28 February 2013

Walcott vs. Bale: Formerly Roommates, Currently Competitors

In the lead-up to Sunday's derby with Spurs, a lot of the talk has focused, naturally, on Gareth Bale's form. He is, quite simply, in rare form, having scored two goals (including the winner) against West Ham, and has 15 goals in the Prem to this point, good for 3rd behind Van Persie and Suarez. The fact that he and Theo Walcott played together at Southampton and have such similar skill-sets has prompted further discussion. I've previously compared Walcott to Van Persie as we seek ways to replace all of those goals from last year (which we've done quite well, thank you). Now, as the hype ramps up, it's worth comparing Walcott to Bale, if only to find out if Bale is as good as that hype has suggested and if the gap between them is as wide as it seems.

Across all competitions, Bale has 19 goals in 33 games, including 15 in 24 Prem games; Walcott has 18 in 22, including 11 in 16 Prem games. At the risk of revealing my bias, it sounds like Mr. Walcott emerges ahead of Mr. Bale. The only real distinction that can be offered is that Bale has been on an incredible tear lately. In Spurs' last five matches, he has scored seven goals, all of which have been crucial to Spurs' success. Also remarkable has been the timing of so many of these goals--the winner against West Ham came in the 90th minute, and his goals against Lyon came in extra time of the first half and in extra time again in the second half. In my comparison of Walcott and Van Persie, I emphasized how vital Van Persie's goals have been for United and how "superfluous" Walcott's have been. At this point, though, I'm essentially done extolling Bale's virtues. Yes, he has been on fire--but he's absolutely had to be. Spurs rely on him to a much-further extent than Arsenal relies on Walcott.

Whereas Bale leads his team in goals and is followed closely by Defoe with 10 Prem goals, no other Spurs player has more than five (Clint Dempsey--USA! USA! Okay, I'm done). Looking at Arsenal shows that we have a more-diverse attack, with Cazorla and Walcott scoring 11 each, and Giroud with 9 and Podolski with 8. My point here is that Spurs need Bale to score in a way that inflates (not unfairly) his stats, and this pressure does not similarly drive Walcott's stats. Therefore, a direct comparison is not necessarily all that revealing. If it was a one-on-one match-up, maybe these stats would get us somewhere. However, it ain't so they don't.

Among the chatter, Sir Clive Woodward has spoken glowingly of both Walcott and Bale, saying, "you can see potential greatness even when they are just kids" and "their quality was evident even then as 16-year olds". However, former Southampton manager George Burley is less even in his comparison, saying that   he "always thought Gareth was the better prospect" and was "more the [complete?] package" compared to Walcott. I might be inclined to agree, but I would say in Walcott's defense that his development arguably suffered while playing in the shadows of other forwards for whom inspiring and mentoring are not strong-suits. On the other hand, Bale has played for a team that needs him to develop and has given him room to do so, if only by necessity. Bale has played with the likes of Adebayor, Defoe, and Van Der Vaart, none of whom seem to command as much deference as Van Persie did. With Van Persie gone, Walcott seems well on his way to closing the gap, perceived or real, between him and Bale.

As the game approaches, the talk grows. Some are suggesting that Bale is talking of "revenge", but I haven't seen him use the word. They're sure to be up for this game, including Adebayor, whose red-card triggered our 5-2 win. Huh. It took me a while to find a link to that game, as it appears we've beaten Spurs 5-2 more than once. I was looking for November 2012 but stumbled across February 2012 instead. What a world. Let that be the only actual trash-talk I engage in.

As both sides know, this is a huge game on a number of levels. Neither team can afford to drop points--although I'd settle for a tie. Perhaps. Nah--let's take it to 'em and knock some fillings loose!