“He looks back to a very good shape. I felt it took him some time to come back to his real level,” said Arsene Wenger in midweek, damning Theo Walcott with the faintest praise possible. Thirteen games into Arsenal’s season, it is difficult to decipher their “real level”; thirteen seasons into Walcott’s career, the search goes on.
In a side of fringe players and youngsters, none really impressed for Arsenal in Serbia. Francis Coquelin was ineffective, his inclusion the equivalent of taking out travel insurance with no intention of going on holiday. Olivier Giroud showed all the close control and deftness of touch of an elephant wearing boxing gloves until the winning goal. Jack Wilshere tried his utmost to drag something from a drab game. It has to be said that the standard set by Red Star was hardly conducive to flowing football.
But then nor was Wenger’s system. The Frenchman is perfectly justified in using the Europa League as a testing ground for Arsenal’s emerging talents. Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Reiss Nelson, Joe Willock and a bench with an average age of 19 years and six months will find such experiences invaluable. It is the way the manager uses them that is the problem.
Maitland-Niles and Nelson are no wing-backs; Mohamed Elneny is no centre-half; Willock was sentenced to an underwhelming display after being partnered with Coquelin in central midfield. With Mathieu Debuchy at the heart of the defence and Walcott playing from the start, most of the visiting players were used out of their normal positions.
The consequence was a disjointed, disinterested display in which only two players completed more than 90% of their passes. The breakthrough only came when, after 85 minutes of slow, plodding, error-strewn build-up play, Wilshere stepped up into second gear and interrupted the deep sleep of the Red Star defence. In 90 minutes, it was the one moment of brilliance.
Walcott played an important role in Giroud’s goal, but that was simply temporarily masking the stench of an otherwise abject performance. The 28-year-old miscued more times than a drunk snooker player, snatching at shots and misplacing passes.
One would suggest the forward is in the last chance saloon but, in truth, he has had a seat reserved there for years. The Europa League and Carabao Cup both provide an opportunity for first-team football, but the path to meaningful minutes in the Premier League is blocked; his last league start was in April.
Games such as these against Red Star are opportunities Walcott must seize, but time and time again he is allowing them to slip through his grasp. “This is his chance; he is focused, determined, hungry and is always in the squad,” said Wenger in September, and the manager was not wrong; Walcott is one of only two players to have been named in all of Arsenal’s matchday squads in all competitions this season.
But the fact remains that the forward has started as many games for Arsenal this campaign as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (4). Wenger is massaging the ego of the club’s longest-serving player expertly in public, but the truth is plain to see: Walcott’s “real level” is a few steps below what Arsenal require.