When you ask Arsenal fans what has surprised them the most in the beginnings of this 2016-17 Premier League campaign, most will agree on one common theme: Theo Walcott’s electrifying form.
The resurgent winger has already shown the ability to ghost past even the soundest Premier League defences this season. Has Walcott finally regained his killer instinct of seasons long past, or will he slowly slump to the disappointing form that is burned into the minds of Arsenal fans from the past three seasons?
Walcott transferred to Arsenal from Southampton as a promising 16-year old in the winter transfer window of the 2005-06 Premier League season, but didn’t debut for Arsenal until opening day of the following season. His only goal that season came as Arsenal’s one in a 2-1 defeat to Chelsea in the League Cup Final, a match in which tempers flared and three players were sent off in the 96th minute. Still, Walcott received praise in an otherwise bleak Arsenal campaign, with Arsène Wenger calling Theo increasingly, “complete and mature.”
Walcott’s performances earned a call up to an England side competing for qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup that featured mostly senior players, such as Frank Lampard and David Beckham. He earned a start over Middlesbrough winger Stewart Downing in that match against Croatia, when England fans really began to feel excited about their young star – Walcott scored three times against a 10-man Croatian side to open his scoring account for England. A wonderful performance wreaking havoc down the right-wing seemed to foreshadow a successful and prolific career for the young England starlet.
Walcott was assigned the prestigious number 14 shirt ahead of the 2008-09 season, previously worn by Arsenal’s all-time leading goalscorer, Thierry Henry. Beginning the season in line with fulfilling his potential, he earned plaudits for his performances against West Ham away and Everton, scoring his first goal of the season against the latter. However, this season marked the beginning of a lengthy struggle with injuries, a shoulder dislocation keeping him on the sidelines for almost six months. Walcott’s next three seasons were blighted by recurring hamstring, shoulder, and knee injuries.
The 2012-13 season was, by the numbers, Theo’s most prolific season. Bagging 21 goals in 43 appearances, he was able to form a successful partnership with new signing Olivier Giroud. A memorable match from that season was when he scored three and assisted two more against Newcastle in a 7-3 thriller at the Emirates. Theo quieted speculation about his future by signing a new three-year contract, and finished as top goalscorer for Arsenal in their 4th place finish that season.
The next two seasons formed the basis of much criticism over the England winger. Walcott’s bright start to the season, with Arsenal on top of the league by a point over eventual champions Manchester City, was ended by a ruptured knee ligament sustained against Tottenham. This injury would prove to rule him out for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil as well. Arsenal fell to 4th in a largely disappointing second half to the campaign, leaving questions being asked of manager Wenger for the entire summer. Wenger continually reaffirmed his belief in Walcott’s recovery, saying that he would come back “stronger than before.”
Upon return from injury, it was apparent that the knee injury had affected Walcott mentally. A shadow of his prolific self of seasons preceding the injury, Walcott went into tackles half-heartedly and seemed to have lost the blistering pace that he was once renowned for. His defensive contributions were lacklustre, and constant criticism from fans referenced his high pay cheque as disproportionate to performances on the pitch. Many called for him to be sold in the summer preceding the current season, to free up wages for potential signings of the likes of Riyad Mahrez or Alexandre Lacazette. Yet through the storm of negative opinions, Wenger stood by his winger, constantly restating his belief in a resurgence of form.
Walcott came into this season as a renewed force. With Alexis Sanchez being pushed to the central striker position, Walcott returned to his familiar role on the right-wing. Whatever hints of the mental blockade that plagued him in the previous two seasons had vanished. Against almost all predictions, Walcott had returned to form as the marauding right-winger that terrorised defences almost ten years previously. With stellar performances in pre-season, Walcott brought his renewed work ethic into the Premier League campaign. Already matching his total for tackles in the previous year with just a fraction of the matches played, it is clear that he is out to prove himself this season. Finding the back of the net against Chelsea in a 3-0 win, Walcott showcased the skills of a winger with devastating pace, reawakened confidence, and deadly determination for the matches to come.