Theo Walcott shakes hands with Gareth Southgate after he was substituted just past the hour mark in England’s goalless draw in Slovenia. Photograph: Carl Recine/Reuters
It was the sense of anticlimax which was so dispiriting. The buildup had been brightened by all that encouraging talk of a “new Theo Walcott”, the assessments delivered by club manager and player himself and backed up most persuasively by resurgent form at Arsenal. Those eye-catching goals against Chelsea and Basel were plundered by a forward who had acknowledged recent failings and was determined to prove he had changed. Rivals lining up across the back for Malta and Slovenia would surely be quaking in their boots.
And then reality clicked in and reminders of familiar failings came flooding back. Walcott managed 68 minutes against the massed ranks of Maltese defence on Saturday, and a little over an hour again on a shoddy surface at the Stadion Stozice on Tuesday night, and it is hard to recall a positive from either outing. There was one dangerous cross which arced through the penalty area in Ljubljana, and a rising shot which flew over the bar during the first half, but that was the sum of an evening’s work. His replacement, Andros Townsend, had forced a save from Jan Oblak and offered far more of a direct threat down the touchline even in the time it took Walcott to settle into his seat on the bench. That summed it up.
Maybe the system did not suit him. England, as a unit, were laboured for long periods against Malta (ranked 176 in the world) and, when possession was surrendered in Slovenia (67th), tended to pinch in their wingers to clog up the centre, dragging Walcott inside into the clutter. Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli were just as ineffective for long periods. But England should expect more from one of their more experienced performers.
Of their outfield starters in Slovenia, only Gary Cahill boasted more than Walcott’s 46 caps, earned under six head coaches over a decade in and around this squad. At 27, he is now one of the elder statesmen in this youthful party, a player publicly deemed a “leader” by Gareth Southgate only last week and upon whom the interim manager is entitled to lean.
His anonymity in both qualifiers was infuriating. This is a player who should offer so much. There is pace and vision in his game, even an eye for goal, and Walcott’s head is clearly screwed on: he has tweaked his diet, worked tirelessly with his personal trainer, Bradley Simmonds, over the summer and to date this term to be in peak physical shape, and meets with the Arsenal psychologist, David Priestly, on a weekly basis to fine-tune his preparations.
Everyone is entitled to the occasional off game and perhaps he is just more au fait with his club’s upbeat rhythm – instigated by established talents like Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil, but also youngsters such as Alex Iwobi – rather than a national team so disrupted by recent upheaval and whose confidence is notoriously brittle.
Maybe he is the kind of player whose own form is dictated almost entirely by that of the collective. But, just as at Arsenal, his status as a senior in the group demands he simply has to offer more. He has to be more proactive than this to warrant inclusion.
Theo Walcott misses a chance during England’s win over Malta at Wembley, when the Arsenal forward was also substituted in the second half. Photograph: Alex Morton/The FA via Getty Images
England were crying out for a spark, for something, anything, to set the pulse racing and offer evidence of hope for the future in a side which has managed a paltry 25 goals in 17 games, ignoring the 6-0 thrashing of a hapless San Marino, over the last 16 months. Walcott was supposed to supply some edge and these two fixtures, his first starts for his country in 12 months, represented an opportunity to transpose buoyant club displays on to the national stage, but his response was far too timid and way too peripheral.
In the end, all he achieved was add weight to Roy Keane’s dismissive assessment of that recent flurry of form at club level. “Listen, the guy needs to relax,” said the Irishman when asked if Walcott’s brace against Basel was evidence at last of his pedigree. “Try playing well for the next seven, eight, nine months when the real crunch games come. I wouldn’t get carried away about Walcott. He’s got to keep doing it over the next year or two.”
In that respect, the last month provides a microcosm of his entire career. All those who witnessed that breathtaking hat-trick to humiliate Croatia in the Maksimir a little over eight years ago will be baffled how that 19-year-old did not kick on to become a world beater. He was substituted six minutes from time that night in Zagreb, retiring in triumph with his star in the ascendance. Yet it says everything that, 10 years and 46 caps into his career at this level, he has still to complete only four games, and two of those were against Andorra in 2008 and 2009.
Those trying to see the bigger picture, not least Southgate, are rightly preaching the need for patience when it comes to the development of this England team, but the sight of a player of Walcott’s talent consistently failing to illuminate even the most mundane international fixture feels inexcusable. He should be running riot in games like this, but so rarely does.
The manager would concede, of course, that Walcott is not alone in needing to rise to the particular challenge flung down in front of the England set-up at present. This squad has been stripped of its normal scapegoats, those figures who would normally take the weight of the blame squarely on their shoulders.
Wayne Rooney, so often in the eye of the storm, must now accept he may be limited at times to life providing cameos from the bench. Roy Hodgson has long since departed. Southgate, in principle at least, has a finite period in which to make his mark. There are no easy excuses left for the players and, in the wake of all his work off the pitch, even fewer for Walcott. His recent club form cannot merely be the latest false dawn of a stop-start career. He has to be better than this.