Theo Walcott’s long-term injury does hurt Arsenal. However, given Arsenal’s internal options, tactical flexibility, and the potential to bring in players this month, Walcott’s injury is unlikely to deal a major blow to the Gunners’ title chances.

Arsenal

Walcott’s pace and finishing are unmatched by any Arsenal player, but not completely irreplaceable.

Theo Walcott ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament in Arsenalai??i??s FA Cup match against Tottenham. His season for Arsenal is done, and he is unlikely to make a return in time to play for England in the World Cup. There is no doubting that Walcottai??i??s injury hurts Arsenal. He brings a unique set of skills to Arsenal.Ai??His pace, finishing, and off-ball running, the last of which looked particularly intelligent against Tottenham, allow him to stretch the pitch vertically. These are valuable characteristics against sides who play higher lines, rely almost exclusively on their left back to provide attacking width, and/or Arsenal look to counter-attack.

However, there are some glaring flaws in his game, particularly. He is not a good passer. When he is given time and options on the ball, his decision-making leaves much to be desire. Throughout his Arsenal career, it seems that Walcott is at his best when the situation calls for him to react quickly. When given time, and a lack of space behind the defense, he struggles to pick the right pass or carry the ball into the best space. Those flaws in his game limit Arsenalai??i??s ability to control possession and the tempo of a match.

He is not a player blessed with tight control to dribble past defenders. This is less of an issue when there is a large amount of space behind the defender. In those situations, Walcott can lengthen his dribble (or at most kick it beyond the defender) and try to run past the defender. Against deeper defending sides, that approach to beating a marker does not work as well, and often leads to the ball going beyond the by-line for a goal kick. Therefore, a lot of Walcottai??i??s offensive value goes out the window when playing against compact, deep defending sides.

Another underrated cost of playing Theo Walcott is his insistence to take set pieces, in particular corners. Not only is Walcottai??i??s set piece delivery not good, but, given the technical quality of his teammates, Walcottai??i??s set pieces come with a high opportunity cost. That set piece could have been taken by a player much more suited for the job. Without Walcott, Arsenal probably become more efficient at scoring from set pieces. Also, given the potential for the defending team to counter-attack effectively off a corner, increased efficiency on corners (not just scoring goals, but winning the first header even, along with retaining possession after the corner) should help Arsenal defensively.

He is not the most switched on player when it comes to tracking back and supporting his right-back. In his defense, if the Bacary Sagna of 2007/2008-2010/2011 was playing for Arsenal, then this would be less of an issue. However, injuries have diminished Sagnaai??i??s ability to recover when he finds himself too high up the pitch, when Arsenal lose possession. Given that Sagna has shown a penchant to still go forward, it is important that whoever plays on the right consistently either tracks back or presses to win the ball back/slow the transition of opponent from a benign position into an attacking one. While Walcott has shown an ability to do this, he seems to put a shift in defensively only when the games are big (matches against Tottenham and the run of games Arsenal had to end the last Premier League season particularly stand out), though not in every single big game.

So, as with many players, Theo Walcottai??i??s injury potentially hurts Arsenal in some areas, but give them the ability to improve in other ones. This is where one should look at the marginal loss caused by Walcottai??i??s injury. Let us say that Theo Walcott, in isolation, provided a net benefit of 30 goals in a season for Arsenal (think this as goals created + goals prevented, like the advanced metrics of runs created and runs saved in baseball). One could consider losing Walcott for half a season to mean that Arsenal are 15 goals worse off. However, that would be assuming that the player replacing Walcott offers 0 goals of net benefit. The more likely outcome is that his replacement also creates a positive amount of goals. Say, for example, a platoon of Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain and Serge Gnabry would provide a net benefit of 20 goals over an entire season, playing in the same system. This means that losing Walcott for half a season represents a net loss of five goals, not 15.

Thierry Henry

Arsenal changed their attacking system to counteract losing Thierry Henry.

Football, unlike baseball, is a sport where one can extract value by changing the system. Losing Theo Walcott could allow Arsenal to change the way their style of play. They might be less lethal on the counter-attack, but improve at controlling possession and tempo. This may improve the rest of the teamai??i??s ability to create goals. If the system now includes a penetrative dribbler, in addition to the improving Arsenalai??i??s ability to control matches, then it makes them much more potent against sides that defend deeply, and look for a point, with the chance to steal three. Given that the league title, and not the Champions League title, is Arsenalai??i??s priority, improving their ability to pick up points against inferior sides is probably more important than the potential to be worse at beating teams that play high lines and/or having rampaging left-backs. Maybe most importantly, Arsenalai??i??s improved defensive shape and ability to win the ball higher up the pitch could improve their ability to prevent and score goals.

Given all of this, Walcottai??i??s injury may not represent a significant blow to Arsenalai??i??s title hopes. In addition to theory, the empirical results give some evidence that Walcottai??i??s injury will not single-handedly derail Arsenalai??i??s title challenge. In the Premier League, Arsenal are 6-1-2 with Walcott starting, good for 2.11 points/game. One could include the Everton match, where he made an impact as a substitute. That would put Arsenal at 6-2-2, good for 2 points/game. Given that Arsenal have averaged 2.25 points per game for the entire season (so 2.36 points/game or 2.5 points/game if one does not or does include the Everton match in the calculation). This is not evidence that Arsenal are better without Walcott (other than the Aston Villa match, all points dropped with Walcott came against Manchester City, Chelsea, and Everton). It gives some evidence that Arsenal can still rack up points, especially against inferior sides, without Walcott.

Olivier Giroud: Ozil will make his teammates better players

Finding a back up striker for Giroud will go a long way in mitigating the loss of Walcott.

Finally, an injury to Theo Walcott, may be the incentive needed for Arsenal to acquire players to help strengthen the side. Maybe Arsenal acquire a direct replacement for Theo Walcott, someone who can operate in a wide position and given Arsenal the ability to stretch the pitch. They may look to replace Walcott with a player who is a better option with the ball at his feet, and adjust their play to fit more around those attributes. Given the return to fitness of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and the talent of Serge Gnabry, Arsene Wenger may believe that he can get buy on the wing. Instead, Wenger may feel that losing Walcottai??i??s goal-scoring means that keeping Olivier Giroud fresher is more important. Given the potential quality of Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gnabry, acquiring an upgrade or a quality back-up center forward could provide more marginal benefit for Arsenal than acquiring a Walcott replacement. Given the problems of getting just one quality signing done in January, minimizing the number of transactions needed to provide a given level of marginal benefit (minimizing total the transactions cost in the window) is crucial.

The loss of Theo Walcott is an unfortunate one for Arsenal, though not an uncommon one (if he never lives up to his potential, his injury issue from 2008-2011 may have had the largest impact in impeding his development). More importantly, the quality of this Arsenal side means they have the ability to adjust to life without him and still contend for the Premier League. If they win the title after losing the England international, it will be quite a statement about how far Arsenal FC have improved compared to last season.

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