In a football landscape dominated by short-termism and unscrupulous players, the fact Theo Walcott has celebrated 10 years at Arsenal should be reason for celebration.
Indeed, such has been Arsenal’s loyalty to the 26-year-old he’s eligible for a testimonial this summer and if he was to take up that option would be the first Gunner to be bestowed the honour since Dennis Bergkamp in 2006 – coincidentally the same year Walcott signed from Southampton.
Except Walcott’s underwhelming time in north London only seeks to highlight the many unanswered questions that still exist about his game and how, in many ways, he’s emblematic of what Arsenal are: a team forever in development with no sight of an end goal.
Walcott moved to the club on January 20 amid considerable fanfare given he commanded a considerable fee (reduced from £12m to £9.1m in 2008 due to Southampton’s financial issues) after just half a season of second-tier football.
Within five months he was a bizarre inclusion in Sven Goran Eriksson’s England squad for the World Cup in Germany. Strange because he had zero Premier League games under his belt and just 21 first-team appearances in the Championship. To this day it remains mystifying. However, the belief, in the England camp, at Arsenal and around the game was this kid was special. Watch him learn and then watch him go.
But the telling analysis of the time was by his former Southampton manager Harry Redknapp who in the build-up to Germany 2006 admitted Walcott didn’t yet possess the football brain for the top level and was still very much learning how to play football; what runs to make, body positions, reading the flow of a game and so on.
As each season has passed, and each positive display has been followed by three average ones amid a series of injuries, Redknapp’s observations still ring true, even though Walcott is now approaching what should be his peak.
He was Arsenal’s worst performer against Manchester United on Sunday and has been roundly criticised by fans and former players such as Ian Wright and Alan Shearer. The latter’s main gripe is 10 years down the line we still don’t know what Walcott is: a striker, winger, inside forward? In reality, it doesn’t matter. By now, with his attributes, he should be all three.
His status as Arsenal’s third-highest earner, behind Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, is laughable. But it also reinforces Wenger’s unwavering faith in a player who, bar a run of good form in 2012-13, has done little to justify why he’s been offered improved contracts on three separate occasions. Wenger, to his benefit and detriment, loves a project and Walcott has been the ultimate long-term vision of Arsenal’s future. But at some stage he has to become the present.
Over his 10 years he has averaged 21 starts a season, discounting the gameless 2005-06 campaign and the current one. That could be compensated for in the early years but Arsenal are now carrying a financial burden for a first-term player who should be playing double that figure. He’s also only scored more than 10 goals in a season three times.
But it says so much about Wenger too, and his inability to admit defeat in Project Theo. There is clearly a talent there, but not one equipped for a team of the stature of Arsenal. We’ve had 10 years of evidence to identify that.
Two years ago, the club won the League Cup and then clawed back a nine-point deficit to Liverpool over the last five games to become league champions.
Now Kompany and his team-mates, also heading for the Champions League quarter-finals after a 3-1 last-16 first-leg win at Dynamo Kiev, want to do it all again.
Having edged out Liverpool in Sunday’s League Cup final after a penalty shoot-out, Manuel Pellegrini’s men face the Reds again at Anfield tomorrow in the league, desperately needing victory to reduce Leicester’s nine-point lead at the top.
“We don’t take anything for granted,” said Kompany. “We are stronger at the end of the season because we have the right mindset.
“I just think we need to keep showing people around that we can achieve a very good level of football.
“We showed it against Liverpool, we showed it in Kiev. It needs to carry on. We can’t make any mistakes anymore in the Premier League. That is what makes it an exciting competition.”
But Kompany knows how much confidence they will have gained from bagging the first trophy of the season, ensuring boss Pellegrini will leave with success before he is replaced by Pep Guardiola in the summer.
“Especially the fashion that we won it in against the club we won it against,” he added.
“It is a massive win. “Many thought we weren’t favourites just because we got battered by them at the Etihad in the league, but the team has shown signs in Kiev, shown signs against Liverpool of how we need to approach the rest of the season.
“Wednesday is a weird game because we are playing against a team that is going to be just as tired as we are.”
Full-back Pablo Zabaleta also recalled how City were eight points behind with six games left when they dramatically pipped Manchester United to the title in 2012.
And he added: “There are still 36 points to play for in the Premier League, which is a lot of games.
“We were in this situation before a few years ago even when we won the league that we were about eight points behind the leaders – and we still have a game in hand. We are Manchester City, we have talent and big players to try to recover those points that we lost.”
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1) MARCUS RASHFORD (MAN UTD) – 7.62
What a week it’s been for the young Manchester United forward, with four goals in just two games.
The 18-year-old stunned Old Trafford with a brace in his first Premier League game as United romped past Arsenal 3-2 and breathed new life into their season.
Rashford has made a huge impact for Louis van Gaal’s men and obviously delighted our #360fans using the ValoraFutbol ratings tool with his impressive league debut.
2) WAHBI KHAZRI (SUNDERLAND) – 7.57
The Sunderland wideman is certainly a character and despite his failed rabona attempt (see below), he made enough of an impression this week despite being on the losing side for Sunderland.
His team were downed 1-0 by West Ham but had a number of chances late on to get back into the game.
Khazri was pivotal in their late surge but couldn’t deliver a point for his side.
3) MICHAIL ANTONIO (WEST HAM) – 7.38
While Kazhri failed to deliver an end product, the same could not be said of Michail Antonio who continued his impressive form with another match winning performance for the Hammers.
Antonio’s first-half strike was his fourth of the season and third in his last six games.
Proving the only goal of the game, it kept West Ham’s challenge for a European place on course.
4) CRAIG GARDNER (WEST BROM) – 7.29
Boy did West Brom need a win this week and boy did Gardner play a crucial role in them gaining all three points.
His opener got the Baggies train going and despite Palace’s late rally, Tony Pulis’ men managed to hold on for the victory.
Gardner also laid on the second for teammate Craig Dawson and will be delighted with his showing at the Hawthorns.
2 - In his 240th Premier League appearance, Craig Gardner has scored and assisted in the same game for the first time. Dig.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) 27 February 2016
5) MARKO ARNAUTOVIC (STOKE CITY) – 7.23
The 26-year-old was back to his best against strugglers Aston Villa, scoring twice as Mark Hughes’ men returned to form.
Arnautovic now has nine goals to his name in the Premier League and three in his last four games for Stoke.
The win saw Stoke rise back into the top half and they will remain confident of a late push for Europe should Arnautovic continue in this vein of form.
6 - Marko Arnautovic has now scored six Premier League goals at the Britannia this season; twice as many as any other Stoke player. Rule.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) 27 February 2016