I hate international breaks!
I especially hate them when they interrupt a good run of play by the Gunners, who have nine victories in their last eleven games. Not only that, it takes away their best players to such far flung places as Poznan, Podgorica, Port Elizabeth, Athens, Beirut, Dubai, Kiev, Wroclaw and Josy-Barthel (I kid you not, there is such a place).
One of the only advantages of an international break is that it allows us to step away from the hustle and bustle of twice-a-week club football and introspect on some of the issues of the day.
My motivation to write this piece came from a tweet by football analysts Opta, as they tried to draw a comparison between Arsenal's Theo Walcott and Tottenham Hotspur's Aaron Lennon. While I am not going to be attempting any such comparison (though I believe that Walcott is superior), it sparked a question in my mind—has Theo Walcott finally graduated from inconsistent game-changer to reliable match-winner?
While I agree that statistics don't reveal everything, I think they provide a fairly accurate depiction of the facts. Let us commence by looking at some of Walcott's numbers.
In an Arsenal career that is now into its seventh season, the 22-year-old has made 114 starts and 76 substitute appearances. That's pretty good for someone so young. In those games he has scored 35 goals and provided 28 assists, amounting to a goal or assist every third game or every second start.
The gold standard, Thierry Henry, had 226 goals and 92 assists in 369 appearances, translating roughly to a goal or assist every 100 minutes of playing time.
Theo's stats don't look too flashy when compared to Henry's, but then again, we're talking about the best player ever in the Premier League in Henry. Staying on the subject of stats, if we zero in on just this season and the last, Walcott has 17 goals and 12 assists in 39 starts and 15 substitute appearances. That's a goal or an assist every 125 minutes of playing time (approximately). Compare that to Henry's 100 minutes, and Theo doesn't look too bad, does he?
In a recent interview, Arsene Wenger admitted that he had been asking Theo to put in more work on the defensive end, thereby reducing his attacking potency. This makes his improved attacking stats look even better.
What he has managed to do, slowly but surely, in the last 15 months, is to reduce the frequency of his frustrating mistakes, and increase his efficiency in dangerous areas, whether as a goal scorer or as a provider to others.
I'm not sure how many readers will be nodding their heads in agreement, but the general feeling I get is that there is much less clamor these days about "wasteful Walcott" and fewer idiotic, non-constructive rants such as this one from Chris Waddle.
Another aspect of Walcott's game that I have admired from the very beginning is his ability to deliver in big matches. He has scored at Udine, Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge this season, and if I jog my memory further back into time, I can recall magical moments against Barcelona at home in 2010, Chelsea at the Emirates last season, AC Milan at the San Siro, Liverpool at Anfield and Chelsea in the Carling Cup Final.
Walcott has also been at the receiving end of several as of late injuries. How often has he begun to look the part at Arsenal, only to suffer an injury and then lose his place in the team, his rhythm and his form?
Is Theo Walcott now the real deal?
And in case you missed it earlier, he is only 22, the same age Thierry Henry was when he joined Arsenal. He still has between eight and 10 years at his peak, and as he matures he will add more dimensions and much more consistency to his game. He is under the best manager one could ask for, he is now first choice at Arsenal and he will only improve.
Theo is by no means a finished product. While that's frustrating on many fronts, it fills me with hope and anticipation. If someone who is not yet at his peak averages a goal or assist every 125 minutes, how low can that number go in the seasons ahead?
Theo Walcott is the real deal and he will get much better.
You can tell Chris Waddle that.