All long-term injuries are poorly timed, but for Theo Walcott, the ACL injury that he sustained last year could not have come at a worse possible time. In fine form, with five goals in December, a cert to start for England at the World Cup and finally leading the line for Arsenal in an important match, it was perhaps the time when Theo Walcott was about to reach a level that few had thought possible not so few years ago.
There is little need to recount the events following Walcott's injury, but short of Walcott and Aaron Ramsey, Arsenal's title-challenge sputtered, with the form of Mesut Özil particularly suffering. In the summer, Arsenal bought Alexis Sánchez, and while Arsenal have been disappointing, Alexis has been anything but, with fifteen goals in a superb debut season. Yet even with Alexis, Arsenal have at times struggled to present a consistent threat, with Danny Welbeck and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the other two starters in the attacking three for most of the season only scoring five goals between them. Thus, there should be a clear role for Theo Walcott, as another goal-scorer and threat for Arsenal's attack.
A reintroduction into Arsenal's best XI, however, is not so simple. There are, of course, obstacles for Walcott to get over: further niggles, the inconsistency that naturally follows a long injury, and the need to regain the scoring touch that Walcott had in December 2013. But Walcott also has a stylistic issue that will present an obstacle to his return to the first choice Arsenal side.
Before injury, Walcott, although deployed on the right hand side, became more and more of a central player, meaning Arsenal at times played a sort of 4-4-2, with Walcott stretching play while Olivier Giroud provided the necessary physicality and hold-up play. While Walcott's advanced position tilted Arsenal's shape, balance was provided by Santi Cazorla, who often played a deeper, central role, meaning Arsenal could both maintain midfield dominance and balance. This balance continued to the fullbacks: in possession, Bacary Sagna was more conservative on the right flank, while Kieran Gibbs or Nacho Monreal were more attacking on the left, and this system, as well as the deep block when out of possession, saw Arsenal lead the Premier League table on the first day of 2014.
Arsenal's set-up has changed, however. After flirting with a 4-1-4-1 that led to poor results, Arsenal are now playing a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 hybrid: the wingers play further forward, and the midfield play closer together. The significant difference is that the main creative player, so often Santi Cazorla, plays a deeper role, helping Arsenal's build-up play. And instead of a wide-playmaker, the wide players this season have been, for the most part, two from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Alexis and Danny Welbeck.
Again, there seems to be an easy role for Walcott: both Alexis and Welbeck are forwards playing out wide, while Oxlade-Chamberlain is a mix between a creative player and powerful winger. But within the three there are significant differences. While Alexis has often been Arsenal's best and most dangerous player, he does so at a cost: Alexis' pass completion rate is a mere 76.5%, and he has lost the ball through dispossession and loose touches more than anyone else.
This gets balanced out by the play of Welbeck and Oxlade-Chamberlain. The former is very safe in possession, sometimes too safe, though in Alexis' Arsenal team, Welbeck's safe possession has served a vital function. Oxlade-Chamberlain is also better in possession, though he too can sometimes be guilty of easily loosing the ball, as we saw in Arsenal's 2-2 draw with Liverpool. This is still true when Olivier Giroud plays. Although the Frenchman can also be guilty of easily surrendering possession, he generally does so in the middle, rather than on the flanks, which leave Arsenal more susceptible to the counter attack.
This is Walcott's problem. Like Alexis, in his desire to score goals and assist goals and always attack, Walcott often loses the ball in dangerous positions. This comes about from his dribbling, but also from his possession play. While Arsenal have been more imbalanced this season, their best results have come when they have played a side that has had more balance, such as the 4-1 victory over Newcastle or the 3-0 victory over Aston Villa. In one way, more balance will be provided by the return of Mesut Özil, Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta, who are exceptional at midfield play. With Özil back, Santi Cazorla's deployment in the wide area is more feasible, as the two often naturally swap positions. Yet that leaves two spots: centre forward and another wide player. One possible combination could be Alexis and Walcott, which while reduces an aerial threat, would be suitable against some teams, with Walcott making runs off of Alexis, who plays a more withdrawn centre forward role, as he did against Hull.
That, however, leaves out Danny Welbeck, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Olivier Giroud. In some games, the latter's presence will be absolutely vital: right now, Giroud is the most efficient finisher at the club, and his height and penalty box instincts remain important. And in most games, Arsène Wenger will not leave out Alexis, playing him either centrally or from the flank. What then for the others, particularly for Oxlade-Chamberlain?
Oxlade-Chamberlain's development is of particular interest in regard to this question. If he becomes more of a creative player, with good dribbling skills and a dangerous burst of pace, in effect a quicker Santi Cazorla, playing Walcott and Sánchez together remains feasible. But until then, it is likely that in an effort to find balance but keep a team with dangerous pace, Wenger will strike for a front free that contains Alexis, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Danny Welbeck, with one perhaps making way for Giroud. It leaves Walcott out of the picture at the moment, and with his contract having only 18-months left, it is not a preferable role. In some home games, Arsenal can have a more direct side with both Walcott and Alexis, but it requires a functioning midfield, which Arsenal have rarely had without Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta, despite Santi Cazorla's best efforts.
This will, though, leave Arsenal in better stead. Walcott can be eased back into action, and can also spell Alexis and others in attack, which Arsenal have rarely had the luxury of being able to do. It also provides Arsène Wenger with different tactical options, and the ability to change the pace of Arsenal's attack. While it may be difficult to see Theo Walcott starting every match for Arsenal, it could be a change that leaves Arsenal in a better overall situation.