He is still not 19 until March but Theo Walcott has not made the progress expected of him when he joined Arsenal. The second anniversary of that astonishing £12m move from Southampton – £5m down, the rest in performance-related instalments – falls tomorrow, but he will not be in the Arsenal squad that faces Fulham in the league this afternoon. Instead Walcott will be at the training ground preparing for next week's League Cup semi-final second leg, very much the most junior competition in the club's priorities.
The admission that Walcott has not "come on" as would have been hoped was a significant one made by Arsène Wenger yesterday. "He will get where I expect him to be," the Arsenal manager said, "at the moment he is not." Wenger added that he was unconcerned and said he believed that by the end of the season "he can make that step" to the first team.
Recent evidence has not been persuasive with Walcott's latest outing, against Birmingham City, one of his most disappointing to date. "He was troubled a little bit," Wenger conceded. "It can happen at that age and it's part of the learning process. They have to deal with that. The expectation level is very high because he is very young and he has been projected early in the spotlight."
Part of that projection came with Wenger championing Walcott's inclusion in the 2006 World Cup squad and yesterday he admitted that may have been a mistake.
"I believe it had good and bad," he said. "Good because he learnt very early what is the pressure of this kind of job, so he knows what is expected of him once he plays. Bad, because the expectation level around him puts him under enormous pressure."
Persistent shoulder injuries have not helped and Wenger said the problem had led Walcott, whom he now intends to push as a second striker rather than a winger, into falling into "bad habits" on the field. Still the bare facts are that Walcott has started 24 games for Arsenal, with 29 substitute appearances, scoring four goals and often making minimal impact.
Wenger, however, ruled out sending him out on loan, although he claimed "nearly all the other clubs outside the top four" had made inquiries. It should not be forgotten that when he signed Walcott he had to fend off strong interest from Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and, belatedly, Manchester United, and declared "we've won the lottery" the day he signed along with Emmanuel Adebayor and Abou Diaby.
With Lassana Diarra sold to Portsmouth, something Wenger said he regretted, players missing at the African Nations Cup and injuries to Robin van Persie – out for another three weeks – and Johan Djourou, Wenger said he was down to just 17 outfield players. One more injury, he added, to a central defender and he "would have to buy" this month against his intentions, although he claimed not to be interested in the 17-year-old Russian Vyacheslav Dmitriev, who plays for Torpedo Moscow.
Wenger expressed admiration for another Russian, the Zenit St Petersburg playmaker Andrei Arshavin, but again said he was not bidding. Indeed, he added: "Maybe you should ban the transfer window. It is not necessarily a good idea because it can change the force inside the league."
One of the teams attempting to do that are Fulham, who should field their new £5m signing from Watford, Marlon King, in attack.
Wenger maintained that he does not need to buy – as much as to preserve the chemistry in his squad as anything else. "When you are in a good position you think it can spoil your season now," he said. "So you buy two or three players, then the players come back [from the African Nations Cup] and you go from not enough to too many players. You never have the right balance."
That balance would have been helped by the return of Van Persie, but a recurrence of his thigh injury has led to Wenger blaming himself for allowing the Dutch striker, who has returned to the Netherlands for treatment, play in the League Cup last week. "We wanted to rush him a little bit back after the muscular problems and were not cautious enough maybe," Wenger said. Even so, he still cannot find a place for Walcott.