Theo Walcott came on as sub for England against Sweden and according to stats I saw, played for 32 minutes, was on the ball for 11 seconds, made four passes, all successful, had one assist and one goal. (11 seconds and four passes doesn’t sound much, so I’m not vouching for the accuracy of that.) Twitter then exploded with Arsenal fans sticking a metaphorical two fingers up to everyone who ever doubted young Mr Walcott’s talent, workrate, football brain and everything else.
“Give him the £100k a week that he wants.”
“He’s put ten grand a week on his value tonight.”
“Take that Waddle/Hansen/the world, ‘no football brain.’”
“I said he was brilliant all along.”
“He’s silenced all the doubters.”
Right. So 32 minutes is enough to prove everything to everyone. Looking a bit more objectively, 32 minutes in isolation doesn’t really tell anyone anything. It’s a small piece of the jigsaw of Theo’s career so far. And it’s already a thousand-piece jigsaw. Maybe if Theo had kept the ball himself for the whole 32 minutes rather than 11 seconds of it, it would tell us more, but he didn’t. “But what about the goal and the assist?” An ‘assist’ remains the most stupid concept in football stats. Why is the last pass more important than any of the ones before? It’s not. The goal wouldn’t have been scored if you removed any of the passes from the sequence that preceded it. All were equally important.
Suppose for England’s first goal Gerrard crossed, Carroll headed down and Young was there for a one yard tap-in. Young gets a goal, Carroll gets an assist instead of a goal and Gerrard, although he would have done exactly the same as before, is removed from the list of credits. It’s ridiculous. The assist is a stupid concept partly because, like 99 per cent of football stats, it takes no account of whether the pass played was the best option at the time and partly because it’s a team game (which players like Theo always come out and say in post-match interviews so as not to sound boastful, but it’s actually true). In the case of Theo’s assist, it nearly wasn’t one anyway because he put it a yard behind where it should have been, leaving Welbeck to improvise and drag the ball backwards through his own legs in order to score. Welbeck should probably be awarded both the goal and the assist.
For Theo’s goal, he took a speculative shot from outside the box that went in past an unsighted and off-balance keeper. Theo’s own reaction showed that he didn’t really believe himself that it should have gone in. He was almost embarrassed. Compare that with Eric Cantona’s famous diagonal chip from the edge of the box into the top corner, when he then stood on the spot, arms aloft, imperious expression on his face, slowly rotating to take in the applause from the whole ground. Oh yes, he meant that one. Not that Theo didn’t meanto score. If you don’t buy a ticket, you don’t win the raffle. He took the shot, he wanted it to go in, fair play. But he and I both know that nine times out of ten, if not 99 out of 100, it wouldn’t have. The ball wouldn’t have moved like that, the keeper wouldn’t have been confused by both the movement and the crowd of players in front of him; easy save.
But whatever; even if you want to accept that assists are priceless and goals doubly priceless and Theo did brilliantly for both, what does that tell us about the grand scheme of things? Frankly, bugger all. I am twice his age and I could have gone on there against a tiring team and made 4 passes, and struck a lucky one-in-a-thousand shot. I wouldn’t have that effect every week, but then again neither would Theo. I’ll grant you he’d do it a lot more often than I would, but it’s his lack of consistency that remains his biggest problem.
Consistency is the one thing in a footballer that’s more important than talent. History is littered with the talented who should’ve done more with their careers. Some were lazy – the likes of Rodney Marsh and Alan Hudson from my youth – some had great expectations heaped upon them, and had a Dickens of a time living up to the hype – Peter Marinello, for example – some were great, but couldn’t stand the pressure – Gazza, George Best even – but most are in a different category: if they’re inconsistent they just end up playing at a lower level than their talent says they should. Lee Trundle of Swansea (and assorted other lower league clubs) is a good example of someone with outrageous talent who never made a real impact. But there are numerous others who don’t even get noticed, they just trundle along (sorry) in League 1 or 2, occasionally playing a brilliant 90 minutes, but usually misplacing more passes than the average Championship player and taking more wayward shots. In turn Championship players are less consistent than those in the Premier League, and internationals are more consistent than the average PL player. Some players are special, no doubt, but in terms of talent alone there isn’t much difference from one step to the next; it’s consistency that makes the difference.
What of Theo? He’s a good Premier League player, helped by his speed, but is he consistent enough? Does he play like a good Premier League player every week, or does he sometimes play like an average Championship player? I’m sure I’ll get called a miserable so-and-so for this, but believe me, Theo knows as well as I do that he does, and also that 32 minutes is not that important in the context of a career. Bigger picture, people, bigger picture.
So on the basis of 32 minutes against tired players in a European group game against one of the weaker teams in the last 16, should a reasonable logical person accept any of the following:
“Give him the £100k a week that he wants.” Well I’ve no proof he wants it, but 32 minutes isn’t going to make me think he’s worth it anyway.
“He’s put ten grand a week on his value tonight.” Maybe in the weaselling mind of his agent, no other sane person I’m sure.
“Take that Waddle/Hansen/the world, ‘no football brain.’” Last night did nothing to prove that one way or the other. You’d have to be mad to think otherwise.
“I said he was brilliant all along.” Except for all the times he isn’t.
“He’s silenced all the doubters.” Unlikely.
Theo is a personable and intelligent young man who presents himself with dignity and represents Arsenal off the field in the way I wish all players would. He is also no doubt getting more consistent. He played more good games last season than the season before; I hope he plays even more next season, if he’s still at Arsenal. He could yet end up a consistent top class international performer. But he’s not there yet, and 32 minutes doesn’t prove he is.