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Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Walcott progress proving slow going

Two years ago Sven-Göran Eriksson surprised everyone with the addition of the 17-year-old Theo Walcott in England's World Cup squad. On Tuesday night, after yet another ineffective performance, the suggestion is that England's bright young hope is fading fast.

A player of obvious potential, as it takes a lot to catch the eye of Arsene Wenger, Walcott has struggled to continue his development among a squad of more talented individuals at Arsenal.

Signing from Southampton for a fee of £5million (rising to £12million after a set number of appearances for club and country) just over two years ago, there has been precious little to suggest that Wenger's 'massive gamble' will pay off.

The Englishman has started only 11 times this season, lasting the full 90 minutes just five times and has seen his first-team opportunities limited to substitute appearances, dead-rubber Champions League matches and the Carling Cup.

Indeed, while Walcott impressed against Slavia Prague in the 7-0 demolition back in October, scoring two goals and receiving widespread praise; the kind of hype that has followed him around since his unexpected journey to Germany has continued to dog a player who, in reality, has only ever shown glimpses of his talent.

Hindered by a congenital shoulder ligament problem that he inherited from his father, the youngster's form was adversely affected last season; although an operation over the summer which caused him to miss out on England's U21 European Championship campaign has cured the ailment.

Even when fully fit, Walcott has failed to impress and Wenger himself has recently voiced some concern over his development.

With Robin Van Persie struggling for fitness this season, one would have assumed that Walcott would be given a chance to shine. Not so. Wenger often chooses to play Alexander Hleb or Thomas Rosicky as a second striker behind the untouchable Emmanuel Adebayor, and Walcott's cause has not been helped by the emergence of Eduardo and Nicklas Bendtner either.

While Wenger may have made a mistake by playing him out of position on the wing (a trick he successfully managed with Thierry Henry before converting him into one of the world's best strikers), it seems that the player himself has a lot of work to do if he is to succeed in the side, as whenever he is given the chance to play through the middle he looks out of his depth.

Lacking the physical presence of an Adebayor or a Van Persie, Walcott's game is based on pace. He has speed in abundance, but rarely gets the chance to use it as Arsenal tend to prefer short passing moves to a long ball over the top.

Without being able to stretch his legs, Walcott is bullied by centre-halves. Tottenham's Ledley King and Michael Dawson had him in their pockets during Tuesday's Carling Cup game, and it took the introduction of Adebayor for Arsenal to cause Spurs' defence any trouble.

While the game should have represented Walcott's big chance to impress, in fact it did almost the opposite and only served to highlight the young striker's limitations - as he was removed from proceedings shortly after the first half.

On a positive note, Wenger has always maintained, if you're good enough, you'll play. An 18-year-old Nicolas Anelka proved himself worthy of a starting place, with 23 goals in 50 starts for the club back in 1998, before deciding to join Real Madrid; and, as a player in the same mould, Walcott can take solace from the fact that Wenger has a history of success in this area.

Yet, while Anelka emerged from out of the shadow of Ian Wright during his two years at Highbury, Walcott has struggled to lay to rest the ghost of another Gunners legend, Thierry Henry.

The comparisons between the two are obvious, especially if you happen to have seen the goal scored by Walcott in the Carling Cup final last year and the added pressure of replacing the talismanic Frenchman cannot have been easy to bear for one so young. That said, the rest of the team have stepped up a gear after Henry's departure to Barcelona and it seems to be Walcott alone who has felt it hardest.

His well-documented admiration for training with Arsenal's leading scorer may mean that while the rest of Wenger's young crop blooms, Walcott mourns. He has yet to net in the League and his recent performances have meant he is not even considered in the same breath as Henry now.

Indeed, not scoring may prove to be a bigger psychological mountain than Henry's legacy for the youngster in the long term, but if he can regain some confidence and add consistency to his obvious potential then the goals should come.

Wenger may maintain that: 'The expectation level is very high because he is young and he has been projected early in the spotlight', but pressure is to be expected at this level. Elsewhere in the Premier League there are players of a similar age who have set the benchmark for success.

A 16-year-old Wayne Rooney shot to fame scoring against Arsenal for Everton and his subsequent £30million transfer to Manchester United made him a household name. Although many would argue that Rooney's build is more suited to the style of the Premier League, the stocky striker has shown that he is more than capable of handling the pressure of a big game (one mad moment against Portugal aside).

Other young Englishman to make the grade after being thrust into the spotlight include Tottenham's Aaron Lennon and Newcastle's James Milner, who have both cemented their places in their club sides and are pushing for further international honours.

Unless Walcott can follow suit, it seems unlikely that he will catch the eye of new England boss Fabio Capello and is destined to go the way of other English talents to pass through the gates at Arsenal. Francis Jeffers, Matthew Upson, Richard Wright, Steven Sidwell and David Bentley were all tipped for the top but failed to make the right impression on Wenger and have continued their careers elsewhere.

While Walcott can consider himself unlucky in his situation, with a large price tag, some over inflated press talk and the fact that he is struggling for that first goal (always more noticeable in the public eye), the time will come when he has to prove himself capable of handling the pressure at a club like Arsenal. Or leave, even if it's only on loan.

Whatever the expectation level heaped upon him, there are few who would bet against Walcott making the grade in the Premier League one day. Whether that is at the Emirates or, like so many before him, it is with another club, remains to be seen.

He's in the right place to further his development, but any progress he makes from now on, is simply up to him.

  • Any comments? Email Jon Carter

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