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Understanding the development of Theo Walcott – Positioning and technique: Analysis and Discussion

September 9, 2010

Theo Walcott has been subject to a rollercoaster of criticism and praise in the five years since signing for Arsenal in January 2006. Here we attempt to understand the evolution of his game. Before signing Theo, Arsene Wenger highlighted some of the key attributes of his game which are all running themes in his development as a player – pace, positioning, and decisions:

“I like the timing of his runs, his determined attitude, the fact that he can play in different positions up front and that he is calm in front of goal…The composure he shows in decisive moments doesn’t change, whether it’s in division one or the Premiership – you have that or you don’t have that. He has determination as well as electric pace.”

That Theo’s pace would be his main attribute in striking fear into defences was apparent from his debut for Southampton against Wolves in 2005, and the use of pace was clear in many of his early goals at Southampton. However, positioning is key in bringing the best out of players, and Walcott needed to be placed carefully to allow his game further to become effective at the top level.

Roles

Under that famous wheeler-dealer Harry Redknapp at Southampton Walcott played as a winger, but also as a striker in an orthodox English 4-4-2. He put in good performances and scored goals as a striker in a 4-4-2. However, he didn’t always make an impact, albeit as a very young and inexperienced player. Sure he scored goals for Southampton from that position, but at the top level it is clear that at the moment his prime position is further wide. Indeed when he played as striker against Wolves in a bore 0-0 in November 2005 the best chance of the game involved Theo running at the Wolves defence from a position on the flank, exploiting space.

This is why the 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 works so well for Theo, the role that he plays is modified from that of a winger in an old style 4-4-2, combining aspects of wing play with that of a forward. Indeed Wenger still sees Walcott as a striker, and in effect at Arsenal he plays more as an inside forward on the right hand side of a 4-3-3.

Against Barçelona in the Champions League QF 1st leg 2010, Walcott exemplified his game wide on the right of a 4-3-3. Creating an immediate impact and scoring a trademark goal.

In this way he plays a hybrid role, coming in from the wings, without needing the strength or taking any of the responsibilities of playing through the centre (heatmap vs. Blackburn). The use of a central striker to hold the ball up is crucial for his play, and against Blackburn Walcott linked up fantastically with both Van Persie and notably Chamakh. The 4-3-3 allows him to use his attacking talent high up the pitch making runs across the defence.

Playing to your strengths

In playing 4-3-3 Wenger is allowing Walcott space to develop his game on the flanks, a position suited to his explosive pace. The pace means that Theo can pin back opposing full-backs – players whose attacking role is one of the most important in the modern game.

Jonathon Wilson saw this in Walcott’s performance for England against Croatia in the World Cup qualifiers, where he scored a hattrick:

“Occupy the fullback, as England manager Fabio Capello did with his deployment of Theo Walcott against Danijel Pranjic when England beat Croatia 4-1 in Zagreb in 2008, and the whole flank can be disrupted.”

Against Croatia he was used on the right wing of a 4-4-2, but the principle is the same in terms of limiting the opposition’s opportunities to get forward. If the opposition’s fullbacks do allow Theo space, he can exploit it easily, and although his decision making isn’t always spot on it is improving.

Walcott makes the run on the shoulder of the full back Pranjic (pink) into the space between the full back and centre back against Croatia. The pass (dashed) puts him through one on one to take his hattrick and seal the result for England.

This was no better illustrated than against Barçelona in the 2010 Champions League Quarter final first leg at the Emirates where Theo’s introduction changed the game. Jonathon Wilson again:

“The arrival of Walcott disrupted Barça’s pressing because Maxwell, like Pranjic, suddenly began looking over his shoulder.”

Indeed Wenger’s use of Walcott’s pace against opposition fullbacks often plays out to great effect. Again recently in the 2-1 victory against Blackburn his running on the shoulder of Gael Givet was excellent causing problems throughout the game for a resilient Blackburn team.

(Credit Mr Renoog)

More than just pace?

During the past two seasons we have witnessed further development in Theo’s game. His pace was never in doubt – AC Milan and Liverpool both involved moments where his pace was the key running at exposed backlines, but in his decision making and goal scoring abilities have been questioned rightly in the past, and this season (Hansen).

On the basis of more recent performances we now see a player who is developing composure. The ability to make decisions quickly, know when to make runs, how to score goals, and link up with team-mates was obvious against Blackburn and Blackpool.

Furthermore his off the ball movement is often crucial, although this is partly based around pace too. The full-back has to follow or risk losing him entirely. Thus when Walcott does cut inside off the ball he creates space for the Arsenal fullback, usually Bacary Sagna, to push into and put balls into the box from near the byline.

This was clear against Blackburn this season in the build-up to the second goal; his run off the ball to create space for Sagna was clever, something which was highlighted on match of the day as a counter to Hansen’s criticisms. But he was also doing it against Man Utd in 2009, and back in April 2010 too, this time against Wolves. This game significantly, and frustratingly, was one of his few starts of last season due to injury.

Not only are his off the ball runs good at creating space, but they are effective at creating goals, as he turns up in the penalty box, making his trademark diagonal runs into the box. Michael Cox pointed this out after the Blackpool game in his Chalkboard analysis.

These aspects of play on the flanks are something which Walcott has developed over the last three years, and are coming to fruition in his goals in the Premier League this season, his diagonal runs have become more effective, and goals will only add to his confidence.

Make no mistake, there will be tough times ahead such a golden patch of form cannot last forever, and I fully expect Theo to struggle against top quality teams, but he has most definitely made strides forward.

In terms of development comparisons with Thierry Henry have always been forthcoming, and although they are different players, the nature of their development is similar.

Henry famously started as a striker under Wenger at Monaco when he was 16, and then was switched to the left wing, a position where he didn’t have much joy. Only after that period was he finally switched back to a striking role again as Wenger signed him for Arsenal just as he was turning 22. Walcott is 22 in March and this underlines the fact that players need time to develop their game.

Theo is not Thierry and it is unlikely that he will ever perform to the same level as Arsenal’s record goalscorer, but it is crucial to understand that Thierry had been under relatively less intense media pressure over performances when he arrived at Arsenal in 1999.

The Problem of Raised Expectations

The inclusion of Walcott in the squad for the World Cup in 2006 was a surprising, and initially detrimental move. In the middle term this really hindered him, in that expectations were raised phenomenally. The boy didn’t play a minute in Germany, and it was a serious error of judgement on Sven’s part putting so much pressure on a player without a Premier League start at that point.

The spotlight was on Theo, and it was almost assumed that he should be playing at the level of Henry. This intense pressure in some ways held him back, and most certainly did not allow him any space to develop slowly, as one would expect. Criticism was quick to surface after any performances deemed less than satisfactory, even though consistent quality of play is something which can’t be expected before a player hits his early twenties at least. This has continued into the present season, and although some is justified, the bar is set very high for someone who has accumulated relatively few first team starts.

Walcott came under heavy criticism during last season even though due to injury he started only a handful of games. In fact he played fewer games than at any time since his breakthrough at Southampton in 2005-2006 and the disruption really showed.

However, his impact was highlighted in the Champions League Quarter Final games against Barçelona. Indeed during the World Cup Lionel Messi expressed his shock at Walcott’s exclusion from the England squad – he saw Theo as a real threat. This echoes Jonathon Wilson’s statement about Theo changing the game against Barcelona – exposing the full-back is very effective in the modern game and this is Walcott’s greatest strength.

There are weaknesses in Theo’s game, but expectations were raised too high, too quickly. That in effect meant that Walcott was not given time to develop. Take as an example the performances of James Milner, another young star who was tipped to set the Premier League alight with Leeds United at 16 years of age. Milner showed flashes of brilliance at that age, but it has taken almost eight years for him to fully mature, and now at 24 his performances reflect that potential.

Walcott needed time, which he wasn’t given. Now in after thorough preparation in pre-season, more experience under his belt, and stinging rejection by Capello at the World Cup to spur him on we are seeing the young player come close to fulfilling the hopes of the past five years.

Injuries have been a major stumbling block in the development of consistency, and seeing him pick up an ankle knock for England on Tuesday night against Switzerland was disappointing. Persistent injuries will only disrupt his development further. Although his game is currently based around pace, there is more footballing nous to come from Walcott. However, only a decent run in the first team can help him take his game to the next level.

This article is part of our Player Scouting series, read up about Marouane Chamakh here.

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19 Comments
  1. Teddy permalink
    September 9, 2010 2:50 pm

    Thumbs up guy. U really know Theo

  2. Espengunner permalink
    September 9, 2010 3:18 pm

    really good article. A very interesting read.

  3. September 9, 2010 3:54 pm

    Lovely article. The pressure on walcott undermined his development and Injuries 2. But am Sure n confident that Sir WENGER will bring the best out of him. Now Wilshere is being pressurized too. Let’s hope it doesn’t get to him

  4. September 9, 2010 5:00 pm

    Excellent article and well-researched.

    Theo’s natural position (or rather best-suited position) is as a wide forward. It’s typical of English fans and pundits to label him either a striker or a winger, it’s like they don’t realise formations other than 4-4-2 exist.

    I will add that to get the best out of Walcott, the centre forward in the 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 must be one who drops deep a la Rooney/van Persie. We’ve seen Walcott perform brilliantly with these 2 dropping deep and pulling the strings, it gives him space to run into and helps stretch teams. If your centre forward drops deep then he takes the centre backs with him and opens up the channel for Walcott to run into.

    I’m amazed how a man of Capello’s experience cannot see this and continues to use Walcott on the right side of a 4-4-2, especially with a box striker like Defoe occupying Walcott’s space to run. I know we’ve won every game with Walcott starting but surely he can be put to better use?

    • September 10, 2010 2:52 pm

      The dropping deep thing is why I think Chamakh is also a perfect fit for Walcott. From where I was in the Blackburn game it was really visible how much they were attempting to link up. Chamakh was always talking to Theo, and the way they were working suggests that with more time it could be a great partnership.

      With Van Persie out injured, and likely to be out longer at some point in the future, it should give Chamakh a good run to get into things. If Walcott can stay injury free when he recovers from the latest knock we will indeed see more from those two.

      Edit – Have a look at the effect of Chamakh on Walcott’s play here – http://www.fantasyfootballscout.co.uk/2010/08/30/the-technical-area-chamakhs-graft-offers-wenger-something-different/

      • September 12, 2010 4:30 pm

        Thanks for the link, that’s really interesting.

        After watching the Bolton game yesterday I was really impressed with how Chamakh altered his game in light of Walcott’s absence. With Walcott in the side he’d drift to the right (which I think he prefers anyway); with Walcott injured we had Arshavin and Rosicky in the wider areas and he chose to drift to the left, realising that Arshavin would be much more capable of exploiting that space than Rosicky.

        If only we’d signed him last season when we had the chance.

  5. Adams permalink
    September 9, 2010 5:19 pm

    Nice post.:-)

  6. Terence McGovern permalink
    September 9, 2010 7:00 pm

    Top drawer!

  7. September 9, 2010 7:33 pm

    Excellent piece.

    I’d like to add a few points.

    The way I see it, Walcott’s current game is about his runs – speed, timing, and positioning/direction. That’s his biggest strength. Unfortunately, that works only when the opposition allows him enough space as we saw against Blackpool and Blackburn, who were playing a really high line. The same can be said in the first leg against Barca when he did make an impact.

    In contrast, Barca found a way of containing him for most parts in the second leg even though he did help us take the lead. Walcott will look ordinary against better organized teams and those that park the bus.

    Walcott has the basics to develop into a very good player but he needs a continuous run without persistent and niggling injuries. He’s never had that and as you mentioned the expectations from him have been crazy.

    I also feel we haven’t, as a team, learnt how to make the best use of his abilities. Sometimes teams push us into our half but we aren’t able to get Walcott free as often as we should. I think that will come once Theo gets a run of games and other players learn how to use his talents best.

    Walcott himself needs to make many improvements. His decision making is improving but he can do much better. His finishing, at times sublime, doesn’t do justice to his technique and talent, he needs to be more consistent. His crossing, clearly his weakest point, will only improve once he understands the runs his teammates are going to make. Once again something that needs to happen on the training ground and in games, for which he needs to be fit. Until he makes these improvements he will only shine in games where the opposition give him space to run into.

    Overall, I’d say the kid (he’s still a kid, isn’t he?) has phenomenal talent. He needs a little luck with injuries and a run of games. Even Ronaldo didn’t have much of an end product at 20-21. It’s extremely harsh to criticize Walcott at this age and I feel those who do have a personal problem with Theo and/or Arsenal as it’s not objective by any stretch.

    • September 9, 2010 7:50 pm

      Spot on with your comments there. He has potential to go further, but generally only has been able to shine in certain situations i.e. against more exposed defences and when he has more space.

      There is a certain culture of the ‘wonderkid’ and many pundits expect these players to be playing like Cesc Fabregas was at such a young age. The fact is that it is unrealistic to expect such high levels of performance so young.

      Great points.

  8. Johnny Deigh permalink
    September 9, 2010 7:57 pm

    I noticed right after Theo scored against Blackburn, he was rounding the defender and he was intentionally pulled back by his shirt. Theo still kept running even though it was a lost cause because of the foul. The ref didn’t award a free kick or card because Theo played on.

    Now contrast this with what happened in the Manchester United match the following day. Rooney tried to run past a defender who stuck his arm out to impede Rooney from running past him. Rooney threw himself to the ground like a sack of spuds, looked immediately to the ref in disgust. The ref quickly brandished a card for the defender.

    Theo could really be deadly if the left-backs and other defenders were yellow carded every time they intentionally tried to impede Theo as he tried to go past. Perhaps Theo should be a little more demanding from the refs.

  9. WxM permalink
    September 9, 2010 8:03 pm

    when u are injured for too long your . . pass , cross, touch and runs are poorer for it . if he gets healthy number of games he will wow everyone again. i think puberty and to much training have not been kind to his body

  10. Gooner permalink
    September 9, 2010 10:22 pm

    Fantastic stuff

  11. September 12, 2010 5:30 pm

    @Carlton

    You’re right about Chamakh’s play. He is a fascinating combination of skill, strength and speed, and I think Wenger has signed a real gem this time around.

  12. James Stevens permalink
    November 13, 2010 12:59 am

    I have to agree, Chamakh looks the part. Wenger did well to sign him after everything went public. I was expecting Man City to get their cheque book out again!

    • November 13, 2010 3:27 am

      Yeah it’s not uncommon to see clubs who are willing to spend more money step in and raise the stakes for certain players, bullying others out of the market. With Chamakh Wenger has pulling power as the top French coach, and it seems the deal had already been concluded.

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