It’s difficult to fathom what a fully functioning, incisive Theo Walcott is capable of. We’ve had glimpses in the past: the hattricks against Newcastle and Reading in 2012, the 2014 FA Cup final against Villa, the 2015 3 – 0 victory over United in which he tormented the United defence with his speed and clinical finishing and most recently the all-round displays against Chelsea and Basel. Whilst it would seem premature to cast all reservations aside on the back end of two displays, it does seem as if something has fundamentally changed in Theo’s psyche.
Last season, Walcott drew heavy criticism for failing to contend a 50/50 challenge with Sunderland’s Younes Kaboul. Boos rang out amongst fans and a player who has so often garnered the love of the Arsenal faithful had become a poster boy for everything that was wrong with the club. Weak in the tackle, wasteful in possession and profligate in front of goal. Even his contract negotiations seemed to cause unreasonable duress considering his overall standing in the club. For quite a while, he seemed to be a player who had lost his way. These days Theo Walcott has tilted the odds of success in his favor.
Despite his poor form and his lack of playing time, there still seemed to be an acceptance that Walcott would be picked at national level. His finishing prowess, when given little time to think, has always been exceptional. His speed, with the exception of the port swilling, skittle flavoured vodka drinking Jamie Vardy was considered a precious commodity. Even his image rights seemed to be in line with England’s 3 Lions-respect the ref, kick-it out and Marks and Spencer’s school boy image. However, Theo spent the summer at home watching on as the England team suffered at the hands of the media and were plundered by the bearded Icelandic Vikings. Whilst many would feel aggrieved, it seems to have had a positive effect on Walcott. He is visibly stronger and fitter. He is more efficient on the ball. He is more attuned to his defensive responsibilities and he seems to have adopted many of the traits that make Alexis and Iwobi such dangerous allies.
There seems to be three components of his game that have generally improved. One is his defensive mind-set, which Wenger alluded to in his comments. “I think he used to be 90 per cent forward and 10 per cent defending. Today he is 50-50. He does the job both ways and he does it both ways with commitment.” There certainly seems to be a willingness to track back and help the team. This has been evident in his performances so far this season, making 12 tackles in his 6 appearances, close to his total for the entirety of last season. Furthermore, there seems to be a genuine desire to work for the team and a readiness to put his body on the line. One aspect which I feel has helped him in this regard is his newfound strength and size. Whilst Walcott will never be able to match the strength and power of other traditional wingers such as Antonio, Bolasie and Oxlade Chamberlain, he has bulked up and as such seems to have an air of confidence when tackling and doing the defensive side of things. The undertaking of a personal trainer over the summer shows an acceptance that he lacked the physicality to consistently influence games.
The second area Walcott has improved is his passing. There seems to be a commitment to move the ball as quickly as possible in the Arsenal team. This was apparent in Walcott’s goal against Chelsea. It was, in fact, Iwobi who was the creator of said goal, playing quick passes in order to orchestrate an opening. Yet this new urgency on the ball has been evident in all our forward players in the last few games. This quick pass and move plays into Walcott’s strength of accelerating away from opponents and putting clear ground between himself and the defender. He may lack the quick footwork of Iwobi and Sanchez but both attributes are negated when the ball is asked to do the work.
The final aspect of Walcott’s game is his disposition for pressing the opposition. Whilst this may seem like a defensive technique, in our current capacity it is actually an attacking method: see Sanchez dispossessing Gary Cahill. Whilst not being revelatory in the Premier League, the pressing of opposition players has only truly come to the forefront in the past two seasons. This may be due to Klopp’s current Liverpool philosophy coupled with the success of Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Tuchel’s Dortmund. With Walcott embracing Iwobi’s one touch, give and go technique, it seems he is also undertaking Sanchez’s high pressing tactic. I’m sure there is some direction from the manager but it seems that the players are keen to play to their strengths.
Time will tell if this is a flash in the pan or whether Theo has genuinely turned a corner. There are still greater tests to come, not least how he will cope with a Burnley team who will play two banks of four and will look to pass it long, thus nullifying the high press. But if Walcott can continue his form and retain the philosophies espoused by Sanchez and Iwobi then Arsenal have a front three capable of competing for the title.
Til next time,