The last decade’s ‘almost man’, Theo Walcott is the current standard-bearer of this mentality, and his development seems to reflect the overall fortunes of the club of late. Yes, he’s been impressive, almost talismanic at brief times, having scored 86 goals in 347 games. He played as part of the team that won the FA Cup recently, but his stock is diminishing rapidly. He wasn’t picked to play a part in England’s Euro 2016 squad (perhaps a blessing in disguise), but he has had plenty of opportunities to underperform on a national level as well (a hat-trick early into his career has since only spawned five more goals in over 40 caps).
This January, he celebrated his 10th year with the club that plucked him from the relative obscurity of Southampton, in a season last year that found him struggling to maintain his place ahead of young upstarts Alex Iwobi and Joel Campbell. He finds himself dumped out of the top 20 fastest players on FIFA. His form was not unnoticed by Arsène Wenger, who stated that he hadn’t settled for the season (15/16) “as well as you could have expected”. But if not now, then when? Since his induction as a young 17-year-old, Arsenal fans have been promised greatness and have waited patiently ever since, but as one commentator noted three years ago during a particularly gruelling World Cup Qualifying campaign, “He is a perennial leg barer, but is never willing to lower his stockings the entire way.”
So the same is true, it could be said, of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. As a 23-year-old it could be considered a touch unfair to write him off at this comparatively early stage. But the hallmarks of Walcott-syndrome are there, right down to the Southampton origins. Plucked by Wenger, again as a 17-year old, for a comfortable £12 million, he has only found the back of the net 8 times in 104 games since 2011, which is one goal fewer than his single year in the Southampton senior squad.
It could be a case that, as some have stated, he was brought forward far too young and far too quickly, without the proper opportunity to develop – before he knew it he was the 2nd youngest English player to ever start in the Euros (2012). Here, the cracks in Arsenal’s academy mentality are more visible. Are they better at creating the environment in which a more established, mature footballer thrives? When we look at the example of Mesut Özil (a spectacular player who had the most assists last season) in comparison to The Ox, we wouldn’t be wrong to suspect that Arsenal’s philosophy actually depends on a group culture rather than individual greatness. Perhaps we have been wrong-headed to look at it as the place where youthful dreams come true.
Oxlade-Chamberlain has had the fortune to start four games this season, but thus far has struggled to make a significant impact. For all their patience, Arsenal fans have been rewarded with a player who they enjoy to see in the post-match interviews and verbose on social media, but who rarely gives them anything that indicates his footballing potential is being reached. It’s a real shame, given he has the strength and pace to be truly deadly, not to mention supreme confidence in himself.
But perhaps the true tell is in Wenger’s actions this year. After rumours that the club were open to selling him in the summer window, and further rumours that he refused to go, they are instead not looking to renew his contract when it expires in 2018. All talks are on hold in that regard, and even those closest to him are advising that he jump before he is pushed. Wenger, it seems, is not willing to gamble on ‘Walcott 2.0’ any longer than is necessary.
A “Crucial Season”
Oxlade-Chamberlain’s position grows more precarious by the day. When Aaron Ramsey finally makes a welcome return to full fitness, he will only find his competition increased, and his ability to fit into the first team diminished.
With Wilshere and Chambers sent out on loan for their troubles, the pressure is on the English lads to make sure that whatever happens, they make this year count. Walcott, while underperforming consistently, seems to have the faith of his manager, Oxlade-Chamberlain does not. Already into his contract’s penultimate year, time is running out.