Theo Walcott: After 10 years at Arsenal, has he fulfilled his potential?
By Nick Wright
Last Updated: 20/01/16 8:57am
This week marks the 10th anniversary of Theo Walcott's move from Southampton to Arsenal, but has he fulfilled his true potential at the Emirates Stadium?
On a blustery Friday afternoon at Arsenal's London Colney training ground 10 years ago, a baby-faced Walcott stood side by side with Arsene Wenger as he was unveiled to a cluster of journalists and photographers as the most expensive 16-year-old in British football history.
The Gunners had agreed a deal that could rise to as high as £12m for the precocious young talent, with Wenger talking up his "huge potential" and former Southampton chairman Rupert Lowe speaking of "bitter disappointment" at his departure.
Walcott was famously included in Sven-Goran Eriksson's 2006 World Cup squad before he had even kicked a ball for Arsenal at first-team level, and he was just 17 years old when he beat Petr Cech, now his team-mate, with a superbly-taken opening goal in the 2007 League Cup final against Chelsea.
He has gone on to become Arsenal's current longest-serving player, he has scored 81 goals in 322 appearances for the Gunners, and he is also approaching a half-century of caps for England. And yet the Saints youth product approaches a decade at Arsenal with a lingering sense that he has not yet reached his potential.
I'd say he's not yet fulfilled his potential, and a lot of that has been down to the injuries which have caused him too many setbacks in his development.
"I am big fan of Theo and I've always been a strong supporter of him," says Soccer Saturday pundit and former Arsenal striker Charlie Nicholas. "But I'd say he's not yet fulfilled his potential, and a lot of that has been down to the injuries which have caused him too many setbacks in his development."
Walcott's well-documented history of injury problems goes hand in hand with the inconsistency which has dogged his career, and as a result he has only made more than 30 Premier League appearances in two of his nine full seasons at Arsenal.
Recent setbacks have been particularly cruelly timed. Walcott enjoyed the best campaign of his career in 2012/13, scoring 14 times and claiming 10 assists in 32 Premier League appearances as he avoided any lengthy spells on the sidelines.
The Gunners had fought off interest from Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City to tie him to a new contract, but his progress was abruptly halted by what initially looked like an innocuous injury in a FA Cup tie against Tottenham in January 2014.
In fact, Walcott had ruptured his anterior knee ligament. He was immediately ruled out of the World Cup, and it would be 11 long months until he reappeared. It was a particularly heavy blow given his form at the time. Walcott had just terrorised Spurs with an electric performance in his preferred central role at the Emirates Stadium, and before that he had scored five goals in five games.
It wasn't until the back-end of last season that Walcott returned to his best form, earning a starting spot in Arsenal's FA Cup final triumph against Aston Villa and scoring the opening goal. A new contract followed, with Walcott demanding more chances up front.
Nicholas was impressed by Walcott's determination to succeed as a central striker: "My support for Theo grew when he manned up when he said: 'My preferred position is centre forward, I really do want to become a No 9,'" he said. "Earlier this season I was pushing for him to start when Giroud wasn't performing, and he took his chance."
Many supporters nodded in agreement when Sky Sports pundit Graeme Souness described Walcott's performance in Arsenal's 3-0 win over Manchester United as his best ever for Arsenal, and his speed and movement in the middle were similarly effective when the Gunners stunned Bayern Munich at the Emirates Stadium.
"I think when Arsenal signed him they hoped he was going to be the new Thierry Henry," said Nicholas. "It's never quite materialised, but his pace is quite extraordinary and terrifies defenders. It's in matches like Bayern Munich at home where it suits Arsenal to play him down the middle. Bayern were terrified by his pace and I think he should play in a similar role against Barcelona."
Walcott was providing stern competition for Olivier Giroud as Arsenal's first-choice striker at the time, but injury struck again against Sheffield Wednesday just a week after the Bayern game. And since returning to fitness in December, Giroud's prolific form has kept him confined to the flank.
"There is much more to come from Theo," added Nicholas. "He's not at the level of Ozil or Sanchez but I'd much rather have him in the team than at another Premier League club. He has plenty to offer, he has massive potential and he just needs to stay clear of injuries. If he does that, Arsenal can win many more trophies."
Wenger holds a similar view. "The credit I have to give to him is that he dealt really well with that early fame," he said last week. "He always kept his feet on the ground, and he was always very humble and receptive to advice.
"He had ups and downs because he had bad injuries, and that made him much stronger mentally. He has developed well as a technical player, a team player, and today he is a much better finisher and much better in assists than he was before. And he is much more reliable in his teamwork."
And while Walcott has not yet hit the heights that were once expected of him, Wenger says he is about to enter a crucial stage in his career. "The next four or five years will be absolutely decisive for him because that is when you make your career, between 26 and 31, 32," he said. "That's when a good player becomes a great player, or just remains a good player."