Theo Walcott is a player who often comes under criticism while playing for Arsenal. One example as recent as last weekend was when a fan behind me complained that the forward “only cares about playing for England”.
The contrast between Walcott’s goal-scoring performance against Scotland and what he produced in the loss to Villa was rather stark, but last season, the Englishman was Arsenal’s top scorer in all competitions, and alongside Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and Santi Cazorla was one of four players to reach double figures in goals and assists domestically. It’s fair to say that Walcott deserves a break from the abuse.
Walcott may have struggled against the space-denying organisation of Paul Lambert’s side at the Emirates, but against Fenerbahçe, the wide-man was back to his effective self, having a huge hand in Arsenal’s first and third goals. He spoke afterwards that he’d noticed that the full-back he was up against was struggling, and he certainly took full advantage.
The space that Walcott was able to exploit in behind the defence was key to his contribution, and reaffirmed the sort of game in which he thrives. Aston Villa sat deep and tight, denying space for Arsenal, and Walcott was particularly affected by that strategy – when he got the ball, he was in a tight space, which doesn’t suit his game, while there was no space in behind the defence for him to run into; nor was there space between the full back and centre back, which is where Walcott usually makes his runs.
That run in behind the full back was used by Walcott twice to good effect against Fenerbahce, and each time he was picked out ably by team-mates in Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla. However, it’s one thing to make the run, but another to make the best out of the opportunity, and both times Walcott did that. For the first goal, Walcott was aware enough to square the ball to Kieran Gibbs, while when about to win the penalty, he took the ball down effortlessly and got in front of the full-back to get into a dangerous position.
Walcott has often been criticised for his ‘lack of footballing brain’ but more and more often, he’s making the right decisions, and he deserves credit for that. His potential was obvious from a young age, and comparisons with Thierry Henry refused to go away, and to some extent that potential has gone unfulfilled. He may not be on Henry’s level, but he’s improving every year and is becoming more and more important for Arsenal.
The next step for Walcott, now that he’s becoming more efficient when presented the chances, is to improve against defensive sides. Away from home, when the opposition are less cautious and play less on the defensive, Walcott thrives on the extra space afforded, as do Arsenal, but at home against inferior teams, there’s less space, and both Arsenal and Walcott struggle.
His all-round game has been improving, and his control in tight spaces is certainly part of that improvement. He’s still got a way to go though, and if Arsenal’s reported interest in Angel Di Maria is true, you’d imagine that if he signed, he’d play more at home than Walcott, as it would be harder to make him ineffective as Aston Villa did to the Englishman at the weekend. Competition may be what Walcott needs to make that next step, but at the moment he’s a vital weapon in some games and almost a passenger in the others. Once Walcott makes that step, he’ll be closer to fulfilling that undoubted potential and silencing his critics, once and for all.