By James Goldman
A season rich in promise threatening to unravel as a consequence of a ruptured ligament or shattered ankle is a scenario Arsenal and Arsene Wenger are all too grimly familiar with.
While the ramifications of Theo Walcott’s injury might well be devastating on a personal level, the England winger’s cruel setback need not be a terminal blow to his side’s aspirations of ending this campaign with the silverware their football, to this point in the season at least, merits.
Undoubtedly Walcott’s absence represents a major and unforeseen inconvenience. His ability to stretch defences, intimidate centre-halves with his pace alone, allied to a growing maturity and potency in front of goal, represent qualities far from abundant in Wenger’s current squad.
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Recent impressive performances, capped by five goals in his last six matches, merely hinted at the possibility of this being a defining season for one of England’s most divisive talents - had a partnership with Mesut Ozil, Arsenal’s assist king, been allowed to flourish it may well have been just that.
The pair have played little over five full games together, however, and have combined only once to goalscoring effect – Walcott’s headed knockdown providing and unlikely assist for the German in last month’s 1-1 draw against Everton. Arsenal simply cannot miss something they’ve never really had.
Though the circumstances and cause of their injuries could not have been more different, it is impossible not to think back to that wretched afternoon at St Andrews six years ago, the injury that effectively ended Eduardo’s Premier League career, and wonder if this Arsenal side possesses the mental fortitude to cope with a not altogether dissimilar setback.
Walcott’s first Premier League goals that day were all but forgotten amid a tidal wave of controversy, a last-minute equaliser and William Gallas’ infamous sit-in protest. Arsenal subsequently allowed themselves to wallow in self-pity, drew five straight games and blew a seven-point lead.
Of that squad, Walcott aside, only Bacary Sagna as well as Nicklas Bendtner and Mathieu Flamini, both of whom have returned to the club following spells abroad, remain.
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This is not an Arsenal that should need to seek comfort in a sunnier precedent but should they wish to the 2002 run-in should provide solace. Though it occurred at a far later stage in the season many still doubted Arsenal’s ability to last the pace when Robert Pires lay stricken on the Highbury turf with a knee injury that was to rule him out of that summer’s World Cup.
In the Frenchman’s place new heroes emerged. Freddie Ljungberg embarked on a goalscoring run that seemed as if it would never end, while Sylvain Wiltord and Ray Parlour struck decisive goals in an FA Cup final and Premier League decider.
In Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Serge Gnabry, Wenger possesses raw gems, unscathed and unscarred by previous Arsenal collapses who are capable of filling a Walcott-shaped void. Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla must accept greater responsibility, while Ozil must begin to justify the demi-god status he has already been elevated too.
Moreover, Wenger must accept that while the January transfer window is an inconvenient time to buy, it is not impossible. Jose Antonio Reyes and Andrey Arshavin were both club record purchases who arrived in previous January transfer widows and although both proved to be far from shrewd long-term investments, both made significant early impacts.
Wenger appeared to rediscover his sense of ambition and adventure in the summer with the purchase of Ozil and a similar roll of the dice this month can ensure that Walcott’s injury does not prove to be the defining moment of Arsenal’s season.