It seems Theo Walcott has at last decided the position he wants to play. He’s agitated for years to play as centre forward, but now realises that’s not for him. He’ll very generously go out on the right. Or is it the left? Whatever.
I’m not sure what’s prompted this, but I think we can all agree that wherever he plays he hasn’t lived up to the expectations everyone had when he joined Arsenal.
The development of Theo has long been a subject of discussion. He’s now been at Arsenal so long he’s up for a testimonial, but he started young and at 27 is hardly in the twilight of his career. Well, I say he started young – what I mean is he’s been at Arsenal since he was young, but of course he didn’t start football young. He famously only got interested in the game as a 10 year old, when he found basically by accident that some natural ability coupled with lightning pace was enough to make a name for himself in the local leagues.
He quickly worked his way through the ranks at Southampton and six years later was at Arsenal. Since then we’ve waited and waited for him to develop into the player we thought he could be. There have been flashes of brilliance for both club and country. Occasionally he has a great game, but rarely a great run of games. He’s not made any position his own and despite being close to the top of the wage structure at Arsenal is hardly likely to be the first name on the teamsheet.
So why hasn’t he developed as expected? Maybe he doesn’t think like a footballer.
The have been questions about his football brain for several years. A quick search reveals Chris Waddle talked about it on 5Live in March 2010:
“People keep saying he’s young but Wayne Rooney understood the game at 16, 17. 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. He just doesn’t understand the game for me – where to be running, when to run inside a full-back, (when to) just play a one-two.
“It’s all off the cuff. The ball comes to him and if he gets a good first touch he might be on his way if he shows pace. But he has a plan in his mind before the ball comes to him. He’s not looking as if to think, ‘This is where I want to be, this is where I want to go, and this is what I’m going to do’.
“People keep saying to me, ‘Oh he’s young and he’ll learn’. I keep thinking, ‘Fabregas has learnt and he’s young, Rooney has learnt… they all read the game so well’. I just don’t think he’s got a football brain and he’s going to have problems. Eventually he could play up front but would he know where to run? Let’s be honest, good defenders would catch him offside every time.
“I just don’t know whether he studies the game, learns the game, or what. He’s at a great club where they play fantastic football week-in, week-out, and I’m just surprised he’s never developed his game.”
Naturally many Arsenal fans defended Walcott and laughed at Waddle’s impertinence, but he wasn’t to be the last to mention the ‘football brain’. Alan Hansen soon said much the same as Waddle, though on his retirement from regular punditry in 2014 he retracted it, saying the comments were the one regret of his career behind the mic, and “Theo has proved me wrong one million per cent.” Leaving aside the Redknappesque maths, the question had stuck with Theo after 2010, and has often been debated by Arsenal fans looking for reasons why Walcott has not had the influence of a Rooney or Fabregas, never mind an Henry or Bergkamp.
What exactly is a ‘football brain’ though? Waddle had a go at defining it, though with some contradictions – was everything off the cuff or does Theo have a plan? It can’t be both. To be fair Waddle was speaking off the cuff himself, on live radio, so can be forgiven for the odd contradiction, and he made a half-decent attempt to explain what he meant.
Matthew Syed has written in The Times about what makes great footballers stand out from the rest, and sums it up in one word: multitasking. The great players have the ability to interpret what’s going on around them extremely quickly without needing to think consciously about it. They don’t have more time than everyone else, they just appear to because actions have become automatic. This is the same in any endeavour – Roger Federer returns a tennis ball served at him at 140 mph because he’s practised it so much that he can interpret the server’s movement and anticipate, he doesn’t think about it. Eddie Van Halen can’t describe where he moves his fingers while he plays a guitar solo, his fingers just do it themselves, directed by his subconscious mind. In football, the elite can take in information about where the ball is and where it’s going at the same time as computing the movements of up to 21 other players, and then adjust their own actions accordingly. In football decoding the situation is of course only half of it; the second part is the physical control of the ball. The best players – the likes of Pele, Cruyff, Best, Maradona and Messi – have almost flawless control.
Some of these greats were or are highly intelligent on an intellectual level as well as on a football pitch, but others were certainly no better than average intellectually, yet could still play superb football and had no trouble with the brainpower required to size up a football situation and beat an opponent.
How did they manage that? Is it all the result of natural talent? Matthew Syed has expanded on this one in his book Bounce. You may be aware of Malcolm Gladwell’s often quoted theory that pretty much anyone can become an expert in pretty much anything with 10,000 hours of practice. Some people ridiculed Gladwell for that, but Syed makes a compelling case for refining it: 10,000 hours by itself is not the answer; what you need is thousands of hours of dedicated purposeful practice. You have to want to do it, and you have to do it in a way that constantly pushes the boundaries of your ability. You also have to do it over several years – about three hours a day of solid practice is the most that’s beneficial for the vast majority, as interest and performance starts to drop off after that. So for most people 1,000 meaningful hours takes about a year and 10,000 hours takes 10 years. Cramming the whole 10,000 hours into 18 months won’t see you match someone who’s taken a decade to perfect their performance. Not everyone will be at the same level after 10,000 hours of course, but the best players of any sport go through their whole careers consciously working at getting better.
Syed quotes various studies to back this up, and I’d thoroughly recommend the book for many interesting topics around the subjects of talent, practice and hard work. Footballers of course, like chess players or gymnasts or magicians or guitarists, can be at a huge range of levels. Even among those who’ve practised as hard as they can for a decade there will be vastly different levels of performance displayed. Not everyone will be Messi; some will have to settle for being Rooney or Beckham. Some will just be Eddie McGoldrick.
Which brings me back to Theo. How many hours of hard solid practice did Theo do at football by his seventeenth birthday? None before he was ten, and even if he did three hours a day from 11 onwards that’s still only 6,000 hours by 17. And I doubt he did anywhere near 6,000 ‘good’ hours, by which I mean hours useful to his development as a match-playing footballer. Far too much training time, of youngsters especially, is spent either without the ball anywhere in sight, or if it is used then it’s not in a match-like situation. And if it’s not a match-like situation it doesn’t teach you to multitask as you need to in a match situation, with 21 other players around you. And no doubt Theo became interested in football and liked it, but did he love it? Did he live for it?
Contrast that with Beckham and Rooney. They literally spent their whole childhoods with a ball at their feet – Beckham took a football to bed with him and when not in bed he spent endless hours practising with the ball. He did keepie-uppies until he could do 2,000 of them, then decided he was good enough at that and started practising free-kicks instead. Rooney, even after having broken into the Everton first team, loved nothing more than a kick around in the street with his mates after training. Like the Williams sisters in tennis, even like Mozart at the piano, long before they were 17 they’d done at least 10,000 solid dedicated hours at something they loved. For Beckham and Rooney, neither of whom is ever going to be described as intellectual, their football brains were in place. Because those years of playing simply because you want nothing more than to play, that’s how you get one; that’s how you learn when to make runs, when to pass, what to do in a dynamic situation with information coming at all your senses far faster than you can consciously interpret it.
Even Rooney has been criticised by some for his undisciplined movement, which is understandable if you think that his childhood football was less structured than players like Bergkamp and others who came through the ranks at clubs like Ajax and Barca, where the Cruyff philosophy married the highest individual talent with the deepest understanding of how to play as a team.
Theo, I’m afraid, doesn’t have it. He’s a nice guy and he’s done very well for himself, no doubt about that. He does have natural footballing talent and athletic ability, far more than most people – easily in the top one per cent. That got him started, and the practice and coaching he’s had has lifted him to a level most can only dream of, but he’s not right at the top and never will be. He will show flashes of greatness, but they’re a mirage; he will never be able to sustain that level. It’s true that his career has been blighted by injury that has interrupted his development, and I believe that without long-term injuries he would be a better player, but the fact is he started too late. He can never catch up with Rooney or Beckham, never mind those in the stratosphere above them.
Sorry Theo, but Chris Waddle was right: you don’t have a football brain.