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Sunday 22 April 2018

Walcott faces 24 hours that could make or break career

Arsenal forward Theo Walcott. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire.
Arsenal forward Theo Walcott. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire.

Jermey Wilson

Theo Walcott is supposed to have reached a crossroads so many times in his Arsenal career that it is perhaps no surprise that he should eventually seem in danger of getting lost. A striker or a winger? An Arsenal great or an unfulfilled talent? And, on the eve of England's squad announcement for Euro 2016, is he even an international squad player?

Danny Welbeck's knee injury has created the opportunity for one extra attacking player in Roy Hodgson's party but, with Walcott certainly behind Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge, Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy in the pecking order, the fear is that Andros Townsend or Marcus Rashford have become more viable options. A last chance awaits today. Hodgson delayed naming his squad until after this final round of Premier League matches and there is a belief that a positive performance against Aston Villa at the Emirates could yet influence the decision. The question is whether he will even get that opportunity.

Walcott has not started a Premier League match for Arsenal since the limp 3-2 defeat against Manchester United at the end of February. It was a fixture that was pivotal in Arsenal's season but perhaps also Walcott's career. Arsène Wenger has seemed to lose patience ever since, although he did remain adamant on Friday that Hodgson should still take him to France this summer.

"I think he should go," said the Arsenal manager. "He has gone through a bad spell, it's true, but in the last month he has come back strongly. He could be a positive surprise for England."

Wenger can also still vividly recall how, a decade ago, he allowed Tord Grip - then Sven Goran Eriksson's assistant - to come and watch Walcott train shortly after his £9.1 million move from Southampton. "He had played zero Premier League games," said Wenger. "At that age, he was 17, you think 'this guy will go to all the World Cups'. But unfortunately, in 2010, it was in South Africa and he was not called up by Fabio Capello.

"Then, in 2014, he was injured. So three World Cups later, the only experience he has was from Germany when he was a little boy and not even used for a minute. From having such a promising international career, it has not been as good as you would have imagined."

Walcott might be grateful for the endorsement but it is game time that he now most craves from his manager. He scored twice on his last start, in the FA Cup against Hull City, and there is a sense that others who have also not hit the heights in recent months, notably Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez, continue to be picked unquestioningly.

Yet it would be misguided to simply lay the blame for Walcott's faltering season at the door of his manager's selection. He has started 22 club games and been a substitute in a further 20. It has been a year when Wenger has been desperate for one of his strikers to seize their opportunities but, after an encouraging performance in the 3-0 home win against Manchester United back in October, Walcott has struggled to replicate that intensity.

A current season's tally of nine goals is consistent with a scoring ratio throughout his Arsenal career that would be decent for a purely wide player but is beneath what you would hope from an attacker who seemed destined for greatness. So why has it not consistently clicked?

Wenger points to injuries. "He had a lot, especially the last one which was a terrible one," he said. "I like him as a striker and he has been injured this year again."

Arsenal's attempt to glorify the 10th anniversary of his arrival earlier this season certainly felt forced. Yes, a confidence boost can be clever man-management and only Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Dennis Bergkamp have played more times for Arsenal in the Premier League but it still came across as being too easily satisfied by a decade that has produced some great highs, not least his goal in the FA Cup final last year, but also a sense that there should still be better to come.

Walcott has reached this sort of crossroads before and always opted to remain on the same path, notably when he ended last year's Premier League season with a hat-trick against West Brom and soon signed a new contract. Yet that commitment until 2019 could be seriously challenged in the next 24 hours if he is overlooked by Wenger and Hodgson.

Walcott is now 27 and, should another tournament finals pass this summer without him starting even one match for England, it might just be the signal that his career needs a radical new direction.


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