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Analysis: Why Wenger is right, Walcott is a different player

Match of the Day

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Theo Walcott has improved so much this season, it is as if he has flicked a switch in his head.

Walcott now sees himself as a winger, not a striker, but his turnaround is not just because he is now focusing on succeeding in one position for Arsenal.

It is down to a change in his attitude and application, which has brought him a greater end product – he has already scored more Premier League and Champions League goals than he did in the whole of last season.

He has also increased his defensive work and has already made more tackles (14) in the league in 2016-17 than in the two previous campaigns combined (11).

It is like the Gunners only had half a player – until now.

Theo has a different mindset because at the age of 27 he has reached a stage of his career where alarm bells are ringing.

He has been at the club for more than 10 years now and he is not prepared to be a bit-part player any more.

Rather than being someone who comes in and out of the team, he wants to be a part of the main story at Arsenal.

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Between them, Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott have scored 14 goals for Arsenal in the Premier League and Champions League this season

It seems to be the case that he is now thinking: ‘I have to be in the team and I am going to do everything possible to be there.’

That would have started on day one of pre-season, which is why Wenger spoke in the summer about seeing a different player – and that determination has not stopped since.

It was the same with his England performances after he suffered the disappointment of missing out on the squad for the European Championship finals.

He did not play as well against Malta and Slovenia as he has been performing for the Gunners, but he could not be accused of not applying himself in the right way.

Is Walcott out of his comfort zone at last?

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Walcott’s best haul of Premier League and Champions League goals is 15, in 2012-13. He scored 14 league goals that season, the only time he has reached double figures in that competition in a single campaign. He has only scored a total of more than eight goals in both competitions combined on three occasions.

I was at Arsenal and working with the backroom staff while I got my coaching badges when Walcott joined from Southampton aged 16 in January 2006.

The scout who found him for Saints, Malcolm Elias, knew I was working for the Gunners and asked me to help Theo bed in a little bit, which I gladly did.

I remember watching him very closely in all the passing drills and running exercises in training, and he looked very comfortable right from the start.

That is unusual because normally when a kid comes into the first-team picture at that age, he struggles to complete everything in a session.

They get out of breath, and they lose some of their smoothness because they are at their limits. Not Theo, though.

I have a feeling, looking back, that it was all a bit too easy for him and he did not have to push himself.

He had some extra gears he was not using – and we are seeing them now. His problem, until now, has been working out how to find them effectively.

Sanchez switch has helped Walcott thrive

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Between them, Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott have scored 14 goals for Arsenal in the Premier League and Champions League this season

When you ask for more from a fast, attacking player like Walcott, you do not want them to play in too much of a hectic fashion, or try things beyond what they are capable of.

In the past, I think that has happened and Theo has sometimes over-stretched himself when he has tried to go through the gears, which has affected his confidence.

This season, everything about his play is much more controlled and suggests he has got the mental side of things spot on.

That is why Wenger is saying he is playing with more freedom – it is all in his mind.

The switch to playing Alexis Sanchez instead of Olivier Giroud up front has definitely helped Walcott and Germany midfielder Mesut Ozil thrive too.

Sanchez runs in behind defences more, and Arsenal’s build-up play is quicker. The Gunners are like speed kings on the break, particularly with Walcott and Spain full-back Hector Bellerin down the right.

Walcott is seeing the benefits of his hard work at the moment and is getting plenty of plaudits for it – but he needs to view this period as only the start of showing what he is capable of.

Getting pats on the back is nice but they can make you complacent and put you back in your comfort zone.

Theo needs to maintain this kind of desire and have the determination to not want to stop until he achieves something really special in an Arsenal shirt.

Gunners cannot afford to be complacent either

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Arsenal scored an average of 1.71 goals per game in 2015-16

As a team, Arsenal have also improved significantly going forward compared with last season. Their number of shots on goal is up from 10.9 per Premier League game to 15.1 and their shot conversion rate has increased too – up to 23% from 16%.

That does not surprise me because his team’s creativity is the thing Wenger works on the most, and it fell away in the second half of last season as their title challenge faltered.

Spain midfielder Santi Cazorla was not available because of injury from November onwards and Ozil’s assists dried up after Christmas – he made 16 goals before the end of December and only three afterwards.

At the time, the concern and criticism from fans and the media was about the defensive side of things, but Wenger will have been more alarmed about what was happening at the top of the team – and he will have been working since the summer on putting it right.

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Arsenal are on a run of six straight Premier League wins that have seen them take 10 points more than they did in the corresponding fixtures last season. The * refers to a newly promoted team and their equivalent – ie the team that had been promoted as champions or promoted via the play-offs.

At the moment, with their run of seven successive wins in all competitions and scoring 23 goals in the process, they are reaping the rewards.

Their six wins in a row in the league have come against teams you might expect them to beat – but it is important to remember they failed to do that last season, when they won only two of the corresponding fixtures.

They have taken 10 extra points from the same games this season, a return that would have seen them finish level on points with champions Leicester in 2015-16.

Last season, Arsenal won the mini-league between the top five, only losing one of those eight games.

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Arsenal’s only defeat against the rest of last season’s top five was a 3-2 loss at Manchester United

Results against the so-called lesser teams was one of the things that cost them. This season, so far, they have found a way of beating them even when they do not play well.

They will go top above Manchester City, for about 24 hours at least, if they win at home to Middlesbrough on Saturday – which I would expect them to do.

Let’s not get carried away, though. It is still so early in the season and we have seen plenty of spells like this before from Arsenal since they last won the title in 2004.

If they are going to go the distance this time then, like Walcott, the Gunners need to maintain the determination that has got them these results and also not lose their belief when things do go wrong.

He is not the only Arsenal player who cannot afford to become complacent just because things are going so well at the moment.

Martin Keown was speaking to BBC Sport’s Chris Bevan.

Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/37707349