Kyle Walker has had his share of detractors since he broke into the Tottenham Hotspur first team back in 2011. Blessed with an enormous motor and blazing speed, Kyle quickly became known in the EPL as much for his jaw-dropping forward runs down the right flank as he was for his atrocious defensive positioning.
All that seems to be changing. Since his return from injury this season, Walker has put in a number of complete performances that show his growth as a player and as a defender. He recently gave comments to Tom Collomosse at the Evening Standard in a wonderful article about his evolution as a player. In his comments, Walker talks about Dani Alves, the attacking fullback that he idolized as a young player, why he's now studying the game of Philipp Lahm, and how his game has evolved as he's gotten older.
"When I was growing up it was just about attacking," he recalls. "Get forward, Kyle, get the ball in the box and set up goals. Now I'm 24, I'm a bit more experienced and it's not all about getting forward. Your main job as a right-back is to defend. Getting forward is a bonus. The modern-day full-back has to cover as much ground as possible, so you need to choose your runs and that's what I like about Lahm.
I still believe the best form of defense is attack but that doesn't work against the top players, like Eden Hazard. You have to give him the respect he's due, otherwise you'll be caught upfield when they counter-attack and he can run at the centre-backs."
Think back a while to the Kyle Walker of 2012. The younger Walker was a neophyte right back clearly influenced by the attacking of Barcelona and Brazil's Dani Alves, favoring speed, bombing runs forward, and offensive pressure. Defense seemed almost an afterthought. We all saw it too; I can recall conversations with fellow writers where we called him "a track star athlete." There were points in those early years where we all wondered if he would make it as a EPL right back: perhaps his skills would be better emphasized if he were moved up the pitch to, say, right wing, a similar evolution to Gareth Bale. I'm sure our early articles about Walker's play and our reaction to it helped perpetuate the zombie meme that Kyle Walker is a derpy, defensively weak wing-back, an opinion that still persists, all evidence to the contrary, to this day.
Based on his comments above, Walker has learned some important lessons about how to play as a right back in the Premier League. His comments about approaching the match differently when playing against someone like Eden Hazard is particularly encouraging. It shows an increased awareness of his own limitations, and a healthy respect for his opposition.
Moreover, his study of Lahm, one of the best fullbacks in the world, is also encouraging. Emulating Dani Alves is certainly not a bad thing, and Kyle has the skills to be a player who can fill that attacking wing-back role that made Alves so devastatingly effective for Barcelona. Being a student of Lahm's game indicates that he's ready to fully embrace the defensive side of things too, and displays both a mental maturity and a developing tactical awareness that has been absent from Walker's own play. You can see the change in Walker's game under Pochettino and to a lesser extent under Andre Villas-Boas before his injury: there have been matches even this season when Kyle Walker was the best defender on the pitch, using his speed and stamina to cover a huge amount of ground. Pochettino's use of inside forwards like Erik Lamela still provide numerous opportunities for Kyle to move forward into attacking positions and stretch opposition defenders with his pace.
Kyle Walker is not a poor defender anymore. You can make the case that he's not a great defender – that's certainly a fair argument – and nobody's going to be comparing him to Philipp Lahm or Pablo Zabaleta anytime soon. He certainly still has room to grow. Nevertheless, what these comments indicate is that Kyle Walker is getting it: he's embracing his strengths, identifying his deficiencies, and turning into a more complete player. Since his return, the right side of midfield is significantly less porous than when Eric Dier, Kyle Naughton, or Vlad Chiriches deputized there, and while we haven't seen much interplay between Walker and Lamela, early indications show the seeds of good interplay between the two.
It's encouraging stuff from our former track star, and if he's able to take these lessons to heart, it's all together possible that we could see Kyle Walker continue to develop and improve into, just maybe, one of the most complete right backs in the league.