On 4th January this year, Theo Walcott was carried from the pitch on a stretcher during the closing stages of Arsenal’s FA Cup clash with Tottenham. As a reaction to the various objects being hurled at him from the Spurs section of the crowd, Walcott cheekily held up two fingers as a reminder of the score. His wry smile as he left the field, and original prognosis, suggested that the Arsenal man’s absence would be relatively brief. Indeed, the day after the incident, Arsene Wenger suggested a timescale of two to four weeks for Walcott’s recuperation, and his biggest worry appeared to be whether or not Walcott would receive punishment for his gesture at the hands of the (unpredictable) FA.
Walcott had been in fine form, scoring twice in a defeat to Manchester City, before netting three more goals in the following matches against West Ham and Cardiff. It was a massive setback for Arsenal and England when news broke on 6th January that he was ruled out for at least six months with a ‘ruptured anterior cruciate ligament of the left knee’. Walcott subsequently escaped punishment for his goading of the vitriolic Spurs fans, but would have happily taken a fine or a ban as replacement for the lengthy spell he would spend on the sidelines.
Since becoming the youngest player to play for England in May 2006, followed by a surprise inclusion in Sven Goran Erikkson’s squad for that year’s World Cup, Walcott’s progress has been frequently curtailed by injury. He had only just returned from a stomach injury a few weeks prior to his latest setback against Tottenham.
Arsene Wenger has revealed that Walcott is now fighting fit and, after playing in a recent reserves match, only has to prepare himself mentally for the physicality of the Premier League. The difference this time around for Walcott is that Wenger doesn’t need to throw him straight back into first team action.
Despite predominantly performing on the right wing, Walcott can also be deployed as a striker, using his speed and instinctive finishing ability ahead of Arsenal’s talented midfield. Since the England international picked up his knee injury however, Wenger has plunged into the transfer market and finalised high profile moves for Alexis Sanchez and former Manchester United man Danny Welbeck. Walcott’s place in the first team is no longer a guarantee.
Sanchez has started his Arsenal career strongly, scoring five goals and providing two assists in his seven Premier League starts to date. The Chilean is currently living up to his thirty million pound price tag. Welbeck too has played his part, chipping in with two goals, one of which was a crucial late equaliser against a resolute Hull City. He’s also notched up one assist in his six appearances for The Gunners.
Sanchez has featured mainly on the right side of midfield – Walcott’s natural position – although he was used as a ‘number ten’ just off Danny Welbeck in Arsenal’s victory over Sunderland on Saturday, scoring two goals and picking up the man of the match award. It was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who operated on the right-hand side of a 4-2-3-1 formation in that match, with Santi Cazorla playing from the left.
There is also competition for places in the form of German international Mesut Ozil, who is currently out of action until December. Ozil was just starting to show glimpses of the form he displayed in his early days at Arsenal. Tomas Rosicky too can slot into Wenger’s attack if needed, although the Czech has made just three substitute appearances so far.
If Walcott does return to the starting eleven, it would almost certainly be on the right-hand side. Arsene Wenger has Welbeck, Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski and Yaya Sanogo up front, and has yet to start a match this season with two strikers.
Walcott’s record is impressive however, and he’s scored 45 goals for Arsenal in 194 appearances. At just 25, he still has some of his best years ahead of him and possesses one of the few assets in professional football that can’t be taught; blistering pace.
With Sanchez operating successfully as a number ten against Sunderland, and Mesut Ozil able to influence from the left, Walcott will need to seize any chance he gets on the right, because Wenger now has a wealth of options to choose from. Will this be how Arsenal operate with a fully fit squad to choose from?
I’ll leave that up to Arsene; he’s on a lot more money than I am.