Walcott and Giroud struggles expose Arsenal's lack of quality strikers
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger prides himself on his knowledge of players. It has become a running joke how often he mentions that he once could have signed an opposing team's star, with Cristiano Ronaldo leading the list of names of those passed up on.
Indeed, on Sunday it came as something of a surprise that Wenger did not reveal that he had once scouted Marcus Rashford, Manchester United's two-goal hero in Arsenal's 3-2 defeat, when the striker was playing for schoolboy team Fletcher Moss Rangers.
Strikers have been Wenger's grandest scouting successes: Nicolas Anelka, Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie were rough diamonds that Wenger mined and turned into forwards coveted by the football world, with each player cashed in for big money from Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United, respectively. A level below that gold standard, Wenger made fine Premier League performers out of players like Sylvain Wiltord and Emmanuel Adebayor.
The current Arsenal, though, are short of such quality. With Arsenal's Premier League title challenge in serious danger, the decision to enter the season with just Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott as centre forward options currently now looks like a piece of parsimonious "Wengernomics" going badly wrong.
Danny Welbeck, himself a Fletcher Moss graduate and signed from United in 2014, had been missing until this month with a knee injury. At Old Trafford he scored the second of two goals in his four matches played thus far, but his long absence left Wenger with a paucity of striking options. And true to form, when United signed Anthony Martial from Monaco in September, Wenger signalled that he had rebuffed the opportunity to sign the winger/forward.
Meanwhile, calling Walcott centre-forward is troubling in itself. As someone who passed 10 years at the club in January, the club's longest serving player should by now, at 26, be a senior professional, an inarguable name on the team sheet with an established position. Yet against United at Old Trafford, where Walcott played centrally with Welbeck and Alexis Sanchez on either side in an attacking trio, it was the latest match in a decade-long line where Walcott played the role of little boy lost, the prodigy who never grew up.
A mere 17 touches in 63 minutes was absenteeism in a match that his team could not afford to lose. Giroud was benched by Wenger, curiously so despite a fallow scoring run against a team surely vulnerable to the aerial ball with Michael Carrick forced to partner with Daley Blind in central defence due to United's injury list. Walcott, meanwhile, failed to provide a counterpoint to his team's attacking movement, forever stuck in traffic.
"What I think is unfortunate is we're still asking the same questions now as we were six or seven years ago about Theo Walcott," said Alan Shearer on BBC TV on Sunday. The Premier League's all-time leading scorer, was scatching in his analysis: "Is he a centre forward? Is he a winger?"
Walcott's desire to become a striker dates back to his days as a Southampton starlet, and he was signed by Wenger as potential heir to Henry, himself a converted winger. And 2015-16 was the season when Walcott's striker transformation was supposed to happen, with Wenger alternating him with Giroud on the occasions when pace rather than hold-up play was the best route to victory. Walcott even has Henry, who has been working with Arsenal's under-18 team, on hand to help.
"He has just given me his analysis on myself and, if I've needed to ask him some questions about it, he's always there," said Walcott of Henry during a halcyon run of four goals in seven matches in October.
Yet Wenger's job-share scheme has lately born little fruit. Walcott's goal against Leicester in a vital 2-1 win on Feb. 14 was the sole strike he and Giroud have notched between them since Jan. 13, when Giroud scored two in a 3-3 draw at Liverpool. It is reaching the point where Gunners fans are starting to cast glances at Yaya Sanogo, currently on loan to Charlton, for whom he scored a hat-trick against Reading on Saturday.
Giroud, goalless in nine matches, is on the worst run of his Arsenal career. The genesis was Jan. 24 in a 1-0 home loss to Chelsea in which Wenger was forced to choose between Giroud and Walcott. When Per Mertesacker was red-carded for fouling Diego Costa, it was the Frenchman who Wenger withdrew, citing Giroud's carrying of an injury and the need for pace on the break as his reasoning for retaining Walcott. When Costa scored soon after, and Chelsea withdrew to the edge of their 18-yard box, the counterattack disappeared as a workable strategy and so did Walcott, captain for the day to mark his 10th anniversary.
Losing to Chelsea and United, peer clubs currently suffering turbulence, may end up dashing Wenger's dream of a first championship since 2003-04 in a season where Leicester and Tottenham, two teams with zero experience of a title chase, are the frontrunners.
In fairness to Giroud and Walcott, Arsenal have not been helped by losses of form suffered by both Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, plus an injury to Santi Cazorla. Sanchez is well short of his incendiary, inspirational best since a hamstring injury, only scoring once since he came back from almost two months out in late January. Ozil, the Premier League's most prolific creative force, has assisted just three goals in his last nine appearances.
Wenger's greatest strikers, particularly Henry and Van Persie, could make their own fun, but the great scout no longer appears able to locate such talent.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.