Get Theo Walcott playing like he"s Michael Owen: Martin Samuel

Get Walcott playing like he's Owen

June 30, 1998, 9.16pm, Stade
Geoffroy-Guichard, Saint-Etienne. Michael Owen scores a goal to put
England 2-1 ahead in a World Cup last 16 match with Argentina. He
collects the ball from David Beckham just inside Argentina’s half and
runs, straight, shrugging off the attentions of defender Jose Chamot.

As
Owen approaches the penalty area, Roberto Ayala, at the time regarded
as one of the greatest defenders in the world, is waiting. Owen fades
right to create his angle and strikes his shot across goalkeeper Carlos
Roa.

It remains one of the
most memorable goals of the modern era in English football, drawing
comparisons with Jimmy Greaves in its ferocious, yet simple, perfection.
Owen was 18. Sadly, he would only have three more international
tournaments to fully display his talent to the world.

Setting the world alight: Owen fires past Roa

Setting the world alight: Owen fires past Roa

Now imagine that goal replicated by a
current England player in the opening group game of Euro 2012. Who would
be the scorer Not Wayne Rooney, he is suspended. Not Darren Bent, he
is injured. One of a trio of strikers selected by Stuart Pearce for the
match with Holland Unlikely.

They
are all talented, and quick, but do not have the sheer audacity that
marked Owen’s career as a teenager. There is only one player in the
current England squad that might be capable of scoring like that.

Theo Walcott.

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Not just on the back of two goals
against Tottenham Hotspur, but based on the evidence of goals against
good teams, consistently, throughout his career. Walcott scores against
the best defenders, and the best defences; indeed six of his eight goals
this season have come against teams either competing in the Champions
League or residing in Champions League qualifying positions: Udinese
(home and away), Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham. He has scored
against AC Milan, and Barcelona, too, on a night when he turned the
game in Arsenal’s favour from 2-0 down.

Half
of Andy Carroll’s six goals for Liverpool this season have come against
teams outside the Barclays Premier League — Exeter City, Oldham
Athletic and Brighton and Hove Albion. /02/28/article-0-029B255E00000578-115_634x339.jpg” width=”634″ height=”339″ alt=”Clinical: Walcott hits the first of his masterful hat-trick in Zagreb” class=”blkBorder” />

Clinical: Walcott hits the first of his masterful hat-trick in Zagreb

And that is it. His sole goalscoring appearance in an England shirt: 21 matches, three goals, all within the space of 56 minutes. Yet do not let that fool you. Walcott’s ratio may be inferior to some international rivals, not least Ashley Young, who has four in 18 caps, but he has never been used as a striker. It is a position he covets, for club as much as country, but Capello in particular demanded he hug the touchline. Indeed, failure to do so cost him his England place.

It is an irony of Walcott’s career that he travelled to the World Cup that should have been beyond him — in 2006 when Sven Goran Eriksson took the ludicrous decision to select him blind before he had played for Arsenal — but did not make the one he should have, South Africa in 2010. Walcott was dropped for ignoring Capello’s instruction to stay wide in two friendly appearances. Capello later admitted he made a mistake.

So the jury is out, because Walcott has never been in as the focal point of England’s attack. It is time that changed. Pearce would already appear to have made his mind up, with Danny Welbeck the central striker and Walcott and Daniel Sturridge either side, but there is still time.

Harry Redknapp, England’s manager-elect, is a big Walcott fan and with options so limited up front — at least until Rooney has served his two-game suspension — may be interested to see Walcott in the role in the two spring friendly games.

Follow my lead: Owen (right) and Walcott train before the 2006 World Cup

Follow my lead: Owen (right) and Walcott train before the 2006 World Cup

Ian Wright, the former Arsenal striker, is presently advocating Walcott as Arsenal’s spearhead, to return Robin van Persie to his supporting role, but this seems a needless complication.

Van Persie has been stunning this year and shows no sign of tiring. If England had Van Persie as a striker the need to inspect Walcott’s credentials would not be so great. The fact is, England’s manager in Ukraine this summer will be forced to work with relative novices — Pearce’s call-up of Fraizer Campbell shows how limited the resources are — or recall a warhorse like Peter Crouch, whose presence can make England’s midfield more direct than is healthy.

The other benefit of Walcott played centrally is that it finds room for Sturridge, Young, perhaps even Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain either side.

If the front line then misses the craft of Rooney, it at least provides the other element that terrorises defenders: pace. John Terry, Ledley King, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling: Walcott has hardly been scoring against mugs this season, and even Barcelona’s back four were intimidated by his speed.

Owen’s urgency undid Argentina, and later Germany in Munich, and it was the means by which Walcott dragged Arsenal back into the game with Barcelona in 2010.

Redknapp certainly knows the effectiveness of this simple trait, having seen Gareth Bale destroy Inter Milan in last season’s Champions League.

Sometimes speed can be Walcott’s undoing, too, of course. For his first goal against Tottenham on Sunday, he arrived so fast that his initial touch was weak. His recovery and neat chip over the goalkeeper, however, revealed a player with a striker’s instinct and, increasingly, more of a football brain than his critics identify. It is as if Walcott is an easy target, baby-faced and perceived as middle class and over-privileged because Eriksson took him to the World Cup too soon.

It is often forgotten that he is still just 22. In Milan two weeks ago, Walcott was poor for Arsenal and was removed at half-time; yet again he was playing in a wide position. Arsenal’s midfield was desperately sluggish that night and slow ball is as much a curse to a winger in football as it is in rugby, but few make excuses for Walcott. Judging by the reaction of even his home crowd at Arsenal, he is a soft target and many pick on him, without appreciating the uniquely tailored service a player with his strengths requires.

On target: Walcott evades the attentions of Scott Parker and Brad Friedel to score Arsenal's fourth

On target: Walcott evades the attentions of Scott Parker and Brad Friedel to score Arsenal's fourth

Could Sturridge give England a Walcott-like explosion of energy, too Perhaps. He has 11 goals for Chelsea this season, but only one since December 22, against Birmingham City in the FA Cup. Welbeck is more of a replacement for a target-man striker in the style of Bent, but his rate is hardly prolific, just one more goal than Walcott, despite featuring in 28 matches for Manchester United this season.

Even so, we will, in all likelihood, find out about Welbeck, Sturridge and perhaps even Campbell against Holland, while Walcott’s potential remains untapped.

He may be the best, the most direct, the most natural finisher since Owen; he may be the one player capable of provoking genuine fear from opponents made cocksure by the absence of Rooney.

He may even, as Sir Alex Ferguson once said of Craig Bellamy, be able to catch pigeons. We just do not know; and each time 90 minutes passes without finding out, it is in some small way wasted. Although lucky for the pigeons.

Time we cut Ashton some slack

Congratulations to all those around English rugby who have made Chris Ashton the player he is today — in other words, a shadow of the player he was 12 months ago.

Even in a spirited England display at the weekend, Ashton performed like a man whose spark has been extinguished. A barrage of sneers and spite have taken their toll and stripped all verve from his game.

This time last year, Ashton was a revelation in a Martin Johnson side that appeared on course for the Grand Slam. Slowly, the cynics wore him down, until now he is an anonymous figure in England’s back line, unsure of his place in the next match with France.

Ashton behaved foolishly at times during the World Cup, and was rightly censured. He always seemed to be in trouble, or at least on the fringes of it, and that had to stop. Yet the way the stuffing has been knocked from his play is pitiful.

Down in the dumps: Ashton trudges off after England's painful defeat to Wales

Down in the dumps: Ashton trudges off after England's painful defeat to Wales

There were just too many sour faces every time he performed with exuberance, too many po-faced lectures accompanying each swallow dive. What is wrong with fun; what is wrong with showing off your talent If a kid can see a space, chart a path, make a run that takes him over the try line five yards clear of the rest, why not celebrate it with a smile

It is certainly a finer use of facial muscle than the gleeful malice of his purse-lipped detractors when Ashton’s mistake gave Scotland a penalty at Murrayfield earlier this month.

Perhaps Ashton’s crime was to be seen having fun in an England shirt; after all, no passionate debate about self-aggrandisement or respect for the opposition followed Scott Williams’s swallow dive to win the game for Wales at Twickenham on Saturday.

‘Williams also opted to finish his try with an elegant swallow dive,’ smarmed Rugby World. ‘It’s the first time Twickenham has seen that manoeuvre for quite some time.’

Yes, and there is a reason for that. The one English bloke who could do it had the joy sucked out of him by dullards. So now we’ve lost him, we must hope not for good.

AND WHILE WE'RE AT IT… Grant's distorted vision

‘I’m not arrogant,’ says former Chelsea manager Avram Grant, ‘but when I look back I think that was the best season for Chelsea in recent years, in terms of the way the side played.’

He is talking about his wonder year, of course, 2007-08, when Chelsea pushed Manchester United all the way in the title race, but lost, then met them in the Champions League final and lost there, too.

Who even remembers that Double-winning season under Carlo Ancelotti or the back-to-back titles of Jose Mourinho against Grant’s epic marshalling of almost glory

So near, but yet so far: Grant eyes up old big ears after a crushing penalty defeat in Moscow

So near, but yet so far: Grant eyes up old big ears after a crushing penalty defeat in Moscow

No doubt Grant will be looking to at least emulate this remarkable not-quite-achievement at his new club, Partizan Belgrade, having taken over from Aleksandar Stanojevic.

Partizan, targeting a fifth consecutive title, were a mere 10 points clear in the Serbian league when Grant arrived in January, so it is quite a task ahead.

Partizan’s season recommences at relegation-threatened Novi Pazar on Saturday. Nice work if you can get it and, heaven knows how, but Grant always does.

Futile Fernandes

Old foes: Fernandes and Warnock

Old foes: Fernandes and Warnock

Tony Fernandes, owner of Queens Park Rangers, is planning to take a walk around the bars of Loftus Road on Saturday to meet unhappy fans and hear their concerns.

Why What is he going to do Sack another manager Reinstate Neil Warnock Tell Mark Hughes what team he should pick

The transfer window is closed now, so Rangers are powerless to act until the summer.

Fernandes made his call, replacing Warnock with Hughes, and must now back his judgment, rather than sway to the sound of the crowd. It is not healthy for a club and their fanbase to be at war, but to be influenced by an endless round of vox pops is equally useless.

Fernandes may think he is winning a valuable PR struggle, but courting public opinion is dangerous and reinforces the idea that the executives can be influenced.

Either this ends in disappointment and a backlash when the owner goes his own way — and sacks a popular manager like Warnock — or the club end up being run by an ad hoc committee of conflicting opinions, creating a mess.

Meat's off the Chinese menu

China have banned their Olympic athletes from eating meat in restaurants due to a food additive crisis that could lead to positive dope tests; or maybe they are just getting the excuses in early, who knows

Gone to seed

So England may not be seeded for the 2015 Rugby World Cup Big deal. As long as two go through from each group it should not matter.

Italians win, AVB

Andre Villas-Boas is a man of principle. ‘I refuse to build a team like Manchester City,’ he says. ‘I don’t like their standards of football. City are an Italian team. They follow Italian standards.’

And what standards might they be A total of 29 European trophies split between nine clubs, four World Cup wins and one European Championship, a culture of professional excellence exported throughout the globe

Serial winners: Carlo Ancelotti celebrates after steering AC Milan to their seventh European Cup in 2007

Serial winners: Carlo Ancelotti celebrates after steering AC Milan to their seventh European Cup in 2007

We know Serie A’s quality has slipped slightly of late — although there is resurgence at the Premier League’s expense this season — but since when did the charge of adhering to Italian methodology become an insult

If Villas-Boas gets the sack at the end of this season, as seems likely, one of the reasons will be his inability to match Italian standards, either those of Roberto Mancini in the Premier League, or of Napoli in the Champions League. He has no reason to be smug.