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Football Writing For Dummies - free swing there, commenters - strongly recommends beginning with an anecdote, so here goes. Last Sunday, Theo Walcott scored Arsenal's second goal against West Ham. It was one of those goals that he scores when he looks, for once, exactly like the player he's supposed to be: first he timed his run perfectly to meet a pass behind the defence, then he slid a finish of nerveless precision past Jussi Jääskalainen. As he did so, a few miles west of Upton Park, a large man in an Arsenal shirt leapt to his feet and shouted to a largely-jubilant pub: "YES. GET IN." Then, after a moment's reflection, he turned to the television and the celebrating Walcott, and added: "YOU'RE STILL SH*T THOUGH."
Going by the expression on his face, he was sort-of mostly joking. A bit. But it's not unfair to suggest that fans of both Arsenal (and, for a few weeks every season and a month every other summer, England) have an ambiguous and unfulfilled relationship with Walcott. Consider this autumn's smash hit 'Sign Da Ting', perhaps the first time that contract negotiations have provoked fans to song. This spattering from the bowels of Youtube is triply satisfying. First, it afforded an opportunity to enjoy the Daily Mail's tradition of placing delicate, sanitising quote marks around any word that might baffle or threaten their readership; in this case, 'grime'. (This is a habit that persists despite their current audience consisting largely of self-hating liberals desperately looking for something to get angry about.) Second, it was further evidence that Arsenal fans must not be permitted to use the internet and/or recording equipment without supervision. (See also this and this).
But thirdly - and remember, this is a song actively inviting Theo to extend his contract - the lyrics of the first verse go: 'Oi, Theo, stick to your wing/Playing up front just ain't your thing/Apart from your pace what else are you offering?/Now we got Oxlade-Chamberlain.'
Poor lad. Walcott recently indicated that his exile out wide is a contributing factor to the slow pace of negotiations. Imagine his frustration, then, at having to watch the occasionally impressive but impressively occasional Gervinho play in the middle. Then, as if to rub it in, after the Ivorian had a decent game against Southampton, Arsène Wenger joked, "You know we transform all wingers into centre-forwards here!" Paper-cut, meet lemon juice.
It's not that Walcott's rubbish; at certain times and in certain circumstances, he's approached unplayable. Nor is it just that he can be frustrating, ineffective and anonymous; plenty of players are deeply inconsistent. What's interesting is that he's been the same kind of inconsistent for more or less his entire career. There have been patches of purple, yes, as well as whatever the opposite is (green stains?), but on the whole he's laboured under the same question mark, to the point that scientists are beginning to wonder if he's less a footballer and more a fundamental instability in the fabric of the universe. Nobody knows what will happen when Theo's boot meets the bouncing ball. Will the Emirates bubble with genteel applause and moderate whooping, or will it dissolve into sighs, curses and tuts? Even Nostradamus would struggle.
The problem is pace. More specifically, the problem is the distorting effect that pace, in a young player, has on expectation. Pace is perhaps the most visceral and straightforwardly thrilling of all the attributes a footballer can boast, and unlike the more cerebral parts of the game, tends to be fully formed by the time fans start saying "please, I've been buying him on Football Manager for years". But because pace is so exciting, it ends up promising more than it can deliver on its own. If the nous doesn't develop, or the touch never quite comes, then you're left with a quick lad who's not sure where best to run, and not able to do anything useful when he gets there; both criticisms that have been thrown at Walcott throughout his career.
A cynic might suggest that the reason he's only ever mastered running quickly is because he doesn't have to think about how to do it. A more sympathetic view might be that his bizarre selection for the 2006 World Cup squad, as well the probably unfair (but sadly inevitable) expectation that he was being groomed as some kind of English variation on Thierry Henry, served to drive the hype so high, so early, that he's now trapped in a weird state of calcified promise, to the point that his own fans feel the need to remind him and themselves of his inadequacies, even as they celebrate or beg him to stay. Perhaps a move away from Arsenal and that blighted touchline would be in everybody's best interests. If nothing else, it might allow him to escape the shadow of the player that everybody assumed he was going to become. So far, running really fast hasn't been enough.