Theo Walcott returns to Arsenal as a poster boy for Arsene Wenger's demise
The player on the Emirates Stadium pitch with the most Arsenal appearances to his name will not be wearing Red. The one with the most Gunners goals will not be cheered if he scores. Such is the peculiar position in which Theo Walcott will find himself if, for the 401st time, he plays in an Arsenal game on Sunday.
For the second, he will be on the opposing side. As his first return ended in an ignominious 5-1 defeat for Everton, perhaps Arsenal will be especially pleased to welcome him back. Yet when he faces his former club, it will be both as what he is, an Everton player, and what he represents, an emblem of a lost Arsenal, a man who, for better and worse, symbolised much about the second half of Arsene Wenger's reign.
Walcott left only eight months ago. It is very possible that the majority of Arsenal's starting XI on Sunday were never Walcott's teammates, having joined since, just as he never played for Unai Emery. The speed of change at a continuity club is indicative in itself: Walcott could once be deemed the face of stasis.
That is unfair. Yet like those who were constants in austerity era Arsenal, he was signed with the long term in mind. He represented the promise of a better tomorrow that perhaps never really arrived. He was seen as a young player after he was actually young. Perhaps, though he scored 19 times in his last full season, he stayed too long; certainly some of Wenger's proteges did, even if Walcott's was not an Abou Diaby-esque tale of diminishing returns.
Yet a change of scenery can help. Goodison Park insiders believe the winger, who has moved his family to the northwest of England, is relishing a new lease on life, throwing himself into the club's community activities and quickly becoming one of the faces of Everton. The sense is that Walcott appreciates both the similarities with Arsenal, another traditional club, and the differences.
An indication of Everton's spending prowess also symbolises Arsenal's lost generation, the group of young Brits who were supposed to provide the core of the side for years to come and who, with the notable exception of Walcott, signed new contracts together in 2012. Now only Aaron Ramsey and the defiantly unsellable forgotten man Carl Jenkinson remain with Ramsey out of contract in the summer. Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere, on the other hand, have left in the past 14 months.
For some, they represent cases of unfulfilled potential. Perhaps there was something symbolic in the way Walcott's Arsenal career ended: winless in his last four en route to a sixth-place finish, the lowest in his 13 seasons in London. He straddled eras, making his debut in a side featuring Thierry Henry and his valedictory appearance alongside Ainsley Maitland-Niles, but he joined a club that was heading to the Champions League final and left one that was both in and returning to the Europa League. Viewed that way, it is a tale of decline.
Viewed another, it was a story of staving it off for so long. The cliche of Arsenal, of fourth-place finishes and Champions League last-16 exits, can obscure some of the details. Walcott was a rare winger to score 20 goals in a season (21 in 2013-14), and the enduring debate over whether he was better suited as a striker highlighted a question common to him, Wilshere, Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain: Where are they best deployed and in which combination? One thing is for certain: Few players register a century of goals at a club when they are predominantly used on the flanks; in Walcott's case, that number is 108.
Each of the Brits can share a story of being pushed down the pecking order when the financial shackles came off. Budget recruits found it harder to be cornerstones of the side when Arsenal entered the ranks of the big spenders. To varying degrees, the midfielders and forwards were displaced by Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Alexandre Lacazette.
Walcott's departure highlighted the way Wenger's Arsenal was falling apart before the manager's own exit was confirmed. Some, such as Sanchez and Oxlade-Chamberlain, decamped for clubs higher up the league. Others, such as Walcott and his fellow centurion and another underrated goal scorer, Olivier Giroud, went in search of first-team football.
The beginning of the end came when a player who, like Arsenal, was long accused of being too nice showed a more unforgiving streak. After captaining Arsenal in the 2017 defeat at Selhurst Park, Walcott admitted that Crystal Palace "wanted it more" and was in turn criticised by Wenger. Walcott never recaptured a regular spot, but it was telling that Wenger's disciples could see flaws he could not admit existed. Arsenal were too bad for a man who embodied them.
Over 12 years, Walcott and Arsenal achieved more than was perhaps acknowledged without winning very much. And both were neither as bad as their doubters suggested nor as good as they promised to be. Walcott wasn't the new Henry, just as Gibbs did not reach Ashley Cole's standards and Wilshere never matched Cesc Fabregas at his peak. But he made the second-most appearances for Wenger's Arsenal, sandwiched by Henry and Patrick Vieira, different generations of a past era side by side in the statistics.