The lowest point in Theo Walcott’s 2015-16 season was probably when Arsenal floundered against Manchester United at Old Trafford, but the one that perhaps hurt the most was the 1-0 loss to Chelsea a few weeks earlier. Despite the mediocrity of the opposition, 10-man Arsenal could not score. For Walcott, captaining the club to honour 10 years at the club, it was an exercise in disappointment: kept on for Olivier Giroud, replaced on 74 minutes by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, without a league goal to his name at that point in the season, even as Arsenal didn’t have a striker on the pitch.
In many ways, Theo Walcott’s progress at Arsenal can be charted through his various encounters with Chelsea. They were, after all, the first club he scored against for Arsenal, way back in the 2007 League Cup final. It was a superb curling finish, a glimpse of a future that has never really come to pass.
The 3-1 win against Chelsea in 2010, at the Emirates, served as the cementing of Walcott’s place in the side, as the fourth component of an attacking unit of Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas, and Robin van Persie. That foursome was outstanding when it was together, but it was together all too infrequently before two of the four left the following summer. Walcott scored the third that night, having assisted the second, winning the ball before scampering onto Cesc Fabregas’ glorious through ball.
The following year, there was the famous 5-3 win at Stamford Bridge, when Walcott, having fallen over, beat Ashley Cole to put Arsenal ahead 3-2. That too, was meaningful. Walcott had a very productive year that year, and was Arsenal’s second top goalscorer, behind Robin van Persie.
When Walcott ran onto the end of a great Santi Cazorla through ball and chipped Petr Cech early the following season, his first goal after signing a new contract, it looked as though Walcott 2.0 was going to be a success.
And then, of course, came the injury. And after a long recovery emerged Walcott 3.0, the centre forward. Where Walcott had been aiming for efficiency and productivity in the two seasons before his injury, Walcott 3.0 was different. He became more well-rounded, as he was a threat from centre forward and opened up space for others even if he didn’t score. His best game at his new position came as Arsenal dismantled Manchester United 3-0, and in that game Walcott did not score. He did assist two goals, but both were rudimentary assists, and not the Theo Walcott cutback assist that we had come to expect.
That is not to take away from Walcott’s performance—he was excellent—but to explain how unlike him it was. And having concentrated so much on becoming a centre forward, it seemed as if Walcott forgot the other parts of his game and his responsibilities. And ultimately, when Arsenal failed as a team, so too did Theo Walcott. To an extent, this has always been true. But that version of Walcott was excellent when Arsenal were very functional following the loss of Fabregas and then van Persie, in a way that Walcott 3.0 simply was not. He didn’t stretch defenses; he didn’t run behind, he didn’t track runners. He was, quite simply, lost.
At most clubs, that would’ve been the end of him. Had Arsenal had a willing buyer this past summer, he probably would’ve been moved on, despite Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s middling form and Danny Welbeck’s long-term injury. But even as Premier League teams were spending insane money (£30m for Yannick Bolasie!), no one wanted to spend money on Walcott. And Walcott, having rather smartly, and humbly, recognised that the striker position wouldn’t work for him, has worked hard to become a right-winger again, even as Arsène Wenger publicly doubted he could do enough defensively to play at the position, and Arsenal fans scoffed.
The result has been Theo Walcott 4.0, and he has been Arsenal’s second best player this season, after Laurent Koscielny. There is not only the addition to Walcott’s game of more physical challenges, harder defensive work, and more covering for his defenders, but there’s also a rediscovery of what he is good at, as Wenger explains:
He has interesting qualities for us. He goes behind, many players like to come to the ball and he's one of the players who is very dangerous for the quality of his runs and his receptions. I think today in the first half he was influential on the ball. He scored one as well, so he's efficient and that's what you want.
I look at the overall balance of the team. As I told you, we need players who go behind the defenders and he can do that well. When Sanchez plays up front, he likes to come to the ball. To have someone who goes behind at the same moment helps us to have many options.
In a reverse of last season, Alexis gives Walcott space to run into. But Walcott is also reaping the benefits of playing up front: the greater teamwork, and better play on the ball, playing one-twos with the likes of Özil and Iwobi. Whether Walcott 4.0 lasts remains to be seen.
As with previous iterations of Theo, this weekend’s Chelsea fixture will be telling. Antonio Conte is the most tactically astute coach Arsenal will have faced yet this season, Eden Hazard the best left-sided attacking player, and Cesar Azpilicueta the best left back. It will be tough, but less than 8 months after one of his lowest points at Arsenal, he could be on the way to one of his highest.