It’s difficult to take many positives from a 6-3 defeat, even if the margin of Manchester City’s victory over Arsenal was a harsh reflection of the league leaders’ efforts. “Honestly, we could have scored at least six as well,” said Arsène Wenger after Saturday’s loss.

There was one cause for optimism, however - Theo Walcott’s first league start after three months out injured.

With Arsenal top of the league and pundits marvelling at the contributions of Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud in the final third - plus an improved defensive record - the fact Arsenal’s top goalscorer from last season effectively missed three months of the campaign went unnoticed.

Not only was Walcott out, but two other direct players, Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, were also unavailable throughout his absence. With Wenger forced to depend upon central midfielders pushed out to unfamiliar wide positions, Arsenal’s style of play altered.

The return of Walcott could prove to be one of the most significant factors in Arsenal’s campaign

The league position indicates that Arsenal got around the problem effectively, but the return of Walcott could prove to be one of the most significant factors in Arsenal’s campaign.

“It is good to have Theo back because he is a player who goes behind the opposition without the ball,” Wenger said last month, in his programme column ahead of the win over Walcott’s previous club Southampton. “We have plenty of players who love to have the ball, but going in behind the defence is an important quality.

“You miss a player like Theo, and you want to have everybody available for when you need to use them. You always want to find a perfect balance, and if you look at our results, our balance was not too bad. But Theo has different qualities to other players.” Arsenal had lacked Walcott’s direct, penetrating runs.

Saturday was the first time Walcott had started a league game alongside Ozil since the German’s debut, and it was easy to imagine Arsenal’s record signing assisting Walcott.

Ozil’s trademark is his delicate through-ball, Walcott’s trademark his acceleration beyond full backs, and his calm finishing in front of goal. The two fit together perfectly. In the end, it took just half-an-hour for Ozil to tee up Walcott, although not in the manner we expected. Instead, Ozil played a measured cut-back to the edge of the box, and Walcott provided a calm finish.

However, Walcott’s natural qualities were obvious throughout the first half. Arsenal’s most promising route to goal in the opening stages was with his pace behind the Manchester City defence, and whereas the other three full backs attacked with great pace, City left back Gael Clichy was pinned back, in fear of giving Walcott space. (see Fig 1: green - successful passes, red - unsuccessful passes, yellow - key passes)

Fig 1. Walcott pins back Clichy; Fig 2. Walcott's second-half contribution
Fig 1. Walcott pins back Clichy; Fig 2. Walcott's second-half contribution

For the second half, Wenger made an interesting tactical decision. Jack Wilshere started the game on the left but was switched to the right, while Walcott moved to the left flank, a position he’s very rarely played during his time at Arsenal.

Theoretically, it makes sense - Walcott is good at opening up his body and curling the ball into the far corner, arguably reminiscent of Thierry Henry, and he scored a beautiful goal on Saturday in that exact manner, suggesting he might have a future on the left of Arsenal’s attack.

Despite City defending deep, Walcott continued to be a threat in behind the defence, despite switching flanks. In addition to the goal, he also caused problems when his run in behind the defence forced Pablo Zabaleta to awkwardly cut out a Jack Wilshere pass - another referee may have given a penalty for handball.

Regardless of which flank he’s deployed on, it’s clear Walcott’s pace gave the opposition something else to think about

Arsenal seemed most dangerous from the left after half-time, and Walcott’s positioning certainly helped. (see Fig 2: green - successful passes, red - unsuccessful passes, yellow - key passes)

The diagrams sum up the fact Walcott is right-footed: he’s in a better position to cross from the right, but on the left he’s more likely to drift inside during open play, and shoot more frequently.

Regardless of which flank he’s deployed on, it’s clear Walcott’s pace gave the opposition something else to think about. Forced to defend closer to goal to guard against Walcott’s runs, the opposition defence are more vulnerable to other approaches - particularly from wide, as it allows full backs to get forward untracked, and allows centre forwards closer to goal.

It was notable that Arsenal had a few good chances from crosses - Giroud had a header just past the far post, substitute Nicklas Bendtner had a goal harshly disallowed for offside, and Per Mertesacker finally converted one in stoppage time.

Indirectly, those chances arrived because of Walcott’s pace. But the 24-year-old proved he can provide goals in a much more direct manner against Manchester City, and his versatility could be crucial to Arsenal’s title charge.

Copyright 2014 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source Michael Cox 19 Dec 2013