Arsenal's Theo Walcott's dedication starting to pay rich dividends
Arsenal 3 Chelsea 0
It was in March, when Theo Walcott turned 27, that he realised he needed to change.
It had been a bad season for him, losing his place in the Arsenal team, starting just one of their final 14 matches of the season. He lost his place in Roy Hodgson's England set-up too, and was later beaten to a place in the 26-man long-list for Euro 2016 by Andros Townsend.
Walcott spoke to Arsene Wenger and Steve Bould, and knew that he had to toughen up. These were meant to be his peak years and he was at risk of wasting them. So he worked. Walcott all summer, improving his fitness and core strength. He worked on his days off, desperate to make himself the best player he possibly could be.
Wenger noticed the difference as soon as Walcott came back for pre-season. Some Arsenal players did not return until late July or even early August, having played at the Euros. But Walcott was ready from the very start, fitter and stronger than ever before.
That is why Walcott has started all six Premier League games for Arsenal this season. The right wing position has been made unambiguously his own. On Saturday he played very well again, pinning Chelsea back, terrifying them with his runs and sweeping in the second goal after a brilliant team move.
Wenger was thrilled with Walcott afterwards, delighted that everyone is now seeing "a different Theo Walcott", one that was a tribute to all of his hard work.
"I always felt there is character and intelligence in this boy," said Wenger. "What was big blow for him was not to go to the Euros. He is 27, a very important age. I said at the start of the season that we would see a different Theo Walcott. I could see he made a decision and stuck to it."
Having been dropped for the 2010 World Cup, and injured for 2014, he is now hoping to be fit for Russia 2018. Wenger trusts in his new maturity.
"We spoke about the disappointment of not going to Euro 2016 with England," Wenger said. "He is a special case. He went at 17 to the World Cup. We are now at 2016 and he hasn't been to another. When a player survives this type of disappointment from what was promised for him at 16, the way he dealt with the situation, I always felt there was something special in this guy."
What Wenger now gets from Walcott is something close to the complete package. Not just going forward, but also tracking back. On Saturday he did everything, earning a standing ovation for one tackle on Eden Hazard level with Arsenal's own penalty area. "I think he used to be a 90% forward with 10% defending," Wenger said. "Today he is 50-50. He does the job both ways and he does it with commitment."
Walcott exemplified the whole Arsenal team on Saturday, in that there was a very clear sense that something had finally clicked. This was their best performance in years, thanks to the pace and incision provided by Walcott and Alexis Sanchez up front.
"We showed that we can play the style of football we want to," beamed Wenger. "That is based on pressure on the opponent, playing with connections, with pace. It's not about one player. It's not me, me, me, it's one-two-three. Top level competition is to show you can do that in every single game."
Arsenal: Cech, Bellerin, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal, Coquelin (Xhaka, 32 mins), Cazorla, Walcott, Ozil, Iwobi (Gibbs, 69 mins), Sanchez (Giroud, 79 mins). Unused subs: Ospina, Holding, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Perez.
Chelsea: Courtois, Ivanovic, Cahill, David Luiz, Azpilicueta, Kante,Willian (Pedro, 70 mins), Fabregas (Alonso, 55 mins), Matic, Hazard (Batshuayi, 70 mins), Diego Costa. Unused subs: Begovic, Chalobah, Oscar, Moses.
Referee: Michael Oliver
Man of the match: Alexis Sanchez
Match rating: 8/10