Player analysis: The curious and inconsistent case of Theo Walcott
If any one player has personified Arsenal’s season to date, it has been Theo Walcott. Unfortunately, Walcott has been the butt of criticism from many Arsenal supporters for his erratic play and there is no better example of this than last Sunday’s 5-2 pounding of Spuds. In the first half, Martin Tyler rarely called Walcott’s name, but by the 70th minute, he had scored two goals.
So why has Theo been so erratic? There are a multitude of factors that ultimately affect his performances and this article will take a look at these factors as well as some statistics about Walcott’s performances for Arsenal this season.
Before we go any further, lets first take a look at Theo’s statistics for the year so far - Man of the Match and Average Rating numbers are based on WhoScored.com's algorithms using Opta data.
|Shots Per Game
|Man of the Match1
As we can see, Theo has been far from clinical in front of goal, however he has passed the ball well and also has set up his teammates well. His seven assists put him in a tie for eighth (with Gareth Bale, Samir Nasri, and Stephane Sessegnon) in total assists in The Premier League amongst all players.
Theo’s average rating for the season is 6.78 which is just a little below the bench mark of seven, so this tells us on the whole, he has been solid. However, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Walcott, as we all know, has had games where he disappeared and games when he has absolutely ravaged defences, so here are Theo’s best and worst performances of the year, according to WhoScored.com;
Best five games:
- Feb 4th - Blackburn (H) - 8.90
- Feb 26th - Tottenham (H) - 8.64
- Nov 19th - Norwich (A) - 8.10
- Oct 29th - Chelsea (A) - 7.92
- Nov 26th - Fulham (H) - 7.59
Worst five games:
- Aug 20th - Liverpool (H) - 5.47
- Feb 11th - Sunderland (A) - 5.71
- Feb 15th - AC Milan (A) - 5.87
- Feb 1st - Bolton (A) - 5.92
- Jan 22nd - Man Utd (H) - 5.92
After looking at the matches above, we can see that four of Theo’s five worst games have come in the last couple of weeks. So it is safe to assume that he is in a poor run of form, but what makes things even weirder is that two of his five best performances have come in the same time span. Until late January, Walcott had been playing fairly consistent football (with ratings usually in the 6.5 to 7.5 range), so why have his performances all of the sudden gone between very bad and very good?
Theo goes as the team goes
This may sound obvious but generally, Walcott only plays as good as the team does. Walcott, as much as we want him to be (and what makes it worse is he has shown flashes) is not a match winner. He is just simply not a world-class player. Is he bad? No. But he is no Henry.
So looking a little more closely at the best and worst Theo has produced this year; we can see that three of his top five performances came during Arsenal’s best team performances, which includes this weekend’s demolition of Spuds. On the flip side, we can also see that his worst run of the season has also coincided with the team’s low point of the season.
When Theo is at his best
Theo Walcott is at his best when he is allowed to play to his strengths, like all players. Those are his pace and his off the ball movement. Theo Walcott capitalises off of Robin van Persie’s movement into the midfield to link up play. When this happens he is able to run into the space that RvP has created and get in behind defences.
Essentially, Walcott plays as poacher-ish type player in Arsene Wenger’s system. He is expected to contribute to the team by using his movement off the ball and pace to drag opposition players out of position and open up space for his teammates to exploit as well as getting in behind defences and scoring goals.
Because of this, Theo excels against teams that want to attack against us and/or play with high defensive lines. See the Chelsea game at the Bridge and last weekend's North London derby. Both teams played with a high defensive line during the game and Theo Walcott was able to get in behind both defences and create havoc for the opposition.
Theo also excels when he doesn’t have to assist in the build up play. Any time he can stay on the shoulder of the last defender or there about he is much more dangerous. A great example of this is last weekend's game as well. With Yossi Benayoun on the left drifting in to the midfield to link up with Tomas Rosicky and help build play, Walcott was free to drift around and look to run in behind the Tottenham defense.
When Theo is at his worst
On the other hand, Theo struggles against teams that want to sit deep and play on the break against Arsenal. When this happens, Theo is limited in the space he can run into and doesn’t have the technique to consistently beat his marker one on one. And most of the time he is doubled up when this happens.
Walcott also struggles when he is forced to be involved heavily in the build up play. This often happens when teams sit deep and soak up pressure against Arsenal but when he is forced back into midfield to help link and build play it forces him to rely on technique and nullifies his pace.
Theo Walcott thrives on exploiting space off the ball and when he doesn’t have much to exploit he often disappears from matches. As you can see, all five of Theo’s worst matches this year came when up against defensive minded teams that sat deep and didn’t allow him any space to run into.
How to get Walcott to play his best consistently
So how can Arsene Wenger consistently get the best out of Mr. Walcott? Here are three few things that can help Theo become a bit more consistent:
1. Play a creative player opposite of Theo Walcott.
When Arsenal plays a true winger on the left opposite him, Arsenal become very direct. This is fine if we are playing on the break against a Chelsea or someone like that, but up against teams that sit uber deep this can leave Arsenal lacking in creativity. However, with a creative player opposite Walcott, it will take a lot of the ball retention responsibilities off of him and allow him to play his natural game.
2. Don’t be afraid to rotate.
What I mean by this is Arsene shouldn’t be afraid to leave Theo on the bench every now and then. When we come up against teams that intend to park the bus, it would behoove The Boss to play someone with more technique and creativity to help break down the wall in front of goal. After all, pace is only good if you have somewhere to run. Plus sometimes a rest can be what a player needs to find his form again (unless you’re Marouane Chamakh).
3. Theo the super sub!
Bringing Walcott off the bench could be potentially deadly. Anytime someone with pace comes in against tired legs it makes him that much more dangerous. Plus, if he comes one while Arsenal are trying to hold a one goal lead late, he instantly makes them that much more dangerous on the counter. Also he would add another dimension to attack if we were chasing a game. Does this mean that I think Walcott should come off the bench for every game? No. But it would certainly make sense to drop him for some games in which he won’t have the best chance of excelling.
So after looking at the numbers and factors that go into Theo Walcott’s play, I think its fair that say that despite he very odd current run of form where he plays very bad, then very good (sometimes within the same game) he has been fairly steady this season. But to be fair to Theo, he is sometimes put into situations where it is going to be hard for him to excel based on his playing style.
So with that being said it is up to his manger to make sure he is put in a situation where he can excel and use his best attributes to play his natural game. And when this happens, we can see how deadly Theo Walcott can be to opposition defences. Just ask ‘Arry.