Theo Walcott has spent pre-season on the periphery, absent in games he’s been playing in, and despite lacking an obvious fit at the club now that Alex Lacazette has signed, he’s been rarely in transfer rumours, unlike Olivier Giroud and Alexis Sánchez. Indeed, it was the latter who he effectively replaced this afternoon, with the Chilean still on holiday after the Confederations Cup and now suffering from a seriously, deadly case of manflu (also known as the common cold). Walcott took up one of the inside forward positions in Arsenal’s 3421 shape, with Walcott saying earlier in pre-season that he and Arsene Wenger had chatted about his role in the new system.
While evidence of that chat had been lacking in games against Sydney, Western Sydney, Bayern Munich and Chelsea, it was more apparent here. With Alex Iwobi playing a little deeper, the system was more of a 3412, with Walcott floating off Giroud. It suited him well. Walcott’s time as the sole striker wasn’t productive in the end, but he could certainly play in a front two, as it is a question of timing runs and movement, which he has done well throughout his Arsenal career.
Here, his role was to be the runner from deeper positions, allowing him to overtake Giroud if the latter held the ball up, or run beyond. It was from a position like this that Walcott scored his first, running onto Sead Kolasinac’s dinked cross, after excellent work from the Bosnian wingback to use his body to win the ball back in the penalty box.
Walcott’s second was again a secondary run: Coquelin and Kolasinac exchanged passes before the former drove the ball across the box for Walcott to tuck home. Earlier he caused a yellow card after running onto to Giroud’s turn and flick and charging at the Benfica defence.
After half-time, Walcott was heavily involved again. His cross was diverted into goal by Lisandro Lopez, and for Arsenal’s fourth, Walcott again drove into the box, before laying the ball to the supremely impressive Reiss Nelson, who dug out a cross for Arsenal’s top centre forward, Olivier Giroud, to volley home. Walcott wasn’t involved in the fifth, with Giroud’s flick setting up Iwobi, but with his performance, and the all-round performance of his partner, Olivier Giroud, he will have given Arsene Wenger food for thought ahead of the Community Shield, with Alexis unlikely to be involved and Alex Lacazette struggling to hit any heights in his 15-minute cameo.