Theo Walcott isn’t the greatest footballer ever, that’s Theirry Henry. Theo Walcott has limitations but every footballer has limitations, except Dennis Bergkamp and Theirry Henry — who were peerless. But, Theo Walcott is also not as limited as the lazy pundits make him out to be.
I’m not just writing this because Walcott had a great game against Reading, but rather because the Reading game was a reminder of what’s great about Walcott. And since I wrote my piece about the game yesterday and highlighted his performance, both the player and I have come in for quite a bit of criticism. Which is fair enough! Criticize away, I can take it.
Most of the criticism has come in the form of tropes or cliches about his footballing ability. “He needs space” being the main one and the subsequent “he doesn’t fit Arsenal’s system” backing the “he needs space” critique. Both of these are about how teams like West Ham and Aston Villa pack the defense and thereby neutralize Walcott’s effectiveness.
Somewhere in his career, possibly at the very start and almost certainly at the hands of someone like Mark Lawrenson, Walcott was tagged as a “speed merchant” damning him with the label for the rest of his career. And it’s true, sadly, Walcott is fast. Maybe he should slow down so that pundits like Chris Waddle have time to catch up to what Walcott is doing.
It’s also true that Walcott, like Thierry Henry, loves it, LOVES IT, when he gets the ball on the counter attack and there are acres of space and few defenders to beat. Hell, show me an out and out striker who doesn’t love that situation. Thierry Henry was a massive counter attacking threat. Pires or Bergkamp would just play the ball to him and off he would go! Just like Cazorla or Arshavin playing the ball to Theo and letting him run at a defense caught with its pants down.
But Walcott, and you cannot deny this, is probably faster than Henry and has amazing touch for a player that fast. You try to control a through ball when running at full speed and I guarantee you’ll look a lot more like Gervinho than Walcott. So, if the defenders give him space and he’s given a ball to run onto Theo Walcott will more than likely control and have a one-on-one versus the keeper. That’s what we’ve now come to call “a typical Walcott goal.” And I will admit, it’s his speciality.
It was (and still is) a specialty of Thierry Henry and I don’t say that to make a comparison between the two but rather to make a comparison between the two teams. Henry is a special talent. His run and goal against Real Madrid was one of the best moments I have ever experienced as a fan. Henry should be awarded a small fiefdom for his goal against Tottenham because it was simply majestic. Walcott has moments similar to those, but the problem is that this Arsenal team aren’t set up to play counter attacking football. This Arsenal team are a possession based team and that often means that Arsenal will find themselves with the ball, passing around in the opposition half, and looking for a breakthrough.
Which is where Theo Walcott is not very good, right?
Well, I went back and looked at his goal scoring record and watched a number of his goals and assists. My conclusion is that we should continue to give him credit for his pace, touch, and finishing when the opposition gifts him space but we need to back down a bit off this meme that he doesn’t do well against teams who pack the defense.
For example, Sam Allardyce’s West Ham. West Ham went up 1-0 and packed the defense in. After Poldi and Giroud combined to bring the game level, West Ham earned a corner. Arsenal countered off that corner and Theo scored a “typical Walcott goal”, latching onto a through ball controlling, and finishing beautifully. West Ham packed in the defense again and let Arsenal poke around the outside looking for an opening. Walcott dribbled past several defenders, passed to Cazorla who elected to bypass Walcott’s good run and shoot a wondergoal instead. Walcott is credited with the assist. It’s a dubious assist to be fair, and a kind of ugly dribble (not Henryesque), but here’s a player who supposedly can’t score against teams who pack the defense scoring, dribbling, and providing an assist against the king of defense packers.
But let’s put that one down to providence. He was lucky.
How about the 5-3 against Chelsea last year? Do you remember his goal? It was again against a team that was packing the defense. Walcott dribbles, is tripped, gets up, keeps dribbling and with half a chance, finishes.
But let’s put that one down to providence. He was lucky.
Ok, how about Aston Villa last year in the FA Cup? Villa have the lead at 2-1 and their manager is another known defense packer, Allie McLeish. Their defense is set up so deep that some of the players complain of getting the bends when they venture near the half-way line. Theo Walcott, simply, dribbles around half the team and scores from close range after the ball pings around off Richard Dunne.
But Theo Walcott was lucky again!
How about Fulham? Martin Jol is a defense packer and doubleplus packs the defense when his team have the lead. So, anyway, Fulham are up 1-0 after a Vermaelen own goal and it’s getting late but Fulham are packing in the defense. Walcott gets the ball on the right and puts in a cross. Vermaelen heads home. 1-1 Arsenal.
Remember QPR? Sparky loves to set his teams up to play defense first and especially if they have a one goal lead. So QPR are up one nil and they have 8 men behind the ball, and it’s just Rosicky, Walcott, and van Persie in attack. But Walcott makes a really smart little run, gets some space, shoots off the post and puts the rebound back in for Arsenal’s only goal.
What a lucky boy.
I could go on and on. In the space of a few weeks, Walcott scored against Villa, QPR and Wolves. Against Wolves he just earns a penalty with a lovely run in crowded space, then gets himself a goal against Wolves who are crowding the box. And I could, I suppose, go back another year and find further examples of Theo scoring or providing assists against these defensive teams.
All probably just luck.
Looking at all of his goals, I have to admit that Walcott is most effective breaking at speed or counter attacking and that Arsenal don’t do this as well as they probably should.
That said, Walcott’s not as bad as some pundits would like you to believe. And maybe he does occasionally score against teams that pack it in.
Perhaps it’s all luck, but let’s remember this is a player who is just 23 years old. He will get better over the next four years as he gains experience. I think it would be a shame to lose him as I think he’s really starting to show what he can offer Arsenal. Thankfully, it looks like Arsenal’s position may be softening, at least their PR position is softening, since they ran an article this morning saying that Arsenal have “urgency” in their contract talks with Theo.
Maybe he’s not the most graceful player to dribble the air out of a ball and maybe he does need someone to provide him with service more than other players (it’s a point I’ve made before), but his finishing is great, as are his runs, his crosses, and his touch at pace.
I was one of the people who was sanguine about him leaving, but he’s changed my mind on that with his performances so far this season and I think Arsenal should keep him now rather than let him blossom at another team.
He’s not a bad little footballer. He’s no Thierry Henry, he’s Theo.