Following the outstanding breakthrough season that Kyle Walker enjoyed at Tottenham Hotspur last term, it’s fair to say even the man himself would be the first to admit that things haven’t gone quite so well for him this time around.
Indeed, in a refreshingly honest interview, Walker recently confessed to Ham & High that while he feels he’s beginning to rediscover the form that helped propel Spurs into the top four again last season, he wasn’t quite “firing on all cylinders.”
While for the neutral that may or may not come as something of a slight surprise given his recent involvement with Roy Hodgson’s England squad this term, for those frequenting White Hart Lane, it’s been something of an open secret for quite some time now.
But while his form has undeniably floundered somewhat since the beginning of the 2012-13 season, it’s often all too easy to take a player such as Walker, who’s still only a mere 22 years of age, for granted.
Given his remarkable consistency in terms of both fitness as well as performance last season, the expressions of surprise that etched fans’ faces as Walker trudged off injured against Fulham during the last game of the season said it all. He’d only sat out one league game all season.
A PFA Young Player of the Year award brought recognition to the ex-Sheffield United, but it also galvanized the level of expectation that supporters came to expect. Increasing involvement with the senior national team has only added prominence and his growing maturity within the Tottenham squad has seen him become something of a mouthpiece for the side in recent months. Indeed, Walker was one of the most vocal in the defense of manager Andre Villas-Boas following criticism earlier on in the season.
Of course, a meteoric rise within the game brings with it the glaring and often unrelenting spotlight of attention. And as the young defender’s struggled to find his best form, there’s been no hiding place from either media or supporters alike.
Where as the paying White Hart Lane support had every right to demand more from Walker, a small section of the overzealous perhaps went too far in their critique; the nadir coming in the wake of the 4-2 home defeat to Chelsea, in which the flack received pre-empted him to even suspend his Twitter account.
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And although the minority of idiots who took to personally abuse Walker should be wholly condemned, some of the criticism aimed at the young right-back wasn’t necessarily all unjustified.
At several times this term we’ve seen Walker caught out all too often by his man, either beaten in the air, beaten in a one-or-one or having the ball stolen away from him in possession. As opposed to exposing serious flaws in his game, his problems have more often than not been the cheap and simple sort of mistakes. If nothing else, fans have been frustrated because they know he’s capable of so much more.
In his own words, Walker’s suggested that it’s been a combination of all of the above, that has hindered his progress this term.
“I’ve come across it this season where I’ll have two players to take on, whereas before, I usually just had one,” he said this week.
“I take that as compliment, that people think I’m a threat going down that right side, but it’s something I need to change in my game to try to overcome it.”
Poignantly however, even Walker himself was surprised to learn just how much football he’s played in recent times, confirming some people’s suspicions that he’s not always been at 100% fitness-wise.
“I found out the other night [after the game against Liverpool] that it was the 50th consecutive game I had played in the Premier League – at the age of 22 – which kind of shocked me a bit,” he continued.
“I keep getting a few little niggles here and there, but they’re not going to stop me playing – you do have to be careful, though, because you have to think whether it’s a warning sign and whether your body’s telling you to slow down a little bit.”
And it’s within these last sentiments that you simply can’t help but feel the writing could be on the wall for Walker. He undoubtedly has the talent, the drive and the ability to be a permanent fixture in the berth for many years to come. But considering the form struggles he’s been enduring, Walker has already played 23 times for Spurs this season and we’ve not even hit the beginning of the hectic festive fixture list.
Villas-Boas seems to have taken the approach of letting Walker try and play out his difficulties and if he hasn’t, then the Portuguese must hold very little faith in Kyle Naughton, Walker’s de facto understudy at the club. But even though Walker has shown glimpses of a return to form in recent games, he still doesn’t feel quite there.
Naughton shown during a rare start against Fulham – one that coincidentally produced a seldom clean sheet for the Lilywhites – that he’s an astute deputy when played on the right hand side, as opposed to a make shift left-back.
There’s an awful lot of football still to be played this season and Walker will undoubtedly be a part of that. But after trying to see Walker through his poor spell through game time, it could be time for Andre Villas-Boas to try something different.
Maybe now it’s time to take Kyle Walker out the firing line, give him a few games to regroup, refocus and then push on for the New Year. The Spurs backline are struggling, but right-back is one of the few positions in which AVB does have a viable deputy. Now could be just the time to use him.