Arsenal’s Theo Walcott, a man of many false dawns, may finally be seeing the sun rise for real

Theo Walcott was just about written off at Arsenal, no longer even worth the hand-wringing afforded to a Jack Wilshere or Aaron Ramsey. But of recent he looks a man reborn, writes Greg Lea.
Arsenal’s Theo Walcott shown in action against Basel on Wednesday night. Andrew Couldridge / Reuters
Arsenal’s Theo Walcott shown in action against Basel on Wednesday night. Andrew Couldridge / Reuters

This was said to be a make-or-break season for multiple members of Arsenal’s British contingent. The development of a crop of players – some academy graduates, others acquired from elsewhere at a young age – had, to varying degrees, stalled. Their careers were approaching a crossroads.

The story so far has been one of disappointment. Jack Wilshere finds himself on loan at Bournemouth in a bid to rediscover his form and fitness. Aaron Ramsey, brilliant for Wales at the European Championship, is injured, so too Danny Welbeck. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, meanwhile, has slipped further down the pecking order.

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Theo Walcott was once in a similar position, but the 27-year-old was mostly absent from such discussions in the summer. It seemed as though the majority of Arsenal fans had reluctantly come to accept he would never fulfil his potential: The 10th anniversary of his move to the Emirates Stadium earlier this year was largely met with a sense of wistful regret at what could have been.

Events in recent weeks suggest it was premature to write him off, though.

Walcott was a slightly surprise selection in Arsenal’s 4-3 defeat by Liverpool on the opening weekend of the campaign but he performed well on the right flank, winning (and then missing) a first-half penalty before opening the scoring with a neat finish across Simon Mignolet.

The England forward kept his place in the team for subsequent clashes with Leicester City, Watford, Southampton, Hull City and Chelsea. He was particularly excellent against the latter two opponents, scoring in both matches and causing problems throughout as part of a fluid front line, with his hard work off the ball drawing just as much praise from the Arsenal supporters and manager Arsene Wenger as his contributions on it.

As good as he had been in the Premier League, Walcott’s standout performance of the season so far came in the Uefa Champions League on Wednesday night.

The former Southampton man was superb in Arsenal’s group stage meeting with Basel, scoring both of his side’s goals in a comfortable 2-0 win – he has now netted five times in his last seven outings, after managing five in his last 32 appearances in 2015/16 – and impressing in general play with an array of terrific touches and pinpoint passes. He was fully aware of his defensive responsibilities, too, tracking back to help out Hector Bellerin and closing-down opponents whenever he had the chance.

Walcott seems to have finally embraced a role on the right after years of trying to persuade Wenger to deploy him through the middle. The fact that Alexis Sanchez is the man nominally leading the line has helped, with Walcott regularly darting into central positions when Sanchez drops deep or drifts wide, and the two men have built up a fine understanding in recent matches.

The duo combined for Arsenal’s opener in the seventh minute, Sanchez receiving the ball from Santi Cazorla after an excellent run into the channel and sending a lofted cross into the penalty area, which Walcott converted with an unstoppable header.

They linked up again for the second, Sanchez providing a well-weighted through-ball and Walcott drilling a finish past Basel goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik. It was a goal that rounded off a fantastic team move, with Arsenal slicing the Swiss side open with some slick and snappy interplay, just as they did against Chelsea in an emphatic 3-0 triumph at the weekend.

Walcott insisted before the game that his upturn in fortunes was largely the result of hard work, the necessity of which became clear to him after a discussion with Wenger in the summer. The Frenchman refused to take much of the credit in his post-match press conference, however, telling reporters: “It’s not the chat [we had] that makes you score goals ... he rectified what he had to add to his goals. [The improvement] is 95 per cent down to him.”

There have been plenty of false dawns with Walcott in the past and it is still too early to know whether he can sustain his current form in the weeks and months ahead. For now, though, Arsenal are benefiting from a player reborn.

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Published: September 29, 2016 04:00 AM

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