Not so long ago I wrote an article about what Robin van Persie’s eminent departure would mean to fans of Arsenal, and one of the points was that Arsenal fans would have to select from the current crop of players a new, symbolic “star player.”
The name I put forward for this role was that of Theo Walcott, but this was met by the majority of people who commented with scorn. His current contract situation was seen as having future potential for mutiny. He was labelled as money-grubbing and untrustworthy.
Popular opinion on other Walcott-related threads seems to echo and expand this sentiment. It seems that after speculating on Robin van Persie’s future, the favourite pastime of a lot of the Gunner fan-base is lambasting Theo Walcott.
Arsenal fans appear to be doubtful of Walcott’s ability—he is still seen as being little more than a speed demon, without any great skill or footballing intelligence to complement his pace—and appalled at the idea that he is reportedly requesting a weekly wage of £100,000.
Since he arrived at Arsenal as a 17-year-old and was thrust into the spotlight via his ill-advised selection for the 2006 World Cup squad at the behest of Sven Goran-Erikson, Walcott’s progress as a footballer has, apparently, been slow. But this is more as a result of expectation dwarfing reality than anything else.
Every English player who shows even an iota of world-class potential is immediately seized upon and scrutinized by a public and a media desperate for any kind of affirmation of England’s status as a footballing power.
Some of these players deliver. Paul Gascoigne is an example. Jack Wilshere, hopefully, will be another.
But very few of these players have the temperament to deal with such pressure and expectation at such a young age. Even fewer manage to flourish under such a spotlight, and those who do—think Gascoigne, think Rooney—go crazy bonkers and decide that hair implants and drunk-driving are good ideas.
Theo Walcott is not a member of this early-blooming club. That much is clear.
But that doesn’t mean he is useless. Theo will be imperative to the future success of Arsenal, for a variety of reasons. His sale would have repercussions that go beyond simply losing the club’s second most-productive attacking player. It would herald the loss of the Gunners’ two longest-serving and most eagerly-anticipated attacking players. It would be an acknowledgement that Arsenal has slipped into a horrible middle-ground profile.
But worst of all, it would be a stark concession that Arsene Wenger’s model is now inherently flawed.
It Is What It Is
Facts that inform:
Over the past two seasons, Theo Walcott has directly contributed 46 goals to Arsenal’s cause in 84 matches. Last year he was the second-top scorer and the third-top provider for Arsenal, both overall and in the Premier League.
In 2012—at the age of just 21—Walcott was described by Lionel Messi as “the most dangerous player I have ever played against.” Two months before this quote, Pep Guardiola had declared, “You would need a pistol to stop him”.
He is the youngest English player to score a hat-trick in an international match – against Croatia, and they’re no chumps. He was first selected for his country, albeit foolishly, at the age of 17.
17. Selected for England.
My friend Ruben was still wetting the bed at 17.
Now, the main criticism that has been directed at Walcott during his six years at Arsenal is that he hasn’t really gotten a hell of a lot better. That he’s not yet what football fans generically refer to as “world-class”.
Now, that’s an exceptionally vague term. “World-class.”
Samir Nasri was, presumably, a world-class player when he left Arsenal, and loath as one might be to say it, he is rather good. He contributed 14 goals to City’s title in 2011-12.
Luiz Suarez is world-class too, apparently. He contributed 16 goals to Liverpool over the course of the season.
Theo Walcott contributed 18 to Arsenal.
So why is it that Walcott’s contribution is greeted with such disdain? Why are his accomplishments so often sniffed at? Why do some quarters of the Arsenal faithful boo him?
The answer is simple, if slightly vague: Style.
Theo Walcott has no style.
There seems to be this permeating idea amongst football fans—and especially Arsenal fans—that in order to be considered an exceptional attacking player, you must be both effective (which Walcott is) and have a beautiful aesthetic game (which he does not).
It doesn’t help that the two best attacking players in the world right now—Ronaldo and Messi—are, at their best, Grecian Gods descended from Olympus, unleashing some of the most technically pure and gorgeous football ever played.
But a player need not have a fabulously balanced skill-set in order to do what he has to do. Theo Walcott will never be a purist’s player. He will never dribble as Messi does, nor will he shoot like RVP, nor caress the ball with the touch of Del Piero. These things are as impossible to attain for him as they would be for you or I, because he is not blessed with that magical gift of technical brilliance that these players are.
What Theo does have is speed. More of it than anyone playing football today. And though a player can learn to dribble better, to develop their touch, their passing, their shooting, one thing that nobody can have a hope of learning is how to run 100m in 10 seconds.
His crossing is average, but he is not a crossing kind of player; he counts on his pace to take him out of the reach of defenders so that any pullback across the face of goal will have supporting attacking players running onto it, and he’s good at that.
His shooting and composure are improving, and if they keep improving at the rate that they have been over the past few seasons, he will be a lethal finisher when his career reaches its peak—which is almost certainly two or more years away.
But for now, can we not simply sit back and enjoy what he does bring us? Play a through ball ahead of him on the right with a defender on his shoulder and 10 yards to run onto, and listen to the fat lady sing. Give him the ball in space on the counter, and unless it starts raining defenders it’s goal-time Arsenal two times out of three.
Walcott has gotten better—it’s just that his skill was never particularly admirable to start off with, but that’s OK because his game is not based around skill. It is based around being faster than anyone else on the field, and when you combine a gift like the one that he possesses with a fast-improving cross, a good, subtle, placed finish, and ball control that, naturally, gets better and better with every training session, you have a player who you would be crazy to let go of.
The man is 23. Unless a player is a dismal flop, or has obviously stalled and is not contributing, you do not sell him at 23. Strange things can happen to players when they reach their mid-20s—strange, wonderful things. Which brings on, conveniently, the next point...
If You Water It, It Will Grow. But It’s Not Under Hydroponics
In a roundabout sort of way, the vindictiveness with which Theo Walcott’s hater hate on Theo Walcott is understandable. Arsenal paid around £9.1 million for Walcott, and that was way back in 2006: after paying that kind of money—especially at Arsenal—a fan can be forgiven for expecting some kind of instantaneous return on the investment, or the investment looks on the surface to be rather pointless.
Hence, as Walcott has stayed at Arsenal, has aged year-by-year, without having an enormously successful breakout season in the mould of the great Frenchman whom he was said to resemble from such an early date, some fans have grown more and more disenchanted. It’s less about his age now, and more about how damn long he has been at the club, without delivering the “goods” implied by his hefty price tag.
What Walcott was, was a purchase for the future. Wenger has seen Ronaldinho and Cristiano Ronaldo slip through his fingers because he had been too cautious in making a move for them, and go on to be huge figures in the footballing world.
He saw Ferguson snap up Rooney as soon as the Bulldog had shown his ability to perform on the big stage, and then he saw Walcott: a young Englishman, remarkably similar to Henry, with no ego, no arrogance, no celebrity and whose pace would complement Arsenal’s game remarkably well.
And he got him. Before anyone else could, he got him. Just like he did with Ox. He got him, but he was bought as a project. He was bought under similar circumstances to Robin van Persie: a player who bears a resemblance to an older player who had achieved great success with the club, whose style of play Wenger knows, and knows how to cultivate and who is young and mutable, who will have time to blend into the squad.
He is a player who Wenger always intended to be a big part of the first team for a long, long time.
Hence the ridiculousness of the expectation that Walcott would be shattering records at 21. Robin van Persie’s season at 23 years of age saw 11 goals and two assists from 38 appearances; Thierry Henry’s —playing at striker, mind—saw 22 goals and three assists from 53 appearances. Both of these are inferior goal contribution-game ratios to Theo’s last season.
I’m not saying Theo will be the equal of or better than the aforementioned, but he is already a really good player who contributes a lot to the team, is a tireless worker, is earnest and honest and always vigilant, and who steps up in the big matches, which is something that can’t be learned.
Two goals down against Tottenham last season, who were the players who stepped up? Bacary Sagna. Robin van Persie. Most of all, Theo Walcott.
The “Old Hands” stepped up. But while Sagna and van Persie have peaked, Walcott has nowhere to go except forward (appropriately enough.) Barring some outrageous, Eduardo-like injury (touch wood!), Walcott will continue to improve and improve on a linear basis, just as van Persie did, just as Henry did, just as pretty much every elite European footballer of the modern football era did.
He is part of our fabric now. Arsenal has dedicated six years of training and focus to him, and his numbers show it’s starting to pay off. It would be a disaster for Arsenal, as a principled cultivator of youth and talent, to throw in the towel now simply because he has not fulfilled the inflated expectations of a stigmatizing public.
Arsenal F.C: The Middleman?
Selling Walcott would have drastic effects on Arsenal as a team, and would genuinely hurt their chances of competing for the Top Four, let alone the title, next season.
But even more detrimental is the effect that such a decision would have on the club as an entity.
Looking back on Arsene Wenger’s past purchases, there is a wonderfully satisfying trend of transfer excellence that began before he even assumed the managerial role officially.
To form the core of his teams, Wenger buys young players from small clubs for relatively low fees in key positions (Patrick Vieira was his first buy, at the age of just 20, for £3.5 million). He then nurtures them to their peak. They play for Arsenal through this peak, and just before they start to show signs of deterioration, Wenger identifies this. He scouts out a youngster, keeps the older player for a season or two past their best, to allow the younger player to bed in at the club, before selling the older player for a price exacerbated by that player’s name and reputation.
So it happened with Vieira, who gave way to Fabregas. So it happened with Bergkamp, who gave way to van Persie. So it happened with Adams and Toure, with Gilberto and Flamini, with Ljungberg and, after a year, Nasri.
So it happened with Henry and Walcott.
In theory, and as the post-Invincibles batch grew towards maturity, this model was perfect—if impersonal.
Out with the old and in with the new. Very little room for sentimentality, to be sure, but Wenger is an economist, not a humanist.
The thing is, Arsenal would raid smaller clubs for these players. It was never poaching—the players would never have reached the heights of their Arsenal careers if they had stayed at their youth clubs their whole playing lives—it was an effective method of recruitment, which often hit (Kolo Toure cost just £150,000) and occasionally missed (remember Frannie Jeffers?!)
What is alarming is that, in football’s modern climate, Arsenal appear to be in danger of becoming something of a halfway club: they take promising young players, set the on the path to stardom, grow and nurture them until they reach their peak...and then lose them.
Nasri...Adebayor...Clichy...Toure...these are all examples of players who have left at the very heights of their powers—or even before their potential has been entirely reached—for clubs who do not deal in the business of growing teams, but also, alarmingly, don’t appear to need to deal in that business.
Fabregas obviously isn’t a mercenary as the above. But I have always questioned whether he would have left Arsenal if they’d been challenging for the Champions’ League every season.
We do not want Arsenal to become a feeder club—taking from the poor and re-selling to the rich.
The loss of Walcott would serve as an acknowledgement that, as one of the last remaining Wenger projects (I attribute that line to my wonderful reader Sudhir), the system has failed; we have lost yet another player just before his career peaks, and thus we cannot gain a return on our original investment (which, including wages, now stands at around £12.6 million).
It is very easy to say sell him and good riddance. But it’s difficult to buy in a player who will gel with the team as well as someone who has been playing in a prescribed style for six years, and has been marked from an early age as a great hope of English football.
He will be a great player for England, and if Arsenal keep him, he may well become one of the great players of this generation.
He has the tools—just like Messi and Ronaldo, he has something nobody else has in such abundance.
Losing Theo would be a disaster. Arsenal would make a gain of about £3 million, and would lose a bright young Englishman, who contributed 20 plus goals last season, who is maturing mentally and will soon give us a cathartic season when we are most desperately in need.
And, should he succeed, he will be living proof of what we already know: that Wenger’s model is not flawed, it’s simply being updated.
Arsenal are no feeder club. They have too much class for that. Selling Walcott would be a disaster, but it’s a disaster that we will probably avoid.
And rightly so.