Mired in contract negotiations and probably distracted by a desired position change, Theo Walcott has seen his Arsenal starting status all but disappear this season…
It was just last year that we witnessed Theo emerge as one of Wenger’s main men, a player influential enough to claim the second most goals (8) and third most assists (8) on the team, and consistent enough to garner 32 starts in 35 EPL games played. Walcott had supposedly become an Arsenal mainstay last season, and his performances then looked like the promising launch point for many more years of regular first-team football… but just one season later, and already 10 games in, the speedy Southampton product has only been called upon for 1 measly EPL start.
With the crushing departure of Robin van Persie, you’d of thought Arsene Wenger would wipe away tears and quickly look to Theo Walcott as possibly the most crucial offensive holdover from last year’s team. That would make the most sense, considering the important role Theo played in the team last campaign and the steady season-to-season growth in playing time and influence he’s acquired with each passing year he’s been at the Emirates. He’s not just shown himself to be a dynamic winger who can score as many goals as he creates during a Prem League push, he’s also become a known commodity in the English game… and while new guys Podolski, Cazorla and Giroud are definitely worthy pickups (for particularly convenient sums of money too), it’s tough to guarantee their Gunner success when this is not only their maiden season in Arsenal red, but also their initial crack at the EPL.
Wouldn’t it make sense to play one of your most productive players from last season and at least try to nurture what little attacking continuity you can for this year’s campaign? Especially since that one player is still just 23 years old and likely has his best years ahead of him?
Apparently not… well, apparently not as a starter anyway. Usually being parked on the pine in favor of Gervinho, Walcott has seen his often-erratic teammate notch plenty of EPL/CL starts on the wing, and even get a shot at starting as the lone striker in some situations… both things Theo Walcott would give away a thousand hat trick game-balls to Carl Jenkinson to attain. And speaking of hat-trick game balls, when Walcott has been given the chance to start in the Capital One Cup matches this season (2 so far, against Coventry and Reading) he’s been nothing short of spectacular. 5 goals and 3 assists in two horrifically defended games against sub-par opponents to be sure, but even with those caveats it still becomes pretty clear that Walcott is a considerable cut above those said sub-par opponents and definitely seems deserving of more chances with the big boys… but before we get too far ahead of ourselves, does Wenger maybe have some devious plot for higher Walcott achievement as a substitute in mind? Has Theo struggled with fatigue-related issues in the past? Could there possibly be more to this!?
Well, when we take a quick look at last year, it should definitely be noted that every single time Walcott scored or got an assist, he started the game and played at least 75 minutes before being taken out. Also, in weeks where he had just played a Champions League game mid-week and then needed to play a league game that same weekend (which happened 6 times), he still managed to tally 1 goal and 2 assists during those said league games.
When we dive a little deeper into the numbers, we can see that Walcott scored an average of .25 goals per league start (8 goals in 32 games started), .17 goals per league match played immediately following a CL game (1 goal in those 6 games), and zero goals when used as a substitute. What about his assist totals? Well, he again averaged .25 assists per EPL start (8 assists in 32 games), .33 assists per EPL match played after a CL clash (2 assists in those 6 games), and still zero assists when used as a substitute. That’s a pretty steady rate of goal and assist production when given the nod to start, and none when brought on as a sub.
This year we’ve seen a somewhat similar trend: In the 4 games Theo Walcott has started this season (one EPL, one CL and two CC), he’s scored in 3 of them (getting a solo goal, a brace and a hat-trick) and notched 3 assists. That works out to 6 goals and 3 assists in 4 games as a starter this year, which is pretty much Cristiano-gaudy. In the 9 substitute appearances he’s made so far (which you can see he’s mostly been used as this year), he’s tallied just 2 goals and 2 assists cumulatively. With those stats it becomes pretty plain that he’s created a lot more goals/assists in lot less games when given the starting thumbs up… which pretty much debunks that whole super sub theory.
Sure, he’s probably (okay, certainly) played easier competition in those two Capital One Cup games, but he’s also been asked to play those games with the Arsenal second team (and they still managed to defeat Reading, which remains an EPL team whether you believe it or not). It’s become pretty clear that when Walcott’s given the chance to settle into a game, he absolutely has the quality to stuff the crap out of a stat sheet with goals, assists, and attempts.
There’s of course the lingering murmurings of someone’s Wenger-esque logic that maybe the ever-analyzing French manager is sitting Walcott in order to “learn to live” without the player should he leave during the transfer window, or that Wenger is simply practicing the age-old strategy of bringing on a fresh-legged, pacey player late in games to wreak havoc and steal a goal from a tired opponent… but when the implemented strategies are simply not matching up with the desired results, a change is necessary.
Starting Theo in this week’s Champions League game against Schalke was a definite move in the right direction, and unsurprisingly he rewarded Wenger with a goal… but if winning the domestic League is actually a priority (not just going for a top 4 finish year-in and year-out), you need to play your best players in all those games too.