Focus. Desire. Fighting attitude. The message could not have been clearer. Arsene Wenger had chosen his words carefully to ensure there were no hidden meanings. There was no danger of miscommunication or misunderstanding.
“I said before the season started that we will get a different Theo Walcott this year,” the manager began, speaking after the victory over Watford. “If he can maintain that focus, that desire and that fighting attitude then he will have a great season.”
If. It is a word that has come to define Walcott’s career, one which implies doubt or uncertainty. If you are among your club’s highest-earning players, should you not be one of its best? If you maintain hopes of returning to the international fold, would a fresh start elsewhere not be beneficial? If you are 27 and still do not know your best playing position, is there any hope?
“I have told the manager that I want to be known for playing on the right again,” said Walcott the winger on August 3. “I believe that he has all the ingredients to be a great striker,” his manager would add of Walcott the forward just five days later. After years of swapping positions, the latest comments merely added to the mystery.
Wenger made no secret of his reluctance to use Walcott as a winger. “On the flank, today there is much defensive work asked from the players that you lose a lot of his qualities when you put him there,” the manager said earlier this month. “He is not a great defender.”
Perhaps the Frenchman had a point. In the 2015/16 season, Walcott attempted just 20 tackles, winning 11. In the 2013/14 season, he attempted just six and won five. The campaign in between – 2014/15 – he did not attempt a single tackle.
Against Watford, the 27-year-old showcased his defensive capabilities. Pressing a troubled defence from the front, Walcott finally used his pace to his advantage. He completed 77 sprints – at least 12 more than any other player on the pitch. He gained possession six times, more than any other Arsenal player. Only two starters for the visitors – Nacho Monreal (four) and Rob Holding (six) – lost possession on fewer occasions. He has now attempted ten tackles this season, winning eight. And at Vicarage Road he made two interceptions. That is only two fewer than his Premier League tally for the entire 2013/14 season, and one fewer than his 2014/15 total.
Theo Walcott has won 8 tackles in 270 PL minutes this season.
In all of last season he won 11 in 1375 minutes.
— Lewis (@LGAmbrose) August 28, 2016
Coupled with his attacking input, this was Walcott at his best. No player had more than his three shots, and his assist for Alexis Sanchez’s goal was excellent. A call-up to Sam Allardyce’s first England squad is just reward for a fine start to the season.
Walcott, clearly, should no longer be perceived as a striker. But at Vicarage Road, he provided the most compelling evidence yet that he has a future as Arsenal’s right-winger. As far as focus, desire and fighting attitude go, he looks like a man playing for his future. There’s a reason for that.