is clearly consistency over a season, although Wenger stressed that Henry was no further forward at the same age. Indeed, Henry’s peak years for Arsenal were between 24 and 28.
“Theo is 21,” said Wenger. “Give two more years to Theo and imagine what he will be. And don’t forget that when Thierry came here, he was a winger. When I first played him as a central striker, he said to me, ‘I can’t score goals’.
“In England, you are very impatient. Theo can be a prolific goalscorer as once he is a yard in front of the defender nobody can catch him. Before he rushed his decision but now he is different. It looks to me that Theo has a calmness in front of goal.”
In comparing Walcott and Henry, Wenger highlighted the similarities in their temperament, pace and finishing. “Is Thierry a replica of Theo? Is Theo a replica of Thierry? No. But they have in common tremendous pace, they are good finishers and both are intelligent,” Wenger said.
“Theo is the quickest player I’ve ever seen whereas Thierry is a player who likes the ball more. To go through what Theo has gone through, live it, as he has lived it, is incredible. No matter whether he has gone through – good or bad times – he shows commitment, intelligence, respect and humility.”
The question for Wenger is whether he eventually adapts his usual 4-2-3-1 system to accommodate Walcott in that central role.
He is aware that Walcott would probably struggle with his back to goal as the most advanced striker in the position currently occupied by Marouane Chamakh, Robin van Persie or Nicklas Bendtner. Another option would be for Walcott to play just behind the main striker in a similar position to Cesc Fabregas.
Alternatively, the formation could be adjusted to the 4-4-2 system that was generally favoured when Henry was in the team.
Wenger suggested he was most likely to switch Walcott to a central role as a counter-attacking tactic when Arsenal were ahead in a game. “When I play with one up front you like a guy good in the air,” he said.
Wenger confirmed that Walcott would start tonight’s Champions League match against Shakhtar Donetsk, with Arsenal’s team particularly depleted in midfield by injuries to Cesc Fabregas, Alex Song, Abou Diaby, Denilson and Andrei Arshavin.
It means that Craig Eastmond or Emmanuel Eboué may also start in central midfield with 18 year-old Jack Wilshere, who on Monday signed a new contract to remain at Arsenal until 2015.
While Walcott has often struggled with the physical demands of playing so regularly at such a young age, Wenger is confident that Wilshere already has the physical maturity to cope.
“Jack is a guy that you can put on any field and he can play the morning, the afternoon and the next day again. Theo is a Formula One type and when he is fit he is always at 200mph and then if he gets caught, it hurts,” he said.
After three consecutive group wins, victory tonight in Donetsk would guarantee Arsenal’s place in the last-16 of the Champions League for an 11th consecutive season. Eduardo, who scored a popular consolation for Shakhtar in Arsenal’s 5-1 win at the Emirates, is expected to start against his former team-mates.
The coming of age: Walcott v Henry
17 Becomes youngest England player and is selected for World Cup squad (Club games: 23 Goals: 5)
18 Scores first Arsenal goal but Chelsea win Carling Cup final (Games: 31 Goals: 1)
19 Scores hat-trick for England against Croatia in World Cup qualifier (Games: 39 Goals: 7)
20 Suffers a succession of injuries after playing for Under-21s in Euro Champs (Games: 35 Goals: 6)
21 Dropped by Fabio Capello for England World Cup squad (Games: 30 Goals: 4)
17 Made debut for Monaco under Arséne Wenger. (Club games: 8 Goals: 3)
18 Named Young Player of the Year in France (Games: 22 Goals: 3)
19 Helps Monaco to win La Ligue title of 1997-98 (Games: 48 Goals: 10)
20 Makes international debut and is part of World Cup-winning France team (Games: 44 Goals: 11)
21 Joins Juventus, but struggles in Italy and is brought to Arsenal by Wenger (Games: 38 Goals: 4)
Further Henry highlights
22 Part of France team which won European Championship.
26 Inspires Arsenal to go the entire 2003-4 season unbeaten
28 Finishes season as Premier League top scorer for a record fourth time
30 Voted the greatest Arsenal player of all time
31 Part of Barcelona team who won treble of Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey