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Why Theo Walcott's qualities should not be easily dismissed

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With Theo Walcott's future uncertain, it's open season for criticising him.

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It has become quite popular to be disparaging of Theo Walcott. The dormant phrases, such as "lack of end product" or "no football brain" have returned, as Walcott has struggled since coming back from following the ACL injury that robbed him of the entirety of 2014. Walcott has started merely 5 games for Arsenal, scoring 3 times and subbing on a further 6 times,

Walcott's last two starts have provoked the most ire. Against West Ham, he was guilty of missing three goal-scoring chances and was then largely passed by when Arsenal were under pressure in the second half. On Tuesday, Walcott started upfront for England with Our Nation Saviour Harry Kane, and was largely anonymous, eventually dropping to a deeper, almost #10 role behind Wayne Rooney and Kane. Let it be stated here that Theo Walcott is most certainly not a #10. After this two games, immediate judgment has been passed on Walcott, and it is becoming increasingly accepted that he is not worth the contract he wants, which is, depending on your source, either the same £100k/week wage or one in the realm of £120k/week. This may not be untrue, but Walcott's contributions are not useless within the squad, and a decision made on 6 starts following a year-long injury foolishly ignores context at best and is willfully ignorant at worst.

First, it must be stressed that the timing of Walcott's injury and return has been unfortunate. In January 2014, he was one of the more important players in the side, one for whom accommodations could be made, in terms of defensive work and involvement in general play. When Walcott returned, Arsenal had just discovered an effective midfield unit, but one that required the full attention of Santi Cazorla and especially Aaron Ramsey. It is no coincidence that Walcott did not start a single game between Leicester City, when Ramsey picked up a hamstring injury, and West Ham, when he returned to start. With a young right back in Héctor Bellerín, Ramsey's box to box play, engine, pressing, defensive work and cover is essential. He is also the midfielder who has the best understanding with Walcott, with the two having played together since 2008, and it is no surprise that it was Ramsey who kept trying to play Walcott in against West Ham.

The focus of the side has also changed since January 2014. The big difference is, of course, Alexis. That was perhaps most evident against West Ham. In the past, Arsenal's build-up has been slanted to the right hand side, with Bacary Sagna heavily involved, almost providing an extra midfielder, allowing Walcott to make runs but remain involved in general play. With Alexis, Arsenal build more towards the left. Variation is, of course, a good thing. Yet the effect has been two-fold: Alexis doesn't make runs behind as much from the left-hand side, which affects Arsenal's build-up: Alexis can get in the way of Santi Cazorla and Mesut Özil, while it also changes the nature of Arsenal's right-sided player, especially when it is someone who bases their game on pace and movement like Walcott. Again, more playing time for all parties would be of great benefit, though it is unlikely that Alexis and Walcott can play together without one being centre forward.

Of course, we likely wouldn't be holding this conversation about Walcott if he had more time left on his contract. We also wouldn't be holding this conversation about Walcott if he didn't bring something different to the team: instead of being concerned about his future at the club, a good number would be arguing, with reason, that a bidding war between Manchester City and Liverpool is a good thing. Yet, at this stage, Walcott does bring something that no one else at the club does: he still offers the best off-the ball movement and is very good at getting into goal positions, even if recent struggles has meant he has done so less often than usual. That, though, has very much to do with rhythm, and if Walcott were afforded a run of games, it's likely he'd rediscover previous form. And although Alexis and Danny Welbeck offer much what Walcott offers, they do not have as good movement. Alexis' propensity to create means he is not always stretching play, while Danny Welbeck remains much a work in progress:

When you look at him now I believe that technically he is much more mature, more composed in front of goal, the quality of his runs is getting better and he has huge, huge attributes.

Perhaps Arsène Wenger and the Arsenal staff will come to the conclusion that between Alexis, Danny Welbeck, Serge Gnabry and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, there is enough pace and movement to replace Walcott. Yet of all of those, only the first two are proven goal-scorers, and Welbeck has much work to do on his finishing. One argument in favour of Welbeck is that his movement from the left is far superior to that of Walcott's, and it would be possible to include Welbeck, Giroud and Alexis in the same line-up, not least because of the defensive work. But unless we see improvement in the quality of runs from Alexis and Welbeck, it seems foolish to want to consign Walcott, who was effectively contributing, between goals and assists, a goal every 2 out of 3 games, to the rubbish bin because he doesn't dribble past players or do his defensive work.

While there are comparisons to Lukas Podolski, Podolski didn't have the quality of movement, nor did he look to get in behind; nor did he look to stand in the right place defensively, which Walcott would do. It must also be stressed that the importance of defensive work from both wide players is because Arsenal have a holder who requires the help of all of his central midfielders; if Arsenal were to recruit someone, such as Javi Martinez, Ramsey's energy could be used more in covering defensively.

Arsenal are at a stage where money is no longer a preventive issue. With Arsenal at that level, it would be a shame to weaken the squad by selling one of their most reliable movers and goal-scorers.