London (AFP) – Out of favour with Arsenal and exiled by England, Theo Walcott reached a crossroads at the end of last season and his emphatic response looks to have saved a career in danger of imploding.
Walcott started only one of Arsenal’s final 14 matches last term and lost his place in Roy Hodgson’s England squad at the end of a miserable campaign that appeared to shatter the winger’s dreams of ever cementing himself as a key figure for club or country.
Now, just months later, ahead of Wednesday’s Champions League group fixture against Swiss side Basel, he has reestablished himself as one of Arsenal’s main men thanks to a desperate close-season bid for redemption.
At 27, Walcott should have been in his prime, but somehow it seemed appropriate that a player with electric pace but a frustrating habit of failing to deliver the telling cross or clinical finish, now found himself firmly on the periphery after a career that once promised to make him a global star.
Faced with the possibility of being sold by Arsenal and forgotten by England, Walcott decided on a summit meeting that laid the foundations for his recent renaissance.
He sat down with Gunners boss Arsene Wenger and his lieutenant Steve Bould to work out how to get back on track and the advice he received was simple and to the point — get tougher physically and mentally.
Walcott took the talk to heart and worked with a personal trainer throughout the close-season in a bid to significantly improve his fitness and strength, even working on many of his days off to stay ahead of schedule.
Those gruelling sessions through the dog days of summer, when he could have been sunning himself in Miami, Dubai or any other millionaires’ playground frequented by his peers, underlined to both Walcott and Wenger that his commitment to excellence remained strong.
– Fine-tuned body –
The transformative affect on Walcott’s psyche was clear to see as soon as Arsenal’s players returned for pre-season training.
He was once again the vibrant presence that burst onto the Premier League stage after joining Arsenal from Southampton as a teenager.
Out-shining many of his team-mates thanks to his fine-tuned body and renewed desire to prove himself, Walcott was back in Wenger’s good books and back in the team for the season-opener against Liverpool.
Walcott hasn’t looked back since, starting all six Premier League matches and playing the full 90 minutes four times after frequently being substituted due to his slumping fitness levels in the past.
Crucially, Walcott finally seems to have come to terms with Wenger’s preference to play him as a right winger rather than a striker.
For years, Walcott pined for a central role in Wenger’s attack, but whenever he played there both Arsenal and the wannabe forward underwhelmed.
The difference in Walcott this season was never clearer than in Saturday’s Premier League clash against Chelsea.
In a fixture that had developed into a psychological nightmare for Arsenal after years of losing to their London rivals, Walcott led the charge as Wenger’s side won 3-0.
Walcott proved a constant menace for the Chelsea defence and swept home the second goal before earning cheers for a rare tackle in defence to deny Eden Hazard.
It was a performance that confirmed Walcott’s return to prominence and prompted Wenger to pay tribute to the winger’s resurgence.
“I always felt there is character and intelligence in this boy,” Wenger said.
“What was a big blow for him was not to go to the Euros. He is a guy with a good assessment of his performances and qualities.
“He is 27, a very important age. I said many times 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.”
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