In years gone by Theo Walcott would have been one of the first names on the Arsenal team sheet for a Premier League game but as the adage goes, things change very quickly in football. Now 28 years old and at a crossroads in his career, Walcott has been part of the furniture at Emirates Stadium for over a decade and is currently the club’s longest-serving player.
Despite his loyal service, Arsenal’s longest serving manager Arsene Wenger has struggled to find a place for Walcott in his starting XI since the back end of last season – and with World Cup 2018 on the horizon, that doesn’t look set to change anytime soon.
Walcott has seen his appearances in the Arsenal first team restricted to just Europa League and Carabao Cup matches this season, with only 46 minutes of game time coming off the bench in the Premier League so far. The Gunners play Belarusian outfit BATE Borisov on Thursday night in a dead rubber match which presents itself as a rare opportunity for Walcott to shine in the starting XI alongside other fringe players like Jack Wilshere and Olivier Giroud.
Senior players can almost go ‘missing’ if they’re not involved in consecutive matchday squads and while some fans may believe that Arsenal are better off with Walcott, his impressive numbers and overall contribution to the cause show that they will find it difficult to get better value elsewhere right now.
“He works hard to come back – he had a sickness a few weeks ago – and after I didn’t change the squad,” said Wenger in his pre-match press conference ahead of Thursday’s match. “In training he looks sharp and he will show that.”
When asked if he would keep Walcott in the January transfer window, Wenger simply replied: “Yes”.
It’s worth noting that Walcott scored 19 goals last season and didn’t play for the last 10 games of the campaign due to Wenger’s formation switch. Indeed, the 3-4-2-1 system has somewhat rendered Walcott’s position redundant in the starting line-up as Arsenal currently deploy tactics that don’t play to his strengths.
With Alexis Sanchez seemingly on his way out of the club either in January or next summer, Walcott should be careful before making a rash decision on his future as he may yet find himself playing regularly in the team again.
The main word around Walcott’s career over the years has been ‘hype’. From signing for Arsenal as a fresh-faced 16-year-old to being included in England’s 2006 World Cup squad despite only playing sporadically for the senior side on two occasions previous to that, Walcott has had high expectations on his shoulders for over a decade. The barometer to measure him should surely be based on what he has delivered to this Arsenal team – goals, assists and match-winning contributions.
Walcott could find himself complementing Alexandre Lacazette if Chile star Sanchez does eventually leave in January. The two would almost certainly combine well and play off each other’s unique qualities where movement, positioning and runs are concerned. As it stands however, there is no room for Walcott in the starting line-up unless Wenger opts to change Arsenal’s formation to four at the back again.
Many of Arsenal’s most established performances in the Premier League and Europe have involved Walcott playing an integral part in attack. Whether it be the two assists against Manchester United two seasons ago or his contribution in last season’s 3-0 win over Chelsea where he played on the right-hand side, Walcott has always managed to produce when it matters and even more so when people doubt his qualities.
It’s clear for all to see that Walcott has a big decision to make over the coming weeks. He faces the prospect on missing out on the 2018 World Cup if his lack of game time continues and that would be a massive blow for a player who will be 33 by the time the 2022 World Cup comes around. If certain dominoes fall around him then things could change very quickly for Walcott, even if he’s up against it for time on this occasion.