08 March 2016

Walcott? Pffft! Nothin' but a flat-track bully, that one...

After Arsenal's confident 0-4 thrashing of Hull, the one that advanced the Gunners to the FA Cup's sixth round (at home against Watford on Sunday), the headlines will surely be all agog over Theo Walcott's performance. After all, two goals and an assist are nothing to shake a stick it. The superlatives will fly: "He's resurrected," they'll say; "Henry-esque on that first goal!" and "that's the Theo they've all been waiting for" and so on. In so doing, won't those headlines miss the larger point? After all, didn't Theo bag his brace against a Championship side that was down 0-2 and had all but thrown in the towel already (if it hadn't already done so even before the match began)?

While that's true, I exaggerate the complaints and criticism—which does seem to be in keeping with a grand tradition stretching back a decade or so, perhaps inconveniently matching Walcott's time with the club. However, the man's form or lack thereof has been a concern for quite some time, something I've chronicled here, here, and here. After all, he's been all but invisible for long, long stretches of the season, so much so that Joel Campbell seems to have beaten him out as first-choice on the right. Heck, were it not for Ramsey's injury against Hull, Walcott might be third choice on that side. That he performed so well on the left—even if it was against a Hull side with at least one eye on other fixtures—still stands as an enticing prospect for the run-in.

Let's face facts: Walcott has been woefully short on confidence for weeks, if not months. Since a brief flurry in late September and early October during which he found four goals and three assists in six appearances, he's all but disappeared from the radar. He's popped up here and there with goals against Man City and Leicester, but these have felt too much like oases in an otherwise very barren desert. Since October, his performance and his confidence have steadily eroded to the point of oblivion. Even the dramatic equaliser against Leicester seemed to do little to lift his spirits. He followed those heroics with four thoroughly indifferent performances. On the whole, it was starting to feel as if a certain stagnation had set in—had Walcott progressed at all in his time at Arsenal? He certainly hasn't become that mythic "heir to Henry" even if he does wear the same number.

Then again, his first goal against Hull was Henry-esque; he lurked just onside and pounced neatly on Campbell's inch-perfect through-ball and cut in on his right to curl it past Jakupovic—it was very nearly a frame-by-frame replay of Henry's epic goal against Leeds United in the 2012 FA Cup third round. Enough of such comparisons, though. Walcott is his own man, not an heir to or copy of Henry. He doesn't carry the supreme confidence, the arrogance, that separates the likes of Henry from others. As such, Walcott might need a night like the one he had on Tuesday, even if it did come against an overmatched, distracted squad with its backs already up against it.

It's worth noting that neither of Walcott's goals came through his most-vital (if only?) asset, his speed. Both of his goals came through intelligent timing and movement; in both cases, he tiptoed around the edges of being caught offside and timed his run forward perfectly. For the second goal, he did have to adjust his run to gather Iwobi's pass, which was a bit behind his run, but his shot squirted pass Jakupovic after a deflection. The harder one works, the luckier one gets.

Walcott found an assist and one goal while plying his trade on the left; he found his second goal while working on the right. If he can look past the idea that he should play through the middle, if he can realise that he has more to offer than pure pace, he might just start to recognise his own quality. He's not the heir to Henry. He's not a flat-track bully. However, sometimes, taking a turn at being a flat-track bully can elevate a man towards the upper echelons of his potential. Here's hoping then that Theo finds the confidence he's so sorely lacked and leads Arsenal's charge towards an improbable double!