In a team sport, there’s an argument for saying no single player is more important than his teammates.
As Arsenal look to move into an era where depth of squad reduces the dependence on a key man, there is one player who bucks that trend.
Still a divisive figure for many Arsenal fans, following his well-publicised contract wranglings, Theo’s style of play makes him relatively dependent on the players around him. He is in no way a ‘one man team’.
Yet, he is absolutely critical to the way Arsenal play.
KEY TO THE ARSENALWAGON™
Picture this Arsenal team as a car – the ArsenalWagon™ if you will.
It’s built on a chassis of Kos & Per, with Bellerin, Gibbo, Nacho and Chambers as the wheels taking the load at various points.
Then you have the engine, with the various pistons of Ramsey, Coquelin, Flamini and Arteta.
The likes of Cazorla and Alexis give the car it’s attractive bodywork and its toys in the passenger cabin, and which determine whether the ArsenalWagon™ is more like a Ferrari or a Fiat.
The ArsenalWagon™ is a mean beast, so Giroud provides the bull bars at the front to knock obstacles out of the way when the going gets tough.
But while it may be possible to jump start the car and run it for short periods of enjoyment, until the key is in the ignition it won’t move freely and consistently – it’s the only way to get the best from all the other parts of the vehicle.
Walcott is that key.
Theo has qualities which are unmatched in this Arsenal team, certainly in the combination he presents them.
Pace, clinical finishing and a directness which stretches opposition defences and creates room for others to ply their trades – we’ll examine these each in turn – but as Walcott recently passed his 9th anniversary at the club, it’s easy to forget that he is still just 25, still young and more importantly still improving.
The obvious example is the composure and decisiveness of his finishing, but there has also been a notable improvement in his timing to arrive in the box when attacks are coming down the other side of the pitch (however rare it is for Arsenal to attack down the left).
All Wenger’s best sides have had pace in abundance, with even the apparently laboured players tending to be deceptively quick.
Despite his various injuries, Walcott still has that searing speed which terrifies opposition defences.
He may have recently lost his Arsenal sprint record to young pretender Hector Bellerin, but surgeries to correct genetic problems with his shoulders have improved his sprinting technique and will surely see him push to take that title back.
It is in game situations though that Walcott really shines through.
Various top level defenders will tell you that the thing they fear most is a player with insane speed, but what Theo brings in addition is brilliant timing. Just ask Tottnumb fans how useful Jermaine Defoe’s pace and clinical finishing were, when he couldn’t stay onside at any point.
Allying pace with perfect timing gains a forward an extra yard or two as they can really commit to the run – this is where Walcott excels.
Nine times out of ten where he is given offside, this is because the linesman couldn’t keep up with play. Something like that, anyway.
So what comes next once he’s got in behind the last defender?
I mentioned earlier that Walcott’s finishing has improved in leaps and bounds over the last few years.
Prior to his season ending injury last year, he had made himself indispensable with his ability to bury the ball in the back of the net from all sorts of angles and distances, showcasing both a power and a deftness of touch that many believed was beyond an ‘unintelligent’ player.
Wenger has always argued the opposite with Theo, with his timing of run a classic example.
In 2012-13, Walcott was Arsenal’s top scorer in the league with 14 league goals and 12 assists in 32 appearances, and 21 goals and 16 assists in total in 43 appearances across all competitions.
It was a season that not only saw two hattricks but also a hattrick of assists.
He also had 63% shooting accuracy and 23% chance conversion (down from 31% at the halfway point). Both were the highest by an Arsenal player, and the shooting accuracy also led the Premier League.
In fact, the stats compare favourably in many ways – Theo’s chance conversion matched the Dutch skunk, who is widely regarded to have more or less won the title singlehandedly for Man Utd.
PFA player of the season Gareth Bale scored 21 and assisted seven league goals in more appearances than Walcott at a shooting accuracy of 54% and conversion of 16%. Not to mention that both were afforded a certain status within their teams to take advantage of set pieces and penalties.
The one caveat to this is that fitness and form go hand in hand for Walcott – in his substitute appearances since returning from injury, he has been on the end of a number of chances only to fluff his lines, with a number of notable chances against Hull in particular going begging.
His well-taken goal against Brighton is surely a sign of things to come as he looks to get back to the sort of form that made him deadly in 2013-14, and remind many of the quality he brings to this team, so quickly forgotten.
BUT IT’S A TEAM SPORT
Ultimately then, Walcott is undeniably a player of quality who can contribute significantly to this Arsenal squad.
In particular, he has a track record of scoring goals in big games, with memorable strikes against Tottnumb, City, United, Liverpool and Chel$ki amongst them.
More recent signings such as Ozil and Alexis have faced questions about their impact on big games, but Theo’s appetite for those types of games is evident.
However, the biggest thing he brings to the team is the way his presence affects the way opposition teams set up against us.
A classic criticism levelled at us in recent years is around attempting to walk the ball into the net, but Walcott is about as different from our ‘tippy tappy visionaries’ as it’s possible to get.
Fundamentally, he is a very direct player who is constantly looking to get on the front foot and drive at goal – it’s why it has long been a frustration of mine that we don’t exploit the opportunity to knock balls over the top a bit more, particularly since in Ozil we have the ideal player to play those passes to perfection.
The other benefit to this directness is that for those defenders who hate pace more than anything, it is instinctive to drop deeper and reduce the space for the likes of Walcott to run into, particularly given his timing.
The flip side of this of course is that there is instantly a lot more space for our more intricate players to work in – Ozil, Cazorla and Rosicky for example can play their triangles to far greater effect, especially if the midfield don’t drop deeper along with their defence and create space between the lines. It also makes a lot of space for the late runs of Aaron Ramsey.
Theo Walcott will never have one of those glowing heat maps that everyone raves about because so much of what he does is off the ball, and for the benefit often of other players rather than himself. He is selfless in a way that someone like Chuba Akpom for example is not, yet can still pop up with those hat-trick numbers.
He is the key to getting the most out of our vast array of attacking talents, and that is why he is indispensable to this Arsenal side.
Not to mention, he idolises Thierry Henry, he’s informally coached by Thierry Henry, and every day he plays a little more like Thierry Henry.
He may not have intended to take on the #14 shirt and face the challenge of filling those big boots, but no one will ever have a better chance.
Sign da ting, Theo, we want you to stay.
We need you to stay.