By Richard Clarke
Theo Walcott has a wise head on a young body. It will help him cope with the goldfish bowl he now inhabits following that sensational hat-trick for England this week.
However the physical side of the game is always more difficult to control. No amount of strength and conditioning training can fully safeguard a talented teenager from too much football too early in their career. That is why Arsène Wenger may omit Walcott from the starting line-up at Blackburn on Saturday.
During his 11 years in England, the Arsenal manager has seen talent sit too often in the stands when it should be on the pitch. Ever since he signed Walcott in another blaze of publicity in January 2006, his integration policy has been slow, cautious and protective. Despite that Zagreb treble, it appears that is not going to change, especially as Arsenal must travel to Blackburn, Kyiv and Bolton in the space of eight days.
"I don't know [if Walcott will be involved],” said Wenger at Thursday’s press conference. “I will have to rotate the squad in the next three games. You cannot expect the players who have played in their national teams can play three times in a week. We have a very compact squad and people are interchangeable.”
Later on, a couple soundbites snatches perhaps portrayed Wenger’s deepest feelings on Walcott’s position at the moment.
“People will expect him to score four goals on Saturday now,” he quipped. Then, more darkly, he added: “You never get better treatment [from opposition players] when you are known to be dangerous.”
The managers of Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler probably said the same thing a few seasons ago and, according to Wenger, injury has meant neither has quite enjoyed the career their early talent suggested.
Ironically, the latter signed a short-term, pay-as-you-play contract with Blackburn on Friday and could play at Ewood Park this weekend. It is perhaps the last throw of the dice for him in the top-flight. Fowler was a quality poacher in his day but has been a peripheral Premier League player for the last five years.
“[Fowler and Owen] could not respond to the expectation level because they were not healthy,” said the Arsenal manager. “They are perhaps a good example of how important health is in a career. You cannot say they have been kicked down. Their bodies could not take the effort that was demanded every three days.
“These days everybody speaks about Cristiano Ronaldo and he had done fantastically well. But people forget he played every game last year he was never injured. That is the first quality in life, to be healthy. After that everything else becomes a little easier. However this year he has had surgery and he will not score as many goals. It is as simple as that.”
The possible omission of Walcott is one of a number of questions surrounding Wenger’s team for Blackburn. Carlos Vela will definitely miss out due to travel demands of his midweek international. Samir Nasri went with the French squad but did not play due to a knee injury. He was set to have tests on Friday. His compatriot Mikael Silvestre is also highly doubtful with the same problem.
The team for Ewood Park could be both interesting and young. In the next eight days Wenger and his team will travel nearly 3,400 miles. For a manager obsessed with recuperation and has been known to scour train timetables in order to get his players back more quickly, this is a monstrous figure.
“This week is a tough obstacle,” he admitted. “But I am convinced we can be successful in all the three games. Let’s prove that we can switch on quickly, use the positive experiences [from the internationals] bring them in-house and be efficient at Blackburn.
“After Mark Hughes, they have another tough boy in with Paul Ince. So we don’t expect any changes. Blackburn is always a difficult game but I believe it is down to us, how good we will play and most importantly how we switch on.”
A good start could set the tone for a pivotal week.