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Theo Walcott returns to Arsenal as a poster boy for Arsene Wenger's demise

Theo Walcott returns to Arsenal as a poster boy for Arsene Wenger's demise

ESPN

The Premier League season is five games old so it's far too early to reach sensible, informed conclusions. Therefore, here are 10 knee-jerk, hastily jumped to conclusions:

10. Manchester City's biggest hurdle is complacency

It was interesting that Pep Guardiola said he was "angry" after Manchester City beat Fulham 3-0. One explanation for this is that he is simply a perfectionist, but another might be that he is striving to avoid the complacency that could set in when a team is so far ahead of the rest, as City were last season.

City aren't top of the league, at least not yet, but they still look better than everyone else, and only a few teams are capable of competing with them. Liverpool will come close and Chelsea have been better than most expected, but City's biggest rivals could be themselves.

9. Burnley are going down

It's not looking brilliant. The summer policy of not signing anyone until five days before the Premier League season got underway, by which time their own season had very much got underway due to their involvement in the Europa League, always looked like a gamble.

Ultimately their elimination from Europe looks like a blessing because even without that distraction, they've only got one point so far and what's most concerning is their opponents haven't been enormously taxing: they've played Watford, Southampton, Fulham, Wolves and Manchester United, when the latter had lost their previous two and were probably at the most vulnerable they'll be all season.

Relegation wouldn't be a surprise.

8. Joe Hart is back

It might not be all bad news for Burnley because one of the few players they did sign has started the season very promisingly. Hart's loan spells at Torino and West Ham didn't do a great deal to rehabilitate his reputation, and that neither of them seemed keen to make the arrangement more permanent didn't bode well for his prospects. However, since his move to Turf Moor, Hart has been pretty good: it hasn't been his fault that they keep losing and in the recent defeat to Wolves, in particular, he kept the score down commendably.

7. Petr Cech is done

In some respects it's not Petr Cech's fault that his time might be up. Unai Emery is one of many coaches keen to play the ball out from the back, to the point where he's pursuing the policy even when his goalkeeper is very clearly unsuited to the task. It's a bit like sticking Mesut Ozil at centre-back then complaining when he doesn't dominate Alexandar Mitrovic in the air.

Sooner or later Bernd Leno will be Arsenal's first-choice goalkeeper, and assuming he doesn't prove to be a slapstick failure, that could be more or less it for Cech.

6. Wolves are the best promoted side to play in the Premier League for years

What an absolute pleasure Wolves are to watch this season. They might not exactly be a plucky underdog story, backed by the millions of Fosun International and the contacts book of Jorge Mendes, but under Nuno Espirito Santo they've marched into the Premier League with no hint of an inferiority complex, acting like they belong from the very start.

"Absolutely awesome," said Joe Hart, when asked about Wolves after they beat his Burnley side. "That's the best team I've ever played against that's come up from the Championship."

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5. Aaron Wan-Bissaka is going to be a star

This is partly based on five games this season and partly the back end of last term, but Crystal Palace's right-back has continued to give the impression that he's one of the country's best young players. He wasn't even a defender until relatively recently: initially a winger, he was asked to fill in at right-back during a training game and was the only player who could live with Wilfried Zaha.

That's high praise enough in south London, but he's backed that up with some sterling showings for the first team. England have a few quality young right-backs although Wan-Bissaka looks up there with the best.

4. Mo Salah is merely brilliant again

Mo Salah's 2017-18 was a "career year" -- all previous evidence suggests that it will be his most productive season and a magnificent outlier that he's unlikely to repeat. He's certainly started this term a little sluggishly; perhaps the after effects of the shoulder injury inflicted upon him by Sergio Ramos in the Champions League final are inhibiting him somewhat.

It would be unreasonable to expect him to be the "goal machine" of last season, so Liverpool might have to settle for him being merely brilliant rather than otherworldly.

3. Jorginho is the signing of the season

If Manchester City had managed to sign Jorginho in the summer, everyone else could have just given up and gone home. It's no wonder Mauricio Sarri pushed so hard to bring the Italy international with him from Napoli as the midfielder has not just slotted perfectly into the Chelsea team, but dropped straight in and immediately started to run games for them.

Jorginho is integral to the way Sarri wants his team to play, so while there might be better individual players in the Premier League this season, there aren't many who are likely to be more important.

2. Manchester United should be worried about Alexis Sanchez

Jose Mourinho thought he was getting an elite player when he signed Alexis Sanchez in January. He was supposedly the finished article, enough to justify buying another left-sided forward when he already had Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford. But Sanchez didn't exactly set pulses racing last season and hasn't been particularly impressive this term either.

To justify the imbalance in United's forward line and potentially inhibiting the development of Rashford and Martial -- neither of whom are perfect, obviously -- Sanchez needs to be much better than he's shown so far.

1. Tottenham look tired and out of ideas

Football is a game of thin margins. Would we be discussing Tottenham in such solemn terms if Inter hadn't snatched two late Champions League goals on Tuesday evening? Maybe not. But this Tottenham team have the hallmarks of a side on the decline: a manager who has been there just long enough for the players to stop responding in the same way, a set of players who have not been significantly refreshed in the last few years, and a style of play that has become predictable.

They may well recover from this: they're certainly good enough to. But at the moment they look tired in more ways than one.

The player on the Emirates Stadium pitch with the most Arsenal appearances to his name will not be wearing Red. The one with the most Gunners goals will not be cheered if he scores. Such is the peculiar position in which Theo Walcott will find himself if, for the 401st time, he plays in an Arsenal game on Sunday.

For the second, he will be on the opposing side. As his first return ended in an ignominious 5-1 defeat for Everton, perhaps Arsenal will be especially pleased to welcome him back. Yet when he faces his former club, it will be both as what he is, an Everton player, and what he represents, an emblem of a lost Arsenal, a man who, for better and worse, symbolised much about the second half of Arsene Wenger's reign.

Walcott left only eight months ago. It is very possible that the majority of Arsenal's starting XI on Sunday were never Walcott's teammates, having joined since, just as he never played for Unai Emery. The speed of change at a continuity club is indicative in itself: Walcott could once be deemed the face of stasis.

That is unfair. Yet like those who were constants in austerity era Arsenal, he was signed with the long term in mind. He represented the promise of a better tomorrow that perhaps never really arrived. He was seen as a young player after he was actually young. Perhaps, though he scored 19 times in his last full season, he stayed too long; certainly some of Wenger's proteges did, even if Walcott's was not an Abou Diaby-esque tale of diminishing returns.

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Your team will be made up of eight players, at four different positions: two forwards, three midfielders, two defenders, and a goalkeeper. Find out more here.

Yet a change of scenery can help. Goodison Park insiders believe the winger, who has moved his family to the northwest of England, is relishing a new lease on life, throwing himself into the club's community activities and quickly becoming one of the faces of Everton. The sense is that Walcott appreciates both the similarities with Arsenal, another traditional club, and the differences.

An indication of Everton's spending prowess also symbolises Arsenal's lost generation, the group of young Brits who were supposed to provide the core of the side for years to come and who, with the notable exception of Walcott, signed new contracts together in 2012. Now only Aaron Ramsey and the defiantly unsellable forgotten man Carl Jenkinson remain with Ramsey out of contract in the summer. Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere, on the other hand, have left in the past 14 months.

For some, they represent cases of unfulfilled potential. Perhaps there was something symbolic in the way Walcott's Arsenal career ended: winless in his last four en route to a sixth-place finish, the lowest in his 13 seasons in London. He straddled eras, making his debut in a side featuring Thierry Henry and his valedictory appearance alongside Ainsley Maitland-Niles, but he joined a club that was heading to the Champions League final and left one that was both in and returning to the Europa League. Viewed that way, it is a tale of decline.

Viewed another, it was a story of staving it off for so long. The cliche of Arsenal, of fourth-place finishes and Champions League last-16 exits, can obscure some of the details. Walcott was a rare winger to score 20 goals in a season (21 in 2013-14), and the enduring debate over whether he was better suited as a striker highlighted a question common to him, Wilshere, Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain: Where are they best deployed and in which combination? One thing is for certain: Few players register a century of goals at a club when they are predominantly used on the flanks; in Walcott's case, that number is 108.

Each of the Brits can share a story of being pushed down the pecking order when the financial shackles came off. Budget recruits found it harder to be cornerstones of the side when Arsenal entered the ranks of the big spenders. To varying degrees, the midfielders and forwards were displaced by Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Alexandre Lacazette.

Walcott's departure highlighted the way Wenger's Arsenal was falling apart before the manager's own exit was confirmed. Some, such as Sanchez and Oxlade-Chamberlain, decamped for clubs higher up the league. Others, such as Walcott and his fellow centurion and another underrated goal scorer, Olivier Giroud, went in search of first-team football.

The beginning of the end came when a player who, like Arsenal, was long accused of being too nice showed a more unforgiving streak. After captaining Arsenal in the 2017 defeat at Selhurst Park, Walcott admitted that Crystal Palace "wanted it more" and was in turn criticised by Wenger. Walcott never recaptured a regular spot, but it was telling that Wenger's disciples could see flaws he could not admit existed. Arsenal were too bad for a man who embodied them.

Over 12 years, Walcott and Arsenal achieved more than was perhaps acknowledged without winning very much. And both were neither as bad as their doubters suggested nor as good as they promised to be. Walcott wasn't the new Henry, just as Gibbs did not reach Ashley Cole's standards and Wilshere never matched Cesc Fabregas at his peak. But he made the second-most appearances for Wenger's Arsenal, sandwiched by Henry and Patrick Vieira, different generations of a past era side by side in the statistics.

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