England hopes Theo Walcott's improvement is not a mirage

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Were you to track Theo Walcott's handling by the British press since 2006, when Arsene Wenger took him to Arsenal and Sven-Goran Eriksson took him to the World Cup, the chart would peak and trough like an EKG. The 21-year-old has been hailed as a prodigy, maligned as Sven's ludicrous plaything, had the nation's hopes heaped upon his shoulders after that breathtaking hat trick against Croatia in 2008, and been bemoaned for his failure to carry the weight.

When he was left out of Fabio Capello's 2010 World Cup squad, it was a surprise (the manager had previously picked him whenever he'd been fit), but one that was easily digested. Walcott's favor with England seemed still to be curried from that night in Zagreb; since then he had endured two injury-troubled seasons and his displays in the buildup to the tournament seemed to place his shortcomings under a microscope rather than emphasize his qualities.

The chart dipped but it is now spiking irresistibly. It is sadly inevitable that the beginning of England's European Championship qualification campaign is marked by the thud of wood against cobbles, as numerous bandwagons are set hurtling from their posts. The sack-Capello cart is carrying plenty of passengers, but none has gained so much giddy momentum as Walcott's in the past week. Walcott is England's great white hope. Again.

You would think we'd have learned by now -- if not to stay our judgment then at least to declare it with a little caution: we're just a few weeks into the season and Walcott has played 45 minutes of soccer in an England shirt. He has already matched last season's goal tally, but three of those goals came against a Blackpool side that might have conceded a dozen and still considered itself lucky. It is tempting, though, to believe that his recent performances hint at longer-term improvement.

Walcott has frequently been labeled a "headless chicken," often by his own supporters, and that won't be instantly shrugged off. But in two starts for Arsenal, he has demonstrated more reliable navigational skills. Keeping his head up, he has picked out easier and more penetrative layoffs than has often been the case. Though he wasn't mind-blowing in his first-half appearance for England against Hungary last month, there was still evidence of his improving eye for a simple ball in the 12th-minute cutback that Adam Johnson blazed over the bar.

The impact of Walcott's running off-the-ball has also been noticeable in these early matches, though you suspect this is a question of our attention rather than his acquisition of a new skill -- his pace has often sucked defenders into the chase. It's no coincidence, however, that Bacary Sagna has made an impact in the early season. He has acres of space to run into as Walcott pulls fullbacks into narrow positions.

In the past, those terrorized souls could at least have relied on a muscular shove or a purposefully mistimed swing of the boot to bring Walcott to a halt, but Blackpool's Stephen Crainey and Blackburn's Gael Givet met a player less susceptible to the dark arts. Over the summer, Walcott has put in hours at the gym in order to toughen up. His new attitude is, he says: "If I do get kicked, if I get hurt, I've just got to get up from it."

Walcott on his feet is increasingly dangerous. Last season he was outscored in the league by eight of his teammates, now he is Arsenal's top scorer and keeps popping up in critical areas. He can still shank a ball into the hoardings as well as ever, but those he has put away have been struck with certainty and reassuring precision. Blackburn goalkeeper Paul Robinson won't enjoy being beaten at such a tight angle for Arsenal's opener in a 2-1 win, but Walcott's confidence to shoot early was telling.

Question marks remain over Walcott's first touch, which can force him onto more testing angles or into the path of defenders, and his crossing, which has not drastically improved, even if his dead ball delivery might have done. He has not suddenly become a completely different, flawless player. But the ongoing argument over whether or not he has a "football brain" is largely irrelevant if he can continue to be deployed to such dangerous effect.

Wenger has always said Walcott is a striker, yet has played him on the wing. But so far this season, Arsenal has tended to start in a 4-2-1-3 formation, with Walcott and Arshavin flanking either Marouane Chamakh or Robin van Persie. Whatever the permanence of the changes and improvements to his play, having the freedom of the inside channel as well as command of wider areas appears to suit Walcott.

In this form, he has taken center stage in the run up to England's meeting with Bulgaria Friday -- and become a convenient stick with which to beat the unpopular Capello. Those wielding it should remember that Walcott had rarely, if ever, put together a similar run of form prior to the World Cup. However, it's worrying nonetheless to hear that the manager intends to start Walcott on the right of a midfield four when he has been so unleashed by a less orthodox wide role for Arsenal. Especially when one of Capello's reasons for dropping Walcott for South Africa was that he didn't hug the touchline as instructed.

It's also troubling that switching from 4-3-3, which England experimented with in training this week, to 4-4-2 is likely to see Adam Johnson dropped from the left. Johnson's World Cup omission felt like the bigger deal -- he already had in abundance some of the qualities Walcott's performances were lacking and has picked up where he left off this season, in great form for Manchester City. He has proved for club (and country, in a fine 90 minutes against Hungary) that he can cause problems on either wing.

As the improving player, Walcott has attracted the headlines, but Johnson has already shown that he deserves more than footnote status.