Towards the end of last season, Theo Walcott’s Arsenal career appeared to be fizzling out into a series of comedy vines. Seemingly every week, Walcott was going viral for all the wrong reasons. From showjumping his way out of a tackle with Younes Kaboul in front of an open goal at Sunderland, to stunting a promising counter attack by tripping over the ball against Crystal Palace, his contributions were deserving of comedy sound effects.
In August, he tested the patience of the Gunners fan base once more. After 4 years of screaming for some centre forward ice cream, he decided that he didn’t want to play upfront afterall. His performances since this proclamation have turned a classic piece of Theo dithering into a slick rebranding exercise. Whether it was being left out of England’s Euro 2016 squad, Arsenal’s pursuit of Jamie Vardy or just some good old soul searching, something has lit a fire under that boy’s arse.
By now, the stats around his defensive contribution are well rehearsed. He partook in 14 duels against Chelsea; comfortably more than anybody else on the pitch. With 12 tackles in his first 6 games this season, he is already closing in on his season record of 18, achieved in 35 games back in 2011-12. Arsene Wenger was quick to bandy his own figures about, “I think he used to be 90 per cent forward and 10 per cent defending. Today he is 50-50.”
But is it just hard work that has sparked this renaissance? It’s certainly been a significant factor, with the player himself admitting, “Maybe something woke up in my system, I don’t know. I am completely different.” It certainly looks as though something woke up in his system, but something woke up in Arsenal’s system too; and it’s all tilted towards Walcott’s best attributes. His partnership with Alexis was very strong when Theo auditioned for the role of centre forward, as I documented last year.
The partnership has reaped dividends in reverse too. With Alexis operating as something of a false 9, he attracts defenders out of position. The space this leaves provides booty for Theo to plunder in his favourite corridor of space between full-back and centre half. Theo’s best goalscoring form for Arsenal arrived in 2012-13 when he operated in a sort of lopsided front 2 with Olivier Giroud, with license to veer in from the right hand side and join the Frenchman as a wide support striker.
As it is, Alexis really only makes sense as a number 9 with Theo in his peripheral vision. While Alexis and Theo are a complementary duo, there are others in the team grooving to his tune. Strictly speaking, a good front 3 needs one of its wide men to play like a wide striker and the other to operate as a technical counter balance- drifting in from the flank to create overloads and share the creative burden. The emergence of Alex Iwobi as a wide playmaker has oiled the wheels of Walcott’s improvement.
Theo also hit a rich vein of form in an Arsenal shirt during the 2010-11 season, with Samir Nasri moving infield from the opposite wing to jam with Fabregas. Arsenal’s current front 4 is comparable to the Theo vannasrigas vintage, but for Walcott’s purposes, it’s probably even more weighted towards him. Alexis, Özil and Iwobi all like to drift between the lines and receive the ball in the number 10 position.
Walcott is effectively playing with three creators looking to prize open the jaws of the opposition defence. This allows him to hang on the shoulder of his marker, lasciviously eyeing his favoured corridor of uncertainty. His second goal against Basel is a wonderful demonstration of that. When his form plummeted at the back end of last season, Theo was often stuck out on the left, with Chamberlain and Giroud to his right and a midfield duo of Ramsey and Flamini behind him. Even a Theo full of pish and vinegar would struggle in this framework, which did little to accentuate his strengths.
Özil was his only soulmate in this network and the German’s assist tally began to peter out, as he became overworked in the creative part of Arsenal’s game. It’s telling that Mesut has yet to muster a single assist for the free scoring Gunners this season, there is variety to Arsenal’s creative game now. But the real change in Theo has been his willingness to muck in off the ball. It’s all very well waiting for low hanging fruit as Iwobi, Özil and Alexis combine, but he has been much more willing to go for hunt his own game when attacks break down.
Arsenal’s game has come sauntering towards him. With Mertesacker, Giroud and even Ramsey displaced from Arsenal’s spine, the team is based on speed again. Not just foot speed either, but fast combinations. Theo does his best work when his game is quick and instinctive. A game based on slow, deliberate passing from side to side does not suit him due to his technical flaws. Recently, the Gunners’ attack has focused on fast, fluid interchange.
If Arsene’s attack has taken a light jog towards Walcott, he has scampered back towards it. With more of a focus on pressing from the front, he has been prepared to use his pace in a more altruistic way. Previously, he seemed to have something of a one track mind. The game only existed to him when there was an opportunity to be put in behind the defence. This year Walcott has also used his pace as a weapon when Arsenal don’t have possession, hungrily closing down from the front.
As Özil and Alexis danced into Chelsea’s half for the third goal on Saturday evening, Walcott did not come to the party. Usually, a counter attack of this ilk would have had him scurrying towards goal with abandon. On this occasion, he hung back. With Arsenal leading 2-0, he was doing his civic duty, covering his flank in case the attack broke down. Like I said, if the Arsenal team has tilted towards him of late, he’s bending over backwards to meet it half way.
The concern of course is how Theo plays when the stars aren’t aligned in this manner. The front 3 of Iwobi, Alexis and Walcott works very well for Arsenal because it is based on combinations and movement. This is why Welbeck began to be preferred to Giroud at the end of last season. It’s also why Theo himself was briefly preferred in the centre forward role this time last year. Arsene has unsuccessfully been trying to move towards a more mobile frontline since Giroud’s arrival.
The manager has come close to finding the formula a few times, but injuries or loss of form always intervened and Wenger has had to revert to the crutch of Giroud. The fluidity and promise of the current frontline is fragile. There is no like for like replacement for Iwobi as a wide playmaker. Perez potentially keeps a current of mobility running through Arsenal’s back up options, as will Welbeck assuming he returns in working order.
The introduction of Chamberlain and / or Giroud back into the front line entirely resets the dynamic of the team, but neither of these players are strangers to Theo and he has combined well enough with them in the past. His best periods of form occur when the team is orchestrated towards his abilities. How he maintains hunger and desire during periods where the team is not structured as favourably for him remains to be seen.
We have had several false dawns with Walcott before. If he maintains motivation and the needle moves towards 6 and 7 out of 10 performances when the wind is blowing against him, as opposed to some of the 3s and 4s that we have seen previously, then we might just be able to celebrate the true rebirth of Theodore Walcott.
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