This summer Arsenal supporters clamored for Arsene Wenger to spend some money and bring in a ‘big name’ striker. Someone like Benzema who could come in and take Olivier Giroud’s starting spot.
Wenger looked at all his options, saw the market for what it was, exemplified by the spending of Chelsea: £25m for Pedro, one of the most overrated forwards to come into the League, watched as Chelsea loaned Juan Cuadrado and Mo Salah out for huge losses, and took a beating on Andre Shurrlle last season, he also saw how they spent £12m on Remy, and then had to take on Falcao and his odious contract, and despite all that spending they still don’t have a world class striker. Wenger saw that market and handed Theo Walcott a new £140k a week¹ contract and said “you want to be a forward? Prove it.”
Wenger planted the seeds for this transformation last season when he gave Theo the starting forward spot against West Brom (4-1 win, Walcott hattrick) and in the FA Cup final against Villa (first goal, left footed volley). It was a shrewd move on Wenger’s part because Theo Walcott’s best attribute is his movement and that’s something that takes time for teammates to learn. Özil, Alexis, and Cazorla all have to learn how to anticipate one of Walcott’s back door runs in tight spaces or how to get him the ball in the more open counter attacking spaces. It’s not all just poke and hope or lump and let Walcott run under it — that’s how clubs like Sunderland play — you have to get Walcott the ball in a great scoring position.
As I have mentioned here and on Arseblog News, Arsenal have created more big chances than any other team: twenty six big chances so far. Arsenal have also created forty-eight shots in prime, which is tied with Man City for most dangerous attacking output in that category. Walcott has been the main beneficiary of those big chances, he’s seen 9 of them already in the Premier League. That number is kind of amazing because Walcott didn’t get his first big chance until the Newcastle match. And again, not coincidentally, that was the first competitive match he started as a center forward for Arsenal this season².
What Walcott offers Arsenal isn’t just movement but the fact that his movement creates space for others. He has a few signature runs that he likes to make and not only do they get him into a dangerous area but those runs drag defenders out of shape and create space around the edge of the 18 yard box. This in turn benefits players like Alexis and Ozil and it’s no small coincidence that Alexis and Walcott have teamed up for several goals and assists for each other. Both player’s movement creates space for the other.
All players have benefits and drawbacks. Walcott is not going to be a great header of the ball, he’s not going to be a traditional hold-up man, and he’s not going to be the kind of player who breaks defenses with a dribble in tight spaces³. But he doesn’t have to do all of that because Wenger has very sneakily built a team which can shoulder those burdens for him. Alexis, Ox, and Cazorla are Arsenal’s top three dribblers. Alexis and Ox do their dribble work in attack while Cazorla mostly dribbles out of trouble in the midfield.
Arsenal also seems geared toward getting Alexis the ball in the air. He leads the team in headed shots with 7 and though he only has the one headed goal (two in all competitions, he scored against Leicester (Ozil lob) he also scored one against Olympiacos (Walcott lob)), he probably would have three already if the dubious goals panel hadn’t awarded an own goal for Crystal Palace when I felt Alexis got that header (from Bellerin lob) on target.
So, Wenger has great dribblers around Walcott, he’s got players with great vision feeding Walcott the ball, he’s got Walcott pulling defenders apart with his movement and creating space for the Arsenal attack, and he’s got a surprising player in Alexis to win balls in the air. It looks a lot like Arsenal got the upgrade on Giroud that everyone wanted this summer.
Breakdown of Walcott’s goals and assists this season
Walcott’s first goal this season: Stoke City, tackled away by Coquelin, pass by Özil over the top, Walcott control, right foot shot into the left corner.
Walcott second goal: Dinamo Zagreb, defensive header forward by Coquelin, pass by Alexis over the top, Walcott sprint, opens his body shoots right footed into the lower right corner.
Walcott third: Leicester, Alexis pass forward to Cazorla, Cazorla through ball to Walcott, Walcott left foot finish bottom right corner.
Walcott fourth: Olympiacos, Alexis through ball, Walcott tight angle right foot, keeper hand, ball over keeper.
Walcott first assist: Olympiacos, Ramsey wins ball on the edge of the box, Cazorla pass to Walcott, Walcott chip-cross, Alexis header.
Walcott second assist: Cazorla wins the ball deep, passes to Ozil, Ozil to Walcott, Walcott back to Ozil on the penalty spot.
Walcott third assist: Ramsey wins throw in, dribbles past Young, passes to Walcott, Walcott spins and plays the ball with his left foot to Alexis wide, Alexis dribbles a man, scores with long shot.
Charity shield assist for Walcott: play from the back, Mertesacker to Cazorla, Cazorla wins the ball in a tackle, Koscielny plays it back to him, Cazorla dinks it over to … who passes to Walcott, Walcott slides it to Ox, Ox dribbles and scores left footed.
¹Grain, salt: that figure is reported in the Mail. We don’t know what amount of money he’s actually on but the point is that Walcott got a new contract, a pay raise, and the opportunity to prove himself in the center forward role.
²He started as a CF in the Charity Shield, but that is a friendly and doesn’t count. Also, he didn’t have any big chances in that game so it doesn’t fit my narrative…
³Because I know someone will quote stats or post a video, he has beaten defenders off the dribble in the past, but we all know that’s not his forte. He’s not like an Alexis or Ox. Just to prove my point: Walcott has had four successful (of 9 attempted) take-ons this season. Coquelin has had 12 (of 12). Walcott’s not a dribbler.