With back-to-back FA Cup Championships in 2014 and 2015, the feeling among Arsenal supporters is not quite the doom-and-gloom it was in recent years. Despite diehard football fans’ tendency—and, some might argue, the proclivity of Gooners in particular—to descend into woe-is-me skepticism, among supporters at the Emirates, there is a burgeoning sense that this is a side on the up, rather than one struggling to hang onto its best talent. And yet, even without the nasty want-away sagas of a Robin van Persie or Samir Nasri lighting up the tabloids, Arsenal still find themselves with something of a minor dilemma this offseason in the form of Theo Walcott’s contract.
Walcott commented this week on his contract situation, and while he had some kind words for his club, the remarks were by no means clearly committal.
“My agent has talked to the club, I enjoy playing for this club so I am just letting them crack on with things and I’ll continue playing football. If it happens it happens. We’ll just play the waiting game and see what happens…You don’t want to dwell on it, you want to play well and if it happens it happens.”
For those of you keeping tautology score at home, that’s two separate “if it happens it happens” in just sixty words. Walcott’s statement has everything of the parroted ‘agent speak’ we see so often in modern sports: I love this team, the contract is out of my hands, if it happens then great but I just want to play football. His words convey very little beyond this: he’s in no hurry. And, some might say, for good reason.
Walcott’s Goalscoring Form
In terms of getting on the scoresheet, Theo Walcott could not have had a better conclusion to Arsenal’s 2014-2015 campaign. After bagging himself a hat trick—his third for the club—against West Bromwich Albion on the final day of the English Premier League season, Walcott was given the start at Wembley in the FA Cup Final against Aston Villa, and scored a cracking goal to open the scoring that day. Even among the very best in the world, four goals in two games, and one of them a cup final no less, is an impressive record.
But despite the fact that they win games, in measuring a player’s overall worth, goals can be deceiving. Arsenal’s midseason match against Leicester City on February 10th provides an illustrative example. On the face of it, Theo Walcott might be considered the hero of the day, having scored Arsenal’s second goal in a 2-1 victory, the goal that would prove to be decisive. What’s more, that game-winning goal saw Arsenal go fourth in the table, back into a Champion’s League spot.
And yet, even if Walcott was technically ‘the match winner,’ his performance that night left much to be desired. After 72 minutes on the pitch, when he was taken off by the manager, this was the map of Walcott’s passes: of nine pass attempts, he completed six. Yes, seriously: six. That’s less than one successful pass for every ten minutes on the pitch. Further, even if we were to measure Walcott’s success based on scoring, he botched his first chance of that game, an arguably even better goalscoring opportunity than the rebound he successfully dispatched.
Health is Wealth
In addition to the bevy of goals he bagged in May, Theo Walcott adds much-needed pace to Arsenal’s attack, and his ability to stretch the field and get in behind the defense is undeniable. Even with his arguable flaws in distribution, and even if he is not as ruthless a finisher as some forwards from Arsenal’s past—Thierry Henry and Ian Wright of course come to mind—Walcott is a player Arsenal want to keep. He’s neither the perfect winger, nor the best striker, but blessed with blistering pace, and possessing strong technical ability both on the dribble and in taking shots, he is still a very, very good footballer. A salary in excess of £100,000 a week might seem steep for a player who sometimes goes missing in games, but for a player of Walcott’s quality, amid the oil billions floating around the English game, that’s simply the market rate.
And let’s be honest, Arsenal can afford it. If not buoyed by foreign billions (American owner Stan Kroenke is a billionaire, but he’s not pumping money into the club the way Manchester City or Chelsea have seen their coffers filled), Arsenal are nonetheless a very wealthy club. Perhaps the presence of hyper-rich owners such as Roman Abramovich and the Abu Dhabi United Group has caused players in the Premier League to be overvalued, but that’s the nature of things now. Crossing your arms, closing your eyes and saying “there’s no way in hell James Milner is worth £165,000 per week!” won’t make the people willing to pay him that much disappear.
Theo Walcott may not ever be as good as Alexis Sanchez, and it might be frustrating to look at your team’s payroll and see that the figures don’t correlate perfectly to production on the pitch, but even if Walcott’s salary demands outstrip his teammates, barring a completely ludicrous figure—say, something north of £175,000 per week—Arsenal would do well to lock down Walcott’s contract sooner rather than later. In addition to Walcott’s fine goalscoring form at the conclusion of last year’s campaign, the English winger has another advantage on his side: health. For the first time in two years, Theo Walcott will have a full preseason under his belt heading into the 2015 Premier League season. Of course, that could change at any moment, as injuries happen all the time. But if he can in fact stay healthy, we could see very bright things from him this coming season.
Last year, in the wake of Arsenal’s signing Danny Welbeck from Manchester United, Walcott spoke of how he, Alexis Sanchez, and Welbeck might combine at the Emirates.
“I hope we’ll have the fastest forward line in the Premier League,” Walcott said. “It’s exciting times.”
Exciting indeed, but it’s an attacking trio that has never fully materialized. Due to a combination of injuries, Walcott, Sanchez, and Welbeck have never all played together at peak fitness, something that will need to happen should the three build a potent chemistry. As Welbeck returns from injury, with Walcott finally fit and Sanchez coming off a trophy-winning performance in Chile, that attacking troika finally looks poised to coalesce. Walcott’s salary demands (or, perhaps we should say, the salary demands of Walcott’s agent) might be very high indeed, but they won’t carry a transfer fee along with them.
As an Arsenal supporter, I would welcome a new signing at striker, but amid speculation about huge spending, with this still untested—and potentially brilliant—attacking trio already on the books, Arsenal would be wise to first tend to their own, and sign Walcott to a long term deal before looking elsewhere.