From Boy Wonder to Key Man

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When Arsenal announced Theo Walcott’s season ending knee injury, incurred during his sides FA Cup Third Round victory over arch rivals Tottenham Hotspur, the news reverberated far further than the limits of Greater London. Fans across the country knew straight away that the repercussions would do far more than stymie Arsenal’s challenge on three fronts, reflecting Walcott’s rise to prominence for both club and country.

Since his move from Southampton seven years ago, the forward’s development has perhaps not been as rapid as many projected, though there have been signs that the 24-year old is coming of age.

Taken to the 2006 World Cup, just six months after his transfer to Arsenal, Walcott could be deemed a wild-card pick at best. Sven-Göran Eriksson admitted at the time that Walcott’s selection reflected “a big gamble”, though it was evident that the Swede saw something special in the player that Arsène Wenger had paid a not insignificant £12m for. Though Walcott failed to see a single second of action in Germany, his manager reflected on the experience as representing a learning curve, something that would serve him well for the future.

However 4 years later, under Fabio Capello, Walcott was left out of the final 23 man squad following a disappointing, injury-laden season in which he only started 15 games for his club, netting just four goals in all competitions. Whilst it could be argued that the Italian’s decision was justified, Walcott will no doubt have felt he deserved a call-up more than when he had received one as an untested 18-year old.

In 2006, Walcott was picked because Eriksson because deemed him worthy of a place, in 2010 Capello believed the opposite, but in 2014 there could be no doubt that the Arsenal forward was set to board the plane to South America. But how had Walcott become a man that was integral to both club and country?

Since the disappointment of 2010, and whilst reservations remain regarding the player’s best position, Walcott has undoubtedly improved his end product. His goals output increased to double figures in each of the last three seasons and he seemed set to repeat the feat had this campaign not been curtailed by injury.

In 32 league games during the 2012/13 season, Walcott scored 14 goals and provided 11 assists, a record bettered only by Robin Van Persie, Luis Suárez and fellow Southampton Academy graduate Gareth Bale, all of whom have been received far more acclaim than the England player in recent times. The forward provided seven more goals in all competitions for his side that season, during which he extended his contract until the summer of 2016, a deal which reportedly saw his wages increase to £100,000 per-week. At a club which is notoriously frugal, the agreement broke with tradition, and though it is dwarfed by the contracts of numerous England teammates, duly reflects the extent to which Walcott has become a crucial member of Wenger’s side.

The forward’s progression at club level has been reflected on the international stage as well, as Walcott cemented himself as one of the first names on Roy Hodgson’s team sheet. Whilst his international goals-to-games ratio reads as just one in six, the player’s role as part of an advanced three behind a central striker is integral to the way England play under the 66-year old Hodgson. With the player now ruled out of the forthcoming World Cup in Brazil, questions have been raised as to who will fill the void he leaves behind on England’s right wing.

Although Walcott believes he will one day go on to replicate the central striker role of ex-Arsenal number 14 Thierry Henry, he has most commonly been deployed behind a frontman. Perhaps this role is most suitable to his skills set, most prominently his explosive pace, though doubts have been raised as to whether this will remain once Walcott returns from what has been determined as a “a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament of his left knee”. Only time will tell, though it is likely that the man who became England’s youngest ever player upon making his debut in 2006 will head to the 2018 World Cup in Russia- provided England qualify of course.

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