Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott are both good footballers with a lot of potential. They play for clubs with similar stature in the current world game (don't lecture me about history), make similar wages, score similar amounts of goals, run similarly fast, and similarly took longer than expected to become really good players. Arsenal and Tottenham supporters like to argue about them.
I think Bale is the better player, which will not come as a surprise to anyone. I also don't think that Walcott sucks, which will come as a surprise to some people. I'm a bit bitter about the fact that he did suck before his stellar performance in last year's second league North London Derby, and that he's been very good ever since, but I'll get over it. Point is, Walcott is pretty good at the moment and, even though I'd take Bale over him in a heartbeat, the players aren't beyond comparison.
The fact is, most things other than goals are subjective. Even though assists, passing percentage, etc. are real stats with some real value in context, they require a lot more context than goals do, and are more dependent on the actions of other people than goals are. Yes, goals require the help of teammates and a poacher will score more goals on a good team than a crap team, but in general, goals are less subjective and require less context to use as evidence towards someone being good at football than other stats. Guys like Matthew Le Tissier and Kevin Phillips would have recorded similar goal tallies if they were regular starters for top teams, and Robbie Fowler probably could have notched a 20-goal season at a shit club.
Bale has 13 league goals to Walcott's 11. Bale has 17 goals in all competitions over 30 appearances to Walcott's 18 in the same number of appearances. Over the last two and just a bit more than one-half seasons, Bale has 40 goals in 114 appearances. Walcott has 42 in 114 appearances. This is obviously a decent piece of evidence for the "Walcott is just as good as Bale" camp, which, again, I am not a part of.
Of course, no one can ever have a reasonable discussion about this. It always devolves into something like this:
Spurs fan: "How can you possibly think that Walcott is as good as Bale?"
Arsenal fan: "Walcott scores just as many goals as Bale."
Spurs fan: "So what, most of Theo's goals are tap-ins and come against shit teams."
Arsenal fan: "At least he doesn't miss sitters like Bale does, and goals are goals. Give me one good reason why Bale's actually better."
Spurs fan: "Are you serious? Just watch them! Bale's obviously better! He does literally everything better! Walcott is shit."
And on and on and on forever.
This stupid debate will never be settled, and I think there are two main reasons for this. The first one should be patently obvious to everyone: If players from your team and a rival team are comparable, you will always want to believe that the player from your team is better. Anyone who says they're not guilty of this -- inadvertently using their support as a tiebraker -- is inherently full of shit. I do it. You do it. It's okay. Literally everyone on earth does this.
The second reason is that the fanbases have simply come to value completely different things about these players. Perhaps it has something to do with the long histories of the clubs, in which Arsenal are consistently a solid but unspectacular team while Tottenham have had long runs of being the most entertaining side in the country and hilariously awful. Maybe it's because players like the Arsenal version of Emmanuel Adebayor, pre-2011 Robin van Persie, Abou Diaby, Samir Nasri, Jose Antonio Reyes and Alexander Hleb showed flashes of absolute brilliance for years, but struggled to string together a month of solid performances for Arsenal, while Tottenham had the opposite problem in the Martin Jol/Harry Redknapp era. Guys like Robbie Keane, Peter Crouch, Wilson Palacios, Jermain Defoe, Michael Dawson, and yes, even Rafael van der Vaart and Luka Modric, were more consistently solid than flashy and spectacular types of players. Even Modric and van der Vaart, as skilled as they are, rarely did things that made you go "Holy shit! I've never seen anything like that before in my life!"
Recent seasons have seen Arsenal and Tottenham turn into much different types of teams than they have been historically. As maddening as it can be to watch Spurs go and Spurs up a match by occasionally missing sitters and derping, they've been more consistent over the last eight years than they have at just about any other point in their history. Meanwhile, if you follow enough Gooners on Twitter, you'll notice that every single Arsenal matchday features all of them complaining -- win or lose -- about the team's maddening lack of consistency.
When I mentioned that list of Arsenal players who have shown flashes of pure brilliance, but have failed to string together consistent runs of form, I purposely omitted one player who previously fit into that category: Theo Walcott, the pre-February of 2012 version. Since then, he's been a solid performer for Arsenal, rarely putting in a true stinker. He does something positive for his team in every game and rarely actively hurts them. Even the most dedicated Walcott bashers have to admit that he's become a very decent recently, and that he would be useful for just about any team in the world.
However, Walcott's game has lacked a bit of the spectacular, and this is where the difference of opinions on Walcott and Bale are really generated. Bale can turn in the occasional stinker, almost certainly misses more of the "easy" goals than Walcott, and disappears from games from longer periods of time. I have the opinion that his truly spectacular moments more than make up for the times that he disappears, which is a subjective value judgment.
I'm sure Spurs fans have watched the videos of Bale's performances against Inter Milan, but I'm going to post them here because they're worth reminding yourselves of for the purposes of this discussion.
Walcott has never done anything like that, and he never will do anything like that, because he is probably not capable of doing things like that. He doesn't have the same quality with his right foot that Bale has with his left, he isn't as big and strong as Bale, and he doesn't seem to possess the attitude to take over a game like Bale took over the game against Inter at White Hart Lane.
That doesn't make Bale an inherently better player than Walcott, though, just one whose abilities I value much more than Walcott's. If fans value a player with a season's worth of 6-to-8/10 performances over a guy with quite a few 5/10s and quite a few 9/10s, that's fine. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, I just disagree with the value system that they're using to evaluate the worth of attacking players.
In the case of defenders, defensive midfielders or tempo-setting, possession-keeping midfielders, give me the consistent but never spectacular dude over the "Bale of defenders" (David Luiz?) every day. But when it comes to attacking players, I think that consistency only gets you so far, unless you're at the level where you're consistently out of your mind. Bale and Walcott aren't there yet, and might never get there.
Give me one performance like Bale's against Inter and two stinkers over three slightly above average performances from my wide players. Every time.