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2:00 AM UTC Jun 26, 2017
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Transfer Rater: Chris Smalling to Arsenal

 By Tom Adams

Theo Walcott's lack of guts a symbol of what's wrong at Arsenal

It is possible to read too much into one Vine-friendly, six-second parcel of action within the unrestrained chaos of a 90-minute football match but still, a viral vignette involving Theo Walcott on Sunday did seem to reveal something fundamental about the player and, by extension, Arsenal too.

In the 80th minute, Walcott had a chance to make the decisive impact Arsene Wenger desired when the manager introduced him amid a dreary 0-0 draw away at Sunderland. After Vito Mannone had charged off his line, Younes Kaboul clumsily manhandled Danny Welbeck and the ball rolled into space.

Walcott spotted his chance with the keeper stranded, setting off on a sprint in a bid to gather up the loose ball. But when Kaboul poked a leg out gingerly, Walcott did something unexpected. Instead of throwing his own boot in to try and whip the ball away, he jumped clean over the ball. It was a leap worthy of an Olympic long jump contest, taking him right past Kaboul, too.

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In 1953, the Times wrote that Ferenc Puskas' drag-back against England at Wembley left Billy Wright looking like "a fire engine going to the wrong fire" as he steamed past in the opposite direction. Walcott flew past the ball in rather different circumstances at the weekend, instead resembling a panicked man fleeing a burning house, leaving his worldly possessions to the raging inferno as he dashed out the front door.

It was an instinctive method of avoidance but in football terms, it was inexplicable. Kaboul was not thundering in with a murderous two-footed challenge; he was wafting a leg across to try and get a block in. The best players never want the ball to leave their side: look at the courage Lionel Messi shows when contesting it and protecting it at all times. Surrendering a claim to the ball to instead jump out of the way just isn't what you expect from a footballer.

This was Walcott in microcosm: the burst of pace and the clouded thinking that follows. It is true that his finishing has improved in recent seasons and he does make dangerous runs, but this season has provided incontrovertible proof that he is not blossoming into a player of real repute, his development still arrested. Walcott is eligible for a testimonial and yet no one is still sure of his best position.

Theo Walcott had an ineffective cameo at Sunderland.

Worse than that, Walcott has become the very symbol of what is wrong with Arsenal. His jump past Kaboul on Sunday showed that this team is without the requisite guts to mount a title challenge, while his ongoing presence in the squad shows this is a club all too willing to embrace mediocrity. When he captained the team against Chelsea to mark his 10th anniversary as an Arsenal player in January and Arsenal lost, it was significant: Walcott is the standard bearer for Arsenal's underachievement and underdevelopment over the past decade.

The events of the summer were instructive, too. Wenger could have signed an upgrade on Walcott; instead, he gave him a new contract and refused to buy a single outfield player. The manager's unbending loyalty to his players can have positive effects but it can also hold Arsenal back. The persistence with Walcott highlights this perfectly.

The folly of going into the season with Walcott and Olivier Giroud, who has now not scored in 14 Premier League games, as Arsenal's main strikers was apparent at the time and it has only looked more and more silly over the course of a season blighted by poor finishing. "We don't have anybody with 20 goals in the league, so that is a handicap," Wenger told Sky Sports at the weekend. The riposte is obvious: why didn't you buy someone capable of doing so?

Walcott has only once broken double figures, scoring 14 in the league in 2012-13. He has five in 2015-16. The fateful decision to rely so heavily on him was informed by some of Wenger's worst instincts.

The manager will face the same question again this summer, and there may well be a different answer. Asked last week if Walcott could leave the club, Wenger's reply was pregnant with possibility. "I don't know yet," he said.

Sunday's telling snapshot may well help him make up his mind.

Tom is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @tomEurosport


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