Theo Walcott’s Season-Ending Knee Injury Will Slow, Not End, Arsenal’s Title Charge

Theo WalcottJack Wilshere says Theo Walcott‘s latest act in an Arsenal jersey made him a club “legend.”

That trolling, “2-0” gesture Walcott directed at Tottenham fans as he was being stretchered off the field Saturday will stand as the enduring image of his 2013-14 season because it ended right then and there.

Walcott suffered a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the FA Cup third round victory over Tottneham. The Arsenal and England forward will miss at least six months of action, including the back end of Arsenal’s season and the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

Walcott’s knee injury is a serious blow for the league-leading Arsenal, as it chases its first Premier League title in a decade, but the loss of the speedy 24-year-old won’t necessarily doom the Gunners’ pursuit of glory. This season’s Premier League is the most competitive in recent memory, and the tiniest margin of points will probably separate the teams at the top. While Arsenal would be better off with a healthy Walcott, it had learned how to win without him toward the end of 2013. Before Saturday, he had already missed two months of the season due to a stomach injury, and Arsenal won five of seven league games and progressed to the knockout rounds of the UEFA Champions League in his absences. He returned to his scoring ways in recent weeks, but Arsenal had reached the top of the Premier League mountain and stayed at or around the peak without him during the fall.

Walcott’s absence will likely force Arsenal into the January transfer market. Since last summer, pundits have implored Arsenal to buy another striker. Manager Arsene Wenger has suggested that he might resist the urge to spend in January, showing a willingness to use wingers Walcott and Lukas Podolski in the center of the attack as backups to Olivier Giroud. Walcott’s season-ending knee injury could change the compass of Wenger’s transfer strategy before the end of the months. Dimitar Berbatov could re-emerge as an attractive option, despite Wenger’s insistence that Arsenal has no interest in signing the Bulgarian striker. Wenger could use his substantial transfer funds to recruit Berbatov or a player of “super quality,” as he likes to say.

Walcott’s injury creates opportunities for other Arsenal players to claim playing time and fans’ affection. Teenage winger Serge Gnabry shone against Tottenham on Saturday. Barring injury, he’ll play regular games in the coming months, and he could earn a spot on Germany’s World Cup team if he makes a serious contribution to Arsenal’s trophy hunt. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, 20, will return from a long-term injury in the coming weeks. He too can advance his World Cup hopes with a strong showing in the last five months of the season. However, Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla will likely bear most of the burden of replacing Walcott’s goal-scoring (and creating) output than the aforementioned young duo, and both have the ability to shine in England and Europe.

Walcott’s absence hurts England’s World Cup chances as well. His five goals in 36 appearances are modest totals, but his experience and athleticism would have been useful to manager Roy Hodgson at this summer’s tournament. It’s worth mentioning that Walcott, who was a shock selection for England’s 2006 World Cup squad in (at age 17), has yet to appear in a World Cup game and won’t do so before 2018.

Walcott’s performances in recent seasons suggests he is starting to fulfill his vast potential, and the long-term contract he signed a year ago gives him security and peace of mind. While the ACL injury is a set-back, he should be able to return to form — perhaps in the second half of the 2014-15 season — and score goals to help Arsenal win trophies. Doing so could make him a true Arsenal legend. Until then, he can bask in the cult hero status he gained by trolling Tottenham on Saturday.

Click here to see Walcott’s trolling gesture to Tottenham fans>>

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