THEO WALCOTT AND A DECADE OF UNCERTAINTY

Jan 20 2016 BY Brett Lewis

10 years ago to this very day, Arsenal announced that they had completed the signing of teenage sensation Theo Walcott from Southampton. They had fought off stiff competition from Chelsea to complete a deal of £5 million potentially rising to £12m with add-ons. Given the parameters (he was 16, playing in the championship at the time, Arsenal’s club record signing was Sylvain Wiltord for £13m and this was in 2006 before prices were massively inflated), this represented a significant investment from Arsenal’s perspective.

The move also placed a spectacular amount of pressure on Walcott’s shoulders; it’s striking how carefree he was in the Championship where he was routinely making a fool of grown men. His move to the Premier League propelled him into Sven Goran Eriksson’s 2006 World Cup squad and unfairly made him a scapegoat give he didn’t play a single minute of England’s ultimately botched campaign. This is a pressure that has never really abated throughout his career, and even after a decade at Arsenal he’s still dogged by questions over his best position, potential ability and his end product.

When you really take it in, it’s remarkable how long Walcott has been hanging around Arsenal but equally you can’t help but feel he should have more to show for a decade at the Emirates. This is a player who has made more appearances for Arsenal than Freddie Ljungberg and Robert Pires, but it is difficult for the fans to resonate with Walcott in the same manner as those two. Considering he’s only about 160 appearances off it, it’s not unfeasible that Walcott retires at Arsenal having become one of the top 10-all time appearance makers for the club, which is scary to think about.

Of course, this should be caveated by the fact Walcott joined Arsenal at such a young age that the first half of his career in North London was pretty much all developmental, and as such he can’t have been expected to make a discernible impact in his early appearances for the club. For all the people slaughtering Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain now, it’s worth remembering just how awful Theo Walcott was in the 2009/10 season and how he overcame that to become an incredibly dangerous Premier League player.

Still at the age of 26 with 10 years of Arsene Wenger’s tutelage, we feel like we should be seeing the very best of Walcott and this doesn’t feel like this is the case (or more worryingly, this is the level he has plateaued at). It’s not necessarily that Walcott is a bad player – in fact in certain situations he’s unbelievably good, it’s just that he inspires a feeling of grand indifference for a reason it’s very hard to put your finger on. If you had told me 10 years ago that this kid Arsenal had signed would go on to make 300+ appearances for the club, take Thierry Henry’s number 14 shirt and score in two cup finals I’d assume that we had a club legend on our hand, but if Walcott left the club in this transfer window, would he be remembered? What would his legacy be?

Yet, as previously mentioned, it’s difficult to pinpoint a reason why Walcott inspires such a tepid reaction. Theo seems like a thoroughly likeable person and barring some shaky movements over contract extensions, he’s seemed committed to Arsenal. Also in his favour, he really stepped up to the plate in the first season of the post-Robin Van Persie era in 2012/13. It is probably down to exasperation that he always seems on the cusp of big breakthrough then descends into a lull of patchy form and running into blind alleys.

It’s worth noting just how much his career has been blighted by injury, with the former Southampton man only playing more than 30 league games in a season twice in his career. He has graduated with First Class Honours from the “Daniel Sturridge School of Building Up A Head of Steam Then Getting Injured” and this has been a significant factor in why he hasn’t quite been as consistent as he should be. But even now as he gets a run of games together, he remains on the precipice of playing well (Manchester City game for example) and anonymity (every game since that).

As such, he finds himself in a very odd position. At times he is highly regarded by Arsene Wenger and will find himself starting every single game in his favoured centre forward position ahead of Olivier Giroud, and on other occasions he’s been a consistent fixture on the bench or suffered ignominy such as being hauled off at Stoke for the untested Alex Iwobi. You’d think the club’s longest serving player reaching the prime of his career would have some assurances over his standing in the team but Walcott continually straddles the line between key man and disposable asset.

After his latest contract signing, Walcott is likely to spend the majority of his career at Arsenal despite twice looking like he might depart the club. You could almost tell that he was testing the waters in terms of interest from other clubs and the results weren’t positive given the delays in signing a new contract followed by hastiness to get a deal sorted. This leaves both Walcott and Arsenal at an impasse; there’s no club he could go to that would match his wage, his ambitions and guarantee him a starting spot in the team and it would cost Arsenal a fortune to buy a player who was even marginally better than him which isn’t worth it given he’s perfectly suited to his role in the team.

As such, the indifference is set to continue and Theo will simply remain stuck in the ether. There’s been talk of him being the one to make way for Alexis Sanchez upon the Chilean’s return, rather than Joel Campbell but I think Walcott will continue to be a fixture in the first team given his quality and his experience. Walcott is unfortunately still the subject of incredibly lazy accusations of “lacking an end product” which is unbelievable given how his strongest asset by far is his ability to execute the final/pass shot, and how terrible he is at build up play.

Earlier in his career this was an allegation that could be fairly levelled at him, but he has been routinely producing at the business end of the pitch for at least three or four years now. When Walcott is on song, it is not just his pace that scares teams but his ability to make the right decision in the final third. Lionel Messi cited Walcott as one of the most dangerous players he had ever faced which makes it all the more frustrating when you see him struggling up against Erik Pieters.

With a run of games without injury and surrounded by the likes of Mesut Ozil, there’s absolutely no reason why Theo Walcott can’t replicate his phenomenal form of 2012 on a more consistent basis. Because he’s been around for so long, there’s a tendency to forget how young he still is and it’s hardly unusual to see a player (particularly a forward) really come into his stride between the ages of 27 and 30. It’s never easy for wonderkids who emerge at such an early age as the weight of expectation ultimately leaves us disappointed unless they reach levels of Messi-like proportions. For all the talk of whether the likes of Walcott and Wayne Rooney have reached their full potential, if you compare their careers to those of say James Vaughan or Freddy Adu, they have undoubtedly been unanimous success stories. If Theo Walcott can cast off the shackles of inconsistency, in another 10 years we could be talking about an Arsenal legend.