Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Tuesday August 11 2009
It seems not a summer goes by without Arsenal fans ruminating over what might become of Theo Walcott in the ensuing season. Amazingly Theo has been an Arsenal player for three and a half years now and is about to begin his fourth full campaign as a first team player. Yet he is still only 20. Walcott has been a player that has flirted with the sublime and the ridiculous in equal measure, equally capable of cutting defences to ribbons with a sixty yard saunter as he is tripping over the ball under no pressure. For Walcott, shoulder injuries disrupted his progress. The sixty yard run at Anfield in April 2008 was supposed to be Walcott`s grand arrival- his Hendrix playing the star spangled banner at Woodstock, his James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. The focus shifted in September from N5 and expanded nationwide overnight like so many Starbucks when he bagged himself a hat trick for England in Zagreb. Yet further problems with his shoulders elucidated his slight frame and enervated his progress with three months on the sidelines.
This season, the water wings really need to come off. Walcott is edging further and further away from the envelope marked 'potential`, the time has come to cut the apron strings. Walcott has shown on a plethora of occasions that he has the quality to swing games in our favour in individual moments- however, consistency must now be a keen bedfellow to ally to his still all too rough around the edges displays. Firstly, he has to learn how to control the ball much better and be at ease with it at his feet. All too often Walcott lacks composure, believing that every time he receives possession he must slalom past every defender and make a beeline for goal. At times, when the ball reaches his feet, it looks as though a mole has briefly popped out of the ground milliseconds before it comes to him. I often think Walcott`s legs are much too quick for his brain. His ball retention is not what a team like Arsenal requires on the right hand side of midfield, especially when compared to his predecessor in the possession Alex Hleb-who did not seem to understand that surrendering possession of a football was not against the laws of physics. I think Walcott`s presence on the right last season was a more accurate explanation for Fabregas bombing forward less than the old "defensive midfielder" nutshell so often trotted out ad nauseam.
That said, Walcott has the ability to be a pocket dynamo. Witness the assist at Ewood Park for van Persie followed one week later at the Reebok Stadium when he led the Bolton midfield a merry dance in the build up to Denilson`s clincher. Much like Bendtner, Walcott can infuriate and delight in equal measure, by virtue of his nationality Walcott gets an easier ride from supporters. However, supporters are fickle and there`s a new English queen on the scene, with younger perter breasts and doe eyes that set our loins a blaze. Jack Wilshere is already being hyped to the rafters; comparisons with Walcott are all the rage (anyone else notice how football fans are getting more and more like readers of heat magazine by the year?) and the poll results are in. Yep, Wilshere is better, sexier and writes better bass hooks apparently. Walcott may now have to content with the honeymoon period coming to an end as his sleeker cousin shuffles nonchalantly into the spotlight, Theo might have to put up with some backbiting and bitching as over simplified paradigms are drawn.
However, Walcott has an awful lot to offer-he just has to work on his technique slightly and convince us he is more than just a sprinter. Patrice Evra showed in the Champions League semi finals that closing Walcott down quickly and not leaving him space to collect the ball and get it out of his stride neuters his game. He needs to be smarter and more suave; he has improved his body strength and looks more comfortable with his back to goal, but if he can learn to pass the ball more intelligently and then move into space- pushing defences back, he could become quite a weapon. The new 4-3-3 system would seem to suit his strengths more than any other player I can think of. The talk of the summer has been that this year will see Walcott will be nudged forward into a striker role. Looking at the 4-3-3 that has been experimented with in pre season, Theo will take up the wide right berth of the front three. With van Persie spearheading and Arshavin supplying the bullets to his left, the Gunners will not lack guile in the final third or ingenuity in the area. However, defending teams might look at van Persie`s lack of pace in behind defenders and look to squeeze Arsenal up with a high line.
This is where Walcott comes in. The prospect of his pace over the top should teams be tempted to try and make Arshavin and van Persie do their dirty work in the centre circle should either frighten defences into retreat or leave them open to punishment, as I do not honestly think there is a defender in the Premiership who could live with Theo for pace. Particularly if that defender has to turn back and run towards his own goal. This could go some way to enervating Evra`s tactic of squeezing Theo up, with players like Andrey and Robin equally capable of a dinked ball over the top into space, opposing backlines would be unwise to play a high line. Theo will still have to work on his defensive discipline, his awareness off the ball and his tracking back are still some way short. But I`ve no doubt that Arsene has worked tirelessly on making Theo`s off the ball runs sharper so that he can push defences back and free up some space for van Persie and Arshavin. Arsenal began to become too reliant on using Adebayor as a battering ram (perhaps no coincidence that the chief protagonist of the hopeful sixty yard ball to Adebayor has packed his bindle and joined Ade at the circus). Fabregas, Arshavin and van Persie can restore Arsenal to a side that passes and moves to great effect in the final third again and Walcott has the raw materials to be the ace up the sleeve and the apple in the eye of the aforementioned. But Walcott must iron out the small technical deficiencies in his game to really assume the mantle. At 20, he is a rare mixture of youth and experience, the opportunity awaits him. Will he slalom gracefully after it or trip over his own feet chasing it? Therein lies the question that 2009-10 will go some way to revealing.LD.
Date:Tuesday August 11 2009
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