It wasn’t exactly the best birthday for Theo Walcott, as he turned 28 yesterday, and it wasn’t exactly the most comfortable call Gareth Southgate has ever made. The England manager revealed that he was quite abrasively challenged by the Arsenal winger on being left out of the international squad for next week’s friendly away to Germany and home World Cup qualifier against Lithuania.
“I’ve got to say he wasn’t chuffed to bits to get the call,” Southgate said. “And I understand that. Quite rightly he said, ‘I’m one of the leading goalscorers in the league’. I don’t mind being challenged on that at all. I totally respect that. I don’t expect him to be happy. But I’ve got to make decisions and I think it was the right think to call him to talk that through, even though the timing [his birthday] probably wasn’t great.”
The wider context also makes it all the worse for Walcott, since it was getting left out of the England squad for Euro 2016 that gave him such a reality check, and caused him to re-assess everything about his game in order to get back on track and maximise his ability. The greater frustration is that he had been doing exactly that, with his form from September to November arguably the finest of his career. Walcott went through a spell of scoring seven goals in six games, including genuinely clutch strikes against Basel in the Champions League and Chelsea. A January calf injury curtailed that and the relative drop-off since then is probably one reason why Southgate left him out.
That is what will be so infuriating for Walcott, to find himself back where he started internationally, although he has already shown he is capable of channeling that anger in the right way.
The earlier form - and especially the way he and Alexis Sanchez were at that stage so rampantly running of Mesut Ozil to often make Arsenal so scintillating - also vindicated a big personal decision. Arsene Wenger revealed on Thursday that Walcott concluded he was better going back to the wing. That comes after years of the player insisting he was a striker, with strong backing from his manager, making his self-reflection all the braver. The fact he has scored 17 goals this season, including eight in the league, makes it all the more persuasive.
“I was always convinced, because of the quality of his runs, that he was a central striker,” Wenger said at his press conference ahead of Arsenal’s trip to West Brom this Saturday. “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.”
Directly asked whether it was Walcott who came to Wenger with this idea, the manager said “yes”.
“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, [on the right] is his preferred position and it is true that it is where he is most efficient.”
Wenger does believe that, regardless of specific position and his England omission, Walcott’s all-round game has improved.
“He has become more of a complete player, more efficient. 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… 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.”
He now needs to just do it that bit more. In the Autumn, Walcott finally showed the type of consistency and quality so many people imagined he was capable of on signing for Arsenal back in 2006. He now needs to just do it in the spring. If that happens, there should be no question about that England spot, and no debate about his best spot in the team.