Both Arsenal, and England were dealt major new year blows this week with the news attacker Theo Walcott will miss the next six months with cruciate ligament damage. The injury rules him out of the remaining domestic campaign, and the glittering World Cup in Brazil this coming summer. Walcott, who had only recently returned from a 2 month lay off following abdominal surgery in September, sustained the injury against arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup 3rd Round Tie on Saturday. Walcott’s last piece of action, before a spell on the sidelines, was to gesture the 2-0 scoreline towards the Spurs fans whilst being stretchered off field. This has led to cheers of irony being directed straight back at Theo upon the news of his long absence.
Indeed, the fact Arsenal will be without a key player is not only good news to their local rivals, but also the other title challengers trying to knock them off top spot in the league. The question which relates to all English fans though, is who will fill the void left by this absentee when the World Cup arrives in June?
A key attribute of Theo’s, that has elevated him to the top of his profession, is without doubt his explosive pace. Undoubtedly there is much more to his game, however, there are an extremely limited number of players across the world who can offer such speed in professional football. The ability to run at defenders with such acceleration, and pace, whilst maintaing control of the ball is a real art that only a select few can actually manage. Initially deployed as a winger, Walcott has never shied away from announcing his ambitions of leading the line for both club and country.He offers a dimension to Arsenal’s game that no other player can. He gets in behind defensive lines in the blink of an eye causing immediate impact for attacks. The speed in which Arsenal are able to counter attack is in large parts down to Walcott. The second of his goals in the 6-3 defeat at Manchester City last month demonstrated this superbly.
Fans and pundits alike often questioned whether there was more to Walcott’s game than just pace. There have been further questions as to whether he is a striker or a winger, or cynically a master of neither. Bursting onto the scene so young at Southampton aged 16, he has been expected to have come of age at 24. In many respects he has, the art of finishing is something Walcott has clearly worked on over the past few seasons. Decision making has significantly improved both in a positional and technical sense. He has learnt when to run beyond the line of defenders fantastically well of late, interestingly the game last Saturday was a fine example of this, tormenting Tottenham’s defence (unfortunately no FA Cup stats available).
Contributing with 5 goals and 4 assists, the season statistics are actually quite good for the time he has spent on the pitch. A closer look shows that it is the current form in which Walcott was in that makes this injury so significant. All of his five goals coming within the last six fixtures, alongside two assists. Putting Arsenal’s striking dilemma’s to one side, England manager Roy Hodgson is surely just as concerned as his opposite number Arsene Wenger. England have lacked depth in quality over many years now, even when there seems to be potential within the squad it fails to flourish. Some believe this news has merely highlighted our problems earlier than many would of hoped to face. In 14 appearances under Hodgson, Walcott has only scored 2 goals so he has not been prolific by any means. If England were to use him as a striker, the idea of him running at pace against a team like Italy, in our group, would surely be more promising than trying to outwit them tactically. When England aren’t overly surrounded by gifted individuals sometimes someone who can just pick the ball up and run at pace can create opportunities, simply as the opposition cannot keep pace.
Walcott does have some impressive numbers in the league this season:
- he is creating a chance every 37 minutes
- scoring a goal every 172 minutes
- and creating a clear-cut opportunity every 143 minutes
- involved in a goal (goal or assist) every 107 minutes
There are a number of options Hodgson has to explore. If he was to use Walcott as his right winger then there is no fixed replacement. It is a position that could be determined between now and May through domestic performances. Sterling, Townsend, Lallana, Adam Johnson are all possibilities but none of those mentioned will worry the elite of the world with all respects. Andros Townsend is currently sidelined, he showed real promise in his England debut in the Autumn internationals and many will be casting an eye on how he returns. Raheem Sterling is a player with outstanding potential, bags of technique and skill, but, it seems a World Cup is a little premature for his abilities. Adam Johnson is at the centre of a relegation scrap with his club Sunderland, shining out as a World Cup hopeful may be unrealistic for the environment in which he finds himself. Finally, Adam Lallana, he is one of the hopefuls who has stood out consistently over the season, barring a slight drop in team performance recently, putting in magical creative displays for the Saints. Again, he doesn’t fit naturally into the World stage. Adam Johnson is the only one to have played in the Champions League meaning any choice is going to be untested in these surroundings.
The options are as limited upfront, although there hasn’t really been any change in who would be expected to play since this injury. A pairing of Wayne Rooney, and Daniel Sturridge would be expected if both were to sustain fitness coming into the tournament. Alongside them, Danny Welbeck, Jermain Defoe, Ricky Lambert, possibly Peter Crouch, and that’s about it in reality. Promising signs indeed. England’s problems were visibly clear well before Walcott’s injury. In truth, it may be Wenger who is left to rue his absence more, largely due to the fact they are more likely to achieve success than England are and such key figures missing at key moments are instrumental. For Roy Hodgson, this is just another obstacle in what already seems mission impossible.