Theo Walcott: What was and what can be
Social media was rife with memes and posts this week ridiculing the move of Theo Walcott to Everton. One of the most sought-after names in English football almost a decade back, the then-teenager chose to leave his hometown club Southampton to move to Arsenal. At the time, Arsenal was considered the right choice for a teenager looking to fulfil his potential.
Arsenal’s youth academy at that point of time had an excellent success rate and was considered the bastion for developing young players. Arsene Wenger, was the epitome of that success having churned out players from the homegrown stable in the form of Aaron Ramsey, Cesc Fabregas (albeit a capture from Barcelona, but nevertheless a success), and Jack Wilshere as well as augmenting the development of players such as Robin van Persie and Alex Song.
At the time, the youngster seemed to have chosen wisely, having refuted the overtures of other leading English clubs and instead choosing to ply his trade with the Gunners.
Back in 2006 when young Walcott broke onto the footballing landscape, his rise was meteoric. In fact, it led to him being named the BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year. Other honours followed in the teenager being named in the 2006 World Cup squad, a surprising addition at the time.
His pace and speed were cooed by neutrals and fans alike while there was a sense of expectation every time he received the ball. The sense of possibilities was endless as is often associated with a young talent bursting onto the scene.
Over the years, Walcott failed to develop with injuries and underutilisation of the player contributing to his halted development. Despite that, there was always a thrill whenever Walcott put on the Arsenal colours. His pace and finishing developed and having taken up the much-vaunted No. 14 jersey from departing Arsenal great, Thierry Henry, the pressure to perform was always there.
But that was as good as it got, and the stalled development of the player has been there for all to see. Walcott in a sense epitomises the later Wenger years, as has been so beautifully captured by Amy Lawrence, in her article, “Theo Walcott: a great hope who failed to kick on in Arsenal comfort zone”. The player failed to kick on after his early potential and it is heartening to see that a player blessed with, so much ability has failed to fulfil the potential of his early years.
Instead for over many years, despite the stuttering progress of Arsenal, Walcott somehow remained entrenched in the squad - a constant among the upheavals. There were times when he looked to be on his way out with fans clamouring for his removal. Right then, Walcott would pop-up to hit a terrific run of form, bamboozling and leaving everyone open-mouthed in his wake. And then once again he would be rewarded with a spanking new contract before fading into the shadows (most likely due to loss of form or an injury).
Recently, Ian Wright, one of the former greats of Arsenal on-air commented about how Arsene Wenger when he arrived at Highbury was instrumental in developing players by altering their regime, diet, and training habits. As time went by the players started reaping the results of such a regime, as they won the Premier League and the FA Cup.
Arsene Wenger has been responsible for the development of the Arsenal youth academy for a considerable period and in his early years, he was responsible for overseeing such development. But over the past decade, it has been a different Wenger at the helm, who has now left the coaching part of his resume to the coaches in the academy.
Instead, the manager now seems to have a say on everything and is more concerned about doing a balancing act. No one can fault Arsene when it comes to the overall development of the club, but the primary responsibility of developing the squad has taken a backseat in recent years or more accurately the past decade.
Unfortunately for Walcott, this period of hands-off approach of Wenger coincided with his arrival. This in result has directly contributed to the stalling of Walcott as a pacy winger. One of the fond memories of early Wenger days was the rampaging Marc Overmars alongside the teenager Nicolas Anelka. That aside the development of players such as Patrick Viera, Thierry Henry into world class superstars were the shining stars of Wenger’s philosophy of free-flowing one-touch football.
Walcott’s arrival should have heralded a new era of success for the Gunners. Arsenal had at the time just moved into their new Emirates stadium and to a certain extent, Walcott was supposed to be the face of the ‘exciting’ times that lay ahead for the club and player.
But seldom does our expectation match the end product and Walcott has been one of those examples. Despite all the negatives, Walcott still managed to score over 100 goals in Arsenal colours. At times, despite the criticisms emanating from the stands, he has shown his mental resilience by sticking to his strengths. His criticism of being a one-dimensional player has rarely affected him.
After all, if you are confident about your strength, then why change? Greats ranging from Sir Stanley Matthews to modern Dutch great, Arjen Robben, have stuck to their strengths throughout their careers and reaped the benefits.
Michael Owen, one of the most lethal strikers in the modern era was an inspiration to Walcott and there is a certain likeness in their playing styles as well. Wenger could have harnessed that and could have made him the focal point of attack, but the Frenchman failed to give him a sustained run of games and as a result, Walcott didn’t develop into the player one hoped him to be.
Only time will tell whether Walcott’s move to Everton is a success or not, but the upside of this entire move is the confidence of the manager in the new arrival. Everton for all their spending this season have played some “really” unattractive football. Much can be attributed to the fact that they have an entourage of midfielders vying for the same positions.
Sam Allardyce is still figuring out things but there is a lack of out-and-out pace. The arrival of Walcott along with the returning Bolasie may just help him get out of this hole. Instead, it will help him field his favourite formation of 4-4-1-1. With the target Cenk Tosun upfront, it will give his team the impetus to put in more crosses via the services of the wingers.
Walcott is a proven Premier League player, but at the age of 28, this should be his time and Everton as a club is a perfect platform to be a part of Gareth Southgate’s plans for the summer.