Theo Walcott has proven himself to be a 'big game' player, says Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger

James Benge
Evening Standard
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Arsene Wenger has hailed Theo Walcott as a “big game” player as the Arsenal forward celebrates his 28th birthday.

Walcott, one of Arsenal’s longest serving players after 11 years at the club, has enjoyed one of his best seasons under Wenger, contributing 17 goals in 29 games across all competitions, a tally he only bettered 2012-13.

Recent weeks have seen Walcott at his very best, with three goals in his last four games that have taken his career tally at Arsenal to 102. Most impressive of all was his goalscoring display in the first half of what was ultimately a 5-1 defeat to Bayern Munich, the right winger tormenting the German defence and causing Wenger to question how the second leg might have transpired had he been given a penalty for a trip by Xabi Alonso.

His form may not have been enough to earn him a place in the England squad, with Gareth Southgate claiming he wanted to “look at one or two other players”, but Walcott has enjoyed a significant renaissance this season after several years marred by questions over his form and fitness.

“He has become more of a complete player, more efficient,” Wenger said. “He does better in the tactical part of his game and works hard defensively and offensively. He has been less injured as well, that helps.

“He has turned up in big games as well, he can score goals in big games. He showed that against Bayern, he scored the goal and I think it was a penalty on him and he can influence games.

“The major quality of Theo is the quality of his receptions – that means he gets the ball in areas where he is extremely dangerous and that is a very intelligent part of a football player.”

Walcott’s birthday celebrations may have been soured by Southgate’s snub but disappointment is increasingly commonplace for the 28-year-old when it comes to the Three Lions.

Despite making his debut at just 17 following Sven-Goran Eriksson’s ill-fated decision to name him in the 2006 World Cup squad Walcott is yet to reach his half-century of England caps and has been to just two major tournaments.

His absence from the Euro 2016 squad after a season in which he registered just nine goals in 42 appearances prompted a lengthy period of contemplation for Walcott, who returned to the Arsenal side reinvigorated and swiftly struck up an impressive understanding with Alexis Sanchez, who had been redeployed as a central striker.

As to whether credit for Walcott’s transformation should go to the player himself or Arsenal’s coaching staff, Wenger was unsure.

“I don't know, he is a focused player and was not picked for the European Championships.

“Always in life you try and get to the next level when things don't go for you or you think you do everything right and continue to live like you did before – and he had the right response.

“He said 'what do I need to do to get higher up?' and he did it.”

By some distance the most significant change Walcott made over the summer was to abandon his aspiration to be Arsenal’s central striker, a dream he had held so dearly that he stalled on signing a new contract in the closing months of 2012.

Walcott was not the only one who envisaged him eventually leading the Arsenal line.

Top English goalscorers 2016-17 (all competitions)

  • Harry Kane: 24

  • Theo Walcott: 17

  • Dele Alli: 16

  • Jermain Defoe: 14

  • Michail Antonio: 9

  • Troy Deeney: 9

  • Andre Gray: 9

  • Jamie Vardy: 9

  • Raheem Sterling: 9

  • Charlie Austin: 9

“I was always convinced, because of the quality of his runs, that he was a central striker,” Wenger said.

“He for a while was as well but he made up his mind during the summer break and he feels more comfortable on the right.

“He is fair, he said if you give me the choice I would prefer to play on the right but if you I will play through the middle, (the right) is his preferred position and it is true that it is where he is most efficient.”

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