At some point while we mostly stopped paying attention, Theo Walcott — young, prodigious, “next up” star of tomorrow — stopped existing only in the future tense. Walcott is 26 now (yes, you’re old), and should be in his prime. In fact, he probably is in his prime, and therein lies the sense of disappointment. While we were waiting for the injuries to abate, for his position to change, and for all the potential to be fulfilled, Walcott’s development has continued humming along in neutral for the better part of a decade. This could be it. On his best days, Walcott is a good player, but nothing more. He’s not special now, and he may never be in the future.
Like so many of Arsenal’s “promising” youngsters in recent years, Walcott doesn’t look like ever becoming anything better than a decent player. It may seem laughable now, but there was a time when Walcott was giddily looked at as the natural successor to Arsenal legend Thierry Henry. The raw tools were all there — or so it seemed, anyway — and with Arsène Wenger’s track record of developing talented youngsters, Walcott was earmarked for greatness.
But now, over nine years since Walcott made his Premier League debut, and with his team sitting only goal difference away from the top of the table, we’re still waiting to find out what the hype was all about. While he may be acceptable at a number of things, Walcott’s only exceptional attribute is his speed. His finishing is good without being great, and his footballing intelligence has never been anything to write home about. His passing isn’t bad, but he struggles in tight spaces.
Long time Theo Walcott devotees (Thevotees?) will tell you that his shortcomings were only highlighted by being played out on the wing instead of in his preferred position up front. But now that he’s finally been given a chance to operate primarily as a striker, he’s hardly set the world alight.
Fittingly, Walcott is competing for a first team place with another nearly-man in Olivier Giroud. Both men are tolerable enough options coming off the bench, but neither have the genuine quality to be the focal point of an elite attack. With only two goals so far in eight league appearances, it is the Englishman who has the poorer goal-scoring record, but there’s a case to be made that Walcott is the better fit for the team. Regardless, he has done little to make himself undroppable. For a club with ambitions to conquer not just the country but the continent, the spearhead of its attack should be devastating, irresistible, unplayable. Instead, Arsenal has a selection of strikers (Walcott, Giroud, and the injured Danny Welbeck) best described as “cute.”
That Walcott is now among Arsenal’s highest paid players says more about the lowered standards of the club than about Walcott’s real value. Players should always negotiate for as much money as they can get (especially at a club like Arsenal that is in no way short of a few bob), but it should be troubling for supporters that such a limited player is seen as being in the top tier of the playing staff.
Walcott, to be fair, had been having a promising season so far. Right up until he got injured. Again. After coming on a substitute only minutes earlier, Walcott limped off in the first half of Arsenal’s Capital One Cup loss to Sheffield Wednesday with what appeared to be a muscle injury. In light of Arsenal’s usual pattern of injuries, Walcott will be scheduled to return in two weeks, but he will actually not be seen again for six months.
Much of Walcott’s forestalled progress can be attributed to a seemingly endless run of injuries. Tuesday’s setback is not the first time that he has been in a good run of form, only to see it cut short by some unfortunate knock, strain, or fracture. At some point, though, we’re entitled to wonder if this as is as good as it’s ever going to get. How long are we supposed to wait for Walcott to realize his potential? Are we sure he’ll ever be more than a middle-class man’s Aaron Lennon? The various injuries have yet to affect his blistering pace, but logic tells us that it’s only a matter of time. If his one truly exceptional ability becomes diminished, there is not much of a player left, at least on the level that Arsenal should require.
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