A lot has been said about Walcott and his recent (before the goal against Marseille) drought, but for me what is more important than his recent dip in conversion rate is the improvement to his movements that he has shown since the start of pre-season. We saw examples during the pre-season games against Nagoya Grampus and Manchester City where he scored both times by attacking the space between the LCB and LB.
This is nothing new because Walcott has always made these types of runs, but as he shown 3 times against Sunderland, the timing of his runs has improved greatly. He now knows exactly when the LB or LCB is out of position and spots it quick enough to make the run at the exact time to make the LB and LCB question themselves on who is to pick him up, because when you attack that channel; the LCB’s movement could open up spaces for another of Walcott’s teammate to attack, or Walcott is left alone to shoot at the keeper.
Another improvement is Walcott’s movement in tight spaces when crowded; he knows when to drift slightly away from the pack in order to collect a rebound (goal against Marseille) or to receive a pass (goals against Liverpool at home last season, and the assist for Giroud against Tottenham this season). He has also moved away from the ‘’I want to be a striker’’ and is now relishing in his new ‘support striker’ role, whereby he is shadowing Giroud’s movement and exploiting the spaces the underrated yet intelligent striker creates for the players around him.
More than Walcott’s movements, is the system Arsène Wenger has in the past used but with more compactness this season; the ‘Midfield-4’ as I like to call it, early in the season Rosicky was used in the #10 role with Cazorla on the LW but with a lot more freedom to drift deeper and make up a Flat-3 with the Double Pivot, while also supporting the #10 in the final 3rd, all together it gives off a compact shaped Midfield-4, whereby all 4 midfielders can easily find each other, interchange and support in order to overload the central areas specifically, but are also able to overload the flanks on either side.
With a compact midfield the team can often be narrow; this is where Walcott (the outlet) is key to the system, his off the ball movements are there to give us width and to support the striker therefore making sure we are not narrow and therefore easy to mark by the opposition. Walcott has done this exceptionally this season, and although he has only 1 goal to his name, the system wouldn’t function well without him in the side. The system because of Walcott’s movement and the Midfield-4 then looks like a 4-4-2 diamond or 4-2-2-2 depending on the positioning of the 4 midfielders at a certain time. (See diagram 1)
Kieran Gibbs is another important player in the side and without a recognised LW in front of him has done extremely well to not only defend against a possible RB/RW attack on his flank, but to also create width on the left side. He often supports and gives us a sort of 3-4-3 shape during offensive transition. (See diagram 4)
Annotations of the build-up to the goal against Tottenham, showing the advantage of the ‘Midfield-4’, and the importance of Walcott’s role as the ‘Outlet’.
Below is a video showing Theo Walcott’s movement to exploit spaces to score or assist from this season to his 1st, showing signs that he is if not the best outlet in World Football, he must be 2nd best. With his movements continuing to improve, and the new Midfield-4 system, Walcott will not only have more responsibility to make the system function well, but he will also thrive in this system that gives him space. With playmakers like Santi Cazorla and Mesut Özil as a part of the Midfield-4; Theo Walcott should focus on exploiting spaces, because they will be find him.