07 May 2013

Is Walcott about to have a break-through akin to Bale's?

We've all watched Gareth Bale over the last four months as he's torn through the Premier League, and not a few of us have asked, "why do defenses let him shoot the ball?" He's been ingenious in creating space between himself and the defender in order to unleash a shot and now leads the Prem in goals from outside the box and, in fact, has outscored eight entire teams in this category so far. Each week seems to deliver another maddening, last-gasp goal to salvage points for Spurs; meanwhile, we sputter along, eking out our own victories wondering who, if anyone, will score for us this week. I've called Bale a one-man team (as we were last year) and mean it as a criticism. However, there is something to be said for knowing you have a player you can count on to deliver in just about every game in which he plays.

One of my first and earliest posts attempted to compare our own Theo Walcott with Bale, based on the premise that they both came through Southampton and now feature as their club's #1 scorer. The comparison flattered Walcott, not just because of my own allegiances, but because Walcott had delivered twelve goals and seven assists, and Bale had netted fifteen and three. In other words, the stats did give my comparison some merit. However, since that time, Walcott hit a dry patch that has lasted for most of the second half of the season, and Bale has gone on an epic tear, earning him awards and comparisons to some of the world's best. Are we now regretting signing the wrong Southampton product? Arsène admits that he looked at both but went with Walcott, and here we are today.

Before we punch anything, though, we should consider the tipping point that Bale seems to have reached but Walcott hasn'tyet. Although Walcott started seeing first-team action with Arsenal a year before Bale got his with Spurs, Bale has actually played more minutes, and he therefore may have reached a critical mass of game-time experience that has propelled him to the top of his game. Encouragingly for our man Walcott, there does seem to be a trend for us to pin some hopes on.

How has Bale's performance achieved critical mass? He may have amassed a certain number of minutes beyond which his performance has spiked dramatically. While the first half of his season was a very good one, he has absolutely skyrocketed through the second, with 14 goals and 5 assists, seven MOTM awards from whoscored.com in his last 14 appearances, and an overall rating of 7.87. A glance at the graph shows that he crossed 10,000 minutes of top-level action this year, at some point during their February 3rd match against West Brom. This seems to be the point at which he reached a tipping-point10,000 minutes at this level might be the magic moment for him. Without making
too much of the arbitrary number, Robin van Persie's magical season last year was also the year in which he amassed 10,000 minutes in the Prem.  Even Lionel Messi, who seemingly always has been an assassin, has leapt from scoring 30 goals per season to 50 since crossing the 10,000 minute mark. In fact, each scorer has seen his goals-per-game average double, the exception being Bale, who has more than tripled his output. Granted, his sample size is quite small, and obviously, most players need a few seasons to find their footing and make an impact. All I'm trying to do here is identify a potential threshold for when that happens.

What does this mean for Walcott? Well, he's played 9,848 minutes in the Prem to this point, with 180 minutes of game-time left before the season ends. Without saying I"m willing to wait 152 minutes for him to break through, wouldn't it be amazing to see Walcott bag a hat-trick in the last 30 minutes against Newcastle? In that earlier comparison I made between he and Bale, I pointed out that Bale has the decided advantage of being his team's out-and-out best (and only) scoring option, while Walcott had been an understudy to van Persie. This has already been Walcott's best season, at least in goals scored, if not in consistency. However, if there is anything in this 10,000 minute-threshold, 2013-14 could be a break-out season, the likes of which make us ever forget our recent struggles and sees Walcott join the fray for the Golden Boot.