Theo Walcott, as in so many years before, started out on a tear for Arsenal. Walcott tallied five goals and two assists in his first eight Premier League games (not to mention another three goals in two non-League matches). The blistering start had many wondering, was this it? Was this finally the year that Walcott shed the mercurial, injury-proned past and finally showcased consistent world-class talent?
It sure seemed like it. Week in and week out, Walcott was one of the best performers on the field, often making up for lackluster performances from some of his teammates (ahem, Mesut Ozil, cough). According to WhoScored.com, Walcott’s match rating was above 7.0 in 10 of his first 11 matches.
Then November came. Starting with the North London Derby, Walcott’s performances began to slip. His form was less inspiring, and the goals came a little further in between (three in his next eight League matches). And then, once again, the injury bug took a bite. Walcott sat with a calf strain starting in mid-December, missing five league matches and one FA Cup tie.
Walcott’s form has been difficult to decipher since his return. He’s received little run in the side in the premier league, but has been brilliant in the FA Cup. There aren’t as many statistics available for the cup competition, but the straightforward goals speak for themselves. Walcott has scored five goals in three cup matches and has been one of Arsenal’s single best performers in the competition.
But selecting a handful of games can be misleading. Those FA Cup ties came against Sutton United, Lincoln and a Southampton team without any of their first-choice defenders. Arsenal accomplished what it needed to, but beating down weaker teams hardly shows that Walcott is back to world-beating form.
In contrast, Arsenal have struggled mightily in the Premier League since Walcott’s return. He has played in four straight games, but has only started two and was subbed off in both of those. Goals have been scarce all around for the Gunners lately, meaning the spotlight isn’t on Walcott in particular.
To be fair, and maybe to shed some light on the issue, Arsenal have been facing some harder competition lately (Chelsea, Liverpool, Bayern Munich twice). These behemoths spaced over a few weeks could potentially prevent them from getting on a roll, but shouldn’t be used as a complete excuse. Watford did snatch a win at the Emirates after all, and surely Arsenal have at least as much talent on the pitch as Liverpool.
Walcott’s better performances come when he gets to position himself further up the field. It’s intuitive, but it makes sense. Walcott’s speed gives him the largest advantage; when he can get in behind he poses the greatest threat. Fittingly, he has struggled against better defenses and flourished against the more porous ones. But even further, when Walcott has to spend more time covering defensively, he has more ground to cover to start one of those bombing runs down the sideline. This gives defenders more time and more of an angle to prevent it from happening.
Now, if you’ve read this far without throwing your hands up at the simplicity of it all, well, thanks. But a simple answer is often the most truthful. The real story here, to me, is why Walcott hasn’t gotten more run in the side. Arsene Wenger is likely adhering to the careful player management strategies that he showcases every year. No doubt Walcott is fragile and maybe Wenger is just warming him back into the side.
But even given that, Walcott has been in the side for nine straight games. Since his return, Walcott has scored more goals than any other Arsenal player in all competitions. His performance in their most recent game against Bayern Munich was one of Arsenal’s best. He even snatched an early goal before everything crumbled apart. He’s surely back to full strength at this point.
Given the backdrop at the North London side, it seems crazy that Walcott, one of the best performers on the season, is hardly getting a chance. If I were a betting man, I’d bet we’ll see a healthy dose of the winger for the rest of the season. He’s been successful in the side, and Arsenal have struggled without him.
The fantasy season (and the real one) is entering the stretch run. Now may be the most opportune time to strike for a players that have a record of producing but may not have any recent success in fantasy. Walcott is playing, and he’s scoring. Fixture congestion is becoming less of an issue for Arsenal after their drubbing in the Champion’s League.
Among the unrest with Wenger, I’d be surprised to see him continue to leave out a club favorite that deserves to be back in the side. Arsenal need a pick me up. I think that’s Walcott.