While Gareth Bale often finds his free-kicks hit the back of the net with pinpoint accuracy, Theo Walcott can sometimes see his shanked horribly off-target. Both practice hard at set-pieces; Theo Walcott more so on his technique than necessarily trying to craft a niche from such shooting opportunities. For Gareth Bale, detail is everything, from the stance to the run up, and he strikes the ball in particular way so that it achieves maximum top spin rather than bend.
From that example, one might dissect a harsh conclusion of the paths of the two careers, but come the North London Derby on Sunday; both will start the match at roughly the same places of their football careers. And at 6pm, one might even overtake the other.
For most people, with both players at 23 years old, Bale is in front. His form has been scintillating for the last two years but never has he played better than he is now. He models his game conspicuously on Cristiano Ronaldo and may soon reach his level. But while Bale admits admiration for the 2008 Ballon d’Or winner, he identified this evolution last season under Harry Redknapp. Indeed, the same can be said of Theo Walcott, who has finally been given his chance to play as a central striker having been destined to play there in his head at least, since he was placed under the wing of Theirry Henry. However, if there is uncertainty about one of the player’s future and excitement about the other’s, it’s because Gareth Bale’s style just fits better in today’s game.
“He is quick and powerful, technically gifted and can strike the ball ferociously with his left foot,” eulogised one piece by Jonathan Wilson for the Guardian, summing up why Bale has provoked such joy among spectators. If the modern game’s fixation on conditioning has a means to an end, it’d be a player like Gareth Bale. Theo Walcott, on the other hand, has bags of pace but wants to play as a poacher, a position which was horribly exposed as a dated craft against the might of Bayern Munich (although Arsene Wenger has still used Walcott up front in a number of high-profile games). To be fair to Walcott, his finishing is probably his other great trait (although, and while I don’t want to encourage comparisons, you wouldn’t say it’s massively superior to Bale who is deadly anywhere from about 45 degrees from the centre of the goal.
The main objective, though, of both players is to play with freedom so that they can be explosive and for that, credit must go to the coaches.Gareth Bale has talked highly about the tactical structure put in place by manager, Andre Villas-Boas, which allows him to cut inside with the security that his position is covered. Tottenham Hotspur work rigorously on shape in training. For Wenger, the deployment of Walcott centrally has been years in the making, stating that by playing a player wide, it allows him to “get used to using the ball in a small space, as the touchline effectively divides the space that’s available to him by two; when you move the same player back to the middle, he breathes more easily and can exploit space better.” That probably explains the apprehension in not using Walcott in a striking position earlier and certainly, in recent months, his dribbling has improved dramatically. There’s still uncertainty about what is Theo Walcott’s best position but given the freedom he’s been allowed by Wenger, has allowed him to turn in more consistent, game-changing performances. (Although the by-product is that it has said to have exposed Bacary Sagna, and perhaps that’s an area Villas-Boas’s side have the upper-hand over Arsenal).
The evolution of the Bale and Walcott ties in nicely too, with my piece two years ago on the contrasting styles of the two players. Because, while comparisons between the pair are always going to persist, they’re actually more similar in role now than they were even last season when both played as wingers. Then, Bale was the traditional touchline hugger and Walcott a modern-day inside forward, attempting to profit from the spaces in between the full-back and the centre-back (something which he still does frequently now).
Freedom has made both players more effective, although for Bale it’s made the bigger difference. Two seasons ago, when I wrote a piece entitled, “Crossing is football’s greatest divide” I concluded that Bale’s style of getting to the byline and getting crosses in is very inefficient and almost out-dated. The statistics concurred, finding that although 27% of all goals scored in 2010/11 came from crosses, only 1.6% of ALL crosses lead to goals. Bale’s return was similar at 2%. Walcott’s, whose style was about timing his runs and then measuring crosses if need be on the other hand, was 53%. A professor, Jan Vecer from the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management, has taken this research further and published a paper (which you can download here) highlighting the negative impact crossing has on scoring.
Since the change in style, to a roaming role, Bale has doubled his goalscoring output on each of the last two seasons with 15 goals. His assists have dropped this season, creating only one goal (although he’s setting up much more chances than he did in previous seasons), indicating that he’s become more self-centred with more freedom. However, if Bale read Vecer’s paper today, “Crossing in Soccer has a Strong Negative Impact on Scoring: Evidence from the English Premier League”, it’d give him very sound advice, telling him to give up crossing altogether. Because conversely, despite the change in role, Bale is actually crossing more! Vecer says that teams like Arsenal and Tottenham “have the potential to score one more extra game per match if they reduced open [play] crossing.”
Certainly, that’s not what Theo Walcott’s game is about although circumstances dictate he puts the ball into the box more than he should. Statistically, though, he is doing the right things and with 11 goals and 8 assists in the league, Walcott might actually be the key player when the North London Derby kicks-off at 4pm on Sunday.