Walcott sprinting down a dead end at Arsenal?

Former England midfield player and current BBC Radio Five Live presenter Chris Waddle last night launched a verbal attack on Arsenal and England forward Theo Walcott. Waddle said of Walcott:

“I just don’t think he’s got a football brain and he’s going to have problems. Let’s be honest, good defenders would catch him offside every time….He’s at a great club where they play fantastic football week-in, week-out, and I’m just surprised he’s never developed his game.”

Walcott’s performances for Arsenal have generally flattered to deceive since he joined the North London club from Southampton at just 16 years old in 2006. However, whilst Walcott is off form for Arsenal, it is perhaps prudent to note that the boy is not 21 years old until March, and still has time to develop. What is questionable however, is whether his development is best served under the North London pressure cooker at Arsenal.

Waddle compared Walcott’s movement and understanding of the game with that of Cesc Fabregas and Wayne Rooney. Immediately this is ludicrous, as the pair are once in a generation players. However, Walcott does have potential to be a very good Premier League and international footballer. The former Southampton player has shown an ability to score goals at club and international level, and has been involved with Arsenal’s first team since he was 17. Therefore, reactionary pieces written on the player are unfair. This is especially true when one considers that Walcott has been troubled by a shoulder complaint for most of the season, leaving Walcott fit to make only seven starts this season, with only three of those coming since the New Year.

The fact remains however, that Walcott’s progress under Wenger does not seem to be as pronounced as many predicted. Wenger is an excellent developer of young talent, as well as being one of the best coaches in the Premier League. Arguably, if he cannot develop Walcott, no one will. Notwithstanding Wenger’s history of developing young players however, certain sections of the Arsenal support are critical of how Walcott is deployed at Arsenal. Many do not see the player as a traditional ‘winger’ and are eager to see him as a striker. This is possibly not an accurate portrayal of how Walcott is deployed at Arsenal however. The youngster usually slots into a 4-3-3 formation, playing of the right side of a three man attack, similar in effect to how he lines up for England. Further, Wenger has often been quoted as insisting that Walcott will eventually be converted into a striker, but needs to learn his Premier League trade in a less cut-throat position first. There are few better coaches than Wenger around in football, and perhaps, with Walcott still only 20 years old, patience is key.

Despite Walcott’s age and Wenger’s faith, few can argue that Walcott is improving satisfactorily. Whilst injuries have blighted his season, Walcott doesn’t look the same player that took St. Mary’s by storm in 2006. Although Southampton were playing Championship football, Walcott scored 4 goals in 21 games, and from central positions his pace looked frightening and potentially lethal, even at 16. It could be argued a reason for Walcott’s struggles at Arsenal, relate to Arsenal’s brand of football. Arsenal pass the ball faster and better than any other team in the league, but perhaps this doesn’t suit Walcott? Nasri, Arshavin, Van Persie and Fabregas et al play clever, quick and intricate passes, involving equally intelligent movement. In Michael Owen’s hay day, this sort of play would have been beyond him too, but it did not prevent him scoring goals for Liverpool and England. To fulfill his potential, Walcott may need to play in a more counter-attacking and direct side. Walcott’s main asset is his pace, not unlocking defences through clever passing and movement, which is not his game.

For England on Wednesday night, Walcott looked completely bereft of confidence, and in fairness to Waddle’s comments, aside from the guilt edged chance he provided for Frank Lampard, he was unconvincing. What Walcott may need is time away from the pressure cooker at Arsenal and England. Every game at Arsenal is a must win game, as is the case for England. Whilst the boy is still developing, still looking to discover his best position, maybe a step down could reignite his career?

One bad game, or bad season, does not determine a player’s ability, especially when so young. Wenger is a great developer of youth, and at Arsenal, Walcott is exposed to the pressure of a title race and Champions League football. Nevertheless, maybe Walcott and Arsenal is a mismatch, and the player would benefit from a fresh start. Whilst it is too early to start writing his obituary at Arsenal just yet, how long Wenger will suffer his inconsistency remains to be seen…

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