Wenger salutes 'different, matured' Walcott
It was in March, when Theo Walcott turned 27, that he realised he needed to change. It had been a bad season for him, losing his place in the Arsenal team, starting just one of their final 14 matches of the season. He failed to earn a spot in England's Euro 2016 squad too.
Walcott spoke to Arsene Wenger and Steve Bould, and knew that he had to toughen up. So he worked with personal trainer Bradley Simmonds all summer, improving his fitness and core strength. He worked on his days off, desperate to make himself the best player he possibly could be.
Wenger noticed the difference as soon as Walcott came back for pre-season. Some Arsenal players did not return until late July or even early August, having played at the Euros. But Walcott was ready from the start, fitter, stronger and sharper than ever before.
That is why Walcott has started all six Premier League games for Arsenal this season. The right wing position has been made unambiguously his own. On Saturday he played very well again, pinning Chelsea back, terrifying them with his runs and sweeping in the second goal after a brilliant team move.
Wenger was thrilled with Walcott afterwards, delighted that everyone is now seeing "a different Theo Walcott", one that was a tribute to all of his hard work. Walcott's talks with Wenger at the end of last season are reaping dividends already.
"I always felt there is character and intelligence in this boy," said Wenger. "It was a big blow for him not to go to the Euros. He is a guy with a good assessment of his performances and qualities. He is 27, a very important age. I said many times at the start of the season that we would see a different Theo Walcott. I could see he made a decision and stuck to it."
Walcott was especially hurt at missing Euro 2016, 10 years on from the World Cup that he was taken to at 17. That decision was of no benefit to him as it skewed his expectations of international football. Having been dropped for the 2010 World Cup, and injured for 2014, he is now hoping to be fit and strong for Russia 2018, should England get there. Wenger trusts in his new maturity.
"We spoke about the disappointment of not going to Euro 2016," Wenger said. "He went at 17 to the World Cup. We are now at 2016 and he hasn't been to another World Cup. He has matured. When a player survives this type of disappointment from what was promised for him at 16, the way he dealt with the situation, I always felt there was something special in this guy."
What Wenger now gets from Walcott is something close to the complete package. Not just going forward, but also tracking back. On Saturday he did everything. "I think he used to be a 90 per cent forward with 10 per cent defending," Wenger said. "Today he is 50-50. He does the job both ways and he does it both ways with commitment."
Walcott exemplified Arsenal on Saturday, in that there was a clear sense something finally clicked. This was the team's best performance in years, thanks to the pace and incision provided by Walcott on the right and Alexis Sanchez up front.
"We showed that we can play the style of football we want to play," beamed Wenger. "Collectively we could play together at a high pace. That is what football is about. It's not about one player. It's not me, me, me, it's one-two-three. Top level competition is to show you can do that in every game." (© Independent News Service)