Eighteen games, three goals, eight assists.
Eight games, one goal, one assist.
That’s the difference in statistics in the Premier League this season between the impressive Aaron Lennon and his fellow England winger, Theo Walcott.
While Lennon has drawn plaudits for his performances for Tottenham Hotspur this season, 20-year-old Walcott has struggled for both form and fitness for London rivals Arsenal—to such an extent that he is in real danger of losing his once-secure England place.
The Arsenal man may have provided one of the most memorable moments of England’s successful World Cup qualification with his hat-trick against Croatia in Zagreb, but it is Lennon who—after starring in the return fixture with Slaven Bilic’s men that finally secured England’s World Cup berth—is starting to look the front-runner for the right-wing position in Fabio Capello’s side.
That is a frustrating turn of events for Walcott, who has been blighted by injuries on many occasions since joining the Gunners in 2006. But it is equally frustrating for the Arsenal fans who are still waiting on the man who inherited Thierry Henry’s No. 14 to consistently deliver the sort of performances they came to expect from the talismanic Frenchman.
At the beginning of the season, Walcott was confident he would reach such heights:
“I feel like I'm coming into my own now,” he told The Observer .
“There's a lot more for me to achieve with Arsenal, and England, but I don't think I'm seen as a kid any more, I'm more established.
“All those years ago, when I was 10 and planned out my life story, I predicted that England would win the World Cup. I don't think I was clever enough to write down the year it would happen, but it would be a dream come true if it was 2010, and I was a part of it.”
But now such a dream is beginning to look exactly that. He’s been at the club four years, yet as a footballer still seems to be disconnected from the intricate Arsenal ethos—such is his continued over-reliance on blistering pace.
Of course, that is a criticism that has often been levelled at the Lennon, who seemed to regularly struggle with his feet being quicker than his brain in the aftermath of his £1 million move from Leeds United in 2005.
But this season the 22-year-old has apparently developed his skills, learning when to exploit his blistering pace to get to the byline and when to look inside for a telling pass. The statistics bear out how much more incisive and threatening it has made him, to the delight of his manager:
“He’s hard to mark when he’s in that type of form,” Harry Redknapp said after another stellar performance against West Ham last month.
“You’ve got to give him the ball and with his pace and ability he can cause anybody problems.
“I think he has gone up a level. And I think he believes. We keep telling him what he can do and how good he is and I think he’s playing with confidence.”
"I think my all-round performance is a lot better,” Lennon agrees.
“I've been working on a lot of different things and I definitely think I'm a more complete player.
"I'm probably playing the best I've ever played. As I get older and get more experience, I think I'm improving.”
Tipped to make his return to first-team action at the Emirates Stadium against Bolton Wanderers on Wednesday, Walcott might consider analysing the strides his club and country rival has taken in recent times, and incorporate them into his own game.
With James Milner (20 games, four goals, eight assists) almost certain to be included in the World Cup squad, offering as he does a more defensive instinct on the right wing (not to mention the versatility to play elsewhere across midfield, or even at full-back), the two diminutive speedsters look to be fighting for one role—a starting role at that—in Capello’s squad.
With Lennon currently sidelined with his own niggling groin injury, the stage looks set for a dramatic sprint finish between two of the fastest players in the game for one seat to the World Cup in South Africa.
In the eyes of the money-men, Walcott is the preferred winner (a Nike athlete, he has also recently signed up to be the face of a series of books about 'TJ', a fictional young football prodigy). But his popularity on billboards and in adverts might only be blinding fans to his sub-standard performances on the pitch.
“He's a marketing man's dream, he is Beckham-esque in that respect,” Andy Ritchie, Walcott’s coach at his former club Southampton, told the Observer recently. But it remains to be seem whether he will be the one to decisively inherit the AC Milan man's Three Lions spot.
Because if Capello puts as much store in form and fitness as he insists he does, Lennon is the only contender at the moment.
"We need a player like Lennon," said the Italian, after his impressive performance against Croatia in September.
"He can play one-to-one and when he does that he's not easy to stop. He's very dangerous because he's so quick, and he can also shoot with his left foot and right foot."
Sven Goran-Eriksson sprung arguably the biggest selection surprise of his time as England manager when he called up Walcott to his 2006 World Cup squad.
It remains to be seen whether Fabio Capello will be springing an even bigger one if Walcott is once again in the squad ahead of Lennon come June.