While it’s a slight exaggeration to say Theo Walcott changed Friday’s game, he certainly defined it. Coming on in the 61st minute, Walcott’s third touch of the match bent the back of Andreas Isaksson’s net. Seventeen minutes later, Walcott blew through the right channel, eventually providing for Danny Welbeck’s 78th minute winner. Had manager Roy Hodgson not brought on Walcott, Sweden likely gets another result from England.
There is an irony to Hodgson’s choice of Walcott, particularly as his first substitute. No player’s time has been dealt a bigger blow by Hodgson’s hire than the 23-year-old Arsenal attacker. Even Rio Ferdinand has less of a claim considering he wasn’t getting time before the appointment. Walcott, on the other hand, was often s first attacker in Fabio Capello’s 4-3-3. Then England went 4-4-2, Hodgson became enamored with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Walcott has not only been benched, he’s been marginalized to the fringe of the squad.
He failed to start either of England’s pre-tournament friendlies and while protecting a result against France, but down a goal in the second half to Sweden, Walcott got the call. Hodgson could have called on Chamberlain, who started against France. Or he could have brought on Defoe, who came on late against France, and moved Welbeck wide. Yet moments after James Milner committed the foul that set up Sweden’s second goal, Roy recalled Theo.
The play illustrates the whisker-thin case for choosing Milner over Walcott. Certainly going forward, Walcott offers the greater threat, but in other facets of the game, including defensively (positioning on the right, tracking runners, amongst other considerations) Milner is thought to be superior. But there was Milner: in the match’s 58th minute, getting beat by a run from Martin Olsson, a man whose played in the Premier League since 2007. The Blackburn defender got a step past his man, was found by Kim Kallstrom, and drew a foul from a lunging Milner. One minute later, Sebastian Larsson curled a ball far post, with terrible marking allowing Olof Mellberg to head Sweden in front.
James Milner’s not supposed to put himself in those situations. That’s his billing. He’s dependable, accountable — he doesn’t make mistakes. It may be the sole reason he starts ahead of Walcott, and given the priorities Hodgson sets for his team, the mistake should not be taken lightly.
France’s Patrice Evra committed a similar indiscretion against England, committing a foul that led directly to a goal. Laurent Blanc benched him in favor of Gael Clichy. Will Hodgson make a similar choice ahead of Tuesday’s match with Ukraine? Probably not.
Milner is thought to be a much smarter player than Walcott, though the intellect Walcott exhibited on the final goal hints he’s not as lacking as he’s apocryphally portrayed. Walcott’s first contribution to the build up came in England’s half, dropping back and in from the right to provide an outlet. After he’d collected and moved the ball, Walcott made his way up the pitch while tracking the play, cutting toward Glen Johnson as Steven Gerrard moved the ball to the England right back.
After receiving getting the ball back, Walcott acted decisively, forced the defense to collapse, thereby allowing Welbeck to make his near post run. If Walcott were some kind of blockhead, he may never have left the right side of the formation.
After the match, Walcott admitted he’s frustrated by his lack of playing time. That he did so with a smile will alleviate any controversy. After all, a man who comes off the bench to post a goal and an assist in a European Championship match has earned a certain amount of leeway.
But as good as Walcott was, it’s too much to say he changed the match. After he blasted home Ashley Young’s corner to make it 2-2, the match reestablished the first half’s balance. The main difference had nothing to do with Walcott. With three goals scored in the second’s first 16 minutes, the game had opened up. Sweden had enjoyed their period of ascendance followed by England briefly chasing the match. By the time the sides settled into the half’s brave, new, 2-2 world, the eggshell-laden landscape of the first lay crushed. Walcott didn’t change the match as much as the match changed itself.
But within that new landscape, Walcott provided something England desperately needed. The team held much more possession against Sweden than they did against France (52 percent on Friday, 35 percent on Tuesday), yet when they established themselves in their attacking phase, England lacked ideas. They would move the ball around the area in front of Sweden’s midfielders before it eventually found Steven Gerrard, who teammates then seemed to expect would make something happen. But aside from the deep cross that Andy Carroll converted for the opener, Gerrard wasn’t any more adept at creating chances. England was stagnant.
Walcott changed that. His willingness to challenge a defense paid off with the winning goal, and while there are a couple of other players in the squad who are capable of doing the same, Walcott’s the first to act. It’s one more facet Walcott can bring to England that Milner just can’t provide.
And Walcott’s aggression wasn’t even the most promising feature he brought to England’s game. Late in the match, we were teased by Welbeck, Walcott, and Young breaking into counter attacks. There was the pleasant surprise of Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker, so gassed at the end of the France match, providing support. The interplay didn’t come off, so the attacks went for naught, but as the level of competition increases and England becomes more likely to revert to Tuesday night’s philosophies, choosing Walcott over Milner will provide a counter attacking potency that will give opponents pause.
When all the benefits are laid out, the case to start Theo Walcott seems pretty compelling. That, however, is a conversation for another day. And that day’s Saturday, when the first of three days before England meets Ukraine will see the squad’s every question exhausted by the punditry.
And while it seems a very non-Hodgsonian thing to do – to bench Milner and start Walcott, at this point – who would have thought a 18-year-old who doesn’t start for his club would have been in Roy’s starting XI for the first game of the European Championships?
Zlatan Ibrahimovic had a fortuitous assist, but he failed to score. He’s certainly seen better days, but unless he was going to get more help from his teammates, Friday’s performance may have been the best coach Erik Hamrén could have expected. Unless at least one of Ibrahimovic’s teammates matched his level, Sweden was always destined to bow out early.
It’s a high level to match, given how strong Ibrahimovic was on the ball. But Sweden didn’t necessarily need another Zlatan. All they needed were people willing to make the right runs. All they needed was somebody to put forth as much effort as Zlatan did when he was pushing around John Terry and Joleon Lescott. Given how infrequently that kind of physical domination is seen in the Premier League, you know Zlatan came to play. Unfortunately, no other Sweden attacker answered the call.
Olof Mellberg certainly stepped up in the second half. Rasmus Elm made some nice runs, while Kim Kallstrom’s second half provided some much needed class in distribution. But with John Terry and Joleon Lescott unlikely to gift Sweden any chances, the players needed to do more.
After a first half of spraying passes all around England’s penalty area, Zlatan started taking everything upon himself – exactly what Sweden needed to avoided. By the end of the match, their star was left frustrated. It’s a trademark of the Lars Lagerback era Hamrén was trying to avoid.
- John Terry is adjusting to the right side of central defense. Exclusively a left-sider at Chelsea, Terry’s been moved right by Hodgson’s choice of Joleon Lescott over Phil Jagielka. After a solid performance on Tuesday, we saw some of Terry’s assertiveness come out against Sweden, most notably in the first half when Terry met Ibrahimovic right as a pass was arriving. The Sweden captain was sent clanging to the ground.
- So much for fatigue with Gerrard and Parker. Given how tired as the duo was on Tuesday, it was unclear how fit they’d be against Sweden. They only had three days rest but from all indications, it wasn’t an issue.
- The big question coming into Friday’s game was whether Hodgson would open things up. To the extent he ever opens things up, Hodgson did. Ashley Cole was released from left back early and often. The central midfield staggered, sending one man to support while the other held back. Ashley Young appeared to be trying to get inside to link up with Danny Welbeck. They’re little things, but against France – when England was so intent on maintaining their banks of four – they weren’t there.
- Beyond the match-winner, Danny Welbeck put in an impressive performance. It was unclear how he and Andy Carroll would work together, but freed to exploit the space behind a true number nine, Welbeck proved very productive. If Carroll can get used to using the spaces Welbeck opens up, balls played back into midfield can then find England’s target man with room to do damage. Just like on the day’s opening goal.Richard Farley is a freelance writer and former host of the EPL Talk Podcast. His work is prominently featured in NBC Sports’ soccer coverage. You can follow him on Twitter at @richardfarley.