With the mood music decidedly more romantic for the possible re-signing of Theo Walcott (26), it’s time to consider just how effective a striker Theo can be, starting August 15th of next season.
Spoiler: Here is my thesis…Theo Walcott is a 25+ goal per season striker. AND I’m just talking Premier League goals.
THIERRY HENRY AND IAN WRIGHT DISAGREE
We all know what Thierry Henry had to say on Arsenal’s striker situation. The short version: Giroud isn’t good enough so…we need to sign a world class center forward.
But Theo James Walcott didn’t even get a mention.
Contrast that with the views of the other super-striker for Arsenal of recent times, one Ian Wright…
IAN WRIGHT. HE WASN’T TOO SHABBY
Just a reminder: Wright scored 185 goals for Arsenal, and at a faster rate than Thierry Henry. He reached the 100 goal mark far quicker too – 38 games quicker – Wright (100 goals in 143 games); Henry (100 goals in 181 games.)
Here is how Wright addressed the “Arsenal needs to sign a world class striker” question during Ivan’s Q&A:
“Arsenal don’t do that, they don’t just go and say ‘we want Lewandowski’ and do what Chelsea do and say they want the player. Arsenal don’t work like that. I think Olivier has been brilliant, he’s been scoring goals and he’s improving. But he needs help. I would still move Theo to the centre because I think he can’t be stopped, he’s got too much pace.”
Perhaps Wright relates to Theo more than Henry does because Wright wasn’t a world class player. But he was fast, lethal and quite often brilliant. You get the sense that Wright can see something of himself in Theo: A 5’9″, lightning-quick, goal machine.
REVISITING THE FA CUP FINAL: (Well, if you twist my arm…go on then.)
Ian Wright: “We absolutely murdered Villa! I was saying on the punditry that this is what Arsenal are capable of and you cannot live with Arsenal when they play like that. Just having Theo on the edge of it all and Mesut, on that day?”
COMETH THEO’S HOUR…
Indeed, the biggest decision of the day was playing Walcott at Center Forward. This was more than a decision about which striker was in form. It became a decision about how the match would be contested. It affected every area of the pitch.
According to Michael Cox: “Arsène Wenger’s tactical decision to start with Walcott up front in the FA Cup final paid dividends as Mesut Özil and others were able to exploit the space between Aston Villa’s defence and midfield.”
Giroud or Walcott – more contrasting strikers it would be hard to find – players from opposite ends of the spectrum. One is all about speed, runs in behind, Blitzkrieg counter-attacks, creating space and clinical finishing. The other is all about back-to-goal play, aerial dominance, flicks & touches, near-post shots, dropping deep to link with the midfield, grafting, battling, pressing and workload. One runs towards the ball. One runs away from it.
Of course, Theo’s goal, when it came near the 40 minute mark, was none of those things just ascribed to him…apart from the clinical finish.
Wandering wide out to the left touchline to shed his markers, he stood in space for a moment. Coquelin picked him out with his 3rd cross-field diagonal of the game, no less.
Theo chests the ball down with deft control and, when Monreal goes steaming up the left wing (just like he does for Sanchez’s goal 9 minutes later,) Theo slips him a perfectly weighted ball to the by-line, teeing it up for Nacho to cross it first time. (Note: Theo contributing to build-up play.) Sanchez rises higher than anyone else in the 6 yard box, his jet-fuel a mixture of Adrenalin and Hunger (H₂A), and instinctively heads the ball back across the goal into open space. Theo, drifting back across the top of the penalty box, rounds on the bouncing ball and swoops to conquer, powering a volley into the back of the net with his weaker foot. Nothing but laces. Laces and net.
A left-footed “anything you can do, Olivier” volley.
DON’T FUCK WITH THEO
I loved everything about Theo’s performance before and after the goal. But when the stats came out, he barely touched the ball. He had 3% of the touches for our team in his 76 minutes. 3%!
For corroboration, in the West Brom game he had a few more, 33 touches to be precise.
To be fair to him, many touches were in the penalty box ie where strikers should be getting touches.
On the other hand, he has 13 goals in his last 14 starts.
What’s even more impressive is that he hasn’t been on the pitch for the full 90 in many matches. And many of those starts were during the 2 periods of return from injury as he was fighting for form.
“But hang on a second,” you say. “What about Theo’s shitty passing?? So wasteful on the ball. A poor first touch…he costs us through turn-overs. He hurts our build up play.”
Here are the stats for THIS season, a season where he’s just coming back:
Check out that smug look in his profile picture.
CLINICAL, MY ARSE.
“Oooh, but he misses so many chances. He’s so wasteful.” Well, grow a pair, you pussy. Welcome to the front lines. They all miss a bunch of “He can’t miss from there” shots. Messi couldn’t possibly miss that header against Colombia last week. But he did. Apparently they could miss from there. But for the whiners, I threw in the shot accuracy stat above.
On the other hand, anyone watching Theo can see there are loose passes, clumsy touches and chances that go a-begging. There always will be with him. But the real Curse of Theo is that somehow that is most of what many people recall. Perhaps he is simply eye-catchingly clumsy. Perhaps he never “looks” the part.
Theo is now learning a new position, and has had only a couple of uninterrupted seasons. There is not much wrong with Theo that a long run of starts won’t fix: better timing of his runs (and fewer offsides), spotting Ozil’s killer passes, and raising his poacher IQ around the box. And increasing confidence will mean Theo relaxing and finishing more of his chances.
And yet, even after all his misses, Theo has the highest goals + assists rate in our team for the last 2 seasons, by a long way:
(The Ox scores a goal every 1500 minutes in the EPL 2014/15 and has a 5% conversion rate. Welbz 9%. Alexis 20%. Ollie 24%. Theo 25%.)
Any time I have done an analysis of Theo’s goals+assists per 90 minutes over his last 4 or so seasons, the answer always comes out at around this rate ie 1 goal per 90 minutes. That’s up with the best in the league on that stat. I’d suspect he IS the best in the league over 4 seasons.
Imagine if he stayed healthy and started consistently.
THERE’S NO STAT FOR THAT
So what gives? How does he not show up in the general stats, apart from some decent passing and shooting %, and goals and assists totals? “What have the Romans…”
No, but seriously, he really doesn’t show up that much in the activity stats. 3% of the touches in the Cup Final, remember.
Alas, the stats simply don’t measure what Theo provides…Threat. Every one of those unrequited runs, those decoy routes, and even those offsides, 4 of them, one of which put the ball in the back of the net. Each run rattles the defence a bit more, loosening them up, like a boxer putting in jabs and body punches for the first 5 or 6 rounds till the opponent’s gloves drop and feet lose their spring. Nothing rattles a defence like speed because it’s so exposing. It makes them feel…well…defenseless. Like being in freefall. Like facing Superman but finding you left the Kryptonite at home on the table by the front door.
Michael Cox on the FA Cup Final: “Walcott’s subtle influence was significant: the threat of his pace meant Villa’s defenders were forced to defend very deep, but the rest of the side failed to adjust their positioning.”
AND THEO FIXES THE SANCHEZ PROBLEM
Sanchez has seemed somewhat blunted in recent times. Perhaps the cause is less about his form, and more about being the only goal threat in our front 3 after Giroud lost his mojo, allowing Alexis to be double-marked by defences awaiting his predictable jink inside to get the ball onto his right for a shot. As a result, our attacks seem condemned to a frustrating, semi-circular, ball-recycling routine with little end product. Like the 0-0 against Sunderland at the Ems.
And next season when we again play Chelsea, they will simply have Ivanovic kick Alexis continuously for another 180 infuriating minutes, receiving nothing more than a predictable yellow card for his 97th foul of the day with that stupid schoolboy look on his face.
We must face the fact we have been too stagnant and unthreatening beyond Alexis at the tail end of the season, and that it makes us too easy to stop.
But we came back to life again in the last 4 games when Theo came on against United and Sunderland, and when he started against West Brom, and most dramatically, in the FA Cup Final.
“Not so fast,” you interject. After all, that’s still how Sanchez scored his FA Cup wonder goal. He jinked to his right and let go with both barrels. A brilliant solo effort.
Well…rewind the play about 6 or 7 seconds and what do you see? Theo has switched to the right wing. Per distributes up the right side of the pitch to Ozil, who knocks it through the lines to Theo who has dropped deep to collect and who then turns and runs at the defence.
Here’s a shot of the moment Theo charges at them. Check out the Villa players. Where are they heading? For once, they’re not bothered about Sanchez. They perceive a more imminent threat…Theo.
Theo pulls 4 or 5 players directly to him, while another 2 or 3 get pulled into the spaces they vacate, giving Sanchez the time and space he hasn’t had since opponents arguably figured him out.
So when the ball squirts out to the left from Theo’s halted run, Sanchez pounces, and the Villa players come charging over like the Keystone Cops to mark him. Now, Monreal charges up the wing like a freight train, taking Hutton with him, leaving only a flailing Cleverly to try to contain Sanchez. Then Sanchez does a Sanchez, jinks to his right…clears the couple of yards he needs to get off a clean shot and delivers an FA Cup Gooooolazo that none of us will ever forget.
So, the first 2 goals in the FA Cup Final had everything to do with Theo rotating away from the center and playing a major role in the build-up. And with Sanchez taking advantage of the movement.
Theo stretched the play all over the field that day and his efforts showed up in other players’ stats. He didn’t get an assist for the Sanchez goal. (Nor was he given the goal in the United game from the Blackett deflection.)
THE THREAT STAT
There’s no stat for what Theo really does throughout the game, unless we apply the US Military’s DEFCON threat level system from the Cold War.
(The DEFCON Threat System indicates how close America is to nuclear attack at any moment. Level 5 = “normal.” Level 1 = “kiss your kids and start studying Russian.”)
“I can only speak from experience but he was one of the most dangerous players I have ever played against. Barcelona players are not scared easily but I can tell you that when we played Arsenal last season he truly worried us.” – Lionel Messi on experiencing DEFCON 1.
Let’s quickly switch to the WBA match, where Theo got a hat-trick with 3 very different kinds of goals. What catches my eye on the 1st goal is the 30 seconds before, where Theo and Alexis make run and after run after run. Duelling banjos. Let’s look at 3 of Theo’s runs:
On 3:28 he makes a diagonal run from the center to the left to meet a Sanchez pass.
Then on 3:51 he makes a diagonal run from left to center which no one picks out.
By this point, no one is marking him and he ghosts his way over to the right to take up position for the coming goal. It’s kind of beautiful to watch. That’s why he’s unmarked. He has attacked the defence from every angle in the space of 30 seconds, while Sanchez has been working equally hard. And on 3:57 they tear a huge hole in the back line and Theo punishes West Brom with a thunderous blast into the far upper corner. One for the highlights reel.
The FA Cup Final was a very different type of game. Theo stretched the play all over the field with his runs and his efforts showed up in other players’ stats. And on another day Theo could have bagged himself another hat-trick.
Here are a few more runs from the Final you may remember.
On 46 minutes…the run that got away:
Ozil has the defence at his mercy, but this is one run Theo failed to make. Maybe next season?
On 54 minutes:
Theo runs as a decoy again, pulling 4 players towards himself while opening up options for Sanchez to find Ozil or Ramsey. Sanchez passes it out to the right wing and joins Theo up front to await Ramsey’s cross…to Theo.
On 57 minutes:
Theo and Sanchez make competing runs, giving Ozil options, and the defence no chance.
On 60 mins:
On 75 mins:
Theo made this kind of run all day long after we went 1-0 up.
Yet, had he not scored, it’s likely this game would be added to those that detractors file under “Theo went missing again.” And there wouldn’t have been a single stat to defend him. Apart from the US Military moving to DEFCON 1.
SO THERE ARE NO 25+ GOALS PER SEASON STRIKERS LIKE AGUERO AVAILABLE, YOU SAY?!
Before we worry about comparisons against other teams’ strikers, let’s just sort out the Arsenal debate.
It’s. Not. Even. Close.
Ok. So, Aguero is the benchmark for the striker we all want, eh?!…
And while we’re at it…
Well, you’re not wrong. Aguero IS the benchmark. But as Theo has become greedier, and less wing-y and assist-y this season, his stats have transformed into Aguero-esque proportions.
The ONLY thing you can say against Theo is that 2014/15 was only based on 441 minutes. And that’s a very fair point. Playing 2,500 minutes is a whole ‘nother level. You could of course counter that Theo spent most of his minutes being a winger this season, albeit a much greedier winger than previous seasons. AND, that he was recovering fitness, which he was. And playing as a striker will result in an increase in his number of shots per 90 minutes, and often from more dangerous positions (like his 2nd and 3rd goals against WBA,) which Giroud benefits from today. If Theo can hold his conversion rate, he will SURPASS Aguero. And from what you’ve all been telling me, Theo misses a lot of shots, so perhaps you believe his conversion rate can increase? You might be right.
More shots PLUS a higher conversion rate. HOLY SHIT!
But still, there is only one way to prove you can get 25-30 goals in 38 games…the old fashioned way.
So bring it on, sign him up, start him, and let ‘er rip. Feeeeeeeeoooooooooooo!
WHO IS THE SUPER-SUB, NOW, BITCHES?
So, if our strike team is Giroud and Walcott next season, who is the starter and who is the super-sub?
Horses for courses. There are matches that suit Ollie and matches that suit Theo, games where one should start but where the other should come on after 70 minutes to run at tired legs.
We think of Theo as the super-sub option. But it could work either way. Giroud has been very effective coming on late, as memory serves, getting his fair share of goals, and most importantly, helping at both ends of the pitch. “If you cannot win it, you must not lose it.” Or we can play them both for the last 15 minutes when we really need to go for it: Theo reverting to Assister-In-Chief with Giroud attacking the penalty box on fresh legs – they have a similar conversion rate even if from different types of shots.
Sharing the starts will keep both fresh and hungry. Center forward is a position where the right level of competition is healthy and where an out of form striker welcomes the burden being shared by his Plan B until his own mojo returns. The trick is to persuade both of them that the other guy is the Plan B.
“Psst! Theo. YOU’RE the Plan A. Just don’t say anything to Ollie. OK, mate?”