Thursday, December 1, 2022

The Why of Walcott

Theo Walcott reached the ten year milestone at Arsenal this week, to great fanfare. In the 21st century, it’s a pretty big deal for an international footballer to stay at a top club for a decade. Ordinarily, a player with this length of service behind him engenders a great deal of sentimentality from supporters. Walcott’s case is strange because even now, ten years after he was recruited as a fresh faced pup from Southampton; it’s difficult to gauge the regard in which he is held by Arsenal fans.

The talent of players inducted into top level football aged 17 is usually never in doubt. Yet with Theo, some doubts remain. He seems to be divisive and to provoke strong feeling and yet invite no prevailing emotion, all at the same time. Were Walcott to depart Arsenal tomorrow, what would be the prevalent feeling? Grief? Sorrow? Lamentation? Apathy? Celebration? One can imagine all of those things and none of those things. Basically, after ten years, we’re no closer to consensus on Theo.

In this age of definitive judgement, where journalists learn five things from every game to editorial order; it’s quite some achievement for Walcott to have stumped us all in this way. Of course much of this is attributable to injuries. Theo’s career has been a stop start affair, with physical issues enervating his progress. Yet I am not of the impression that he would be a better player by now with a cleaner bill of health. I do think injuries have adversely impacted his momentum, which is often burgled just as he reaches a crossroads.

At this point of his career, I think he is a centre forward or nothing at all, which in itself is a complete reversal of my thinking from 3-4 years ago. In the early autumn, one of Giroud’s seasonal bouts of ennui handed Theo his chance in the centre forward role. The partnership he began to build with Alexis looked like the wing heeled future of the Arsenal attack. He seemed to make the number 9 spot his own until; you guessed it, another injury.

By the time he had returned to fitness, everybody else had gotten themselves injured. Meanwhile, Olivier Giroud looked bright eyed and bushy tailed in the centre forward role once more. By necessity, Theo has been shunted out to the left over the last 6 weeks or so. Needless to say, it is a role that has not suited his qualities. From the right, Walcott effectively operates as a striker with a wide starting position.

From there, he is able to make bending, snaking runs between full back and centre half and execute his favourite flourishes; either the firm drive across the goalkeeper or the pull back from the by line. From the left, Theo cannot receive the ball on his instep behind the defence in the same way. With an open, dysfunctional midfield duo of Flamini and Ramsey behind him, he has had to be a little more discerning anyway and the penetrative runs have drifted into virtual extinction.

Receiving the ball on his weak side, in front of the defence, is not the recipe for an effective imagining of Walcott. His thrilling goal against Manchester City, cutting in from the left, remains an outlier. Though it does continue his penchant for big game contributions, where his resume is immaculate. His mystique remains because his flaws and frustrations are still so evident. Wenger is a coach that focuses very much on making a player’s strong points even stronger and reducing the impact of weaknesses by diminishing their importance.

It’s a simple equation that many coaches make in many sports. To briefly adopt an arbitrary rating system, an athlete progressing from 7 out of 10, to 8 or 9 in one aspect of their game, has a greater impact than moving them from 5/10 to 6/10 in an area where they demonstrate weakness. This is what Wenger means by his oft repeated mantra “we want to play the game we love.” It is not (solely) grounded in sentiment.

Players’ tend to respond when they are executing the actions that they enjoy. This feeling of liberation encourages them to express themselves and that’s when you can juice their best form. Özil for example, is not markedly better than the player Arsenal bought in 2013, but he is happier. A happy worker is a good worker. Walcott is a curious by product of this coaching style. The weaknesses present in his game in his teens have only marginally improved in the last decade. Yet his strengths are notably accentuated.

The thought of being a centre forward motivates Theo, so he has worked on the exact aspects of his game required to play the role. He is considered a meticulous finisher, yet he is every bit as capable of a comedy miss as Giroud. The difference being of course, that Giroud seems pained to his (immaculately toned) core by his errors, whereas Walcott appears almost oblivious to them. As though screwing a simple shot wide were the equivalent of forgetting to buy eggs during the weekly shop.

In his nascent years, Theo was told, most memorably by Chris Waddle, that he lacked a football brain. Though harsh, the criticism does have a grain of truth to it. His football brain is certainly not among his greatest attributes. To offset this, it seems that he has tried to rely increasingly on instinct, he makes decisions quickly. When Walcott approaches the ball, he makes up his mind and does not err, even if the situation changes in the interim passage between movement and possession, or possession and action.

If Theo has decided to shoot and a teammate has made a lung busting run at the final moment, tough titties, Theo is shooting. It’s not borne of selfishness, it’s just that his football mind lacks the agility for last second fluctuations in circumstance, for Theo, to think is to over think. This is symptomatic of Walcott’s career, he has found a way to maximise a fairly small amount of attributes. Being fast is very handy for a footballer, but knowing how to use that pace is a different kettle of gravy altogether. Besides which, Walcott’s movement has improved to the point that his pace now feels more like servant than master, a prominent muscle as opposed to the skeleton of his game.

Maybe Walcott’s “vanilla” character contributes to the emotional response he seems to produce with the Arsenal fanbase. His smirking “2-0” gesture at some pleasingly irate Spurs fans threatened to move him into cult hero status, but Arsenal fans immediately didn’t see him again for nine months, reducing the impact of the gesture. There have been close shaves with Walcott’s contracts, provoking some rather pointed comments from Arsene Wenger, who is usually rather more taciturn on such issues.

Yet even as his deals entered their death throes, with Arsenal frantically swatting beads of sweat from their brow and snipping wires as the clock ticked down to zero, it never felt as though Walcott’s availability generated a huge amount of interest from other clubs. This, again, is quite extraordinary for an England international and a first choice Arsenal player in his mid 20s. During these contract contretemps, his tame image probably insulated him from the cynicism players usually attract in these situations. Any ill feeling was distilled, parcelled off and laid firmly at the door of “Walcott’s people.”

Indeed, negotiations were often complicated by the fact that his “PR value” often outstripped his footballing value. He might frustrate the hell out of you on the right wing, but the boy is front row centre in every kit launch. This, again, is a very peculiar detail, surely unique to Theo in the world of football. At times it has felt as though he missed his calling as a non threatening boyband member. After a decade at Arsenal, Walcott still somehow evades definitive judgement, making him all at once the most and least interesting player in the club’s recent history.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto

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