Arsenal 6—Blackpool 0: The Natural History of Theo Walcott
Theo Walcott’s first Arsenal hat trick makes a case for disproving that he was born without a football brain.
Chris Waddle’s qualification of what kind of brain Theo Walcott does not have appears to be a deliberate statement for two reasons. After a poor international performance earlier this year, Waddle publicly dissected Walcott, saying, "I've never seen any difference in Theo Walcott since he was at Southampton and broke into the team at a very young age. I've never seen him develop.”
Walcott’s attributes—primarily pace, but also above average finishing—on which he is reliant, have not brought him the success people expected, while the weaker parts of his game—notably his first touch and crossing—haven’t improved, except in fits and starts. But for Waddle, Walcott’s deficiency off the ball proves he has no “football brain”.
Waddle’s claim makes Walcott’s football brain a distinct subset of Walcott’s overall brain, which is rightly cleared of criticism. It would be difficult to find another footballer, let alone another teenager, who has the maturity and intelligence that Walcott has shown as a human being over these same developmentally challenged years as a player.
The distinction between Walcott’s brains isn’t complimentary. If anything, it makes the criticism particularly harsh. Walcott’s intelligence, and the capacities that derive from it, are helpless when it comes to his football brain. The deficiency Waddle identifies is innate: Walcott’s football brain lacks instinct, which a footballer has or doesn’t. It’s not something that can be learned. No matter how hard he trains under one of the great football brains, instinct will always elude him. This impossibility is revealed in Waddle’s summary of Walcott’s development.
Waddle’s criticism was also deliberately timed on the eve of the World Cup selection. But was it necessary to publicly declare Walcott biologically unfit? Waddle may have believed that he had the national team’s interest at heart, hoping his two cents would be worth five. Long before the 2010 World Cup, it was clear that the current crop of England players had a much longer history of inescapable deficiency, which had to be ignored, because it was assumed that England’s youth provided no alternative. At age 21—regardless of slowed or stalled development— Walcott, among a few other U21s, is a bright spot. Throwing him to the lions (as opposed to including him as one) was counter-productive to England’s interests. Cannibalism seems to run through the national team and discussions of it. At the time of selection, Walcott wasn’t playing well, and given Waddle’s stature and connections, his message still would have arrived if sent quietly.
The players most often criticized for lacking characteristics that can’t be learned are the ones with destructive tendencies. Joey Barton’s rage issues, Adrian Mutu’s stupidity, and Mario Ballotelli’s angry sense of victimization come to mind. Walcott doesn’t deserve the comparison, which extends beyond the football brain. Waddle’s argument operates from a false perspective by assessing the small arc of Walcott’s career and extrapolating it to the end point, where apparently Waddle stood when making his comments. The fictional long view ignores the recent circumstances affecting Walcott’s development.
Only in the last two seasons could Walcott have been considered a starter. Unfortunately, this coincided with a series of injuries. Additionally—and it’s been said countless times—the England national team is made up of the best club players in the world who, defying explanation, become mediocre players for England. Walcott can’t be exempt from this.
Few 17-21 year-old professional footballers play every week on a top team, which is why Waddle compares Walcott to the instincts of Wayne Rooney and Cesc Fabregas who were rare exceptions. If anything, this indicates the distortion of expectation against which the assessment of the teenager is held.
He has been competing for a first team place on an Arsenal team with an abundance of skilled midfielders. If he wasn’t in the first XI, it was due to the preference of Andrei Arshavin and Samir Nasri.
From a more positive angle, his hat trick against an offensive-minded Blackpool—a game he started— is indicative of a fixture favorable to his skill set. His best opportunities come against opponents who have an open style of play as opposed to those teams who pack the defense and congest space.
The Blackpool game can be paired with the second leg of last year’s Champions League quarterfinal against Barcelona. Preceding the game, there were sensible calls for Walcott to start. His speed was an advantage. He started and was instrumental in Arsenal’s only goal. Both can be held as examples of development. In favorable circumstances he has done well.
Walcott’s first goal against Blackpool was an archetype. He burst into space on the right side and received a perfectly weighted pass from Arshavin and shot it low across Blackpool goalkeeper Matthew Gilks and just inside the far post.
The second goal couldn’t have been more uncharacteristic, unless the occasional claim about Walcott playing as a central striker isn’t immediately dismissed, for it sounds as absurd as a transfer rumor. Facing goal and lining up out wide, takes advantage of his strengths and compensates for his somewhat lead first touch and often manic directness.
He lined up against the last Blackpool defender like any central striker. Inside the penalty area, back to goal, he received a pass from Jack Wilshere, took one touch to settle the ball, a second to push it a few feet to his left, and took the shot.
The third goal combines the template of the first with the skill of the second. It marked the first hat trick for Walcott since the game against Croatia almost two years ago. But the feat is more important for it’s display of what looked like intelligence.
The first and third goals were products of short passing and well-timed runs. Walcott received the pass from Abu Diaby, in what was for a moment, tight space. Surrounded by two Blackpool defenders, he sprinted between them, gaining a step as the ball arrived. Two touches lined up the shot, which he scored with his weaker left foot. Again Walcott’s off-the-ball movement was perfect. His two touches preceding the shot read and managed the space around him.
Arguments about an athlete’s instinct are drawn from a set of criteria that constitute the performance—gesture, technique, patterns of movement, ect. When it looks natural, easy, or graceful, a player’s instinct lies behind it. We understand the comment he has an instinct in front of goal because we can identify the various ways it is customarily represented. But that gracefulness in front of goal represents instinct rather than being a mathematical proof of it; one can’t declare instinct with such certainty. For the most part, this is of minor concern, unless it calls into question a player’s entire character and value.
The point is instinct is so difficult to prove that we must resort to various representations that stand in for it. Instinct isn’t formed into measurable data. It’s not about the number of goals scored, but how and by what means they are scored. If Walcott visited the London Zoo (the world’s first zoo of scientific study), scaled the walls of the large cat enclosure, crossed the recreated landscape and casually petted the pretty kitties only to be eviscerated and devoured, then it could be determined that Walcott lacked instinct.
Blurring instinct studies neither proves nor disproves if Walcott has a football brain. The evidence of two hat tricks isn’t conclusive. Waddle the winger may be proven right; he is speaking about what he knows best, about what he has a deep proprioceptive feel for, which accounted for the uproar it caused. But if instinct manifests in any flashing expression that looks like “having a feel for the game”, then it is there, and has always been there, as convincingly as it isn’t, as far as one can tell.
Game Note: Lost in Walcott euphoria was Abu Diaby’s good game—a goal and an assist, both well executed. At the beginning of last season, I thought he would be one to watch, but it didn’t turn out that way.