With second place still up for grabs, Arsenal will need a victory over Swansea tonight. In there desperation to secure a top two finish for the first time in ten years, there has been one notable causality of consistency, Theo Walcott.
When Theo Walcott joined Arsenal in January 2006, Arsenal hadn’t had a top two finish since the 2004/05 season. Now, aged 26 and some nine years later, Arsenal are set for their highest League finish in ten years. While second is not assured, they havent been this close, so late in to the season in a long, long time.
The key to a second half to the season and in particular a barn-storming run kick-started by victory over their competition for second, Manchester City in January has been consistency.
It’s been a season of trial and error for Arsenal. Welbeck, Giroud and Sanchez all dabbled in the centre-forward role. Ramsey has found himself pushed out wide to accommodate Francis Coquelin, a sentence Arsenal fans never thought they’d hear. Le Coq has been born again, a shining example that if you never give-up and adapt your game to what the team needs, there still may be a place for you yet.
In sharp juxtaposition sits Theo Walcott. The man who forced himself into the position of centre-forward the last time his contract came up for renewal. Theo wanted to play down the middle, not on the wing. Wenger acquiesced, Walcott ‘signed da ting’. But then just like that, once it was clear Walcott wasn’t leaving it was back to the wing for Theo.
That was then and this is now. Arsenal and Arsene couldn’t allow another key player to leave in the wake of Robin Va Persie’s departure. Today though, Walcott is no longer a key player. Where Coquelin adapted his game and played anywhere he was asked whether it be right-back, DM or on the wing for Freiburg on loan, Walcott has only ever provided one unwavering style to Arsenal.
Obscene pace and straightforward directness. There was a time when Arsenal lacked that and so Walcott flourished, becoming a major player in the Arsenal squad. He’s shown fleeting glimpses of a poacher, dinking chips over onrushing keepers or carefully placed finishes in to the far corner. But these glimpses appear when Theo has been acting on instinct. Too often with Arsenal’s deliberate build-up play he’s had to stop and think. And in the most respectful way possible, Theo just doesn’t appear to be suited to that modus operandi.
Of course he possesses footballing intelligence, but the probing and side-ways ball retention Arsenal became known for whilst he’s been there just don’t suit a man who could have run amok had he been born earlier and played in that great counter-attacking Arsenal side of Henry, Pires, Bergkamp and Ljungberg. Alas, fate was not that kind.
Injuries have hurt is abilities to cement a place as a first-choice player too. When he’s returned from injuries it’s often been to a changed group of players, making it hard for Theo to slot right in. The partnership he forged with RVP was fruitful before it was snatched from under him.
But a trend has emerged at Arsenal to recruit towards not only all-around attacking midfielders, but truly world-class talent. In Sanchez and Ozil they have two players who provide pace (Ozil is deceptively quick) as well as an approach to the game that suits Arsenal considerably more. Even the much younger Alex Oxlade Chamberlain or Danny Welbeck offer more to Arsenal than Walcott now does.
Consistency in team selection has forged a team at Arsenal that really look capable of a title challenge next year. Consistency could get them second place and win them an FA Cup. But consistency is the enemy of Theo right now because the consistent Arsenal XI omits him. This season in his fleeting appearances he’s been used as an act of desperation.
To see his movement on the pitch when he has played invokes thoughts of an American Football team employing the same tactic for every play. Walcott drifts in from the right and waits for a cross-field pass from deep. Akin to a wide-receiver, Walcott uses his pace to get in front of his man and on to the onrushing ball. It works at times, but it’s obvious.
In truth, it’s a task a lot of players could execute and not at the wages Walcott will likely demand. There’s a theory in economics known as ‘sunk costs’ that states a decision shouldn’t be made based on the time/money already spent, but should be made on how future time/money can be spent. Arsenal fans will look at all the years and wages spent on Theo and lament, ‘well, we’ve gone this far, we may as well commit’ for fear that he may come good at another club.
If Walcott starts tonight he must do nothing short of impress. Goals, assists either or both are a must. He offers very little defensively and if an equally attack minded right-back such as Bellerin is picked, that could leave Arsenal exposed.
For Arsenal fans, Sod’s Law surely states Walcott will succeed if he does move on. But at this stage in his Arsenal career, Walcott is increasingly resembling a square peg in a round hole. And one must ask, doe Arsenal really even need him anymore?