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2016/17 Arsenal Preview: Wide Forwards

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Here’s a look at the deep Arsenal wide forward ranks and see who has the upper hand in the competition for playing time.

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Arsenal Training Session and Press Conference Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

In Arsenal’s current (and future) tactical system, the 4-2-3-1, there are two wide forward positions tasked with providing a hefty amount of support in attack while recovering to aid their fullbacks in defending the flank. Like the central midfield position, Arsenal has a copious amount of options for these positions, but there isn’t an unassailable first-choice wing combination. Alexis Sanchez has had the left wing position on lockdown since joining the Gunners a few years ago, but his future appears to be in a more central position, leaving an opening for a would-be successors to that role. There are also numerous contenders for the right wing position in what hopefully should be healthy competition that boosts performance.

Though there is a chance Arsenal signs someone to fill one of these voids before the end of the month, there’s no point in speculating about what-ifs; Arsenal’s current options give more than enough food for thought.

Back in the full-time wide forward ranks this season is the much-maligned Theo Walcott. After a year attempting to win the center forward position for the Gunners, Theo is back where he started in North London over a decade ago. While his tenure at center forward did produce the most thoroughly enjoyable half of Arsenal football in the last decade (the 3-0 first half evisceration of Manchester United) and some other bright moments, it was undoubtedly a failure overall. That failure, combined with his recent injury woes, have many wondering why Walcott is still in the team at all. This is unfair.

When healthy, Theo has shown he can contribute double-digit goals and a similar assist tally from the wide forward position. His lack of technique and decision-making can be frustrating at times, but he’s been a dangerous and effective player from the wing for years. He’s also exactly the type of run-making wide forward needed to pair with Alexis Sanchez if Arsene Wenger decides to mold the Chilean into a no. 9.

When Pep Guardiola and Lionel Messi fear your threat and David Alaba thinks you’re as tough as a defensive task as anyone, that means something. It may not be pretty, but Theo should be an effective option on the right and should be considered the slight favorite to hold this position in the XI.

Before I leave this particular topic, please allow me a Theo rant. Walcott’s recognition of a requirement for right wing restoration was widely, and unfairly, mocked in the Arsenal Twittersphere. Desiring a new, more historically prestigious job is a normal, human thing. Finding out you aren’t cut out for that dream job is a normal, human thing. Being able to admit that failure publicly is rare and commendable. It’s the type of raw honesty we hope for while trudging through largely bland and prepared public comments from athletes. Here’s to hoping he, and other footballers, didn’t pay attention to the reaction and continue to provide interesting interviews.

Walcott’s chief competition for the right wing slot at this time is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Oxlade-Chamberlain is on Year 2 - at least - of being the Arsenal Player Most Likely To Break Out This Year. Here’s to hoping it actually happens this season. Once again, The Ox is performing quite well in the preseason. His goal against Lens spared the Gunners a slightly embarrassing loss, his performance against the MLS All-Stars was impressive, and his wonderful solo goal against Chivas Guadalajara was a combination or pace, dribbling skills, and shooting technique that few in world football can replicate. That has always been The Ox though: saliva-inducing talent but disappointing end product due to injuries.

Joel Campbell will be battling for playing time this season after being a fairly regular contributor last season. With a largely fit squad, it’s hard to see the Costa Rican getting much playing time this season. However, that’s never the case for Arsenal, so I’m sure he will get a handful of matches. At this point, he’s a known quantity - a replacement-level winger who won’t lose you matches, but he probably isn’t winning them for you either.

Jack Wilshere is an intriguing option on the right wing as well, as Aidan mentioned in his preview piece on Arsenal’s central midfield position. Wenger loves Wilshere and may have to force him into a more advanced role for Jackie Boy to fit into the side. While I’m bullish on Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain this season, they aren’t sure things by any stretch of the imagination. The right wing position may be Wilshere’s best chance to make an impact for Arsenal this season.

Where the right wing appears to be up for grabs to whoever can impress the most, the left wing position seems rather set in stone. If he isn’t playing center forward, Alexis Sanchez will have first dibs on this wing position. If Alexis is elsewhere, Alex Iwobi has the left wing on lockdown at the moment. The youngster was the breakout star of Arsenal’s campaign last year and looks poised to build on that performance. If he can’t replicate or build on the performances of last year, that may force Arsene to revert to using Alexis on the left. If not, look for another youngster to potentially get a chance in that role.

Other candidates for either wing position are youngsters Serge Gnabry, JEFF! (Jeff Reine-Adelaide), and Chris Willock. Gnabry, who broke out in 2013/14 before succumbing to a terrible knee injury, has lost the past two seasons of his development. However, he was impressive early in Arsenal’s preseason and has maintained that form with the German Olympic squad. He appears to have fully recovered physically after looking out of shape and being shipped home by Tony Pulis last season. Gnabry’s talent was never the issue. Now that he is back to full fitness, he might get a chance to show his worth again this season when injuries eventually hit again. Reine-Adelaide was promoted to the first-team this offseason but is will likely remain in the youth ranks this season, barring a lot of injuries. Same goes for youth team standout Chris Willock. His pace and dribbling ability make him one to watch for the future, but his slight frame all but ensures he won’t get much first-team action.