by Michael Phillips - 05/16/2006
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Leonil? Messi. Ryan Babel. Philipe Senderos. Doc's Sports has a comprehensive list of mercurial talents to look out for at this summer's World Cup. But there is one massive omission. It's not the fault of the writer, Jordan Adams, who produced a comprehensive list; how could he have known, when the entire British press pack was caught unaware by the inclusion of a 17-year old striker who has never played Premier League football?
Theo Walcott is far from an unknown. In January this year, Arsenal saw of the attentions of super-rich Chelsea to secure his signature, paying a fee in the region of £12m for a player of immense promise, but one who had only ever scored five goals in English football. Since the move he has not featured heavily for Arsenal, with coach Arsene Wenger preferring to nurture his talent slowly rather than expose him to the limelight too early.
This period in the shadows is now well and truly over. Theo's inclusion in Sven Goran Eriksson's 23-man squad was the lead item on the BBC news last Monday, and has sparked huge amounts of debate in the sports press. This was increased by the inclusion in the squad of another 17-year, Tottenham Hotspurs winger Aaron Lennon, also uncapped, all at the expense of more established players such as Shuan Wright-Phillips of Chelsea and Tottenham's Jermaine Defoe.
Eriksson has always had a reputation as a highly conservative coach, to the extent that he has often been portrayed in England as both passionless and gutless. It is seen that he is unwilling to drop favoured performers, such as David Beckham, even when they are under-performing, and that when England has their backs to the wall, such as the 2002 quarter-final defeat to Brazil, he was cold and could not rouse any fight in his team.
So what are we to make of this decision, of which Eriksson himself has said: "I have not gone mad, but I admit it is a gamble." Critics in the press have said that Eriksson has only chosen such an experimental squad because he is leaving his job after the World Cup, and will not have to deal with the fallout if his plan goes awry. But essentially it is less of a gamble than a brave choice brought on by necessity.
England is generally listed at 7/1 odds by the oddsmakers for the 2006 World Cup, which puts them up there as third favorites to win the tournament. But they were rocked by the recent injury to Wayne Rooney, who broke a metatarsal bone in his foot, and will only be available for the latter stages of the tournament, if at all. Michael Owen, the team's other star striker, is suffering from the same injury, and whilst he is further along the road to recovery than Rooney, it is still no certain that he will be fit to play in the tournament.
With his two best goal scorers potentially out of the picture, Eriksson has little choice than to take a punt on an unproven player such as Walcott, if he is to fulfil English ambitions of winning the World Cup. While players such as Defoe are undeniably talented, and have more experience than Walcott, they do not really set the Premier League alight, let alone the international stage. To reach the heights you need players with that little bit extra, rather than players who are just competent.
Walcott is obviously a bit special; if he wasn't, a proven talent spotter such as Wenger would not have spent so much money on him. He could run the 100m in 11.5 seconds at 14-years old and has become faster since. He loves to run at people, and is difficult to defend against because, as well as his speed, he is naturally two-footed, so defenders do not know which way he is going to go past them.
This sums up the main benefits that selections such as this can bring: unpredictability. Eriksson admitted after his selection that he had never seen Walcott play, so what chance is there of other managers knowing the ins and outs of his game? Coaches prepare by showing their players video footage of the opposition, but how to do this with an unknown quantity. Type Theo Walcott into youtube or video Google. You find clips of him, which show his undoubted talent, but they are not nearly comprehensive enough to allow a coach to come up with a strategy to play against him if he fulfils his potential.
Ultimately, if things go to plan for England, they will not have to play Walcott, or Lennon, another player who relies on pace and skill to beat defenders, and their inclusion in the squad will serve as a learning experience to stand them in good stead for later tournaments, like when Brazil included an unknown 17-year old called Ronaldo in their 1994 squad. But if they are forced to play these players, better to gamble on greatness and lose than come up short because of a failure of nerve during selection.