It’s rare that a piece of Arsenal news shocks me. We live, lest we forget, in a world where Nicklas Bendtner has claimed to have the potential to be the best footballer in the world, and in which Emmanuel Eboue once dressed as a tiger.
However, when I saw the news that Theo Walcott would miss the remainder of the season and this summer’s World Cup, I was genuinely taken aback.
When Theo Walcott first pulled up against Spurs, I was immediately concerned. His knee bulged in that unnatural way that one associates with cruciate ligament injuries. However, in his post-match press conference Arsene Wenger played down any major fears. The talk in the press room was that Walcott would be out for a few weeks at worst.
Some Arsenal fans were unwilling to countenance even that. It seems hugely ironic now, but I saw The Guardian’s David Hytner being pilloried on Twitter for publishing an article saying Walcott “could miss four weeks”. The trolls accused him of jumping the gun. They said he ought to wait for the scan rather than posting speculative news. How right they were. And yet how wrong.
The truth is far worse than anyone could have feared. The official statement says Walcott will miss “at least” six months. In reality, it could be closer to a year.
I’m actually surprised by how gutted I am for him. He’s not a player I have a particularly strong emotional attachment too. He has probably caused me as much frustration as joy.
However, I have huge admiration for the way his game has evolved over the past 18 months. As my friend Tobi said, his head finally seemed to have caught up with his feet. Walcott has overcome criticism and some fairly serious injuries to become a bona fide star of the Premier League. He had earned the prize of a legitimate title challenge and a World Cup in Brazil.
Ah, the World Cup. It’s not Arsenal’s problem, but it’s hard not to feel sorry for a guy who will miss out on a second World Cup in succession. Theo plainly loves playing for England, and it will crush him to know that, despite being selected for one aged 17, he will have no chance of playing on world football’s greatest stage until he is 29. It pains me to say it, but by then Walcott’s pace and subsequently his star may be fading — especially with the added complication of a cruciate injury.
It’s often said that it’s tragic that the likes of George Best and Ryan Giggs never got to play in the World Cup. I get that. However, they had their chance to qualify like everyone else. What about playing through a qualification campaign, earning the right to grace that stage, and then being cruelly robbed of it by a freak injury? That’s a tragedy of it’s own.
As for Arsenal? Well, it’s an enormous blow. Whenever I allowed myself to envisage Arsenal winning this season’s Premier League, our success was always contingent on the availability of our best players.
I’ve tried to work out whose injury would hit the team harder. I’ve come up with a list of three: Wojciech Szczesny, Per Mertesacker, and Olivier Giroud. As important as players like Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil might be, we have others capable of doing a similar job.
Walcott offers something special: goals.
Replacing Walcott in his starting position on the right wing is not that difficult. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has returned to training and will soon be ready to bring his direct running and skill to the side. In the meantime, young Serge Gnabry looks more than capable of bridging the gap.
However, neither Chamberlain or Gnabry is likely to offer a goal threat to match that of Walcott. Despite missing two months with another injury, Theo’s goal tally is bettered only by Giroud and Ramsey, and his recent form suggested he was preparing to build on his total of six thus far. With Giroud’s prolific start to the season now a distant memory, Walcott’s presence in the side became increasingly important.
Theo loves goals. Some accused him of being overly selfish against Spurs, but the truth is there are few players in our squad who share that unbridled desire to see the ball in the back of net. Even our resident centre-forward, Olivier Giroud, can be unduly generous at times.
Walcott’s determination to be recognised as a striker sees him repeatedly putting himself in a position to score. Look at his brace against West Ham: the first was a tame effort, but he at least had the self-confidence to take the shot on and test the goalkeeper. As for the second goal, how many other players in this Arsenal team would make a lung-bursting sprint to stick their head on a cross? Not too many.
Wenger will doubtless talk about ‘internal solutions’. There is one: Lukas Podolski. The manager has always been loathe to field both Walcott and Podolski on the flanks. However, Walcott’s absence might allow him to rebalance his midfield and include the German international regularly on the left-hand side. Although he lacks Walcott’s blistering pace, he does possess a nose for goal and a fine shot.
However, Wenger must also be considering a move in the transfer market. Prior to this incident, I received word that Arsenal had made tentative enquiries about signing a diminutive dribbling winger. I was dismissive of the news, but wonder if that interest might now intensify.
I’m not sure it will. Arsenal have plenty of wingers. Arsenal don’t necessarily need to replace Walcott, but they do need to replace his goals.
Arsene Wenger must scour the market for someone who is capable of making up that shortfall of 8-10 goals created by Walcott’s absence. They might be a winger or attacking midfielder in the ‘Draxler’ mould, or they might be a supplementary centre-forward.
The truth is that in recent weeks Theo has almost been playing as a second striker, so acquiring a front-man still seems like the priority.
The season might be over for Theo, but it’s not for Arsenal. Arsene Wenger must act fast to ensure that the rupture of Walcott’s ligament does not also precipitate the tearing up of Arsenal’s title dreams.