By Shane Thomas
It's been a while since Arsenal have been the major football story that didn't lead with the words "crisis", "transfer window" or "spending", often accompanied by the words "lack of". However, Theo Walcott's coruscating hat-trick against Newcastle not only sent the Gunners up to 5th in the Premier League table, it also brought the topic of his contract status into sharp focus.
As the months tick down on Walcott's contractual link with the club, his performances have improved. While last season he didn't help himself by absurdly claiming that his displays were, "consistent in patches", he made a significant contribution to Arsenal's 3rd placed finish in the league. In his speech for winning Footballer of the Year, Robin Van Persie (whatever happened to him?) was quick to praise Theo for his numerous assists throughout the last campaign - 10, which remains his best (to date) for Arsenal.
Despite this all coming from the right flank, Walcott remained determined to ply his trade at the Emirates Stadium from a central striking position. And you can only imagine that yearning increased with Van Persie's departure in the summer. But the doubts about his productivity remained. Although last season was Walcott's most proficient in an Arsenal shirt, he was just as likely to be an anonymous presence in a game as he was to be the matchwinner.
From my fortuitous position in the Emirates, I personally think that Walcott's all-round display against Newcastle was... well, consistent in patches. Looking at some of the stats from the match, his pass success rate was 69% (the lowest of the Arsenal players), only taking 4 more touches of the ball than Wojciech Szczesny (39). He also failed to win a single aerial duel, and was dispossessed three times - once again, more than any of his teammates.
Now while one can use stats to prove anything, the reason why I highlighted the aforementioned numbers is that the received wisdom in football is that the age of the old-school centre-forward is dead. The likes of Pippo Inzaghi, Andy Cole and Michael Owen have faded, while top sides tend to rely on strikers who play an integral role in the construction of their attacking strategy; read Edison Cavani, Fernando Llorente or Sergio Aguero. For the much of the first-half, Arsenal's modus operandi appeared to be defending deep, and trying to exploit Walcott's pace with a long ball on the counter.
Having said all this, what Walcott provided was a statistic more precious than winning headers or pressuring defenders into conceding possession. The thing that led Gooners to gnash, wail, and at times, be downright abusive towards Theo was the unpredictability of his end product. Well, along with his three goals, he also claimed two assists. So far he has 8 league goals in as many starts, and with 14 in all competitions, he is currently Arsenal's top scorer.
While some may think Theo is becoming the Premier League's equivalent of NBA star Vince Carter (he also plays well just before his contract expires), I think the penny may have finally dropped in terms of performance. Despite this being his seventh season in North London, Walcott is still only 23, and now looks to be adding genuine consistency to his undoubted qualities. And while many people (I'm one of them) think that to pay him £100,000 grand a week is excessive, if he continues to be Arsenal's key difference-maker, then he makes a case which will be increasingly difficult to argue with.
However, this is all incumbent on Walcott sustaining this level of productivity. It shouldn't be overlooked that his recent purple patch came against the amenable defences of Reading and Newcastle. If selected, the acid test will likely come in a spell of matches which include Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Stoke. If Theo was to spearhead the attack with as much effectiveness as he's done to close 2012, then Arsene Wenger may have finally developed him into the real deal. Just as we may be about to lose him.
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