It Was A Big Season For...
Following on from yesterday`s progress report on Abou Diaby, the second of my pre season articles focussed on someone all too familiar with the scrutiny of the soda light. Theodore Walcott has run the gauntlet between doe eyed teen sweetheart of the British press and of Goonerdom, to the sacrificial voodoo doll of both. Walcott seems to have experienced the backlash of over egged expectations from the very people that set those hyperbolic expectations in the first place. Such is the wont of the British press and it won`t be long before Wilshere feels the bitter sting of acid tongues. The odd decent cross when he was 18 set meteoric standards for Theo to live up to, so that the odd shanked cross now he`s 21 is met with 1,000 word perorations on how rubbish he is. As ever with these situations, the truth lies somewhere in between for those that can be bothered to examine the evidence.
So what of Walcott`s progress in 2009-10? Last summer I said I felt it was time for "the water wings to come off…the apron strings need to be cut." Yet the truth is, we appear to be little clearer on where Walcott stands. This is largely due to an injury hit season caused in no small part by Theo being forced to take part in a completely useless U-21 International tournament. (Without looking it up, can anyone actually tell me what that tournament was called?) It is utterly laughable that U-21 internationals, which have always gone under the banner of development and nurturing, should be allowed to wilfully enervate a player`s progress in the way this Mickey Mouse Cup was allowed to with Theo who- lest we forget- was already a regular in the full international side at that point. So Walcott, as Wenger sagely predicted, sat out the first two months of the season due to injury. Within minutes of his return in the league game at home to Birmingham in October, a stiff Liam Ridgewell challenge ensured another few weeks on the sidelines. He was in and out of the side with niggling injuries through November and December and, understandably, unable to establish any rhythm in the side. When he did play, his performances were often underwhelming, showing a lack of chemistry with the side and his final ball lacked confidence and authority.
It`s only justifiable to judge Theo from February onwards. The trouble is that his form from February onwards has been jarringly inconsistent. Injuries to key attacking personnel gave him an extended run in the side at the tail end of the campaign. But whilst there were excellent performances, for instance his almost single handed dismantling of Burnley (had Bendtner worn football boots and not flip flops that day, Walcott`s assists tally for the season would have doubled), just 24 hours after Chris Waddle had accused him very publicly of 2not understanding the game" following an unimpressive outing in some international friendly or other. (Seriously, can anyone remember who these friendlies are against more than five minutes after they`re finished? I would wager they`re forgotten quicker than Big Brother contestants). There was also the riveting cameo against Barcelona, when young Theo came on with Arsenal looking disconsolate at 2 goals down and promptly frightened the bejesus out of Maxwell and scored one and was instrumental in winning the penalty that levelled the tie at 2-2. That memory plagued Abidal too when Walcott set up Bendtner`s goal in the Nou Camp.
It`s perhaps instructive that some of Theo`s most destructive displays have occurred in the Champions League where he is more of an unknown quantity and his pace alone is enough to scare continental defences. However, one of the chief bugbears of Walcott is that he has still yet to shake off the impression that he can excel in any starting role, instead the tag "super sub" is to damn him with feint praise. When playing from the start, Theo often makes a difference early on- for instance at Ewood Park when his searing pace put a chance on a plate for Carlos Vela, at Barcelona he looked electric for twenty minutes before Abidal and then Maxwell comfortably pocketed him. Arsene`s own public assessment at the end of the season was to declare that Theo needed to take a less perfunctory role over the course of a full 90 minutes. However, there have been notable improvements in the technical aspects of Theo`s game. He no longer puts his head down and charges blindly to the by-line every single time he gets the ball now, he often checks inside when necessary. His touch, which once made me wince every time a short three yard pass over pristine turf bounced up his shin, has improved immeasurably as has his distribution.
An aspect of Theo`s game which is super consistent is the quality of his runs. He is always on the half turn on the shoulder of the last defender and he is aware enough to stay onside. (Though if you have Walcott`s pace, there really is no earthly need to be offside). This will certainly serve him well when he makes the move to central striker. His final ball still needs work though, we`ve seen that he is capable of producing- some of his crosses for Bendtner in the Burnley match were inch perfect. That he has been coached to make such devastating runs, so well timed would seem to derivate from the popular assertion that Theo has no football brain. The fact is, Theo is still a player that can frustrate the living hell out of you for 85 minutes, but he still has the wild card quality to tear a defence apart in one moment of brilliance in a big game. That is why Wenger and Capello keep picking him; they tolerate swathes of averageness in his game for those moments of inspiration. Those moments win you big games and bigger prizes. In that sense, Theo is still the same player we had 12 months ago. But the improvements he has made allied with a better run of fitness next year stands him in good stead to be a much better player in May 2011.LD.