(Today’s fantastic blog was written by The Squid Boy. Follow him on Twitter at @thesquidboylike!)
I spent yesterday evening watching England beat Bulgaria away. Okay that’s a half-truth. I spent the evening watching Theo Walcott.
Ah yes, good old young Theo. I can’t remember a player who has split the fanbase so much with regards to his best position on the pitch. Wide midfielder? Winger? Striker? All of the above? It’s a very subjective answer and opinions are varied across the Goonerverse.
But in all honesty, only the opinion of two men count – Theo Walcott and Arsene Wenger.
Intriguingly enough, the Club list him as a “striker”. That is all fine and dandy when you consider how high up the pitch he plays. But if you look at Andrey Arshavin’s profile – a man who plays in the same position but on the opposite flank – he is listed as a midfielder. Hmmm. And I would wager a fair amount of money that Samir Nasri was also listed as a midfielder, despite spending the vast majority of last season on the wings.
The man naturally sees himself as a striker and always has done. Through his developmental years he accepted that he was being groomed for the centre-forward position. But as time progresses it’s understandable that he gets itchy feet for the role. With every finish that nestles in the bottom corner, his hunger grows. He wants to be in that position more often and do what comes most naturally to him. Forget blazing past hapless defenders with the ball at his feet or delivering inch-perfect crosses – Theo is a finisher.
Donning the famous no.14 on his back, comparisons to a certain Thierry Henry are inevitable. And I can see it to some extent – their pace (obviously) and style of finishing; the way they open their body to curl the ball around the keeper’s left hand. But Theo has nothing of Henry’s strength or, to put it bluntly, skill set. Indeed, I regard young master Walcott more akin to Michael Owen. Small, extremely nippy and with a nose for goal. Can you imagine Michael Owen playing as a winger? Nope, thought not.
Nary does an interview with him or an article about him go by without mention of the role he craves. All the moreso when the goals start to flow frequently, as they are doing now.
And it’s not just Theo or journalists or fans who are championing his cause. Even his international team-mates have jumped on the bandwagon. In the build-up to last night’s game, a story broke in that Express that Theo ran riot in a practice match, bagging a whopping four goals. The story further went on to claim that John Terry – who was on the receiving end of the four goals – actually asked Theo: “how are you not playing up-front for Arsenal?”
The reason is obvious – our formation. Make all the cases you want about Theo playing up top, but he simply can’t do the job that Robin van Persie does. The way we function, we need our frontman to hold the ball up and link play. So far I’ve seen little evidence of either in Theo’s artillery. People will then say that he could simply play on the shoulder, but given the way teams park the bus against us (especially at The Emirates), space in behind will be at a premium and the way he stretches the game for us is vital.
In addition, how often did Michael Owen play up-front on his own? Owen tended to function best when he had a Heskey alongside him, and it comes as little surprise that Andy Carroll was partnering Theo in the aforementioned training session. Don’t worry, I’m not advocating that we go out and buy a lumbering oaf to get the best out of Theo. Far from it. But I am stating my belief that Theo cannot play as the lone striker in our current system.
The 4-3-3 was very much set up with Cesc in mind. It unburdened our ex-captain of the defensive duties that come with being part of a two-man central midfield and allowed him to play a freer role further up the pitch. When Cesc departed I was sad but not fearful of the future, for I believe he had made us tactically inflexible simply because he was undroppable. In his absence, I felt we would be able to sometimes revert to 4-4-2. A tigerish midfield duo of Wilshere and Song flanked by any number of wide midfielders, with v.Persie playing in a second striker role behind a more direct forward. A candidate for this centre-forward role would have included Theo.
However pre-season set the stall out for this campaign, as not once did we adopt this tactic. This may be due to the fact that Cesc was still employed by the Club and Wenger harboured hopes that he’d stay, or that we were going to stick to our 4-3-3 guns irrespective of the Spaniard’s future.
And now with the signing of another Spaniard in Mikel Arteta, it seems that the en vogue formation of a double pivot backing up a more advanced creator shall prevail. So Theo’s coveted forward role looks highly unlikely this season.
Now here’s where I start to worry. Theo has always come across as sweet boy off the field and perhaps a little meek on it. At the very beginning of the season I saw a fired up Theo who was tired of being bullied by defenders. He gave as good as he got and argued back to referees. I even remember commenting on Twitter that I was loving this newfound feisty side to him. No more Mr Nice Guy.
But then after the Liverpool game, I wondered whether we were mistaking his feistiness with petulance. I cannot remember the incident, but there was a moment during the match where he came off looking like a spoilt brat. And I started to wonder – has his positional frustration started to manifest in his on-pitch behaviour. Is he getting annoyed that he constantly receives the ball tight to the touchline and can do little more than run up a blind alley?
Then came the argument with youngster Carl Jenkinson at Old Trafford in the lead up to Ashley Young’s first goal. Now I know Theo is no veteran and sometimes a telling off is required, but maybe he should have recognised his senior standing in the squad and not been so harsh on Jenkinson. Easy to say in hindsight, I know, but I can’t help feel that Jenkinson distracted mindset may have seen him lose track of his man…none other than the goalscorer, Ashley Young.
And this is all on the pitch, for I have yet to mention Theo’s new autobiography. Aside from the fact that releasing an autobiography at the tender age of 22 is rather preposterous, apparently some things he say in it come across as less than flattering – particularly towards a certain Mr Capello. Of course autobiographies should contain the whole truth and nothing but, but again you go back to the starting point – why release one when your career is still active at the risk of alienating people that are important to you? It comes off a bit Billy Big Boots, does it not? Allied with the on-pitch stuff I have mentioned above, it gives rise to the question: has Theo Walcott become a bit of a prima-donna? Worryingly, his current is due to run out in a few summers’ time…
Before you start accusing me of initiating a witch-hunt for Theo, I’d like to make it known that I like Theo. A lot. I bought his no.14 jersey from a season’s back and I have a signed no.32 shirt of his from when he first broke onto the scene. Like an excitable idiot I even purchased the no.23 England kit that he wore to the 2006 World Cup (or rather, that he didn’t wear). And I rate him highly too. I reckon he’s the best finisher at the Club.
My call is simply for Theo to channel his frustration in a more positive manner.
The signing of Arteta perpetuates the usage of a 4-3-3. But Theo should remember that his best form for the Club came in the middle of last season during the wonderful purple patch that shall forever be known as Theo Van Nasregas. (a single tear rolls down my cheek as I recall those halcyon days)
And he should also know that Theo Van Nasregas could well be replicated with Robin dropping deep and creating space centrally for Theo to run onto passes from Jack Wilshere and Arteta. Plus another string to the bow is the ability and tendency that Theo and Gervinho have to swap wings. This will often see Theo cutting in from the left side onto his favoured right-foot. All in all, the formation and players we have can see Theo flourish again this season. And to be fair to the boy, he has started pretty well.
So I ask Theo to stick to his guns this season. Accept that your time in the centre will be thoroughly limited, don’t let your frustration boil over, and make the most of the opportunities that come your way from the wider areas. Essentially, embrace the variety and fluidity of our front three and appreciate the creativity of our midfield. Get in front of goal as often as possible and be so clinical that Arsene can’t envisage not having you in that position at every given opportunity. If you want the formation tailored to you strengths in the future, show us why now.
Squid Boy – http://twitter.com/#!/TheSquidBoyLike