When Arsene Wenger announced his team for the match against QPR, Theo Walcott was conspicuous by his absence.
With the Gunners having been in action against Everton just three days prior, it was anticipated that the Arsenal boss might look to rotate his line-up. Arsenal face a crucial cup tie at Old Trafford on Monday, and the likes of Alexis Sanchez have looked heavy-legged of late.
However, when the team-sheet emerged from the away dressing room, Alexis, Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla were all there again. Tomas Rosicky was drafted in to provide an element of freshness, but Walcott remained on the sidelines.
The player’s frustration must be mounting. Last weekend, he spent half an hour warming up waiting for his introduction against the Toffees. It never came. At Loftus Road, Walcott was barely even sent out to stretch. A player who scored three goals in four games shortly after the turn of the year has fallen drastically out of favour.
The timing of Walcott’s demotion is particularly intriguing. Come the summer, he will be 12 months from the end of his current contract. At that stage, Arsenal will be forced to make a choice: either meet Walcott’s demands for improved terms, or put him up for sale.
The player’s hand is certainly weaker than when he negotiated his last extension. At that time, Arsenal were recovering from losing Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas, Alex Song and Robin van Persie in a 12-month period. Walcott was unique in the Arsenal squad – not only for his pace and finishing prowess, but because he provided the last remaining pinch of stardust.
This time around, there are plenty of players who can match Walcott’s attacking threat and marketability. The obvious example is Alexis, whose continued presence in the side seems to be the major barrier to Walcott’s inclusion. However, the emergence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has provided another rival: his speed and power have enabled him to make significant progress this season, emulating the workaholic efforts of the more senior Alexis.
Then there’s Danny Welbeck. Although signed initially as competition for Olivier Giroud, the Frenchman’s form has seen the industrious Welbeck redeployed on the flanks.
There’s a pattern emerging. Wenger has tended to favour wide-men with an insatiable appetite for hard work and a willingness to perform defensive duties.
Speaking prior to the Everton match, the Arsenal boss said:
“Offensively we have lots of solutions. We have to find a team balance. It is more about team balance than any individual.
When you have the ball in the modern game you have to attack, when you don’t have the ball you have to defend. All the players who can’t do that, cannot play.”
Those words are ominous for Walcott, whose all-round game cannot match that of his direct competition. Going forward, he remains a major threat, capable of snatching a goal out of nothing. However, defensively he is still prone to lapses in concentration.
At this point, the chances of Walcott getting a start in Monday’s cup game seem slim.
If he is picked at Old Trafford, it’s imperative that he seizes the opportunity to shine, as time is running to prove to Wenger that he is worth his significant salary.
Read more from James McNicholas - a.k.a. @Gunnerblog