Theo Walcott comes of age at 34 as epitaph denied in Southampton swansong
Theo Walcott has got a new role and a new lease of life under Ruben Selles, who is making us question beliefs we’ve struggled to shake for close to two decades.
Theo Walcott as the wise old sage makes for uncomfortable billing. The child who watched from the bench at the World Cup in 2006 has had a career of striving to reach potential forced upon him that was beyond his capability. Early kudos has weighed heavily, not necessarily on him, but in the minds of the majority of those watching his progress, who were hoodwinked into expecting more.
He’s been a very fine footballer, with his 79 goals and 63 assists in the Premier League earning him 47 England caps. But he’s always felt like the nearly man, whether running through one on one or failing to nail down a spot in the team for club or country.
Even those perceptions are unfair. There was a time when he was among the first picks for both Arsenal and England, when his finishing was far better than average. But his ageless face and manic dribbling style has made it difficult to see him as anything other than the teenager who burst on to the scene with the world at his absurdly fast feet, no matter how much time has passed since.
We won’t have been alone in thinking Walcott’s Premier League career was over. He featured for 378 minutes last term and made just three appearances this season before the turn of the year. But he’s played in all six of Ruben Selles’ games in charge, starting three of them, and scored and assisted in the 3-3 draw against Tottenham last time out.
“It’s obvious that he brings expertise in relations,” Selles told a press conference of his stalwart. “It’s not only about the relation of being a friend of somebody, it’s a football relation; to know the movements of the player on your right, the player on your left, to know the movements of the opponent.”
Is it “obvious”? Walcott has never seemed like a particularly clued-up footballer. That’s not a slight against his intelligence – he comes across very well in interviews. But this was a guy set for a kick-and-run epitaph on his Premier League coffin.
“Secondly, he also brings the expertise of the number 10 position that we’re using,” Selles added. “So, he’s a player who knows how to press in that system, knows the triggers, the shadows, knows how to [make it] count from the front, knows also in possession, where he’s the best.”
Excuse us? Theo Walcott a number 10? Surely he needs vast space in front of him to kick that ball into, and what about that trampoline touch criticism aimed his way in 2008? That’s still valid, right? Is Selles telling us that Walcott’s played in the wrong position for his entire career?
Maybe not. Maybe that’s a role better suited to the player he’s become. And his performances in that space behind Che Adams at Southampton have shown him to have excellent football intelligence, either that we unfairly denied him previously, or that he’s picked up along the way.
And galling though it is to have to accept that Walcott has changed in the last two decades, that does appear to be the disconcerting reality.
“They are players you want to follow, and if you see someone like myself at 34 years old running my socks off, you follow. It’s as simple as that. We’re all in it together and we all want to be successful,” said Walcott, with the spine-tingling authority of a man who’s come of age at the climax of his career.
Who would have thought that Southampton’s hopes of staving off relegation would rest on Walcott’s shoulders? They appear to have broadened at long last.
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