Again, I’m choosing to write a piece about a player who generates fierce debate in Block 1, right behind Arsėne Wenger’s seat on the Arsenal bench. It seems to me that Theo Walcott is the Arsenal equivalent of Marmite, polarising opinion amongst Gooners. There are those who worship him – primarily I think because he is young and English – and there are an increasing number who it seems to me hover over him like vultures, waiting for opportunities to berate him.
Certainly the statistical picture is impressive, and especially this season. He trounces the other English wingers in terms of end product (age 23, cost £5m, goals 8, assists 8). Players like Stewart Downing (age 27, cost £20m, goals 0, assists 0), Adam Johnson (age 24, cost £8m, goals 6, assists 2) and James Milner (age 26, cost £18m, goals 3, assists 5) trail in his wake. There is no argument that he is on a par with top quality wingers like Nani (age 25, cost £25.5m, goals 7 assists 8). In fact if you factor in his partnership with Robin van Persie, you could put a reasonable argument together that, based on returns he is at this moment the best winger in the Premiership. If you take into consideration cost, in terms of fees and wages, it looks even more in his favour.
Then you read that Lionel Messi is telling the press that the Barça team fear him, and that makes you sit up and take notice. Messi isn’t the only fan. Robin van Persie apparently loves being in the same team. But I’d never criticise a work colleague publicly and neither should he, especially as captain. Then you look at the managers who have regularly picked him when fit – Wenger, Erikkson and Capello are amongst the biggest names in management in world football.
Theo’s game relies heavily not just on the pace that he has got, but on the threat his pace brings. This is what gives coaches and full backs problems: the opposition coach has to make a decision about how to play an Arsenal or England team with Theo Walcott in it. Then each time he gets the ball, the full back has to decide whether to go tight, or to hang back an extra half yard. If Theo gets the ball with a bit of space behind the full back, and the full back is in between these positions, he can almost literally just kick it past him, and he knows he will win the race. It’s this threat that leads teams to ask their winger to track back, to double mark, or to “park the bus”.
Theo joined Arsenal in January 2006, for a fee of around £5m – lots of money for a teenager. Sven Goran Erikkson made the inexplicable decision to take him to the 2006 World Cup, before hed even played in the first team for Arsenal. Surely he could have gone without a squad number and just trained with the team? He could have collected bibs, put cones out etc. and who would have noticed if he “made up the numbers” in a couple of practise matches? He didn’t get a game anyway, so that’s in effect all he did. That decision denied a couple of experienced players the chance to reach the pinnacle of achievement in football, to play at the World Cup Finals, which was wrong. It was great for Arsenal as a club, but I don’t know if it did Theo any good really. Then on 10th September 2008 against Croatia, he quite literally became an overnight sensation, scoring a hat trick for England. The press box almost creamed themselves. They are so desperate to build up England players, so that they can knock them back down again (Gazza, Adams, Ferdinand, Gerard, Terry, Rooney). It’s all about selling copies, clicks and tweets – completely unrelated to the game at all. His performance didn’t justify the furore, and from what I remember neither were the goals particularly special. Since then Theo has been in and out of the England team, but he seems to have been picked most of the time to me when he’s been fit, so I’d say he’s an established England international.
So Theo Walcott is in form; he scores and makes goals; he’s a massive threat; he’s an established international player: why do we need to talk about Theo? Why do certain sections of the crowd at The Grove want him out of the team and the club? Why do they get on his back? How can it be true that some sections of his home crowd sometimes boo him? Why does the miserable grey haired bearded old git who sits behind us in Block 1 wait for his first mistake at every home game, just to slag him off and turn to his mates and go “I told you he was shit!”?
Well many factors come into play. Firstly, I think when Theo arrived, it was a big national news story. He cost a lot of money at the time for a teenager, due to the over inflated prices of English players. He also became an instant hit with the fans – not really because of his performance level, but because the fans were desperate for some English blood in the team. To be honest I can’t really recall the fans being quite so love struck by a player. It is usually performance related. These things put him under pressure when he started competing for a place. Secondly, he’s been injured a lot. There were jokes about his glass shoulders which seem to have been fixed now. This has meant that until this season he has never really got an extended run in the team. When this happens, rightly or wrongly, this leads some fans to believe the club aren’t getting great value out of a player. The wages are so high nowadays – from the outside it looks pretty cushty working out in the gym for a few grand a week.
Another reason is that I think his decision making hasn’t been very good, when you expect top level from an international who plays in the Champions League regularly. This affects a number of elements of his game: defensively, instead of turning outside towards the touch line, sometimes he turns inside into trouble, which is dangerous in your own half. Sometimes offensively he gets in a tangle, or doesn’t take the ball with him, or passes to an imaginary colleague.
Then there is the running out of pitch issue. I have honestly never regularly seen a top level professional do this as often. It’s become a feature of his game. So much so, that in the FIFA12 for PlayStation game (incidentally, an excellent video game – other games and consoles are available 😉 ) one of the unique abilities of Theo Walcott is that he routinely runs the ball out of play. I didn’t half chuckle to myself after he did it the 3rd time and basically I thought if the programmers at EA sports have taken the trouble to build that into the game, not only is that the sort of attention to detail I can seriously admire but it must be pretty obvious too.
One learned football pundit (I use the term very loosely) suggested that Theo doesn’t have a football brain, and at the time lots of Arsenal people were totally up in arms about it. Although I think Chris Waddle was being deliberately controversial, I do see what he meant. The fact is that Theo has come to the game late, he hasn’t necessarily come through the thousands of games that other youngsters have in their development. He has only appeared in 107 league games to date. This puts him at a disadvantage compared to other players of his age, but I’d argue this one slightly differently, and say that if he has achieved what he’s done with so little game time, imagine what he could be with games under his belt.
Another factor this season has been the arrival in the summer transfer window from Southampton of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who made an instant impact scoring 1 and having a hand in 2 against Shrewsbury in the Carling Cup, and has looked more than a little lively when appearing as a sub in the first team. I haven’t always tracked the fees in the past, so I was more than a little surprised when I found out he cost £12m. But when you look at the way he is so positive when he gets the ball, his movement off it, the way he passes the ball, his touch, the way he isnt afraid to take people on, you can see why he cost a bit. His decision making is spot on, he is strong so he can hold people off the ball. Essentially, he always looks completely in control of what he’s doing on the football pitch. He looks like he has eaten, slept, drunk and breathed football all his life. He reminds me of Rooney and is potentially a complete footballer – I can see him playing off the front man in the middle in the future. His arrival has put a bit more pressure on Theo and I think he has responded.
So there are quite a few points on both sides. I have not always been a massive fan. At the end of last season I thought Theo was not going to make it, at the very top level. But I think he’s changed his game a bit this year, which means he is learning from the coaching he’s getting. He gets the ball in a lot earlier, which has led to a few goals. He looks to be working harder, tracking back and covering more. He has had a couple of absolute shockers (Milan away and Wigan home) and he makes a lot of mistakes. But, people forget he is still only 23 – born in 1989, about 10 weeks before it was Up For Grabs Now and Michael Thomas grabbed it at Anfield, and way after Charlie Nicholas fucked Rushies Record Up at Wembley. He probably won’t peak for another 4 or 5 years, if he can avoid more major injuries. I still think there is potential there for Theo to not only improve, but also to affect the way teams set up against us. You really need players who are a threat even when they’re having an off day. When we had Bergkamp, Henry and Pires in the same team, teams just couldn’t contain all of them for a whole game. I think with van Persie and Walcott, that’s two of the three dangerous players we need.
If one of the Spanish or Italian giants does offer, say, £20m, it would be a difficult decision, but I’d take the money for Theo. Players with his explosive pace are a bad tackle or a bad twist away from having their game completely changed – see Michael Owen. Without pace, Theo’s game would be almost completely diminished. I see only two problems with this: how Robin van Persie might react to Theo leaving, and that he might come back to bite us in future years if we sell to a Champions League club (likely).
I think Arsène Wenger will almost certainly offer Theo a new contract and keep him in the Arsenal squad for the next couple of seasons at least. I think that’s probably the right decision – he should be given more time to continue building his game. Also, it will hopefully really annoy those disloyal idiots who sit behind me as well, waiting for the slightest mistake to slag him off, which can only be a good thing.
Wear Your Red & White Scarf With Pride. And watch out for the vultures.
All stats are from soccerbase.com or soccernet.espn.go.com