As Match of the Day viewers may have noticed, there is a bit of an argument going on about whether Theo Walcott has a "football brain". Well I can understand why people say he has not got one because that is what you say when you get frustrated with a player who has ability but is not learning, but I don't believe in the concept.
Sure, you have players who know what positions to take up on the pitch instinctively. Wayne Rooney is one, Paul Scholes is another. But that is rare. Most people need to be coached. You can teach them where and when to make runs. If you could not, why would we bother with coaching? If they are intelligent, they learn.
Walcott is intelligent. You listen to him in interviews and he sounds like a player who has been in the game for years. He has not though, he is only 21. We have lost patience with the modern footballer these days for lots of reasons, partly it is simply people want instant results – in life as well as football. But it does not happen just like that. At his age there will be times when Walcott plays the wrong pass and makes the wrong decision, but he will learn.
I believe that because when I watch Walcott I do so from the background of being a full-back. To my mind in the past he has not worked his full-back enough.
We all know what Walcott's main asset is: pace. Sometimes when you are so quick you do not need to work at your game on the way up as your pace is enough. That changes when you come up against more experienced players and I think he has been out-thought at times by defenders.
As a defender you look at your opponent and work out his weaknesses and strengths, and plan your approach accordingly. Against Walcott a full-back will think, "The last thing I want is for him to get the ball to feet, turn and run at me, so I will mark him tightly. He may be quicker, but I won't give him space." When that happens Walcott, in the past, has not moved the defender around enough, not taken him into places he does not want to go. When I was playing the best at that was John Barnes. He'd move 10 yards inside. I would not want to go there as it would leave space outside me, Liverpool would play the ball in there and Ian Rush would be on to it. So I'd get Ray Parlour to mark him. But by then we'd have to move a player around, and I'd be talking to Ray all the time and not concentrating as much on what I was doing.
One of the quickest wingers I faced was Marc Overmars, for the Dutch at Wembley before he joined Arsenal. Before the game I decided I would go tight so he could not turn and run at me. From kick-off their left-back got the ball, Overmars went to run down the wing as if he wanted it in behind. He runs me down the line then checks back and goes to the ball. I thought, "Right, I've got that". Next time he did it I went to get really tight, only as I was running towards him he spun me again, flew past, got in behind and they nearly scored. Surprisingly, as I'd been at Arsenal a few years and was in my mid-20s, no-one had ever done that to me before. I later, as a team-mate, watched him ruin many defenders by doing it. From then on I watched player's body language, their face, everything, instead of assuming they would do something. And I made sure if I went tight on someone, I didn't commit too early.
That shows (a) players can learn, as I did, and (b) the tricks wingers will do to make defenders work. In the past I didn't think Walcott did enough of this. His full-back would get tight on him and he could not shake him off. This season he has been getting in behind defenders much more, and scoring goals because of it. His positional play is much improved.
I think being left out of the World Cup squad has helped. It sounds odd but being picked in 2006 was good for him, because exposure to an experience like that at such a young age is invaluable. Not being picked in 2010 was just as beneficial because he wasn't playing well, maybe needed a jolt, and certainly needed a rest. Last year his shoulder injury was a real problem. Footballers as quick as Walcott are like racehorses, they are highly tuned and need to be perfectly balanced to perform at their best. When his shoulder was not right he did not have that balance. Now he is fit and has had a full pre-season, which is so important.
I hope England play him tonight where he has been playing for Arsenal, on the right of an attacking three. Arsène Wenger thinks he will end up in a central role and he may well be right because Walcott has already shown he is a good finisher. He is fit, confident and though he still has a lot to learn he can have a big impact for Arsenal and England.
Rooney must show discipline if England are to extract the best from Gerrard
I thought the Hungary game was a decent start to England's post-World Cup renewal. The team did all right and the fans felt it was not too bad. Now we are into the serious stuff of qualifying and Fabio Capello has huge injury problems.
I think Capello has work to do to get the fans back on his side and a few changes will help, even if forced. I would not advocate dropping either John Terry or Frank Lampard but their injuries mean there will be a freshness about the side which is needed after an appalling World Cup.
Terry's absence is a problem in that we are short of defenders but Lampard's clarifies matters in midfield as it makes redundant the old debate about him and Steven Gerrard, and creates space for two holding midfielders. I think most people agree 4-4-2 is outdated at this level so I'd play like the Dutch with James Milner and Gareth Barry holding. (Though if Tom Huddlestone was in the squad he'd be a contender, I'm mystified as to why he's out and Michael Carrick's in). Theo Walcott would be on the right flank, Adam Johnson on the left.
That leaves the centre, and this is where Capello needs to show his authority. Wayne Rooney is an outstanding footballer, but that does not mean he cannot be told to adapt his game by the manager for the sake of the team. Rooney had a poor World Cup and has not started the season well. But he can still ignite the team and should be in it. The question is where?
The issue arises because the further forward Steven Gerrard plays the better he is, as long as it is not on the left wing. So he should play off the striker, which means Rooney must lead the line (tough luck on Jermain Defoe, admittedly). Rooney likes to drop off and look for the ball, but that would take him into the space Gerrard needs to run into. So Rooney must be told to stay up the pitch.
1. Players to blame for off-field woes
There are a few players around the England squad under a cloud because of allegations about their personal life, some even taking out injunctions. It's unhelpful but I have no sympathy. The players created this environment to an extent with their endorsements and so on. Being in the public eye carries a responsibility to behave professionally.
2. French step into the unknown
I expect Laurent Blanc would have preferred his first qualifier to be away from home because no one knows how the French public will react after the players' World Cup rebellion. The whole thing has been a farce – those involved need to look at themselves.
3. New Italy, and about time
It was a great squad of players who won the 2006 World Cup but you have to change sometime and the new broom is long overdue. They were appalling in the Confederations Cup, atrocious in the World Cup. I expect the new players to be motivated just by pulling the Azzurri shirt on.
4. Ballack's back as captain, but why?
I thought Michael Ballack's absence at the World Cup was the best thing that happened for Germany and I'm surprised he's been confirmed as captain. The young players seemed to enjoy not having a big personality like Ballack there. It will be interesting to see if they play with the same freedom when he is fit.
5. Vuvuzela ban. Yippee!
That's my response to Uefa banning the vuvuzela from European qualifiers. I'm not a big fan. Sorry, but I was woken every morning by one in South Africa before the matches even began so I fell out of love with them very quickly.Reuse content