It is fair to say that, prior to this season, Theo Walcott had yet to hit the dizzy heights with Arsenal many expected after his blistering hat-trick for England in Croatia. The former Southampton starlet has been a victim of a his own versatility – both Arsene Wenger and Fabio Capello have deployed him in a wing role in an attempt to take advantage of his searing pace, sacrificing goals for potential creativity. Yet Walcott lacks several of the qualities a world-class winger requires. His final ball, for example, has the been the subject of intense scrutiny since his high profile transfer to Arsenal, while the often-controversial Alan Hansen criticised the 21-year-old’s positional awareness, claiming that he lacks a ‘football brain’ – ironic insomuch as it came in the aftermath of his first domestic hat-trick.
The defects of Walcott’s wing-play are, however, largely nullified when he is played in his favoured striking position. The pace which scares full-backs is even more terrifying for burly central defenders. Walcott may not have the strength to compete with the traditionally physical centre-backs of the English game but that is rendered largely irrelevant if they cannot keep up with the speedster. With Robin van Persie succumbing to yet another long-term injury, Wenger has shown faith in his prodigy, finally deploying Walcott as a centre forward. And, injury aside, the world’s most expensive 16-year-old has repaid his manager’s belief – his seven goals represent his joint-best haul, a tally accumulated in 31 fewer games then four seasons ago.
With his performances this season having earned him both managerial and media acclamation, there exists the possibility of complacency. Yet – more than anybody else – Walcott will appreciate the hazards of resting upon one’s laurels. His surprise inclusion in the 2006 World Cup squad shot the then 16-year-old into the media limelight, a glare which has arguably eclipsed his more measured development over the past four years. He had, while still a teenager, been written off by a number of fans who could not understand why the player Sven-Goran Eriksson deemed talented enough to take to the World Cup had not been turning in international standard performances for his club. A string of such performances ultimately proved costly for Walcott, who was omitted from Capello’s 2010 World Cup squad. Now, four months later, a new season and a new position have acted as a catalyst for Walcott to re-invent himself, this time in his more familiar striking role. Time will tell whether this explosive burst of form is permanent, or whether it is just another false dawn in the young man’s fledgling career.