Despite a rather sterile start, it may yet prove to be a lively summer for Arsenal. Ivan Gazidis made familiar-sounding promises about signing “top-quality players” in his Q&A with supporters on Thursday, and there are a number of decisions to be made about moving on a decent-sized contingent of first-teamers, including, as it happens, Arsenal’s longest-serving player.
On Theo Walcott, though, a decision was effectively made in April, after a night that rendered him obsolete. Now that his value to Arsene Wenger has plunged, it would be in the club’s best interests to consider offers for a player whose quest for true relevance has never been fulfilled.
It was April 10 when Walcott had the dubious honour of being captain for one of the most notorious 90 minutes in Arsenal’s recent history: the 3-0 defeat to Crystal Palace, which had travelling fans funnelling their frustration at the team and manager from the stands at Selhurst Park. The fractious evening sent reverberations around the club. It was the low point of a season that was already limboing to its conclusion.
Walcott’s issues that night were threefold. Firstly, on a small scale, he was the figurehead for the abject surrender. Secondly, he made the grievous error of going on television to admit that “Palace wanted it more than us.” You might welcome such honesty if it spilled from the lips of Patrick Vieira, designed to spark some kind of reaction; from Walcott it just seemed pathetic, an insight into everything that was wrong with the team. Wenger was reportedly angry that his captain for the day had been so incautious in public, even if he had been honest.
Thirdly, and most significantly, the defeat inspired Wenger to make a tactical change that has made Walcott almost irrelevant.
Walcott’s big problem with the 3-4-3 that was brought in to stem a flow of goals is that it leaves him with no natural home. The wide attackers in the three, usually Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, are effectively inside forwards and require more cunning than Walcott can provide. He has abandoned his attempts to become a central striker, so unless he can perform the kind of transformation that made Victor Moses one of the unlikely heroes of Chelsea’s title win, and there is little evidence he would make an effective ersatz wing-back, it is hard to see what he offers his manager.
After the Palace debacle, Walcott started only one more game all season, the 1-0 win over Leicester on April 26, and his descent into obscurity was dramatic. That is why, despite him having his most prolific Premier League season in four years and even considering his status as Arsenal’s most senior player, reports of Walcott’s exit this summer have to be granted real credence. It would not be before time.
If Arsenal can extract anything like the £25 million West Ham are reported to be ready to offer for the winger, they must take it. In fairness to him, Walcott has always been willing, forever putting his body on the line, but he has always remained below the required standard for a team that in theory, at least, is supposed to be contending for the title.
Now, the signs that this summer will be his last at Arsenal are growing.
Arsenal’s pursuit of Thomas Lemar, Alexandre Lacazette and, rather more fantastically, Kylian Mbappe clearly signals that Wenger is ready to reconfigure his options in attack — even if such a course of action could well be forced on him anyway if Sanchez departs, and possibly Ozil, too. Either way, Arsenal should be plotting a route forward without a player who has symbolised their fumbling, unconvincing and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to join the big teams of the past decade.
A player who has timed his spurts of form successfully in the past to stay relevant and earn new contracts — most notably at the end of the 2014-15 season, when he managed to parlay a hat trick on the final day of the season against West Brom into a start and a goal in the FA Cup final and, ultimately, a new deal — seemed to have run out of ideas by the end of the season just gone.
In the final six games of the season, Walcott played a combined total of 11 minutes, none of which came in the FA Cup final win over Chelsea. It was as if his Arsenal career was winding down already. After 11 years of intermittent and frustrating service, the club should be keen to ensure the process finally reaches completion.
Tom is one of ESPN FC’s Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @tomEurosport