I’ve been wanting to write about our much maligned no14 for a while, and in the light of his match winning role in the Mad Stad goal-fest last night, now seems like a good time.
I’ve long been a defender of Theo, feeling that his late start in football, combined with his early first team exposure and physical attributes would cause his development as a player to be unusual.
His acceleration is a vital component of our otherwise relatively one-paced attack, and teams find it much easier to squeeze us in midfield without him in the side. This is particularly important away from home against attacking sides, as it gives us a potential out-ball and creates more space for the likes of Cazorla.
This has always been his strength, but over the last two seasons we have seen steady progress which would justify meeting his wage demands.
1. Behind Podolski, he is the second best finisher in the squad.
His calmness in front of goal has returned. For Southampton’s youth and reserve teams and in his first games for them, his finishing was natural and wonderfully efficient. Since then we’ve only seen glimpses. The pressures of top flight football, the exposure of technical weaknesses and the England 2006 debacle, seemed to totally undermine his confidence, and the shooting boots all but vanished. Over the last 15 months however, despite the odd blip, his finishing has improved immeasurably, and as Wenger said recently, you now expect him to score more often than not, and he has become far more accomplished when he has time to think. According to EPL Index, last season he had a shot accuracy ratio of 59%, 11th in the Barclays Premier League.
2. He has become a man.
Walcott has become much more assertive, both in terms of physicality and a willingness to take responsibility. His first seasons were characterised by long periods of time looking like a lost boy on the touchline, trying to impress but doing so without conviction, and frequently bullied by experienced opponents. While he will always remain a slight figure, and isn’t going to grow any more, he has become harder to knock off his feet. He is no longer scared of ‘going into traffic’, and as his dribbling skill has slowly improved, he is more willing to come off his wing and commit defenders through direct running, and head for the penalty area sooner. This is in part because he is far more comfortable with the risks of physical contact.
This increased ‘fight’ has also been shown by his reaction to being on the fringes of the team this season, and his comments regarding his contract negotiations. He knows what he wants, and is taking responsibility to make it happen. In almost every appearance this season he has had an impact. He is our top scorer in all competitions with seven goals, and has also racked up three assists, and created a few other very presentable chances. Some still view him as an impact player, but I would rather start a player that can have an impact than a James Milner.
3. He has shown the work ethic to improve his all-round game.
Walcott has had to develop the all-round attributes to be a high level professional footballer under the brightest of spotlights rather than in the reserves due to his incredible pace. His decision making deficiencies were highlighted, but he also had significant technical limitations compared to many of his team-mates. Progress has seemed slow, but his weight of passing, close control and delivery from wide areas is unrecognisable compared to the teenage whippet. He is now consistently creating chances when given space, and loses the ball less often in tight areas. What has impressed me most recently, though is his noticeable improvement from set pieces. Even before last night, I had noticed that he is a far better corner taker than any of our regular choices, putting the ball into dangerous areas with pace, rather than the usual method of hitting the first man employed by all others bar Rosicky. He has also started fancying himself from free-kicks. While still no Thierry, he has shown a very similar technique, that if he can hone further could be a real weapon. Given our usual woeful use of the dead ball, it would seem he has been putting extra hours in.
4. He now thinks like a footballer on the pitch.
Ok. So he’ll never be a Fabregas, Bergkamp or Brady, but Walcott’s footballing instincts are no longer open to derision from Chris Waddle et al. His assessment of the percentages has developed to the point where he can safely recycle possession for the side, and even when off form like last Spring he is no longer a passenger. He has clearly taken his crossing lessons from David Beckham to heart, as he is choosing much more dangerous areas to put the ball into from wide, and is now capable of creating chances by making half a yard rather than racing blindly towards the byline. Equally the timing and angle of his runs has become much more dangerous and he has also become far more adept at reading his team-mates intentions.
5. He is delivering over the course of a season.
Despite patches of poor form, since the start of the 2010/11 season, Walcott has racked up 31 goals and 23 assists in 95 games. While those are hardly Thierry Henry figures, that still means he has been responsible for 0.57 goals a game. He also created more clear cut chances than any other wide player last season (EPL Index again). When one considers how often he didn’t complete 90 minutes in that time, they are not figures to be sniffed at. That’s better than Nani, Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young, Fernando Torres and Samir Nasri, and only just behind Luis Suarez and Mario Ballotelli. Statistics aren’t everything, and the likes of Nasri certainly contribute more to continuity of play, but equally the object of football is to score goals.
6. He has an increasing impact against big teams.
Over the last 2 years, as his overall game has improved, he has shown a handy habit of scoring in big games. As well as one in each leg in the Champion’s League qualifier against Udinese last year, he has goals and assists against Man Utd and Barcelona, and thrives in London derbies, with a good goalscoring and assist record against Spurs, Chelsea and West Ham. And lest we forget he has scored in the only cup final he has played in, and was badly missed against Birmingham city 18 months ago. While often accused of mental weakness, his record against the ‘big’ sides is as good as his overall record, which cannot be said for too many of our other attacking players.
Looking forward, I think there are other very good reasons why the club should show some flexibility to retain his services.
- At 23, his transfer value will not diminish unless he suffers a career changing injury. He also should continue to improve as a footballer for another four or five years.
- Though reliant on his pace, his efficient running style and athletic physique is not like to decline quickly.
- Him and Giroud already seem to have a good understanding, and given their strengths are an obvious combination, with one offering pace against high back lines, and the other a physical impact against teams that defend deep.
- In the right tactical set up, he can be a 20 goal striker if played up front or continue to contribute from out wide.
- He is a marketing dream, and will generate the club a lot of revenue even if his development stalls, particularly in the far east, where they seem to love him. He could have a positive impact on the soon to be re-negotiated sponsorship deals.
- The only other real pace in the squad is Gervinho, who makes Walcott look a model of consistency.
- After losing Van Persie and Song, allowing our only other real attacking threat from last season to leave would be a very negative message to fans, sponsors and team-mates. He also seems popular with most of the squad, and has been making all the right noises about his long term future at the club.
According to reports in the mainstream media, he was due to have further contract talks with the club this week. I can only hope that they are fruitful, as it would a bitter disappointment to have nurtured a player to this point in his career only to lose them for peanuts. The will still appears to be there on both sides, so my fingers are crossed.------------
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