Walcott – the difference maker

Posted: December 31, 2013 in Arsenal
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Walcott celebrates his goal against Manchester City

Walcott celebrates his goal against Manchester City.

From being a young and erratic winger to a mature, game winning forward, Theo Walcott’s progress and improvement over the last couple of years is staggering. Not only do you have to take a glimpse at his stats, you can just compare his performances from three years ago to now. Walcott has gone from being a player with no “footballing brain”, as Chris Waddle idiotically stated, to England’s most efficient and one of the league’s best wingers. If you believe that Walcott has no footballing brain, you probably are lacking a brain yourself.

Ever since that 11/12 season when Robin van Persie spearheaded the Arsenal attack, Walcott has always worked towards developing an understanding and forming a good partnership with Arsenal centre-forwards. Van Persie was a player who benefited very much from Walcott’s runs to the byline and cut-backs, leading to a few of his goals. This saw Walcott’s wing-play and confidence reach an all-time high. Walcott prospered from a prolific centre-forward who gobbled up all of the chances put on his plate. He would cut in far less in an attempt to continue this exciting partnership. The Dutchman eventually left but he left behind a quote which fulfilled itself last season: “he gets so much critics, he gave me loads of assists but I know he can score. He showed today [5-2 thumping of Spurs]  that he can score and he will score more. He will score more than 20 goals. Trust me.” Van Persie’s words will always be tainted after his switch to rivals Manchester United but these will remain as one of the very few with meaning in a positive manner.

Last season, Walcott registered his best return as an Arsenal player notching 14 assists and scoring a further 21 goals in all competitions. The highest Arsenal goal scorer and assist maker that season. Walcott’s performances were somewhat overshadowed by the contract saga as some fans believed he was holding the club ransom for his desired £100,000-a-week deal; other fans believed that he wanted to play as a centre-forward. In the end, there was another period of Arsenal’s fan base being split right down the middle. As they do. With everything. Moving on, Theo got both of his desires granted – which one was more of a factor we’ll probably never know. He ended last season with very interesting numbers but one has to look at his performance level and overall game to really notice how much he has improved over the past two seasons.

Back to the aforementioned bond and partnership with centre-forwards, Walcott found a partner in Olivier Giroud last season. Walcott assisted five of Giroud’s 11 Premier League goals; no pairing was more prolific than the two over the course of the season. Once again, Walcott found comfort in working with a front-man who thrives off crosses. Four of those five assists were crosses which Giroud finished first-time (three with his head, one with a flick of his left boot). It also has to be mentioned that three of those were from set-pieces. This is an area that Walcott has definitely improved in. He’s still not the best choice when it comes to shooting but his crossing from free-kicks, especially, are usually quite efficient. His corners are very good but Ozil has now arrived and rightfully takes 95% of them. Seven of Walcott’s 14 assists were from set-pieces which further enforces the improvement in that area of his game. The other assists, bar one, were all from the wing which is a testament to his ever-improving wing-play.

The partners embrace

The partners embrace.

Last season also saw Walcott improve on the physical areas of his game, fine tune them if you will. Playing at centre-forward made him realise that he won’t always have the luxury of playing off the shoulder of a defender. He was dreadful with his back to goal and his hold-up play was lacking in comparison to Giroud’s – understandable because he had hardly been tested in the position prior to the run of games. Wigan away, a game in which Walcott spearheaded the attack, saw a more quiet game from the forward but one that showed how quickly he learns from his mistakes. He won a penalty and Arsenal went on to win 1-0, courtesy of an Arteta goal, but more went into that performance than just winning a penalty. Roberto Martinez’s Wigan had lined up with a 3-man defence which turned into five when Arsenal were in possession. Walcott spent the entire game with his back to goal and held Caldwell off very well, shielded the ball and constantly fed Santi Cazorla. His maturity shone as he sacrificed his wanting to play off the shoulder for a more patient, physically demanding style to which he was not used to on the wing. His hold-up play is fantastic now. There isn’t a game that goes by where Theo doesn’t shield the ball on the wing and wait for Sagna to arrive on the overlap.

It is great to see that a brief spell in a different position can, not only improve your game, but culminate in others around you prospering from it, which brings me on to my next point. Aaron Ramsey’s prolonged time on the wings, as painful and frustrating it was to endure, has paid dividends for both him and Walcott. Ramsey’s spacial awareness of the pitch is magnificent now and he is more aware of the runs on the right-wing. Walcott prospers from Ramsey’s exquisite vision and execution of long-range passes which, when combined with the aforementioned awareness of runs on the right, almost always culminates in a direct chance being created. This combination was exercised many times in pre-season with Walcott scoring a couple. It has since continued but to no goal scoring avail, as of writing this. Whilst this has improved Ramsey’s vision and spacial awareness immensely, it has also seen Walcott prosper from a unique source of creativity.

One thing that Walcott has always had in abundance is his blistering pace, but he’s not always been a player who uses that to his advantage. Walcott, ever since he joined Arsenal and started making appearances, abused his pace. He was like when you’re driving on Grand Theft Auto and don’t take your finger off the right bumper on the controller. He would run and run and run… And lose the ball. The only time his pace would be devastating was when he would come off the bench to attack tired and dazed full-backs. In recent seasons, most notably last season, Walcott started to understand that he can take his foot off the pedal and dribble at a jogging pace rather than at Road Runner pace. He combines his hold-up play with his pace and balances the two. This is why he is better at linking up with team-mates: he’s slowed his own game down and offers the other nine outfield players a genuine outlet for passing continuity and fluidity on the right-flank.

One thing that has become apparent this season is that Walcott has continued to work on his all-round game. He has been very good in the air, picking up a goal and an assist courtesy of his head. His headed goal against West Ham was his first of the kind in his Arsenal career. Aerial threat isn’t a trait you would assign to Walcott, and it probably isn’t one you will ever have to, but it’s good to see that his leap is an inch higher than before and that he is eager to challenge defenders in the box as opposed to just lingering inside the box.

Walcott still has his faults, one of which angers many amongst the fan base: invisibility. Some say Walcott goes “missing” in games but I find it harsh to say he’s going missing if he’s scoring or assisting to win Arsenal the game. This is a problem in most fan bases where efficiency is mistaken for invisibility, thus leading most to believe that a player hasn’t turned up. Whilst he may not be ripping a full-back to shreds every game and making highlight reels, Walcott’s game centres around a more patient and mature one to the young forward who would put defenders on their backside yet lack the end product to do anything afterwards. I would much rather a player who is efficient than a player who is flashy but, largely, does nothing to influence the overall outcome of a game.

In regards to efficiency and invisibility, Ozil becomes the focal point of the rest of Walcott’s season. The German has been maligned by some due to his quiet performances but, even more-so than Theo, what he does best is what you don’t notice. If you take Ozil out of the team, you understand what he does. When Walcott sustained his injury this season, there was a lack of penetrative pace on the wing and someone who offers goals other than Giroud or Ramsey. No-one could replicate Walcott’s ability to stretch a defence and press them into their own box. This highlights Walcott’s importance. Ozil is the same. He didn’t start against Newcastle and Arsenal struggled to break down their defence and create chances. Jack Wilshere created the most chances (3), yet all of them culminated in shots from outside the box. With a more prolific and clinical forward, Ozil’s chances created will be more apparent and vital, as will his influence in the final third; even more-so than it already is. Walcott is the prolific forward and, once the two finally play together for a string of games, we could see them form a devastating partnership similar to the one Ozil had with Ronaldo/Di Maria at Real Madrid. Ozil’s creativity and movement in the final third means that he can slip Walcott in as well as interchange with the winger, allowing him to drift inside whilst Ozil occupies the berth on the right – a position he is comfortable in. Mix Ozil’s creativity in the final third with Ramsey’s vision from deep and Walcott has himself two players who are exceptionally aware of runs on the right-wing and have the vision to execute perfect passes which he can latch on to. It’s any forward’s dream and Walcott is close to living it once Ramsey and Ozil return from their respective injuries.

Once these two click, expect goals to fly in,

Once these two click, expect goals to fly in,

Walcott is a big game player, little of which there are at Arsenal. If we look at this season and past he’s scored against Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United, Barcelona and Spurs. This is a vital record for Walcott to add to because Arsenal have struggled to score against the big clubs in the Premier League this season (bar City). Giroud is dire in front of goal against bigger opposition so, if he misses chances, at least Walcott is there to take his. In a season where you could argue that five teams are in contention for the title, all close to each other on points, the league may be won or lost in those big games in the second half of the season. Walcott is the decider.

Having taken all of that into consideration, it wouldn’t be too farfetched to think, or even predict, that Walcott will break into 20+ goals, again, in all competitions this season. Even with his injury, which has contributed to him missing a large chunk of the first half of the season, Walcott has scored five goals in nine starts (in all competitions) and assisted four goals. Two of those four assists have been to Giroud and they have all been from crosses: Newcastle away, Walcott’s set-piece was touched in by Giroud and Spurs at home saw Walcott’s low cross flicked in at the near-post by the Frenchman. If those two continue with this partnership, Walcott may well find himself replicating his assists tally from last season.

Walcott is the key to Arsenal successes this season. His goal return is something that covers up Giroud’s inept and inconsistent finishing whilst his assists bring the best out of Giroud – his one-touch finishing. If Arsenal are to win the league, Walcott will be the vital cog. His contract will be revisited soon and winning a trophy would almost certainly cause him to pen an extension. Wenger’s invested a lot of time into developing Walcott and it’s finally paying dividends. He’s rare breed of winger and one that would be difficult to replace, stylistically.

 

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