Euro 2012 - Eurospot: Walcott a worry for England
As Arsene Wenger verbally disembowelled his players in the wake of their humiliation at Milan, it was somewhat overlooked that a rather more subtle but arguably no less uncharacteristic condemnation had been reserved for half-time.
A loyalist almost to the end - a trait was tested to the full on that tortuous and potentially epochal night in Italy - Wenger is not one to inflict premature ejection on one of his players. Substitutes warm up in anticipation of an arrival around the 70 minute mark: he is no Jose Mourinho, pioneer of the double tactical change after 26 minutes.
But at a raucous San Siro, bouncing with the sound of delighted Milanistas, Wenger did lower himself to sacrificing one of his own after 45 minutes. The legendary Thierry Henry was summoned from the bench for his farewell game and the humbled Theo Walcott was told to sit on it.
Undoubtedly the shocking state of the San Siro turf - particularly in the channels where Walcott was toiling to little effect - contributed to a clumsy performance from the forward, yet Wenger's readiness to replace him still raised eyebrows, even on a night when so few covered themselves in glory.
His decision to do so also invited renewed scrutiny about the value of a player who continues to divide opinion. Some reports on Friday suggest Walcott’s future at Arsenal may be in doubt and if even Wenger - a man who has overlooked his shortcomings for years - has lost faith in him, what hope is there?
Walcott has always been a player who has enjoyed huge reserves of goodwill amongst his club's supporters, no doubt due to the fact that, as the song goes, he's a rare "Englishman at Arsenal". But in recent months, and years for some, understanding has been gradually replaced by frustration. Frustration that after six years of anticipated evolution, blistering pace remains the sole outstanding attribute of a player who occupies a vital role for his club.
The question of whether Walcott has progressed sufficiently as a footballer is also pertinent to the national team. Under Fabio Capello he regularly assumed duties on the right of midfield, though a shocking pre-tournament friendly against Mexico – when yet another misplaced pass drew howls of anger from Wayne Rooney - contributed to the decision to controversially exclude him from the team that went to the 2010 World Cup.
Capello later said he felt snubbing Walcott was a "mistake" as "he is one of the players who can make the difference", but coming off the back of an unconvincing season it certainly felt the decision was the correct one at the time. Nearly two years on, it remains debateable whether Walcott is capable of being as decisive as his former manager suggests.
His international record is largely unimpeachable - 18 wins and only one defeat in 21 caps, and left unsullied thanks to avoiding the disaster of South Africa - yet in the six years since his debut he has scored in only one game for his country, and you could count the number of memorable performances on one hand.
That he scored three times in that famous match against Croatia in September 2008 should not be allowed to cloud the fact that Walcott's contribution to his country has been patchy at best. Indeed it is a microcosm of his club career: a reputation based on flashes of brilliance, but all too often characterised by long periods of mediocrity.
Walcott has long dined out on that hat-trick, his run against Liverpool in the Champions League and his impact as a substitute against Barcelona in a 2-2 Champions League draw at Emirates Stadium. Like an average Will Ferrell film, the trailer bears scrutiny; the full-length feature is less glittering.
A starlet who appeared to have the world at his feet when being named in the squad for the 2006 World Cup despite having never kicked a ball in the Premier League has matured into a rather uncertain talent: a player who appears to lack a certain amount of direction, both literally and figuratively.
His tendency to run into blind alleys is mirrored by an apparent lack of foresight regarding what his destiny as a player is. Walcott has protested for some time that he is a central striker temporarily fitting in on the wing, but some notable misses when one-on-one - particularly in the 0-0 draw against Bolton at the start of February - lend such claims a healthy dose of scepticism. Moreover, he now appears to have embraced his role out wide, to the extent that he has surrendered that desire to get on the scoresheet. He said recently: “One of my main jobs as a winger is to get assists. The goals are a secondary thing."
No one could deny his work in this regard has been impressive: Walcott has seven Premier League assists this season, three of which came in the 7-1 hammering Blackburn Rovers, and he has provided Robin van Persie with the kind of service normally reserved for The Ivy. Furthermore, he has added more variation to his game and has certainly improved since Chris Waddle's infamous critique of March 2010 when the Arsenal man was told he didn't have a "football brain".
But, as demonstrated at the San Siro, his football brain is not as fully realised as some of his contemporaries’. While the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Kevin-Prince Boateng gave a masterclass in the art of intelligent movement, clever use of the ball and spatial awareness, Walcott looked like the occasion had consumed him. He had a brain freeze.
Ahead of a major tournament in which England will take on France, Ukraine and Ibrahimovic’s Sweden, that must be a matter of some concern.
Even more worrying for Walcott on a personal level is that his international place must now be under threat from a player from Arsenal, the club that has indulged his idiosyncrasies more than many would have. That player is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who in his cameo at San Siro looked more accomplished and confident than his predecessor from the Southampton academy.
A small sample size, no doubt, but at all times since his debut for the club, Oxlade-Chamberlain has looked a far more intelligent and effective player than Walcott; a more rounded and refined talent. He has understandably been compared to his team-mate, but to do so does the younger man a disservice.
It was widely publicised that when Oxlade-Chamberlain was substituted against Manchester United and Andrei Arshavin was brought on in his place, Emirates Stadium rung with the sound of boos. That was interpreted as a show of support for the midfielder, as well as public castigation of Arshavin, but to this observer there was another distinct element to the reaction: many fans were furious that it was Oxlade-Chamberlain and not the disappointing Walcott who was removed. Once again he had disappointed and patience, finally, had run out.
Any attempt to second-guess the selection policy of a non-existent manager is surely foolhardy, but the rise of Oxlade-Chamberlain, and the continuing excellent of Chelsea’s Daniel Sturridge, surely dictates that after failing to play at the 2006 World Cup and then missing out four years later following Capello’s fateful call to him on the golf course, Walcott is in real danger of being sidelined once again when England travel to Euro 2012.