Arsenal Debate: Does Theo Walcott Have a Footballing Brain?
The question seemed to reach its apex in June, 2010. But then it just kept growing and growing, billowing and billowing until people lost sight of the actual debate and began to simply believe the negativity.
The pundits circled the wagons and seemed to condemn Arsenal winger Theo Walcott's footballing ability in one fell swoop. They remembered Chris Waddle's appraisal three months before.
Waddle, a former England international, had claimed that the then 21-year-old Walcott lacked "a footballing brain".
But Waddle, who earned 62 international caps in his career and watched Walcott closely from his role as a BBC pundit, pressed on.
"I don't think he's got a football brain," Waddle said. "He doesn't understand the game, where to be running, when to run inside a full back, when to play a one-two. It's all off the cuff.
"Let's be honest, good defenders would catch him offside every time. I don't know whether he studies the game, learns the game. He's at a great club, where they play fantastic football and I'm surprised he's never developed his game.
"People keep saying he's young but Wayne Rooney understood the game at 16. I've never seen any difference in Walcott since he was at Southampton and broke into the team at a very young age. He doesn't play a lot of football. He hasn't done anything for a long time. I think Croatia was a one-off."
"Croatia" was an historic 4-1 victory in September, 2008 by England in a 2010 World Cup qualifier in Zagreb. Almost a year to the day that England had seen their Euro 2008 hopes dashed by that same Croatia side, they had smashed them on the road.
And Walcott was the star of that sumptuous traveling show, right up there with the 5-1 shellacking of Germany in Munich in 2000.
But for all the acclaim Walcott received for his hat-trick that night, it might have, again, been the worst possible thing for his career.
His goals in that match against Croatia were not the sort of dazzling bursts of individual creativity many appear to think Walcott should be providing. And they tried to build a burgeoning legend from that Croatia match. It only stood to reason that the critics would circle once more when Walcott couldn't produce those displays on a more consistent basis.
Against Croatia, he provided good, quality finishes—with the third a manifestation of him at his footballing best. Running in behind defenders, latching on to through balls before slotting home past the opposing keeper.
But we always want more. When Walcott fails to produce on the register of that night in Croatia, we find ourselves nodding our heads in agreement with Waddle, feeling that Walcott will never become the star many envisioned when he turned heads as a teenage starlet at Southampton.
That does him a disservice.
When we allow that Walcott has not yet, and may never show the type of natural predisposition toward technical prowess and skill in tight spaces we've seen from an Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, we finally do him a favor.
Because ever since Walcott was named to the England squad for the 2006 World Cup, he has been subjected to a dead weight of burden in regard to his footballing career.
People see a 17-year-old named to a World Cup squad, and they expect the impossible. They expect Messi, they expect Ronaldo, they, like Waddle, expect Rooney.
But Walcott has never been one to dazzle us with individual skill of that type of register. He's just not like that.
Rather, when he's been at his best—for Arsenal in particular (remember when he personally helped lead the fightback against Barcelona in the 2010 Champions League quarterfinal leg at the Emirates?—he's played within his means, using his attributes to devastating effect.
It wasn't a bit of sublime brilliance that proved the difference that night against the Catalans, just as it didn't against Croatia. Rather, it was Walcott putting what he can do best—run at defenders, and put them under pressure—before finishing with aplomb.
That finishing ability was on fine display for Arsenal to start the 2010-11 season, when Walcott was playing arguably his best football during his Gunners tenure.
Walcott nabbed four goals in Arsenal's first three league fixtures (a first-half hat-trick against Blackpool at the Emirates the cherry in that run) before injuring his ankle against Switzerland in a World Cup qualifier for England.
He seemed on the verge of a breakthrough, finally having found himself in the wake of that World Cup disappointment. Then came the inevitable injury to scupper that good tiding.
We saw that same Walcott in sequences in this just-finished season for Arsenal, when he provided eight goals and eight assists. There was that one wonderful run of form in March, where he had an assist and two goals, again in a four-game sequence.
And that's without even mentioning his February, where he tallied three assists for Arsenal in the 7-1 demolition of Blackburn at the Emirates before notching a brace against Spurs on Feb. 26.
Those games were vintage Theo—putting his defender under pressure, surging to the end line and providing accurate delivery. Finishing under pressure.
So when Waddle proclaims that Walcott "doesn't understand football," it is in fact Waddle, not Walcott, who is at fault for his over-expectation.
Walcott can be a very good option for a Premier League team, as we saw this season for Arsenal. To say he doesn't have a "footballing brain" is to offer a quite lame appraisal of the man's ability that completely misses the point regarding his worth.
The winger does, in fact, have a brain. It's just not wired the way many pundits wish it were—perhaps unjustifiably. They expect him to give them mountains, when that simply is not what he's most capable of doing.
The ever-astute Michael Cox, of Zonal Marking fame, said something quite similar back in November.
Responding to criticism of Walcott being a one-trick pony (pace and little else), Cox noted that Walcott had drastically improved both his positioning and link-up play in the Arsenal attack over the course of 2011.
Cox made a number of insightful observations through the course of that article. Besides Walcott penning his autobiography at age 21 (insert joke), Cox argued that Arsene Wenger's managerial style and teaching methods are steeped in allowing a player to make on-field adjustments on his own, on the fly.
Take, for example Wenger's propensity for using 5-a-side during Arsenal training—it is while playing in those tight spaces that players must make countless rapid-fire decisions (movement, neat one-touch passing, calculated dribbles, etc.) that allow them to grow in their analysis of the game.
For some players, it takes a little longer for that process to stick. Case in point for Walcott.
There are still any number of ways he can improve as a footballer, but the fact that he has made such noted strides in his reading of the game (when to embark upon that killer run, when to combine with teammates instead) is a testament to his capacity to grow as a player.
Many won't, or refuse, to grant him that compliment, but it is deserved. Few players influenced Arsenal's season more, whether it was in the two-leg playoff to get to the Champions League (Walcott had two goals over those two games against Udinese) or in his number of game-changing displays (remember Chelsea at Stamford Bridge?)
The best minds embrace the continual process of learning, and that's exactly what Walcott has done.
He should be praised for that, at the very least.
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