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.
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.