Winger has played only 49 minutes of Premier League football this season. Even with Sanchez and Ozil's futures up in the air Walcott's own looks bleak
Theo Walcott has stalled at Arsenal. His career is in need of a kick-start elsewhere
The Stamford Bridge seats contained two of the great constants of Arsenal life, each seemingly powerless. Arsene Wenger was sat in the press box, serving a touchline ban in an unusual location. Theo Walcott was in an altogether more familiar haunt, sat among the replacements.
He has had a season ticket among the substitutes in the Premier League this season. He did not get a minute on the pitch in Wednesday’s League Cup first leg semi-final against Chelsea, even in the absence of the injured Olivier Giroud, Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil. If it reflected Wenger’s desire to replicate the game plan he used at Stamford Bridge in the league, when Alexandre Lacazette, Alex Iwobi and Danny Welbeck also formed a defensively diligent front three, it also highlighted the decline in Walcott’s fortunes.
He has played 49 minutes of Premier League football this season; some 427 other footballers, some scarcely household names in their own household, have played more. By way of comparison, he played 1,925 minutes in the top flight last season. It would have been more but for April’s 3-0 defeat to Crystal Palace, which prompted Wenger’s switch to 3-4-2-1, thus sidelining Walcott. He stood in as captain at Selhurst Park and argued Palace “wanted it more”, an honest admission that seems to have done him few favours.
If there is an irony in the polite, amiable Walcott talking himself into trouble, there has been plenty of schadenfreude about the fall of a seemingly likeable figure. Walcott can be damned for what he is – Arsenal’s longest serving player – and what he isn’t: a Premier or Champions League winner in those 13 seasons. He can seem the club’s perennial man-child, approaching his 29th birthday but forever remaining a case of potential, much as Arsenal’s future long looked tantalisingly brighter, if only it would ever arrive.
And now it probably won’t: in the club’s case because, with Alexis Sanchez and Ozil potentially departing and others ageing, the chances are they will be weaker next season; in Walcott’s case because his time may be up. Southampton have confirmed their interest in taking him back to St Mary’s. Everton are reportedly interested. So, apparently, are Serie A clubs.
Arsenal can be a place where players stay and go stale. If Walcott remains, there is the possibility of an opening emerging should Wenger fail to replace both Sanchez and Ozil. There is also the chance he will stay on the margins, his exclusion from Arsenal teams and England squads seeming the norm. If he goes to another English club, he would be taking a step down. This is not like 2012 when Brendan Rodgers wanted to take him to Liverpool.
The numbers – 108 goals in 396 games – show he has not been a failure for Arsenal. He delivered 21 goals in all competitions in 2012/13 and a further 19 in 2016/17; if prolific wingers such as Mohamed Salah and Raheem Sterling should comfortably surpass those figures this season, the reality is that few other wide men register double figures and still fewer do so for clubs outside the top six.
It makes the logic of signing Walcott most compelling for Southampton. They are plenty of reasons for their slide over the past 18 months, with the appointment of two dull, defensively-minded managers prominent among them, but the failure to properly replace Sadio Mane may be the biggest. Southampton have signed two wingers since then: Nathan Redmond has Mane-esque pace but not his potent streak and Sofiane Boufal scores wonder goals, but too few others.
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When the attack has been led by Shane Long, running many a marathon in assiduous industry but scoring a solitary goal in 11 months, a requirement for a goalscoring winger is still more apparent. Mauricio Pellegrino’s downbeat assessment of his chances of landing Walcott – “I imagine this type of player would have a lot of possibilities; for us, it's not easy” – suggested Southampton need the winger more than he needs them.
Perhaps it would be an admission of defeat to return to his first club, the equivalent of an adult going back to living with their parents. Perhaps it would revive a career that has stalled. Walcott is not the eternal underachiever of cliché, but after nine months of nothingness, he could do with starting and scoring again.