Above all else, speed is what defines Theo Walcott as a footballer.
It’s what his fans love about him, and what his opponents fear most. When speaking of the former Arsenal striker, commentators don’t tend to say, “I’m really looking forward to seeing how Walcott’s impeccable close control and visionary passing unlocks this stubborn defence.”
Rather, they say things like:
“Wes Morgan will be shitting himself at the prospect of trying to keep up with this human exocet”.
And, up to this point in his career, Walcott has relied heavily on this grande vitesse without developing significantly in other areas.
After all these years, he still seems thoroughly disinclined toward actually learning how to trap a ball, preferring instead the novel approach of allowing it to rebound merrily into the distance off shin, knee or ankle.
Similarly, he is apparently unable to “do a header” without cowering, squeezing his eyes tightly shut and nodding it in the exact opposite direction for which it was intended.
As a result, he often looked an incongruous figure in an Arsenal side rich in technically proficient attackers like Mesut Özil, Alexis Sanchez (ahem) and, previously, Robin van Persie. Yet in many ways it was this “otherness”, his very difference from the rest of the squad, that kept Walcott in contention at the Emirates for far longer than his actual talent merited.
Post-Invincibles Arsenal often seem a bit samey, a team of percentage-players, and Walcott aimed to serve as the elusive “Plan B” Wengerteams were commonly accused of lacking. Back in the Age of Bendtner, when it became commonplace for opponents to beat Arsenal by defending with ten men lined up on the edge of the penalty box, Theo would be the man to stretch them out across the pitch.
Later, when teams realised an even better way to defeat Arsenal was by pressing high and allowing a Gunners midfielder to fatally squander possession on the half-way line, Theo would be the man to make their thoughts linger on the open space behind them.
— Theo Walcott (@theowalcott) January 20, 2018
For that reason Walcott was for quite some time Wenger’s favourite wild card. Even now that he’s been shipped off to Everton, there’s a sense that in a moment of sudden clarity, when the stars align and the wind blows right, Theo can punish a team more severely than many others in the Premier League.
In the past, few could engender such terror of humiliation in otherwise solid defences. Most of the time, however, he ended up running around fairly aimlessly and shanking the ball repeatedly into the shins of the first defender. Perhaps the fear of what he can do, as opposed to what he actually does, is the real danger of Theo Walcott.
But as the seasons came and went, Wenger found other, more dependable trick-shots in his repertoire: speed merchants like Alexis (ahem, again) who can finish, pass and cross with assurance rather than the hesitancy that sometimes overcomes Walcott.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that Theo is a one-trick pony, merely that despite being given the gift of pace he hasn’t always shown he knows what to do with it.
For the most part, he is vastly more effective against tiring defences beginning to lose shape, and has not looked particularly lethal when faced with organised, tight marking in the early stages of games. In ninety minutes’ play, reliability is usually a more potent weapon than flair, and Theo seems at his most dangerous when not deployed from the off.
And so the sight of him sitting glumly on one of the Emirates’ soft and comfy Arshavin Loungers, waiting for a chance to replace Alex Iwobi in the 87th minute, eventually became the overriding image of the later Walcott years at Arsenal. Ultimately, after 12 seasons he simply ran out of chances to prove he was worth a decade of Wenger’s investment.
Now, he finds himself at Everton, a mid-ranking team who are the local rivals of the club he supported as a child.
And that may well be Theo Walcott’s true level. He is a good player, but very definitely not an elite one; Everton are a good side, but very definitely not an elite one. It could be a match made in seven-out-of-ten heaven.
Like Walcott, the Toffees are an outfit who once had aspirations of nudging their way into the top bracket, but whom, as a result of several reality checks over recent years, now appear to be reacquainting themselves with existence in the ‘just below the best’ category. It’s an environment in which the former Arsenal forward can thrive.