Theo Walcott was doomed from the start. It seems a strange thing to say about a player who has just left Arsenal after a 12-year career which saw him score over 100 goals, but the conclusion is inescapable. Burdened with expectations which should never have been placed on a game but average player, he was always going to disappoint.
His attitude was always positive, you sensed he had an understanding what it meant to play for Arsenal, and an inkling of what it meant to play in front of those fans. On so many measures you couldn’t fault Walcott, apart from the one which matters most: his ability. Even then, a century of goals is hardly a poor return. It is simply that fantasy had to give way to reality.
It is easy forget just how extreme the hype around Walcott was when he signed for Arsenal from Southampton in Jan. 2006. So much so that this writer can remember exactly where he was when he heard the deal had gone through. The same cannot be said of the signings of Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie or even Thierry Henry.
It didn’t matter that he failed to make a single appearance for Arsenal in the second half of the 2005-06 season after signing in January: Sven Goran Erkisson’s inexplicable decision to take him to the World Cup that summer ensured expectations increased exponentially again. It was a velocity that Walcott’s talent did not and could not justify.
It didn’t even matter that it then took 28 appearances for Arsenal to score his first goal for the club: as it came in a League Cup final defeat against Chelsea, it merely gave hope that this was a big-game player in the making, who would make this sort of thing a habit when he fully matured.
Looking back, that 2007 League Cup final captured the mood of the Walcott era. Arsene Wenger fearlessly fielded the young team which had done the hard work of reaching the final. In an age of austerity imposed by the move to Emirates Stadium, Wenger’s trust in youth was a pragmatic strategy, but it was also borne of idealism. Walcott, Armand Traore, Justin Hoyte, Denilson and Philippe Senderos on one side, Didier Drogba, John Terry, Frank Lampard, Michael Ballack and Andriy Shevchenko on the other. An admirable project, doomed for failure.
Walcott’s goal opened the scoring after 12 minutes but Drogba scored twice and Chelsea lifted the trophy. The lesson that in the face of the new money flooding English Football, a perpetual work in progress could only take you so far was hammered home repeatedly over the coming seasons. As a talented but flawed individual who never developed into the player Arsenal hoped he would become, Walcott was emblematic of the era.
It is tempting to wonder what kind of player he would have become working under a different manager, or the same manager 10 years previously. Instead his development was muddled: the change in focus to becoming a striker, and then back again; his spells in and out of the team, with quite violent fluctuations between the two at times; the sense that neither he nor his manager knew what kind of player he really was, even after a decade of working together.
It was an unconvincing vision and only rarely did we get sustained sightings of Walcott at his very best. His was an Arsenal career of moments — goals in FA Cup finals and North London derbies; thrilling interventions on famous Champions League nights — rather than ever comprising a genuine body of work.
The 2015 FA Cup final was a typical example. An unlikely scorer of a hat trick on the final day of the league season against West Brom after a barren campaign, Walcott started the final against Aston Villa and scored the opening goal. It was perfectly timed to aid his negotiating position in contract talks and he became one of Arsenal’s best paid players when he signed his new deal that July. The next season, though, he faded again.
Injuries played their part but the unavoidable fact is that Walcott could never live up to the hype. He was a useful player, and if the team played to his strengths he could be a very dangerous asset. But a lack of finesse was never addressed and his all-round game did not improve to a sufficient degree.
When Arsenal moved to a back three last season and asked the wing-backs to provide width and the wide forwards to play inside, Walcott lacked the defensive skills to do the former job and the technical ability to do the latter. By that stage, his dreams of being an elite striker had already been abandoned and his limited skill set meant he was effectively obsolete.
It has been a long goodbye but a necessary one. There is only so long you can wait for promise to be fulfilled. Twelve years is probably enough.
Tom is one of ESPN FC’s Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @tomEurosport