As Theo Walcott prepares to leave Arsenal for Everton, we can reflect on his tenure in North London.
Some observers have taken this as another opportunity to criticize a player or manager Arsène Wenger. I don’t see any value in that. Instead, I want to offer some impressions and memories of Walcott’s time as a Gunner.
A Professional for the Media Age
In some ways, Walcott was the leading edge of the modern footballer at Arsenal. When he arrived from Southampton 12 years ago this month, the club had just four months left at its Highbury home. Among his new colleagues were Emmanuel Adebayor, himself fresh from Monaco that January, Ashley Cole, and Pascal Cygan.
I mention those three former Arsenal players because they put very little effort into image management. Adebayor and Cole cared not a jot what fans thought of them; if they did care, they addressed that concern ineptly.
Cygan may not have shared that apathy, but he certainly wasn’t able to shape his image: Despite his contributions to the Champions League finalists that season, he’s still trotted out as an example of poor Arsenal defenders.
Walcott paid considerable, perhaps inordinate, attention to his image. He presented himself as a thoughtful, friendly figure and eventually as a devoted family man. He may well be all those things. But he certainly let us know that through careful image management.
One could say that Walcott, in this fashion, paved the way for Mesut Özil, who, thanks to his own instincts and skillful management of image managers, has crafted a public persona to support his distinctive set of athletic gifts.
Speed and Scoring
Of course, we’ll also remember Walcott for his speed. He was the fastest Arsenal player for much of his time here. In his prime, he threatened to embarrass defenders so much that many set up to avoid him exposing them.
The top example was the 2015 FA Cup Final. That day, Aston Villa fielded a lumbering back line which Arsenal’s attack pushed deeper and deeper. In the 40th minute, Villa’s line got so deep that Walcott was able to attack a looping header by Alexis Sanchez in front of the defenders and fire home the opening goal. The Gunners cruised from there to a 4-0 defense of the Cup.
That was one of Walcott’s 108 goals as an Arsenal player, ranking him 15th, level with Frank Stapleton, on the club’s career goalscoring list.
Among that bunch were some memorable strikes. His curling effort from outside the penalty area in December 2015 against Manchester City ranks as one of his most skillful goals.
But for sheer joy, I’d note his headlong run, featuring a pratfall and recovery, in Arsenal’s come-from-behind 5-3 win over Chelsea in October 2012.
Later that fall, another deceptive fall befuddled the Newcastle defense, capping Walcott’s hat trick in a 7-3 Arsenal victory.
Over the years, Arsenal supporters and bloggers have filled bandwidth with critiques of Walcott. I’ve no intention of adding to this mass. Even if he never fulfilled my hopes of increased contributions when he signed his latest and last Arsenal contract in August 2015. (See “Walcott’s Deal: A Good Ting for Arsenal.”)
Instead, I’ll remain slightly disappointed. Not because Walcott did anything wrong or because his shortcomings or performances had any effect on me personally. But because, just as he was emerging as a vital and distinctive part of the Arsenal attack, he suffered a debilitating knee injury.
As the Premier League turned away from its festive period in January 2014, Walcott had notched five goals and five assists in 13 league matches. This built on a stellar 2012-13 campaign, when he had scored a total of 21 goals and made 16 assists.
Then, Walcott collided awkwardly with Tottenham’s Danny Rose in the 3rd Round of the FA Cup, and his progress halted.
There’s still a great memory of Walcott, Arsenal loyalist and image manager, from that encounter. As he was being carried off in front of the Spurs away section, he raised two fingers with one hand—not in the insulting fashion, that would’ve been too controversial for our Theo—and made an empty circle with thumb and index finger of his other hand.
Two-nil, Walcott was driving home to that lot.
He did so, probably knowing he faced months out of action, with a smile on his face. Many of us will remember that moment fondly and wish Walcott happy trails with the curmudgeon Sam Allardyce at Everton.