The Curious Hate Of Theo Walcott
The topic of Theo Walcott has always been a divisive one amongst the Arsenal fan base. Few disagree that on his day he is almost unplayable, however, his overall contribution is often called in to question as is his commitment and desire.
Theo is not, never has been and never will be the sort of player to chase the ball all over the pitch and to your average English crowd this makes him less favoured than the likes of Ox, Campbell, Welbeck or Alexis who “put in a shift”.
English football loves a hard-working player, if you’re not scoring but you are “putting yourself about” then generally you are safe from criticism. Technical ability, positional awareness and plain old effectiveness are irrelevant if you don’t chase the ball like a coked-up puppy. Theo is an effective player overall and history has shown that when fit and given a consistent run in the same position he delivers with goals and assists.
We’ve quickly forgotten that before the injury sustained in the 2-0 win over Sp*rs in the FA Cup he was our top scorer. We forget many of the great things Theo has done because of his seemingly lacklustre approach to defending. Walcott is much like Mertesacker and Özil, his defensive contribution should be measured more in the positions he takes, the channels he closes off and the men he marks than the crunching tackles and terrier-like nipping at heels.
This is not to say that Theo has never been defensively at fault, he has, however much like Per he is often blamed for things beyond his control and it built into a great, bouncing, rubber-band ball of mendacity and misology that is added to for no other reason than it exists. That said, you don’t play attackers for their Olympian efforts in defence any more than you buy a centre-back to score in double figures – if they do it’s a bonus.
I don’t want Theo Walcott back defending any more than I want Monreal and Bellerin to dance in the box twenty times a game. I’m happy for our fullbacks to contribute in attack but I don’t want them involved in every attack. Equally, I’m happy for Walcott to help out in defence but I don’t want him or any other attacker tracking back all game. Theo is a lethal snake who I want recoiling, waiting to spring into deadly action – I don’t want him chasing his tail for the whole game and missing opportunities to exercise his predatory nature.
Turning 27 today, Theo’s contribution to Arsenal over the past decade is being called into question in the replies to Happy Returns that are being dedicated to Theo online. Could Theo have done more in his time at Arsenal? Yes, but you can say that of almost any player bar Messi or Ronaldo. Should his contribution be repudiated? I don’t believe so. Neither should his technical ability or footballing nous.
His first season, as a fresh faced 17 year old attempting to break in to a team with a fair few remnants of the Invincible squad saw him contribute two assists, one to salvage a draw and avoid embarrassment in our first Premier League match at our new stadium, and another to help Flamini put the sheen on our Champions League qualification. A few weeks shy of his 18th birthday he would put a youthful Arsenal side ahead in the League Cup final against a near full strength Chelsea side full of two time title winners with a finish Henry would have been proud of against Petr Cech, possibly the best keeper in the world at that point.
The following season, now as a fully fledged albeit not fully incorporated member of the first team, saw Theo contribute 7 goals from wide right as well as provide a dazzling assist for Adebayor in the Champions League quarter final against Liverpool. It was not enough to stop Arsenal from going out but was another example of a young Theo showing up in the big matches. He would then go on to score both goals in the costly 2-2 draw with Birmingham that effectively ended Arsenal’s 2007/08 title bid. He ended the season with a glossy goal in 6-2 win over derby and the solitary goal in a final day 1-0 away win against Sunderland.
The 2008/09 season would prove to be a frustrating one for Theo and a sign of things to come as a severe shoulder injury meant his missed the majority of games. Prior to his injury, sustained on international duty, he had scored in the Premier League against Everton and the second goal in an away win over Fenerbache, rounding the keeper and scoring from a tight angle – a hallmark Theo finish. He returned from injury in April 2009 to score the equaliser against Wigan starting the turnaround in a 4-1 win. In his next match he scored the goal that effective sealed Arsenal’s place in the Champions League semi-final. Then, a few days later, in the FA Cup semi-final he scored the opening goal against Chelsea before once more Drogba scored a late goal to break Arsenal hearts. In the following Premier League game he came off the bench to run the length of the pitch to assist Arshavin for the 3rd of his famous 4 Anfield goals. A promising season that ended in a short 10 days but not for lack of contribution from Walcott when fit.
The following season would also see Theo struggle win injuries but once more he could be counted on in the big games. He scored the goal to put us ahead against Burnley, hardly a big game but certainly a big goal, however he went on to score the first of our two goals in our 2-2 home draw against Barcelona in the Champions League quarter final having been 2-0 down. He was also a key part of the build up to Bendtner’s goal at the Camp Nou which put us ahead on aggregate, albeit for just 3 minutes. Theo’s performance in the first match prompted Guardiola to claim Walcott was quicker than the whole Barca team put together and it would take a pistol to stop him. High praise indeed although not as high as Messi’s who said “I can only speak from experience but he was one of the most dangerous players I have ever played against. Barcelona players are not scared easily but I can tell you that when we played Arsenal he truly worried us”. Walcott scares defenders and he had a team chock full of the best players in the world worried. When utilised properly he is a terrifying prospect for the opposition.
The 2010/11 season saw Theo add some numbers to his game. The pacey forward had a direct hand in 22 goals including a notable goal and assist in a 3-1 home win over Chelsea. An ankle injury would rule him out of later games against Barcelona who would have been delighted not to face him. When he returned from injury on the last day of the season he salvaged a draw against Fulham with a late goal, saving the team the embarrassment of ending the season with a third straight defeat.
2011/12 was a fruitful campaign for Theo as he struck double figures for goals and assists for the first time in his career. He scored the crucial goal in a 1-0 qualifying first leg win over Udinese, he would score again in the second leg to secure a 3-1 aggregate win. He handed Arsenal a faint lifeline at half-time in the infamous 8-2 loss to make it 3-1 before a second half capitulation that made the first half look Herculean. A stand out moment is his mazy goal against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the famous 5-3 win and memorable mention must go to his two goals in the first 5-2 against Sp*rs. Between those victories he scored against Swansea and set up three goals in the 7-1 win over Blackburn. His final goal of the season came against Aston Villa before an injury against Chelsea saw him miss the rest of the season bar a final day sub appearance.
Arsène Wenger always claimed there was a monster in Theo and if we ever saw it it was in the 2012/13 season. Theo’s incredible contribution that season saw him weigh in with an astounding combined 37 goals and assists in 42 appearances. He scored 21 goals and assisted 16 more with 14 goals and 12 assists coming in 32 Premier League games. Let’s pause for a moment to put that into perspective. Mesut Özil, widely accepted as one of the best players in the world, aged 27, entering his prime with a relative injury free career to date, has 18 assists and 5 goals in 27 games this season. If we extrapolate that to 32 appearances you get 21 assists and 6 goals, just one more goal contribution than Theo in that season.
Add to that the fact Theo got another 11 combined goals/assists in 10 games and Özil has 7 goals and 18 assists in 35 games his extrapolated contribution after 42 games is a rounded up 23 assists and 8 goals, a full 6 fewer than Walcott’s 37. According to many supporters Özil is having a world-class season – an opinion I fully endorse – yet Theo is considered by many to have scarcely contributed in 10 years at Arsenal.
That season saw him score two hat-tricks, again in the second 5-2, Champions League goals and goals against Chelsea, City and Manchester United despite missing two months early in the season after abdominal surgery. His outstanding form carried on into the 2013/14 season where, before he damage his ACL in the 2-0 win over Sp*rs in what would become the end to our trophy drought he had a combined 13 goals/assists from 18 appearances. The development of Theo from 2011 to his injury in 2014 was outstanding. Theo not only added numbers and consistency to his game but he continued to be a scorer of big goals and someone we could trust in the big games.
Last season saw Theo struggle to get back into the side after returning from injury. He was eased back into the squad and made his first start in the FA Cup against Hull, exactly a year to the day of his last start. He then scored in the following round against Brighton and followed that up with goals against Aston Villa and the winner against Leicester in the league. He also scored against Manchester United to rescue a point although his shot went down as a Blackett own goal. He ended the season with a hat-trick against West Brom as he was started in his most coveted position of striker. Less than two weeks later he started once again as a striker in the FA Cup final against Villa and despite a 4-0 win his opening goal was all that was required to beat a poor Villa side.
He would continue as a striker through preseason and into the start of this season providing the assist for Oxlade-Chamberlain in the Community Shield. He scored against Stoke and the opener against Leicester in the 5-2 in the Premier League and scored in two Champions League games as well as making an assist for Alexis. He notched two more assists in the match against Manchester United. A few weeks later Theo would pick up a small knock that would keep him out for a few weeks but would prove to be his final appearance as a central striker for Arsenal this season. During his 9 appearances as a central striker he contributed 5 goals and 3 assists to add to his four goals from his two appearances at the end of last season and assist in the Community Shield (you can omit that if you don’t consider it a competitive fixture) meaning in 11/12 appearances as a striker he racked up 9 goals and 3/4 assists. Injuries notwithstanding he once more proved what an effective player he is and can be.
When Theo returned from injury this season he was called upon to provide cover for the then injured Alexis Sanchez and aside from two recent goals against Hull in the FA Cup and a rocket against Manchester City he has contributed little and that is without question. Theo’s contribution from the left has not been anywhere near his level. Some of that can be attributed to the general malaise of the team, some to Theo’s unfamiliarity with the position and some to his conservative approach to tracking back. It cannot be said that he doesn’t help out at all as there is plenty of evidence to the contrary but his efforts are noticeably less concerted than those of Alexis and unfair comparisons have been made.
It should be noted that Theo has only made 9 appearances on the left this season but it seems those 9 appearances, 7 of which saw no direct contribution at all, have all but erased what an outstanding player Theo was from 2011-2014 when fit and what he was offering to the team from West Brom last year to Manchester United in October. Theo, when fit and playing either as a striker or right forward, delivered exceptional numbers and proved precisely why the manager was so eager to extend his contract.
I don’t believe we get anywhere near Theo’s base level when he plays on the left wing, the City goal being an outlier, and he should only really be judged on his appearances on the right and through the middle. He will, of course, be asked to fill in on the left from time to time but it should not influence our overall opinion of his suitability to Arsenal or his quality. Despite being able to shoot quite well with his left foot, when it comes to control Theo is quite one-footed and doesn’t look able to adjust to playing a left wing role as he doesn’t have the ability of an Ox or Alexis to cut inside.
I had the good fortune to spend an evening in the company of Nigel Winterburn in late 2014 and I asked him about the difference between playing left back and right back. Nigel explained that despite seeming quite similar they are completely different and you have to almost learn the position as everything is on the other side. A simple thing on the face of it he said, however in practice it’s incredibly hard as you have to fight against your natural instincts which in his words “is bloody hard at speed and the pace of the game has increased so much from my day as well”. Theo playing from the left when his entire body is programmed to work from the right or through the middle is hard enough but when you do it at the pace Theo operates at and the game in general it’s no wonder he looks like a fish out of water.
I wrote a while back that Theo Walcott is precisely the sort of striker we’ve been crying out to play with Özil and for whatever reason we gave up on that when Alexis got injured but the numbers certainly back up the fruitfulness of their partnership. This article on Theo by @WozTheGooner has some interesting insight into how well we perform with Theo in the side.
It’s for this reason I struggle to understand the curious hate for Theo Walcott. People who a year ago were lamenting his absence are now calling him the invisible man and claiming he’s never had a decent game for Arsenal. I’m flabbergasted by how anyone can look at Theo’s career objectively and come to any other conclusion than he’s been hindered by injuries but is one of our most dangerous players when consistently played in one of his two best positions.
Like any player he has had his fair share of poor performances but to completely skirt over his contributions to the team is lunatic. Theo is a lethal finisher and a player we can count on more often than we can’t.
Happy Birthday Theo.
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