Despite only coming on as a substitute yesterday in Arsenal’s 0-0 draw with Sunderland, Theo Walcott put in a performance that showed why he must be kept on at the Emirates Stadium for next season.
Even if the England international is not a regular starter – as perhaps he would like to be – his value to the club was highlighted with some important play in the 23 minutes he was on the field. Before then, Arsene Wenger’s side had simply not looked like stretching a very defensive-minded Sunderland side enough to find a breakthrough.
Ultimately, Walcott couldn’t do enough to find a goal for his team, but his presence on the pitch changed the game. As shown in the videos below, two of the Gunners’ most clear-cut chances came through his pace and ability on that right-hand side.
Prior to his introduction from the bench in the 67th minute, Arsenal played with a very narrow attack involving Alexis Sanchez, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil linking up with lone centre-forward Olivier Giroud. None of these players bring the natural width or pace that Walcott has; even the electrifying Sanchez, who often played out wide at previous club Barcelona, was drifting very central in an attempt to link play up. In the end, there were too many attacking midfielders trying to do the same thing and there were very few openings in the first half.
In the video below, we see a time when Arsenal did manage to get in on goal on the right-hand side, but the left-footed Wilshere looked clearly uncomfortable in this unnatural position, taking too long on the ball where the right-footed Walcott would have driven it across or perhaps showed his finishing instincts with a quicker shot at the target.
According to reports in The Sun, Chelsea want to sign Walcott as part of any potential deal involving Arsenal and Petr Cech. While it is always unwise to sell to a direct title rival, Arsenal should be particularly careful to hold on to Walcott as he offers something so few of their other attackers can. He is not world class by any means, but few have that same natural pace that can cause defenders so many problems. Whether he is a starter or an impact sub, there is a strong case to be made that the 26-year-old is hugely undervalued by Wenger at the moment, and should perhaps have been introduced earlier in Wednesday’s game – among numerous others throughout the campaign.
It may be, of course, that Arsenal are ready to let Walcott go as they eye a replacement. The former Southampton man has missed much of this season and last through injury and perhaps isn’t seen as reliable enough. Still, with reports from the The Independent that Arsenal could target Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling in the summer, it is worth pointing out that Wenger himself has been quiet on the possibility, and that reports elsewhere in the Daily Mirror state that Manchester City are also interested and prepared to pay £40m to win the race for his signature, perhaps putting the Gunners in a weak position, given their comparative records in the transfer market.
Besides, in Walcott Arsenal already have the player they need. He just needs more playing time, more confidence, and there is every chance he can repeat the terrific form that saw him score 45 goals in three seasons between 2010/11 and 2012/13, when he’d had more luck with his fitness.