24 September 2013

Theo's slow start—a cause for concern?

Amidst all of the successes we're enjoying in the start of the 2013-14 campaign, it seems a bit churlish of me to point out that Theo Walcott is off to such a slow start that one wonders if the malaise that settled over him after signing his contract threatens to become a personality trait rather than a phase. With news out that he might be out for two weeks or more due to the injury he suffered before the Stoke match, he could miss as many as three Prem matches—at Swansea on 28 September, at West Brom on 5 October, and home against Norwich on 19 October, not to mention Wednesday's league cup clash, again at West Brom (a match he probably would have rested for anyway). Aside from the dilemmas this creates for rotation and the focus it puts on injury with him, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Podolski, and Cazorla all working their ways through various injuries, we almost have to wonder where Walcott's been in the first place even when fit.

Ever since signing his new contract back in January, he just hasn't found anything resembling form. He had started the first half of the 2012-13 campaign very slowly with only one goal in his first five appearances, just as he has this season. However, he did go on a bit a of tear, tallying 15 goals in 21 appearances. Then, come January, he hit a drought that saw him score 7 goals in 23 appearances. Whether this was down to pressure tied to proving his worth, fatigue, niggling injuries, complacency, or some combination thereof is hard to say. Having started the current campaign as slowly as he has—one goal in seven appearances—is troubling. In those seven matches, according to whoscored.com, he's managed to take 23 shots, putting 13 on target but only converting once for a woeful conversion rate of 7.6%. When we consider that Walcott's "typical" shot comes from inside the box and rarely at a distance of more than 12 yards, it's of course natural that he should manage to put many of his shots on frame. Contrast this against Aaron Ramsey, who has scored taken 20 shots, put nine on target, and scored six goals for a conversion rate of 67%. While it's unlikely that he'll keep up that kind of finishing over the long term, consider that many of his shots have from distance and through a thicket of defenders and teammates while Walcott frequently finds himself with a clear path to goal and only the keeper to beat, albeit at a tight angle.

It wasn't so long ago that I was suggesting that Walcott would go for 20 Prem goals. I have also wrestled with doubts about his consistency. On his day, when he combines his pace with intelligent movement and deft touch, he can eviscerate defenses and even his movement off the ball can be enough to unsettle and stretch them. However, when he contents himself with merely wandering on the wing, as he too often does, he disappears. With 42% of the Arsenal attack coming down the right flank (courtesy again of whoscored.com), it is vital that the attacking winger on that side show greater finishing ability. As it currently stands, however, too many attacks fizzle out with Walcott putting a tame shot directly at the keeper or seeing that keeper beat him to the ball. Unfortunately, Arsenal's attacking options look desperately thin with Giroud the only first-team attacker still healthy at the moment. Youngster Serge Gnabry, after a tentaive start against Stoke, showed some positive signs and will probably be relied on heavily over the next few weeks as Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain work their way back from injury. Perhaps some bright performances from the German could put pressure to Walcott; seeing that there is some kind of competition for the spot might prod him from whatever torpor seems to have settled into him.

It's not too late for Walcott to find his form. After all, he did start slowly last year before hitting his stride. Arsenal can only hope he returns from injury more determined and purposeful. Ramsey will eventually slow down, just as Giroud has after his own bright start, and Arsenal is going to need someone to step up. We may have to wait two weeks for him to even make an appearance, but here's hoping he'll make it worth the wait.

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