I'll admit it, I had had enough of Theo Walcott by the end of last season. I thought he was a complete waste of a squad spot. I thought he was getting paid far too much money and I thought his Arsenal career should have been over after 10 years of unfulfilled potential. Here was a guy who was heralded as the next Thierry Henry when he arrived at the club from Southampton as a 16 year old. The World was his oyster and that oyster would surely yield hatfuls of goals. Fast forward to nigh on 11 years later and Walcott has only 1 double-digit goal Premier League season to his name (2012-13). Blah blah blah.
Of course, these are all points that have been hashed out before ad infinitum and I'm not about to spend an article regurgitating that nauseating narrative any more. I'll admit the error of my ways, I have eyes. And those eyes tell me that Theo Walcott has started this season very well indeed. He looks physically stronger, his work rate has been excellent, and there has been some end product to go with it. Through game week 6 Walcott has 3 goals and 2 assists (per the official game) and has played 70+ minutes in every game. It seems like he and Arsene Wenger have finally agreed upon his best position being on the right hand side and Walcott has rewarded his manager with performances of commitment and quality.
Again, it all seems a bit like we've heard all this stuff before with Theo but I have to admit, something feels a bit different this time around. I am aware that 6 matches is a small sample size but I have been watching Theo play for over a decade now, hoping desperately that he would fulfill his enormous potential and I cannot remember ever seeing him put in such accomplished, 2 way performances as he has done this season. And the numbers back me up.
He is shooting more, and from better areas than he ever has done. His shots per game (3), and shots from inside the box per game (2.3) in this young season are comfortably the highest of his Premier League career (2012/13 is second with 2.7 and 1.8 respectively). He is also attempting 2.8 tackles per game, which is almost triple the number of his next highest average (2011/12 - 1 tackle attempt per game). He is attempting 3 dribbles per game (1.7 successful), which is his highest number since 2012/13 when he averaged 3.4 (1.5 successful). All of this is to say; were he to stretch these types of performances over the course of a full season, it would be the best of his career by a long, long way.
That is a large if. Walcott is prone to streaky play and we have seen purple patches from him before. The only difference this time is his sheer work rate and commitment may well be the best we have ever seen from him. We haven't seen him egregiously pulling out of tackles at all this season. Against Chelsea, he was everywhere. No really. He was tied with Granit Xhaka and Shkodran Mustafi for successful tackles in the game (3). He attempted more take ons (6) than anyone else and hit the target with both of his shots, scoring one. In his post match interview he was visibly tired but the maturity in his responses was definitely cause for encouragement again. He seems to have acknowledged the need for focus and discipline (AND NOT GETTING AHEAD OF YOURSELVES!!!) both in his game and the Arsenal squad as a whole, and it has showed in his performances.
Walcott also seems to be benefitting greatly from Wenger's decision to move Alexis Sanchez into a more central striking role. The Chilean almost plays as a false 9 at times, dropping off into deeper, wider areas in order to pick up the ball in space to turn and run at the defense. When Sanchez does this, it allows Walcott to drift into more central areas off the right, finding space that his teammate (and usually a defender tracking him) has left behind. All 3 of his goals this season (Liverpool, Hull, Chelsea) have come from these sorts of situations. Sanchez vacates space, Walcott fills it and gets goalscoring opportunities. With Alexis scoring 4 and assisting 3 times in his last 4 games as the centre forward, it seems likely that Wenger will continue this experiment for the foreseeable future and that bodes well for the English winger as well.
Now I know anyone reading this will probably be thinking "great, another Arsenal supporter extolling their players' virtues too soon" and you may have a point. Walcott's past is certainly cause for concern when projecting his consistency and health going forward. But consider that the Gunners are hitting stride with a 4 game winning streak and their next 4 fixtures are: Burnley (A), Swansea City (H), Middlesbrough (H), and Sunderland (A). Consider that Walcott has been firmly entrenched in the starting lineup since week 1 and has only cemented that place in recent times. Also consider that his price in the official game is still the £7.5m number that it was at the start of the season. Now you start to see why I'm cautiously optimistic about his fantasy value going forward.
I know that Theo has burned people before. I'm all too aware of that fact. There just seems to be something a little different about him this season. Statistically he's doing very well and he appears to have maybe, just maybe, gotten to grips with some of the intangible things needed to make good on potential. Perhaps Wenger is right and his omission from England's Euro 2016 squad was the kick in the rear he needed. Perhaps, at 27 he is maturing, or realizing his footballing mortality or maybe he's just a late bloomer. But this is a different Theo Walcott for now, and as both an Arsenal supporter and a fantasy player with him in my squad, long may this Theo Walcott continue.
Sources: Stats Zone, Whoscored, EPL Official.