"I must confess it was a huge mistake not to sign Bale when we brought Theo Walcott from Southampton," said Arsene Wenger earlier this year.
"We didn't take him because we didn't need another left-back but we could have played him in midfield. Gareth Bale struggled at the start at Tottenham but then they moved him to midfield. The careers of players are sometimes dependent on them being played in their right positions."
It could be said this is strange coming from a manager who has consistently played Theo Walcott – who was signed as a striker, and continues to staunchly profess himself one – out on the right wing for much of his tenure at Arsenal.
That being said, as Gareth Bale stands tantalisingly atop a lucre-ridden precipice, hoping to join the current flock of Galacticos at the Bernabeu, it‘s worth considering the relative fortunes of the player Wenger did manage to tease from Southampton’s youthful ranks, with the one he did not.
Bale’s and Walcott’s careers have progressed in very different ways since signing for North London clubs as teenagers. Of the two Walcott was the more recognised, an acknowledged prodigy, following in a long line of pacey and precocious youngsters to be hailed as England’s next superstar and talisman – for his antecedents see the recently retired Michael Owen, the ailing and disgruntled Wayne Rooney, the capricious Joe Cole. Each have had their teenaged moment in the sun.
Walcott’s came following his shock inclusion in the World Cup party to travel to Baaden-Baaden in 2006. Then a fresh faced 17 year old, recently signed and still yet to make his Premiership debut. He was fast tracked into the squad at the expense of the more experienced Jermaine Defoe.
The excitement, if not the decision, was understandable. Walcott had arrived at the Emirates following a scintillating campaign in the First Division with Southampton which ended with him winning the BBC’s award for Young Sports Personality of the Year.
There was, it could be said, something almost Owenesque about him and it was thought his astounding pace and instincts, and even his anonymity, would provide an impact not unlike the one Michael Owen delivered in France eight years before.
What followed, of course, was somewhat less.
Since then Theo Walcott has had a good career. He has made over 260 appearances for Arsenal, though still only 24. He has scored 68 goals. He has 31 England caps.
But in being asked since his arrival to change position he has yet to live up to the gaudy expectations that caused Sven Goran Eriksson to make him the youngest ever senior England international.
Bale too, making the short journey from the south coast to north London, was asked, as Wenger notes, to change position after struggling to establish himself following his move.
Signed originally as a left back, he has since flourished in response to being moved forward to the wing, then last season, under the studious tutelage of Andre Villas Boas, into a freer roaming ‘number ten’ role.
Whereas Walcott has sometimes wilted under the demands of evolving into another position, Bale has blossomed.
Last season he scored 26 goals in all competitions, reached double figures in terms of assists, and proved the match winner on a regular basis for his club.
So the question is; why has their development been so markedly different?
Is Gareth Bale simply a more intelligent footballer, better equipped to continue learning and growing beyond the physical attributes he’s blessed with?
Is it to do with the way they’ve each been managed; Arsene Wenger, noted for his willingness to prove and grow young talent, on this occasion unable to unlock the potential he first saw in the teenaged Theo Walcott?
Or is it simply to do with the nature of the positional shifts they’ve been asked to make? Gareth Bale has been afforded more and more freedom in moving from fullback to wide midfield, and now to a free role. Walcott, signed as a striker and moved to the wing, could be said to have encountered the opposite.
Whatever the answer what can’t be denied is the part Bale’s own Spartan regiment has played. His application to improving himself, his willingness to practice, routinely remaining at the training ground after hours to work on developing his skills – a habit, ironically, learned from the man it is rumoured he may eventually replace at Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Should he claim that reward it will be an adjustment greater than any positional shift he, or indeed Theo Walcott, has so far had to make. And it will be intriguing, should the move go through, to see how he fares. As Arsene Wenger so aptly notes, and, it could be argued, as Theo Walcott has perhaps found, it is by such things that careers are defined.
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