What is behind Theo Walcott's recent resurgence for Arsenal and England?
Arsenal fans must have thought they had seen the last of Theo Walcott on a number of occasions during his 10 years at the club, but like the proverbial boomerang he keeps coming back for more. Bizarrely for such a well-established player, there is still talk that he might make a ‘breakthrough’. This is as absurd as the case of American golfer Steve Stricker, who managed to win the PGA Tour’s Comeback Player of the Year award in two consecutive seasons. We know everything there is to know about Walcott as a footballer, and there is no source of untapped potential waiting to be realised. As he has shown so far this season however, Walcott can be an effective weapon despite his obvious flaws.
Walcott has never fully gained Arsene Wenger’s trust, another startling aspect of his career considering he has spent a decade playing for him. The Englishman had a spell between 2011 and 2013 when he established himself as a key Arsenal player and, following the losses of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, one of their few remaining stars. He formed good relationships with Olivier Giroud and Robin Van Persie from the right of a front three.
Things took a turn for the worse however following a cruciate ligament injury in January 2014. Apart from the physical effects of such a long term layoff, by the time he returned Arsenal had Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck on their books. Now Arsenal didn’t have to rely on Walcott to inject pace into their attack; they had two other rapid forwards who worked harder defensively and were more durable.
Since then, Walcott has been a fleeting presence in the Arsenal team. He looked to be on his way out of the club in the spring of 2015. Playing on the right as a substitute away at Spurs in February of that year, Walcott failed to close down a cross that led to Harry Kane’s late winner. This led to an extended spell on the bench, and seemed to suggest that Wenger had lost faith in him as a right winger. The Arsenal boss has made several pointed comments since about the defensive output that the modern game demands of wide players. However, with Giroud’s form tailing off at the end of that season Walcott was used as a centre forward. He scored a hat trick on the season’s final day against West Brom and opened the scoring the FA Cup Final against Aston Villa.
He continued through the middle at the start of last season, and he starred in wins over Leicester City, Manchester United and Bayern Munich. However, injury intervened once again and Walcott did not get much of a look in up top for the rest of the season. With Wenger still reluctant to use him on the right, he found himself on the bench with the end of his Arsenal career seemingly in sight. Walcott turned in some dismal performances when he was handed a chance, with his display in Arsenal’s 3-2 defeat at Manchester United especially anaemic. He jumped out of a challenge with Younes Kaboul at the Stadium of Light. Arsenal fans had long questioned his first touch, but now his commitment was under scrutiny.
Had the transfer market thrown up more forward options, there is a good chance that Wenger would have moved Walcott on this summer. However, it became clear that buying one striker was going to be hard work, let alone two. To Walcott’s credit he has forged an opening for himself at the start of this season back on the right of a front three. This despite the fact that Arsene Wenger has said publicly he sees him as a central striker. What is behind this mini-revival?
Walcott looks to have a hunger and ‘fire in his belly’ that was missing for too long. This may be a result of missing out on England’s Euro 2016 squad. Trying to read a player’s body language always drifts into shady amateur psychology, but the numbers speak for themselves. Walcott has made as many successful tackles this season as he did in the whole of the last campaign (seven). Last season he averaged 0.46 tackles per game, this term it is 2.33 tackles per game. Put simply, he is working much, much harder without the ball. Perhaps the penny has dropped with him that he is not the most talented player at Arsenal nor the smoothest technically, so he has to make up for it in other ways. Arsenal are trending towards being a team that looks to press from the front, and having someone of Walcott’s pace to pounce on loose opposition passes is a great way of winning the ball back in dangerous positions.
Walcott has clearly reaped the benefits of a full pre-season. He looks strong, lean and considerably sharper than many of his teammates as well as opponents. Perhaps this should be taken into account when considering his good form; that his early season promise is the result of a physical advantage that will eventually recede as everyone gets up to speed. Nevertheless, Walcott deserves at least a moderate amount of credit for the level of fitness work he did alone earlier in the summer. This might be considered standard practice for a professional athlete, but he refused to let the despondency of last season get him down.
There have also been signs of the ‘end product’ that many pundits claim Walcott’s game has lacked. He scored a good goal and won a penalty against Liverpool (though missed it), had more shots on goal than any other Arsenal player against Leicester and provided a sumptuous assist for Alexis Sanchez at Watford. A few swallows do not make a summer, and Walcott will have to keep up this output to stay in the team once Alex Iwobi and Aaron Ramsey return. With his movements in behind opposition defences though, he does offer a threat not matched by any other Arsenal player (Lucas Perez might take on this role). Arsenal have also been shy of goals in the last few seasons. Walcott is a genuine goal threat, despite his technical shortcomings and erratic first touch.
Graeme Souness has charged Arsenal with being a ‘team of son-in-laws’; too easily rolled over when adversity strikes and lacking the necessary steel to win titles. Such emotional terms and intangible factors are given more attention than they’re due in England, but there’s a grain of truth to them. For many, the clean-cut and well-mannered Walcott has typified this problem. Two things however, seem to have prompted a change in him. Firstly, he was written off by large chunks of the Arsenal fan base and is determined to prove his critics wrong. More importantly, by giving up the demand to be Arsenal’s first choice striker, he seems to have accepted his limitations and status at the club. Walcott is not and never will be the next Thierry Henry, but is proving himself to be a valuable player on his own terms.
Featured image: All rights reserved by Emrah Partal