Saturday 3 December 2016

Walcott's long wait to justify hype puts focus on Wenger's methods

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Published 09/09/2016 | 02:30

Theo Walcott in action for England against Slovakia. Photo: Carl Recine / Action Images via Reuters
Theo Walcott in action for England against Slovakia. Photo: Carl Recine / Action Images via Reuters

More than 10 years on from his Arsenal debut, Theo Walcott is now due a testimonial, although at just 27 years old he is unlikely to want one. It has always felt with Walcott that his best is just around the corner, but this season he looks more determined than ever to get there.

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Arsenal play Southampton tomorrow, the seventh time that he has faced them as an Arsenal player. Southampton have certainly changed in the decade since Walcott left, becoming regular Premier League overachievers and clever recruiters of players and coaches. Walcott will face a version of the same question: how much has he developed and improved since leaving for Arsenal at 17?

Clearly Walcott has done well at Arsenal, racking up 347 appearances, scoring 86 goals and winning the 2015 FA Cup. Given how many talented teenagers fall away, his 10 years at a top club is testament to his professionalism and focus. And yet there is still a sense of something so far unfulfilled with Walcott. Injuries have held him back and he has struggled to turn himself into the most important player at the club.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is still just 23 years old and has been at Arsenal for half as long as Walcott. Like Walcott, he moved from St Mary's to the Emirates at 17. He was a talented all-round sportsman whose physical development came later than most. But soon enough he was playing for Southampton, then Arsenal, then England, before his football understanding had time to catch up. Like Walcott, then, Oxlade-Chamberlain's talent was more obvious than his best role in a team. Like Walcott, he has been unfortunate with injuries holding him back just as he found rhythm and form. But he has not produced as much as was hoped.

There are parallels between Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain, and also with Calum Chambers. He will not be facing his old club tomorrow as he is now out on loan at Middlesbrough. He, too, made his England debut as a teenager, before finding life at Arsenal harder than expected. When Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Chambers have all found it difficult to reach their potential at Arsenal, to say nothing of Kieran Gibbs or Jack Wilshere, it raises questions about the common factor between them.

There is a widely-held theory in the game that Arsene Wenger is a coach more focused on cultural development than individual development. He works to create an open positive empowering environment, where players are free to express themselves, and trusted to learn from their mistakes. It is not an environment dominated by vocal senior players. It is not an environment driven by intense individualised prescriptive coaching.

This means that it is an enjoyable environment for established players to flourish in, as Santi Cazorla, Mesut Ozil and plenty of others have shown. Many players who leave Arsenal want to come back and train there. But it is not the best way to help players make the most important step in modern football, not between the ages of 18 and 21, but between 21 and 25.

Some such as Aaron Ramsey and Hector Bellerin, have the instinctive intelligence to quickly pick up what they are expected to do. But many need an individualised programme to help them become the best they can be. Of course players' workloads are tailored for them at Arsenal, but many youngsters are left wanting more detailed instruction about what they should do on the pitch. Wenger, who takes training himself, does not often provide it. This explains a big part of why this generation of Arsenal players, the 'British core' that Wenger planned to build around, are not the players in their mid-20s that they hoped to be. Arsenal's most reliable performers are players from abroad.

Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain are still part of the first team, and this year is crucial for both. "It is an important season for Theo," Wenger said, "because last year he had a difficult period."

This season is only three games in but Walcott looks hungrier and sharper than before. The challenge is to keep it up over a long season. (© Independent News Service)

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