Thursday, March 23, 2023

Walcott signs, now the pressure’s on :: + Coquelin and Diaby

So, after over 18 months of refusing to sign a new contract, Theo Walcott has put pen to paper and committed his future to Arsenal.

Good, because it means that a tedious, drawn-out saga is over. Good, because Arsenal have secured the future of a player who, while still far from the finished article, looks to be improving and maturing. Good, because it shows that Arsenal can hold onto a player who, for all intents and purposes, was angling towards a move away from the club like others have in recent times. If not quite a show of strength from Arsenal, it is a change from ignominious departures and that is a positive thing for the football club.

It has bucked the trend of recent times when players who reach the final year of their contract are sold. Having gone on as long as it did, the most obvious thing to happen was for him to leave in the summer on a Bosman, something Arsene Wenger acknowledged:

I was scared at some stage, yes, that he could leave because it is like that with the experience I have in negotiations. When things last too long, it is never a good sign.

Obviously things have changed over the last few weeks, compromise has been reached on both sides and hopefully now a line can be drawn under things and we can get back to what really matters. If the deal makes Theo Walcott Arsenal’s best paid player, on £100,000 per week, nobody should be fooled into thinking he’s Arsenal’s best player, least of all Walcott himself. While some of his recent performances have been exciting, he’s still just as likely to go missing in a game as he ever was, or for the technical flaws that he has to manifest themselves, but perhaps with the contract situation sorted out he can concentrate on improving his game.

If he’s asked to play as a centre-forward he needs to be stronger, to hold the ball up better, learn how to bring others into play and make sure the game doesn’t pass him by. If he’s asked to play out wide he needs to accept that that’s where he’s been picked and not take it upon himself to drift around the pitch like some kind of mercurial playmaker. That’s not his game, and it never will be. His strengths are his pace and, for the most part, his finishing but his all round game can still get better if he’s willing to apply himself.

And if this sounds over-critical, let’s go back to the key point: after holding out for a long time, and making his future and salary such an issue, Theo Walcott is now Arsenal’s best paid player. With that comes a measure of responsibility and a fair amount of expectation. When you’re the highest paid player at the club, after your own brinksmanship has made that happen, you are expected to live up to that and it will be no different for him.

When he shines, he’s very difficult to play against and can be tremendously effective, but he can just as easily be invisible, clumsy or out-played by supposedly inferior defensive opposition. He’s nearly 24 now and for a player whose game is built on pace Arsenal will probably have his best years, but Walcott’s demands to be considered one of the best will not be proven by his pay packet, only by what he does on the pitch. And now it’s down to him to show it on a much more regular basis.

In other news, Arsene Wenger has been talking up two of his midfielders, both of whom still have a lot to prove but for different reasons. First off, Francis Coquelin, of whom Wenger says:

What Coquelin is doing is quite good. His qualities help the team to defend better. He has that ability to fly into people and win the ball back, and that’s something important.

Regular readers will know I’m fond of the Coq at the best of times, but I do think he’s a guy who has qualities that set him apart from others. His energy and willingness to get stuck in mean he might well be able to carve himself out a niche in this Arsenal team, and if he’s patient enough he could well become an important player as other legs get a bit older.

Meanwhile, the return of Abou Diaby is something most Arsenal fans will welcome on one hand and find frustrating on the other. He’s a very talented player, no question, but the injuries have more or less destroyed his career. Arsene spoke earlier in the week about how he had the same questions asked of Robin van Persie when he spent months out here, months out there, but I’m not sure the comparison really holds up. The Dutch Skunk suffered a series of different injuries, Diaby’s all stem from that horrendous and utterly needless challenge by Dan Smith.

And you get the sense from what Arsene says that there’s a bit of sympathy driving the fact he hasn’t yet written him off when, realistically, I’m sure many other managers would have:

Diaby has a very serious life, he doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t go out, and is very conscientious in training. So you always feel sorry for him, so you always touch wood it will go well for him. Honestly, what he has gone through is unbelievable.

If you love football and you see a player like Abou, you want him to have the career he deserves, especially when he has the attitude that he has. You have to have patience. Because what did he do wrong? Nothing. You have to give him a chance.

When you hear it like that it’s very difficult to counter without sounding like a heartless bastard. It’s true, Diaby did nothing wrong other than have his foot nearly taken off his leg by a clogger who now works in a fucking call centre. His hard work, training, rehabilitation, preparation and everything else he does just to try and play football are a credit to him, I’m sure. But at some point, and I think we’re very close to it now, there has to be a time when you say that it’s not something we can sustain.

If he stays fit until the end of the season, plays regularly and contributes to the team, then it’s worth thinking about next season. But if he picks up another injury from kicking a ball and misses three or four months, you have to ask if that space in the squad couldn’t be better utilised. You can still have sympathy for Diaby – or not – but managers are paid to make decisions with the head, not the heart, and for all his qualities when he’s fit, his injury absences affect not just him, but the team overall.

I agree with Wenger when he talks about a player like Diaby being the missing piece of the puzzle but if that players misses three months, then takes a few games to get back to match fitness, then gets injured again and misses weeks/months, it’s an unsustainable, and horribly vicious, circle. In the end the priority has to be the team before any single player, but, even if it does come to a head, as I’ve said before, I don’t think we could ever be accused of not giving him enough chances.

Right, that’s your lot. Have a good Saturday, back tomorrow with a Chelsea preview and all the rest. Until then.

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