Stuttering Arsenal turns to Walcott at central striker
Arsene Wenger's redeployment of Theo Walcott as a central striker could prove to be the tactical switch that reignites Arsenal's stuttering season.
It could also persuade the England international to end his drawn-out contract stand-off with the club, further boosting Arsenal's hopes of a brighter future.
Used as a flying right winger since his move from Southampton in 2006 as a precocious 16-year-old, Walcott has always craved the chance to play up front.
He got his wish against Reading in the English Premier League on Monday. Not only did Walcott score in a 5-2 win, he brought the kind of pace and movement to Arsenal's forward line that was the hallmark of Wenger's teams when Thierry Henry - Walcott's idol - was destroying opposition defenses in his pomp.
"I showed what I can do,'' said Walcott, who wrapped up the win with Arsenal's fifth goal at Madejski Stadium. "I was quite happy with the performance, running into space and creating space behind me.''
However, Walcott has yet to extend a deal that runs out next summer and has been linked with Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea - three of Arsenal's biggest rivals. If the impasse remains on Jan. 1, Walcott can sign a pre-contract agreement with another club and another of Arsenal's star names could be lost.
"It is not my decision, it is Theo's decision as well - if it is my decision, it is quickly done,'' Wenger said. "Theo has been educated at Southampton and Arsenal, where he has become a top-level player here.
"I hope that when he considers his future he will think this is the best place for him and sign for us.''
A run as Arsenal's first-choice striker could convince Walcott to stay at Emirates Stadium.
Since Robin van Persie's departure to United in August, Wenger has often chosen to start with Olivier Giroud as his main striker. While the tall France international is starting to adapt to the English game following his summer move from Montpellier, he lacks pace and Arsenal's build-up play has often lacked the spark of recent seasons.
With Gervinho's good early season form having also disappeared, the team recently slipped as low as 10th in the Premier League and was knocked out of the League Cup by fourth-tier Bradford in embarrassing fashion last week.
Walcott changed all that at Reading. Admittedly, he was up against the worst defense in the division - one he scored three times against already this season in the League Cup - but he made some good darting runs and playing on the shoulder of the last defender gave Arsenal's creative midfielders space to work their magic.
Spain playmaker Santi Cazorla scored a hat trick in a sublime individual display while Jack Wilshere was also highly impressive as he continued his resurgence after a long injury lay-off.
"I put Walcott in that position in training and he convinced me before this game he could do it,'' said Wenger, whose team is fifth in the league - two points behind third-place Chelsea.
Walcott, one of the quickest players in the Premier League, is not too dissimilar to a young Michael Owen with his pace and awareness.
His finishing ability may have been slightly blunted by playing out on the wing for so long but he has a good goalscoring record in recent years - he has 11 this season in an injury-hit campaign, adding to the 11 from last season. He has also laid on 10 assists this season.
He missed a glorious first-half chance when one-on-one with Reading goalkeeper Adam Federici but made amends by cutting inside and stroking home a cool finish in the 75th.
"He showed he can do it up front and hopefully he can play there in the future,'' Wilshere said.
After losing foreigners Van Persie, Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Alex Song over the last two summers, Wenger is hoping Walcott, Wilshere, left back Kieran Gibbs, winger Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and midfielder Aaron Ramsey will be the British nucleus of his squad for years to come. Wilshere pledged at the weekend that he would sign a new deal in the next few weeks and Wenger is relying on Walcott doing likewise.
"We have a good core of young English players,'' Wenger said. "We couldn't keep the good core of young foreign players and I hope we will be capable of building a team around these young English players who achieve something together.''