O Romeo, O Romeo, Wherefore Art Thou Romeo?
This famous line is uttered by Juliet, in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, to herself in a state of dichotomy – she loves a man who she must not because of his lineage; a rival family. Why does he have to be Romeo? If he was anyone else, her family would have accepted their love without any problem. Why did she have to end up loving a man who is from a rival family?
I find myself in a similar mindset to Juliet: Theo, why do you have to be Theo?
Before I go on – and before you jump to the conclusion that this will be a pro-Theo post and click that little X on the top right corner of your screen – let me state I am not a Walcott fan and have not been surprised one bit by his place on the bench since his return from injury.
This will not necessarily be an anti-Theo post either!
Coming back to the conundrum, let me first talk about how I saw Theo, and some of you may be able to relate to this.
When Theo signed at the age of 16 I was excited. I believe we all were. The clips of some of the stunts he pulled off at Southampton were very promising. He was to be the next Thierry Henry. The pace was there. Apparently he could finish as well. He debuted the season after he signed, incidentally, the inaugural season at the Emirates.
We all knew he was brought over to be a striker but we also trusted Wenger in developing him through the wing. Initially he was one of those players, for me, who made me sit up in anticipation when he received the ball. Will he whiz past his opponent? Will he do a Henry and knock it past the fullback and beat him in the chase? None of that really happened. It’s okay, I thought, it’s not his natural position.
His first goal for Arsenal was not only a good goal; but, also what I believed was a display of his potential. It came against Chelsea in the League Cup final in 2007. More importantly, it came from a central position. He raced back towards our goal to retrieve a cleared corner, a smart turn to make a Chelsea player; I think it was Lampard, slip. Looked up, passes to Diaby, continues his run through the middle into a small gap between two Chelsea players and at that moment Diaby returns it to him. Then follows a neat little touch to take him forward while taking those two players out of the equation and he finishes like Henry – open the body up, side foot, top corner. It was vindication; Theo is made for the central striker position. You can watch it here.
Development, or, Lack Of
However, as we all know, Wenger continued to play him wide right. The same frustrations continued. He can’t dribble past a full back. For some reason, he never tried knocking it past a full back and chasing it. His crosses were barely preceded by having beaten a full back in the final third. If he ever got behind the defense courtesy a defense splitting pass from the midfield, the team played so deep that either the defense recovered quickly or he would make the wrong decision. All part of the learning process though.
He was tried on the left wing every now and then which barely every paid dividends. His one-footedness, I felt, made him highly predictable. Most players do have a dominant foot, but, their comfort with their weaker foot allows them to feint and/or give their marker more to worry about. Even if you look back at his famous run versus ‘Pool, notice his tendency to stick to his right foot and eventually move a bit further right every time he beats a man.
Nevertheless, Theo had other qualities. On several occasions he would escape markers by keeping his back to them, let them mark him tightly, and he would flick the ball with the outside of his boot when he received a pass. He would turn away quickly and speed away till he faced another opposing player, forcing him to pass.
Perhaps I hadn’t noticed it earlier, or maybe it really was the first time, I believe he scored the first goal in the infamous 4-4 draw with Newcastle and it was through the middle. RvP had dropped a little deep, allowing Theo to move up and more central, the former played a perfect through ball allowing the latter to speed through and finish. That’s another option, I thought. It would make it more difficult for the opposition because they wouldn’t know when the winger would run-off the wing and through the middle.
Anyway, we saw glimpses of all this over the years. But that feeling of anticipation had gone. I no longer expected any fireworks when Theo had the ball at his feet.
Was Wenger killing his potential by playing him on the wing? It would be easy to think so; but, he didn’t seem to add to his skill set over the years to prove that he can play through the center. What made the move to the center even more improbable was Wenger’s increasing preference for the big striker who would link up with runners – Chamakh, Giroud, Sanogo. Walcott certainly could not do what these big lads could if he played in the middle. Not because he’s small and lightweight, he just doesn’t have the ability. Jermain Defoe is small and lightweight as well, hate him for playing for Spurs once, but I don’t think we can claim he wasn’t a good striker. Moreover, Arsenal’s football made teams defend deep and give little space; Walcott through the middle may have been counter-productive.
You obviously don’t rate Walcott, what’s the bother? you may be asking.
One of Us
Theo is Arsenal through and through. I have been desperate to see him succeed, to see him played as a striker as expected nine years ago, to see him terrorize defenses, to see him build on his skill set and utilize his pace in more ways than one. The fact that he was brought over at 16 just adds that emotional aspect.
If, say, we were talking about Podolski or Sanogo or Campbell, I wouldn’t mind saying good-bye right now. However, Theo took the club to his heart and, in the process, we took him to ours. He has given moments for us to smile about and make us believe, every now and then, that he will become what he we hoped he would.
I wonder if Charlie Nicholas had a similar impact on the emotions of the older fans? Apparently he came to Highbury with a lot of hype but never quite lived up to it, yet, he did give them moments to savor.
I’ll be honest, at one point I didn’t mind if he were to leave this summer. I felt that he’s a good-to-have, not a must-have. However, now that Wenger has mentioned he may finally play him as a striker, that old flame from nine years ago has been re-ignited.
We saw Wenger’s intent on Monday night when he brought Theo on for Giroud. Fans on social media weren’t too pleased, and felt vindicated when Walcott wasn’t effective and missed a chance or two. Even some pro-Theo fans turned on him. Fans’ knee-jerk reactions are sad to see but that’s another discussion.
Nevertheless, if Theo is to stay, I’d rather see Wenger finally attempt to develop him as a striker than persist with him on the wing.
Sometimes in life we live on assumptions and our hopes develop believing those assumptions. We continue to live in that hope until some fact replaces that assumption. For example, a guy may like a girl a lot and he will continue to chase her in the hope that she’ll accept him. That hope is there because the girl has not given him a reason to believe otherwise. She may even rebuke some of his approach but she does not actually say “sorry mate, I just do not like you”, so the guy continues his chase. Then one fine day when she actually states it, his heart will finally be broken or he might give up the chase etc. Unless she says she likes him too, he’ll be happier than ever.
Similarly, we have lived in the hope to see Walcott become a world class striker, but have never seen him played extendedly in that position. We continue to hope that it will happen. Could be a reason why I would like him to stay because finally facts will come to the fore and replace assumption. Perhaps if he doesn’t succeed then it will be easier to see him go. If he succeeds, imagine the scenes.
Will Theo succeed as a striker? The sentimental side of me would like to believe so. However, he doesn’t give me much reason to the realist in me to believe he will.
We know he can finish. What else can he do with the ball at his feet? I heard on a pod, or maybe read it on a blog, a reference to one of his recent substitute appearances in which he picked the ball up, cut inside from the right, and ran at pace through the middle while defenders were backing off. I think he ended up getting fouled from behind. The person on the pod or the writer of the blog saw it as a sign that Theo was inching back to the terror he can be. Personally, I didn’t see it like that. I think if the defenders facing him stood their ground and didn’t commit, they wouldn’t have much to worry about. That’s another one of his shortcomings.
Accommodating Theo as a striker may require tweaking of Wenger’s system. It’s very difficult to see him playing as a lone striker, unless it’s like a false 9 role – the success of which relies on intelligent and timely runs; something Theo is capable of.
Interesting times ahead if Wenger does push Theo to the middle, I believe it’s now or never!
P.S I deliberately avoided talk of needing width, Walcott’s one prolific season, and whether or not replacing Giroud was the right decision. These, I felt, were not relevant to this post.