Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Walcott no longer fits at Arsenal, it’s time to sell (but we won’t)

While the Julian Draxler stuff kept people entertained yesterday, another story broke which hit much closer to home. Theo Walcott and his wandering ways.

Theo Walcott who has been saying for such a long time that he wants to play up front. Theo Walcott who said it was ‘about time’ he was given a chance as a striker (in 2012), and Theo Walcott whose protracted contract negotiations included serious discussion about where he would play. He insisted it wasn’t about money, instead the sticking point was him being given opportunities to play up top.

He got those opportunities. What a goal he scored in the FA Cup final. Sure, it was against an Aston Villa side on the start of a catastrophic descent into abject Sherwood-inspired rubbishness, but it was still a very good goal that I enjoyed greatly. Then he played well against Leicester away and very well against Man Utd at home in a team performance that was as good as we’ve seen in a long time. After that, well, he didn’t play as well.

His limitations in the centre-forward position became more obvious and Arsene Wenger stopped using him there. He was needed for a time out on the left, but he didn’t play well there, and even when Olivier Giroud went through his 2 goals in 21 game goal-drought, the manager didn’t use Walcott as a striker. It was pretty obvious he’d lost faith in him there, and Walcott seems to have taken the hint. Yesterday, he said he wants to go back to being a right winger:

I have told the manager that I want to be known for playing on the right again. I want to know where I want to play. The manager has said I can play up front. It depends on what game it is.

I want to make my position on the right – that’s where I know where I am now.

Leaving aside the fact he’s saying this at a time when Arsenal are in almost desperate need of a striker – and when Olivier Giroud is likely to miss the start of the season – it seems strange to give up on an ambition he appears to have held for most of his career.

“For me personally, I’m a striker. Hopefully in the next couple of years you’ll see me up front, I’m looking forward to that,” he said in 2010. Sure, last season didn’t really work out, but where’s the fight to say ‘I’ll be better?’ or ‘I’ll work harder?’. He’s given up on it like a tackle at Sunderland.

The unfortunate thing for Theo is that the manager doesn’t want to play him on the right hand side either. He’s barely started there since that game at White Hart Lane in February 2015 when he was slow to close down a cross and Harry Kane headed home a Sp*rs winner. It wasn’t simply that one incident that caused Wenger to stop picking him there, but that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Since then we’ve seen central midfielders like Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere start on the right ahead of him, while Alexis, Danny Welbeck, Joel Campbell and Alex Iwobi have all been used with greater regularity. So, we have a situation for Walcott where he’s admitted he doesn’t want to play up front, and the manager doesn’t want to play him there unless he has no other choice, and the position he wants to go back to is one that the manager doesn’t fancy starting him in either.

It’s not a healthy situation for player or club, and the obvious solution is to say ‘Thanks for the memories, but let’s go our separate ways’. In this particular market there would be no shortage of takers for him, and the money sloshing around the Premier League means his wages are no longer out reach to most clubs. It wasn’t long ago only the big boys could pay that, but Leicester have tied Jamie Vardy down to a £140,000 a week deal – I know they’ve got a bit of extra prize money and Champions League revenue coming, but it’s as much down to the TV cash as anything else.

That’s the obvious solution. You sell Theo Walcott, 27 years of age, three years left on his current deal, by his own admission not a striker, not a right winger the manager likes anymore, and you take the funds that would generate and you bring in somebody else. That’s what a normal club would do, I reckon. There’s no need for rancour or bitterness, sometimes it just goes stale for a player and a club. That’s football.

I think the issue is that while there would certainly be those who would hold a similar position and believe a parting of the ways is for the best, it’s coupled with a nagging feeling that the easiest thing for us to do is just keep him. He’ll be a sub, we don’t have to go through all the hassle of, you know, signing someone and spending money and, heaven help us, improving the squad. There’s no faith that even if we did sell him (which I don’t think we will even though I think we should), we’d actually replace him.

And when you look at his goals and assist record over the last few years – barring that brilliant 2011/12 season when he was off the charts – it wouldn’t be that difficult to replace. As much as we need a striker, I’ve long advocated the need to add a more efficient creative goalscoring wide man too. Not out of any personal animus for Walcott. He’s not my favourite player by a long shot, but simply because the team needs it. We still need it, and I don’t think he’s it.

He’s a square peg in our round holes. It strikes me the best thing for him, as a player, would be to go somewhere that he fits in. To a team that might play to his strengths more than Arsenal do. We can’t do that, and won’t do that, but someone more mid-table could place more emphasis on the good things he does and he might thrive. Arsene Wenger doesn’t have enough faith in him to start games anymore. Why prolong the agony?

He’s synonymous with Arsenal, having joined the club at 16, but perhaps also emblematic of the team in general. Flattering to deceive, lots of potential never fully realised, and when opportunity presents itself, we do something like this.

As much as buying new players is a signal of ambition, so too is accepting when it’s not working out for a player, moving him on and making a decision that’s best for the club. Could Arsenal do a lot with the £30m or so they’d get for Walcott (basing that price on a market in which everyone appears to be worth about that much)? Yes, they could. And they should.

Will they? I’d be massively surprised if they did. I think Walcott will stay, starting the season in and around the team because of absences and lack of signings, before going back to the bench. Maybe he’ll work his way back into the side with a string of stellar performances, scoring and assisting like mad, and if he does then I’ll doff my very cap to him. I just think he’s a lucky guy if he’s given that chance.

Elsewhere, Wolfsburg have released a statement saying that Draxler is going nowhere this summer, and denying that there was any verbal agreement to let him go to a bigger club if they were interested. Is that the end of it? Is it posturing? Ultimately money talks and the right amount would see Wolfsburg let him go, but it’s whether Arsenal are prepared to be that aggressive in the transfer market is the question.

Not sure you need me to answer that one. Right, news throughout the day on Arseblog News, Tim Stillman is here later with his column, more from me tomorrow.

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