Premier League

Reinvented Theo Walcott can replace Sanchez as Arsenal’s talisman

 • by Matt Gault
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All we hear from Arsenal these days is Alexis Sanchez this, Arsene Wenger that. Oh, if we’re lucky, we’ll hear a bit more about Mesut Ozil’s imminent departure, too.

With pathetic attempts at protests, pathetic performances against Bayern and a general piteous mood enveloping the club at the moment, we’re not hearing much about Theo Walcott. But, for a player who has regularly found himself in the spotlight since bursting through at the age of 16, that hasn’t been the worst thing in the world.

That’s not to say that Walcott is wishing for the various sagas dominating the headlines to continue, but perhaps the circumstances of this season have enabled the England international to work efficiently on his own game under the radar, away from the viral clips of Sanchez sniggering on benches and Wenger looking increasingly fed up in press conferences.

Walcott turns 28 on Thursday (March 16th), an age which sees many players operating at maximum power, so it seems like an appropriate time to evaluate his recent progress for the Gunners. Walcott, whose career at Arsenal has too often been interrupted with injuries and dips in form, has battled through some of the darkest times in his professional career to become one of Arsenal’s most consistent attackers.

His exploits may not echo the blood and thunder of his tempestuous Chilean teammate, but there’s enough evidence this season to suggest that Walcott can be a key figure in the post-Wenger world.

As touched upon before, Walcott’s performances for club and country have been the subject of much debate over his real worth. At the end of last season, his stock plummeted when he was left out of Roy Hodgson’s Euro 2016 squad.

Whereas he admitted to being ‘in a state of shock’ at being omitted from Fabio Capello’s World Cup 2010 squad, there could be little complaint from the player over him meriting a place among Hodgson’s traveling party to France. It left the winger – blessed with extraordinary acceleration – staring at a long, soulful summer of deep contemplation.

Last season was indeed a torturous one for Walcott, with a crushing nadir arguably coming at Old Trafford in February. Eyebrows were raised when he was preferred to Olivier Giroud in attack and Walcott did little to vindicate his manager’s faith by managing only 16 touches of the ball before being hauled off after 63 minutes. Walcott drifted anonymously the entire time he was on the pitch, except for the moment when he squandered possession in his own-half that led to United’s opening goal.

Following that, he was reduced largely to a role on the bench thanks to Wenger’s losing patience and the emerging Alex Iwobi gaining plaudits.

Losing his place to a teenager and losing his place on the England plane weren’t lost on him, though, as Walcott’s conscious attempts to improve his attitude and approach to football have shaped an act of reinvention that could see him be Arsenal’s talisman next season.

Walcott has made effective alterations to his diet, training and psychological preparation for matches that have helped establish a sense of consistency and complete an admirable turnaround for a player who was straying dangerously to wasting his natural abilities.

Walcott has helped his case immensely by discovering an appetite for defensive duties, something which was always lacking for a player born to run at full-backs. Tracking back and becoming more tactically astute have been reflected in averaging more tackles and clearances this season.

Embracing the uglier, disciplined sides of the game have rounded him as a player and cemented his place in the squad ahead of Chamberlain and Iwobi.

Wenger has enjoyed it, too: “I think he used to be 90 per cent forward and 10 per cent defending. Today he is 50-50,” the Frenchman said back in September.

After a rich vein of goal-scoring form at the start of the season that saw a run of seven in six games between September and October, Walcott’s devastating spell has dissipated somewhat admittedly. However, he has still greatly outshone Iwobi – who has failed to kick on from his promising emergence twelve months ago – as well as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who is rumoured to be angling for a summer departure.

Walcott has continued to work hard, though, both on and off the pitch, scoring recently against Sutton United, Bayern Munich and Lincoln City while the Ox – four years Walcott’s junior – appears to be drifting towards the exit door.

Yes, it’s possible that the summer will bring with it sweeping changes at the Emirates. There’s an increasingly likelihood that Wenger will be gone, while Ozil, Sanchez and Oxlade-Chamberlain may well join him. When a manager of 20 years and a club’s two world-class players leave in quick-fire fashion, it’s understandable that supporters would look to the remaining crop for leaders.

Walcott, the club’s longest-serving player, can be that source of reassurance, a man primed to step out of Sanchez’s shadow and guide Arsenal through a possible period of unprecedented uncertainty.

This season has been one of reinvention and redemption for Walcott. While they may lack the explosive, electric exhilaration of his formative years, this Walcott package comes with professionalism, commitment and renewed hunger.

However, while we can be pleased with his career being on an upward trajectory, another season of forced reinvention might lie ahead: one that will force him to become the superstar, should prognostications of a talent exodus indeed turn out to be accurate.

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