Arsenal’s 2-0 victory over Hull City in the third round of the FA Cup was a quietly-efficient performance, but arguably the most significant development was Theo Walcott’s long-awaited first start of the season.
The England international had sustained a serious knee injury in the corresponding round of the FA Cup last year, and an entire year out of action was a significant setback for a player who had just entered his prime.
Since then, things have changed significantly. The summer signings of Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sanchez altered the Gunners' attacking game, while it is also worth remembering that Walcott has only played five times alongside Mesut Ozil, who is also returning from injury.
Walcott will have to readjust to settle in this system, although he might find Arsenal’s playing style perfect for his skill-set.
This season, they are very fluid. Previously there was intelligent movement within the 4-2-3-1 formation, but it was rare to see players permanently switching positions - Walcott would remain on the right, with Olivier Giroud up front. While the former was given plenty of license to run in behind the opposition defence, often becoming a second striker, he would always return to defend the right flank.
"It is worth remembering that Walcott excelled in different roles in the lead-up to his injury, showing he will be fully capable of alternating positions with team-mates"
Nowadays, there is more flexibility. The versatility of Welbeck and Alexis, who can perform equally well out wide or through the middle, means Arsenal are more unpredictable with the positioning of their attackers. Welbeck and Alexis have often switched flanks when playing either side of Giroud, or alternated if one is playing up front and the other out wide.
Walcott has generally played from the right, but has always stated his preference for playing up front, and this flexibility could play into his hands wonderfully.
More crucially, it is worth remembering that Walcott excelled in different roles in the lead-up to his injury last season, showing he will be fully capable of alternating positions with team-mates.
At half-time of the 6-3 defeat to Manchester City in December 2013 - a much closer game than the scoreline suggests - Walcott was switched to the left flank, a position he had never previously played for Arsenal. From there he was a huge threat, providing a different option by cutting inside on to his stronger right foot, and bending the ball towards the far corner. He scored a lovely goal just after the hour mark and was a constant threat. His second half passes and shots shows his positioning on the left.
For the 2-0 victory over Tottenham in January 2014, meanwhile, Walcott made a rare start up front and was again hugely impressive, providing a burst of speed in behind the opposition. The timing of his runs was particularly notable: we have always known he has tremendous speed, but playing as a centre forward is very different to playing from the right, particularly given the increased danger of being caught offside. Walcott led the line, and Arsenal piled on the pressure. This time, most of his passes and shots were in an inside-right position.
Between those two games, Arsenal had a Boxing Day trip to Upton Park, recording a 3-1 victory over West Ham. On that day, Walcott played in his customary position on the right wing and contributed two goals. The difference in his positioning is obvious.
Therefore, in the space of a month Walcott demonstrated his ability to play on the left, through the middle and on the right. For a player who was once unfairly criticised for being one-dimensional, it shows he has become a good all-round forward, and speaks volumes about his maturity and increased tactical intelligence.
It means that predicting Arsenal’s line-up for the remainder of the season is very difficult. With Walcott, Welbeck and Alexis all capable of playing on the left, on the right or through the middle - and you can say the same about Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Tomas Rosicky in deeper positions - it means Wenger can vary his system subtly but crucially from game to game. Even when Arsenal’s line-up is unveiled, it will be difficult to predict the positioning of the attackers.
Walcott will be a crucial part of this flexibility. Amazingly, it is now nine years since he signed for Arsenal and he will be determined to make the 10th his most productive year yet, regardless of his position.
Copyright 2023 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.