Theo Walcott has endured a difficult season on the comeback trail from a year on the sidelines with a knee injury.
Having suffered the injury in Arsenal’s FA Cup third round tie against Tottenham last season, Walcott has struggled to get back into the team. Alexis Sanchez’s arrival, Arsene Wenger’s persistence with playing a central midfielder in Aaron Ramsey, instead of an orthodox wide man, in Walcott’s position and almost having a fully fit squad to pick from have impacted on Walcott’s playing time.
But not only for the fairytale season finale or the narrative of being the hero in the cup final - the tournament he was cruelly struck down in - Walcott deserves to keep his place in the team on merit this Saturday.
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Walcott was given a starting berth ahead of Oliver Giroud as the lone frontman in the final league game of the season against West Bromwich Albion and for all intents and purposes it was to give the Frenchman a rest ahead of the final. But the 26-year-old popped up with a stunning hat-trick to give his boss a major selection headache.
Wenger has many decisions to make. Jack Wilshere and Wojciech Szczesny are two others who will be sweating on making the starting lineup. At his pre-match press conference, Wenger indicated that all three won’t start as quoted by The Mirror.
“It is important to focus as a whole squad on winning the trophy. Most of the time the heroes are the people who come on in an FA Cup final - they make the difference.
“He [Walcott] has shown that he is back in good form but that’s normal. What is important is that we do not make too many individual cases before the cup final. It’s the whole team who can win it.”
For Walcott especially, those are hardly words of inspiration on the back of a scintillating first-half display.
WALCOTT ON THE MOVE?
Speculation around the England international's future is rife as he enters the final year of his contract but Wenger has insisted that talks over a new deal will take place after the final.
That’s understandable given the magnitude of the game. It’s also sensible on Walcott’s part because were he to miss out after his performance against the Baggies, he would surely have grave doubts over extending his contract.
Into the peak of his career, playing time should be all Walcott needs assurances over.
Giroud is without a goal in eight games but continues to get the nod because his style suits the team with runners from midfield.
But maybe the decision to play Walcott shouldn’t hinge on the inclusion of Giroud.
With Ramsey moving into his natural position alongside Francis Coquelin, Walcott can start on the wing and exploit the space behind the Aston Villa defence which Sadio Mane took great pleasure in two weeks ago. If Tim Sherwood adopts a similar tactic, leaving Walcott to watch on from the bench would be mindless.
Walcott may only have 6 goals this season but his playing time has been limited. He made a difference in the draw against Manchester United from the bench and would cause more problems against the Aston Villa full-backs - be it Hutton or Richardson - than Ramsey will.
Wenger needs to start making the tough decisions and if that means leaving out either Santi Cazorla or Mesut Ozil for the team, so be it.
Heck, how can you leave someone out off the back of a hat-trick.
Gunners fans - does Walcott have to start? Let us know below!