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.