It was against Chelsea in 2007 when Theo Walcott scored his first Arsenal goal. It was the Carling Cup final, and it put a young side featuring the variable talents of Cesc Fabregas, Justin Hoyte and Armand Traore 1-0 up. The goal drew immediate comparisons with Walcott’s idol Thierry Henry because of the way he opened his body to curl into the far corner.
Arsenal eventually surrendered to their familiar foe Didier Drogba to lose 2-1, but the positives in defeat were plenty. Walcott, who was just 18 at the time, was amongst seven players under the age of 21 who had competed gamely with Chelsea, for periods playing them off the park, before the Ivorian’s 84th minute winner.
The future looked bright. If these players could compete with the best now (Chelsea were champions at the time), then imagine what they can do in years to come, was the general feeling. But no trophies have been won since, and comparisons between Walcott and Henry have become less frequent too.
Being included in the squad for the 2006 World Cup didn’t help public opinion of Walcott. Having been a shock inclusion, he never played a minute. His selection commonly featured on a list of reasons why Sven Goran Eriksson should be replaced as England manager. Subconsciously, he had been made a scapegoat, and it has held back perception of him ever since.
But fans of both England and Arsenal have been expecting too much. He’s still only 22, the same age Henry was when he joined the club, and has improved his goal and assist rate year on year. Last season was his best ever – scoring 13 and creating 12 in 33 games – which compared with 2009/10 when he scored eight and made three in 29, is a huge leap.
The well-publicised suggestion by Match of the Day’s Alan Hansen, which was then lapped up by some sections of the media, that Walcott doesn’t have a footballing brain, are symptomatic of the pressure he’s under. Walcott scored a hat-trick against Blackpool in August of last season, and instead of being praised, he was lambasted by Hansen for the chances he missed, and the crosses he misplaced.
The ‘footballing brain’ debate is another ailment that’s holding him back, with every ‘poor end product’ accusation leading to the term resurfacing. What goes unnoticed by his critics are the examples of good intelligence and technical ability. His goal against Udinese which secured Arsenal’s place in this season’s Champions League, saw him pull to the left flank, play a tight one-two with Bacary Sagna and fool Samir Handanovic with a smart near post finish. Likewise, his goals away at Blackburn and at home to Villarreal in past seasons have demonstrated cunning and skill that haven’t received the credit they deserved.
As well as improving statistically and technically, he’s attempted to add more positional dimensions to his game’s characteristics. He uses any opportunity to talk up his ambition of playing as a central striker, but so far hasn’t been given the responsibility by Arsene Wenger. It’s unlikely he’ll be given a chance there any time soon due to Arsenal’s system and current desperation for points, but it shows an encouraging desire to improve himself as a footballer. Considering Thierry Henry spent his primitive years as a winger, only becoming a striker under the guidance of Arsene Wenger, it does seem possible that he can replicate the move.
Positives have come on the international scene for Walcott recently. Perhaps surprisingly, he has found favour with Fabio Capello since being left out of England’s 2010 World Cup squad. His omission from this was almost as big a shock as his inclusion four years previous, and suggested he wasn’t what Capello was looking for, the Italian instead preferring Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips as pace options out wide. But Walcott started five out of eight matches in the Euro 2012 qualifiers, creating Ashley Young’s goal in Montenegro with a fine cross.
Criticism has not eluded him for England though, with his hat-trick in Croatia in the 2010 qualifiers his only goals for his country in 19 appearances. Stewart Downing’s failure to score at all in 30 games has received comparatively less attention.
Against Chelsea on Sunday he’ll start the game wide on the right, but he shouldn’t forget that at his age his idol was treading a similar career path. Reproducing the form and goals of Henry may be too much to ask – it would be of any forward that ever puts on an Arsenal shirt again – but with encouragement and appreciation Walcott should one day prove his worth for club and country.
Tags: arsenal, Arsene Wenger, England, Fabio Capello, Premier League, theo walcott, Thierry Henry