Our number 14 is in terrible form.
I wanted to get that out of the way early on, if only so that I can’t be accused of *total* blindness or bias, and make it quite clear that my admittedly red-and-white-tinted spectacles and confessed admiration for Theo Walcott don’t mask the fact that he is about as deadly as his one-year old son, Finley, right now.
Despite Theo’s videographic efforts to convince us to the contrary, the answer is: not very.
But (and this is a big but) I also wanted to pen this week’s column on our pacy forward, since I also don’t think the amount of criticism being lobbed his way in recent days and weeks is entirely warranted.
As football fans, we’re all too fond of swinging from one extreme to another, and yesterday’s boo boy is today’s world beater while last week’s hero can be consigned to a fate worse than death: being Tottenham standard.
A month ago, many Gunners supporters would have happily pushed Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain through the exit trapdoor without a backward glance, yet a few sweet touches against Chelsea later, he’s back in the good books and someone else has to take on the mantle of underperforming, useless twit.
Three goals and two assists is not a great return from 17 league games, and Walcott’s finishing in the last few games has let him down when chances have arisen. But you don’t become a bad finisher overnight – indeed it’s one of Theo’s most improved skills – and there’s a good chance that he just needs a goal to get him back on the proverbial horse.
But then, Theo has always been a man for the big occasion. He’s proven particularly effective against Chelsea for example in recent years, and despite his form being in the toilet, I would always have picked him for last weekend’s game for that very reason. His last goal may have come in mid-December, but it was a cracker against Manchester City, and in three Champions League performances, the England forward has turned in two goals and an assist.
Theo comes in for criticism more than most, generally because his weaknesses are so glaring. Historically, his finishing has been a bit wayward, and his vision and passing left much to be desired. He was also more than a bit apathetic about the defensive side of the game. He has worked hard on all of these facets and ultimately he has improved a lot in the last 12 to 18 months. However, his biggest weakness remains and is, frankly, unlikely to go away.
Ask Theo to control the ball on the run and at pace, and he is right up there with the best in the Premier League – after all, it’s what he’s practised doing for his entire career – but ask him to control a ball played in to his feet, back to goal, and he’s about as good as your average schoolboy.
Theo as part of a team
But there’s the rub: Theo Walcott shouldn’t be receiving the ball with his back to goal on any kind of regular basis.
His greatest strengths are his pace and the timing of his runs. From the upper tier, it’s quite amazing to watch the number of runs that Theo starts to make and then has to cut back onside because his teammates either don’t see or don’t play the ball for him.
Walcott is acknowledged as one of the fastest players in the league, on a par with Hector Bellerin, yet while our fullback features in the Sun’s weekly speed statistics, our forward was been a notable omission. That’s because he’s not making those longer distance runs that he needs to get up to full speed – he’s not being given the chance to use his speed.
I’m not advocating random punting of the ball upfield for Theo to chase around after like a blue-arsed fly, although we certainly could have used him like that a bit more against Chelsea, having made the decision to keep on a counter-attacking paceman rather than a big hold-up man.
I’m talking instead about playing the ball over the centre backs when they play a high line, or have pushed up for their own attack.
I’m talking about playing the ball around the sides of the defence for Theo to get in behind the full backs.
And I’m talking about playing slide rule passes like the one that Diego Costa was going to collect before Mertesacker recklessly intervened and Costa himself decided he’d prefer to bottle the chance of a one-on-one and throw himself on the floor, rather than score a goal.
In that situation, Theo Walcott does not go down. He sprints towards goal and slots the ball past the goalkeeper*.
And it’s 1-0 to the Arsenal instead.
*Let’s gloss over the issue of form here. Current Theo Walcott might find row Z, but 90% of the time he would put away that kind of opportunity.
Not doing enough
There’s no getting around it; Walcott isn’t doing enough at the moment. He’s not scoring, he’s not assisting, and he’s far from our most solid player defensively either. He’s not the kind of player who is going to beat three players, do a Cruyff turn and win a penalty. No, he’s the kind of player that relies on his understanding with his colleagues so that they can play the passes that make the most of his abilities.
Walcott is to blame himself, of course, insofar as his form is in the toilet and he could still work harder, but equally his team-mates and his manager have to take some of the stick.
At the top level you expect players to be intelligent, and our current crop of talent ought to be capable of seeing more of Walcott’s runs than they do. Do they think about what their out ball is, or the best way to feed the forwards on the pitch at that moment in time?
And what of the instructions from the boss?
I’d love to be a fly on the wall in the Arsenal dressing room when Arsène gives his broad brush team talk pre-game, and hear if he gives any guidance at all as to how to extract the maximum from the England striker.
Good enough for Arsenal?
It’s easy to look at Walcott’s weaknesses and argue that he should have developed more and become a world-beater. Ultimately, there are only a handful of players in the world who have limited weaknesses, and fundamentally, you should be able to get around those weaknesses by playing the game to suit your strengths instead. How often do you see Messi receiving a long ball up against a giant centre back, after all?
The most telling sign for me is the thought of Theo lining up for one of our rivals. We might not make the most of him right now, but imagine turning up at the Emirates to see that Walcott would be leading the line for Manchester City with David Silva feeding him in behind. Chelsea? Man United? God forbid, Spurs?
The thought of such an eventuality scares me witless.
Even when he was substituted against Chelsea, although he was playing poorly, a part of me still wanted to keep him on because of his potential to finish from pretty much anywhere in the box, and to spring any defence with one well-timed run which a team-mate actually sees.
Will the real Theo Walcott please stand up?
Right now we might be seeing the worst of Theo Walcott, and we’ve had to suffer through because of the injury situation at the club. But when we get to see the best of Theo Walcott again, it could be the difference between winning or losing the league.
The Theo Walcott who so disappointed us at the weekend is the very same Theo Walcott who scored the winning goal in last year’s FA Cup Final.
He’s not perfect, but he is ours, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.