It’s a fairly frequent sight when you are following an Arsenal game on Twitter, or indeed just catching up on the train home after a game.
Theo Walcott has taken a lot of criticism in recent weeks from the Arsenal faithful and with good reason.
I’m a huge fan of our number 14, but even I couldn’t defend the way he has been playing.
MAKE SOME BEEPING EFFORT
His game has been too static, with a lack of runs in behind or down the sides. Admittedly our midfielders have been particularly poor at picking him out in the past when he has made the effort, but he has to make those runs to help his teammates understand where he wants the ball and to highlight the space available.
His work-rate defensively has also been significantly lacking, with a combination of failing to make any effort to get back when he has lost the ball up-field, failing to track his man and when he does track him, showing him inside towards the goal.
There are of course some mitigating circumstances, mostly linked to his injury. It’s easy to forget that in the past, cruciate injuries have ended careers. Certainly I’ve seen criticism of Theo based on his having had better games than Saturday since returning, yet he hasn’t turned in a really good performance since his comeback, and that ignores the inconsistency that will always come with a lack of regular game-time.
He’s also clearly suffering from something of a confidence crisis, a concept demonstrated by both his hesitancy finishing (a skill which has become something of a trademark for Walcott) and in his unwillingness to run in behind his man, preferring to drop short and get involved in tika-taka build up play which is pretty much the opposite of his core strength.
TURNING A CORNER
That last point is something I saw to be a real positive from this weekend’s game against West Ham – for the first time (against top flight opposition) since his injury, Theo was making runs in behind the opposition full back. Admittedly he wasn’t able to maintain that for the whole game, but certainly in the first 60 minutes or so he had Cresswell all over the place. I spoke before the game about how impressed I’ve been with the West Ham left back but I thought he struggled to track Walcott’s runs.
The level of vitriol directed at our speedster on Twitter after the game was quite surprising. In addition to having made some excellent runs, he had three good chances in the game. One should have been a penalty (hesitation or no hesitation), one he hit straight at the keeper, and one where his standing foot went from beneath him as he tried to apply the finishing touch to a brilliant move which he instigated in the first place.
There’s no denying that he ran out of steam a little before he was substituted, but overall I thought the signs were very positive in terms of him finding some form, some confidence and also some synergy with his teammates. Ramsey in particular seemed to be on a similar wavelength, and Alexis saw his runs a number of times but failed on the execution front.
TURNING OVER A NEW LEAF
The signs that his attacking game is returning were promising, but the real standout part of Walcott’s game against West Ham though was his willingness to “run around a bit” as the saying goes. There were a couple of notable moments when he pounced on balls which had spun loose, and also used his body well to either shield the ball or try to force an opponent off him.
Moreover, I saw him genuinely sprint at an opposition player to attempt to make a challenge without turning his back and effectively trying to get out the way of the ball, possibly for the first time ever. In the past, he has been known to jog over, cower from the ball, and position his body to invite the player infield into someone else’s area and thus absolve himself of responsibility. Not on Saturday.
It was almost as if someone had lit a fire under him, and told him to pull his finger out. Perhaps his agent had a word.
There has been a significant move towards every player working hard in this Arsenal side over the course of the season, inspired by the signing of players like Alexis and Welbeck who set the bar so high. Giroud is another who defends from the front with vim and vigour.
Many have called for Oxlade-Chamberlain to replace Walcott in light of how he works harder from the front, and it struck me in the first half today that Theo was making a real effort to knuckle down as well as put himself about a bit, and demonstrate that while he’s never going to be the man you want on the pitch when you’re down to ten men, he can do enough of a job to feature regularly.
He doesn’t have to run around every minute of every game to get that monkey off his back. Mesut Ozil has taken a lot of criticism for his lack of demonstrative running, yet the German has finally started to get a bit more respect for the pure efficiency of his game.
In the first half of the West Ham game, there was a particular moment where Chambers carried the ball forward and lost it carelessly with Coquelin also ahead of him. Ozil quickly and unfussily sprinted back into the right back space and prevented Jarvis from exploiting that space. He didn’t have to make a tackle, and he didn’t really do anything to get noticed, but he was there to dig his full back out of a hole.
JUST BE YOURSELF
Theo doesn’t have to charge around making tackles and being an all-action midfield monster, he just has to do enough. That means using his pace when it will offer the most value and supporting the team when we want to press in a certain fashion. I saw enough against West Ham to suggest that he can do that, and indeed that he is willing to do it.
Ultimately, a player like Walcott offers you something different going forward, and he’s certainly a player with a fantastic big game record.
If he continues on this trajectory of demonstrating improvement in both his attacking game and his ability and willingness to toe the party line when it comes to defending, we could yet have a player on our hands who can deliver game changing performances on a regular basis.
Patience is a virtue, after all.