Teen prodigies of Theo Walcott’s calibre are rare and you would expect him to be treasured and nurtured by a nation struggling to produce enough gifted football talent. Instead, Walcott had to shoulder the heavy burden of the inevitable comparison with Thierry Henry when Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger signed him from Southampton in 2006. He then had to endure the ridicule that resulted from his inclusion in Sven-Goran Eriksson’s 2006 World Cup squad, ahead of the likes of Darren Bent, Andy Johnson and Jermain Defoe.
Walcott recently shed light on his shock omission from Fabio Capello’s 2010 World Cup squad by revealing Capello’s dismay at his failure to adhere to instruction, perpetuating the myth that, like Micah Richards, he lacks football intelligence. This rejection would appear to have provided the catalyst for Walcott’s best ever season, bagging 13 goals in all competitions last term while improving several key aspects of his overall performance.
He started that season in blistering form, scoring a hat trick in a 6-0 demolition of Blackpool, the performance that inspired the mean-spirited Hansen critique, also winning the August Player of the Month award. He shone in Arsenal’s impressive 3-1 win over Chelsea during the Christmas period, scoring and providing an assist. In contrast, his absence through injury was keenly felt in the subsequent Carling Cup Final defeat against Birmingham. Walcott has maintained his fine form this term, scoring in both legs of Arsenal’s Champions League qualifier with Udinese and tormenting Chelsea once again, scoring the fourth goal in a 5-3 thriller at Stamford Bridge.
Arsene Wenger recently claimed that he believes Walcott has become a more complete player after working at his defensive responsibilities, despite revealing that this increased workload initially took its toll physically. A succession of shoulder, back, knee and hamstring problems has also hampered his progress in recent years, fitness concerns now firmly behind him.
Where Walcott once relied on angled through balls, he has varied his positioning, dropping off to receive passes and utilising his acceleration to burst past opponents. With full-backs keen to stand off and deny him space, his crossing has also improved. A lack of end product has been a long-standing criticism of Walcott, with the likes of Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips exhibiting the same deficiency without it becoming one of their defining attributes.
Arsenal’s attention is focussed on securing Robin van Persie to a new long term deal and rightly so, but Theo Walcott’s contribution should not be underestimated. His contract is also running down and retaining his services should be a pressing concern, there would be no shortage of suitors should his contract continue to decrease or ultimately expire.
It is easy to forget that Walcott is still only 22, despite his 150 appearances for club and country. In January, Capello admitted that he made a mistake in omitting Walcott for the World Cup. Maybe it is time for a widespread reputation reappraisal.
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