Thursday September 10th, 2015

After signing a shiny new mega-contract this past summer after a blistering finish to the 2014–15 season, Theo Walcott appeared primed to take the Premier League by storm. But longtime Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has curiously handed him just one start in the club’s opening four league matches — during a stretch in which Arsenal has tallied only three goals, including a pair of disappointing scoreless performances at home.

The two blanks at the Emirates are particularly worrying, as the Gunners have now been shut out in five of their last six home matches dating back to the end of last season, and Walcott has started in just one of those six. Perhaps not so coincidentally, his lone start was the only non-shutout of the bunch; Walcott scored inside of four minutes on his way to an emphatic first-half hat trick in a 4–1 win over Tony Pulis’s West Brom.

As is the case when any big club struggles at home, many of Arsenal’s woes can be explained by rotten luck: a glorious missed chance here, an inspired keeper there, and so on. On some level, though, Wenger is creating his own bad luck by repeatedly leaving out the club’s most effective goal scorer.

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Understanding Walcott’s scoring prowess is a difficult venture. His electrifying pace and clever back-shoulder runs allow him to get behind the defense and through on goal with incredible frequency, but Walcott often fails to convert these promising opportunities, which makes him a lightning rod for criticism. “Arsenal in dire need of striker after Theo Walcott woe” read a Telegraph headline after a pair of ugly misses at Newcastle.

Misses like these — and the ensuing fan and media criticism — have led to a widespread narrative that Walcott is a poor finisher, and by extension, a poor goal scorer. Given his usage of Walcott, it is hard not to wonder if Wenger holds similar beliefs.

Move away from the eyeball test, though, and a very different picture emerges. A series of advanced metrics suggest that Walcott actually is a terrific goal scorer. 

Since the start of the 2012–13 season, Walcott has fired a shot every 26.6 minutes he’s on the field, and scored on 16.2% of them — well above the league averages of between 12 and 13%. Over that timeframe, he has scored at a rate of one goal per 163.9 minutes, a frequency that translates to more than 20 goals over the course of a full season. Walcott’s non-penalty per-minute rate trails only three strikers in the entire league — Sergio Aguero, Diego Costa, and Harry Kane — and destroys any other midfielder, more than doubling the likes of Eden Hazard. 

It all begs the obvious question: How does this ostensibly bad finisher rack up goals so proficiently?

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To answer that, we again have to consider the type of player Walcott is, and the type of chances he gets. Walcott’s world-class pace, coupled with his ever-increasing insistence on shooting only from inside the box, means that a disproportionately high number of his chances are of the high-percentage variety — from breakaways, close-range passes in the box, and rebounds/loose balls right in front of goal. In 2014–15, a full 91.3% of his shot attempts came from inside the penalty area.

A flurry of high-percentage chances will always lead to goals, whether or not the player taking those chances is an especially adept finisher. In other words, for Walcott, his ability to generate such a high volume of these high-percentage chances is more important than his ability to finish them with even league-average skill. His misses may be frustrating to fans, pundits, and his manager alike, but to become overly frustrated by one blown opportunity (or three) is to miss out on the overall value of a special, albeit unconventional, goal scorer.

We can further illustrate this idea with the help of a nifty stat called “big chances,” which Opta defines as “a situation where a player should be reasonably expected to score.” Functionally, these are chances that are scored around 40% of the time. “Big chances” are somewhat rare in the Premier League, accounting for around 12% of total shots, but Walcott has nearly doubled the league average, with 23.6% of his shots classified as such over the past four seasons. With such a high percentage of his shots coming from very dangerous areas, Walcott has gotten a “big chance” every 112 minutes — around the same rate as Mesut Özil, Aaron Ramsey, and Santi Cazorla combined.

Here, again, we see the importance of shot quality vs. finishing ability as it relates to Walcott’s goal total. Consistent with the narrative about his poor finishing, Walcott has scored on a well-below-average 31.4% of those chances, but no matter. His sheer volume of them (and other good looks that just miss out on Opta’s characterization) means that his overall goal rate is still amongst the most prolific and most efficient in the league.

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Despite this, Wenger has largely refused to play him since Walcott’s return to full fitness last January, and it’s becoming clear that Walcott does not fit Wenger’s preferred vision for what a footballer ought to be. Arsenal’s manager likes all of his players, even those highest up the field, to be masterful in possession. Think Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pires in Arsenal’s halcyon days, or Özil and Cazorla in the current squad.

For all of his abundant goal-scoring and physical qualities, Walcott will never be that type of player, or even all that close to it. He is average at best in possession, and wholly incapable of the type of exquisite flicks that define so many Arsenal buildups. That is not to say, though, that Walcott is ill-equipped to fit in this Arsenal team. His incredibly direct style is exactly what the sometimes-punchless Gunners need, especially given Arsenal’s surplus of players who are best suited to play the type of clever throughballs Walcott loves to run on to.

Walcott’s playing style underscores much of the current debate — for the media and Wenger alike — about whether Walcott or Olivier Giroud should lead the line for Arsenal, but this line of thinking somewhat misses the point of Walcott. While he has proven to be a more prolific per-minute striker than Giroud, his unique ability to generate high-percentage scoring chances for himself is not necessarily restricted by position, which makes him a valuable option in the wide right midfield spot, as well.

Given Wenger’s apparent preference for Giroud in the central striking role, Walcott’s only chance for a permanent place in the team will likely have to come in that midfield role, at the expense of one of the club’s many talented technicians. That’s a sacrifice that Arsenal’s manager has yet to make consistently. Wenger may need to start considering it more strongly, though. His willingness to more frequently compromise artistic ideals in favor of Walcott’s blunt-force efficiency may be a huge factor in whether or not Arsenal is a serious title contender this season.

All statistics courtesy of Opta and reflect only Premier League matches.

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