Thursday, June 20, 2024

Time To Ditch ‘Trident’ Theo?

The contract situations of Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Özil and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain are dominating the discourse of the summer, with each player in the 12 month red zone before expiry on their current deals. Kieran Gibbs, Wojciech Szczesny and Jack Wilshere have reached the same trigger point and decisions over their futures also need to be made.

Against this backdrop, the situation with Theo Walcott has been curiously quiet. Like Aaron Ramsey and Danny Welbeck, Theo has reached the 24 month threshold on his current deal. At this point, a club usually needs to make a decision with a player as to whether to sell or renew. We’ve been here before with Theo of course and, as usual, his situation is inextricably linked with other factors.

Walcott has just produced the most ‘Theo’ season ever. He scored 19 goals, but for the third consecutive campaign, spent much of the final 8 weeks kicking his heels on the bench. With Alexis at centre forward and a ball carrying secondary creator in Alex Iwobi on the left, Theo found the perfect setup for his attributes earlier in the campaign. But in the revised 3-4-2-1 system, Theo has not been able to find a home.

Ironically, after years of agitating to play as a centre forward, reneging on that ambition last summer has cost him the only place where he could comfortably be accommodated in this formation. Arsenal used to be very good at knowing when to cash in on a player, a skill they have lost over the years as scouting has become more competitive and Arsene has increasingly been minded to hold onto players because buying new ones is so difficult.

At the age of 28 on the back of a 19 goal season, with 2 years left on his deal, now would seem like an opportune moment to sell Theo. Particularly if Arsenal plan to retain a back 3 system in where he doesn´t seem to have an obvious place. However, other factors blur the picture here. For a start, the futures of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil remain unresolved.

To trade in on Walcott now and reinvest could be an attractive option in isolation. But with Lucas Perez already half way out of the door, losing Walcott as well as Alexis and Özil in one summer would be little short of catastrophic. It would bring to mind the truncated period in which the Gunners lost Lassana Diarra, Gilberto Silva and Mathieu Flamini. There were good reasons for all three to leave in isolation, but letting them go in concert damaged the team.

Theo has traded in on this sort of overall squad uncertainty before, of course. In the summer of 2012, there was a significant standoff over his contract. But having already lost Robin van Persie, the club could not afford to let Theo go too, so Arsenal backed down, gave him some games at centre forward and signed off on a £100k a week contract. The Gunners have again reached a crunch point where they have to decide on Walcott´s future and the decision must be made swiftly.

There is also a capacity issue. With Alexis, Özil, Chamberlain, Szczesny, Wilshere and Gibbs at the emergency point, are Arsenal equipped to also handle Walcott’s contract- as well as making necessary additions? (As well as Ramsey and Welbeck). My suspicion is that Wenger will look to keep Walcott, that being the case, his agent will know that the clock on negotiations starts ticking now.

Wenger has referred sarcastically to Theo´s representatives as “the embassy” in the past, due to their predilection for driving a hard bargain. If his contract isn´t renewed this summer, the prospect of allowing it to run down to its final year and force Arsenal´s hand will be tempting. With every day that passes, the task of renewing becomes more troublesome.

It seems unlikely that Walcott would chance his arm abroad, so there is an additional question as to how to sell without strengthening a rival? Walcott doesn´t seem like a Guardiola player and they have plenty of younger, sexier options in attack. Chelsea have Pedro and Willian in his position and play a similar system to the one that Arsenal have adopted. He cannot play as an eighth centre half, so Mourinho won’t be interested.

Liverpool´s fluid front 3 seems the most natural fit, but Walcott would have his work cut out displacing Sadio Mane in that team and they have just splashed out on Mohamed Salah. I think Arsenal will want to keep Theo, not least because I am not convinced that Arsene is wedded to the back 3 in perpetuity. He produces goals and assists every single year, despite his flaws, and that is a valuable currency.

While Walcott often finishes seasons surplus to requirements, there does also seem to be a prolonged spell in every campaign where he proves to be very useful. Whether these punctuated periods of productivity represent value for money is a question for the manager, but the cost of replacing him, in a summer where Arsenal are likely to lose their most virile source of goals and assists, is a risk I think Arsene will look to avoid.

The manager has kept far less valuable players around in recent years, after all. The club will have a better idea of his fitness situation too. Theo’s chief asset has always been pace and that will only dwindle over the course of his next contract. That said, teams are pretty wise to Walcott’s velocity and a jaunty gallop into space is rarely at the root of his goals nowadays.

His movement has improved notably in the last 2-3 years. I think his spell in the more confined spaces of centre forward have helped him realise just how advantageous the right channel is for him. Walcott’s pace is the Arsenal attack’s answer to Trident. The suggestion that it is there, ready to be used, acts as a kind of deterrent and forces defenders to back away from the spaces favoured by the likes of Alexis and Özil.

Though if Arsene is able to procure someone else with these qualities- like Lacazette or Mbappe (!)- the manager might consider Walcott more expendable. Especially if the task of renewing Danny Welbeck’s terms is more manageable than dealing with “the Walcott embassy.” Welbeck is a far better footballer than Theo, but Walcott is a far better goalscorer, which complicates the equation.

I suspect negotiations on this contract, the last significant one of Walcott´s career as he approaches his 30s, will turn into another mini saga unless quick action is taken. But I also rather suspect the club have their hands too full to prevent the commissioning of another season of the Theo contract negotiation boxset.

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