Theo Walcott has completed his £20m move from Arsenal to Everton. What legacy does he leave at the club he joined at the age of 16? His achievements are admirable but the sense of unfulfilled potential is impossible to ignore, writes Nick Wright.
Theo Walcott collected Alexander Hleb’s pass, skipped inside Gavin McCann and clipped a looping cross towards the far post as red shirts poured into the Aston Villa box. Jlloyd Samuel could not get enough on his header under pressure from Robin van Persie, and the ball fell at the feet of Gilberto Silva, who steadied himself and rifled a diagonal finish past Thomas Sorensen.
The passage of play which led to Arsenal’s first goal at the Emirates Stadium is packed with familiar figures from the Premier League’s past, but one man endures. Walcott was a fresh-faced 17-year-old making his Arsenal debut as a substitute for Freddie Ljungberg that day against Aston Villa. Twelve years on, and their longest-serving player is finally embarking on his next chapter.
A lot has happened since August 2006, but at the time there was a certain symbolism to Walcott creating the goal which kicked off Arsenal’s new era. With stadium debts to pay off and the Invincibles gradually dispersing, Arsene Wenger was turning his focus to youth. Walcott, together with Cesc Fabregas, was seen as the project’s great hope.
Wenger’s vision for the future did not materialise and the same can be said of Walcott’s perceived potential, but his achievements at Arsenal demand considerable respect nonetheless. He has made more appearances for the club than Thierry Henry and he is not far behind Dennis Bergkamp. Last season, he became only the 18th player in the club’s long history to reach three figures for goals scored.
There have been memorable moments along the way. Walcott scored his first goal for Arsenal in the 2007 League Cup final against Chelsea when he was still only 17, he came off the bench to terrify Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in 2010, and he played a key role in Arsenal’s second consecutive FA Cup triumph in 2015, breaking the deadlock against Aston Villa with an emphatic half-volley at Wembley.
At his best, Walcott was a lethal attacker with the pace, unpredictability and finishing ability to turn a game in an instant. The problem for Arsenal, however, was that they did not see nearly enough of him at his best. Since top scoring for Wenger’s side with 21 goals in 2012/13, Walcott has only featured in 88 out of 174 Premier League games.
Injuries have come at cruel moments. In January 2014, Walcott was in the form of his life, enjoying a rare run of games in his favoured striker role. But after he was stretchered off following an electrifying display in a 2-0 win over Tottenham in the FA Cup third round, it emerged he had ruptured his anterior cruciate knee ligament.