Back in April, Wenger was asked about why Theo Walcott had failed to kick on. Expectations for Walcott were high last season. Wenger had handed him a prime role as the center in Arsenal’s attack and Walcott had produced just five League goals and ten goals in all competitions. Walcott had started 23 times for Arsenal and was subbed on 21 times, playing just 2076 minutes and averaging a goal every 231 minutes of playing time. A terrible record for a center forward at any club and an impossibly poor record for a club like Arsenal.
Wenger stood by his man:
“Not as well as you could have expected,” Wenger said, describing Walcott’s return on the season “He had good periods in the season. I think recently he has gone through a much more difficult period. But he will come back.”
He didn’t come back that season. He finished the season without scoring another goal or notching another assist.
To be fair to Walcott, both the player and the manager didn’t seem to know what Walcott’s best role should be. Wenger admitted as much:
The problem with Theo is he wants to play on the right and through the middle. You have to fix yourself somewhere. When he does go through the middle he thinks maybe it’s better for me on the right. It’s true that I fixed him more through the middle, because of the quality of his runs and the intelligence of his runs. And he has improved his finishing a lot, so he can be a player through the middle. On the flanks today you have to work very hard defensively.
There’s the riddle of Theo Walcott. He wanted to be played through the middle but always felt more comfortable on the right. But if Wenger played him wide, Walcott was a liability because he would switch off defensively at times. Walcott was a man without a place.
And queue this pre-season. Walcott announces that he wants to play wide again and fans respond with derisive laughter. But Wenger, seeing something in training, is confident enough in Walcott that he loans out the more industrious Joel Campbell and reinstates Walcott on the right.
The trick worked. Walcott is now able to slide into the middle in the final phase of attack and use his superior finishing to punish teams. He also gives teams the frights down the wings with his speed. And he’s increased his defensive work rate for the team, playing more like a true wing player. We can see this in the stats.
Walcott has already made more successful tackles this season (26) than in any season before. In fact, he’s made more successful tackles this season than in the three prior seasons combined (22). His tackle success rate is up a bit this season from the last three (70%) and his combination of tackle attempts and winning percentage is his best ever rate.
The same can be said about his finishing. Looking at all of his shots and goals across all competitions, Walcott is finishing at a career high 22%. Anything above 15% is elite striker level finishing and so 22% is not something we should expect to continue until the end of the season. Though if it does, we should just say thanks and move on.
While Walcott’s finishing has improved, his ability to create from wide has dropped off. Walcott’s best ever season for Arsenal was 2012/13. He either scored or assisted in 35 goals that year. He’s “only” scored or assisted in 16 this season, which is actually similar to the number he put up last season. So he has quite a bit of work left to reach what I would consider his elite level of at least 30 goals created or scored.
Part of the reason for this drop in assists from Walcott (he has just 2 this season) is that he’s not creating as much for his teammates as he was in the past;
Again, that halcyon 2012/2013 season shows a player who was super active in all phases of play and easily Arsenal’s most important attacking threat. This season it looks more like his teammates Alexis, Ozil, and Iwobi are taking over the creative duties. This is freeing Walcott up to be the super finisher that Wenger said he would be last season.
Walcott has also vastly improved his dribbling. He’s never been a great dribbler but I suspect that he has worked on this aspect of his game throughout his career and it’s finally paying off with a 59% dribble rate this season.
One final word on Walcott. He’s not a perfect player, no one is. But his strengths are his speed and finishing. Against a team like Chelsea who both press high and who play with a back three, Walcott could find some joy. The 352 that Conte deploys leaves space in the wide areas. Also, the high press is typically broken by luring their midfielders in to press the center backs wide, who then hit long passes over the top. Theo Walcott is perfect for breaking this kind of play and the club he has scored the most goals against in his career is Chelsea, with 6.
Lucky number 7?