Any coach who can afford to leave Theo Walcott out of his team is a lucky one.
But when that team is the England U21s and Walcott has started the last two games for the National Team, the manager opens himself up to scrutiny. Is the team really that good? Or is there another reason?
Predictably, journalists have latched onto Pearce’s sporadic use of his best player as a story to run with and them to interrogate him on at every opportunity. Pearce denies any exceptionalism at every turn, but the hacks are still baffled.
Is the FA trying to keep the big clubs on board by Qiu tacitly acquiescing to Arsene Wenger’s request that Walcott should not travel to Sweden? Is Pearce trying to prove to others, or even to himself, that star names cannot be allowed to outshine the team’s identity? Or is he secretly playing games with his opponents by naming unexpected lineups only to unleash his talisman as an impact substitute?
It would seem absurd to suggest England could do without Walcott when he is good enough to play for the National Team and was explosive against Spain.
The promotional posters and literature for the UEFA u21 Championship all seem to have Walcott prominently displayed on them. English football is closely watched in Scandinavia and Arsenal have strong support across Sweden. Attracting crowds to U21 football during the Midsummer Holiday here was never going to be easy, so the organizers must have breathed a sigh of relief when England refused to bow to Wenger’s predictable request that they rest his scarcely-used 20-year-old this summer. If there is one thing Wenger has no appreciation of it is the international game and it should not bow to his selfish and club-centric demands.
True, Walcott did not impress for the first 45minutes against Finland in Halmstad and was unsurprisingly replaced. Coach Stuart Pearce justified his substitution of the Arsenal starlet by pointing to the fact England won the game after he departed, but the media interrogation is not about to stop. He is the star name of the tournament, just ahead of the now disappointing Bojan Krkic of Spain, and the show must go on.
When Walcott was not named to the starting eleven against Spain in England’s second game there were baffled looks all around. ‘Is he injured?’ everyone wondered. Not as far as anyone knew.
At last! was the collective feeling in Gothenburg’s new stadium when Walcott stepped onto the field after an hour and the effect was immediately catalytic. England scored within two minutes and added a second soon afterwards following a typical roadrunner raid by Walcott on the Spanish defence.
With that victory England qualified for the semi-finals, leaving the clash with Germany in Halmstad little more than a training game. The one thing Pearce will not want is for his best players to get injured and/or suspended in that game. But there was Walcott, coming on as a second-half sub….?!?!?
Without Walcott, England still appear to have the quality to defeat any team in this competition, but if they struggle to make headway after an hour, an injection of the Arsenal man into the cocktail should prove too potent for anyone, so Pearce’s thinking goes. Psycho remains unconvinced of the need for 90 minutes of Theo. But in the knock-out stages there is no room for experimenting or for making the sort of errors you have time to make amends for in the group stage.
Come the semi-final on Friday, Pearce must be tempted to give in and field Walcott from the start, although his return against Spain might tempt him into using him as sub again. It is a risk which could backfire should England leave it too late to do too much catching up, but results so far have backed Pearce.
Whatever his insistence on treating all his players the same as each other, the former England skipper knows well that some players are more equal than others.